The Power of the Cross

Blessed Good Friday to you and yours!

In Luke 9:23, Jesus warns His would-be disciples, “And [Jesus] was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.’ ”  The concept, taken from this verse, of “bearing one’s cross” is a prevalent theme in the literature of Christian discipleship.  We often take the term to mean putting up with some physical infirmity, dealing with a challenging relationship, or some other difficult situation.  But to Jesus’ first century audience, the meaning of “bearing one’s cross” cut much deeper and was explicitly vivid.  Being 2000 years removed from the cross as an instrument of execution has so softened the intensity of this phrase for us that we almost miss its potency.

It was not uncommon in Jesus’ day for a convicted criminal to literally “bear his own cross,” carrying the crossbeam of his cross through the streets to the place of execution.  Jesus Himself suffered this fate.  When Jesus spoke these words, this literal “cross-carrying” was what his hearers visualized.  The equation of “cross equals death, not difficulty” was common in their experience.

I believe we can take at least three applications from Jesus’ command to take up our cross.  The most direct is this:  as a disciple of Jesus we must be prepared for physical death that may result.  This was not only the outcome for some of His listeners that day (nearly all of the apostles), but continues to be the experience of Christ followers in many places.  That Jesus had this in mind is clear from the verse that follows.  “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Lk 9:24).

Application two is hinted at in the preceding phrase of verse 23, “He must deny himself.”  Similar to the cross representing physical death is the idea that the cross represents death to self, death to selfish ambition, death to your own hopes, dreams, and plans, even death to relationships that hinder one’s discipleship loyalty (Lk 14:26).  The word “daily” following the command also fits this application as it suggests this death is a continuous and ongoing aspect of discipleship.  Taking up our cross in this sense helps us defeat our last enemy:  ourselves and our selfish ambition.  Our desires and agenda are now subservient to the call of Christ.

Application three moves beyond this specific verse to look at the over-arching message of the New Testament.  When we take up the cross, we are not only embracing its death-to-self message, we are also embracing its power.  We generally ascribe the “power of the cross” to the one time event of our justification.  We rightfully acknowledge that Christ’s death on the cross was powerful and sufficient to deliver us from the penalty of sin.  But could the power of the cross also be our ongoing experience?  The answer is a resounding “Yes!”  And for the past few years, the emphasis of this weblog has been the practical ramifications of how Christ’s work on the cross crucified our sin nature, ushered in everything new about who we are, and empowers us to “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph 4:24).

On this Good Friday remembrance, may I encourage you to take a minute to thank our Savior not only for His one time gift of redemption but also for your new identity in Christ, your new nature, your new heart, and the ongoing presence of His Holy Spirit.  In these gifts we experience the power of the cross every day.

Merry Christmas from Behind Enemy Lines

At various times throughout church history, Christianity has enjoyed a “home field advantage”; a time when the broader culture was aligned with Christian principles.  Times such as the end of the pagan Roman Empire, Europe at the height of the Reformation, Latin America during the rise of Catholicism, and even the volatile Middle East where Christianity was much in the mainstream for the first 600 years after Christ.  Of course, a home field advantage can have the downside of a cultural form of Christianity rather than the real thing and abuses under all of these favorable systems are well documented.  But as a whole, a culture moving in the general direction of Christian principles and ethics is a good thing.

In the United States, we have enjoyed a more prolonged home field advantage than most nations.  From the first Pilgrims to the Great Awakenings to the rise in church attendance following World War II, Christian ethics and morality have been a priority and value in American public life.  As a child, I attended public grade school where teachers led prayer before class and there was a general cooperation between society and church and school regarding at least the symbols of Christianity if not always the exact lifestyle.

If you have been paying attention lately, you know that our home field advantage is long gone in this country.  Not only are we now the “visiting team”, so to speak, but we are actually more like a resistance movement in Enemy occupied territory.  And for believers in the United States, this is an uncomfortable new reality to come to grips with.  We are alternately angry, sad, and distraught at the new level of profanity overtaking this country.  (Profanity as the opposite of sacred, not as in swearing.)  American culture is becoming profane, in the biblical sense, to its core.  With in-your-face and over-the-top immorality, violence, sexual confusion, and general mayhem abounding in our movies, television shows, video games, advertisements, and entertainment, in general, and people still have the gall to say that a nativity scene is “offensive”?  Are you kidding me?

When we look at the world wide picture, we soon realize that this departure from Christian norms is nothing new.  It is as if Satan has annexed the U. S. to his already existing territory.  Europe is in a long cold winter of post-Christianity.  Africa, despite decades of education and aid, is mired in gender injustice and corruption and continues in the centuries-long tradition of fatalism regarding death, disease, children, and life as a whole.  Palestinian believers are squeezed by the Israeli occupation on one hand and the rise of militant Islam in their territories on the other.  Even in heavily Catholic Latin America, religious symbols are disappearing.  Just this week, I received a Christmas card from a friend in Uruguay in which he commented on this new reality in his country:  “Christmas Day” has become “Family Day” and “Holy Week” has become “Tourism Week”.  Small change, but multiplied many times over, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Satan has the current home field advantage throughout most of the world.

And to be honest, this has probably, more often than not, been the case throughout the history of the world.  (For my overseas friends who are rolling their eyes at this angst of Americans when their present countries have been like this for decades, I apologize.  This is new territory to us.)  So, should we take our ball and go home and huddle together waiting for the end to come?  What are our marching orders in Enemy occupied territory?  We will answer that question with a trip to our hymnal, a sci-fi children’s book, and Burkina-Faso, West Africa.

Our marching orders are to proclaim truth and practice love.  It is that simple.  Jesus said, “Satan was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.  Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).  Deception as in “the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9) is Satan’s standard operating procedure.  Our defense against this deception that has taken the world captive is the truth.  Jesus – the Way, the Truth, and the Life – said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).

When the Jews responded with, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”, Jesus continued, “Truly I say to you everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever.  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:33-36).  The message of hope for a “world in the grip of the evil one” (I Jn 5:19) is God’s truth; the truth that sets us free from sin’s power.  Truth is not just about knowledge.  God’s truth is to experience deep in our core His incredible promise of a life set free from sin’s power.

Martin Luther captured this theme in the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”.

“And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth.
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.”

The word that “fells the devil” is the word of truth, God’s truth.  In this world of spiritual and moral confusion, we must consistently present the truth about God, the truth about man, the truth about sin, and the truth about salvation, rescue, and deliverance.  One truth that I feel is particularly needed for our day is the promise of power that comes with the new birth.  The power of of a new creation, a new nature, a new identity, a new Spirit, and a new heart.  The Christian life is not about life improvement, it is about a life brand new; a life of the heart set free.

But our truth must be expressed in love.  Love is the antithesis to Satan and the world system he rules.  Love is the opposite of Satan’s character and action.  Love is the mark of a Christ follower.  When we practice love, we not only emulate our Father and His Christ, but we also offer the world something unique, something Satan can never acquire, something over which Satan has no control.  When we see our home field advantage disappearing, we are tempted to try to grab it back through political rhetoric, anger, hand-wringing, intimidation, and insult.  But these are empty weapons in our war with the devil.  Our only weapon of first and last resort is love.

In the children’s sci-fi classic, A Wrinkle in Time, Meg and Charles Wallace go to the planet of Camazotz to search for their missing scientist father.  Once there, the young Charles Wallace is captured and eventually captivated by the evil IT.  Meg, his tween-age sister, is fended off in her rescue attempt of her brother by Charles declaration that she has nothing, no power, that IT does not already possess.  In her back and forth confrontation with Charles and IT, Meg discovers that she does have something to offer.  Love.  Love is the answer to Charles’ rescue.

“Charles, I love you” Meg proclaims.  “My baby brother who always takes care of me.  Come back to me, Charles Wallace.  Come away from IT.  Come back, come home.  I love you, Charles.  Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you.”

Meg’s love set Charles free, and before long they are back in their front yard united with their family.  God’s love, shining through us, is our best weapon to help people break free of Satan’s power.  “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (I Jn 3:18).

It’s easy to become discouraged when we see and experience Satan’s world-wide influence.  But take courage, the body of Christ is not dead.  His literal body sits at God’s right hand interceding for us, His children.  And His body on earth – his literal physical representation to the world – is us, His children.

In Burkina-Faso, our daughter and son-in-law clearly landed behind Enemy lines when they settled in the capital city of Ouaugadougou.  But rather than be overwhelmed by poverty, gender injustice, and corruption, they stepped back and listened to the voice of their Captain.  Annie wrote in a recent email about her desire to assist women in maternal care.

“God is helping me each day to overcome my fears in the reality of the graphic nature of maternal care in the third world.  It’s something you have to slowly get used to….not desensitized to, but just “able” to see it, and see through to how to help instead of becoming paralyzed by the overwhelming nature of it all.  He works on my heart a little each day as I think and pray more and more about it.  When the flood of how big this issue is wants to wash over my heart, I remember God is big, loves each woman on an individual level, and I think about this quote from Mother Teresa:

” ‘I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual.  I can only love one person at a time – just one, one, one.  So you begin.  I began – I picked up one person.  Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand….The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community.  Just begin – one, one, one.’  Mother Teresa.”

The power of love is a power unique to the church.  It is a power the world knows nothing of and is powerless to stop.  It is a power that is being exercised a million times over across the world by your brothers and sisters in Christ.  And it is a resistance movement that is literally “destroying the works of the devil” (I Jn 3:9).

May I encourage you?  Do not give up hope.  We are called not only to keep up our hope, but to be the hope as well.  We are the last great hope for this world, not we in ourselves, but “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).  Jesus came on that first Christmas as the hope of the world.  He has left us – you and me – on this planet to be His physical presence in the world.  By virtue of Christ in us, we are the hope of glory for the world.

Merry Christmas from your friend in the resistance movement.  Keep the flame alive!

Despising the Shame

“Therefore since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:1-2).

Today we see the cross as a beautiful symbol of our Christian faith.  We wear it on necklaces, celebrate it in iconic art, and give it a prominent place in our church sanctuaries.  And this is as it should be.  The cross is a beautiful symbol of our rescue by Jesus, friend of sinners.

In Jesus’ day, however, the cross was anything but beautiful.  It was a symbol of death, and a vulgar death at that.  It was the epitome of shame.  A naked man being put to death on a stick of wood.  Oh the pain!  Oh the shame!

How did Jesus respond?  He “despised the shame.”  He rejected the shame.  He refused the shame.  He endured the shame for the “joy set before Him” of accomplishing the salvation of the world.  What Satan, Pontius Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the Jewish leaders meant for shame, God turned into our good through Jesus’ obedience even to death on a cross.

Now, after the cross and the triumph of the resurrection, Satan still seeks to shame Christ’s children.  He holds a mirror up to our sin and reminds us of our moral failure.  His world system, at nearly every turn, mocks our belief as intellectually foolish and naive.  If Satan can’t have us, he seeks the next best thing, taking us out of service over our shame.

How should we respond?  By going to the accounting ledger, God’s Word, and believing what is written there about our sin; not only nailed to a cross and forgiven, but it’s power destroyed.  By recognizing our mockers not as our enemies, but prisoners of the Enemy, and staying grounded in the truth of God’s Word.  Don’t succumb to the shame.  Don’t believe the Accuser.  Despise the shame and press on to the reward.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).

Immanuel: God with Us, God in Us

Merry Christmas!!!

“Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us’ ” (Mt 1:22-23).  And Immanuel did come and dwell among us.

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).  “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life – and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the Eternal Life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (I Jn 1:1-2).

In his New Testament writings, John strongly emphasizes the eyewitness testimony of the apostles.  They saw, heard, and touched Jesus, the Word made flesh, the Eternal Life made flesh, God in the flesh.  Jesus truly was and is Immanuel; God with Us.

But Jesus Immanuel, God with Us, left the earthly scene, from an “in the flesh” standpoint, around 2000 years ago.  But He did not leave us without an Immanuel.  During His Last Supper discourse, Jesus said, “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not  go away, the Helper (i.e. the Holy Spirit) shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (Jn 16:7).  “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you” (Jn 14:16-17).

God has given us a new Immanuel that is not only “God with Us” but has become “God in Us” as well.  While we celebrate the birth of Jesus Immanuel and thank Him for His sacrifice that rescued us and gave us eternal life, we should also celebrate and thank Holy Spirit Immanuel who infuses our present life with joy, peace, and victory over the power of sin.

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).  In acknowledging God in all His fullness, the three-in-one, we thank you Father for sending the Holy Spirit to be “Christ in us, the hope of glory!” (Col 1:27).  Amen!

Humility and Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving!

I have previously written about the importance of the labels we give ourselves – and just as critical, the labels we give our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We like to think it is a sign of humility when we refer to ourselves as “sinners saved by grace who have not made much progress since.”  But this is a false humility at best.  At worst, it is an outright rejection of God’s gift of a new identity for those in Christ Jesus.

We become what we label ourselves.  When we label ourselves as sinners, first and foremost, we are turning our backs on God’s gift of a new identity, a new heart, a new nature, a new power, a new Spirit, a new purity, a new disposition, a new relationship with sin, a new everything we have been writing about for the past several months.  And, sadly, it becomes an excuse to not aim higher, an excuse to shirk the goal of spiritual maturity, an excuse to remain in our sin.  We were made for so much more!

So what does the idea of us being made for so much more – and celebrating the incredible outpouring upon us of all that’s new – do to our humility?  Do we become puffed up at the thought of Jesus now calling us His friend (Jn 15:15)?  Or Paul calling us “holy and beloved” (Col 3:12)?  Or John calling us the very “seed of God” and “born of God” (I Jn 3:9)?  By turning off the sinner label, does our pride rise up as we dwell on and experience our new capacity and inclination toward righteousness?

These are legitimate questions.  The line between our practice of the righteousness bestowed by the new birth and the self-righteousness condemned by Jesus can become a fuzzy one if we are not careful.  The important key to separating the two is an overflowing attitude of thanksgiving to God for the Gift and the gifts of the New Covenant.  After all the Gift and gifts of the New Covenant are just that:  GIFTS!  We did not earn them!  They are pure gifts of God’s grace.

Think about it this way.  If you live in a million dollar home, you may have a serious appreciation for the design or the craftsmanship.  But if the home was a gift, and you have any common sense at all, you will take no pride in its value.  After all, you had nothing to do with acquiring the house.  It was pure gift.  Instead of boasting about the home’s value, you will be looking for every opportunity to thank the one who gave you the gift.  Similarly, you are walking around with a “million dollar new identity”, but boasting in it is likewise foolish since we did nothing to earn it.

This attitude of extreme thanksgiving and humility in recognizing we have done nothing to earn God’s gifts sets the foundation for us to experience the gifts without apology.  Instead of insisting we have nothing to offer our believing community by way of our own spiritual progress, step up and use what you have experienced in the newness of the resurrection life to encourage others to join you on the path.  And give thanks to God for “His indescribable gift.”