jesus means this much

What does Jesus ‘mean’ to you?

Most responses would not be too likely to stray too far from the very familiar bible verse, John 3:16. We don’t often recognise Jesus as being much more than someone who died for ‘me.’ To be absolutely certain, Jesus most assuredly did die for ‘me‘, but I think it it vital that we push through this individualism and realise that He is also so much more than that! Not only is He Lord of my heart, He is also Lord of the entire universe.

The Gospel-writers wanted to direct their audience to the true Jesus. The Jesus that the Holy Spirit had been (and still was) opening and renewing their minds to see more clearly. Not just a one-sided, prop-up Jesus, to give the intellectual nod to, and/or give a nice, warm and fuzzy hug. Instead they wanted them to see a full-fledged, exasperating Jesus, to worship, adore and serve – indeed, to die for.

This, I think, is why the Gospel-writers didn’t simply provide us with a handful of happy texts telling us only that God loves us (or a list of texts about how to discover the secret Jesus, as in the later-written Gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas). Instead, they wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Instead of giving a list of things to believe about Jesus, or whatever, they wrote stories – indeed, true stories. These stories – in very different, yet complimentary ways – have much more to say about Jesus than simply that he died for ‘me.’

Instead, the Gospel-writers drew upon the rich story of their people (Israel), and presented Jesus as the centre, the theme, the end, the solution, the climax – even the very point! – of this story. In other words, for the Gospel-writers, all who Jesus was/is and all that He accomplished had eclipsed and surpassed the meaning of the entire story of Israel!

For example, everything that the Temple had ever meant or stood for, was trumped by Jesus. The author of Matthew records Jesus declaring that He was ‘greater than the temple.’ (12:6) John’s Gospel tells it more explicitly, “Jesus… said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…’ …but He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this…” (2:19-22)

The New Testament way of speaking about this ‘trumping of meaning’ is called ‘fulfilling.’ This is one area in which I think we may need to re-evaluate our thinking. I think the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as ‘ful-filling’ the meaning of not just a few ‘proof’ verses here and there, but the Old Testament as a whole! I think He means that much!

Take Isaiah’s Suffering Servant imagery in chapter 53, for example. We often reduce the entire passage down to a few verses, but the image of the Suffering Servant is not just in a few verses in this chapter. It is a broader, much larger image (beginning in ch. 42), thought by many to represent the entire nation of Israel itself, or a specific leader at the time. With our limited perspective, we may not know what each and every verse meant at the time, but I suspect the writer knew. I’ve heard people say that Jesus must have been un-attractive based on the verse that says, ‘there is no beauty that we should desire Him‘. I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is this: The Gospel writers saw Jesus as ‘trumping’ the meaning of the Suffering Servant. Every single scrap of meaning that the Servant imagery had, is even more fully realised in Jesus. He is the personification of Suffering, and the personification of Service. Indeed, the word became flesh!

What I’m suggesting is that Jesus doesn’t merely ‘fulfill’ a verse here and there, but rather He embodies the entire story of Israel. Every holy place (temple, Jerusalem, etc.), every role (prophet, priest, king), every event (passover, sabbath, etc.) and every other symbol (covenant, manna, law) finds its substance in Him! He is the Tabernacle, the Sacrfice, the High Priest, the Passover, the Sabbath, the Law, the Covenant, the King, the Prophet, the Warrior, the Slave, the Lamb, the Messiah, the True Israelite, the Son of Man, and so on… (The writer of Hebrews moves from symbol to symbol in similar fashion, yet in meticulous detail.)

May we see Jesus for all that He is. May we see Him as so much more (and no less!) than our personal, individual Jesus. May we see Him as some-One to live and die for.

building for god’s kingdom

I won’t embarrass myself, but just know that I could share many stories of times I’ve done things ‘for’ someone and found myself eventually having to apologise and say, “Sorry, I was just trying to help!” However well-intentioned our actions may be, they can be un-helpful or even harmful. Even sincere people can be sincerely wrong.From age 11-18, I spent my summers working for my Dad in construction. I learned a lot about building in those summers, but I also learned about working with a team. When you’re building a house, you have to understand and appreciate the overall process in everything you do. You may have an idea that seems helpful by itself, but in the whole scheme of things can end up being unhelpful. It could make more work for someone else, cause confusion, or a host of other things. For example, I may see that some boards on the roof need cutting. By itself, this is fine for me to do. However, if someone else is already making preparations to do it, then one of us is going to be wasting time. Also, cutting boards on the roof creates saw-dust, which can cause people to lose their footing on the roof. What’s more, there could be a reason that the boards haven’t been cut yet – maybe on this specific house there is another design feature in mind.

Another example; I may notice that a stack of boards are on the other side of the job-site from where they are going to be used. I could save someone a lot of time walking back and forth by moving them closer. There could be several things I’m not considering, though. Maybe the area I would move them to is about to be used for something else. Perhaps moving the boards at all would just confuse the person who was going to be using them, etc.

As you can see, there’s a lot that can go wrong on a job site. Intentions may be good and effort may be expended, but sometimes with distorted results. You could think it was wonderful that you cut a lot of boards, but maybe they were supposed to be cut later or differently. You may feel proud that you solved an apparent board location problem, but maybe that was the best place for them in the long run. Perhaps you can think of similar examples for other environments.

On a job site, these problems can be easy to deal with. In fact, the longer a team works together, the easier they are to deal with. You learn to ask questions and think before you just ‘do’ something. You learn how to see the big picture. You learn to work together.

In church life, however, the things we do are often close to or at the heart of our very identities. The tasks that we perform are marks of our spirituality and if the tasks that I’m doing are thought by others to be contradictory to the big picture, then we feel that our very spirituality has been attacked.

In the same way that simply ‘doing stuff’ on a job-site is not always the right thing, in the church also, simply doing things just because we can doesn’t mean that we always should in view of the big picture. Could it be that sometimes we may be just ‘moving spiritual boards’ around the job-site when we need to be cutting them according to the plan and installing them where they go, etc.?

In the world of construction, corrections have to be made. The workers have to accept it, grow, learn, move on – and most importantly – get to building the right way! At least in some ways, it is no different in the church. We’ve got a job to do. Let’s keep the big picture in mind. Let’s communicate with one another. Let’s not take advice too personally. Let’s grow. Let’s sharpen each other, making us sharper tools in God’s hands. Let’s get on with building for God’s Kingdom.

biblical patience – quickly!

I want to get the most out of the Scriptures, don’t you?The obvious, glaring question is HOW do we do this? How might we read, understand, meditate on, grasp, learn and grow in the right way?

Ever since the Bible was completed (roughly speaking) in the turn of the 2nd century, people have employed many, many techniques and methods for engaging the text. Much of this is wonderful, I think. Unfortunately, we we humans seem to be quite prone to misusing, distorting and destroying anything good (sex, food/drink, authority, relationships, money, etc.). I wish this didn’t apply to Bible study as well, but I’m afraid that it can happen and does. Whether it’s chanting or reading portions of Scripture while ‘listening’ for special messages from God, breathing slowly, finding the right posture, or whatever, these concerns don’t have much (or anything at all) to do with rightly engaging the Scripture.

Now, I don’t have time – nor would I think it my responsibility or within my ability – to systematically identify and de-bunk every technique that you or I might think needs identifying and de-bunking. I will, however, pass on a few helpful (and I believe essential) principles I’ve picked up from others that we must keep in mind if we wish to read our Scriptures for all they’re worth – which I believe to be infinitely more than we may realise.

First Things First?
The first thing is of first importance. More and more, I hear the same question being asked over and over again. The problem isn’t this questions itself, but the importance and immediate priority it is given. It is the question of ‘what does it mean to ME?’ Given our increasingly individualised culture in western nations, I’m not surprised by this. Now, let me be clear. I believe that ‘it’ has quite a lot to say to ‘me’ and you. The problem comes when this is our first and primary question we ask of the text.

Our initial task in reading the Scriptures is to attempt to perceive what the author is saying to the audience, and how they might have received it. By this, I mean (taking the New Testament epistle of Paul to Philemon as an example) what is the Apostle Paul saying to Philemon. Sure, ‘I’ can learn a great deal from what Paul is saying to Philemon, but Paul is not writing to Dale in New Zealand in the 21st century. Our question is what did (in this case) Paul mean? Tom Wright has called this seeking to ‘think Paul’s thoughts after him.’ Paul was not thinking about me.

Our Place in The Story
With this in mind, we dig deeper. But not too deep too quickly. The Bible is full of potentially confusing commands, exhortations and instructions. This is why, secondly, we need to familiarise – and re-familiarise – ourselves with the entire unfolding narrative of Scripture. Tom Wright again has been very helpful for me in this regard. He has popularised a 5-act analogy regarding the story of God’s interaction with the world. Within this analogy, we live between the Apostles and chapters 21 & 22 of Revelation, and find ourselves with roles to play in God’s fourth act. Our task is not to repeat the first three acts, but to discover how are roles are to be ‘acted out’ so as to ‘fit’ with what has come before and to point toward what is coming – namely God’s ultimate renewal of Heaven and Earth.

If we don’t know how the story begins, develops, expands and ultimately ends, we are all the more likely to ‘act’ in a way that is inconsistent with it. Mark Strom has described this as the need to be ‘patient’ with the Scriptures, lest we distort them in our application (i.e. by taking something in the Scriptures and doing it when we ought not to, not doing it when we ought to or doing it in the wrong way than was intended). The old-new covenant distinction is perhaps one of the most common points of confusion that I know of regarding application for us today – again, another topic altogether.

Mark has articulated his ‘big-small-big’ method for reading which I find very helpful. First, we read the passage with the ‘big story’ in mind. Second, we observe details in the passage, looking for the flow and looking outward to the expanded context. Finally, we summarise the small picture and locate it’s place in the big picture, clarifying the impact of the gospel and living what we find. I think the key difference is that in this model, the personal application for ‘me’ is found only in the ‘big story’ and only after we consider the implications of the Gospel.

…’For We Know In Part’…
This ‘patience’ means that we may have to go through periods of time where we don’t have every text nailed down – as if any of us do anyway! We shouldn’t be surprised when we read a passage looking for answers and instead get more questions! This happens to me all the time. I find myself flicking all over the Scriptures and looking up various things that pertain (at least that I think pertain!) to where I’ve begun. Naturally, I’ve both learned and un-learned a few things this way!

However, if this is the only way we learn or un-learn from the Scriptures, then we are in great danger. Thirdly, and lastly, I want to share the principle of community. The Bible is a community book. Originally written in community. Originally read in community. Originally worked out in community. Studying the Bible privately is a privilege that we enjoy like few other of the many generations that have come before us (hand copies only until the printing press!). We should enjoy this privilege, but not gorge ourselves on it. We need others around us (and around the world, both living and deceased) to sharpen whatever clever ideas we think we might get from our private study. Of course, with the internet, you can always find someone to agree with you (on that note, you can also quite easily find someone who disagrees, but it’s much more comforting to only read people who agree with us!) but don’t let that stop you from benefiting from the study of others.

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Original writer, original audience – knowing the Story and our place in it – and engaging the Scriptures while being guided by communitiy. I think these principles will serve us well as we attempt to read Scripture for all it’s worth – at its worth is great! It will take patience, but like a slow-cooked meal is much more satisfying than fast food – in more ways than one – so is reading the Scriptures as they were intended.

give suffering a hug

Check out this selection of verses from the Bible…

“Though He (God) slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (Job 13:15a)
“I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught.” (Psalm 88:15)
“My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tonfue clings to my jaws; You have brought me to the dust of death.” (Psalm 22:15)

(that all of these verses happened to be the 15th in their chapter was not planned!)

God ‘slaying’ Job? Suffering God’s terrors? God bringing David to the ‘dust of death?’ Why the selection of such negative verses?

OK, I admit it. I’ve got an agenda. I’m trying to feature these kinds of passages in the Bible to make a point. What point is that?

I’ve been observing more and more a theme that seems to run right through the entire biblical narrative. I’ve observed that the people of God are marked by the way they embrace and/or accept suffering. Yep. Suffering.

The people of God before Christ suffered under Egyptian control, in the wilderness for 40 years, on the battlefield, during the ongoing and up-and-down cycle of replacement of Judges, as their kingdom was divided, under the oppression of the Babylonians and in the shadow of the Roman Empire (even though they were ‘home’ in Jerusalem). The church also suffered. The apostles and many others suffered beatings, oppression, imprisonment and eventually death for the cause of the advancement of the Gospel. I agree with many others who are convinced that the best thing for both the health and growth of the church is persecution. Indeed, one of the worst things to happen to the church might have been when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in the 4th century.

I am convinced that the suffering of the people of God is an important characteristic for us to understand and consider in light of our surroundings. Do we embrace suffering like those that have gone before us? Do we (in our comfortable, western, affluent environment) really have the slightest idea what real suffering is?

Guess where the church is growing? Where it is suffering. Guess where the church is arguing about how to do church services, which are the best programmes and what are the right leadership structures? Where it is comfortable. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

In the midst of battle, you don’t need to know the rank, status and position of the person who is watching your back, you just want to know that someone – anyone – is watching your back! As a critically ill patient in a hospital, you don’t care about the color of the wallpaper or the style of the physicians garments, you just want to know that someone will give you the medical attention you desperately need! Tough times certainly have a way of helping us (maybe forcing us?) to have better priorities!

It’s interesting how we pick and choose our favourite Bible verses, and how those verses differ from the verses of those in ‘developing’ countries. As Rich Mullins said, “They underline different parts of their Bibles. We’re all excited about being born again, and they are excited about selling their possessions and giving to the poor.” Maybe instead of assuming we have all the right church-ways, we should ask them about church?

Here’s a startling statistic from Don Fleming’s booklet Catching The Fire, “By 1960 the number of Christians in the non-Western world had reached 32% and by 1970 was about 36%. But throught the seventies and since, the growth has been extraordinary. By 1980 the figure had grown to 50%, by 1990 it was 66% and by 2000 it had reached 75%… Today, possibly 80% of all evangelical believers are in the non-Western world. The sad reality is that most Christians in the West are either unaware of it or have difficulty accepting it.”

Later on, he goes on to discuss how instead of us sending our books, programmes and church-ideas over to them, we should take out our pen and paper and take note of why it’s working over there! “Christians in the West are still buying books, but many of these books have only a tenuous connection with the Bible… What’s more, this dubious material from the West is being pumped into some of the poorer countries, because the Western producers can afford to send it free, knowing that poor people tend to take anything they can get for nothing. The Western church should be learning from the church in the developing world, but instead, it is spreading the West’s disease.”

Coming back to the topic of suffering, Don writes about what he calls our Western exectation of a pain-free life. “We do not know how to deal with suffering – not just illness, but death, war, persecution and poverty – much less how to embrace it in the name of Christ. We know what the Bible teaches about accepting hardship and sharing Christ’s suffering, but in reality most of us secretly feel we have a right to a pain-free life… After the devastating floods of Mozambique in 1999, the response of one local Christian was, ‘We don’t blame God; we trust Him.’ “

I can’t agree more. Our faith seems to only affect what CD’s we buy and which church services we go to. Our comfort and laziness have, as Don suggests, made us “the world’s greatest complainers.”

Where is the Job-like attitude that is reflected in the opening verse, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him.”? Why do we read the Bible looking for verses about ME? History is His story, and it’s primarily not about us! We are not commanded to be successful, efficient or organised. We are commanded to be obedient. Certainly we will grow (and be successful as a by-product) as we reach people – and certainly we don’t need to waste resources (time, money and people) – and certainly dis-order and/or chaos is warned against (1 Cor. 14). But it’s easy to see these things outside the proper perspective, and let them become our goals rather than by-products of our goal.

At any rate, my growing conviction is that it is not the growing, obedient and flourishing church in the developing world that needs our critique or advice, but actually it is the assumptions and traditions of our own comfortable, convenience-infused and selfish churches that need to be fiercely challenged. May we have the integrity to take an honest and humble look at ourselves and even more so may we have the courage to make changes where needed. Corporately and Individually.

changing our thinking about change

Change.

It has happened.
It is happening.
It will happen.

Spiritually, It has happened…
If your faith is genuinely in Christ, you are not what you once were. There are many passages in the Bible that talk about this. Jesus had a conversation with Nicodemus about being ‘born’ a second time. (John 3) Jude writes about ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.’ (Jude :3) Peter writes to Christians about not forgetting that they have been purged from their old sins. (2 Peter 1:9) John agrees by writing that Christians ‘have passed from death to life.’ (1 John 3:14) A particularly well-known verse is from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17. ‘Therefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.’
This transformation is complete in the lives of believers. It is as secure, steadfast, unchanging and solid as God’s nature. You can count on it! The tough thing is that it’s a spiritual change. We can find it hard to trust what God says about us when our circumstances are staring us in the face! That’s why we need to remind ourselves and each other so often!

Mentally, it is happening…
With our spiritual transformation behind us, we are then called to grow in our understanding of who we are in Christ. Peter told the early believers to ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ (2 Peter 3:4) Another popular verse about this was again written by Paul to the Roman Christians to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ (Romans 12:2) The tense of this command is continual. A literal translation might be more like ‘be being transformed’ or ‘be continually transformed.’ The entire Bible is filled to the brim with passages talking about growing in our understanding of God’s love and grace.
This is not about just getting more head-knowledge. When you get a chance, read 1 Corinthians 1&2. Paul has some pretty strong words there about relying on knowledge. What God wants is not for us to know lots of things, but rather to know Him! Head knowledge causes our minds to puff up, but heart understanding helps us to grow up!

Physically, it will happen…
We look backwards at our spiritual change, commit ourselves to the current process of mental adjustment, and we also wait and hope for the change which is yet to come, which is physical. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 about the bodily transformation that awaits all believers. Our bodies will be free from disease, pain, or weakness and unhindered by the effects of aging. Paul may well have had this in mind when he said that to live was Christ and to die was gain!

Let us remember our spiritual transformation with gratitude, grow in our mental grasp of that transformation, and yearn for the day of the final physical transformation!