Tagged: identity

Disordered Loves

A long time ago, our friend Augustine talked about disordered loves. His contention was things tend to be good in and of themselves but the way we often use those good things is problematic. God created these things, after all – and he called them very good – but these good things were created within an order and with purpose. God’s good creation was meant to work a certain way. So our problem, Augustine says, is that we get our loves out of order. We neglect some things while trying to use other things to do more than they were ever meant to do.

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I think there’s a lot of truth to what Augustine is laying on us here. I think about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:1-21. He bookends this teaching with dual warnings about being careful where we look for our treasures and rewards. Don’t give or pray or fast to impress people. (This was a culture, after all, where giving, praying, and fasting carried major social capital.) If that’s where we’re placing our worth and identity we’ll get our reward, but be careful: those neighbors we’ve worked so hard to impress with our shows of generosity, pious prayers, and righteous displays of fasting simply cannot bear the weight our bid for approval, worth, and meaning places on them. Investing ourselves in such storehouses inevitably leads to loss because, “moth and rust consume” and “thieves break in and steal.”

Augustine reminds us it’s not that our neighbors are bad – or even that we should avoid their approval. Rather, when we make the approval and validation of our neighbors the locus of our worth and identity, the place where we store our treasures, we’ve gotten things out of order. We look for something from our neighbors they cannot possibly deliver in any meaningful way. Only God can. It is only in rooting who we are in God’s estimation of us that we can hope to find lasting worth and meaning and identity. This is “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In Matthew 6:21, Jesus ends by reminding us our hearts will follow our treasures. Another way of saying that is this: You will spend your life chasing the treasure you seek. More, other friends as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, and James KA Smith remind us that it is in this chase that we become who we are. The chase forms us, for good or ill.

What am I seeking? That’s the question we’ve been assigned to ponder and I spend a lot of time doing that. I too often recognize the ways I chase the wrong sorts of treasure – when I place too much stock in whether or not my friends and neighbors think I’m funny or smart or successful or good. I’ve had to deal with all the ways I’ve hitched my identity to being a vocational minister, and I’ve had to figure out what I’m worth now that I’m not that anymore. More, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that pursuing those treasures has often made me a more selfish person because it’s hard to both love and use my neighbors to satisfy my own neurotic needs. The only path forward I’ve discovered is to begin putting those loves back in order. This is, after all, the way Jesus showed us.

What do I seek? It has to be God. I stink at the pursuit. I struggle with it. I often get sidetracked and turned around. But, nothing else will do. Nothing else can.

Rob Sparks - picRob Sparks is a Jesus follower, a father and husband, a nerd, and a paper pusher. He worships and serves with the Fernvale Church of Christ in Middle Tennessee and occasionally blogs at robrsparks.wordpress.com


Inside Out: The Summer Blog Tour

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We live in a consumeristic world. The engine of our capitalist economy is founded in the thought that more is better. Newer is better. Faster is better. And to the extent that you accept this thought and participate in this market, you are better. You are cooler. You are smarter. Your life is easier. And you will be happier.

Our culture repeatedly encourages us to “try this, taste that, buy these, go there, experience this, watch that, try these”. Whether we realise it or not, this worldview is oriented from the Outside to the Inside.

This philosophy of life begins with the perspective that goodness, joy, completeness, and purpose are “out there”, outside of ourselves. They exist for us to grasp, or at least to pursue with the hope to grasp.


As I write this, the Cleveland Cavaliers have just won the NBA Championship. It represents the team’s first ever championship and the city’s first professional sports championship in 52 years. I wonder how many fans longed and dreamed of this day. They pour into the streets to greet the players. They throw the team a parade. They feel on top of the world. Then in a few days, a week, perhaps a month they begin to wonder… “When will the Browns win the NFL championship?” or “When will the Indians bring home the MLB championship?” The euphoria subsides and life goes on.

Jesus taught us a different way of viewing the world. He introduced us to the worldview “Inside Out”.

In Mark 7 Jesus addresses a crowd of people who concerned themselves with ritual purity. In this particular instance the discussion revolved around washing hands before a meal. While our mother’s told us this for health reasons, these people believed it would help them maintain purity before God. God himself had earlier given Israel detailed instructions about clean and unclean foods and lifestyle practices. For the people accusing Jesus however, rather than pointing them to God, these instructions had become a goal of their own.

Jesus then makes this astonishing statement to this crowd, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (7:15) At the end of this conversation Jesus provides a list of sinful behaviours and concludes “All these evils come from inside and defile a person.

Jesus knew that the state of our hearts determines our outlook on life and our standing before God. Joy or grief. Hatred or love. Generosity or envy. These attitudes may be influenced by events outside of us, but ultimately the state of our hearts, our character, determines how we live our lives and how we respond to our circumstances. With this worldview in mind, as Jesus prepared for his death he comforted his followers with this promise,

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth… You know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.  (John 14:16-17)

Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will be IN his followers. From that point on we consciously live Inside Out. We can find all the peace we need in the Spirit within us. We can find all the joy we need in the Spirit within us. We can find all the courage and all the purpose we need in the Spirit within us. When we find ourselves seeking fulfillment in food, books, pornography, relationships, busyness, or the pursuit of wealth or security, we should recognise that we’re no longer living in the Spirit.

It’s great to have life goals that we pursue, but they don’t define us. Our identity and self-worth has been gifted to us by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and we now travel through life from the Inside Out.

sound-waves 01aOver the next couple of months I’ve coordinated with a great group of church leaders and writers to explore some of the practical applications for individuals and churches of living Inside Out. I believe you’ll be blessed and challenged by their thoughts, so please make an effort to check back to this blog throughout July and August to join this Summer Blog Tour. To promote the Summer Blog Tour, we’re also giving away one set of Church Inside Out, both book and workbook. Just leave a comment below then enter over HERE.sound-waves 01a



Jesus is God

This is my final post in this short series summarising each of the Gospels. In particular, I’ve  looked at the different perspectives each writer brings to their portrayal of Jesus’ life and ministry.

  • Read John 1:1-18 here.
  • You can listen to the related sermon here.

All of the gospel writers allude to Jesus’ divinity. After all, Matthew and Luke both describe Jesus being conceived by a virgin! But John’s gospel makes the most explicit claim from the very first verse.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John opens his Gospel with the phrase “In the beginning” that he’s copied from the opening of Genesis. From the moment before Creation. The moment when there was only God. John takes us to that moment and there we find the Word [Jesus]. In that moment when there was only God the Word was there with God, but even more than that, the Word was God.

What an opening. That gets your attention. John claims that Jesus is God. Now the rest of the book will hopefully substantiate that statement.

Now it’s true that in the Gospels Jesus never makes the statement “I am God”. But the cumulative evidence certainly points to that conclusion. Seven times John records Jesus making a statement that begins with the phrase “I am“. Jesus commenting on his own identity.

  1. And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
  2. Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12).
  3. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9).
  4. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
  5. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25).
  6. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
  7. I am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener” (John 15:1).

Who is Jesus? He is the Bread to feed upon, the Light to follow, the Door to enter, the Shepherd to guide, the Resurrection upon which to wait, the Way of salvation to trust, and the Vine in which to abide. They are definitely grandiose claims, perhaps even divine.

In chapter 10 we find the Pharisees ready to kill Jesus for blasphemy. In v30 Jesus closes a conversation saying, “I and the Father are one”. So the Jews picked up stones to stone him… then in v33 they explain, “we are not stoning you for any good work, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Without Jesus saying “I am God” his audience understood that he was claiming equality with God.

When Thomas sees the resurrected Jesus he worships saying, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus validates this title in v29 by commending Thomas for his faith.

The book begins in 1:1 claiming that Jesus was God, then it concludes with the skeptical apostle making the same statement. These two statements stand as two bookends in John’s gospel. In between Jesus frequently utters “I am…” statements of identity to the point that he was almost stoned for claiming to be God.

cross 02The apostle John, more than the other Gospel writers, emphasises the divinity of Jesus and closeness of the Father and the Son.

But John didn’t write his gospel as a philosophical treatise. The question we must ask ourselves is “Who died on that cross? Who died for our sins? Was it God? Was it a lesser god? Was it a prophet, or a good man?” It makes a difference. Did God love you enough that He died for your sins, or only enough that he commissioned someone else to die in your place?

Who was it on that cross?

How important is it to you that God died for your sins? Or does it not matter to you, as long as someone did?

BONUS MATERIAL: In my research for this sermon and blog I came across a series of 1minute videos that introduce the 7 “I am” statements. I enjoyed them and you might too. You can find them HERE.

Jesus the Son of God

Jesus’ Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12) really summarises the message of Mark’s Gospel. In the story the farm hands recognise Jesus as the son of the landowner. Their response is to kill him. How do we identify Jesus, and how do we respond?

  • Read Mark 12:1-12 here.
  • You can listen to the related sermon here.

Mark opens his writing with the statement “The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From his opening the other three accounts of Jesus’ life took their title. They were not histories, or biographies, they were Good News written to persuade people to believe and trust the person of Jesus.

As Mark introduces Jesus to the world, he elects to use the title, “Son of God” to describe Him. We find this title not only in 1:1, but also at other key events in the book. Jesus is described as the Son of God at his baptism (1:11),at the transfiguration (9:7), and at the cross the centurion after observing his death observes, “surely this man was the Son of God.” (15:39)

The Gospel of Mark pivots on 8:29. Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and the apostle Peter replies, “You are the Messiah.” Finally, someone accepted Jesus’ message about who he is in relationship with God. In a sense, it’s mission accomplished, but Jesus immediately changes the mission. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things… and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (8:31)

Having established his claim to the title of Israel’s promised Messiah, Jesus immediately emphasises humility, service, and death. It’s fascinating to see the apostles response move in the exact opposite direction. Three times Jesus predicts his death and the apostles respond by arguing about who is the greatest among them.

Mark 8:31-34 “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…” Peter arrogantly rebukes Jesus and tells him that he’s wrong.
Mark 9:31-35 “The Son of Man… will be killed.” “…on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.”
Mark 10:32-41 “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests… they will condemn him to death…” James and John ask to sit at the left and right hands of Jesus’ throne in glory. This upset the rest of the disciples.

The apostles slowly learned that it’s one thing to intellectually recognise the Lordship of Jesus, but another challenge altogether to submit to Him.  Finally, in 10:45 Jesus laid it out for them in very plain language, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Mark is very concerned that people acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, as Messiah, as Lord. The first step is to learn and believe this truth. The second step is to allow that truth to transform our lives. Knowing the truth of the majesty of Jesus makes us servants, not superiors.

So I don’t want this article to just be an interesting intellectual blog post. Let me close by posing three questions:

  1. Who is Jesus to you? (Go ahead, write it down. It’s harder than just thinking it.)
  2. Who in your life could you serve in a meaningful way in the next two days?
  3. Will you?

On an academic note, here’s a brief note of caution by NT Wright on how to understand the title “Son of God”. It’s part of a much longer essay available here.

‘Messiah’, or ‘Christ’, does not mean ‘the/a divine one’. It is very misleading to use the words as shorthands for the divine name or being of Jesus. It is comparatively easy to argue that Jesus (like several other first-century Jews) believed he was the Messiah (see JVG, ch. 11). It is much harder, and a very different thing, to argue that he thought he was in some sense identified with Israel’s God. In this context, the phrase ‘son of God’ is systematically misleading because in pre- and non-Christian Judaism its primary referent is either Israel or the Messiah, and it retains these meanings in early [53] Christianity (e.g. Rom. 1:3-4) while also picking up the overtones of Paul’s early, high Christology. It seems to me, in fact, that the title was perceived very early on in Christianity—within the first decade or so at least—as an ideal one for Jesus because it enabled one to say both ‘Messiah’ and ‘the incarnate one’. However, its subsequent use simply for the latter meaning, coupled with its too-ready identification with the virginal conception story, make it in my view difficult to use without constant qualification in contemporary in systematic discussions.

There’s another short and helpful summary of Wright’s understanding of the title “Son of God” here.

Matthew 26-27: Crucifixion

  • Read Matthew 26-27 here.
  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (17 April), you can listen to it here.

The simple fact that Jesus was crucified challenges our preconceived ideas of the world and our lives.  At this point in the story there’s no happy ending.  His execution not only shatters the expected storyline, it intrudes into our lives.  The crucifixion prevents us from enjoying the “story of Jesus” as simply wholesome family entertainment promoting good morals. The crucifixion of Jesus challenges our understanding of life.

The primary theme of Matthew’s Gospel to this point has involved the identity of Jesus.  Now it challenges MY identity. When we understand that Jesus’ death occurred as part of a mysterious cosmic plan to reconnect humanity with God, we need to consider our side of that connection.  When we understand that our sins and guilt can be removed, we have to ask ourselves, “Am I a sinner?”  “Do I need forgiveness?”  “Am I disconnected from God?”  “Am I represented in the crowed baying for Jesus’ death?”  “Am I at the foot of the cross taunting Jesus?”  “Is that me?” “Am I so valuable that anyone, let alone God himself, would give up that much for me?”  “Does he love me that much?”  “Am I truly forgiven?” Or is all this just a macbre fairytale?

The second challenge we find in the death of Christ is the challenge to take action.  Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.  Jesus claimed to speak for God.  Jesus claimed to love people.  Jesus claimed to live by a higher ethic.  This was the identity he set for himself.  But he lived up to it.  His death was an ultimate act of love and service.  On the cross, above his head was the mocking accusation, “King of the Jews”.  Jesus had claimed this identity throughout his ministry, and now he was dying for it.  Rather than re-identify himself, Jesus followed through on his message.  He was no hypocrite.

Jesus lived by his convictions.  Jesus died for his convictions. Identity must lead to action, or it’s just wishful thinking.

  • Does Jesus death continue to confront you and prompt self-examination, or do you find yourself becoming “too familiar” with it.
  • Can you share examples where you’ve seen churches seek to identify themselves one way, but really it was just “wishful thinking”.
  • Do you agree that “Identity must lead to action”?  What does that mean for individual Christians?

Colossians 1: Jesus’ Deity

  • Read Colossians 1:15-20 here.
  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (17 October), you can listen to it here.

Most scholars agree that Colossians 1:15-20 are a piece of poetry or a hymn that Paul wrote or inserted to praise the greatness of Christ.  Regardless of the initial author, their inclusion in the letter by Paul allows us to study this passage as Scripture.  Paul breaks into song for a reason: He’s awed by the majesty and humility of Jesus.  (Of course, there’s also the pastoral concern that the Colossian Christians needed to be reminded of the supremacy of Christ.)

I don’t think there’s a lot I can add to this passage, so I’ll just go ahead and list the descriptions of Jesus that Paul gives.


  • The image of the invisible God;
  • The firstborn over all creation;
  • In him all things were created:
  • . things in heaven and on earth;
  • . things visible and invisible;
  • . including thrones and powers;
  • . as well as rulers and authorities;
  • All things have been created through him,
  • All things have been created for him.
  • He is before all things.
  • He holds all things together.
  • He is the head of the church.
  • He is the beginning,
  • He is the firstborn from among the dead;
  • He has supremacy in everything.
  • The fullness of God dwells in the Son.
  • Through Jesus, God has reconciled all things to himself:
  • . things on earth and things in heaven;
  • His blood shed on the cross has brought peace to Creation.

What an amazing list.  How do you respond to a description like this?  This is my brother!  This is my Saviour!  I have received indescribable blessings and grace beyond measure.

Although this passage doesn’t explicitly make the trinitarian statement that “Jesus is fully God, and equal with the Father”, I have difficulty reading this passage and understanding a lesser relationship for Jesus.  [eg. Jesus is the highest angel or first created being]  Particularly when paired with 2:9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form…

  • As you read Paul’s description of Jesus, do any particular characteristics grab your attention?
  • I am not dogmatic that everyone has to understand Gen 1-3 as a literal description of Creation in seven 24 hour days, although I believe it myself.  How does linking the person of Christ with Creation influence your view of Creation one way or another?  If at all.
  • Have you ever tried to put together a list like this?

Cleansing the Temple – John 2

Read John 2:12-22 here.

I regard the first two chapters of John as establishing Jesus’ identity.  The prologue in 1:1-18 makes some grand claims about who Jesus is:

  • v1. in the beginning with God, and the Word was God.
  • v4. in him was life.
  • v10. the world was made through him.
  • v12. to those who believe he gave the right to become children of God.

From 1:19 on, John gives examples to back up these statements:

  • John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God.
  • Andrew, Peter, Philip & Nathaniel follow Jesus.
  • Nathaniel declares Jesus to be the Son of God and King of Israel.
  • Jesus demonstrates his power with his miracle at the wedding at Cana.
  • Jesus demonstrates his authority when he cleanses the temple in Jerusalem.

The story of Jesus cleansing the temple is often used as a basis for discussing anger, when it’s appropriate, and when it’s not.  But John doesn’t comment on Jesus’ anger or demeanor.  Yes, he made a whip, but was that to flay merchants, or to prod livestock?  Here are a couple of different views on this:

No doubt the disciples tossed and turned a long, sleepless night that evening; it must have been terribly disconcerting to witness Jesus unhinged, throwing furniture, screaming at the top of his lungs, and flinging money into the air. Perhaps they ran for cover with the crowd. I would have.” (read the whole sermon here.)

When Jesus took that table and put it on end, when he grabbed a fistful of coins and dropped them on the floor, and while he was doing these things quoted the scriptures to people, Jesus is not only telling about the kingdom of God, he’s acting it out. Can you imagine being there? It is spell-binding; I think it would be captivating to watch him and listen to him. (read the whole sermon here.)

One of these authors sees Jesus yelling and screaming, cattle stampeding and people fleeing.  The other sees Jesus teaching, perturbed by what’s taking place in the temple, but teaching his audience, albeit with some very dramatic illustrations.

Which of these descriptions is closer to your picture of this dramatic scene?  Which better demonstrates Jesus’ authority?  If this passage teaches us of Jesus’ authority, how does it make a difference in our lives?

John 1

Read John 1 here.

John 20:30-31 states the purpose of John’s book, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

The first thing to highlight in this purpose statement is that it contains a truth regarding the identity of Jesus.  However, it’s not simply an intellectual, theoretical truth, it’s a practical truth that brings life and changes lives.  When our faith becomes overly concerned with truths and not changing lives we’ve missed the point of the truth.

The second point to highlight is how important John regards the identity of Jesus.  We often take his identity for granted, or just think of him as Jesus Christ.  The opening chapter of John’s Gospel describes Jesus in at least 10 ways, each communicating a distinct aspect of his identity:

  • The Word (v1)
  • With God and is God (v1)
  • True Light and Life (v4, 5, 9)
  • Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. (v29)
  • God’s Chosen One (v34)
  • Rabbi/Teacher (v38 )
  • Messiah (Annointed One/Christ) (v41)
  • Son of God (v49)
  • King of Israel (v49)
  • Son of Man (v51)

What do you think of this list?  Are some titles harder to understand than others?  Are some more meaningful to you than others?

My sermon also discussed “Spiritual New Years Resolutions”.  I mentioned a couple that I think are fairly common: “I’m going to pray more.” and “I’m going to read the Bible through in a year.”  I would suggest to anyone seeking to develop your spiritual disciplines in 2009 to let other people know about your plans.  Set up some accountability.  These are admirable and beneficial goals, but often difficult to maintain.  If you’re reading the Bible with someone else you’ll encourage each other.

Have you ever read the Bible through in a year?  Do you have any tips for those who might be about to begin?  Are you going to give it a try this year, or another spiritual discipline?

2 Peter 1:3-4 – Who Am I?

  • Read 2 Peter 1:3-4 here. Also read Ephesians 1:3-10 here.
  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (24 August) you can listen to it here.


Since the questions last week didn’t prompt a lot of discussion, let me begin with a more lighthearted approach this week. Now that the Olympics are over, What spiritual truths can we learn from Olympic events? Eg. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Cor 9:24) Can you make up some examples of your own?

This week’s sermon asked, “Do you believe that you are who God has said you are?” Ephesians 1:3-8 lists several things that God says about us: God has “blessed us, chosen us, adopted us, redeemed us, forgiven us, and lavished us with grace.” 2 Peter 1:4 says that “we may participate in the divine nature”. Do you have a favorite thing that God has said about who you are? Other examples include that we are sheep or ambassadors.

Scripture and Songs

As always, if you have suggestions for songs related to this week’s discussion topic, please add a comment.

  • I Am a Sheep (SFP – First written & performed by Dennis Jernigan in 1988.)
  • Something Beautiful (SFP – written by the Gaithers in 1971)
  • I Want to be Where You Are
  • What a Wonderful Change in My Life
  • I Am His and He Is Mine (SFP)
  • I Am Mine No More
  • Let the Beauty of Jesus Be Seen In Me (SOC)
  • His Grace Reaches Me (SFP)
  • Marvellous Grace of Our Loving Lord
  • Living for Jesus (SFO)
  • Immortal Invisible, God Only Wise (Since we read 1 Tim 1:17 in the sermon I had to include this one)
  • May I Call You Father (SFP)
  • What a Friend we Have in Jesus