Jesus is Praying for Us

I recently heard an Indian brother recounting a conversation he had with a Hindu man. The man did not understand why the Hindu religion has 300 million gods and yet only one temple, while Christians claim to serve only one God and yet are splintered into thousands of groups and sub-groups?

That needling question is a good reason to reflect on the longest recorded prayer of Jesus, found in John 17. Uttered on the eve of his crucifixion, he begins by praying for himself (vv 1-5). He then makes requests for the eleven disciples present with him on that occasion (vv. 6-19). Finally, he prays, “for those who will believe in me through their word” (v. 20-26) – that’s us, folks! He’s praying for us! But listen carefully to what he prays. . .

Jesus asked that his followers would be preserved and characterized by loving unity, a unity defined by truth and clearly focused on the mission of saving the world. The importance of this unity is stressed several times in the prayer (v. 11, 20-23). Our unity around our gospel mission is in fact the primary way that the world will know we are followers of Jesus (v. 23).

I squirm just a bit when I think about Christians and churches I know as it relates to loving unity around the gospel – or when I think about my own pursuit of loving unity around the gospel.

Few of us would disagree that the modern ecumenical movement clearly lost it’s way and sacrificed truth in a mad rush toward “unity.”  But what about the ditch on the other side of the road?

We’ve all heard stories about churches who have been characterized by petty bickering and strife over a myriad of embarrassingly silly issues. Their lack of unity may result in new “churches” – but essentially removes them from effective connection to the mission of making Christ know to their community.

I’ll reflect more on this passage next week. Today, I’ll close with a couple of challenging reminders from Paul. . .

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3)

“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27)

Your Bible and Your Idols

If Albert Einstein was still alive and I had five minutes to talk to him, Psalm 19 would be a great place to focus the discussion. This powerful poem explains why his search for God in nature was a dead-end (v. 1-6), and points to the only reliable Book that holds answers to life’s most important questions (v. 7-11). Like the scorching Palestinian sun, David had felt the heat and light of God’s law “searching out the hiding places of his soul,” to quote C.S. Lewis.

How appropriate, then, for the closing stanza of the psalm to begin with a rhetorical question meant to arrest the reader’s attention. “Who can discern his errors?” (v. 12). David is now concerned about his “hidden faults,” his “presumptuous sins” that would “have dominion” over him. Only when he allowed the Scriptures to examine his inmost being would he be “blameless” and “innocent of great transgression” (v. 13).

What is the “great transgression” that David feared would dominate his life? I think he’s talking about the BIG ONE here: the sin of idolatry, the sin of putting your trust and reliance for the needs of your life into anyone or anything other than God. David was not only jabbing the ancients who worshipped the sun god (v. 6). He was keenly aware of his own tendency to transfer his trust from the Creator God to rival gods calling for his heart’s affection.

He closes the psalm with a humble prayer to the only true Rock and Redeemer (v. 14) – “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in your sight.” David wanted the truth of God’s law to illuminate the dark corners of his soul and drive from his heart any affection for false gods.

We may not be tempted to worship the sun, but our hearts are just as drawn to any number of idols. We look to material possessions, physical appearance, popularity with peers, financial security, professional accomplishment, and a whole litany of substitutes to meet the deep needs of our souls – instead of finding in our relationship with the Lord all that is necessary “for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).

When you read the Scriptures this week, let them be the sun to bring to light cherished idols and sweep them away. Let the scriptures show you the unmatched beauty of the Lord Jesus, who alone satisfies the deepest longings of the human heart.

The Mystery of God’s Essence Contemplated

Reference to God’s incomprehensible essence also warns us against imagining what God is like, which would lead us inexorably down the road to idolatry. Recognizing God’s infinite and spiritual essence keeps us from thinking that God can be represented in imagery.

Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford, 2004), 20.

Here Paul Helm touches on Calvin’s view that the essence of God cannot be understood by the human mind. We can know about God all that he reveals about himself in his Word, but we can’t know more than that. As Helm notes later, the activities of God, which can be known, should not be confused with the essence of God, which cannot be known by the human mind. I often use the illustration (flawed, I know) that God is like Windows 7 and the human mind is like a calculator. A calculator simply does not have the capacity to run Windows 7. Likewise, we do not have the cognitive faculties to comprehend the essence of God, no matter how hard we try.

Calvin warned against philosophical speculation about the essence of God that goes beyond what Scripture has revealed:

Here, indeed, if anywhere in the secret mysteries of Scripture, we ought to play the philosopher soberly and with great moderation; let us use caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends. For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure, a mind as yet unable to establish for certain the nature of the sun’s body, though men’s eyes daily gaze upon it? Indeed, how can the mind by its own leading come to search out God’s essence when it cannot even get to its own? Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself. For, as Hilary says, he is the one fit witness to himself, and is not known except through himself. But we shall be “leaving it to him” if we conceive him to be as he reveals himself to us (Institutes1.13.21).

What does this mean for us? We should worship God as he has revealed himself in Scripture, and not try to understand things for which we were never made (Deut. 29:29)!

My First Home Run

Yesterday on my way home for lunch I was listening to a sport’s radio station. During the conversation, one of the commentators mentioned Little League. At that point, my mind leapt back to my first year of Little League and my first home run. I have no idea why my mind took me there or how that works. I know that I hit other home runs; but, for whatever reason, this one is the one I remember.

I think I was around 10 years old and I was ‘drafted’ by the Wildcats, which mattered less to me than the red-trimmed uniform I got to wear to the games. As a 10 year old rookie, I rode the bench to start every game. Since the league had a rule that everyone had to play a specified number of innings, I usually entered the game somewhere after the 4th inning of a 7 inning game.

We were playing one of the better teams in the league, which meant any one of the other teams. Their pitcher was at the older end of the age scale (I’m sure he was starting to shave) and he was dominating us. By the time I made it into the game, the score was well out of reach—we were on the short end of a shut out.

It was the 5th inning and I was going to bat. I put the helmet on, which at this point of my ‘career’ came down to my eye brows. I picked up a bat, threw some sand on my hands, and smacked them together like every other Little Leaguer did. I stepped up to the plate and looked the pitcher in the eye. Now, I have to tell you that I saw the ball in his hand when he started, but I didn’t see the ball again until the catcher showed it to me! Things moved a whole lot faster once you were in the batter’s box.

The next few moments are still a bit of a blur—even after all these years of reflecting on them. After a couple of pitches, for some still unknown reason I swung the bat. At that point something startling happened—I heard the ‘crack’ of wood on leather. I had heard that sound before, but never when I swung. In a millisecond the ‘crack’ was replaced by cheering (from one side of the field) and yells (more like screams) to “Run! Run! Run!” I had no idea what had happened to the ball, but I ran. The coach at first was pointing to second base with one arm and whirly-birding with his other arm for me to keep running. I ran to second and noticed that the infielders were still watching the outfielder try to catch up with the ball. So I ran to third, where to my utter astonishment the coach was pointing to home and whirly-birding his arm for me to run home.

Once I crossed home plate, I was greeted by my team. I had single-handedly scored our first run. I had single-handedly ruined the shutout. I had hit my first home run—no errors!!! My Little League ‘career’ had started with a bang—life was good.

Now there was just one small glitch. You have to understand that this was a community league. It was hard to find umpires for the games. At times, fathers were ‘volunteered’ to umpire. Some of the fathers knew very little about the game. And this was one of those occasions. While I was glorying in the triumphal start of my Little League ‘career,’ the base umpire asked the second baseman if it was important that I hadn’t touched second base.

The second baseman promptly got the ball, touched the base, and the home plate umpire called me out. In a millisecond, my Little League ‘career’ went into total deflation!!

You see, there’s an inescapable principle built into creation, whether you are 10 or 62—“If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5, NASB). It didn’t matter whether I missed one base or three bases, whether by an inch or by a yard (closer to the truth), I still had to touch all the bases—that’s the rule. It didn’t matter whether or not I knew the rules (I did)—it only mattered that I followed the rules, and I hadn’t. A hard way for a 10 year old to learn this biblical truth; but a necessary truth to learn at any age.

P.S. By the way, they walked me the next time up AND, later in my ‘career,’ I got to hit my first home run again (that time I touched all the bases)!!

Thank You for Telling Me About God. Now Leave Me Alone To Worship My Idols.

I was reading in Daniel this morning when I saw something I had never seen before (don’t you love how the Holy Spirit does that!), and I couldn’t read any further. After Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2), in which a rock (Christ) destroys the Babylonian empire and all empires that followed, an amazing thing happens. In the very next verse (3:1), Nebuchadnezzar crafts a golden idol of himself for all to worship. The very next verse! In other words, immediately after declaring to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery” (2:47), Nebuchadnezzar rushes out to fashion an idol of himself.

This becomes a pattern in Nebuchadnezzar’s life. After being warned of impending judgment by Daniel in chapter 4 for his pride and self-sufficiency, Nebuchadnezzar has the gall to look over Babylon and praise himself for what he had “built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty” (4:30).

How like Nebuchadnezzar I am! In the same day that I am overwhelmed by the greatness and worthiness of God, I can turn and pride myself in some achievement, glory in my own greatness, or bow before the idol of my desires. I am really no better then Nebuchadnezzar, because like him, I am human and depraved. Like him, I can hear the truth, stand in awe of it, praise God for it, and walk away and seek my own glory.

This is nothing more than my proclivity for making myself and my desires idols to be worshipped. Thank you very much for the truth, God, now leave me alone so I can worship myself. More and more I see this tendency as the foundational problem in my struggle with sin. And discovering this has been the path to freedom, for if I can identify the root of my sin, I can kill the fruit by hacking at the root. The grace of God in forgiveness and empowerment means that I CAN see this idolatry dislodged from my heart.

Let’s keep hacking at the root idolatries in our lives until Jesus comes!

Is the Book of Acts Intended to Be a Model for the Church Today?

Many of the differences in the various evangelical denominations and flavors of Christianity in the world exist because of conflicting views of the early church in the Book of Acts. Pentecostals and Charismatics understand the gifts of tongues, healing, and miracles found in Acts to be normative for all times, while others see them as only temporary. Some understand the “Jerusalem Council” to be normative for church government, establishing an episcopalian form of hierarchy, while others see the incident as confirming apostolic authority in tandem with congregational rule. Still others read Acts as a collection of stories from the “Golden Age” of Christianity for which we are to pine away in sentimental reminiscence.

The underlying problem in many faulty readings of Acts stems from conceptions of the book that find no actual support in Scripture. As a corrective, Richard Gaffin reminds us how not to read Luke and Acts.

If, as is too often the case, Acts is read primarily as more or less random samplings of earliest Christian piety and practice, as a compilation of illustrations taken from the early history and experience of the church—a more or less loose collection of edifying and inspiring episodes, usually with the nuance that they are from the “good old days, when Christians were really Christians”—then we will tend to become preoccupied with the experience of particular individuals and groups recorded there, to idealize that experience, and to try to recapture it for ourselves.

But if, as ought to be the case, Acts is read with an eye for its careful overall composition and what we will presently see is one of Luke’s central purposes in writing, then these passages and the experiences they record come into proper focus.

Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost (P&R, 1973), 23.

Gaffin proceeds to clarify that Acts 1:8 is the program specifically given to the apostles, and therefore we cannot indiscriminately take Acts to be the proper pattern for everything in the church today. It’s not that Acts is completely unrelated to the church’s mission today, but rather that Acts 1:8 and the whole book is only derivatively applicable to us today. The reason, says Gaffin, is that the apostles actually completed the mission given to them in 1:8, as confirmed by Colossians 1:6, 23.

This is an an important insight that has at least two implications. First, it corrects many of the erroneous notions that have arisen from reading Acts as examples of piety and practice to be emulated with no input from the later New Testament. And second, it frees us from a concept of the church that was never intended to serve as the sole ideal. The later New Testament demonstrates what became the settled norm for the church.

The church in Acts, therefore, serves as a testament to the signs and wonders God performed to confirm his founding of a new entity, the church. At the same time, it points toward the rest of the New Testament for what we should consider normative today.

Perspective

According to my online dictionary, perspective is “ the ability to see things in a true relationship.” Perspective is how we view life, its events, and those who travel the road of life with us. It seems to run too easily on autopilot, while constantly requiring our attention. Perspective is a necessary, but fickle element of life.

I had the opportunity recently to replay a scene that I’ve watched with each of our grand-girls. Our youngest granddaughter was in the den playing with her toys. She had assembled the little people with their furniture, clothes, toys, and all the rest. Among the collection was a chair, a tricycle, and a dress. As a two year old, she knows what a chair and a tricycle and a dress are in her world—they are to be seated on, ridden, and worn. So in the course of playing she attempted to sit on the 3 inch tall chair, ride the 2 inch high tricycle, and put on the tiny dress. It was a comical sight.

Her perspective of the world understood the relationship of each item, but totally missed the proportion of each. Despite her efforts to use each in a way that she had learned they were designed for, her efforts were only rewarded with failure and confusion. The more she tried, the funnier the scene grew. Until she learns that proportion is part of perspective, she is bound to replay the scene again.

While the matter of skewed perspective in a two-year old’s life may be the occasion for comedy, it can mark continuing failure and confusion in our lives as adults. Trials are part of everyone’s life (Job 14:1) and have a purpose in God’s plan.

1 Peter 1:7-“That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes . . . might be found unto praise and honor and glory . . .”

James 1:2-4-“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

When we lose perspective, we are in trouble. Too often the problem is one of proportion. When proportion is lost in perspective God seems to be the size of my granddaughter’s toy tricycle. We may understand the relationship, but it just can’t take us anywhere—it’s too small.

Perspective requires our constant attention. Perhaps we should follow the advice of one song writer who wrote, “Instead of telling God how big your problems are, you need to tell your problems how big your God is.” After all, until we learn that proportion is part of perspective, we are bound to replay the scene again.

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