As I think about this summer blog tour theme of “Faith Unshackled”, I have been thinking about what often shackles our faith. And sometimes, I think we have just made it too complicated. It is like we say, “It can’t be that simple!” and then start arguing doctrine, dogma, and Scripture to avoid the obvious.
I have been studying a great deal lately the greatest commandments. There are a few different versions of this in the gospels, but my favorite has become the one recorded in Mark 12. One of the scribes sees that Jesus is a legit teacher, so he asks him the big question. “Which commandment is the first of all?” In other words, what matters the most to God? Most of us know the story. Jesus says something like,
“Love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.” But in Mark’s recording, the scribe gives Jesus a robust “Amen!” “You are right he says!” Then he goes on to repeat back essentially what Jesus has already said and the scribe tacks on, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”. But here is the part I love. After the scribe says this, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Wait? Loving God and loving neighbor puts us in a place where Jesus basically says, “You’re getting it now. You’re getting closer. You’re discovering the way of the kingdom”?! Can that be?!
Overwhelmingly churches (mine included) give a list of core values and beliefs that are something like, “We believe in God, we believe in the Bible, we believe in salvation, we believe in baptism” and on and on.
But for some reason, I have never seen a church say, “Our core belief is this: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Then love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you are near the kingdom of God.”
That seems a bit too simple doesn’t it? Yet, that is more important than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices. Or, if I might contextualize and paraphrase it a bit, that is more important than all of our “right beliefs”, “sound doctrine”, etc.
Then we have Matthew 25. I have heard multiple sermons and lessons on this text and how it teaches the reality of final judgment, which by the way I affirm. However, do we ever ponder the question, “What does Jesus say puts one on the wrong side?” If we do, the answer isn’t burnt offerings, sacrifices, correct doctrine, worship service attendance, reading the Bible, understanding baptism, etc. (though those are all REALLY important to talk about and do). Rather, the answer is those that gave food and drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, visited the sick, and welcomed the strangers. I think it would be fair to put that under the heading of “loving God and loving neighbor”.
So when I think about unshackled faith that lives for Jesus with reckless abandon, I think it is best we get back to the basics. The church has been like the football team that has come up with really great offensive and defensive schemes, but forgot to teach the basics of blocking and tackling.
My prayer is that we could continue the important discussions about doctrine, Scripture, and beliefs, but that we would not neglect the seemingly simple and most important. My prayer is that we would get back to the basics. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. And by the way, I don’t think you can do one without the other. Maybe the best way to love God is to get back to the basics and go love a neighbor. Maybe then the kingdom of God will come near.
Ryan Lassiter is the husband of Sarah, and father of 3 (almost 4!) beautiful children. He is also the preaching minister at the Hunter Hills Church of Christ in Prattville AL, he and his wife Sarah have also spent time as missionaries. Ryan graduated with his masters in Missional Leadership from Rochester College and his passion is helping people join God in his mission of redemption and restoration. He blogs at www.ryanlassiter.com.
Each of the four Gospels present Jesus in a slightly different light. Luke walks the fine line of emphasising Jesus’ humanity while also calling him Saviour.
Luke wanted to make sure that we saw not just the Divinity of Jesus, although that’s present, but Jesus walking among us, getting dirt under his fingernails, comforting those who hurt, and helping those abandoned by others. Jesus interacts with humans as one of us. Luke emphasises the social interactions of Jesus.
In particular Luke highlights Jesus’ care for at least four groups marginalised (at a minimum) by the so-called righteous Jews of his day.
1. Samaritans and Gentiles. These people don’t care about the Torah and worship their own gods in their own temples. Any law abiding Jew that comes in contact with them must go through a purification process before they can again worship at the Temple. Yet Luke describes Jesus rubbing elbows with them! But he even includes a story of Jesus called “The Good Samaritan”. That’s the definition of an oxymoron to most Jews.
2. Tax Collectors and Sinners. Sinners are easy to identify. They’re the Jews who turned their back on their faith and their heritage. Some of them even became Romans! In chapter 15 Jesus describes one perfectly in the story of the Lost Son. He turned his back on everything he should value and partied like it was still BC!! Then there’s the tax collectors. Regarded as traitors, these men such as Zacchaeus, rob their countrymen giving some of their “taxes” to Rome and keeping the rest for themselves. Yet again, Luke tells of Jesus forgiving these people. After all the hurt they’ve caused and sins they’ve committed, Jesus just says, “You’re forgiven, let me throw a party for you.”
3. Women. Luke goes to great lengths to make sure he includes women in his stories. Jesus may have heard the prayer that later generations of Jewish men recite each morning,
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a gentile. Blessed are You, Lord our god, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a slave. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids…” (Dig Deeper HERE.)
Yet Luke shows Jesus demonstrating a different attitude. At the start of chapter 8 we find a group of women traveling with Jesus like they’re his disciples.( Goodness only knows the scandals that launched.) In chapter 10 he praises Mary’s devotion to his teaching even while she neglects her womanly responsibilities in the kitchen with Martha. Then in chapter 15 Jesus describes God himself as a woman who first loses then finds some coins.
4. Poor, Hungry & Diseased Chapter 16 tells a story where the rich man goes to hell and the beggar goes to Paradise. That’s certainly counter-cultural. I wonder what Theophilus and his friends thought of that? We also see Jesus’ care for the diseased and suffering in the various accounts of healings throughout the Gospel.
It’s not that the other Gospels don’t contain similar (or the same) events, but Luke has a concentration of these encounters not found in any other single Gospel.
Jesus didn’t become human for fun, he came to make a difference.
Luke describes Jesus as Saviour and teaches salvation while the other Gospel authors don’t use the word “save” at all. In chapter 7 Luke details Jesus’ interactions with a Gentile, a mourning woman, and a sinful woman. As significant as those encounters are just because Jesus talked with these people, he did much more than just talk. He healed. He resurrected. He forgave. He saved each person from their immediate distress.
As Luke concludes the story of Jesus’ encounter with the tax-collector Zacchaeus, he wrote in chapter 19:10 what might be the key verse for his book (Maybe you’d like to memorise it.) “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Jesus didn’t just come to find the lost. He came to save the lost.
At Lawson Road we use the word Rescue as part of our LR-cubed mission: Rescue, Reconcile, Renew. Rescue is just another way of saying “save”. Luke teaches some important principles about our rescue mission.
- No one is off limits. The people you don’t like talking to. The people others don’t like you talking to. The people you know well. They all need Jesus. They all need rescue. But I wonder, “Is anyone off limits to you? Are there people you don’t want to talk to, let alone invite them to church?“
- Jesus spent a lot of time with needy people, and he didn’t just talk theology with them. Jesus sought out and helped needy people. How do you help the hurting and hungry?
- Jesus is our Savior not because he feeds us, but because he died for us. He saves us from eternal death and gives us eternal life. That is the ultimate message of Good News that Luke, and Jesus, wants us to hear. It doesn’t matter if you’re a slave, a gentile, a woman or a sinner, Jesus knows us and can save us all. But the first step we have to take is to acknowledge that we’re lost.
Today’s post is the latest in a series of guest posts centered around my church’s annual theme of “Healthy 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.”
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).
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35
- You can listen to this sermon here.
If we were writing an outline of “love commands” the New Command to “Love one another” would display as a subpoint to “The Second Command” to “Love your neighbour as yourself“. Since Jesus had already instructed his disciples to love those around them, even their enemies, why did he need to specifically tell them to “love each other“? I can think of several reasons, you may think of more… or you may disagree with mine? 🙂
First, toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel (chaps 18 & 20) we find the apostles competing for honors in Jesus’ kingdom, asking who will be the greatest. Back in John’s Gospel (13:21-30) we see that Judas has just left the Last Supper to betray Jesus. In v38 of this chapter Jesus predicts that Peter himself will deny Jesus. Then in chapter 14 Jesus predicts his departure. Jesus is leaving. He’s leaving a competitive group of guys who’ve just been betrayed by Judas, and who themselves have deserted Jesus at his death. These are the guys who’ll continue the mission of the Kingdom of God. In order to get through the tough times ahead, they’re going to need to “love each other”, just as we still need to.
Second, Jesus tells us that it’s by our mutual love that outsiders will recognise our commitment to God. He doesn’t say this when he tells us to “love our enemies“, although that’s sure to raise eyebrows. Surprisingly, people don’t see God as much when we serve our communities as they do in the way that we love each other. Perhaps we don’t recognise this point as much because we don’t love each other as strongly. Consider the example of the first church who sold their possessions to meet the needs of the poor among them. (Acts 4:32-35) What would prompt you to sell something to give to a needy brother or sister? How severe would their need have to be?
Third, Our love for each other reflects God’s love toward us. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The way we treat each other reflects the way Christ has treated us. That’s a pretty huge responsibility. With the world looking at us, the church, we have the job of modeling God’s love for His people: for all people. The more we mature in Christ, the more we understand the way he loves us, the better job we should do of loving those around us. Our love for others derives from God. Our love from God expresses itself to others.
- If you had to choose a 3rd “love command” do you have another preference? Why?
- Why do you think Jesus had to be more specific than just “love your neighbour”?
- It’s easy to say “love your spiritual family as Christ loved you”, but how do you express God’s love for you in relationships with others?
As I conclude my series from Exodus, I have a couple of goals:
- To demonstrate the continuity between the Old & New Testaments, and the continuing relevance of the Old to the church today.
- Emphasise the relationship between loving God, and obeying His rules.
Both of these points rely on reading Exodus 19 & 20 together, as I discussed in my previous post. The covenant of chapter 19 represents the culmination of God ‘courting’ the nation of Israel and here ‘marrying’ them. Israel unreservedly commits to the God who has rescued, protected, and provided for them in the preceding months. But now they are are ‘married’ God shares how Israel can express her love: how the nation can adopt the same values as Yahweh already has. So the relationship begins with love and only then moves to law.
A close examination of the Ten Words (Commandments) reveals that the first four relate to the nation’s relationship with God, while the last six establish standards for horizontal, or interpersonal, relationships. This division follows the identification of the Two Greatest Commandments identified three times by Jesus in the NT (Mt. 22:34-40; Mk. 12:28-31; & Lk. 10:25-28.) Love God. Love Neighbours.
The chart above illustrates that Jesus didn’t develop these Two Greatest Commands on his own. (start at the bottom left and read it clockwise) He adopted them from Jewish teachers who identified them in the OT. In Mark 12, Jesus teaches, “Love God. Love Neighbour.” But in Luke 10 we see that the Jews were already familiar with this summary. A quick survey of basic Bible reference tools quickly identifies both of these commands as simply quotes from the Pentateuch.
So these commands that Christians through the centuries have rightly quoted as divine summaries of Christian obligations, are in fact divine summaries of the Jewish Old Covenant given at Sinai. This is why in Matt. 22:40 Jesus says that All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. This doesn’t mean that the church should discard these commands as vestiges of the old covenant, but that we should reconsider the degree of continuity between the two covenants.
Having reached the top of the second column and understanding that the rest of the Law hangs on The Two Greatest Commands we see that dividing the Ten Words into vertical and horizontal commands is consistent with Jesus’ teaching. It’s also important to recognize that the Ten Words also provide context for the detailed instructions that follow in the rest of Exodus as well as Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy.
All of these laws derive from two: Love God. Love Neighbour. And all of the laws relating to loving our neighbours derive from the Greatest Commandment: Love God. This is the sequence found in chapters 19 & 20, first relationship, then law. It’s also the sequence found within the Ten Words themselves, first love God, then love neighbours.
The apostle John in His writings explicitly makes this connection. If you love me, keep my commands. John 14:15 see also Jn 14:21, 31; 15:9-15; 1 Jn 5:2-3; and 2 Jn 1:6. I believe this is another succinct summary of Exodus 19 & 20.
The relationship God intends between Himself and His people begins with God demonstrating His love for humanity. People then have the opportunity to respond to His love and commit to Him. As a consequence of that commitment, we also commit to adopt his values and to express our love in ways He finds meaningful. So we commit to keep His laws. When we try to either love God while ignoring His laws, or observe His commands with out understanding His love, we step outside of the full relationships God intends for us.
- I recently reviewed the Bible class subjects that have been taught at Lawson Road between 2004 & 2009. During those 5 years only 5 OT books had been studied compared to 16 NT books (some twice!) and numerous other topics. Are Churches of Christ the only ones who have difficulty finding value in the OT? What do you think are our barriers?
- Do you agree that it can be difficult at times to appreciate the connection between loving God and keeping His commandments? Have you seen examples of people over-emphasising one or the other?
- I’ve often heard people say, “You can’t love others unless you love yourself”, but I think these passages teach that, “You can’t love others unless you love God”. What do you think?
PS. A friend just blogged on a similar topic here.