There is No Christ without the Cross

Many of us dearly love the teachings of Jesus with all their rebellious love, extravagant grace, and audacious freedom. And yet often we don’t want to talk about the cross. It’s an unfortunate end to the story of our great teacher, and so we play up the teachings and play down the blood and the guts and the death.
Easter: No Christ Without the Cross

But there is no “Christ” without the cross. Don’t take my word for it. Take it from Jesus Himself:

“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven …” (Matthew 16:13-17).

Well done, Peter. That’s the right answer. Amidst the wealth of confusion about the identity of Jesus, you nailed it. So right are you, in fact, that your answer could not have come exclusively by your own intuition or intellect — it was a gift from God Himself. But Peter did not understand the implications of calling Jesus the Messiah, or the Christ:

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns’” (Matthew 16:21-23).

Peter wanted a cross-less Christ. A great teacher. A charismatic leader. But a dead one? A suffering one? Unthinkable. That can’t be right. But according to Jesus, the very idea that He might be Christ and yet not face the cross is blasphemous. An idea with demonic origins. It cannot be so. Jesus won’t stand for it.

If you take the cross away from Jesus, you strip Him of His mission. You devalue His life. You nullify His authority. And you stand against His crowning triumph and glory.

Jesus withstood the taunts of the soldiers. He was silent before the mocking crowd and the preening government officials. But He will not remain silent when someone tries to separate Him from the very reason He came to earth in the first place. There is no such thing as a cross-less Christ.

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The Joyously Annoying Memory of Children

One of the most often repeated phrases at the Kelley house right now is, “But you said…”

You can fill in the blank afterward. For us, it usually has to do with a dessert or a “special drink” (something other than water). Kids are like elephants in that way – they seem to never forget when it’s something they want to remember. Over the course of the past 9 years, Jana and I have slowly picked up on this trait, and it’s caused us to learn to be a little gun shy when we are making promises. More than once we’ve been burned over saying the kids could have or do something, then something else comes up, and we have to make a mid-course correction.

So we now typically withhold information. We don’t make big promises about upcoming events because someone could get sick or some other circumstance could change. So instead of setting the kids up for disappointment and ourselves up for frustration, we choose kid-unfriendly answers like “maybe” or “we’ll see.” They love that last one. Funny thing that I’ve never had to remind them of some promises I’ve made; most of the time, it’s them doing the reminding and me internally kicking myself for making quick promises without thinking through all the implications.

It’s in cases like that when I remember that God is better. He’s a better Father than I am. He’s more trustworthy. More generous. More caring. And He’s never had the moment where He had to go to one of His children and say, “I know I said this, but things have changed, and so now I’m going to say that.” Funny thing about that, though, is that the dynamic is opposite when it comes to God as with our own kids.

Whereas my kids are reminding me of the promises I made, it seems that God is the One doing the reminding most of the time.

Depending on your translation, there are at least 65 times in the Bible when God tells His people to remember. Remember when you were slaves… Remember My great deeds… Remember who you once were…

Remember. God is like that – He’s the Divine Reminder. And He’s totally comfortable doing so because He is what He was what He will be. Then, now, and forever, and if He said it once, He means it now. We, on the other hand, are forgetful people who, evidently, need to be reminded over and over again. Perhaps we need to be reminded because we are too lazy to think often on His promises. Or maybe it’s because there have been one too many people in our lives who have broken their promises and we transfer that distrust onto God. Whatever the reason, though, it seems that having the kind of childlike faith Jesus wants for us is returning to the simplicity intrinsic to children that knows and trusts the promises given to them. Faith, it could be said, is little more than taking God at His Word.

If that is true, then perhaps there are some simple action points to help us be the people who do indeed take God at His Word:

1. Know His promises.

Perhaps it should go without saying, but it’s really hard to believe God’s promises if you don’t know His promises. And to know His promises, you have to know His Word. But knowing God’s promises goes both ways – not only does it remind us what He has said He will do, it also helps us know what He did NOT say He will do. Knowing that guards us against the kind of error that leads to unreal expectations. When we know God’s promises, we know that we should not expect ease and comfort as His children. We should not be looking for wealth and prosperity. We know what to look for and what not to look for when we know what God has told us.

2. Trust His promises.

While my kids are still young enough that trust is a fairly natural thing for them, they will soon reach the age of disappointment when cynicism will creep into their lives. As they grow, trust is not something they will default to; it’s something they have to fight for. It’s something they must actively choose, and so it is with all of us adult-types. Because we live in a disappointing world, trusting God is a battle especially when circumstances tell us that He is not to be trusted. It’s on those days when faith becomes a fight, and one that is waged over and over again each day. The question on those days, when you take away everything else, becomes very, very simple: Are you really going to believe what God has said?

3. Preach His promises.

And I don’t just mean to other people. In fact, preaching the promises of God to others during their time of need can come across half-hearted and unsympathetic. Theological truth should be wielded less like a hammer in those situations and more like a paintbrush. But when it comes to yourself, you can preach, and preach hard. Preach like there’s no tomorrow. Preach mercilessly. Preach to your own soul over and over again. And as you do, remember the basis for those promises is not your conduct or your circumstances; it’s the character of God. When we begin to doubt that character, remember the ultimate measure of His love and advocacy for you is not your circumstances but the cross of Jesus Christ when He put all questions to rest, once and for all.

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Jimmy Fallon + Billy Joel + Ipad = Genius

Behold…

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You Feel What You Feel, But You Don’t Have to Live There

The question of human suffering and how it fits alongside a God who is at all times both loving and powerful is one that has troubled virtually anyone who has ever thought much about God. In simplest terms, the issue goes like this:

God clearly cannot be both loving and powerful, given the presence and degree of suffering in the world. Either this God is loving but not powerful enough to prevent the suffering of humanity, or He is powerful but not loving enough to care very much about that suffering. But this question is more than a class-room based hypothetical discussion – it’s the crucible of faith. In fact, I think you could make a strong argument that suffering is where the theological rubber meets the road; it’s when you find out what’s really inside you. When life closes in on you like a set of vice grips, squeezing you more and more day after day, something is going to come out. And whatever your response is at that time was not created by that suffering or those circumstances; it’s only revealed by that suffering or those circumstances.

Interestingly, though, the Bible seems to care much more about what happens next. The Bible, unlike us, has no trouble with the seeming tension between the power and love of God. Instead of devoting itself to trying and solve that riddle, Scripture gives much more emphasis to the response to inevitable suffering than it does to the why of that suffering. One such passage about the response is found in James 1:

“Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4).

Notice that James doesn’t bother engaging these high level questions of why; instead, he takes the issue of suffering as a “when” issue rather than an “if” issue. You are going to hurt. The question is what happens next. And the very first word of verse 2 gives us a good idea of both the natural and then unnatural response to suffering.

“Consider.” Some translations say “count.” And I love the realism of James at this point.

To “consider” or to “count” is a willful decision. It’s active rather than passive. It’s something that you’ve got to decide to do, and you have to decide to do it over and over again. The reason this is a willful, active, fight of a decision is because it’s completely unnatural for us to count anything that hurts as great joy.

No one ever bangs their finger with a hammer and immediately breaks out into a chorus of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” You know why not? Cause it stinking hurts to hit your finger with a hammer. The response to pain is not joy; it’s to feel the pain, and feel it deeply. Sometimes, in Christian circles, we rush passed and try and smother that feeling of pain. Problem is, though, you feel what you feel.

Whenever we experience pain, whether physical, emotional, or physical, we are going to feel the pain. It hurts to lose someone. It hurts to be worried about the future. It hurts when people around you make bad decisions. And all those things hurt deeply. You feel what you feel.

But even though you feel what you feel, you don’t have to live there. There is a moment, having felt what you have felt, that you can make the choice not to move past the pain, but to reframe it through the lens of faith. This is what counting is like. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky denial of your circumstances; it’s instead a willful refusal to let those circumstances dictate what you believe. So you count is as great joy. But in the spirit of realism, writing this is one thing, but actually doing it is another. What does it look like? If only we could look to someone who didn’t deny the reality of the pain, but still counted it as joy. If only we could see someone live in the middle of suffering and yet know there is still a loving and powerful God in the universe. If only we could witness the power of boldly pushing into those circumstances rather than denying them and doing so because of what they knew to be true about God.

If only…

“Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus,the source and perfecterof our faith, who for the joy that lay before Himendured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, so that you won’t grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3).

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When Evangelism is Like Baseball

From Stand to Reason:

Our private conversations with non-believers are similarly analogous to baseball. In every conversation I have with unbelieving friends, I am ever mindful of the value of singles. I don’t have to “win” every encounter. I don’t necessarily have to offer the Gospel or describe the Christian view of Salvation. If I get the right pitch, I’m happy to swing. But most of the time I’m lucky to get on base at all. With reasonable expectations in mind, I am happy to overcome a single objection or advance someone’s understanding just a base or two. In fact, sometimes the most important thing I can do is reflect the nature of Jesus as I listen and gently respond. I may not even get the chance to offer a defense or make a point, but my character will speak for me as I make the effort to get on base

When I share the truth with unbelievers, I sometimes act as though I’m playing a singles tennis match. I’m on one side of the net, and my opponent is on the other. I’m all alone out there on the court, it’s hot and the entire world is watching on ESPN. Whatever I do (or don’t do), whatever I say (or don’t say), will all come down to my individual effort. If I’m going to be successful, it’s all on me. But that’s not the reality of my situation. I’m part of a much deeper team called the Church. I’m not alone on the court; I’m just one in a series of batters. I come to the plate, I get a sense of what the pitcher is throwing, and I make an appropriate decision on how to respond. On rare occasions I may swing for the fences, but sometimes the wiser choice will be to make contact with the ball, get on base if possible, or take a “walk” if the pitcher is throwing wildly. It’s not all on me. I don’t have to win the game by myself. Evangelism and Christian Case Making is often just like baseball. Remember your place in the line-up. Drive in a run if you can, or just get on base for the next player at bat. Remember you’re not alone. If each of us can get a single, we’ll eventually succeed as a team.

Read the rest here.

(HT:Z)

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Is Education the Enemy of Obedience?

Imagine standing on the precipice of something brand new. A promised land and future, the one your grandfather’s grandfather had been telling stories about. And you, among all the generations, are among the generation that actually gets to see it. That gets to go in. Excitement? Anticipation? Expectation? Curiosity? All these emotions and more are running through your mind. But even as they are, the Lord tempered the excitement of His people with an extreme series of warnings.

In Leviticus 18-19, we find this series of warnings about what they will find in this new land. With every new experience, there will come a new temptation. A new temptation to intermarry, to adopt new practices, to take on the culture of the lands and peoples they are inhabiting… to forget where they came from. It was vitally important, then, that the people not only possess the land, but they also remember. That in the midst of all these new experiences, new encounters, new exposures, that they do not forget the old. The Lord reminded them, over and over again, that He is the Lord, the One who brought them out of Egypt.

It’s a common temptation, isn’t it? That as our experiences and knowledge grow, we move past the old and into the new. We think ourselves too mature, too intelligent, too experienced to cling to the old ways of thinking. We, with all our education and knowledge, move past these myths and legends that once governed us into a more sophisticated way of thinking.

We should be aware of this temptation because day by day our knowledge of the world grows. We live in a day and time of unparallelled discoveries. We know more now than we ever have before, and that knowledge is growing at an incredible rate. This is our reality. The question for us in so many areas of life, because of our advancement into new territories, is no longer CAN we do something, but SHOULD we.

In other words, our ability has outpaced our morality.

At this point, we can turn back to the days of the people of God as they too were entering new territory. As we do, we see there are two choices when you come to this point. Either your new knowledge and experience can lead to arrogance, or it can lead to humility.

In the former, you can look at what you used to think and used to believe with an air of superiority. You remember the old days like the college student who has moved from the country to the city. There is a certain fondness with which you reflect on the old days, but it’s more of a sense of nostalgia than any real value. You’ve moved passed that point, and while it might be nice to be the simple-minded person you once were, those days are gone. You can’t go back. So you shake your head at what you used to be with a wry smile, and you turn to look at the unbounded future of discovery.

And this doesn’t just apply to areas of science. It applies to spiritual knowledge as well.

I remember as a college student myself studying the Bible for myself for the first time. I remember reading not only the Scripture but also Christian authors and theologians, and then taking those ideas back to my old environments with such a degree of spiritual arrogance that it’s amazing that any relationships I had from that time still remain. I was the walking epitome of what Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 8 as the knowledge that puffs up. If knowledge puffs up, I was the stay-puffed marshmallow man of theology. New ideas, new knowledge, new experiences can and will lead to arrogance.

Or…

Or you can, as you move into that new territory of intellectual discovery, do so in an attitude of humility. Either knowledge leads to arrogance, or knowledge leads to humility. A few years later, after my ego had been sufficiently popped by a few good friends who loved me enough to tell me the truth, I sat in a seminary class with a man who has forgotten more things than I will ever know. And as we neared graduation, he passed onto us some of the best council I’ve ever received. In the midst of a classroom of budding young pastors and theologians, he advised us with this:

“Theological education is the process of passing from unconscious to conscious ignorance.”

He helped me see that as you grow in intellect, one of the primary ways that’s rightly understood is that you now know, with each passing moment, how much you don’t know. That’s the kind of humility that makes us not forget that the Lord is the Lord whether you’re in Egypt or whether you’re in the promised land. So as we continue to grow, both in our knowledge and experiences, let’s remember that the knowledge of God is a vast ocean that even in eternity cannot be explored.

And let us be cautioned against the kind of knowledge that puffs us up rather than pushes us low.

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In Case You’re Not Into Basketball, Here’s a March Madness Alternative

… from Yoda, of all people (er, beings)…

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You’ve Become a Pharisee

Imagine yourself moving into a house with a huge picture window overlooking a grand view across a wise expanse of water enclosed by a range of snow-capped mountains. You have a ringside seat before wild storms and cloud formations, the entire spectrum of sun-illuminated colors in the rocks and trees and wildflowers and water. You are captivated by the view. Several times a day you interrupt your work and stand before this window to take in the majesty and the beauty, thrilled with the botanical and meteorological fireworks.

One afternoon you notice some bird droppings on the window glass, get a bucket of water and a towel, and clean it. A couple of days later a rain storm leaves the window streaked, and the bucket comes out again. Another day visitors come with a thrive of small dirty-fingered children. The moment they leave you see all the smudge marks on the glass. They are hardly out the door before you have the bucket out. You are so proud of that window, and it’s such a large window. But it’s incredible how many different ways foreign objects can attach themselves to that window, obscuring the vision, distracting from the contemplative beauty.

Keeping that window clean develops into an obsessive-compulsive neurosis. You accumulate ladders and buckets and squeegees. You construct a scaffolding inside and out to make it possible to get to the all the difficult corners and heights. You have the cleanest window in North America — but it’s now been years since you looked through it.

You’ve become a Pharisee.

Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, p. 211.

(HT:Rob Tims)

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Don’t Stop Fighting

The Book of Joshua closes on a sobering note. The great military leader, Joshua, after finally marching into the Promised Land with the Israelites and doling out the land among the tribes, addressed his people and didn’t pull any punches when he did so:

“You will not be able to worship Yahweh, because He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not remove your transgressions and sins. If you abandon the Lord and worship foreign gods, He will turn against you, harm you, and completely destroy you, after he has been good to you” (Joshua 24:19-20).

The people made promises in response; oh, how they made promises. But the book then closes with the death and burial of Joshua, their leader, the elders who outlived Joshua but had born witness to and participated in the conquest of the land, and Eleazar the priest. Their lives had been filled with battle and bloodshed, starting with the battle of Jericho and moving right on through the land. During those days, the Israelites marched and fought and plundered and no one could stand in their way. More precisely, no one could stand in the way of their God who had given them the land.

But Joshua knew their tendencies. He knew the frailty of their hearts. He knew the nature of empty promises and big talk. And one wonders if he died knowing that the future was not as bright as it might seem, for indeed it was not. Maybe part of that pessimism was due to what he had seen in his lifetime – a failure to follow through. Going back to their days of conquest, you see a pattern that extended right through the life and death of Joshua and into the period of the Judges. The Israelites failed to fully do, brutal though it might seem, what God told them to do:

Joshua 13:13: …but the Israelites did not drive out the Geshurites and Maacathites. So Geshur and Maacath live in Israel to this day.

Joshua 16:10: But, they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer. So the Canaanites live in Ephraim to this day, but they are forced laborers.

Joshua 17:11-13: Within Issachar and Asher, Manasseh had Beth-shean with its towns, Ibleam with its towns, and the inhabitants of Dor with its towns; the inhabitants of En-dor with its towns, the inhabitants of Taanach with its towns, and the inhabitants of Megiddo with its towns—the three cities ofNaphath.The descendants of Manasseh could not possess these cities, because the Canaanites were determined to stay in this land. However, when the Israelites grew stronger, they imposed forced labor on the Canaanites but did not drive them out completely.

Joshua 15:63: But the descendants of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem. So the Jebusites live in Jerusalem among the descendants of Judah to this day.

Judges 1:21: At the same time the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who were living in Jerusalem. The Jebusites have lived among the Benjaminites in Jerusalem to this day.

Judges 1:30: Zebulun failed to drive out the residents of Kitron or the residents of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them and served as forced labor.

Judges 1:31-32: Asher failed to drive out the residents of Acco or of Sidon, or Ahlab, Achzib, Helbah, Aphik, or Rehob. The Asherites lived among the Canaanites who were living in the land, because they failed to drive them out.

Judges 1:33: Naphtali did not drive out the residents of Beth-shemesh or the residents of Beth-anath. They lived among the Canaanites who were living in the land, but the residents of Beth-shemesh and Beth-anath served as their forced labor.

Judges 1:34-36: The Amorites forced the Danites into the hill country and did not allow them to go down into the valley.The Amorites refused to leaveHar-heres, Aijalon, and Shaalbim. When the house of Joseph got the upper hand, the Amorites were made to serve as forced labor. The territory of the Amorites extended from the Ascent of Akrabbim, that is from Sela upward.

This wasn’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, the violent nature of obedience God commanded. It was going halfway – an “almost” kind of obedience to His call, and one they would pay for in the years to come. It wasn’t that the commands of God were confusing. Nor was it that they were complicated. They were simple and straightforward with no middle ground. So why did Israel, time and time again, stop short of going all the way? You could argue there were many reasons. Perhaps it was lack of faith that God would continue to deliver them. Maybe it’s that there’s a tendency inside all of us to always look to the minimum required and try and do one step less than that. But I also think there’s a simple reason for their almost obedience, and one that’s in me as well:

They got tired of fighting.

I mean, come on – they had to do a lot of fighting. It wasn’t that the land was served up on a silver plate entirely. Sure, God would go with them. And sure, He would give them victory. But they were the ones who had to sweat it out in the armor. They were the ones always on the move. They were the ones hunting these people down. And perhaps there came a time when they were just tired of the whole thing. They wanted to settle down and put their swords up on the mantle piece of their homes, a relic of a more violent past that was only brought down to tell bedtime stories to their children.

They got tired of fighting, and so they failed to finish the work at hand.

I get that. I get it because there are many days, most days in fact, when I’m tired of fighting. Because, in reality, the Christian life is a fight. Ever notice in the New Testament how violently Paul talked about the sinful nature still alive inside the Christian? He says that we should “put it to death” (Colossians 3:5). He says that we should “crucify the flesh” (Galatians 5:24). These are not casual terms; they’re bloody. Nasty. They’re fighting words. And, if you’ve really looked inside yourself, you know that there’s a constant war going on there between the work of the Spirit and the person you once were apart from Christ. That person had died, but like a zombie that slowly creeps up behind you, he’s not going quietly into the night. Not without a fight.

So we get tired. Fighting makes you that way, especially when it seems like you’re fighting the same zombie you fought yesterday. You put him to death, but here he comes again, and at some point you or I might come to the conclusion that it would be far better and easier to simply make peace with that zombie. To live together in harmony. After all, it’s a big land (in the case of the Israelites) and a big, long life (in the case of you or I).

But we can’t. We can’t sheath the sword. We can’t hang it up. We must press on and keep in the fight.

The bad news, of course, is that the fight never ends for the Christian; the opponent only slightly changes over time. Victory, then, is not so much completely ridding ourselves of lingering sin, for only Jesus can do that (and, thank God, He will). Victory is being in the fight. Again and again.

Are you tired of being patient with your children? Stay in the fight.

Are you tired of holding up honest business dealings at your office? Stay in the fight.

Are you tired of being tempted to click where you should not on the screen? Stay in the fight.

Are you tired of praying for that family member who does not know Jesus? Stay in the fight.

Get in the fight. And stay in the fight. Don’t make peace with that which means to quietly conquer you. And all the while, be fueled by the truth that you are battling a conquered foe who is living on borrowed time.

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Who Was the Real St. Patrick?

Not Irish. Not a snake-charmer. Not even a saint:

 

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