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Faith

Lecture series: “Who was Jesus, and what does that mean for me?”

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Jesus is a historical (despite the protests of some) and spiritual figure who has divided people for centuries since his brief period of public ministry. It seems safe to say that no one has ever impacted the world in such a short time. No one could, except for one who came as the son of God.

We sometimes take for granted that Jesus is the anchor of our faith, the source of our salvation, the reason that we have hope in this life. Growing up in what I would consider conservative churches of Christ, I think we’ve had a tendency to take this side of our faith for granted. We talk a lot about obedience, about following God, about morality, and those are things we ought to talk about. But sometimes we have a tendency to lose site of why it is that we assemble every Lord’s Day in the first place. It’s vital that as followers of Christ, we keep our eyes focused on the one we’re following!

I had the opportunity to visit the Vegas Drive church of Christ in April and deliver a weekend series of lessons on the topic of Jesus, and I thoroughly enjoyed being with my friends and spiritual family again. I had preached there on a part-time basis for about five years before moving on, and it was a blessing to be back. But the greater blessing was spending time talking about various aspects of our Lord.

I’ve included links below to the audio and also the presentations I used, and I hope you find the contents useful and encouraging – and maybe informative!

Lesson 1:

Was there really a Jesus?

Without opening a Bible, we have strong reason to believe that there was a literal living man named Jesus who went around the region of Judea teaching about the coming kingdom of God. The record of his existence, teachings and life as passed down through the early church, coupled with historical finds from that time period and the undeniable explosion of Christianity after his death are compelling reasons to ask the question: how did this insignificant man in this remote part of the world manage to change human history forever?

View slides: Was there really a Jesus?

Lesson 2:

The ultimate stumbling block: The empty tomb

There is no way to have an honest discussion about who Jesus really was without dealing with the question of the empty tomb. Despite a wide range of speculation and various theories put forth, there has been no explanation given for how a man could predict his own death, successfully stage that death at the hands of a disinterested government, and then make people believe he had risen from the dead. There is even less reason to believe that his disciples later contrived the resurrection account, submitting themselves to torture and death for a cause they knew to be untrue, and somehow managed to convince thousands of people who were all present during the time when the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection took place.

View slides: The empty tomb

Lesson 3

Was Jesus the son of God?

This question goes hand-in-hand with the question of the resurrection. Without a resurrection, the claims of Jesus as God would be empty. Without Jesus being God, his resurrection would have been impossible. Skeptics who deny one must also deny the other. But the growing list of writers who argue Jesus never made the claim to be God’s son are based on a dishonest and selective view of the scriptures. We find overwhelming evidence in all four gospels as well as the epistles and the early church writers that not only did his followers worship him as God, but that Jesus accepted and approved that conclusion.

View slides: Was Jesus the son of God?

Lesson 4

Understanding the thief on the cross

Once we arrive at the conclusion that Jesus was in fact the son of God, sent to live among men, die on a cross, and rise from the dead as the chosen Messiah, we have to start asking what all this means to us? We see Jesus sending out his apostles to all the world to “preach the gospel to every creature.” It is a message of hope and joy, calling men and women of every nation to repent of sin and worldliness, and turn their lives over to the Lord. The story of the thief on the cross in Luke 23 gives a remarkable vision of the grace of God and the saving faith that is required of us today. This is a story that’s often misused, but the central message is that if we believe Jesus’ message despite all the obstacles placed in our way, that Jesus will save us – but it’s his grace, his prerogative, and he decides the conditions of our salvation. Not us!

View slides: Understanding the thief on the cross

Lesson 5

Am I a Christian or a disciple of Christ?

The term “Christian” has become so common and so easily used in our culture, that in many instances it seems to have lost its meaning. Anyone can claim to be a Christian, and we often set the requirements as low as “someone whose family went to a church at some point.” More and more, our culture distances itself from what Jesus truly commanded: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Can we truly call ourselves Christians if we’re not disciples of Christ? What does it really mean to be a disciple? The Bible tells us it means much more than simply acknowledging that Jesus was a real person, or that we agree with his teachings, or even that his claims about himself are true. It means giving our lives to him, conforming ourselves to his image every day.

View slides: Am I a Christian or a disciple?

Lesson 6

The church that Jesus built

The religious world increasingly claims that you can talk about Jesus without talking about the church. But scripture clearly shows us that the church is the body of Christ – the two are inseparable! But what is the church? How does the Bible define it, and is it even still in existence today? If it is, then should I join it – or it is even something I can join at all?

View slides: The church that Jesus built

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: 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.

God requires that you show your work

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Most of us at some point in our lives have sat in math class, staring at a sheet of paper containing all kinds of equations, some of which quite literally looked like Greek to us!

We spotted one of the problems, and we just happen to remember that the teacher worked it out on the board a while back, and the answer was 144. So we wrote “144” in the answer blank. But the problem was we knew the teacher wouldn’t accept the answer. She told us we had to show our work.

The reason for that, looking back, is pretty obvious. It’s not about just knowing the answer; it’s about understanding how to get to the answer. Because we probably won’t memorize the answer to every single math problem that comes our way in the future, and at some point, we’re going to have to work through the reasoning processes that help us figure out the answer on our own.

The case study in an obedient faith

So what does any of this have to do with following Christ?

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “ Abraham!” And he said, “ Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” — Genesis 22:1-2

To fully understand the gravity of this statement, you have to go back even farther, to chapter 15, when a childless, aging Abraham is reminded by God of the promise that he would become a great nation. Abraham asks how this is possible.

And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. — Genesis 15:3-6

Abraham believed against any rational expectation (Romans 4:19-21) that God would bless him with a child. This wasn’t just Abraham saying “Well, I guess it might happen, and if it does, that’s great.” He was convinced that it was going to happen, and it was going to happen the way God told him it would take place.

He was so convinced, that when God told him to go offer that son on an altar, he got up early the next morning and went to do just that. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham was so sure of God’s promise that he believed that if he killed Isaac, God would simply raise him from the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19).

When Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, he told the servant that accompanied them, “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” One way or another, Abraham was planning to come back down the mountain with his son, alive. And God rewarded that faith: “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.”

Faith leads us to obedience, not rationalization

There are so many lessons here that it’s hard to pick just one, but the easiest is the one that we often don’t seem to understand from a theological standpoint. God expects us to show our work. And if we refuse to show our work, He is not going to consider us faithful.

The idea that we don’t have to do anything in order to please God other than to “believe” is one that has taken root over time in religious circles to the point that many think God expects nothing more from us than to acknowledge that he’s there, and maybe try not to kill anyone. Aside from that, they say, God saves us regardless of what we do, what choices we make and whether we do what He asks us to do or not.

The reality is that the belief/faith that the Bible speaks about doesn’t allow for this. Because first and foremost, belief is actually a work. It is something that we do! Jesus calls it a work in John 6:29. And over and over, Jesus insists that faith and inactivity are incompatible:

Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like:he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great. — Luke 6:46-49

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. — Mat 7:21

The fruits of the spirit are not described as actions (Galatians 5:22-25), but they each inspire action. Does a long-suffering person lose his temper on a regular basis?  Does a person who is kind sit back and do nothing when someone is in need of help and he has the means to assist? When the Spirit of Christ is working in us, those actions ought to be part of our lives not because they are works that earn us approval, but because it’s who we are. And if those works aren’t taking place – if we’re not bearing fruit – then the obvious question is, “what is missing?”

If my faith doesn’t feel like work, it likely isn’t really faith.

Faith accepts God’s terms of salvation

Second, faith does not dictate terms. It does not impose on God the idea that He must save in a personal, unique way for me, as opposed to the way in which He has said He will save all who seek Him.

If Jesus taught that we must be baptized in order to be saved (Mark 16:16) and we tell people, “Actually, he that believes and is NOT baptized” will be saved, how are we showing faith in the teachings of Jesus? Would we not simply say “Maybe I don’t understand everything about how grace, faith and obedience work together, but I know Jesus said do it, and so I’m going to do it and not question him?”

Instead, many teach that we can simply “invite Jesus into our hearts” with a simple sinner’s prayer, which is never once found or taught in scripture. (Please respond to this post if you can find it anywhere, I’d be happy to have that discussion!) The idea is that if Paul says we are saved from faith “apart from works,” then that must mean that there’s nothing I can do to affect salvation.

Faith and obedience can’t be separated

When we start discussing salvation with the premise that all acts of obedience should be lumped under the term “works”, and then say that as a result, Paul is discussing obedience in the book of Romans, and he is therefore talking about “salvation by faith apart from obedience” (as opposed to “faith apart from works”, Romans 4:5), we’ve made a false assumption and our entire premise is now flawed. I know this because in the same letter, Paul says as much:

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. — Romans 6:16-18

Paul again says that the ministry of the gospel of Christ is to “bring the Gentiles to obedience” (15:18).  To make it even more clear, Paul goes so far as to spell out in Romans 10 how the concept of “calling on the name of the Lord” works through an active and obedient faith, or as he says in Romans 1:5, “the obedience of faith.”

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. — Romans 10:12-17

Over and over, the Bible speaks interchangeably of the concepts of unbelief and disobedience (Hebrews 3:18-19, for one). James talks about the idea that faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26).

So why the apparent contradiction? Because so many use Paul’s treatise on faith as a theological discussion on the method of salvation, when what Paul is really discussing is the reason for salvation. We are saved not because WE willed it, or because God looked at our lives and considered us worthy of salvation, but because God made a way for us through Jesus Christ—”not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:9).

The obedient conversion of Paul

Paul didn’t nullify Jesus’ command that his disciples be baptized in order to be saved (Mark 16:16). In fact, he confirmed it in the story of his own conversion, when he recounted Ananias’ statement: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).

That’s not a “sinner’s prayer.” Paul had been saying the sinner’s prayer for three days (Acts 9:9), fasting and begging forgiveness for his blasphemy and murder. The answer to that prayer was a man from God telling him to give his life over to Jesus, submitting to his will. That submission started by obeying the command of God without getting into a debate over whether it should really be required of him or not.

It’s God’s plan, and God gets to dictate how it works. He is not bound by the theological conclusions that men come up with because they cannot reconcile a salvation that is not earned and yet still requires obedience—a salvation that offers mercy and forgiveness for those who walk according to the spirit and not according to their own will and sinful impulses.

God does not expect us to be perfect. But He expects that when He says something, we believe it and we do our best to follow it. Submit to God’s will—all of it. Allow the word of God to shape you, rather than you shaping the word of God. Seek the will of the Father, just as Jesus did.

Show your work.

 

Is “the God that I know” really God?

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“The God that I know would never disapprove of that.”

“The God that I know won’t accept attitudes like yours.”

“The God that I know would condemn that.”

“The God that I know doesn’t judge me, he forgives me.”

Have you ever heard statements like that? Does it ever strike you that a lot of people who call themselves Christians seem to know a lot of different Gods?

The reality is that scripture tells us that there is no way to truly serve God unless we know God. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? How can I please a boss when I don’t know what they expect of me? How can i please a friend if I don’t know what makes them happy? How can I please the state if I don’t know what the law requires?

When I don’t know, I do whatever seems right to me. That’s how the people of Israel managed their lives for a large portion of the time in which they were in the land of Canaan. When there were no judges to right the ship, no kings to (preferably) impose God’s law on them, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” according to Judges 17:6. With a lack of instruction in the law of Moses from the priests and Levites, no one knew what the law was, or maybe just didn’t care. And that lack of knowledge would haunt God’s people throughout their time in the promised land.

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge – Hosea 4:6

For you have forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge – Isaiah 17:10

But those verses are a little deceiving out of context, because it sounds as if there were a lot of people running around the country who didn’t know there was a God. Or didn’t know who He was. Or maybe didn’t know that He had any requirements of them. I don’t think that’s the case, as even in Isaiah’s time, people were still worshiping God. They were just worshiping other gods at the same time. And as it turned out, they weren’t actually worshiping God the way He had commanded them to do it.

In 2 Kings 22-23, the writer tells the story of King Josiah, who found the book of the law during a renovation of the temple. Upon reading it, he discovered that the people had been expected to observe the Passover feast—which they had stopped doing some time back. It’s not as if it would be intuitive for them to reason that if there’s a God, then He clearly must want them to celebrate the exodus from Egypt on an annual basis with a ritual feast. That’s the kind of thing God has to tell people for them to know.

I can climb every mountain in the world, gaze out over sunsets every day of my life, listen to the birds singing in the wind until my cares melt away, and not one second of that will instruct me on what God wants me to do with my life. Because it’s one thing to know there’s a God. It’s another thing to know God.

And God doesn’t simply give you knowledge. You have to work for it.

 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. – Act 17:22-27

God isn’t easy to understand, let alone truly know. We read of God as being merciful and vengeful. Patient and fed up. Loving and punishing. Wanting all to be saved and yet unwilling to have fellowship with unrighteousness. Plenty of intelligent, thoughtful scholars have wrestled unsuccessfully with those seeming contradictions, and some have even left the faith because they simply didn’t think they made sense.

Because if they were God, they wouldn’t be like that!

The problem is, earthly wisdom and insights won’t bring us closer to God. They’re more likely to push us farther away.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. – 1 Corinthians 1:20-21

God’s thoughts aren’t our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). If we find God agreeing with us all the time, we might want to revisit the scriptures, because God does not make decisions that we would make. He sees more, knows more and understands more than we can ever process. So why do we assume that if we don’t think something’s a big deal, God doesn’t think it’s a big deal either?

We have one way to understand God: to listen to what God tells us about Himself, either through his prophets or through Jesus Christ, his son (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus was God’s way of revealing Himself to mankind, taking on the form of a human and helping us to see God’s nature (John 14:9, 1:18) in a way we couldn’t understand through the Old Testament alone. And through the Spirit, Jesus passed that knowledge on to his apostles (Matthew 28:20, John 16:13-15), so that they could share that understanding with the world.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. – Romans 10:14-17

We can’t assume that we’ll simply figure out God on our own. God’s plan for salvation of mankind rests on our willingness to listen to the gospel—all the gospel, not just the parts that “sound like what God would say”—and place our faith not in our own ability to intellectualize God’s divine nature or to feel some intangible sense that God loves me, but in the testimony of earthen vessels and a belief in a God who surpasses all understanding.

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