Category: Gospel of Matthew

Power & Humility

I preached yesterday on the contrast between Power and Humility. Specifically, I pondered how Jesus could fully embody both simultaneously.

Much of Jesus birth narrative places him at odds with the political powers of his day.

Augustus Caesar was the most powerful man in the world at the time of Christ’s birth. After the death of Julius Caesar, Augustus had defeated the armies of all his rivals. He had only to sign an edict and people like Joseph and Mary would travel from one end of their country to another, just to be counted.

“Augustus proclaimed that he had brought justice and peace to the whole world. He declared that his father, Julius Caesar, was a god, therefore he was a ‘son of god’. Augustus, people said, was the ‘saviour’ of the world. He was its king, its ‘lord’. And over time people increasingly worshiped him as a god.” (Wright, Luke for Everyone, 22-23)

Then Luke’s gospel tells us that angels broke into the earthly sky proclaiming to shepherds that that “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Later, Jesus would be called the “Son of God” but the angels announce that he is Savior and Lord. Augustus is not.

Herod The GreatMatthew’s account focuses upon Herod, the non-Jewish king of Judea. Hearing from traveling magi that they sought a newborn king, Herod becomes enraged. When his plot to identify the child fails, Matthew describes the slaughter of children in Bethlehem as Herod sought to eliminate all rivals to his throne.

Jesus flees to Egypt as a political refugee.

At the same time, Luke tells us that the evidence a rival to Caesar has been born can be found in “a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” If not for the angels, no one would have noticed this family in Bethlehem that night. Such was Jesus humble entrance.

Luke previously laid the groundwork for this contrast when he included Mary’s song in his gospel. Mary had no pretensions of grandeur as she praised God for noticing “the humble state of his servant.” She goes on to celebrate how God “has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.

Jesus challenged the existing power structures of the world from conception. He came to humanity with all the power of the Godhead, yet practiced humility and exalted the humble.

When our society combines power with humility it is most often expressed as the powerful demanding humility from the powerless. “Know your place.” “Don’t get too big for your britches.” “Leave this to the experts.” The powerful can demand humility from everyone except themselves. And when the people without power rise up to claim some of that power for themselves, more often than not we find ourselves in a situation abounding in conflict and violence.

power-fistOur society equates power with force, with violence, with coercion, with the biggest guns, the biggest muscles, the most money and influence. Power it seems doesn’t require wisdom, because even when foolish actions are taken that person, that organization, that nation, still has power. And power doesn’t need humility, because humility is weakness.

We face the temptation at this point to rail against power as an evil force, yet God is all-powerful. Like wealth, power has no intrinsic value as either good or evil. The person exercising power determines its character.

On the other side of the equation humility also creates temptations:

  1. The temptation to sugar coat abuse and discrimination as humility.
  2. The temptation to accept false humility as true humility both in ourselves and others.
  3. The temptation to equate powerlessness with humility.

Jesus expression of humility didn’t make him powerless and passive. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he refused to allow outside forces to distract him from his mission. He expressed himself assertively and directly challenged those who opposed him. Jesus was humble, but never powerless.

Living humbly means that those of us with power have a responsibility not just to use our power for the benefit of others, but to share that power with those who have little or none. Many people willingly hand over money to assist those in need. But this act of benevolence does nothing to change the power structure that created the inequality. This natural urge to cling to power makes the example of Jesus truly revolutionary. Philippians 2 frames the entire existence of the human Jesus as an emptying of power and an empowering of humanity.

Jesus came to the powerless, to the sick, an poor, and he reflected God by healing them, by forgiving them, and by giving them hope. Jesus left the throne room of heaven to allow humanity the opportunity to become fellow heirs with him. Jesus empowers his followers with the presence of the Holy Spirit within them. Jesus empowers his followers by creating a church that welcomes each person regardless of the way society describes and segregates them.

Ultimately Jesus empowers each person by emphasising the basis of all humility. Each person is made in the image of God. Each person is a child of God, and is precious to God. Each person has access to God and all power comes from Him. All gifts, talents, abilities and blessings come from Him. We give up our power and exercise humility as we share this message and embody it in our relationships with all.

We all have power in some sphere of our lives. The question we must answer is whether we use it to exalt ourselves, or others?

Simplicity Inside-Out

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Simplicity is a popular topic in some circles nowadays. We live in a culture driven by consumerism and materialism. We are swimming in a sea of accumulation, and it has not led us to be happier or more satisfied with life. We are beginning to see a pendulum shift with the rise of minimalism. Since we have discovered obtaining things is not the key to a meaningful life, some people are ready to try simplicity.

Simplicity sounds like a viable alternative to the cluttered and busy life many of us know too well. The turn towards minimalism is a welcome trend in our culture since it is more in line with the teachings of Jesus. However, the biblical teaching on simplicity is not just about what one owns or where one lives. Simplicity must begin from within. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21) Our desires begin in the heart. If a person is going to simplify their life, then they must desire less. The way to do this is to focus on the heart.

One of the most well-known passages concerning simplicity is Matthew 6:25-34. This section is marked by the word “anxious” found in verses 25 and 34. In verse 25 Jesus commands, “do not be anxious about your life” and in verse 34 he commands, “do not be anxious about tomorrow.” This entire passage is about trusting in God to provide. God feeds the birds. He clothes the lilies. If he does these things, then he will certainly make sure his followers are clothed and fed as well. The argument continues to build until in verses 32-33 Jesus contrasts the way the world lives with how Christians are supposed to live. People who live by a worldly standard seek after worldly things. They seek after money, possessions, and power. Followers of Jesus are expected to desire the kingdom of God rather than material possessions and wealth. Christians are called to live a simple life with God at the center.

In Matthew 6 Jesus talks about food and clothing. He speaks to his followers about simplifying their outward life, but we must remember this all began with a statement about what the heart desires (Matt. 6:21). You cannot change what you are doing on the outside without first changing what is going on inside of you. This is made evident in Philippians 4:6-7:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul uses the language of Jesus. He gives a similar command to the ones Jesus gave in Matthew 6:25, 34. The difference here is that Paul is speaking of inward things rather than outward things. He is instructing Christians regarding an inward peace that God provides those who are following the path of Jesus. When a follower of God commits to not being anxious or being overwhelmed with worry and instead turns to God in prayer and thankfulness, then they are filled with “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”

The right desires, inner peace, not being anxious, and prayer are all inward things that lead us to a life of simplicity. Our outward life is directly tied to our inward life. A life of simplicity is not just about owning less stuff. It is about desiring the right things and trusting in a God who will not disappoint.

sound-waves 01a06 - Scott Elliot picScott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications. He also blogs regularly at https://start2finish.org/category/resurrected-living/

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Church Inside OutAs part of our Summer Blog Tour you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s newly  released book and accompanying workbook Church Inside Out by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.

The Gift of Presence

Back in the days when telephones were wired to walls, I had a cousin who would refuse to answer the telephone during dinner. He prioritised spending time with his family. He gave them the gift of his presence. Not just his physical presence, but his mental and emotional presence. For that time each day his wife and son knew that they were his #1 priority.

As mobile phones have proliferated the gift of conscious presence has become a scarcer commodity. You know a video strikes a chord when it has 50 million views on YouTube:

God has always valued this gift and throughout Scripture regularly promises his people the blessing of his presence. In Listening to His Heartbeat Harold Shank describes this gift as the “Divine With”. God promises to be with his people.

We see the precious  nature of the “Divine With” in the first chapters of the Bible. God was with Adam and Eve in the Garden, but sin resulted in them leaving the Garden of Eden. Although they leave the Garden, there’s no indication that God left them to their own devices at that point. That comes down in Genesis 4:16. After Cain kills Abel we’re told that, “Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” The ultimate punishment for murder was to leave the presence of God.

In the new testament the “Divine With” gathers greater momentum. Matthew 1:23 introduces Jesus with the name Immanuel, meaning “God with us”.

As Jesus prepares to die in John 14:16 he promises, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.

Immediately prior to his ascension Jesus reassures his disciples saying, “surely I am with you always , to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Even the last words of Scripture in Revelation 22:21 contain the idea of presence, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.

This promise continually reminds us that when we sit down at the table with God, we’re his #1 priority. When we’re driving our car, when we’re at school or work, when we’re tired, angry, sad, lonely… God is with us and at that moment we’re his #1 priority.

The repetition of this promise throughout the centuries reassures us that God’s longing to spend time with us emerges from deep within God’s heart. God’s presence provides me with tremendous comfort. As I write this blog I can pause and talk to God knowing here’s right here listening to me. I value his presence.

It’s tempting to end this post right here: warm and fuzzy. But as I revel in God’s presence I also appreciate that I share the same responsibility.

Job’s friends frequently serve as an example of people practicing presence. Job 2:13 tells us that “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

As God’s presence comforts us, we have the opportunity to encourage others with our presence.

In Matthew 28 Jesus makes his promise to be with his disciples in the context of telling them to go throughout the world meeting and speaking to people. In other words, as you give the world the gift of your presence and share the promise of God’s presence with others, I’ll be with you.

That, is the gift of presence.

The Jesus Parade

If you’re interested, you can listen to my Palm Sunday sermon HERE.

palm sunday

Although I like to make a big deal of Easter, I haven’t always preached a special sermon on Palm Sunday. To be honest, I don’t really understand the events of Palm Sunday. Beyond that I have a hard time finding a contemporary application of Palm Sunday. Sure, it’s an interesting event, but do I really need to preach on it every year just because it appears on the calendar?

Here are my questions, with a little commentary.

1. Why did Jesus want a parade?

Couldn’t have Jesus just walked through the gates in the midst of the other pilgrims without drawing attention to himself? He could still have gone to the temple the next day and taught and throne over tables. None of his subsequent actions seem contingent upon this grand entrance.

Remember that Jesus initiated this parade by instructing his disciples to go and get a donkey. He must have had a purpose in making a public entrance, but I don’t understand what it was.

I preached on Sunday that his choice of riding a donkey was a humble choice. Wouldn’t he demonstrate greater humility by cancelling the parade and just walking through the gates?

If I’m grasping at straws, perhaps his grand entrance was a PR stunt to let the people of Jerusalem know he was there and invite them to hear him speak at the temple the next day. According to Luke 19:39 Jesus at least caught the attention of some Pharisees. Perhaps they did the rest of the marketing for him!

2. Was Jesus Intentionally Fulfilling Prophecy?

Many of the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled were beyond his control. For example, he had no say in where the Messiah would be born, or which tribe he was from.

palm sunday 01But Zechariah 9:9 reads,

Your king has won a victory,
    and he is coming to you.
He is humble
    and rides on a donkey;
he comes on the colt
    of a donkey.”

The Jews apparently recognised this as a Messianic passage. So in choosing to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus intentionally fulfills this prophecy. After all, if he’s the Messiah, then at some point he needs to ride a donkey.

Although Matthew and John both quote Zechariah 9 as an explanation of Jesus’ actions, here’s my question. If Jesus chose to ride a donkey to demonstrate that he was the Messiah it doesn’t seem like a very good strategy.

  • He could more easily have communicated this message by simply saying, “Hey everyone, look at me. I’m the Messiah!”
  • While all four Gospels tell the story of Jesus riding the donkey, only 2 of them connect it to the Zechariah prophecy.
  • Apparently, even at the time, no one really understood the significance of Jesus riding the donkey. After quoting Zechariah, John immediately reflects, “At first, Jesus’ disciples did not understand. But after he had been given his glory, they remembered all this.” (John 12:16 (CEV)

If Jesus was just checking off a list of prophecies that he could control, do you think it’s legitimate? It seems a bit manipulative and insincere to me.

3. Was Jesus Surprised?

I am fascinated by the question of what Jesus was thinking as he rode that donkey through the cheering crowds. Matthews account of Jesus’ grand entrance is found in chapter 21. In chapter 20 Jesus predicts, We are now on our way to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses. They will sentence him to death…

He knew his fate.

Was Jesus able to join in the joy and celebration along with the crowd? Was Jesus an island of misery in surrounded by a sea of exuberance? Did Jesus resent the crowd’s shallowness? Was Jesus hoping that the people would accept him and crown him king?

Again, if he knew the praise lacked sincerity, why throw the parade?

I just don’t get it.

I also don’t get why this series of events is important enough to get its own day on the calendar.

4. What are We Celebrating?

When the church celebrates Palm Sunday, what exactly are we celebrating? Are we excited that people misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ kingdom? Do we want to highlight the rejection of Jesus as Messiah? If so, why the joyfulness and palm branches?  Are we thrilled by the transition in Jesus’ ministry as he finally enters Jerusalem? (Although John’s Gospel tells us he’s been there twice previously.)

In Luke 20:40 Jesus tells the Pharisees that “If [the people] keep quiet, these stones will start shouting.” Clearly he believes that their well-intentioned, but misguided praise is deserved, appropriate and unstoppable. This seems to contrast other passages of Scripture where God cares about right motives when it comes to worship. So are we celebrating a loosening of worship forms and functions?

Perhaps we celebrate Palm Sunday because now that we understand the nature of Jesus’ kingdom, we can give him the praise that he deserved in this event but we can give it to him with greater understanding. Hopefully, we also give him our worship from a heart of sincerity and faithfulness. In this way we kind of rectify and redeem the worship of the original Palm Sunday.

5. From a Pre-millenial perspective…

From a premillenial perspective this event seems to make a little more sense. By this interpretation it’s important that the Jews get an opportunity to reject an earthly kingdom. The thinking goes like this:

  1. God’s initial desire was for the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah and crown him king.
  2. Jesus legitimately wanted to establish an earthly kingdom with Jerusalem as his throne.
  3. All the Messianic prophecies were intended to be fulfilled in this earthly kingdom.
  4. On palm Sunday the Jews reached the brink of crowning Jesus king, but ultimately backed away.
  5. Their rejection of Jesus led to Plan B, a spiritual kingdom made possible through Jesus’ sacrifice.
  6. Although Jesus knew they were going to kill him, it was important that he give them the opportunity to crown him.
  7. Thus the Palm Sunday Parade was not a charade, but a hope-filled opportunity for Israel to embrace her Messiah.

While I don’t agree with this understanding of Scripture. And while I have a problem with the cross being “Plan B”. At least this approach provides an understanding of Palm Sunday in which Jesus acts with genuine motives.

So help me out. What encouragement do you draw from Palm Sunday?

Jesus My Teacher

In my previous post I described how the Gospel of Mark emphasises Jesus’ Messianic title, “Son of God”. Yet in an unexpected move Jesus expresses his lordship through service rather than power and authority.

Matthew’s gospel takes a different approach. Matthew presents Jesus as a rabbi, or teacher.

[NOTE: The word “rabbi” reminds us of Jesus’ Jewishness. Matthew certainly didn’t have a modern 3rd grade teacher in mind when he described Jesus as a teacher. A rabbi held a specific position in Jewish society with specific expectations about how he would teach and how he would relate to his disciples and how he would interact with the broader community. Although this post and the original sermon focus on Jesus as teacher, there’s a lot to be gained by understanding Jesus as a Jewish religious teacher: a rabbi.

For additional reading on the Jewish background of Jesus check out: www.followtherabbi.com or this article on WildOlive.co.uk or this article by Jaroslav Pelikan.]

Rabbi JesusLooking at the big picture, Matthew uses the structure of his book to emphasize Jesus’ role as a rabbi. While Matthew relies heavily on the Gospel of Mark, he also scatters 5 of Jesus’ sermons throughout the book. The first, in chapters 5-7 sets a tone for the book. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount (7:28-29) “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching,because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” Matthew begins the Gospel by favorably contrasting the teaching of his rabbi, with the teaching of other rabbis. Jesus taught with authority.

Matthew portrays Jesus as more than simply an ethical teacher. In this gospel Jesus has a very focused message regarding the Kingdom of Heaven. In the sermon at the centre of the Gospel (chapter 13) Jesus tells a series of parables. They all relate to the Kingdom of Heaven.

  • Parable of the Sower – Not everyone will respond to the “message about the kingdom” (v19) in the same way. Some will even reject it.
  • Parable of the Weeds – It’s God’s job to determine kingdom membership, not ours. (It’s God’s kingdom, not ours.)
  • Mustard Seed & Yeast – From small beginnings, the kingdom will grow. It’s not static. It has no boundaries.
  • Hidden Treasure & Pearl – The kingdom of heaven is worth everything you have. But will you give it up?
  • Parable of the Net – Diversity within the kingdom & final judgment.

So that’s two important aspects of Matthew’s view of Jesus: His role as teacher; and his message of the Kingdom.

I could go through each of these parables verse by verse. We could dialogue about the hierarchy of themes in Matthew’s gospel. I could describe various nuances of teaching by parables.  But all that effort would count for naught if we don’t acknowledge Jesus as our Teacher. Until Jesus moves from being A teacher to My Teacher all other conversation is moot.

Even more urgent than recognising the validity of regarding Jesus as a rabbi or teacher, is the answer to this question, “Will I become a student of Jesus?” It’s so much easier to simply describe Jesus as a teacher than it is to make the commitment to be his student.

If the message of the parables hadn’t caught your attention, the urgency of the need to make this decision is demonstrated in the final verses of chapter 13. Here we find Jesus returning to his hometown. As he teaches there in the synagogue the people he grew up with mock him. They see him only as a carpenter’s son. Not even a carpenter, just the son of a carpenter. Certainly they don’t accept him as their teacher.

So who is Jesus to you? Think about that for a minute. Who is Jesus to you? Then ask, “If Jesus is my teacher, what sort of student am I?”

I would love for you to engage this conversation by leaving a comment addressing the question, “What is a practical implication of being a student of Jesus?”

How to Avoid Spiritual Obesity

Today’s post is the latest in a series of guest posts centered around my churchs annual theme ofHealthy Hearts”. This month’s contributor is Preston Cottrell. His full bio is at the bottom of the post, but here’s a brief intro…

I met Preston through a mutual friend a couple of years ago. He later asked me to make a video (which I really hope has been destroyed!!) for a youth rally his church held. I really appreciate the perspective Preston brings to Scripture as he merges his interests in art and theology. Too often our expression of faith and worship takes a logical, rational form that marginalises our emotional and imaginative characteristics. This article isn’t about art, but it does provide an excellent challenge for us to keep our hearts healthy.

“Anyone who hears and obeys these teachings of mine is like a wise person who built a house on solid rock.”

(Matthew 7:24)

At the end of what we refer to as “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus instructs people to hear his words and put them into practice just as a wise person will build a house on a solid foundation (Matthew 7:24ff). He could have ended his talk many different ways, but I think Jesus was fully aware that one human tendency is to not practice the things we hear despite a compelling message. Probably many people still went away from his challenges amazed at his teaching, but also content to live a blah life. I know the same condition exists in pockets of our own churches and in my own life. It is an issue of the heart.

Physical & Spiritual Obesity

I started to realize this temptation of lethargic spirituality in an unlikely way. A few months ago ago I started doing the things that I know I should have been doing all my life: maintaining a properly portioned diet and an adequate exercise program. But because I know myself too well, I came to the realization that I could not simply stumble into a healthy lifestyle. There was no way I could resist a slice of chocolate cake, glorious mounds of pasta, or just one more cookie. There was no way I could go everyday exercising with no excuse (and there are many). Now don’t get me wrong, I was in pretty good shape; however, I knew if I wanted to get into great shape, I needed some structure, consistency, and passion in what I was doing.

So I began a process to increase my physical health and better my daily stamina. I was not interested in gimmicks or enticements; I was ready for a life change. It promised to be a major sacrifice of time, convenience, pain, and money. Simply put, it was filled with two four-letter words, “diet” and “work” (aka “exercise”). This plan was straightforward, but effective. As a result, my new lifestyle affected every aspect of my health.

My physical transformation naturally allowed me to think about spiritual transformation. Even Paul used training and athletic metaphors to illustrate the physical/spiritual connection (e.g. Phil. 2:16; Gal. 2:2, 5:7; 2 Tim. 4:7). He recognized that like having a healthy physical heart, having a healthy spiritual heart is about true devotion. He was not referring to devotion that is cheap, sentimental, or blind. He spoke of devotion that means sacrifice. Devotion is not about attendance, self-inflation, or gratification; it is conscious effort to glorify God through serving, lifting others above myself, and asking others to check the progress. Just like an athlete never really ends training, so too a Christian must continue growing, learning, and changing.

When I look over my spiritual life, I also realized that growth in Christ involves much of the same discipline. I represent one sliver of a generation that yearns for every aspect of life sacrificed to God. Give me a life that says my hours each day will be for the betterment of our human community. Let me pursue conversion rather than convenience; Let me learn how to embrace spiritual yearning, struggling, and pain as the martyrs of the first few centuries of Christianity boldly assumed their place among the heavenly angels. The plan is simple, but few Christians really, truly, and completely follow it — all too often, including myself. At times I am amazed at the teaching of Jesus, but when it comes to really practicing faith, I relate to the sandy foundation of the crowds on the mountainside. Some Christians give money in such a way to have a “safety net” instead of relying upon God to walk each and every day with a renewed sense of dependency. Some rationalize time, energy, and focus just hoping that at the end of the day, the good deeds outweigh the bad. Some place family time over personal growth instead of leading the family to truly know God and live as his wonderful disciples. Despite the desire to truly follow God, it is so easy to slip into spiritual obesity.

Having a healthy spiritual heart is not just about ridding our lives of sin. While sin-ridding comes with it, healthy living involves experiencing an “inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). For Jesus, faith was conceptually pretty easy: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27). It is so tempting to respond like the expert in the Law and try to clarify some points to justify myself; in a similar way I struggled to change my physical lifestyle to get in better shape. This is practically a tough road. The tough part about Jesus’ command is not the concept, but the practice, the devotion. I speak for a lot of young Christians who are ready to work. We are beyond the stages of feeling guilt to come to worship a few set times during the week. We don’t want the hooks and gimmicks; We don’t want ease; We don’t want just to be nice people so that we can get a mansion in heaven. Sometimes we will fail . . . but that is life. We are all called to make a difference in the world, to allow Christ to shine in every dimension of our being. In other words, we are ready for the rigorous diet and exercise of our faith. There is tremendous fulfillment as we discover what it means to live as new creations. So are you ready for that journey?

5 Beginning Practical Steps Forward (For Physical and Spiritual Renewal):

 1)  Surround yourself with supporters: You know the naysayers, critics, and negative people. Their attitudes are toxic. Criticism and conflict can keep you on track, but make sure you discern the difference between constructive and obstructive criticism.

2)  As growth occurs, the lifestyle is easier: Progress may be slow, but slow triumphs feel great and challenge new areas of focus. Don’t get so bogged down in the complex practicality that you miss the ease of the concept.

3)  Keep records: Knowing where you came from provides motivation for future endeavors.

4)  Rid yourself of fear and guilt: Somewhere along the way, the short-term gains of these two words twisted the methodology of church evangelism. This works about as well as doctors telling people to diet and exercise in a world of cheeseburgers, fries, and busy schedules. It is easy to loose traction with each failed attempt, but the worst outcome is to give up on the pursuit.

5)  Don’t hyperextend the connection: Since the late nineteenth century, proponents of muscular Christianity have perhaps placed too rigorous emphasis on the connection between physical stamina and spiritual well-being. While I believe in some connection, spiritual and physical health are complicated to fully understand; Excellence in one area is not necessarily a measure of competency in the other.

Bio: Preston graduated from the Harding School of Theology (Memphis, TN) with a M.A. in Historical Theology. Currently, he is the Youth Minister at the Manchester Church of Christ in New Hampshire helping teens and adults to grow each day closer to God. He also serves carrots to the teens during hangout times (and they look forward to them!) On the side, he has a great interest in the integration of art and faith, which is the focus of his blog entitled, “Faithful Aesthetics” (www.prestoncottrell.wordpress.com).

Spiritual Health Checklist

I have just completed teaching a series of Bible Classes from the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. Throughout the sermon Jesus makes a lot of comparisons, but in closing he challenges his listeners to make a choice, “build a solid life by following me, or choose your own path and risk your life falling apart. The choice is yours.” [My summary/paraphrase] This closing section contains four choices:

  • Narrow or Wide Gate (v13-14)sermon-on-the-mount 01
  • Good or Bad Fruit (v15-20)
  • Hearers or Doers (v21-23)
  • Wise or Foolish Builders (v24-27)

The Four Choices begin with a command “Enter through the narrow gate.” Will you obey it? Next he warns against deceptive teachers. Observe their lives, not their words. Third, Jesus warns us not to deceive ourselves. Discipleship is revealed in the furnace, not the fireworks. Fourth, Jesus reiterates that the firm foundation is “Jesus words” and building on them requires action.

Like many sermons today, Jesus closed his sermon with an invitation: an invitation to follow him. As Jesus’ listeners heard this sermon, they had to make a decision, “Would they follow Jesus?” However, in reality following Jesus requires more than a decision, he requires active obedience. So even if they accepted his invitation to follow Jesus, they still had to evaluate how consistently their lives matched the will of God.

In the context of the original sermon Matthew describes, the foundational teachings refer to the words of Jesus that the crowd has just heard. Since we now have a much larger canon of scripture that the original audience, we may choose to use other passages or collections of passages as a basis for evaluating our spiritual health. However, I believe that the Sermon on the Mount can provide an excellent guide for examining our commitment to Christ and his mission.

It’s crucial that we not deceive ourselves and build on sand instead of rock. We may have accepted Jesus invitation to follow him long ago, but we always need to reexamine the path we’re on.  Are we hearing the words of Jesus? Are we doing the words of Jesus? (Matt. 7:24)

Based on Matthew chapters 5-7 here’s a little spiritual health checklist. Everyone’s different, but I recommend engaging a process like this at least twice a year.  I encourage you to find a quiet place to take this. Pray. Write down your answers using pen and paper. Share them with someone you can trust to encourage you as you take the necessary steps to improve your spiritual heart health.

1. How well do I know Jesus words?

  • When did I last study the Bible?

2. Would others describe me as humble, empathetic, meek and God-focused? (5:3-6)

  • Can I give an example?

3. Am I merciful, pure, and a promoter of peace in my dealings with others? (5:7-9)

  • Can I give an example?

4. Do I maintain the above character in the face of opposition? (5:10-12)

  • Can I give an example?

5. Do I represent God clearly to those outside the church? (5:13-16)

  • Can I give an example?

6. Do I pursue holiness of heart and hand, or do I rationalize my sins? (5:17-37)

  • What are my strongest temptations?

7. When did I last pray for my enemies?

  • Who are my enemies? (list them)

8. Is my church involvement for God’s benefit, or to impress others? (6:1-23)

  • What was the last good deed I performed in secret?

9. Is there anyone in my life who’s hurt me that I have not forgiven? (6:14)

  • Do I know of anyone who holds a grudge against me? Do I need to ask for forgiveness?

10. My biggest concern right now is……

  • When did I last pray sincerely about this?

11. Do I invest more energy in the care of my soul, or talking about the souls of others? (7:1-12)

  • Who do I know right now that needs Christ in their life? When did I last pray for them?

12. Have I answered these questions diligently and honestly? (7:13-27)

  • Is the kingdom of God the greatest priority in my life?
  • Am I building my life of the rock? Am I doing the words of Jesus? (7:24)

May you draw closer to God and more deeply commit to his mission as you seek to live the life He has willed for you.

HERE’s another Spiritual Checkup resource written by my friend Charles Kiser.

The Gift of Peace

  • Read Luke 2:8-15 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

[Christmas Eve, the day after I presented this sermon on “God’s Gift of Peace” the city of Rochester tragically entered international news headlines when firefighters were ambushed responding to a deliberately lit fire. You can read the story here. Two firefighters were killed by gunfire and another two were shot and injured. In addition eight homes were destroyed by the fire.]

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”   Luke 2:13-15 (NLT)

Jesus was born into a period in world history of relative peace. The Roman Empire provided a lot of stability. But if you talked to the Jews of Jesus day, many of them would have resented the presence of the Roman military in their country. They longed for the return of independence and their own king upon the throne in Jerusalem. Caesar might have brought peace, but he maintained it by having such a strong military that no one dared challenge him.  Peace in this environment is defined by the absence of conflict, but it doesn’t mean anyone’s happy.

In contrast when the Bible, which was written by Jews, talks about peace, it talks about a concept deeper than just the absence of conflict. The Hebrew word Shalom also has a sense of wellbeing or completeness. It even holds a concept of justice. When Shalom is present the world is as it should be, as God intended it.

Shalom takes us back to the very beginning of Creation, to God walking with Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. Certainly there’s an absence of conflict, but there’s also a close relationship. Everything is whole. Then sin enters the picture and decay begins. Sin erodes humanities relationship with God and with each other. By the time of Jesus violence was a natural part of life. Israel’s history for hundreds of years was earmarked by battle, defeat, captivity and destruction. And now they faced violence from Roman armies. Violence from Jewish revolutionaries. Violence from thieves and bandits on the roads. But the peace Jesus offered wasn’t relief from violence, it was Shalom, the restoration of wholeness. The restoration of relationship with God. Surprisingly, he offered a more significant peace than Caesar.

Not only did the nature of peace differ between Jesus and Caesar, but the means of achieving peace also differed drastically. Instead of crushing all opposition to eliminate resistance, Jesus told his followers to live as proactive peacemakers. (Matt. 5:9)

Rather than responding to violence with greater violence. Rather than adopting the attitude of an eye for an eye he instructed his followers to break the cycle of violence by turning the other cheek, and even taking the extreme step of “loving our enemies and praying for them.” Yes, this baby in a manager, this king in the cattle trough, brought the gift of peace to the world, but he wrapped it in some surprises.

When we hear the promise of peace it’s easy to look around the world, see the conflicts in every corner of the globe and mock the angels’ declaration. But it’s important to read the whole verse. The idea of giving glory to God is connected to the declaration of peace. The people on whom God’s favor rests, are those who accept the kingship of Jesus. The world will never experience peace until it submits to God’s rule.

God’s peace isn’t just the absence of conflict, but the restoration of wholeness. That’s our gift. It’s also our gift to give.

  • Do the recent shootings in our society give you a greater longing for God’s peace, or pose more questions for you?
  • How can Christians become more effective peacemakers?
  • For additional reading on a peaceful Christian response to the recent shootings I recommend a friend’s blog here and here.

Faith Isn’t Safe

I’m getting ready for an extended vacation, so I may not post anything for the next month or so. I’m also posting some bonus material related to my previous post, rather than moving on to a new thought. So here it is…

I am 100% convinced that our God is a safe God. Our God loves us intensely. John 3:16 He loved the world enough to send his only Son to die for us. 1 John 3:16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. We are safe with God, but God doesn’t call us to safety.

God calls us to transform our lives. To make dramatic changes. To differentiate ourselves from those around us. We’re to leave the kingdom of this world and live as pilgrims within it. Romans 12:2 Do not be conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. God calls us to a better life, but not necessarily a safer life.

I’ll give you an example of a man who played it safe. His master gave him a bag of gold. In the time of Jesus they called it a talent of gold. Then the master left on a journey. A good while later he returns from his travels, and asks for his money back. The servant replies that he played it safe. He buried it. And he’s happy to return it to his master. But his master is furious. He’s not invested the money. He’s not used the money. He’s not increased his master’s wealth. He took no risks. He received no return on investment. And now the master has no reward for him. (Matt 25:14ff)

I initially presented this bonus material at a workshop where I had been allocated a text from John 11. In John 11 Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died. Jesus arrives at the home of his friend after Lazarus has already been buried for four days and the Bible tells us that “he stinketh” (KJV). Jesus has such faith that even a decaying corpse doesn’t make him lose focus.  We see his faith in v41 because before anything has happened Jesus prays, “Father I thank you that you have heard me.” The in v43 Jesus calls in loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out.” Jesus never lost sight of what God is able to accomplish even in a seemingly hopeless situation.

Ok, that’s a crazy, amazing, incredible story. But here’s a lesson. When God speaks, even the dead jump. God calls us to action. The question for us, is how will we respond to his call?  How will we move when God calls us to work? I’ve already told you, we have some choices. Fear… or Faith? Faith… or Foolishness?

In all this conversation about faith, it’s important to remember who we have faith in. I certainly don’t have faith in myself. It’s my weaknesses and struggles that make it necessary to have faith in someone else to guide my life. It’s not my all-knowing cell phone, or some tv personality… It’s not even a preacher or teacher who’s influenced me. My faith is in God.

My faith is in a God who could send a storm, and then arrange for a fish to swallow Jonah and somehow preserve his life. My faith is in a God who could sleep in a boat through a storm and then at his word calm the storm. My faith is in a God who can not only walk on water, but can allow the apostle Peter to walk on water. My faith is in a God who can and will raise the dead.

This is the God who calls me. This is the God I follow. This is the God I have faith will get me to the end, the God who will never leave me nor forsake me. The God who will be with me to the end of the age. This is the God who calls me to forsake safety and by faith accept the uncertainty of following Him.

But when we encounter storms, or even when our faith gives out, we’re still not alone. Jesus is there to pick us up. Peter acted in faith and for a moment he walked on water. Then even when we sink, Jesus reaches out his hand and catches us.

I think that’s one of the most poignant images of this series. We succeed when we act in faith. Peter up to his neck in water, was more successful than the other 11 still sitting in the boat. The image of Jesus extending his hand to Peter conveys compassion, stability, strength, peace and assurance. When we live by faith, Jesus ensures we’ll never find ourselves in over our heads.

Faith in the Unknown

  • Read Matthew 14:22-32 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

A thought running through my mind for the past few months prompts me to ask, “Do Christians really live differently from non-Christians?” “Do we worry less?” “Do we love more?” “Do we take more risks?” “Do we cope better with uncertainty?”

I’m preaching a short series of sermons on the topic of FAITH. If we have spent a lot of time in church services or Bible classes I think we often lose sight of a particular element of our faith: “Faith requires uncertainty!”

If something is certain, proven, or obvious then it requires no faith. Evidence eliminates faith. Long-term Christians usually become so convicted of our beliefs that they no longer seem “uncertain”. In our minds our beliefs, initially accepted in faith, morph into certain facts. I don’t say this to criticise. In fact it’s healthy. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “proof of things not seen.” (CEV)

When did you last stop and consider how many of the beliefs you build your life around and bank your eternity on are based upon faith. Consider the following points for which I suspect we either rely on logical conclusions, or straight out faith:

  • The Bible is the inspired word of God. (Most arguments defending this are circumstantial. eg. how many early copies are preserved.)
  • Jesus was born of a virgin. (Completely on faith. There’s absolutely no way of proving this.)
  • The deity of Jesus. (CS Lewis’ classic argument that Jesus must either be a Liar, Lunatic, or Lord is completley a logical construct. Here’s a decent overview.)
  • Jesus was resurrected from the dead. (One of the common “evidences” cites the life change of the apostles from hiding in an upper room, to publicly preaching the Gospel. Again, it’s persuasive logic rather than proof.)

Our natural inclination is to defend these beliefs and maybe feel a need to “prove” them. I suggest that instead we can embrace them as statements of faith. Yes, we possess persuasive rational reasons for accepting the truthfulness of these statements. We haven’t plucked them from thin air. But the catalyst turning them from possibilities into convictions is FAITH. Faith is our proof of things unseen.

If Christians so willingly build our lives around a set of uncertain beliefs, shouldn’t we also find ourselves better equipped to handle life’s uncertainties than those without faith?

Three times the New Testament writers quote Habakuk 2:4 (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38) “The righteous will live by faith.” I’m not even sure that each of these quotes uses the statement in the same way, but here’s a basic point. Faith should characterise our lives.

The same faith that can sit in a church pew and “Amen” a description of people walking on water or rising from the dead should also rise to the surface in the face of job loss or a health crisis. Faith should differentiate us.

Christians should be risk takers for God. As long as we make safe and comfortable decisions we’re not living by faith. We’re living by risk management.

Here’s my final question: Is your faith demonstrated by your actions, or merely defined by your beliefs? Is your faith limited to believing that Jesus and Peter really and literally walked on water? Or does your faith inspire you to take your own risky steps to spread the Gospel and bring glory to God?