Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Posts tagged ‘Gospel’

Shine!

CITY SET ON A HILL

“We must consider that we shall be as a city set on a hill.  The eyes of all people shall be upon us.” Puritan Pastor John Winthrop, 1631

Liberal Democrats aren’t the only ones who misquote the Bible and take it out of context.  Conservative Republicans also tend to practice selective theology.  President Ronald Reagan lifted the “city set on a hill” from Pastor Winthrop, and applied it to America.  So for the last twenty years, we’ve all insisted that our national greatness is supposed to make the USA a gleaming city on a hill, an shining example for a hopeless world.  Unfortunately, that’s lame theology.

Whatever happens to America, it’s the Church of Jesus Christ that is rightly depicted as a city set on a hill. John Winthrop was paraphrasing Jesus Christ.  “You are the light of the world,” the Lord explains in his Sermon on the Mount.  “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”  Shining a light into the world is the task of saints, not patriots.  That’s because the world needs more than freedom or even prosperity: the world needs Jesus Christ.

It was conservatives who first made the mistake of assuming we could impose democracy on Muslim nations.  Unfortunately, Islamic nations don’t seem motivated to become democratic republics.  They seem to prefer authoritarian regimes.  It was the Christian faith and the character of Jesus Christ that prepared the American colonies for true liberty.  Our founding fathers said that time and again.  And only the Gospel will create the necessary foundation for freedom in Iraq or Iran.  This means we might consider celebrating “American values” a little bit less, and the Good News of Christ  a lot more.  It’s the glory of God that drives men and women to seek freedom of worship. Point them to the glory of Christ.

Lift up the Cross!

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TV Time Machine

Yes, you could call it escapism.  TNT just enjoyed the biggest cable television debut of the year with their updated version of Dallas.  Who would have thought that the oily Ewing Clan and the Southfork Ranch, vintage 1978, could reclaim their sizzle in 2012?  Two weeks ago, The Hatfields & McCoys gave the History Channel a ratings surge and heated up Google’s Search Engine.  That feud ended in 1891 but the story is suddenly in cultural currency once again.

The trend is not limited to TV.  The biggest movie of the year has been The Avengers, based on a comic strip popular in the 1960’s.  The leader of the Avengers, Captain America, operates on the values of the 1940’s.  And yesterday, I picked up my Wall Street Journal to learn that in the world of fashion, the bikini is so yesterday.  The hottest swim suits of 2012 will feature the one piece look displaying lots of fabric, no navels and little cleavage.  I’ve never actually seen an Esther Merman movie, a 1950’s phenom with curvy swimmers and water choreography, but the swim suits in the WSJ called Esther’s name to mind once again.

Speaking of water, tonight a member of the famous Wallenda Family will attempt to walk a cable across the gorge of the Niagara Falls.  The event will be televised nationally on ABC.  You can’t get much more old school than tight rope walking.

There’s no doubt we Americans still love high tech toys.  We are addicted to our smart phones.  We fixate on our giant screen HD-TV’s, and we are learning to love our I-Pads and Kindles.  Isn’t it ironic that we are using them to escape to an age when the highest technology was named Sputnik and when Bozo the Clown was a popular TV show?  We could count on Flash Gordon to save the planet.  We could trust Lucy and Desi to give us a laugh with the children without being embarrassed.  And a trip to the beach took us to a distant shore where even the sexiest swimwear left something to the imagination.

As Americans welcome the Summer of 2012, we have created a world with big questions and very little certainty. Our leaders are shrinking along with our personal wealth.  Life feels like a very hot day from 1955 when you’re still holding an old fashioned cherry bomb, and you’ve lit the fuse, but you haven’t tossed it away yet.  You can’t hold that thing one more second!  And it no longer feels like we’re all in this together.  We’re all watching different channels on our I-Phones.  We’re listening to different stations on our ear buds.  Can you hear me now?  Can you hear me now?

I’m glad God is not finished with America yet.  And I don’t think America is done with the Gospel either, no matter what the pollsters say.  Sure, we can take comfort in this new wave of nostalgia, but we always wake up the next morning to the mess we’ve made in 2012.  Suddenly, the grace of God and the lordship of Jesus Christ look really good, don’t they?  Maybe better than ever!

Lift up the Cross!

The Search for the Prodigal

Why is it that prodigal daughters never come home?  In fact, they actually do.  Pastor Jim Cymbala recalls the night when months of tearful prayers were answered through a phone call from his long lost daughter.  She did indeed come home to her dad and eventually her heavenly father, but she was never called prodigal.  That’s because we only use the term for rebellious young males.  What’s more, we most commonly use the word incorrectly!

Not long ago, I read a review of the popular motion picture, Warrior.  The article explained that the martial arts film “tells the familiar story of a prodigal son.”  How would you define that term?  Most of us would reply that it’s a lad who rebels and leaves home, only to return later to make peace with his family and start anew.  Right? Wrong.

This common mistake serves to illustrate the amazing power of God’s Word.  We all know the term prodigal son only because of the familiar story in the Gospel of Luke.  An ungrateful young adult insults his father and demands his inheritance in advance.  When his kindly dad gives him his way, the young man takes all that wealth to a distant land where he squanders it all in decadence and immorality.  Waking up one day to discover he is friendless, penniless, and hopeless, he comes to his senses and returns home.  There he begs his father’s forgiveness, insisting that he is no longer worthy to be called a son, and asks only that his father might hire him and pay him as a servant.

Hence, almost everyone in the Western world and many far beyond have come to assume that prodigal has something to do with a young man who runs away, realizes his error, and finally returns home to his father.  That’s not what the word means.  Our word prodigal goes back to the Latin term prodigus.  It doesn’t mean rebellious or wayward or even repentant.  It means wasteful or excessively extravagant!  The prodigal son earned his title when he blew his entire fortune overnight.  The full account is found in Luke 15: 11-32.

But here’s another funny little fact.  The word prodigal is never found in the parable.  Luke simply refers to the wastrel as the younger son.  The term prodigal is only found in captions and headings dating back to the earliest English translation of the Bible.  Some suggest it is first found in the Douay-Rheims Bible from 1582.  A few scholars believe it goes back to the Latin Vulgate, where it would have been expressed filius prodigus.  So while Luke never included the word prodigal, our mistaken assumption comes from the caption added later.

That’s how deeply the Bible is imbedded in the subconscious of most Western men and women.  Even those who never read the Word of God find its words and ideas are mentally  imported through stories and conversation from culture and conversation.  For instance, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is full of terms from the Bible.  Over a year ago, I had the privilege of sharing the Gospel with a friend who had grown up in Japan just after World War II.  Although she was raised as a Buddhist, her parents had sent her to a Catholic School as a child so that she could enjoy the advantage of speaking English.  Many of the English texts she learned to read were from the Holy Bible.  She grew up, married, and remained a Buddhist for most of her adult life.  After her Christian husband passed away, she came to my office and asked how she, too, could become a believer.  And as I began to share verses from the Bible, I noticed her lips moving quietly, reciting the words with me.  She hadn’t thought about them for decades but they had been there since elementary school, deeply rooted and waiting to bear fruit.

Our mistaken notion of that odd word prodigal reminds us that the Bible is still a defining voice in the lives of secular Americans.  One day the Holy Spirit will fan revival into flames and we will see those kernels of truth popping open and bringing faith and righteousness, fluffy and white and salty, into lives we had thought were lost forever.

Go back and read Luke 15 again.  And lift up the cross!

The Tree of Life

“Someday we’ll fall down and weep.  And we’ll understand it all- all things.”  That’s the promise of director Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life.  When the movie opened at the Cannes Film Festival recently, it created quite a stir.  Some audience members booed and walked out, while others stayed and cheered.  Well-known critics blasted it as boring and pretentious, while others found it mesmerizing and triumphant.  Cannes gave it their highest award.

Inspired by passages from the Book of Job, the film revolves around one small town family, the mysteries of their life and their search for answers.  Although this production seems  heavy with spiritual overtones and allusions to faith,  viewers hoping for a consistent Christian worldview will come away disappointed.  Nevertheless, one line from the trailer could be torn straight from the Gospel.  “There are two ways through life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace.  You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

Having said that, theatrical films like this never instruct us how to actually choose that way of Grace or discover the Tree of Life.  Cinematically speaking, it’s all about struggling and enduring until everything is revealed. In the meantime, while you’re waiting on Heaven, you might as well raise a little Hell!  Right?

When you’re ready to find the Tree of Life, go to the source, the Bible.  The  very first book opens with an image of that mysterious tree standing majestically in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3.  After the Fall, it fades from view as Adam and Eve are evicted from Eden lest they eat from the Tree and live forever in their corrupted condition.  The Tree of Life turns up again only at the very end of the Bible.  Revelation 22 describes it standing alongside the River of Life, bearing 12 kinds of fruit year round.  In fact, if you read the chapter carefully, it seems the tree has multiplied and produced an orchard of life.

In contrast to Hollywood whose primary goal to to generate profits, the Bible was written to offer us a road map to Life, fruitfulness, and Eternity.  The New Testament is not vague or ambiguous about this:

  • John 6:27 Jesus counsels his listeners (and readers:) “Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.”
  • John 6:40 “And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.”
  • Galatians 6:8 “For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.”
  •  Titus 3:7 “That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

The Way of Grace eludes the masses of humanity who hunger for self-esteem, peer approval, and fifteen minutes of fame.  The Tree of Life will only be found by those who are willing to risk something, deny themselves, and search for Truth with all their hearts.   Even when Jesus Christ was physically present on the Earth, not even his most astonishing miracles could hold the attention of the Religious Elite whose only ambition was wealth and prestige.  Grace held no attraction to the climbers who wanted to maintain the Status Quo at least long enough to cash in on their connections.  But desperate people could see an Exit sign flashing in the darkness every time Christ healed another leper or raised another dead body to life again.

To the eyes of the jaded and overly ambitious, American culture is a brand new luxury liner.  They can’t wait to make their way to the next deck, to see what splendors might be waiting there.  But human beings who’ve been broken, or rejected, or shattered see clearly through the fog.  They recognize a sinking ship and realize their only hope will be found in swimming away.  But where do you go in the dark, frigid sea of life once you’ve left behind that vessel you once trusted?

It is at moments like this that the voice of Christ breaks through the background noise: “Come to me all of you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  This is where we find the strength to swim away from the crowded ship sailing toward destruction, and swim toward the nearly empty life boats drifting gently in the direction of Grace.  You sometimes miss the reassurance of all those hustling, bustling crowds, but  silence, too, can be comforting.  Only the sight of the Gates up ahead keeps you moving.

Between those book-end appearances of the Tree of Life at the beginning of Genesis and the end of Revelation, we set our sights on a different tree.  It stands high on a hill that is shaped like a skull.  There’s a man dying there who doesn’t deserve to die.  There’s a tomb nearby that won’t be occupied for long.  There’s a group of frightened men who don’t deserve to be called the Church.  And there is a purchase that can only be made when the man on the cross has died, and when the tomb has been vacated, and when the terrified disciples have faced their fears and taken the Good News to the waiting world.

Revelation 2:7  “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”

“There are two ways through life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace.  You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

Lift up the Cross!

True 2 the Gospel

In his new book, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, author Jason K. Stearns recounts the true story of a pygmy who was brought to the USA from the Central Congo in 1904.  The poor man, Ota Benga,  was displayed in a monkey house at the Bronx Zoo. Every day some 40,000 guests visited the exhibit, which also featured an orangutan in order to highlight the similarities between the small black man and the large ape.  When some Americans objected to the inhumanity and insensitivity of this humiliating spectacle, the influential New York Times responded with an arrogant editorial.  According to the editors, “Pygmies are very low on the human scale…The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.”

This sorry crime could be committed only because the diverse minds of science, American culture, and the church all came together as willing accomplices.   The elites of science and culture seized this opportunity to affirm Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Through the power of evolution and the ingenuity of liberal social policy, the dream of  a Super Race of human beings seemed much closer to becoming a reality.  (Adolph Hitler would soon champion this idea.) Sadly, the church was involved because Mr. Benga had been transported to the States by an American missionary returning from Africa.

The story of the pygmy in the monkey cage came to mind again this week as I read about the latest efforts of many Christians to win the respect of the culture.  Why do we behave as though every decree from the New York Times is somehow timeless and true?  Why are we so hell-bent on changing what we believe or how we operate simply because the lost world sees things differently?  Shouldn’t we expect unspiritual minds to operate differently from transformed ones?  Nevertheless, the race to fashion a trendy, more relevant church continues.

  • The doctrine of Hell is under fire from prominent church leaders who insist it is an affront and a stumbling block to thinking people in the secular realm.  How can they put their trust in a God who seems so vindictive and unmerciful?
  • Other authors and pastors argue that the theology of the cross must be adapted.  Educated men and women in our 21st Century culture are horrified at the idea of a God who set up a system of justice so barbaric that his son must be executed on a cross to advance some religious or philosophical ideal.
  • Needless to say, the authority of God’s Word is also under attack.  “Sensitive” Christians warn us that we tend to take the Bible much too seriously.  Why insist that it must be accurate in matters of history, science or mathematics when the spiritual message is all that really matters?  Why argue with scientists or historians when the Bible was written to  describe the Kingdom of Heaven rather than the processes of life on Earth?

There’s a reason Paul once wrote, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation.” (Romans 1:16.)  He wrote those words because many in the Roman Church were apparently embarassed by the lack of sophistication of the Gospel.”  Thinking Romans were fairly certain that all roads lead to God.  The Gospel describes two roads: the broad highway to destruction and the narrow path of Jesus Christ.  Sophisticated pagans had a history of indiscriminate sexual adventure, while the Gospel encourages followers of Christ to flee sexual immorality.  Rome celebrated a god named Bacchus who lived for drunkeness and debauchery.  The Church celebrates a Savior who died to extend God’s grace and call human beings to holiness.  And amazingly, the Gospel that Paul refused to glamorize is still alive and well while the Roman Empire has been dead for centuries.

The fads and fashions of any age are fleeting at best and destructive at worst.  They are destined to fade.  Why would a believer suppose that the timeless Gospel should be updated in the interest of conventional wisdom that will be discarded as foolishness in twenty years or less?

Yes, the appeal to be accepted is powerful!  Apparently, the rush that comes from being embraced by the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, and scholars from well-known universities is absolutely euphoric.  But none of that emotional bling compares to Eternal Life.  Just one day in Heaven will make all that earthly glory look like faded tinsel from Chistmas 1965!  Only the pure and undiluted Gospel will ever get anyone to Heaven.  Let’s refuse to exchange the Gospel of Jesus Christ to win 15 minutes of acclaim in the eyes of a dying world.  The power of conventional wisdom will only lead me to a funeral.  The undiluted Gospel of Christ will get me into the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

I”ll take the pure Gospel every time.

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