Knowing Jesus: Seeking the lost

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Jesus came to this world in order to accomplish a number of things, and we read about them throughout scripture—some in Jesus’ own words, some revealed to us by the apostles whom Jesus had entrusted with the Gospel message (John 14:26, Matt. 10:27).

But there was one particular mission that Jesus seemed to embrace with every moment of his life, maybe because he knew that those moments were limited. It was simply this:

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” — Luke 19:10

He continually sought out (as we will discuss throughout this series) and engaged those people who most needed him. When the disciples found him speaking to a woman at the well in Sychar when he (presumably) should have been focused on how hungry he was, he responded:

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. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. — John 4:34-36

Jesus sought the sinner when others did not

As with everything, Jesus referenced the work given to him by the Father. But with Jesus, it was never strictly about obedience. It was a genuine love and concern for those whom he had no doubt watched for a long time. People who were struggling in their walk with God. People who had given up altogether and were walking away. People who were so removed from a knowledge of God that they wouldn’t know how to return even if they wanted to!

And let’s not forget the people who were no longer welcome to return, at least not in the eyes of many in the religious community.

As Jesus told the religious leaders of the day, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).

All of us needed a savior, even the “righteous”

It’s worth noting that while Jesus often referred to those who were healthy, the reality as we learn in scripture is that none of us are truly healthy outside of Christ. There were many men and women in Judea at the time of Christ who were striving faithfully to serve God, and that had a true love for Him. But they still needed a savior, just as we all do today. Isaiah, in predicting the suffering savior, makes it clear that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Some were already at the doorstep, setting their mind on the kingdom and waiting patiently for their deliverer (Luke 2:25, Mark 15:43). And some had to be found and coaxed back to the fold. Jesus knew where his efforts were best spent.

He didn’t ignore or push aside the people who had already come to him, and in fact continually encouraged them, saying “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father speaks as the voice of God to the indignant brother saying “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31).

But, he adds, “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.”

Taking up the seeker’s mantle

The message to the disciples and to us would seem to be that if our Lord was so consumed with concern over the souls of the lost, then we ought to feel that way, as well.

Paul wrote about this mission’s passing from Jesus to his apostles:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. — 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

Have we taken up the mission which has been passed on to us?

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.

Should I be growing less certain of the truth?

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One of the things you hear people say over and over is: “The more I know, the less I know.” And it certainly feels true. The more I get out of my comfort zone and am confronted by new situations, the more I realize that maybe I don’t know everything. Maybe the things I assumed – or the things that were true in one situation – turn out to be either outright wrong or at best simplistic.

I believe that intellectual humility is a good trait to have. Historically, even in the scientific field, so many human beings have been absolutely convinced they were right up until the point where they found out they were wrong. And the Bible echoes this idea – just because I think it’s right, doesn’t make it so.

  • “For I testify of them that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge,” Rom. 10:2
  • “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it,” Jer. 17:9
  • “There is a way that seems right to a man, but it end is the way to death,” Prov. 16:25
  • “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles…” Gal 1:13-16

So there’s no question that as we learn more, we evolve in our understanding. That goes for our scholastic knowledge, our understanding of society, and even our theology. I should never stop examining and evaluating my understanding of scripture – “testing the spirits”, in essence.

The problem comes when we start to doubt the things that ought to be unshakable. The Bible talks about that, too!

  • “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” Eph 4:13-15
  • “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self- control, and self- control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” II Pet. 1:5-8
  • “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful,” Heb 10:22-23 22

Clearly, God expects that as we grow in Christ, as we grow in our understanding, our faith should be increasing. We should be more certain than when we first believed. And yet more and more, we hear scripture can’t be truly understood. The idea of being certain of doctrinal issues is seen as dogmatism and arrogance.

If our faith in God is growing, then our faith in His word ought to be growing as well. Do I truly believe that the mystery of God’s will for man has been “once for all revealed”? (Jude 3) That it contains “all things pertaining to life and godliness?” (II Pet. 1:3) That it will equip me for every good work? And do I trust God that He has left me a revelation which I can understand and apply to my life? (II Tim. 3:15-16)

I wonder if sometimes the problem is that the more we learn, the less content we are with what we know. Paul warned TImothy that there was a difference between being an apt teacher of the word and being one who is not content with what God chooses to reveal in the word:

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness,”( 2 Timothy 2:15-16)

Maybe the secret of a full assurance of faith is placing it in something that’s worthy of faith, not in the ideas that result when we’re not satisfied with the word of God. The more we’re willing to simply accept the scriptures as they are, the less likely we are to move into areas where we were never meant to know everything.

The gospel message is a simple one – even though there are some theological points that are difficult to understand and take additional study and prayer. (II Pet. 3:16) While the framework of worship may have changed from the Patriarchal era to the Law of Moses and on to the Christian dispensation, God’s will for man hasn’t really changed:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

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