Kindness is meant to be one of Christianity’s most attractive and observable characteristics. As the Apostle Paul put it in Colossians 3:12:
As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Paul could have simply said, "Be kind." He instead chose the evocative language of clothing ourselves, which tells us that our kindness toward others should be as instantly observable as the very clothes we wear.
In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church faced ongoing cultural antagonism and occasional state-sponsored persecution. There were many obstacles to the Church’s growth. In spite of that, it grew like wildfire. Why?
How could Christianity spread so virally in such a challenging social and political climate? We believe that the Holy Spirit was driving the growth of the Church (Acts 1:8; 9:31; 1 Cor. 3:6), but what initially drew people to Christianity in such astounding numbers? We have ancient evidence outside of the Bible that tells us part of the answer.
A few centuries after Christ, an anti-Christian Roman Emperor named Julian wrote about why so many people were flocking to Christianity. Julian was raised in the Christian faith but turned away from it as an adult. When he became emperor, he worked to resuscitate the historic Greco-Roman religion that his ancestors had practiced. Julian did not like the growing influence of Christianity, especially within governmental circles.
In one of Julian’s letters, we find a remarkable statement on Christian kindness. Though Julian was antagonistic toward Christianity, he acknowledged how powerful Christian influence was on the populace. He could see that the public viewed Christian leaders with admiration. Julian wanted pagan priests to embrace a similar outlook so that people might be won back over to paganism.
In a letter to the pagan high-priest of Galatia, Julian speaks about Christians (whom he snidely calls 'atheists' and 'Galileans'):
Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception. . . it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men should see how our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute public service of this sort ... -Julian, Letter to Arsacius, High Priest of Galatia, ca. 362 AD. (Ramsay MacMullen and Eugene Lane, Eds. Paganism and Christianity: 100-425 CE, Fortress Press, 1992).
How extraordinary that an opponent of Christianity would so openly concede the positive reputation of Christian leaders and the value of their benevolent influence!
Julian's ancient letter challenges us to think critically about the nature of our influence in 2018. What would it look like for Christians to live in such a way that even our most enthusiastic detractors would aspire to follow our example?
How would the world change if Christians had such a widely-acknowledged reputation for kindness and compassion, as they did in Julian’s time? What would it look like for the Church to truly live out Paul's words and clothe ourselves with kindness? How would our families, friendships, and communities change?
What do you think?
*Portions of this post adapted from my book, Paul and His Team (Moody Publishers)
In the past two weeks, we have twice looked to the skies. The first time, we watched in wonder at the solar eclipse, observing a rare cosmic choreography in the blue skies above us. The second time, we looked upward in distress at the unwelcome clouds that signaled Harvey’s arrival.
Two skies that obscured the sun. In one case we could see the moon physically blocking the sun - standing in its way and turning down the volume on the sun’s light and heat. In the case of Harvey, a dark curtain of clouds swirled above us. The sun was hidden behind it, and we were not able to feel its warmth or see its light.
Two skies that made us feel small. The eclipse made us uncharacteristically aware of our planet’s motion in the cosmos, highlighting the fact that there are things much bigger than us happening in the quiet expanse of space. The hurricane made us feel small because we were powerless to stop its relentless rain.
We don’t think about the sun very often. Most days we’re aware of it because we feel its heat and measure time by its light: sunrise, noon, sunset. But we don’t really think about the sun itself.
On cloudy days or at the end of a long winter, we become more aware of the sun’s absence and long for its warmth and light. We think about the sun a little more than usual.
On rare occasions (like our eclipse) we pay direct attention to the sun.
Regardless of our ability to see the sun or willingness to notice it, the sun has not changed. It is there, moving through our galaxy, its gravity governing our solar system. It burns with the same heat and shines with the same luminosity. It has not changed.
As the sun is constant, so is our God.
In seasons of life when we don’t think much about him, he is there.
In seasons of life when we long for God because dark clouds of suffering have gathered and it’s hard to see him, he is there.
In seasons of life when we are close to him – looking directly to him for strength and guidance – he is there.
In times of trouble, when we are tempted to view God as distant, apathetic, or uninvolved, we must remind ourselves that God has not changed. Our circumstances may have changed. Our feelings may have changed. God has not.
God is powerful. God is present. Good is good. God is trustworthy. God is love. He is who he is (Exodus 3:14), and he does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17). Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He is the light of the world – whoever follows him will never walk in darkness but have the light of life (John 8:12). His love endures forever, as the Psalmist wrote:
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever. to him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever. who by his understanding made the heavens, His love endures forever. who spread out the earth upon the waters, His love endures forever. who made the great lights-- His love endures forever. the sun to govern the day, His love endures forever. the moon and stars to govern the night; His love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1-9)
However the skies of our lives happen to look – God is always there, and he loves us. We are not small to him.
As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:38-39: I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
SOME THOUGHTS ON OUR THEOLOGICAL DEBATES
Jesus came to Earth full of grace and truth (John 1:14). We Christians should strive to embody the same grace and truth as we interact with the world around us.
The trouble is that some of us are naturally inclined toward the grace side of things, while others among us are wired to emphasize scriptural truth. As a result we often talk past each other when discussing sensitive subjects.
Whether you're a truth teller or a grace giver, we all need to grow.
If you speak truth without grace, you risk becoming what Paul called a "resounding gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). In Paul's metaphor, truth spoken without love isn't music. It's just noise.
There's a lot of noise out there right now.
On the other hand, if grace is your gift then you're at risk of missing opportunities to share life-changing truth with people who desperately need it. Jesus didn't want us to just feel sentimental feelings of love for him. Our lives our supposed to demonstrate a submission to the truth. As Jesus said in John 14:15: "If you love me, keep my commands."
There's widespread disregard for God's commands right now.
So, if you tend to be a truth teller, remember that grace givers might be getting something right that you're missing. Ask God to show you how it looks to show grace like Jesus did.
If you tend to be a grace giver, don't rush to label truth tellers as judgmental, because they might be getting something right that you're missing. Ask God to show you what it looks like to speak truth even if it might be uncomfortable for you.
Jesus is the only one who perfectly and simultaneously embodies both grace and truth. The Church needs plenty of truth tellers AND grace givers, so let's ask God to grow us on whatever side of the equation doesn't come naturally to us.
And let's cut each other some slack while God works on us!
Over the last year I have often thought about the account of Jesus walking on water, and Peter stepping out of the boat and trusting that he would not sink. It’s a classic biblical text on taking risks and trusting God. In Sunday messages, sometimes Peter is made out to be a hero of faith for stepping out of the boat. At other times he is portrayed as someone like us who struggles with doubt. The truth is that Peter was both: he was a faithful and courageous man with a deep reservoir of trust in God, but he was also human and had his moments of doubt.
Planting a church has been a year-long exercise in stepping out of the boat. It has its emotional and spiritual highs, and its moments of anxiety (or panic). It has been an experience of choosing to trust God every single day, even when things might appear bleak.
I had lunch with the pastor of a large church in the Houston area a few months ago, and he prayed this remarkable prayer over Real Hope: God, may you give them enough victories to know that you’re with them, and enough defeats to remind them that they cannot do it without you.
A thoroughly biblical prayer.
This week, we had one of those moments that seemed like a defeat. A big wave in the choppy water outside of the boat. It was a near catastrophe, in fact, but God carried us through it. The story of this week is one of God’s protection and provision, and I’ve got to share it with you. Our story starts on Sunday after church. I’ll walk you through the week.
Sunday was our second-ever Sunday service at Real Hope, and it went great. We celebrated six people who placed their trust in Christ on launch Sunday, and there was a lot of enthusiasm. Our set up and tear down went faster and more smoothly than ever, and things were looking good.
Our trailer, which had been generously donated to us, was working really well transporting our equipment. The only downside is that we had so much stuff it required an engineer to map out how to pack it. Luckily, my friend Wayne is an engineer and he designed a way to make it all fit!
I was so encouraged on the drive home from church on Sunday, and then I got a phone call a few minutes after walking in the door. There had been an incident with our trailer on the way back to storage. On Grand Parkway, a huge chunk of metal had flown off the side because one of our carts had shifted inside the trailer and nearly flew out of the side door on the trailer. The door itself was destroyed.
Mercifully, none of our equipment was damaged and no one was hurt. But it was precarious getting the trailer back to storage and it was obvious we could not use the trailer anymore. The door was jammed open as well, so our gear was exposed to the elements. If it rained we were in trouble.
So, we spent most of Sunday talking about how to handle the situation. ALL of our church equipment was in that trailer and it couldn’t stay there. I called my friend Paul Cockrell – pastor of Bethel Bible Fellowship – and told him what was going on. He generously offered to let us unload our trailer and store our stuff in the sanctuary of their church while we worked on a solution. So a team of us from Real Hope met Paul at Bethel on Sunday evening and unloaded our whole church.
When we went to bed on Sunday night we had no solution. We prayed and asked God to give us wisdom and allow us to make smart decisions in a short amount of time.
By Monday afternoon, we had decided that we were going to try to purchase a new trailer (or trailers), and also a truck – an older work truck that could pull our equipment. You see, we didn’t know exactly who would be pulling our trailers every week yet because we’re still growing as a church. The kind of trailer you buy is dependent on the kind of truck you have, and vice versa. We could get one really big trailer, but that would mean knowing someone with a pretty big truck. We could get a couple of trailers, but that would mean needing more volunteers who had the right type of trucks. Catch 22.
So we decided it would be best to get our hands on an older truck that we could rely on. That way we could know it would work with our trailer(s), and we could drive it ourselves as we continue to grow as a church. We had 6 days to get our hands on a trailer and a truck. Not an easy task.
With that strategy in mind, we went to Trailer World on I-10 just west of Katy. Our friend Jay was kind enough to come with us. He’s the second engineer in this story, and knew all the questions to ask. We found out that it’s hard to find the right type of cargo trailers on short notice. But, they happened to have two trailers in stock that worked perfectly for us: a 20 foot trailer and a 16 foot trailer – both with the right type of axle and the dimensions we were looking for. We bought them on the spot and planned to pick them up on Friday.
On that note, there’s a little backstory here: Several large churches have been extraordinarily generous to us and have supported us financially. One of those churches gave us a substantial gift two weeks before this all happened. So we had the money on hand to make the purchase. God had provided what we needed in advance!
So at the end of the day Monday, we had purchased two trailers which were large enough to hold our equipment and allow us some room to grow. I also posted an ad on Craiglist for our old trailer at 4p on Monday. That night a few of us did research on old work trucks we might be able to get our hands on. It was not looking promising.
By Tuesday morning I had already received 4 phone calls about our old trailer, and by 11:30am on Tuesday it was sold! This took a big bite out of the cost of the new trailers.
We were not having any luck finding an old truck that we could rely on, until our friend Jay had the brilliant idea of contacting U-Haul to see if they had any old trucks for sale. They did.
We also contacted the staff at our storage space to see if we could rent another stall since we were now going to have two trailers. It’s extremely rare for them to have two available at once, but they did. We were able to make the transfer. We had the storage issue taken care of.
On Wednesday, our odyssey continued. Jay, Jenny, and I drove to U-Haul to see this truck. It’s basically a U-Haul van without the box on the back (It’s actually a 1 ¼ ton Ford). It had relatively low mileage, had been maintained, and would work perfectly for what we needed.
When we walked in, it was priced about $2,000 more than we wanted to pay. By the time we left, they had dropped the price by $1,700. At the end of the day Wednesday, we had a truck.
The next thing we had to do was take it to a place in Rosenberg to get a custom hitch put on it. We dropped it off at the end of the day on Wednesday and they said it would be done by Friday morning – perfect timing to go pick up our trailers.
TO SUMMARIZE: By the end of the day Wednesday we had purchased two new trailers, sold our trailer, found a new place to store the new trailers, and had purchased a truck.
We spent the day working on more typical ministry stuff. I worked on my message in two weeks about the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.
Friday was a whirlwind. Chad Jones had been significantly involved throughout the week as well, and he and I drove down to Rosenberg at 7:00am in order to beat the Fort Bend County parade and pick up our truck from the hitch place before they closed down the roads.
After doing so we picked up our two trailers at Trailer World, hitching them to our truck for the first time.
We brought the trailers to Bethel, where a group of us began to load our gear into the new trailers and deal with what seemed like a million little things that needed attention. For example, this whole time my Mom was working with our insurance agent to add the truck, trailers, and new storage space. Yikes.
By the end of the day Friday, all of our equipment was stored safely in our new trailers at our new storage facility – ready to go for this Sunday and many Sundays thereafter!
On Sunday afternoon I could never have dreamed that God would allow us to accomplish so much in less than a week. There are a few aspects of his provision that I want to highlight that may not have been obvious above:
This was an utterly exhausting week, but it’s one that I’ll never forget. After a highly-stressful Sunday afternoon, God clearly and steadily guided us through the rest of the week. He protected us, and he provided for us. I couldn't have imagined he would give us so much this week, and do it in such a way that there’s no denying he was behind it.
I admit I feel a little like Peter after he began to sink, and Jesus’ words after pulling him back to the surface have taken on a new meaning for me: You of little faith…why did you doubt? (Matthew 14:31)
I was also reminded this week of that beautiful prayer from earlier this summer: God, may you give them enough victories to know that you’re with them, and enough defeats to remind them that they cannot do it without you.
We had some defeats and some victories this week, and there is no question that (1) God is with us and (2) we cannot do it without him.
I can’t wait for Sunday!
My thoughts about Real Hope Community Church, teaching the Bible, and a seriously epic fail I had at work one summer.
Vision video we put together for our church plant, Real Hope Community Church.
I’ve been a musician since I was 9 years old, and I enjoy almost every type of music - from stadium filling guitar solos to Chopin’s piano preludes and everything in between. I mean it when I say that I love music. I love playing it, and I love listening to it.
I grew up on 90’s Alternative, but my favorite stuff is the music of the 1960’s – especially The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and pretty much everything Motown put out. I love these artists because they wrote some of the best melodies pop music has ever seen, and composed songs that have stood the test of time.
What makes me love the music of the 1960’s is actually not the artists. It’s the recording technology of the time, and what that technology required of the musicians.
In the 1960’s, to make a great recording you had to be a great artist. Take The Beach Boys for example. They were renowned for their layered vocal harmonies. They were unrivaled in this area. And do you know how they were able to make albums that sounded so good? They had to learn to sing really well.
To record their songs, The Beach Boys would stand in a room and sing together into a microphone. There was virtually no overdubbing. No auto-tuning. Nothing like what we have today. If you wanted to sound great on the album, you had to sound great in real life. The recording technology of the time required excellence.
But recordings didn’t have to be perfect, because human beings cannot perform flawlessly onto four tracks of tape. We are not machines, and the records of the early 60’s and before had a wonderful raw character that we rarely experience these days.
Today, digital recording technology has changed the music industry. Musicians don’t have to be excellent to make a great recording. Mistakes can be fixed. Off-pitch notes can be corrected. We have the ability today to make a perfect album, and in the process remove many of the human qualities that make old recordings so endearing and enduring.
This is why so many live performances these days sound marginal (or terrible). The artists cannot live up to the perfect recording they made in the studio. It’s an impossible standard, so they’re doomed to sound bad when they perform live. By contrast, check out some live performances by The Beach Boys or The Beatles from the early 1960’s. They sounded fantastic, even though they often couldn’t hear themselves very well (this was before the era of on-stage monitors).
I wish more artists today would voluntarily hold themselves to the recording standards of the 1960’s. If they did, they could only make a truly great album if they became truly great musicians.
What happened to the music industry is a case study in unintended consequences – the unforeseen drawbacks of seemingly beneficial technological advances. Sometimes these technologies can turn out to be self-defeating. In the music world, better recording technology actually lowered the caliber of musicianship.
We’ve seen the same sort of technological unintended consequences within the Church. Christians used to know their Bibles. Familiarity with the Biblical text was part of what it meant to be a follower of Christ. People had a copy of the Bible that they would read regularly, because that was the primary way to get to know God's Word: actually reading it.
Today, technology has allowed us to outsource our engagement with the Bible. We can wait for Scripture quotations to roll through our social media feeds, watch videos of sermons, and follow Christian bloggers or speakers. Of course none of these things are inherently negative, but they collectively enable us to avoid ever having to open the Bible ourselves.
In the same way that I wish musicians would hold themselves to the recording practices of the 1960’s, I sometimes wish that we Christians would voluntarily hold ourselves to the simple standards of our grandparents’ generation: reading a physical copy of the Bible on a regular basis. We should view that simple activity as our main course of Scriptural engagement.
What would happen to the music industry if all the artists recorded as if it was 1963? It’s safe to say that we would have better musicians.
What would happen to the Church if we all read our Bibles regularly? God only knows.
Sometimes God does things in your life that don’t make sense until you look back on them, and then they snap into clarity. When I look back on the past year, that’s what I experience.
Last spring I was doing great. I worked at an awesome church with great people, and every day I got to come home to my beautiful wife Ashley and our sweet boy, Luke. Our daughter Nora was due in late May, so at that time I was eagerly anticipating her arrival. I was also a few months away from defending my doctoral dissertation and graduating with my PhD after 9 years of grad school.
I wasn’t looking for any major changes; in fact I was looking forward to a period of rest.
But there was a quiet, underlying discontent that was growing in volume. God was stirring some things in me. I did not see how they were connected to each other at the time. For example, I found myself becoming more and more burdened for the (mostly invisible) people in our community who were suffering. I also began noticing the people in our area who don’t fit neatly into the Katy community: people who are single, twenty-somethings, college students, single parents, and those who have intellectual doubts about God. Especially that last one. For some reason I just started noticing them more. They became visible to me.
God also began to stoke my passion for the global Church. I found myself heartbroken for Christians who were persecuted for their faith. I started praying consistently for the 70,000 North Korean Christians who are suffering in concentration camps. I also felt an unusual sadness for the many people who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ – a surprising percentage of the global population.
Then, over a period of about a month, several different people independently approached me and suggested I pray about becoming a lead pastor. At first, I took their comments as compliments, but nothing more. I had never intended on becoming a lead pastor, and I wasn’t interested in going that direction. I loved Parkway Fellowship and wasn’t about to start sending out my resume. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was supposed to reconsider my future in ministry.
Around that time I had a few conversations with my friend and co-worker Jenny Jones about how exciting it would be to start a church in a place where Christianity was not the dominant culture. These were not serious conversations about actually planting a church. We were just talking about the key role that local, life-giving churches can play in the spiritual revitalization of cities.
But somewhere along the line in these conversations, and I can’t remember exactly when, God opened my heart to the idea of actually starting a church. Then one day, Jenny told me that she and Chad would seriously consider planting a church with us if we were open to it. Ashley and I took some time to pray about whether we should even pray about it. We agreed that we should at least talk with Chad and Jenny, and pray it through. It felt like God was up to something.
The four of us got together one evening and shared our hearts for ministry. It was clear God had been highlighting for Chad and Jenny many of the same things he had highlighted for Ashley and me. We all agreed to pray together for a good portion of the summer, and then come together at the end and compare notes. During that time, I studied the pastoral letters in the New Testament (1-2 Timothy and Titus) and asked myself honestly if I was qualified to be a lead pastor. I prayed and asked the Lord if I was ready for that level of responsibility. I also sought the wisdom of some trusted friends, mentors, and family members.
As I prayed during that season and asked God if we should start a church, the answer I got over and over was “Why wouldn’t I want you to start a church?” As I read Scripture during that time I was struck by how integral church planting was to the growth of the early Church. God’s Kingdom has grown over the last 2,000 years by the continuous, unbroken tradition of Christian leaders starting new local churches. That’s what the church has always done, and God helped me to realize that praying about starting a church was not such a strange thing to do.
The moment I knew for sure that I was supposed to plant a church was when I realized that the only anxiety that remained was financial. If my only fear was about money and being able to provide for my family, that’s not a good enough reason not to do it. If God was calling us to plant a church, he would provide. As a pastor, I continually encourage people to step out in faith and trust God even if it means acting in the face of fear. This was my chance to do just that.
When the four of us got together in early August after our time of seeking the Lord, it was clear that God had called us to start a church together – a new outpost on the front lines of God’s Kingdom. The first thing we all did is begin to read through the New Testament. We read God’s Word with fresh eyes, asking ourselves the question: “What is the Church supposed to do?” We wanted God to give us his vision for this church, a church we eventually named Real Hope Community Church.
As we prayed about a location, we did not feel God leading us to move out of Texas. The kind of community that we wanted to reach is right here in the West Houston area, especially in the rapidly developing areas along Grand Parkway to the north and south of Katy. There are relatively few churches, and many thousands of people who need Christ and the love of the local church. The Church as a whole has not been able to keep up with the population growth. In October, God surprised us by opening a door for Real Hope to meet at Adolphus Elementary at 99/Bellfort (near the Palladium movie theater and Gallery Furniture).
After saying yes to God about planting the church, we faced the question of timeline. When do we start this church, and when do we stop working at Parkway Fellowship? Other than a few family members and mentors, the first person that we told about this was Mike McGown, our friend, mentor, and Senior Pastor of Parkway Fellowship. We shared the news with him and his wife Amy in early September. It was hard for them to hear, understandably, because all of us on staff at The Park are very close. That’s the sort of atmosphere Mike has cultivated over the years.
The months between then and now have been simultaneously thrilling and difficult. Thrilling because we are following God’s call into uncharted territory, and difficult because we are going to have to say goodbye to our Parkway family. We won’t be able to walk into that office every day and see our friends, and we won’t be able to worship and serve every week alongside so many people we care deeply about.
On that point, I am reminded of Paul’s relationship with his protégé Timothy. He called Timothy his “true child in the faith”, and they worked together for years in ministry. But there were seasons when they had to separate to lead the Church in different parts of the Roman Empire. They didn’t see each other for years. I imagine those separations were difficult because Paul and Timothy were very close. In the same way, we will have to separate from our Parkway family to do the work God has prepared for us to do. I’m just thankful we will still live close by so that we can maintain our friendships.
We all have to make sacrifices in our lives in order to follow Christ, and we have to be willing to walk away from great things in order to go where God wants us to go. We have to hold our lives and our jobs loosely, knowing that God may ask us to let go of them at any given moment and pick up something else. I’m so thankful that the Lord began to work on my heart last Spring, and that he enabled me to hear his voice.
In the days ahead, we will be communicating God’s vision for Real Hope Community Church and beginning to put a launch team together. I’m not going to go into that here. I just wanted to share my story, and most importantly in this moment – I wanted to ask for your prayer. I am acutely aware of our need for it. Pray that God’s will would be done in and through Real Hope Community Church, and that we would be humble enough to hear his voice and obey.
I leave you with Peter’s words about the real hope of Jesus Christ:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade-- kept in heaven for you (1 Peter 1:3-4)
The Christmas season is here, and in the coming weeks our churches will be filled with familiar stories about the birth of Christ. We will hear the words of the angel Gabriel as he spoke to Mary. We will hear about visitors from the east following a star. We will meet a paranoid King Herod, and angels announcing the birth of Jesus to a group of shepherds.
No room in the inn. Fleeing to Egypt. Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. All that stuff.
These are the classic elements of the Christmas story, often represented in our manger scenes, Christmas carols, church plays, and kids' books. And they are all from only two books in the New Testament: the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
But there is another Christmas story in the New Testament – one that is often overlooked. It's hiding in plain sight. It is the dramatic prequel to the Christmas story. There are no wise men or shepherds in this account. No manger. This story is not about those things.
This forgotten Christmas story has everything to do with the eternal supremacy of Christ, and the unfathomable humility of God becoming one of us. It is the cosmic prologue to the Christmas story, and it's found in the first chapter of John.
In John's prologue we read about Christ, though John calls him "The Word." This is not baby Jesus, this is Christ as he existed prior to being born in the flesh in Bethlehem. John rewinds history for us all the way back to the creation account in Genesis 1. In fact, the first words of John's Gospel are "In the beginning" – an obvious and intentional reference to the first words of the Bible.
John wants his readers to be thinking about the creation account when he begins to tell the story of Christ. John begins his Gospel with these words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)
Jesus was intimately involved in creation. Everything that exists was made through Christ. John wants us to grasp the fact that when Jesus appeared on Earth as an infant in Bethlehem, he was not coming into existence for the first time. He was not created at that moment. He had always existed along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and was there when the universe was spoken into existence.
As John continues his masterful prologue, he tells the Christmas story in one powerful, poetic verse:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
The Word became flesh. That’s the most concise expression of the Christmas story that you’ll find in Scripture. The eternal, cosmic, all-powerful, creator Christ deliberately wrapped himself in the flesh of a human being: bones, tendons, veins, muscles. Jesus left his heavenly home and inhabited human tissue.
That's the cosmic backstory to the stable in Bethlehem. That's the divine prequel to the manger scene. It is the Christ who existed before the Earth was formed. It is the Jesus who was there before there was such a thing as light. It is the Christ who brought the stars into existence - including the one that guided the Magi on their journey to visit him as a newborn.
So as we celebrate Christmas this season, I encourage you to read the first chapter of John and allow the eternal, supreme identity of Christ to soak into your mind and heart. Then, picture that majestic being knowing you, loving you, and deciding to come live the full human experience and die so that you might one day see him in all the splendor he left behind when he showed up in that manger.
Can you imagine a time in which Christians were killed if they did not turn over their copies of the Scriptures and renounce their faith?
Can you imagine a time in which the Church made it nearly impossible for average people to read their Bibles?
Can you imagine a time in which millions of Christians were forced to worship in secret because of a constant threat of imprisonment or death?
It’s happening right now.
In the early years of the Church, Christians were persecuted regularly. Many people viewed the Christians with suspicion, and harbored all kinds of prejudices toward them. Every now and then, a man with absolute power decided to do something about it.
In the first century, the psychopathic emperor Nero decided to blame the Christians for a fire that destroyed several neighborhoods in Rome. He rounded up as many Christians as he could find, and had them executed in horrific and public ways. His brutality was so extreme, the general public actually started to feel sympathy for the Christians they thought they hated.
A couple of centuries later, another Roman Emperor named Diocletian attempted to extinguish Christianity: burning down churches, rounding up priests, torturing believers, and confiscating the Scriptures. Many Christians gave their lives to protect God's Word and the Church, and their family had to watch them die publicly.
By the Middle Ages, Christianity had become the dominant religion in Europe, and the Church had acquired tremendous political and financial power. Persecution no longer came from political authorities outside of the Church. The threats were internal.
At that time, the only Church-approved translation of the Bible was in Latin, which only the clergy and highly-educated could read. As a result, most average Christians did not have direct access to God’s Word.
Along came a German monk named Martin Luther. He could read Latin, and concluded that the Church had significantly distorted the Gospel of Christ. He believed that personal faith in God is what mattered, and being able to read the Bible was an important part of that.
In 1534, at great risk to his life, Martin Luther published the Bible in common German so that average people could read it. This was a revolutionary act. William Tyndale did the same thing in England, and was executed for it in 1536.
These new translations were published shortly after the invention of the printing press, which allowed them to be distributed very quickly. The revolution that Luther sparked came to be known as The Reformation, and we all benefit from it to this day.
Today, millions of Christians face persecution in places like North Korea, Egypt, China, and Iran. There are countless Christians in these countries that risk their lives on a daily basis to read the Bible and teach others about Christ.
This is happening in the 21st century. This is happening while we scroll through Facebook. This is happening while we sit in traffic. This is happening while we sleep. This is happening while we sit in church.
This is happening now. This is real.
Knowing all of this, how dare we take our Bibles for granted? How can we allow God’s Word to sit neglected on the shelf when so many people have shed blood and tears for our ability to read it? Not to mention the fact that the creator of the universe pursued a relationship with us and give us His Word so that we could know Him better!
I often wonder what God thinks about how casual we are about not reading His Word. I have been guilty of that, and I’m not sure that I have a good answer for Him when He asks me why.
If you’re interested in learning more about persecution taking place in the Church today, check out the organization Voice of the Martyrs.
When Jesus came to Earth, he got his hands dirty. He came to build something new, and to make it work he had to break some things down. And thanks to HGTV and their unrelenting stream of home renovation programming, we all know the first step in any remodeling project: Demolition.
Jesus is all about demolition. He takes the barriers that we are so good at putting up, and knocks them all down.
During Jesus’ lifetime, there was a famous stone barrier inside the Jerusalem temple complex. It separated the massive outer courts from the inner temple where the worship and sacrifices took place.
This wall in the temple separated the Jews from the Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews). If you were a Jew, you could go past the barrier into the temple proper. You could get close to God.
If you were a Gentile, however, you could not go past the barrier. In fact, when you approached the wall you would have noticed warning signs indicating that you would be immediately killed if you dared to go past it. Archaeologists have actually discovered some of these ancient warning signs.
If you were a Gentile, you were separated from the Jews and kept away from God’s presence. Division and distance were physically manifested in stone, and propped up in the temple for thousands of people to see on a daily basis.
But then Jesus came along with his divine bulldozer and smashed right through the wall. Paul alluded to this demolition in Ephesians 2:13-14:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… (NIV)
Jews and Gentiles could now worship God together in the Church. The wall no longer had any power to divide. But some barriers are not made of brick and mortar. They are made of something more durable: social customs.
In the world of the New Testament, the primary social division was between slaves and free. Slaves were considered less than human. Ancient Greek writers described slaves as tools that could talk. Slaves had no legal rights whatsoever, and lived their lives under the absolute authority of their masters.
There was no greater social rift in the New Testament world than the division between slave and free. Through the power of the Gospel, however, both slave and free came to Christ by the thousands all over the Mediterranean world. Formerly separated by seemingly impassable social barriers, they began to live out Christian community together.
Well, they tried to.
How was that supposed to work? The social barriers in Roman society didn’t just evaporate within the Church. It’s no surprise that early-Church leaders like Paul had to speak into this issue:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28, NIV).
Can you imagine how radical Paul’s words would have sounded to a first-century reader?
When Jesus came to earth and preached the Gospel, he took a sledgehammer to social, ethnic, gender, and religious boundaries. And he didn’t destroy these divisions for no reason. Jesus wanted to build something incredible in their place: his Church. Paul describes this beautifully in Ephesians 2:19-22:
...You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (NIV)
What boundaries do you allow between you and others in the Church? What barriers have you built up between you and God? What obstacles have you placed between someone else and God?
Jesus has already smashed those walls, and opened up a space where you can be close to him and anyone else who calls him Lord.
I remember feeling like a spiritual super hero a couple of times growing up. Instead of asking for an action figure or a new baseball glove for my birthday, I asked for a new Bible.
“I’m totally picking a Bible instead of a Super Nintendo game”, I thought to myself, “I must be a pretty rad Christian.”
And I didn’t get just any Bible - I got the deluxe edition. Concordance. Maps in the back. Tabs on the side. My name engraved on the front. And that’s not all…
I got the RED LETTER edition. Boom!
That’s the edition that says to the world, “I cherish the words of Jesus, do you?”
The red letters seem like a great idea. You can scan the New Testament, and easily see what Jesus said. How convenient! Why wouldn't we want to highlight His words?
As I got older and learned more about the Bible, however, I realized those little red letters were actually warping my view of Scripture in a couple of serious ways:
1. I was favoring the New Testament, because that’s where Jesus seemed to be. No red letters in the Old Testament.
2. I was putting Jesus’ words on a higher level of authority than the rest of Scripture.
In short, red letters > black letters.
On the first point, it’s true that Jesus is not found in the flesh in the Old Testament. But, we know from passages like John 1:1-14 and Colossians 1:15-17 that Jesus was there from the very beginning. Jesus did not come into existence when Mary gave birth to Him; He simply appeared in the flesh for the first time. Jesus is a part of the Trinity, so when God is mentioned in the Old Testament, that includes Jesus. Plus, there are many prophecies in the Old Testament that allude to Jesus and His future arrival as the Messiah (2 Samuel 7, Isaiah 9, Isaiah 53, Jeremiah 23, Micah 5, Daniel 7).
My impression that Jesus was missing from the Old Testament was wrong. Red letters or not, He was there.
On the second point, the red letter edition led me to believe that Jesus’ words were more important than the rest of the Bible.
That is not true either.
ALL of Scripture was divinely written by the Holy Spirit through a variety of human authors. On this point, Jesus’ disciple Peter wrote “…men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21, NIV).
That means that Paul’s words in his letters are on absolutely equal authority with Jesus’ words, because the Holy Spirit wrote them through Paul, and the Holy Spirit is equal in authority with Jesus. Same goes for any other biblical author.
I’m not saying the red letter edition is useless; it’s helpful as a reference. If I’m scanning one of the Gospels to find something that Jesus said, the red letters make it easy to find the sections that contain His teachings.
The bottom line is that the entire Bible is equal in importance and authority. I can’t say it better than 2 Timothy 3:16: All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. (NLT)
ALL Scripture is inspired by God. Not just the New Testament. Not just the red letters.
When I was growing up, it seemed like everything my pastor said was absolute truth – like it came straight from God’s mouth. Without realizing it, I put his sermons on the same level of authority as what I read in The Bible. After a while, I stopped reading The Bible altogether and just took his word for it.
I later found out that God doesn’t want it to be that way.
In the book of Acts, we read about the Apostle Paul and his incredible career as a missionary. He traveled all over the Mediterranean world, planting churches in strategic cities like Ephesus and Corinth.
During his journeys, Paul encountered a variety of reactions to his message. Sometimes the Gospel of Christ was met with joy and acceptance, and other times with anger and physical threats.
In one encounter, Paul was forcefully driven out of Thessalonica, a city in northern Greece. After leaving, he went down the road to a smaller town called Berea.
In Acts 17:11, we read about how the people in Berea reacted to Paul’s message:
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
It’s pretty remarkable that the Bereans were praised for fact checking the Apostle Paul! They eagerly searched the Scriptures to verify what he had said, and they were called 'more noble' for doing so.
This means two things for us:
1. We need to consistently read the Bible, because it is the one definitive source of truth.
2. When it comes to the truth about God, we are not supposed to simply take someone’s word for it – no matter who they are.
People are imperfect. God is not. There is no person, however ‘holy’ they might seem, whose teachings can replace or override Scripture.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t trust your pastors or other Christian leaders in your life? Absolutely not! It simply means that you cannot rely solely on what they say. Their teachings or advice should never serve as a substitute for your own consistent, prayerful study of The Bible.
God’s Word is the standard against which we should measure anything that we think is true, or that someone else tells us is true.
But don’t take my word for it.
When Satan tries to interfere with our lives, he is subtle about it. He usually doesn’t try to mislead us in ways that would be obvious to us. Instead, he disguises himself so that we do not recognize what he's up to.
One way he does this is by attempting to turn us into spiritual perfectionists. Recently, I have fallen into this trap in my own experience with prayer.
It goes like this. Throughout the day, while juggling several different responsibilities, someone will pop into my head. For example, a friend who asked me to pray about a family relationship or a tough situation at work. Rather than taking a moment to pray for her right then, I feel guilty that I haven’t been praying for her. I’ve been so busy and wrapped up in my own to-do list, I haven’t done anything to encourage her. My priorities are all out of order and I feel like a terrible Christian.
Before I know it, Satan has twisted what was likely the prompting of the Holy Spirit to pray for someone and turned it into a whirlwind of guilt and self-centeredness.
Another way spiritual perfectionism manifests itself is in my desire to not make a big deal out of my own “first-world problems.” Of course I hope to have perspective about how big our world is and how small many of my issues are by comparison. And it’s probably good to be aware of my place in the grander scheme of creation. But, when this leads me to stop talking to God about what is going on in my little world, Satan has successfully created a barrier in my conversations with God.
But there's a different path. Romans 8:1 reads, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
What if I accept the reality that sometimes I will forget to pray for people? What if I come to terms with the fact that I will often be distracted when I pray, and that my prayers may be self-centered at times? Then perhaps I can stop being surprised by this, accept my imperfections, and forge ahead because I know that God doesn’t condemn me! I want God to change me so that I pray how he wants, but he can’t do that if I've stopped praying altogether.
Better to be imperfect in prayer than to not pray at all.
Let’s not be fooled into thinking God expects perfection from us, but recognize what he has always known—that we aren't nearly good enough, and never will be! Thankfully, those who are in Christ Jesus are not condemned.
And that bold truth easily trumps any subtle lie that Satan may whisper.
Ashley Lokkesmoe earned her bachelor's degree at Wheaton College, and worked in education for seven years before becoming a stay at home mom. She is active in her church, runs half-marathons for fun, and loves to travel.
The residents of Naples, Italy live in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. The ancient city of Pompeii was buried under 20 feet of burning ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted almost 2,000 years ago.
The ruins of Pompeii are the biggest tourist attraction in Naples, and they serve as a constant reminder of what could happen when Vesuvius erupts again. Geologists believe that another violent eruption could happen at any time.
Despite the danger, millions of people live near Mt. Vesuvius, having been lulled into a false sense of security over time. Every day that goes by without an eruption feeds the illusion of safety – the feeling that it will never happen again.
OK, you’re probably wondering, Why the geology lesson?
Because it’s the perfect illustration of our attitudes about Christ’s inevitable return.
After Jesus ascended into Heaven, two angels appeared to his disciples while they were still looking up at the sky. The angels asked, "Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way... (Acts 1:11)
In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, we read more about Jesus’ return: The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God…
Jesus will return publicly, and dramatically. Everyone will see it. It will be impossible to miss. It will be the most awe-inspiring event in history. What will Jesus do after his triumphant return?
He will judge everybody, and people will go to one of two places for eternity.
In 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul writes, We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
The judgment of Christ is not a comfortable truth, but it is a Biblical one. This is difficult for many to accept, especially when there are constant attempts to re-brand Christianity as a religion without any type of judgment whatsoever.
Because 2,000 years have gone by since Jesus ascended into heaven, many Christians have been lulled into a false sense of security about Christ’s return and the final judgment.
In the same way that a lack of eruptions feeds the illusion of safety for those living near Mt. Vesuvius, each day that Christ does not return lulls many of us into believing that he might not be coming back to judge anytime soon (or at all).
The truth is, however, that the passage of time has not made Jesus’ return any less likely. In fact, it is more likely with every passing day. Jesus’ disciple Peter addressed this very topic in 2 Peter 3:8-10, writing With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise…He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish…
Christ wants as many people as possible to be saved before he returns. That is why he has waited so long. As Christ-followers, we are supposed to live our lives with both a joyful anticipation of Christ’s return, as well as a solemn urgency about those who do not know him.
Jesus will surprise us when he comes back. It will be the most mind-blowing surprise in history. It could be 50 minutes from now, or 500 years. Either way, it is going to happen. We must not allow the passage of time to hypnotize us into thinking that he is not coming soon.
It’s troubling how Jesus has been made into a mascot for modern political causes. I see it pretty often on TV and in the news, and it happens constantly in social media. You know what I’m talking about:
“If Jesus were around today, he would obviously be a Republican. Jesus would stand up for the rights of the unborn!”
“If Jesus were around today, he would definitely be a Democrat, because Jesus really cared about the poor!”
“If Jesus were around today, he would probably be a third party candidate, because he was so anti-establishment!”
The truth is, Jesus would be none of those. Jesus was not a political candidate. Jesus wasn’t interested in politics. Public policy was not his agenda. That was not his mission at all.
Jesus did not come to involve himself in the bickering of human politics, he came to seek and save what was lost. He came to offer us forgiveness for our sins, and eternal life. His mission was a spiritual one with eternal implications.
On at least one occasion during Jesus’ ministry, people attempted to lure him into a political debate. He quickly showed them that he was not interested. That was not the conversation Jesus wanted to have.
For example, when the religious leaders asked him to weigh in on the validity of paying taxes to the Roman Emperor (an extremely contentious political issue of the day), he sidestepped the question. He told them that since Caesar’s picture was on the coin, they might as well give the money to him (Mark 12:13-17).
For Jesus, political discussions were a distraction.
The Apostle Paul avoided taking divisive political stances as well, encouraging his readers to submit themselves to the ruling authorities (Romans 13:1-2). Just like Jesus, Paul didn't want polarizing political agendas to cloud the amazing message of Christianity.
Jesus was interested in spiritual transformation, not political action or social change. When we make Jesus a mascot for our political causes, we do two things:
1. Reduce Jesus' mission from an eternal/spiritual one to a human/political one
2. Use Jesus as a weapon against people with different politics than our own
Jesus is not a political mascot. He is not a trump card. He is not some tool we can use to make a more compelling case for whatever our own political agenda is. That is making Jesus into our image, and viewing him through the narrow lens of modern politics.
We need to take Jesus for who he is, and make his agendas ours. He sets the agenda, not us.
If Jesus were around today (which he is, by the way), he would probably tell us to quit paying so much attention to cable news and online political squabbling, and just focus instead on following him.
The term “Good Samaritan” has become part of the English language. It comes directly from the Bible, and is often used to describe a stranger stopping to help someone in need. Everyone knows what “Good Samaritan” means, whether or not they have actually read the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37.
But there’s a problem. The parable of The Good Samaritan as Jesus told it means so much more than helping a stranger. Let’s look at it.
You have a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho – two Jewish cities in close proximity to each other. So, it’s reasonable to assume that the traveler in this parable is Jewish. Along the way to Jericho, he is attacked, robbed, and left for dead.
First, we read that a Priest sees the man lying on the road, and keeps on going without stopping to help. The Priest would have worked at the temple in Jerusalem, and was also Jewish.
Next, a Levite walks by without helping. Levites were Jewish men who also worked at the temple in Jerusalem.
If you’re counting, that’s TWO Jewish religious leaders that ignored the Jewish man lying on the road.
Finally, a Samaritan arrives on the scene and notices the injured man. He, unlike the Priest and Levite, stops to help the man. He uses expensive ointment to treat his wounds, and pays for him to recover in a nearby inn.
We can all agree that it was a noble act of the Samaritan to stop and help the injured stranger. If there was a news broadcast about the story today, he would no doubt be labeled a “Good Samaritan” for stopping and rendering aid. There’s a lot more going on, though.
You see, Samaritans and Jews did not like each other at all.
They hated each other.
There was a lot of tension between Jews and Samaritans at that time, much like the friction between Israelis and Palestinians today.
Simply put: Jews and Samaritans wanted nothing to do with each other (See John 4:9).
Knowing this fact is essential to understanding the parable of the Good Samaritan. It wasn’t the Jewish priest or Jewish Levite that helped the injured Jewish man, it was the Samaritan. It was a man that society would say shouldn’t even care about the injured Jewish man.
But he did care. He did help - at great personal expense to himself. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is not simply about helping a stranger.
It’s about helping a stranger even if you do not like them.
It’s about helping a stranger even if it costs you a lot of money.
Jesus told the parable to illustrate what it really means to love our neighbors as ourselves, and the full significance of the parable has gotten watered down in the way we use the term “Good Samaritan.”
You’re invited to a party at a friend’s house. You make your way across the city to his place, and you climb up the cramped stairwell to the third floor.
There’s a lot more people there than you expected, but everyone seems to be having a good time. There’s a man there that you don’t recognize, but something about him seems familiar. He appears to be the center of attention.
For some reason, the whole room is captivated by this guy and what he’s saying. They hang on his every word. You've heard a lot of what he’s saying before, but not from him. You’re interested in what he has to say, but it’s getting kind of late.
You've eaten a little too much, and the candlelit room is really hot and stuffy. Your eyelids start to get heavy. You figure if you could just sit near the window, the fresh air would help you stay awake….
The next thing you remember is a crowd of people standing over you, cheering. They’re hugging, shouting, and celebrating. You wonder what they’re so excited about and why you have such a bad headache.
This is where it gets good.
You realize that you’re lying on the ground outside. The man who was speaking upstairs is crouching over you. Turns out his name is Paul (as in the Apostle Paul), and you just dozed off in the middle of his big farewell sermon. Not only that, you fell out of the third story window.
Good job. You know what they say about first impressions.
Your friends had rushed down to help you, but it was too late. You were gone. It’s a good thing Paul was there, because he miraculously raised you back to life. In your dazed condition, it all seems like a dream.
Your name is Eutychus, and your awkward moment is found in Acts 20:7-12.
There are 27 books in the New Testament. That might seem like a lot, but it’s actually not that complex.
The New Testament is made up of three basic parts:
The first four books of the New Testament are the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These four books cover the life and ministry of Jesus. They tell about his birth, background, ministry, teachings, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection.
The Gospels were written by four different authors. Matthew and John were two of the twelve disciples, and Luke and Mark were close associates of two other apostles (Peter and Paul).
The four Gospel writers each tell the same story from their own perspective. Each Gospel has its own unique flavor, but it’s remarkable how similar they are considering they were written independently from one another. It’s almost like God was divinely orchestrating the whole thing.
SO…if you want to read about Jesus, read the Gospels.
The book of Acts is the fifth book of the New Testament (it comes right after the Gospel of John). Acts is a historical account of the first 30 years of the Church. It is an incredibly vivid book, and it picks up right after Jesus ascends into heaven. The book of Acts tells the story of how the Church grew from a small band of Christians in Jerusalem into a movement that spanned the known world.
SO…if you want to read about how the Church got started, read Acts.
The rest of the New Testament is made up of letters. These are real, ancient letters. When we refer to letters such as Ephesians as the ‘Book of Ephesians’, it’s a little misleading. Ephesians is not a book. It’s a real letter that was sent 2,000 years ago.
The first 13 letters in the New Testament (starting with Romans) were written by the Apostle Paul. He was the greatest missionary in church history, and he planted churches all over the Mediterranean world. He never stayed in one place for too long, so he would stay connected with the churches he planted by writing them letters. He was functioning as their pastor via letter. His letters are a window into the struggles that the early Christians faced. It’s incredible how we still struggle with many of the same issues today.
Some of Paul’s letters were written to specific churches, and some were written to individuals. All of his letters are named after the recipient. For example, Philippians was a letter that Paul sent to the church in the city of Philippi. The people who lived there were called Philippians. Ephesians was written to the church in Ephesus, Romans was written to Rome. In the case of 1 & 2 Timothy, Paul wrote the letters to his protégé Timothy. You get the idea.
The last nine books of the New Testament are also letters, written by other early-Christian leaders like Peter, John, James and Jude.
Hebrews and Revelation are technically letters, but they are unique. Hebrews is essentially a sermon in letter form, and Revelation is a prophetic book dealing with the end times (also in letter form).
SO…if you want to read the words of early-Christian leaders, read their letters.
Gospels. Acts. Letters.
Jesus. The Church. Early-Christian Leaders.
That’s the New Testament in a nutshell.
When I was in grad school, I worked part time as a teaching assistant (TA). One semester, I was the TA for a class that was an introduction to Jesus and the New Testament. It was a pretty large class, and the professor had me do a lot of the grading. I remember one time I was sent home with a stack of 95 essay exams to grade. That was a long weekend.
I remember one of the questions on the exam:
Describe the setting of Jesus’ ministry.
As I read the exams, all the answers started to sound the same. In the blur of it all, I read one answer that I’ll never forget:
Jesus spent most of his time in rural areas preaching to pheasants.
I laughed out loud. Obviously the student meant to write that Jesus spent most of his time talking to peasants, but I’ll never forget the image of Jesus preaching to a bunch of birds. I wondered how they would have responded to the Sermon on the Mount.
Typos aside, the student was correct. Jesus spent much of his time in the country, engaging with people who were on the poor end of the social spectrum. He preached primarily in Galilee, which was a rural area. Jesus was from Nazareth, a town in Galilee, which a lot of people viewed as kind of a podunk town.
In the countryside of Galilee, Jesus often taught the people in parables. It was a vivid and accessible way to bring his message. His parables were little stories that had a meaning behind them. They got people to think, and they were full of images and scenes that were familiar to people who lived in the rural communities of Galilee.
Many of the people coming to hear Jesus probably came straight from their own farms, or walked through other farms to get to him.
The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Parable of the Fig Tree, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard – all of these stories evoke the sights, smells and sounds of living and working in an agricultural society.
When we look at the Apostle Paul, it’s a much different story. As Paul spread the Gospel and planted churches all around the Mediterranean world, his ministry was primarily an urban one. He spent much of his time in large, strategic population centers like Corinth and Ephesus. He was working in crowded marketplaces, and in the shadow of statues, temples, stadiums and theaters.
Paul’s letters are full of references to living and working in the crowded conditions of a modern city.
I guess that makes him a little bit rock n’ roll.
Have you ever noticed how the simplest ideas can make the biggest impact? It’s those ideas that are right in front of you, but somehow you manage to miss them.
After my wife and I got married in April of 2006, we moved to Massachusetts so that I could go to seminary. I knew that I was going to be learning a lot about the Bible, and some of it was going to be fairly complex.
One of the most important things I learned in seminary, however, was also one of the simplest: The Bible is not a book.
The Bible might look like a book, but it’s more like a library that has been bound together in one volume. It contains all sorts of writings: historical narratives, poetry, prophecy, letters, and several other types of literature.
The individual books of the Bible were written separately over the span of many centuries, and were written by many different people. The fact that all of these diverse writings are so unified is a testament to the fact that God was directing all of it.
This simple concept – that the Bible is not a book – led me to two basic conclusions:
1. I shouldn’t expect to get through the whole Bible quickly.
The Bible has about 785,000 words in it. If you were to convert that to a standard paperback format, it would be about 3,000 pages long! No wonder I can’t get through the whole thing quickly – I’m actually trying to read a whole library, not a book. I should focus on reading it consistently, rather than trying to read through it as fast as possible.
2. I shouldn’t read every book of the Bible in the same way.
I would not read a fairy tale in the same way and with the same expectations as a biography on George Washington. They are very different types of literature. One is short and fictional. The other is long and historical. I would read the fairy tale in one sitting, and the biography in small chunks over a longer period of time. My expectations would be totally different.
That’s the same thing we face with the Bible. We shouldn’t read the Psalms (poetry) in the same way as a sweeping historical narrative like the book of Acts. In the case of Psalms – as with any artistic type of literature – we are supposed to slow down and let the words excite our imagination. We are supposed to picture it. When it comes to the book of Acts, it’s a straightforward historical story that can be read at a fairly steady pace.
This fundamental concept – that the Bible is a collection of writings – changed the way I approach reading God’s Word. I now focus on reading it consistently instead of quickly, and I try to appreciate the variety of literature within it instead of reading everything in the same way.
I can’t overstate the impact this has made in my spiritual life, because it made the Bible so much more interesting and accessible.
How does this affect your view of the Bible?
We all have our picture of Jesus. For some of us, we like to think of him as a close friend. For others, it’s more natural to view Jesus as a father figure. The Jesus of the Bible has both of those aspects to him, and much more.
One of the more popular versions of Jesus these days is Hippie Jesus. People don’t really call him that, but I hear about him all the time. I feel like I can’t go more than a day without encountering some variation of Hippie Jesus.
Hippie Jesus is a guy who has a flowing robe, feathered Bee Gees hair, and a perpetual smile framed by a handlebar mustache. This is the Jesus that “accepts” everybody the way they are. This is the Jesus that our society is comfortable talking about. This is the Jesus that would say to someone who was cheating on their spouse, “It’s cool – I’m not here to judge. You know I love you no matter what!”
Most people like Hippie Jesus. It’s easy to like him, because he doesn’t require anything of us. Pretty convenient.
The truth of the matter is that Hippie Jesus isn’t real. You can’t find him in the Bible. The Jesus of the Bible does not “accept” everyone the way they are – he calls us to radical life change. The Jesus of the Bible did not come to make us feel warm and fuzzy about ourselves, or to validate our own agendas and priorities.
No, Jesus came to save us and give us an amazing set of new priorities – following him and sharing the good news of his salvation with the world.
The Jesus described in the Bible is absolutely loving. He reached out to all types of people: rich, poor, old, young, men, women, Jews, Gentiles, free, slaves – and he loved them all. But just because he loved them doesn’t mean that he approved of everything they did. Jesus came to seek and save what was lost – i.e. those who had gone astray [Luke 19:10].
Hippie Jesus would never say “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23).
That’s a little intense for Hippie Jesus.
Hippie Jesus would never tell someone caught in adultery to “leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11).
That sounds a little judgmental for Hippie Jesus.
I could go on.
We all have to ask ourselves this question: Where do my ideas about Jesus come from? If our view of Jesus is not based on all of the contents of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), then we run the risk of inventing our own Jesus. We are in danger of imposing our ideas about God onto Jesus, rather than letting the Jesus of the Bible speak to us.
Jesus is fully God, but he was also a real historical person whose life and message are recorded in the Gospels. He is not some mythical character that we can remake in our own image. He is not open to interpretation.
Jesus is who he is.
It's been six months since I signed a publishing contract, but it still feels SO surreal. I’m eager to share this story with you, and I hope you will join me as I walk through this new and exciting process!
THE BACK STORY
On June 20th, I received a voice mail that I’ll never forget. It was from an area code that I didn’t recognize. I hit play and listened to a publisher telling me that they were interested in publishing a book that I had proposed.
I was completely shocked. I had sent a book proposal to a number of publishers, but I didn't actually think that any of them would be interested.
It all started back in seminary. I had this great idea for a book, but I didn't really have time to fully explore it. Then, this past Summer, I felt led to look at it again. It had to be the Holy Spirit that prompted me, because I had plenty of other things on my plate and wasn't looking to add anything else.
I decided to just put pen to paper and see what happened. I came up with an outline, and it started to come together. I felt myself getting more and more excited about it.
After thinking and praying some more, I felt led to at least explore what it takes to get published. I learned that you don’t actually have to write a whole book; you just have to write a great proposal and a couple of sample chapters.
So that’s what I did.
I emailed it off to any publisher or agent that would take submissions from a new author, and moved on. I felt peace about it. I did not expect to hear anything from anyone. I thought I was done.
Dave Almack, the National Director and Publisher at CLC Publications, was the first one to get in touch. Two other publishers and two literary agents also expressed interest, but after a lot of prayer and good advice I decided to begin negotiations with CLC. They’re a remarkable publisher that distributes all over America at retailers like Lifeway, Mardel, Family Christian Stores, Christianbook.com, and Amazon. They have 18 distribution centers and work internationally in 53 countries. You can check out some of their recent publications here.
So what's my book about? It's all about how to read and understand The Bible. It is tentatively titled Blurry: Bringing Clarity to The Bible. Here's a quick synopsis:
For many of us, The Bible is pretty blurry. Its message is familiar, but so much of it is confusing and out of focus. How do we know where to start, or how to read it? Is it possible to really understand The Bible?
Blurry is a brief, innovative introduction to God's Word. It is written for the person who wants to understand The Bible but doesn't have a lot of time and energy to engage with it. Using plain language, Blurry strategically focuses on just four books: Genesis, Luke, Ephesians, and James. Through the lens of these four books, Blurry teaches the basic story of The Bible, as well as some very practical reading tips that can be applied to any part of Scripture. No jargon. No complicated diagrams. No insider language or theological speeches. Blurry is just a straightforward set of first steps that will propel the reader into a lifetime of reading and enjoying The Bible.
I turned in the complete manuscript to CLC on December 23rd. I am now in the process of seeking endorsements from influential authors and Christian leaders, which has been very interesting so far. I’ve been able to trade emails with some people that I never thought I would have a personal interaction with. No, I will not be dropping any names.
From here on out, I will provide regular updates as we go through the editing process and approach the release date (September 23, 2014). This blog will also start to look a little different in the coming days to serve as a better online home base for the book. There are some exciting changes ahead!
I hope that you will come along with me on this journey, and pray that God will use the book to make a spiritual impact on its readers.