Knowing Jesus

Jesus put spiritual things first

Knowing Jesus: Jesus put spiritual things first

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Typically, people in the world — and I include many Christians in this statement — have the same reaction when they see someone that’s considered more excited about serving God than is considered “normal.”

They think they’re nuts.

Based on scripture, I suspect that’s how a lot of people saw Jesus most of the time. Granted, they lived in a time when traveling prophets and teachers weren’t quite as far out of the mainstream, but all the same, a man whose sole focus in life was trying to serve God still stood out. And Jesus’ zeal for service to the Father was unrivaled.

Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” — Mark 3:20-21

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.— John 4:31-35

It’s interesting to read so many of the articles that invariably appear as Easter weekend approaches, and in many cases, those articles are designed to craft a vision of Jesus that supports whatever vision of the Christ fits the writer’s viewpoint. Sometimes it’s Jesus the rebel, or Jesus the social justice warrior, or Jesus the glutton/drunkard. (Only when twisting the scriptures would anyone use the accusations of Jesus’ worst enemies as an accurate depiction of Jesus’ character.)

The point that seems to be lost on so many is that Jesus’ zeal was focused on his mission of teaching the Gospel to those who needed to hear it. He reached out to the broken, he pushed the mediocre followers to do better, he challenged the entrenched theologians to re-examine the law, and in everything he did, he looked for ways to glorify the Father.

When his disciples were wondering where the next meal would come from, Jesus was thinking about the next soul he could influence toward God.

Jesus demanded spiritual priorities

It’s no wonder that Jesus’ most animated moments seemed to occur when others’ service to God fell short — when their priorities shifted toward their own worldly interests and away from the task of seeking a deeper relationship with God. Jesus didn’t protest all the social and economic injustices of the day. Instead, he turned over the money-changer tables in the temple because they had made it “a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17), a “house of merchandise” (John 2:16). He railed against the scribes and Pharisees — religious leaders of the day — because their hypocritical actions were not only keeping them from entering the kingdom, but hindering those around them as well (Matthew 23:13).

For Jesus, everything seemed to come down to a choice. Who are you going to serve: God, or yourself?

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” — Luke 9:57-62

Spiritual priorities: worrying about many things

Jesus had a focus on doing the Father’s will, and he tried continuously to instill that priority in his followers. In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus is shown teaching in the home of Mary and Martha in Galilee, and while Mary sat and listened, Martha attempted to play the host to what was undoubtedly a house full of people. She is described as “distracted with much serving,” and the reality is that she probably wasn’t acting any differently than most people would with a home full of people in the midst of what must have been a monumental discussion in her eyes.

There was nothing wrong with being a good host, but Jesus told her, “you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.”

Do we get so sidetracked with the daily tasks and responsibilities that we start seeing them as our primary duty? If we’re serving a role in the Sunday worship, are we so absorbed in getting everything right that we forget that we’re worshiping God? Do we think to ourselves that we ought to be doing more for the Lord, if only we could get all our other chores and errands out of the way first? We would never see them as more important; we just see them as more pressing.

Jesus’ implicit point to Martha was that she wasn’t going to have many more chances to listen to the Master teach. I suspect at the end of her life, her regret might have been that she didn’t spend more time at the feet of Jesus, and less time worrying about things that no longer seemed that important in looking back on her life.

As we try to follow Jesus, we’re called to go where he goes, whenever the need calls. We’re called to actively seek him, and do works worthy of the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:10, Ephesians 2:10). That calling will require us to choose every day: what is our one “necessary thing?”

Knowing Jesus Lesson 13: Jesus got discouraged

Knowing Jesus: Jesus got discouraged

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In the sixth chapter of John, the apostles describes what I think was a turning point in the work of Jesus on this earth. He was possibly at his height of popularity, working in around the Sea of Galilee, having just demonstrated his power in amazing fashion, feeding 5,000 men with only five loaves and two fish. Including women and children, that must have made the crowd well in excess of 10,000 people.

The crowds were so enamored with Jesus, his teaching and his power that they were ready to crown him king — whether he wanted it or not. Jesus further impresses his disciples by walking through stormy waters out to their boat.

And then, the difficulty of teaching spiritual things to materially minded people came crashing down.

So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” — John 6:24-31

When “miraculous” isn’t good enough

Can you imagine doing a sign of that magnitude, only to be told “that’s not enough?” The people believed in Jesus enough to follow him around, listen to his speeches and eat the food that he had provided. But when it came to truly embracing him as the Messiah, it must have seemed like nothing was ever good enough.

After a heated exchange with some of the people, even some of his disciples began to question Jesus. “This is a hard saying,” they said. “Who can listen to it?”

That statement didn’t come from the Jews who had followed him from town to town after being fed. That was his disciples — people who had chosen to follow Jesus and actively work in his ministry. Jesus observed that some of them still didn’t believe, after all they’d seen. And they turned and left.

One can only imagine the tone in Jesus face as he turned to his disciples, and asked, “Do you want to go away as well?”

For all his faults, Peter had just the right response: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

I can only imagine how much Jesus needed to hear that.

Jesus dealt with daily discouragement

The reality of Jesus’ mission must have weighed on him heavily. he is described in Isaiah prophetically as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Jesus was the messenger trying to get 12 men to focus on spiritual matters and a deeper understanding of the kingdom of Heaven, only to constantly be dragged back into arguments about “who will be the greatest,” or “why didn’t we bring any bread with us?”

How disheartening must it have been to face your most difficult trial, praying in anguish in the middle of the night for the strength to do what needs to be done. Then to return and find your closest friends sleeping.

Maybe they were simply exhausted. Maybe after all the times you had warned them about your upcoming betrayal and death, they still didn’t really share the same urgency.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” — Mat 26:36-41

When you’re trying to warn a close friend about a danger in their life, and they just don’t see it no matter how clearly and kindly you communicate, at some point, isn’t it tempting to simply stop trying? Or when you’re talking to a friend about something that’s causing you real pain and sorrow, and the friend just shrugs and says “it’ll all work out,” how does that affect us? How many times must Jesus have been tempted to throw his hands up in the air and say “that’s enough?”

And yet he didn’t.

Why didn’t Jesus give in and give up?

Jesus made a remarkable statement to Peter before his betrayal:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” — Luke 22:31-32

Jesus knew that Peter was going to fail, despite all his protests. But that didn’t matter; what mattered was how Peter would respond to that failure, and Jesus believed it would ultimately make him stronger and drive him to be a great servant of God.

How did Jesus overcome discouragement? Ultimately, he had faith in the men he chose. He knew the disciples weren’t perfect, but he also saw what they could be, and he never game up a real hope for them to realize that potential. Jesus overcame discouragement through faith in his disciples.

If Jesus could overcome, so can we!

As we read the gospel accounts, we continually see Jesus’ example of patience in the face of continued disappointments, and we see the determination he had to continue to love and encourage those around him, even when it didn’t seem like it was working. And we have confidence that he shows that same patience with you and me, even when we don’t always get it right in our own lives (Hebrews 10:22-23).

His ultimate patience in the face of his audience’s inability to understand or accept his teachings, his willingness to continue correcting his disciples who continued displaying spiritual immaturity right up until the night he was arrested – those are the ways in which we see how Jesus is patient with us every day when we stumble.

Does that motivate us to keep trying? It should!

So how do we overcome discouragement in our own lives and service to God? We do it by placing faith in one who is faithful – the one who anticipated us long before we ever came into this life, by saying “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

He is the Faithful Witness (Revelation 1:5). And he believed enough in us to die for us. Let’s not let discouragement keep us from the work he has given us to accomplish.

Knowing Jesus: Jesus was compassionate

Knowing Jesus: Jesus was compassionate

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Jesus’ mission on this earth was of a spiritual nature. He came to establish a kingdom that would bring Jew and Gentile together in one body — his own. He lived his life with a singular focus matched by few, if any.

As we’ve already discussed, he came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). It’s certainly true that the prophets pointed to him as one who would heal the sick, give sight to the blind, cure the lame and bring hope to an oppressed people. However, passages like Isaiah 35 indicate that those miracles weren’t an end to themselves, but rather a sign of the true purpose of Jesus: to build a highway, a “way of Holiness” (v. 8), by which sinful people could return to God.

Jesus had three years to mold a group of imperfect men into apostles, correct a flawed understanding of God’s law, and prepare himself as a sacrificial offering for the sins of all the world. His focus on teaching the lost sometimes seemed to border on obsession (John 4:34, Mark 3:21).

And yet, faced with a mission that transcended any temporary, physical need that might present itself, Jesus still found time to help people.

Going about doing good

When Peter met the Roman centurion Cornelius, this is how he summed up Jesus’ life:

You yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. — Act 10:37-38

The significance of this, to me, is that no one was in a better place than Jesus to understand how seemingly insignificant a single act of kindness could be. What is even a lifetime of suffering when compared with an eternal glorified body in the presence of God?

He had himself taught that it was better to enter life maimed or blind than to be healthy and suffer eternal condemnation (Matthew 5:29-30). How many people did Jesus heal, knowing full well that they had missed the true significance of his appearance in their lives (Luke 17:11-18)?

Is doing good ever futile?

People would continue to die, and yet Jesus raised people from the dead. People would continue to get sick, and yet Jesus healed them. Do you think Jesus ever looked out at the vast array of pain and suffering that he saw every day and asked “Why should I bother helping this person, when a hundred more will still be suffering?”

If Jesus was truly tempted in all points as we are (Hebrews 4:15), it’s impossible to believe he didn’t.

Who can walk down a busy street in New York City or some other major metropolitan area, hear the request of a beggar, and not think “if I help this person, what about the person after him? Or after him? I can’t help all of them!”

Jesus was the only man who ever lived who had a hope of ending disease, hunger and pain. And he didn’t do it. And yet, Jesus never let the “big picture” or thoughts of futility keep him from doing good.

Jesus’ life was driven by compassion

How many of Jesus’ recorded miracles appear to be situations where Jesus was engaged in other business, and yet he saw someone in need and had compassion?

Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. — Luke 7:11-15

Jesus, knowing people’s hearts, understood more than anyone else how important a small act of kindness could be — even if it didn’t do anything more than lighten someone’s load for a few moments.

He calls his disciples to view life the same way. It’s worth noting that in his parable of the judgment scene, he describes those who will enter into life this way:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ — Matthew 25:34-40

If we truly want to follow Jesus, we need to be people of compassion — even when it doesn’t seem like it will make a difference. Jesus didn’t help those in need because he thought it would fix the world’s problems or end suffering for more than a few moments. He did it because he was compassionate toward people who needed help.

May God help us to be that kind of people, too.

Knowing Jesus: Jesus was religious

Knowing Jesus: Jesus was religious

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There is a trend among progressive Christianity to decry religion as a general concept, and religious people specifically. In most cases, I’m not convinced that the aim is to promote the abandonment of organized faiths or to condone hedonistic and worldly lifestyles. But on the other hand, disavowing religion (and whatever the hearer might associate with it) makes it a lot easier to talk to people without being seen as “one of those horrible religious nuts.”

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Knowing Jesus, Lesson 10: Jesus required true discipleship

Knowing Jesus: Jesus required true “discipleship”

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When we think about Jesus, we often depict him as the warm and welcoming savior, waiting with open arms for any and all who want to follow after him. And that’s a good thing, because that’s exactly who Jesus is.

But sometimes, I think that the religious world’s view of the Gospel invitation misses one vital fact: that invitation is on Jesus’ terms. Not ours.

In fact, one of the extraordinary aspects of our Lord’s work on earth is all the time he spent discouraging people from following him! I don’t mean that he told some that they were unwelcome, or that he didn’t want them as disciples. But Jesus was very clear that becoming a follower isn’t a casual decision, and it should never be done lightly or without a clear understanding of the cost.

How much do we want to follow Jesus?

In Luke 14, Jesus makes a remarkable statement — one we need to include in our own teachings to the world. He has just attended a dinner with one of the religious leaders in Jerusalem (Jesus would eat with anyone!) where he told the Parable of the Great Banquet. In the story, a man invited his friends and neighbors to a feast, only to be met with excuse after excuse listing all the things that they deemed more important than this particular event. The master decided to seek out other guests, noting that “none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.”

Luke then skips ahead to a discussion that he seems to relate to this same topic. Jesus is walking along with a throng of people following him, which seemed to be the case everywhere he went. For some reason, Jesus then turns around and addresses the crowd:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

Are we lowering the bar?

When was the last time you heard someone talk to a person seeking to become a Christian and saying: “Listen, are you sure about this? Because there’s no turning back, and this is going to be a lot harder and cost you a lot more than you probably realize?” Our emphasis tends to be about getting someone “in the door” first and foremost. The maturity and growth and commitment will come later; right now, we’re just trying to get the papers signed, as it were.

That’s how you sell timeshares. It’s not how you bring people to Christ.

Jesus demands nothing less than commitment, and despite how we often use that word today, there’s no such thing as “partial commitment.” We’re either in, or we’re out. That doesn’t mean we won’t have weak days — that we won’t sin or stumble or question why we’re putting ourselves through this from time to time. But it does mean realizing that Jesus is, in fact, the “exacting man” of the Parable of the Talents (Luke 19:23).

He demands a lot of us. In many cases, it’s more than we’re willing to give.

If we don’t come to Christ expecting to give up many — maybe all — the things we hold dear in this life, we’ve missed the message of the Gospel. In Luke 9, as people came to Jesus and told him of their intentions to follow “wherever you go,” Jesus repeatedly warned them that their priorities might not allow them to give the sort of devotion needed to be a disciple. And he finishes with what seems to be a harsh and unbending statement: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

What does discipleship really mean?

Often, when we look at the idea of Christianity today, we think of it a lot like we might think of a political party. I can be a Democrat or a Republican just by claiming that identity for myself. Sure, I may have to register as one or the other, but no one’s going to tell me “Wait a second… you haven’t voted Republican in 10 years, so you can’t call yourself a Republican!” I am affiliated with a party because I say I am.

Too many believe that Christianity means picking a church, coming in from time to time and preventing a pew from floating up into the air for about an hour, and then going out into the world with the intent of not physically hurting anyone. We may give a few dollars, we may forego an hour’s sleep or so on Sunday morning, and we might even go so far as to participate in the worship service. I might attend a Bible study during the week if I or the kids don’t have something else scheduled.

And we believe that makes us disciples of Jesus.

Vines Dictionary defines the word disciple (mathetes, in Greek) this way:

Literally, “a learner”, in contrast to didaskalos, “a teacher”; hence it denotes “one who follows one’s teaching,” as the “disciples” of John, Matt. 9:14; of the Pharisees, Matt. 22:16; of Moses, John 9:28; it is used of the “disciples” of Jesus (a) in a wide sense, of Jews who became His adherents, John 6:66; Luke 6:17, some being secretly so, John 19:38; (b) especially of the twelve apostles, Matt. 10:1; Luke 22:11, e. g.; (c) of all who manifest that they are His “disciples” by abiding in His Word, John 8:31, cf. 13:35; 15:8; (d) in the Acts, of those who believed upon Him and confessed Him, 6:1- 2, 7; 14:20, 22, 28; 15:10; 19:1, etc.
A “disciple” was not only a pupil, but an adherent; hence they are spoken of as imitators of their teacher; cf. John 8:31; 15:8.

Jesus does not call everyone to literally give up everything for the sake of giving everything up; we know this because of the number of Christians in the Bible who not only were landowners or professional tradespeople or had some sort of secular life, but were in some cases quite successful and wealthy. But he did require some to make that sacrifice if they were really serious about following him in the literal sense of the word. (We follow Jesus in a more figurative way today, but it’s no less meaningful and often no less demanding.) And he — along with the apostles whom he inspired — made it abundantly clear that whatever we do in this life, it’s secondary to serving God.

Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ. it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Does that sound like a relationship that we can pursue casually or in our spare time?

Are we really disciples of Christ? Or are we people whose will occasionally overlaps with Jesus’ will, causing us to follow him as long as he’s already going in our direction?

Let’s be the true disciples that Jesus desires. Our Redeemer deserves nothing less, and he will accept nothing less.

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