Wednesday, April 28, 2010
I have books (massive books!) on my shelf that deal with the problem of evil. The newest I’m reading right now, If God is Good by Randy Alcorn. (Last year I read his massive book Heaven; now an equally massive treatment of another important topic.)
I can’t deal with all the issues involved in such a topic in a column like this. But what I can do is have you do a little mind experiment with me that’s helped me with this problem, and has helped others as well.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that God is real, that’s He’s good and that He’s all powerful. Now let’s pretend that from now on, God punishes all evil and rewards all good, and He does it immediately. So if you help the proverbial little old lady across the street, if you look down you’ll see a dollar waiting for you on the corner. Smack you thumb with a hammer and say a naughty word? Well, hope you don’t mind the case of acid reflux that you get.
You get the picture. Do good, get good. Do bad, get bad. Not someday—right now.
Why then would we do good at all? We’d do good for the goodies. Why avoid evil? To escape pain. In such a world, morality would be impossible. All you have left are human hamsters pressing the bar for a bite of food.
We don’t live in that world. Instead we live this world:
God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing; He hates evil and suffering and will judge evil and end all suffering, but only after accomplishing a greater and eternal good.
Isaiah 25:8 says, “He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.” Right now, in a world in which evil exists, suffering results. God has begun the process by entering into suffering Himself—on the cross.
Years ago, a graduate student interviewed me as part of a research project on religious views of the Holocaust. “How has the Holocaust impacted your faith?” she asked. I think I surprised her. “In view of the Holocaust, I think I could not believe in God if God has simply stood by and done nothing. As a matter of fact, I could not believe in God in the face of all suffering if He had stood by and done nothing. But He did something. He became flesh and endured human life and died on a cross. That’s a God worth believing in.”
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Easter Changes Everything:
Part Two: My Outlook on Life
This week, we continue the theme “Easter Changes Everything.” It really does! We saw that last week with the story of Thomas, the one apostle who wasn’t there the day that Jesus rose from the dead. But he had a total life makeover when he saw Jesus. He had dug in hi heels and said, “Unless I can put my hands in the wounds in His body, I won’t believe it.” Sure enough, when Jesus came a week after the resurrection, Jesus said, “Go ahead, check out the wounds.” But Thomas just fell down and said, “My Lord and my God!”
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead, well, that really does changes everything!
How does that change everything? Well, if Jesus really did die on a cross, if He was buried, and then three days later rose from the dead, it really changes everything. Last week, with Thomas, we saw how it answers the question, “Who is my Lord?” Today, we’re going to take that a little farther and see how it completely changes our outlook on life. Next week we’ll see how Easter changes our relationships. The fourth is “My life’s passion” and the last week is crucial—it’s on “How I face death.”
Today the focus is how Easter changes our outlook on life. Wow, that covers a lot of territory. But again, I think we can illustrate this with how one person reacted when he came to believe in the risen Jesus.
Funny thing is, this happened about three years later. But when he tells the story, he tells his encounter with Jesus as a story of the resurrection. His name is the apostle Paul, and story of his conversion is told four times in the Bible—three times in the book of Acts (which was written by Luke), and a couple of times by himself. That’s a lot of times, so there must be something pretty special going on here!
In the one place where Paul tells the story, he says that he sees it as part of the resurrection story. You can find this in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
So when Paul described how he came to follow Jesus Christ, even though it was a couple of years later, he regarded that as part of the story of the resurrection of Jesus—part of the Easter story. He says he’s the last one to see the risen Jesus, “as to one abnormally born” which means that he understands his vision of the risen Christ was really out of the ordinary—that he didn’t see the risen Jesus the same way Peter and the apostles and James saw Him.
Paul’s conversion certainly was dramatic. The first time it’s told by Luke in the book of Acts, here’s what it says—Acts 9:1-9. (By the way, at this time he was still known by his Hebrew name Saul). Saul hated the people who were following Jesus. Luke tells the story of how he was on his way to persecute believers in Damascus when...well, let’s read it, Acts 9:1-9—
1Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
5"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. 6"Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
7The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
This is the original “road to Damascus” story. Paul had a complete turnaround due to this dramatic encounter with Jesus.
I can kind of relate to this. I wasn’t raised a Christian. I actually became an atheist in my early teen years and was dragged to faith by the persistent witness of some friends. I remember a conversation I had with one of the adult youth leaders at the church a year or two later…we were trying to get an outreach off the ground and he said, “You have passion for this because you’re like Paul—you had your own Damascus road.”
When the reality of God really hits you, it never lets you be the same again. Paul’s priorities and view of his role in the world changed after this. It took some time—he had three blind days to think over his life in Damascus, but even more important he had several years—three of them somewhere out in the Syrian desert—to fully grasp his changed life. When he emerged from this time, there was no question that his life’s outlook was transformed.
There’s another place where he went into some detail on this. Writing about 20 years after his conversion to the people in the church at the Greek city of Philippi—the letter to the Philippians—in chapter 3, vs. 2-11. OK, let’s take this section a lot slower than we did the passages we already looked at, because here we get a full account of how the risen Jesus changed Paul’s outlook on life, and how He still changes our outlook on life.
The first thing we see here is the changed outlook when it came to confidence. When Paul was charging off to Damascus to persecute believers, he was full of confidence. He had a Taliban-like confidence that he was doing God a favor by going after the Jesus heretics. But one of the first things Paul notes here is how Jesus changes the nature of your confidence.
Oh, a quick context note here. In this chapter, Paul’s heard that some people are trying to get the Christians at Philippi to follow the Jewish law—if they want to be really good Christians! Paul knew that would be a dead end for them, so the passage starts with some pretty tough words for the people who were trying to get them to be “Jewish enough” for God to favor…
From self-confidence to God-confidence
2Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
Paul knew all about religious self-confidence—it’s a bust. He was expert. He’d been the enforcer for the opposition, and, as he’s about to explain, has “been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”
This is what billions of people around the world don’t get, and what millions of people who go by the name Christian still don’t understand. Christianity is not a performance sport. We think that if I just try a little harder, pray a little more sincerely, worship a little more passionately, that God will notice and accept us.
That’s religious self-confidence, and it won’t work. It won’t work for the simple reason that God’s holiness is so far beyond us. We can’t measure up. God’s standard is “Be perfect” (that’s what Jesus says in Matthew 5:48). But we aren’t perfect—as a matter of fact, we can’t even see perfect from here!
So what’s the solution? Well, what if someone who was perfect were to do all that God asked of us, on our behalf, and then was able to give us that perfect standing before God? What if Someone were able to cover us in perfection the same way that you cover a bed with a sheet?
Well, that’s the solution that God offers—and the someone is Jesus, the perfect one, who pays for all of our sin and imperfect and brokenness by being broken for us on the cross. Then He caps His victory over sin by showing His victory over death—by rising from the dead.
Now the weight’s no longer on you to perform. Jesus did that. Now we accept that, and grow in that faith, and go and grow from there. We don’t have to live in the maybe zone our whole lives, hoping that maybe we’ve done enough for God to love and accept us. Our confidence is in God. Like the old hymn says, our confidence now rests “in Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
So the first big transformation in our outlook is from self-confidence to God-confidence. The second is…
From self-righteousness to God’s righteousness
Here’s what Paul writes in vs. 4b-6:
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
Paul is saying, hey, if you someone who had spiritual bragging rights, I’m your man. I was circumcised when the law says to be; I have no Gentile ancestors; I was advancing in the most strict sect of Judaism, to the point of being a persecutor of the church. If you measured my life by the measures of religion, hey, I was top-notch.
Paul had a whole lot of religion. A lot of people have a whole lot of religion. It didn’t do Paul any good, and it won’t do you any good either.
We live on the idea that a lot of religion produces God’s good favor. God looks at us and says, “That’s a good boy” and gives us His love. The Bible calls that right standing with God “righteousness.”
500 years ago, the concept of God’s righteousness nearly drove young Martin Luther insane. He thought it meant that he had to become righteous through his own efforts to merit God’s love. But when he was digging deep in God’s word, he realized it meant that God was extending his righteousness to him by grace—that that right standing is a gift that comes to us because Jesus went to the cross.
From my plan to Christ’s plan
7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
For reasons I do not know, the text of my file ends abruptly here. I have a hard copy which continues for another page.
Summary: imagine the "great life" Paul gave up to follow Christ--well, he called that trash.
Our lives aren't ours now...contrast the lyrics of Billy Joel's "My Life."
So, it's much better to have a small part in the big plan of God than a big part in the small plan of me. So, follow the Risen One.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Easter Changes Everything:
Part One: Who’s My Master?
This week, we start the theme “Easter Changes Everything.” Does it really? If we think of Easter as a holiday of flowers and bunnies, well no, that doesn’t change much, does it? But if we go back to the story that began it all, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, well, that really does changes everything!
How does that change everything? Well, if Jesus really did die on a cross, if He was buried, and then three days later rose from the dead, it really changes everything. There was a time, when I was a teenager, and I was an atheist, but if Jesus really rose from the dead, well that doesn’t happen all by itself; if He rose from the dead, then atheism can’t be right. God must be real, if Jesus rose from the dead. That changes a lot right there.
Not only that, if He rose from the dead, then it shakes you up if you follow some other faith. Buddha’s tomb is occupied; so is Muhammad’s, the founders of Hinduism and secular religions like Marxism and Fascism. If Jesus rose from the dead, then all these others are dead-ends. That changes a lot, doesn’t it?
If you go a butcher and buy a side of beef, you’ll find the stamp, “USDA Approved” on the meat. The resurrection of Jesus is like a big stamp of approval from God on His life and ministry, on all His teachings and on all His claims, saying “Approved by God!”
Romans 1:4 says of Jesus Christ,
…and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.
One of the purposes of the resurrection was just that: to prove that He was who He said He was—God in the flesh, the Son of God.
So over the next five weeks, we’re going to explore the implications of the resurrection in five areas: today, asking the question, “Who’s my master?” Next week, we’ll look at “My outlook on life.” The third week is about “My relationships.” The fourth is “My life’s passion” and the last week is crucial—it’s on “How I face death.”
Today the focus is on “Who’s My Master?” That same verse, Romans 1:4, says that the resurrection establishes who Jesus is: “Jesus Christ our Lord.” Lord! There was no mistaking who Jesus is after His resurrection. Before His death, burial and resurrection, you could mistake Him for a prophet, a teacher, a revolutionary, a self-deluded nutcase or a bold-faced liar. But the resurrection blows all that away. The resurrection changes the equation. The only sense I can make of Him now is to call Him Lord. If He rose from the dead, He must be Lord!
All four gospels tell stories of the risen Lord. There’s a whole lot of drama in the first day, on the first Easter. The tomb is opened, the guards freak out, the women come and find the tomb empty, and some of them run off to tell the apostles. One of them hangs back, sees Jesus, who then takes off before Peter and John get there. Then that afternoon, a couple of disciples walk with Him on the road to Emmaus; He goes again and meets up with the apostles in Jerusalem. The disciples get a major attitude adjustment. But not all of them; one was missing.
Who wasn’t there? His name is Thomas, and the poor guy has been known as “Doubting Thomas” ever since. It’s really not fair; the guy was a real trooper and showed a lot of faith and grit on other occasions. To top it off, church history strongly suggests that in the years to come, he was one fantastic missionary, going as far as India with the good news about Jesus.
You can read his story in the gospel of John 20:24-31. The background is vs. 24-25:
24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!"
But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
Now, I don’t know where Thomas went off to; it was a dangerous time and maybe he left Jerusalem first thing Sunday morning (the first time he as an observant Jew could have traveled after the Sabbath day).
But somehow, the other disciples get word to him and he says, “I never some heavy duty proof!” Didn’t he believe the other disciples? We’ll I can’t get into his head. Maybe he was stuck where some of the disciples were when they first saw Jesus. Luke 24:37 tells us that when some of the disciples first saw the risen Jesus, they said, “It’s a ghost!” Just about everybody at that time in history believed in ghosts—the spirits of the dead hanging around for a while—and the apostles were no exception. Just to prove he wasn’t a ghost, that passage says that Jesus had some fish to eat. No, He’s not a ghost, but a real man, raised from the dead, resurrected.
So Thomas wants some proof. A week later, he gets it. He’s back with the other disciples, back in Jerusalem on a Sunday when…well, let’s read it from John 20:26-28:
26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
28Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
Now this is so fascinating. Jesus just shows up—He could come and go at will. Locked doors didn’t matter. But that didn’t mean that He was a spirit—He was solid flesh who could eat and touch things and be touched. No wonder His presence was so awesome that He greets them with “Shalom!”—“Peace be with you.”
Jesus comes, and calls out Thomas. “Go ahead, stick your hand in the wounds. Stop doubting and believe.”
What Jesus says here is fascinating. If you translated it very, very literally, it’s “Stop becoming unbelieving and get on with becoming believing.” He sees Thomas’ faith as fluid, and He urging Him to change the momentum of his faith, from sliding away toward unbelief to moving ahead in faith—based the reality that stands before him—the risen Jesus.
Did Thomas have no faith before? Sure he did. Sure he had faith. He’s been with Jesus and seen some pretty amazing things for the best part of three years. At one point, he even bravely said that if Jesus had to die, the apostles should be ready to die with Him. These aren’t the words of someone without faith. But there was a part of his faith that wasn’t complete, not yet, until he encountered the risen Jesus.
Some of you have faith just like Thomas. You’ve heard all the stories about Jesus and you like Him. But your faith isn’t complete, not yet.
In the Bible, faith isn’t a simple on-off switch: it’s not like you either have it, or you don’t. It’s progressive. Faith is fluid, and works its way through the dimensions of truth, allegiance and freedom.
A few years ago, on a Sunday morning, I spent some time talking with a woman out there in the lobby following a worship service. She wanted some help on some issues in her life, but some of the things she was saying made me wonder if she had ever put her faith in Jesus.
I’d never met her before that day, and discovered that she went back to her home country not long after this conversation. I noticed that she wore a wedding band. “How long have you been married?” I asked. About 10 years. I asked her how long she knew her husband before they got married. About 3 years, she told me.
Then I asked her—what changed the day she and her husband got married? Well, their plans had changed from an intention to a commitment, and now they shared their lives together.
So I asked her—are you just dating Jesus, or have you married Him? Have you given Him your life? Did you ever say, “I do” to Jesus. She must have been silent for half a minute before she said “I’m guess I’m just dating Jesus.”
She had faith, but it wasn’t allegiance faith; it wasn’t commitment faith; it wasn’t “I do” faith. She believed the facts about Jesus, but she wasn’t committed to Him, at least not yet.
Before Thomas saw Jesus in that room a week after the resurrection, he was stuck on a level of faith that was real; it just wasn’t enough. It was real; it just wasn’t complete. Jesus met him that day to bring him up to the next level, the level of commitment and allegiance.
Hey, could it be that today, that Jesus brought you here to take you up to the next level of faith? Could it be on this Easter, 1,980 later, that Jesus is saying to you, your faith can be the kind that transforms?
I used three terms a few minutes ago to suggest the dimensions of real faith: truth, allegiance and freedom. They don’t always come in that order; the order is not the main thing. The fact that you’re here is probably because you have some kind of faith in Jesus. The question is, is it more like Thomas before or after this encounter with Jesus? Because something incredible is about to happen with Thomas. It’s like he pole-vaults over the other disciples. The whole truth about Jesus just comes over him—the truth, the allegiance and the freedom that comes from faith.
Look at vs. 28:
Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
Remember Romans 1:4? The resurrection is God’s way of saying that Jesus Christ is Lord—remember? Thomas gets this in a second, a holy flash of insight of both truth about who Jesus is, and total and unconditional allegiance. Thomas doesn’t say “You are the Lord and God!” He says “My Lord and my God!” As a matter of fact, when I read this, I always imagine Thomas going down on his knees. At that second, Thomas knew the rest of his life was going to be all about serving this risen Jesus.
Thomas never wondered again—who is my master? He knew it was Jesus of Nazareth. In the same way, Easter makes us face the question—who is my master, my Lord, my boss? And the only worthy answer is Jesus, the Risen King. Nothing else, no one else, can match His worthiness in the role of Lord of my life. No one else has that resurrection stamp of approval. That’s what Thomas got that day, and that’s the opportunity we all have today—to see and understand and love and pledge joyful allegiance to this Jesus, the unique, the unmatched, the one and only.
Truth, allegiance and freedom—when you encounter the real risen Jesus, you come to believe that He tells the truth and that He really is truth embodied. Jesus says as much in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” You give Him your full allegiance, as Thomas did that day. And you experience the freedom that comes from Him. In John 8:31-32, Jesus says,
If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Truth frees! And the greater the truth, the greater the freedom. Real faith brings us to that place of freedom and truth and commitment and love and acceptance and purpose. You can’t beat it.
Now, the story of Thomas isn’t over. He’s confessed his full faith in Jesus, the crucified God now alive and reigning as Lord, but Jesus says something beautiful and powerful and meant for you and me. Isn’t it great to think that at this moment, He was thinking of you and me? Let’s read on, John 20:29-31:
29Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
Then John comments…
30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Jesus invited Thomas, and John invites us all, to cross a bridge of faith, to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and to have life in His name. Come cross the bridge! It’s a sturdy bridge—really, Jesus Himself is the bridge; all the promises of God are in the bridge. It’s not a crazy jungle vine bridge 1,000 feet up above hungry crocodiles. It’s the bridge from where you are now to where God wants you to be. It’s a bridge from no faith, or incomplete faith, to the faith that Thomas received on that day.
It’s a bridge to life. Just like Thomas cried out that day, “My Lord and my God,” the time has to come when we, each one, individually, crosses the bridge of faith in Jesus Christ to receive “life in His name”.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need something concrete, something I can see, for me to get these truths right. Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
No, I can’t show you Jesus today the way Jesus showed Himself to Thomas, and Jesus says that’s not all bad: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Both Thomas, and you and I, are called to consider real things which happened in Jerusalem those many years ago—a bloody cross, an empty tomb, a risen Lord. And we must decide, will we follow this Man? Will we cross the bridge of faith today and follow Jesus? Will we come to Him to have our sins forgiven and receive the gift of life from Him?
That’s why we have this bridge here today. It makes the decision to follow Him simple, visual and concrete. On one side, there is the gray of doubt and uncertainty; on the other side the white of clarity and forgiveness. In between there is the red of the blood Jesus shed on the cross. I want to invite you this day to come and cross the bridge to life. I invite you to come in from the shadows into the light, where you see Jesus and say, “My Lord and my God!”