Knowing Jesus: Jesus prayed like someone was listening

Knowing Jesus: Jesus prayed like someone was listening

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The phrase “prayer warrior” has come into wide use in the religious world in past years, and while I’ve never really been that crazy about the term myself, it clearly resonates with people. It’s a phrase that seems to me to describe someone who prays regularly and with purpose, convinced that a petition to God will truly bring results. It is a phrase that helps people see their daily prayers as a source of real power.

By that definition, Jesus was not a prayer warrior. He was a prayer general.

When Jesus was on the earth, prayer was a part of his daily life and served as a model for his disciples in the most literal way: on at least one occasion, they came to him and asked that he would teach them to pray.

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” — Luke 11:1 1

This passage seems to indicate an instance where the disciples could see and hear Jesus pray, and it impressed them to the point that they asked him for instruction on how they could pray like he did. We often don’t think of teaching people to pray as we might teach them to serve in other acts of worship, or as we might teach them about doctrinal issues or Biblical stories and truths. But I can imagine the disciples seeing Jesus’ attitude toward prayer and hearing the way that he approached God, and then looking at their own prayer lives and wondering why they couldn’t manage that same level of dedication. That’s a question I ask myself a lot, and I suspect I’m not alone.

Jesus responded first by giving them a framework for prayer, which was intended (I believe) as nothing more than a “starter kit” of sorts — some basic concepts that an individual can take, personalize, build upon and use to understand the basic mechanics of prayer. I don’t think Jesus ever intended for it to be recited as an actual prayer as so many do today.

But the words themselves weren’t really the key to why Jesus’ prayer life was so effective. He follows with an illustration:

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘ Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” — Luke 11:5-13

Jesus tells his disciples simply this: If you wouldn’t ignore your children when they ask you for help, why would God ignore His?

To Jesus, prayers were the means for him to address his Father. That seems obvious to us, but I suspect that often our prayers are directed more at the ceiling, or the sky, or some far-in-the-distance point where our words will carry and after that, who knows what will happen? It’s difficult for us to imagine “boldly coming before the throne of grace” and speaking to our God as to our own father. It’s not that we don’t believe that’s what we’re doing, it’s just that some days it feels more like hope than settled truth.

There’s a reason Jesus’ prayer were so powerful: they weren’t acts of faith. Jesus knew God was listening to him because Jesus had been to Heaven, and he had seen the Father!

And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” John 11:41-42

That’s not to say Jesus didn’t have faith. It’s simply to say that Jesus had first-hand knowledge. Jesus had been with the Father in the beginning. Jesus knew that God heard the prayers of His people, because he had been witness to it. Jesus knew God loved mankind because he was himself the living proof of that love.

One of the central truths of scripture is that prayers of faith work, and doubtful prayers don’t (James 1:6, Matthew 21:21). When Jesus prayed, he prayed with a certainty that we can’t fully duplicate this side of Heaven. That doesn’t mean we can’t pray in true faith and hope, modeling our prayers after our Lord’s. But it does mean that if we’re going to have a truly effective prayer life, we have to be convicted in our faith (James 5:16, Hebrews 11:6).

When we pray to God, do we consider that the God and creator of all the universe—the God who is maintaining all things right now through His own will and power—has given us permission as His children through Christ Jesus to address Him? And that whatever He may be doing, He is now listening?

Jesus knew that to be true, and as a result, he was constantly praying. Let’s work hard to reflect that prayerful attitude in our own lives.

Knowing Jesus: Jesus depended on scriptures

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One of the most significant things that we know about Jesus is seen in the only story we have of his childhood. Jesus’ parents discover that he is missing from the family caravan leaving Jerusalem, and eventually he’s found in the temple (Luke 2:46-47), “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

Luke writes that Jesus grew in wisdom, and when we next see Jesus, it is as a man fully equipped to apply and teach the word of God (Luke 4). He stands up to the temptations from Satan with the same response each time:

“It is written.”

Jesus set an example we absolutely must follow in the way that he treasured the word of God. David wrote “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97), but Jesus’ relationship to the law was even more intimate:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. — John 1:14

Jesus understood the word of God better than anyone before or since, because it was part of him. He was the author of that law, and he was the physical embodiment of God’s word. In submission to God, he constantly pointed people back to the word.

The value of the Old Testament

By my count, Jesus quotes or references material from at least 15 different books in the Old Testament. That includes acceptance of the Septuagint as authoritative across all types of writing: law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), history (1 Samuel, 1 Kings), poetry (Psalms), and prophecy (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Hosea, Jonah, Micah, Zechariah, Malachi). Some claim that he cited as many as 27 of the 33 books.

Regardless of the number, Jesus confirmed the value of all the Old Testament writings, indicating that even the Psalms of David were both law and prophecy (Matthew 22:42-44), because they were inspired of God. That doesn’t mean David and the psalmists were inspired in the way that an artist is inspired by a sunset or an inventor is inspired by an observed challenge. It literally means that the psalms of David, the prophecies of Isaiah, and the writings of Moses were all breathed out by God (2 Peter 1:20-21). And Jesus treated them with an appropriate level of reverence.

Understanding how to apply scripture

Jesus shows us the value of a deep knowledge of God’s word that goes beyond simply reading the text, but reading and understanding context, being able to make applications and growing in an understanding of God’s nature and His will for us. He provides an example of proper use of scripture in refuting the Pharisees’ accusations about his disciples working on the Sabbath:

He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him:how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, ’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” — Matthew 12:3-7

Jesus cites:

  • Direct command: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” Hosea 6:6
  • Approved example: David is permitted by virtue of specific need to eat of food that by law he was not authorized to taste (1 Samuel 21:1-6, Leviticus 24:5-9)
  • Necessary inference: If the priests were commanded to perform “work” on the Sabbath day in order to carry out the worship on that day, then it is logical to say that there are examples where doing God’s will should not be prevented through observance of the Sabbath regulations on work – which in most cases were derived from the Jewish rulers’ interpretations of the idea of “work”, rather than the simple command not to work.

That is the essential model for understanding, interpreting and applying scripture. He does not appeal to opinion, human precedent, teachings of leading theologians, popular sentiment, or even conscience. He simply shows that the Pharisees were misapplying scripture because they did not fully understand it.

The word of God as our source of life

Jesus’ reliance on the word, reflected his teachings. When he told the Jews that he was the bread of life, and that his words were spirit and life (John 6:63), he was reflecting his own attachment to the word. When answering Satan in Luke 4, he quoted from the law of Moses in Deuteronomy 8:

And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land…  — Deuteronomy 8:2-7

He understood a principle that the Hebrews were meant to learn from their time with Moses in the wilderness: that they were sustained not by their own ability or skill, but by listening to and obeying all that God said.

Imagine being the hero in a movie where you’re required to land a pilot-less plane, with only the instructions from the tower to help. How closely would you follow? How intently would you listen? That is the way in which Jesus viewed God’s law. It is literally the source of life, because it connects us to God. And it is the means by which God guides us into “a good land:” our eternal inheritance.

If the Bible is our lifeline to God, how well do we know it? Is it a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105)? Is it dwelling in us richly (Colossians 3:16)? Are we able to handle it properly with the understanding of how to apply it to our lives and to our efforts to teach others (2 Timothy 2:15)?

Jesus didn’t just love the word. He lived it. So should we.

Want to truly increase your faith? It will cost you your pride

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In Luke 17, Jesus gave his apostles a pretty difficult task: if your brother sins against you seven times in a day and repents each time, forgive him. Maybe that’s the reason the apostles asked him in v. 5 to “increase our faith.” After all, it takes a lot of faith to continually forgive someone who just keeps making the same mistake over and over again, doesn’t it?

Jesus’ answer is interesting. He makes two points that I think are vital to Christians as we wrestle with our own weak faith.

How much faith do you need?

The first point is the response in v. 6: “ If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

I confess that I don’t fully understand the concept of having a “little faith”. How do you measure faith? In this case Jesus says it’s sufficient, but in other cases, he chastises the apostles for having “little faith” (Mtt. 17:20). Obviously context has a lot to do with it, and I suspect that the audience in this case was key as well. I think he’s telling his apostles that they don’t need to wait for the “perfect amount” of faith. Neither do we; it’s very few of us who are truly up to the task of serving God. But He has appointed “earthen vessels” to teach the gospel to the world, and earthen vessels are flawed. If we wait until we feel ready to serve God, we’ll probably never start.

We don’t need perfect faith or even outstanding faith to be pleasing to God. We just need enough faith to get started, and enough to not give up (Col. 1:22-23).

But I think the second thing he says may be even more vital – and something many of us struggle with.

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’
(Luke 17:7-10 ESVST)

The message here seems pretty straight-forward. If I want stronger faith, I need to start by understanding my place in the relationship with God. I am a child of God, and heir with Christ to salvation, it’s true (Rom. 8:17). But our adoption is not on our terms. God redeemed us for a purpose, which was to do good works (Eph. 2:10), to become part of a priesthood ordained to offer sacrifices to God (I Peter 2:5) as His possession, to His glory (v. 9).

Serving God isn’t about what I want

People gravitate to “church” for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s to become part of a community. Sometimes it’s to receive some sort of emotional experience from a worship assembly. And sometime, as Solomon wrote, it’s that God has “set eternity into man’s heart” (Ecc. 3:11). But the reason is invariably about fulfilling a need.

That’s not selfishness in the sense of worldly self-interest. It’s a perfectly valid sentiment, as Peter pleaded with people in Acts 2:40 to “save yourselves from this crooked generation.” We know we need a savior, and so we come to Christ.

But just like with an infant, babes in Christ have to grow beyond that. As we mature in our faith, we learn more and more that it’s not about us. Jesus calls us to be great through our service to others (Matt. 20:26), by submitting and putting others ahead of ourselves (Phil. 2:3).

And above all, we start to learn that our lives are God’s, and that our service is His, on His terms, to His glory. And we do it not because we’re forced to, but because there’s no better way to live.

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this:that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15 ESV)

That’s real faith – putting my own ego aside, not worrying about my own preferences and ideas of what life should be, what worship should be, what my role in the body of Christ should be. Stepping into the furnace just like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, with the attitude that even if God doesn’t step in and save us, we’re still going to serve Him above everything else (Daniel 3:18).

God grant us all that level of faith. Because that’s when the Lord’s church will truly grow.

Seeing the real Jesus

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It must have been an interesting spectacle, to say the least, when the two “kings” met.

Herod was essentially the king of the Jews in the eyes of the Roman government, having been appointed the Tetrarch of Galilee by Caesar. He was at least nominally Jewish, although his lineage as an Idumean made him a child of Esau rather than Jacob, and therefore his ties to Judaism would probably have been superficial at best. He certainly had no use for following the law of Moses – a fact that Jesus’ cousin John learned first-hand when Herod had John killed for condemning the adulterous affair between Herod and the wife of his half-brother, Philip.

Although he seemed to fear Jesus’ teaching and influence enough to want him dead (Luke 13:31), the Bible doesn’t say how seriously he took that effort. But one day he finally had the chance to meet the “other” king in person. I suspect “bloodied and in chains” was how he liked his prophets – unlikely to do a lot of preaching about morality, and maybe in a pliable state of mind to satisfy the curiosity Herod had about Jesus’ alleged ability to perform miracles.

He was apparently not pleased with the outcome of the interview:

 When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. Luke 23:8-11

The Jesus he wanted to see

Herod brought Jesus to his court because he wanted a show. Instead he got silence, very likely interpreted as contempt from his prisoner. He didn’t get the Jesus that he was hoping to see. But that happened to a lot of people. And not much has changed in 2,000 years.

The reality is that throughout Jesus’ ministry, people had an idea of what they wanted from him or what they believed him to be long before they ever heard him speak. Some didn’t really even care what he had to say, so long as he fed them (John 6:26). Some had decided he was a troublemaker and an instigator, a threat to what little sovereignty the Jewish nation possessed under Rome (John 11:48). Some went to him and asked questions hoping to be reassured of their own righteousness (Luke 10:29).

But when it came down to actually listening to him speak, they tended to be less interested in applying and understanding than they were arguing and justifying. Have you ever noticed that despite being taught at times only in parables and riddles, the only people who ever seemed to ask Jesus what he meant were his disciples (Mark 4:33-34)? All those people gathered on the hillsides and seashores, and for the most part, they never really seemed to get the message Jesus was trying to deliver.

Are we really listening to Jesus?

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do the things that I say?” he asked in Luke 6:44. The answer was pretty simple. They were healed, they were fed, they heard some really interesting ideas, and then they left. Even the throngs that greeted him in Jerusalem during his triumphal entrance had apparently disappeared by the time he walked the last steps to Calvary. The main reason was that they finally got tired of the message Jesus was delivering (John 6:66), along with his continual refusal to conform to the image of the “savior” they wanted him to be (v. 15).

Every time I read a blogger write how Jesus wants nothing from us but to believe in him… Every time Jesus’ name is invoked to condemn the concept of religion (however that’s defined today)… Every time we stand and sing “Oh How I Love Jesus” and then go on out and live just like everyone else in the world”, we ought to remind ourselves that Jesus came and died on the cross because he loved us. But he also wanted to change us because he knew we were lost and dead in sin without God.

Do we take that seriously enough to listen to everything he has to say? Do we love Jesus enough that we embrace him for all that he is, not just the parts we like or the parts that fit our own theology? The Jesus that preached love and repentance; promised salvation and condemnation; offered rest and  hardship?

Or are we like those to whom Jesus said: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your heart.”

Let’s not conform Jesus to whatever cause or theology or doctrine fits our sensibilities best. Let’s love him enough to listen to his every word for what they are: the Bread of Life.


If we really care about their souls, why do we sound so angry?

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I was talking to a friend this week and she said something that made me take a step back and think. We were talking (or texting) about how we as Christians function in a society that continues to slide further and further away from God’s righteousness, and how you sometimes have to put it aside and dwell on the good, or else your entire life will be spent in misery and vexation.

She told me that she’d found herself agreeing with “the horrid Westboro Baptist group” about something, and that she’d had to remind herself about being a light as opposed to a condemner of the world.

That made me think a little. Have you ever had a conversation with someone with whom you basically agreed politically, socially, religiously or anything else, and they said something that made you want to stop and say “can you please not be on my side of this argument?

I’m betting that if you’re a Christian, you’re probably smiling a little sadly and nodding your head.

The reality is that people are flawed, no matter whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Atheist… none of those philosophies keep people from being who they are. Some are great at expressing disagreements in a kind, civil way, and some aren’t. And sometimes we look over at a brother or sister in Christ who in all likelihood truly believes they’re doing God’s work, and we think: “I know we’re using the same book, but I think you missed a few pages in there.”

Jesus and the Pharisees

Jesus had a few moments like that himself, I believe, in his dealings with the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day. Contrary to what some (well-meaning) Christians often claim, Jesus ate with religious people just like he ate with sinners. Jesus didn’t gravitate toward people because they sinned; he gravitated toward people who expressed an interest in listening to him. Whether you were a Pharisee, Sadducee, tax-collector or prostitute, you needed to hear Jesus.

In one instance, in Luke 14, Jesus takes a dinner invitation as an opportunity to teach the Pharisee and his guests some concepts in kindness and humility. No doubt observing the important people sitting around him, he points out the importance of hospitality for hospitality’s sake, not for the sake of gaining favor and influence. One of the attendees, oblivious to this message, chimes in: “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”

You can almost see Jesus shaking his head as if wondering, “Are you even listening to me?” His follow-up parable makes it clear that many in attendance are in danger of never finding out what bread in the kingdom tastes like. As he tells the Jews of his day concerning the Pharisees: “Do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.” (Matthew 23:3)

Whether our motives are good or not, we create a real issue when we allow our “teaching” to become “posturing”. We become the stereotype. The angry Christian who seems to take delight in telling other people that they’re condemned and going to Hell, presumably waving goodbye to them as he rides up the golden escalator to Heaven. The person who seems a lot more concerned about showing God how much he hates sin than showing God how much he wants the lost to be saved.

The problem is that many of us who want to be diplomatic – want to be kind in the way we address people in the world – have a tendency to hesitate in speaking up because we don’t want to be “one of those people.” I’m sure many of the Westboro members think they’re wielding the sword of the Spirit with all good intentions, but what they’re really doing is putting a damper on efforts to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) because anyone who speaks up about sin now has to deal with the accusation that “you people are all the same.”

Don’t some Christians paint Muslims with the same violence-condoning brush? So why are we surprised that non-Christians would seize upon the more angry, hateful elements of Christianity and say “this is what you’re all really like”?

Speak with grace and purpose

Paul – a man who once called the high priest a “whitewashed wall” in an apparent outburst of anger – makes it clear that how we speak to people about God is important.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. – Colossians 4:5-6

Paul was no stranger to strong rebukes, but when he walked up to Mars Hill and spoke to a group of immoral idolaters, he didn’t start out by condemning them. He found common ground, started by convincing them that even their own writers and philosophers acknowledged some of the basic concepts (Acts 17:26-28). In fact, it seems that the only times that he really spoke in a rebuking tone were to those that he knew should know better: his fellow Christians, and his Jewish brothers who were more interested in insulting and persecuting than engaging in discussion of the scriptures.

The reason, as he says in Colossians 4, is pretty evident. When you find yourself talking about Christ with a non-believer, you may never get another chance to talk to this person when he’s in the frame of mind to listen. And there’s no telling if this person will ever have another chance to hear the gospel taught. You and I need to be a lot more concerned about saving someone’s soul than in winning an argument or venting some internal feeling of anger, indignation or self-righteousness.

Make no mistake: many people are going to be angry with you no matter how nicely or carefully you talk about the word of God. Jesus predicted it: “They hated me, and they will hate you, too” (John 15:18). Light rebukes darkness by its very existence (John 3:19-21). But we can’t give them any more justification.

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” – 1 Peter 2:12

“Having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” – 1 Peter 3:16

Convincing a worldly person to turn to the Lord has always been hard, but with God, all things are possible (Mark 10:27). Let’s just make sure that’s really what we’re trying to accomplish.

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