Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

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CSI: Naked and Afraid


It could be just another crime scene.  There’s a naked man, unconscious and bleeding, lying there alongside a mountain pass. Apparently, he was the victim of a robbery so there is no identification.  In Christ’s haunting saga of the Good Samaritan, the mystery is not what happened, but what happens next.  The most important clue, the detail commonly overlooked by people on the case, is one unpleasant but revealing word.

Stripped.  The Bible specifically says the robbery victim left for dead along the Jericho Road was naked.  His attackers had “stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30)  Gone was his prayer shawl, the tallit men of the region always wore. For Hebrew males, there was a tzitzit on each corner, a tassel that denoted reverence for God.  The Law required that Jewish men have a dark blue thread woven into the tzitzit. The Samaritans, their despised cousins, would have have been identified by a white thread in their tzitzit or perhaps light blue.  Without their traditional robes and clothing, the Jews and Samaritans looked just alike.

So the Jewish priest and the Levite did not step around the poor man, leaving him to die, because they were too busy to help a neighbor.  They couldn’t tell if the man was their neighbor or not!  Despite their calling from God to love their neighbors as themselves, their definition of “neighbor” was just too narrow to afford a stranger the benefit of the doubt.

What makes this parable so helpful and so compelling is the singular detail it does not divulge. The priest and Levite were Hebrews, and the Samaritan was obviously not Jewish. But the identity of the robbery victim is as mysterious to you and me as it was to the Samaritan arriving on the scene. Yet seeing a helpless human being in desperate need of assistance, this man from Samaria was moved with basic human kindness. We’re not even told he was a religious guy.  But here’s the bottom line: he didn’t have to rise above any feelings of resentment for an enemy.  He didn’t see an adversary.  All he could see was another man whose skin and features were mostly like his.

Love isn’t blind.  It just doesn’t need a formal introduction to act.

Writers and preachers tend to mock the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite who walk on by, but that dilutes the message.  In his telling of the story, Jesus allows us all to see the enemy, and it is us!  We have all failed at one time or another to look beyond the cultural disguises others affect in order to see the human heart that beats deep inside.  Skin-deep compassion must be a common condition.

For instance, historians tell us that young Mohammed reached out to both Christians and Jews around Mecca when he was trying to find his own spiritual bearings.  Sadly, both groups frowned upon pagans in their hometown as savages to be avoided; not neighbors to be loved and cared for.  Sadly, we know what happened next.  Even today, many of us are so agitated over Islamic extremism and open borders that we’d not only leave a Muslim-looking victim lying in the road, but we might kick him while walking past.

It’s easy to be condescending toward competitors, especially when they seem so angry. But false religion is not always a form of competition: more often it’s just a way to be connected to something instead of nothing.  And rage is frequently an expression of fear and desperation.  Of course, Islamist extremists are not seething with fury because they live in poverty; many don’t. They’re angry because they’re empty.  That spiritual hunger leaves them vulnerable to political players with personal ambitions.  They are dangerous, but they’re not really monsters.  They’re just people.

According to Jesus, loving God by loving my neighbors is the key to my faith. It’s also the key to their’s, being loved unconditionally by a fellow human being who knows Christ. As the Samaritan generously offered mercy to a fellow human being in need, let’s you and I go and do likewise.  We can take our frustrations to prayer closets and ballot boxes. Let’s take our love to the streets.

And lift up the Cross!


Do You Believe in Miracles?

BURNING CHURCHOne of my favorite “true” stories is certifiably true.  I had wondered about it over the years but  I never managed to find any evidence for or against.  Then recently it was confirmed by  How do you explain this?

The choir at West Side Baptist Church met religiously for rehearsal on Wednesday evenings at 7:20.  So of course, shock and terror spread quickly across little Beatrice, Nebraska, one Wednesday night when the church furnace exploded at 7:25 PM.  The blast quickly leveled the church building, with flames leaping everywhere.  The force of the explosion knocked a nearby radio station off the air and shattered windows in neighboring homes.

Fire rescue workers and stunned neighbors descended on the scene expecting the worst. Weren’t there fifteen regular members in the choir?  How many charred corpses would they be forced to unearth from the ashes and despair?  Much to everyone’s astonishment and relief, the answer was 0.

No one was killed in the tragic blast because on that chill February evening, all fifteen members of the West Side Choir arrived late for rehearsal!

  • Royena Estes had planned to leave on time, but her car wouldn’t start.  She called and asked her sister Ladona for a ride, but the high school sophomore needed a few more minutes to solve a geometry problem in her homework. They ran late.
  • Pastor Klempel and his wife were about to leave at their usual time when she noticed her dress was badly wrinkled.  She went back inside to press it, so they left home late.
  • Harvey Ahl was nearly always early for rehearsal, but on this evening his wife was out-of-town and he was having fun playing with his two young sons.  When he finally glanced at his watch, he was already running behind.
  • Marilyn, the pianist, had planned to arrive half an hour early to rehearse a difficult section in one of the songs, but she nodded off for just a moment and over napped. Because she was late, her mother, the choir director, was also slow to arrive.
  • And so it went on February 1.  One choir member took a nap and overslept. Another felt lazy and decided to steal just five more minutes wrapped up in her blanket. Two were frustrated when their automobiles wouldn’t crank.

So on the night when West Side Baptist Church exploded, not a single choir member was inside the building.  All had been providentially hindered by completely unrelated distractions, and everyone was uncharacteristically late.

Some would say they were all just lucky.  But the odds of all 15 faithful choir members being late on the very same night would surely be one in a million.  It calls to mind the promise from Ephesians 3:20 that our God can do more than we ask or imagine.

Lift up the Cross!

The Carnivore’s Bible

BURGER BASHMost Americans will be vegans within fifty years if current trends continue.  Think about it and you’ll agree this is not a radical idea.  Meatless menus and days without meat become more popular every year.  With each passing season, our affection for animals increases, along with the conviction that they must have rights, too. And very soon, there will be synthetic meats that boast of added nutritional benefits with the same great taste. You can imagine the labels: No animals were harmed in the production of this food product.

In 2070, our great grandchildren will look back on our generation with horror! No one will understand why we insisted on serving dead animals to our children and our dinner guests!  Quite suddenly, most of the shoppers and chefs of 2017 will seem like heartless barbarians.  We will join that long, death march into infamy only a few paces behind the slave owners, racists, and sexists who came before us.  We will be condemned and stigmatized for failing to adopt values of an unborn generation still 100 years away!

No, that’s not fair.  It’s not even rational.  We are all products of our particular day and age- Millennials and Generation Z are no different than Boomers in this regard.  You don’t know what you don’t know.  But keep this injustice in mind that next time you are tempted to scowl at those heartless Neanderthals who populate the Holy Bible.

The toughest thing about reading through your Bible in a year happens early on: the challenge of slogging through one scene of Old Testament battlefield carnage after another.   Why did Samuel slash King Agag to ribbons while condemning King Saul for not doing it first?  Why are women and children occasionally killed along with the soldiers in one battle or another?  We are perplexed that the Almighty God not only approves of such conduct but sometimes commands it must be done.

In fact, many of the heroes and heroines of the Bible walked the Earth some three thousand years ago.  Read that again: 30 centuries ago! The Ammonites and Jebusites and Amorites who surrounded their homeland were not enlightened, 21st Century humanists.  For most nations of that period, warfare was not about self-defense: it was the economy, stupid!  Most nations gleefully invaded their neighbors to expand their own territory, feed their own people, and bring home stolen treasure and prisoners of war to work in the fields. Most communities were not even bound by religious commands that they should not kill, much less not declare war.

Some like the Philistines or the Amalekites were so lacking in principle or human decency that they would launch sneak attacks year after year.  If terrorist neighbors persisted in waging war and killing your trusting subjects year in and year out, a desperate king’s only option might well be to finally make an example of one of those nations.  By inflicting such horrific death and damage to men, women and children alike, that king might hope to avert future bloodshed. It was a scorched earth strategy. Today it’s called the Nuclear Option.

Indeed, that rationale explains God’s command that the Amalekites would perpetually live under a divine curse.  When the Israelites first emerged from bondage in Egypt, they were weakened, broken in spirit, unskilled in desert survival, and utterly defenseless. The Amalekites not only chose to attack but came sweeping in from the rear.  This enabled them to first slaughter the stragglers- the lame, the sickly, the aging, and children leading flocks of livestock- before coming face to face with the armed men who could fight.  The divine curse that God decreed after that heartless act extended to future Amalekites like Samuel’s King Agag and Queen Esther’s Haman, a descendant of Agag. God made an example of them for the sake of other nations.

Some of the things that unsettle our tender sensibilities in the Twenty-first Century actually saved lives amid the cruel and uncivilized laws of survival of 800 BC.  And some of the ethics of the Hebrew people, so foreign to us, were actually advanced behaviors in a world where human trafficking, warfare, plural marriage, racism, and oppression of women were protected by the laws and traditions of most societies.

When Jesus taught us, “Judge not that you be not judged,” he did not suggest we should not evaluate good or bad behavior.  In context, he actually taught that we should not impose a standard for others that we would never apply to ourselves; do not judge with unjust standards lest you be condemned the same way. It’s a principle to keep in mind when we’re tempted to disparage Samson or Samuel or David.

Bible heroes met God on the mountaintops but they had to live their lives in the valleys. So do we.  Why not learn from the lives our God’s ancient people without disqualifying them because they didn’t live long enough to learn from us?  I always take along some grace when I journey through the Bible; the kind of grace Jesus carried for carnivores like me.

Lift up the Cross!



We’re Toast!


If we learned anything from the Mayans, it’s that if you don’t finish something it’s not the end of the world.

Doomsday predictions are always wrong (so far) but they’re not always a waste of time. I can vividly recall one of those years when everybody was reading a book entitled 88 Reasons Why the Lord will Return in 1988. Newspapers actually counted down the days!  I was serving in Tennessee at the time when a young mom named Eva showed up at our church after reading the book.  Fearing the end, she became a follower of Jesus Christ. The highly publicized day of destiny came and went, but her faith was the real thing.  In fact, she still worships there in Columbia, Tennessee, and we’re Facebook friends.  I expect she still appreciates the irrelevant little book that prompted her 14 kt decision for Christ!

There’s a popular cliche that insists if you know you’d do things differently with the end of the world approaching, you should go ahead and make those changes now.  I guess that sounds compelling at first glance, but then someone reminds you that actually happened in 1 Thessalonians.  People gave up their jobs and sat around waiting for the return of Christ.  That is, until Paul wrote and warned them to stop sitting around watching 1st Century cable TV and do something.  “This we commanded you,” he reminded them, “That if any would not work, neither should he eat.” 1 Thessalonians 3:10.

But what if the end of the world were considered a certainty in only three weeks? Imagine that Asteroid Arnold is hurtling predictably toward a cosmic impact with Planet Earth, and the ETA is 21 days away.  Would you quit your job and hurry off to the beach?  Would you stop making your mortgage payment or car payment?  If the drawing for the Mega Millions Lottery is 48 hours away and only two other people have bought tickets, will you spend $5 for a 1 in 3 chance at $200 Million to squander on your final 19 days of survival?

Why does an high paying job or a lottery pay off matter so much in the normal course of life, and yet matter so little with three weeks left on the earth’s Game Clock?   Why should you justifiably rush back for the priceless diamond pendant you accidentally forgot while checking out of your hotel room if you’re on vacation, but not hurry back to retrieve it from your stateroom if you’re on the RMS Titanic?

It seems the standard by which we measure most things is Eternity and our proximity to that event horizon.  If I am under the impression the doorway to God is decades away, money and the things it will buy seem to matter so much more.  If I detect I may have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, I’ll be far more likely to chuck it all. But seriously,why “live like you’re dying” and try to cram as much earthly pleasure as possible in your final countdown?  Will any pleasures here really compare to the celestial pleasures awaiting us in Heaven?  Really?

Calculating the currency exchange rate of Eternity is easier when you strip away the illusions and walk through life with a biblical perspective.  “All people are like grass and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field,”Isaiah reminded himself.  “The grass withers and the flowers fall.” (Isaiah 40:6)  Even compared to a Redwood Tree, you and I aren’t here for long!  Isaiah adds that the Word of the Lord endures forever.

Years ago, serving among poverty stricken believers in Malindi, Kenya, I discovered why fashions and status symbols are often called “the trappings of life.”  It’s because you can esteem them so highly that they trap you in a dangerous place and leave your soul at risk. That’s why few things clarify the mind as effectively as knowing The End is near.

Lift up the Cross!



4 Reasons Moses is Still Amazing


Gods and Kings may yet turn out to be another holiday turkey.  Critics are already slamming it for being too long, too predictable, and badly acted.  If Noah taught us anything last spring, it was that Hollywood has the capacity to suck all the joy and most of the truth out of any biblical story!  But if you plan to catch the movie when it releases in a couple of weeks, here are four indisputable truths you should watch for.

1. The most amazing miracle in Exodus is the life of Moses, not the parting of the sea!  It took God just about 12 hours to create a path through the sea for the Israelites, but he had already devoted 80 years to developing Moses and bringing him to that unforgettable moment.  The Great Liberator was born to slaves who had no civil rights;  should never have survived his basket boat ride past the hungry crocodiles and clumsy hippos in the Nile River; and ultimately managed to defy the most powerful political leader in the ancient world and wreck the national economy as well.  He alone was able to meet with the invisible God face to face.  Compared to the life of Moses, the spectacle in the Red Sea was just theater.

2. Moses was not  a showman and did not want to lead this parade. When God came calling with a starring role in the drama of redemption, Moses politely asked to be excused- twice.  The man had always demonstrated a heart for underdogs and oppressed people, but he also had an explosive temper and enjoyed solitude. Plus he didn’t enjoy public speaking! It’s because he was so ill-suited to lead an uncooperative nation on foot through a blistering desert, that his success could only reflect the amazing power of the One True God.

3. The plague that turned the Nile to blood was not caused by natural forces. Skeptics and movie directors have suggested dozens of scenarios which might have logically turned the Nile red.  Gods and Kings envisions the historic waterway was flowing with blood after a battle.  Other researchers have imagined the river filled unexpectedly with crimson colored algae or the spillover of mud from a flood to the north.  But Exodus explains that even water already stored up in pots and basins also turned red.

4. God wanted to write a story that would reveal his unrivaled power and could be told and retold for centuries. He literally hardened the Pharaoh’s heart on several occasions so that the king would not surrender before the final act was done.  In our world where man-made wonders and historical high points are routinely eclipsed and forgotten by the next generation, the story of Exodus continues to be retold, celebrated, and dramatized over and over again just about 4,000 years later. That was the plan!

Enjoy the movie, but don’t forget to go back and read the book.  And lift up the cross!

Drowned Out by the Thundering Herd


Have you noticed nobody ever mentions peer pressure anymore?  Not that long ago, people worried that “bad company corrupts good morals,” and hoped to find some positive peer pressure for their kids.  Negative peer pressure was blamed for all kinds of bad behavior, particularly among adolescents.  But I don’t think that’s true anymore.  These days, there are so many forms of evil beckoning at every turn that there may not be enough bad peer pressure to go around. People don’t generally surrender to sin under pressure anymore.

Today’s challenge is peer erosion.  There is absolutely no pressure to live an upright life or behave in a wholesome and responsible manner.  Not only does it seem like bad behavior pays dividends (i.e. the Kardashians,) but it feels like there is nobody left who really cares about goodness.  Quite often I find myself recoiling from some popular, public form of behavior, and wondering, “Am I the only person in the world who thinks this is shameful and degrading?”

I recall the moment from Elijah’s life, when God finds the prophet hiding in a cave and asks for an explanation.  Elijah replies, “Lord, I have been diligent in serving you but everybody else in the country has turned away from you! They’ve abandoned the faith, toppled your altars and killed your prophets.  Now I’m the last one left and they’re trying to kill me!” (1 Kings 20:14)

Elijah isn’t the last true believer left in Israel.  In fact, God assures him there are 7,000 other people of faith scattered all across the land who have never bowed to a pagan idol, and who worship the one true God.  Sometimes it just feels like you’re the last surviving saint!  For Elijah, it was miles of arid landscape that separated him from others who shared his faith in God. For you and me it’s the the overwhelming tide of the media that isolates us in the illusion that decadence is awesome and everybody else is making the most of it.  The anonymity of living in urban settings and not knowing our neighbors makes us feel alone, unnoticed, insignificant; a minority of one.

There’s nothing wrong with being the minority.  Minority status served the first century church pretty well.  It’s not suppressing the influence of the church in places like China where Christians are a real minority, but a growing one.  And before we begin to enjoy more influence and more positive peer pressure here in the USA, the saints will need to dig deep and come up with some courage. We are not on the wrong side of history. To the contrary, the history of the world is on our side.

We are simply on the bottom of a world turned upside down.  When God prevails and the world rebounds, we will realize we were always on top.  And we were never really outnumbered; we had simply been shouted down.  Peer erosion is corrected when people like you and me begin to speak up and stand tall once again.  We are not alone.  God is with us, and He has lots of friends.

Lift up the cross!

The World is Not Enough


Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went his way.   Matthew 13: 24 – 25

The wages of sin are death, but if you’re honest, it sure looks like all those doomed sinners are racking up the gold and silver as well!  Don’t pretend you’re shocked: you’ve surely had the same nagging idea over the years.  Hollywood celebs party in luxury digs with imported liquor and designer drugs in twosomes and threesomes and other configurations too sordid to mention.  New York financiers buy vacation homes in Switzerland and yachts and expensive European cars.  If the name of God ever passes through any of their minds, it can only be in profanity or mockery. The meek will inherit the earth, but in the meantime, the pagans clearly own it.

On your worst days, it can be disheartening.  When I was a struggling seminary student trying to save up enough change to do my laundry, it did not escape me that rockers like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney had servants doing their laundry while they were eating gourmet meals on holiday.  “God, that’s not right.  What I make in a year, those guys spend in one day on the French Riviera!”

Strangely, those old complaints drifted back into my mind last weekend as I was working in my backyard.  I noticed how quickly the weeds spring up in the flower beds and how quickly they grow.  The good plants need time and care and water, but weeds can grow 12″ tall in a couple of hours on a hot, dry day!  Sometimes they even look more unusual and interesting than the bedding plants, at least for a couple of days.  Then their true nature comes out and they flaunt their weirdness and choke out their neighboring plants.  An attentive gardener pulls them up and- just like that– they are gone. They were life without purpose.

The parable of the tares is not about lost people in the church, although their number is legion.  It’s about unbelievers in the world.  They seem to thrive.  They seem to have all the advantages.  There is no end to their sensual, narcissistic appetites.  Read Psalm 37:1 and you’ll see how irritating this pattern could occasionally be for people like for Old Testament saints like David.

Don’t fret.  Just remember that weeds look bigger, stronger and more successful only for a season- a very short season.  Then they are gone, leaving the bedding plants to thrive and glorify God through their beauty and benefits.  You and I should pray for the celebs in Hollywood and NYC to repent and rely upon God’s grace.  We can even learn something from their addictive behavior and self destructive obsessions.  But we should never envy them or suppose that God is unjust.  The Father promises us something richer and bigger and more satisfying; a life of never ending joy in his presence.  That is after all what always made the Promised Land so promising: the presence of the Most High God.  With apologies to James Bond, I won’t hold out for that Aston Martin after all.

“Wait for the Lord and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off.”  Psalm 37:34

Lift up the cross!

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