The Importance of Identity

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Colossians 3: 1-4. CSB.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come! 2 Corinthians 5:17 CSB. 

There comes a point in a believer’s life that I call the “wow” moment.  The moment comes when their spiritual growth takes them to passages like the ones above that clearly define their new identity.  On those days when I feel especially broken or distant from God I go to verses like these and am reminded, God loves me so much that he unified me with His own Son.  It took His Son’s atoning blood to make it happen, but he made the loving choice to bring us together.  Meditate on that phrase in Colossians 3:4, “For you died and your life is HIDDEN with Christ in God.”  The word “hidden” is the Greek word Koopto which means “concealed or secured.”  My identity is completely wrapped up, hidden, secured and concealed in Christ.  All of my sins, my insecurities, my anxieties, my embarrassments and frustrations are concealed and affixed to Jesus Christ through the work of the Father.  I am “in Christ”, meaning I have changed identities.

My freshman year of college was by far the darkest days of my life.  I was chasing worldly pursuits, living as though God was not real, seeking only what my flesh desired.  I was running after the wind and pursuing after something that I didn’t even understand.  I was directionless, confused and far from God.  I found no satisfaction in any of my pursuits, they only left me feeling empty and frustrated.  I was a Christian (though not living it) and I had a call to ministry (though I wasn’t acknowledging it). My “wow” moment happened on the back row of a church in December of 1991.  No one in that church knew how miserable I felt and how confused I was in my personal faith struggle.  But on that night, I surrendered when I came to the realization that all my striving and pursuing was of no lasting value. Though my salvation was already secured on this night I made the choice to accept my new identity.  I would no longer live for me and I would no longer chase after the narcissistic ideologies of this world.  I am in Christ, it is no longer about me.  I have stopped striving and I am content in Him.  It is a freeing thing to not worry about making a name for yourself or being known by others.

Your life is hidden, your union with Him is secured, your eternity is reserved and your only aim should be to please Him.

Paul says that we have been “raised with Christ” and “hidden with Christ”.  He then makes that incredible statement regarding my identity, “When Christ, WHO IS YOUR LIFE, appears, then you also will appear with him in Glory.” (Col. 3:4).  This is all that matters.  Your spiritual identity is not found by asking the question “who am I?” it is found by asking “Whose Am I?”  Paul says that God “chose us IN HIM before the creation of the world.” (Eph. 1:4). 

What does it mean to be hidden or unified with Christ?  There is not enough space in this article to fully explain this, but it is safe to say that God sees you through His Son.  God doesn’t see our shame and failures once they are forgiven. (Isaiah 43:25). When the Father evaluates us He doesn’t look only at us alone.  God always sees every believer in union with Christ and therefore as righteous. Theologians call this the “imputation” of righteousness, I call it amazing grace.

Once I understand Whose I Am, it changes my life.

Living for yourself is an exhausting endeavor because you will never be satisfied.  When we come to grips with our identity in Christ we find the sweetest of contentment as illustrated by Paul in Philippians 4:10-13. It is not that we stop striving for excellence or accomplishment, it is simply that our striving is for Him and His glory.  When we strive for ourselves, we chase the wind.  When we strive for Him, we chase after the one who calms the wind.

The Bible is a collective story of sinners who found a new identity and were used in mighty ways. Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Levi became Matthew, Simon became Peter, Saul became Paul.  David went from sitting in the seat of a shepherd to sitting on the throne of Israel.  James and John were known as “sons of thunder” and Christ made them “sons of God.” Perhaps is greatest example of one who understood their identity was John the Baptist. Jesus said of him, “among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” (Luke 7:28).  When Jesus began his ministry, John had a large following and his own loyal disciples. Yet when Jesus came into focus and stepped in to the Jordan River, John’s ministry became one of refracting any attention to Christ.  Some even believed that John the Baptist was the Messiah (John 1:20), yet instead of working to attract a bigger crowd or more attention to himself he said, “It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.” (John 1:27).

Though Paul the Apostle was known by thousands, he often referred to himself as a “slave of Christ.” It is this perpetual self-denial that is the essential element of reaching that “wow” moment as a believer. “You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” 1 Corinthians 6:20. In this world of self-absorption we who know him are called to a higher way of living. If you are sitting on the throne of your heart, you should move over.  You are in His chair.  If I want to truly encounter all that God has for me in this life, I would do well in finding my identity in Him.  Not begrudgingly, but willingly and joyfully. The greatest thing about me is the one living in me.


Does your Church have Authentic Community?

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 
Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” Philippians 2: 1-4

In recent years there has been a growing movement in American culture in which people are seeking spiritual experiences while intentionally disconnecting from the church.  Church involvement is declining while American fascination with spiritualism continues to increase.  The idea is that our spiritual life is individualistic and personal and can best be experienced in solitude and personal reflection.  Many Americans feel no compulsion to gather with other people in order to increase their spiritual connection.  This is a very dangerous path and most who go down this road will eventually find emptiness and faith that is void of substance.

For the Christian, we are designed for two main purposes:  To glorify and know God and to live in community with other believers who are seeking to do the same.

In the New Testament there is no such thing as Lone Ranger believer.  The NT writers were all strong proponents that believers should exist in community with other believers.  “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” Hebrews 10:25. Though it can, at times, be messy and complicated, we are called to do life together as Christians. In Philippians 2, Paul clearly communicated this truth to the church.  In verses 1-4 he gives us a perfect description of the goals of Christian community.  In verse 1 he speaks of the “fellowship of the Spirit”, which is the mountain top of Christian community. The Greek word is koinōnia which speaks of sharing common fellowship with other believers based on the work of the Holy Spirit living in you.  This word represents the highest goal for real, authentic joyous Christian community.  Every church should be marked with this unique experience.  Only the Christian church can provide koinōnia. This kind of fellowship cannot be found in sports bars, community clubs, civic organizations or online chat groups.  We were created to live in fellowship with other believers and no place gives this type of opportunity like a local Christian fellowship.

Our culture is becoming less social and less personal.

We don’t take the time to get to know our neighbors or chat on the front porch. Americans are so addicted to their smartphones and technology that we have forgotten how beneficial it is to personally communicate with other people.  Our idea of being “social” these days means getting on Facebook and checking everyone’s status.  In studying congregations and church health I have found that the most effective and dynamic churches are the ones who have successfully cultivated faith into community within the life of the congregation. I believe our culture is starving itself through individualism and the absence of authentic community.  Authentic relationships will continue to become a growing desire for Americans.  Authentic community as seen in churches will become more attractive to non-Christians in the coming years as they see a group of people who genuinely care for one another and simply do life together. Believers and unbelievers alike all have the need for authentic community and no place in the world does it better than the local Christian church.

Yet some churches are struggling with authentic community.  There are churches that suffer from chronic division and God forbid that an unbeliever chooses to visit that church to find authentic relationships.  The threat of individualism among church members needs to be addressed and corrected.  In other words, if believers are simply grabbing their Bibles and sitting in a pew each week without taking part in Christian fellowship they are missing an important part of God’s purpose for them. Some Christians will not seek to be builders of fellowship and relationships due to their own insecurities or fears of feeling vulnerable. Past hurts have eradicated their desire for community and the devil’s strong grip on their life remains.

I remember singing that old hymn on Sunday mornings when I was a child, “There’s a sweet sweet spirit in this place and I know that its the presence of the Lord. There are sweet expressions on each face and I know they feel the presence of the Lord.”  Those words still resonate in my heart as I recall the sweet spirit found in my home church.  People caring for people, believers loving believers.

What should be the marks of Christian community?

  1.  Authentic concern for other’s well being. “Let each of you look out not only for his own interest, but also for the interest of others.” Phil 2:4.  The story is told of an older lady who made frequent trips to the local post office. One day she confronted a long line of people who were waiting for service from the postal clerks. She only needed stamps, so a helpful observer asked, “Why don’t you use the stamp machine? You can get all the stamps you need and you won’t have to stand in line.” the lady said, “I know, but the machine can’t ask me about my arthritis.”  Life is messy, difficult and down right painful at times.  The Christian experience should be marked with care and compassion for those around us, especially those we share church membership.  In writing to a church Paul encouraged the Romans to “Weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.” Romans 12:15.
  2. Authentic concern for each other’s spiritual growth. “From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.” Eph 4:16. A few years ago we bought our children a fish aquarium. When we went to the pet store to buy fish a store employee was helping us choose the right kind.  One particular fish caught my attention and I said, “We will take one of those.”  The employee said, “You can’t just take one, you need to take at least two.  This type of fish needs other of its species to grow and flourish.”  We left that day with two of that type of fish.  What was true of that fish is also true of Christians, we really do need each other in order to become all that God wants us to be.  As Paul says to the Ephesians, when the whole body does its work together it builds itself up and promotes growth among its members!
  3. Authentic accountability for other’s spiritual edification. “Yes, I also ask you, TRUE partner, to help these women who have contended for the gospel at my side, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the book of life.” Philippians 4:3.  Paul consistently called on fellow believers to correct one another throughout his letters. “Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.” Galatians 6:1.  If our fellow believers will not correct us then who will?  In Christian fellowship there should be an expectation that accountability will be an essential part of authentic community. We should submit our spiritual lives to one another knowing that “Iron sharpens iron.” Solomon wisely states, “For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up.” Eccl. 4:10.

Lessons of a Failed Governor

During the 2010 Gubernatorial race I was intrigued by the dermatologist from Tuscaloosa on the Republican ticket, Dr. Robert Bentley.  He seemed so un-political, so genuine and well, nice.  He captured the hearts of many Alabamians with his clever slogan, “Alabama is sick and it needs a doctor” and his promise to not take a salary until things turned around.  Through my ministerial network I learned good things about him, mainly how he had taught a Sunday school class at FBC Tuscaloosa for years, how he often shared the Gospel with his patients and of his reputation as a fine Christian gentlemen.  Therefore, both in the primary and general election I proudly cast my vote for Dr. Bentley. He was the underdog in the primary beating out GOP favorite Bradley Byrne and then defeating a challenge from Democrat Ron Sparks.  As a Christian, particularly an Alabama Baptist, I felt proud as I watched him deliver his victory speech.  I remember thinking, “this guy is one of us”.  His first four years were promising as he brought jobs to Alabama and got the economy moving again.  I watched him minister to the people of my hometown with Christian compassion after the tragic day of April 27, 2011.  In January of 2013,  I attended a pastor’s prayer breakfast in Montgomery and heard him speak passionately of his strong faith in the Lord and even had the pleasure of a five minute chat afterwards along with a photo opportunity.

As word began to leak early in 2014 about possible ethic and moral failures, I first brushed them off and labeled them as “political opposition”. But as time went on the accusations became louder and more distinct.  I remember the day I heard of the ALEA helicopter flying his wallet to the beach,  his wife filing for divorce, and more rumors of corruption and ethic law violations, wow.  Unfolding before me was the very public downfall of a man for which I voted in four different elections, my heart broke.  It isn’t surprising that an Alabama government official failed the public, that is becoming all too common.  My heart broke not for a failed governor, but for the failure of a fifty year Christian marriage and the undoing of a fellow brother in Christ.  As a matter of fact, all fellow believers should be brokenhearted.  This is so much bigger than politics and the state of Alabama, this is about a fellow believer, a redeemed man who made really bad decisions.  I know that some will say, “no Christian acts that way” or “I am not even sure he is a Christian.”  Yet, I am reminded of James 4:12,God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?” I can certainly judge him on his actions as a Christian brother, but I should never question a man’s eternal standing, that job belongs to the “one who has the power to save or destroy.”

The New York times recently published an article entitled, “For Alabama Christians, Gov. Bentley’s Downfall is a Bitter Blow”. In that article, Bentley is described as a man that Christians in Alabama put much hope to which now has become a “bitter blow”.  While I agree that it does hurt,  Bentley’s fall is so much bigger than heartache for a segment of our state’s population.  The fall of a godly man is much more serious than a “bitter blow”, it breaks the heart of God.  Truthfully, it should break every believers heart.  Not because Robert Bentley is a high profile person, but because he is a man for which God sent his Son to die.  The “bitter blow” may be felt by some in Alabama, but it is most importantly felt in heaven.  Yet, the biblical truth is that God still loves Robert Bentley and offers forgiveness and total cleansing.  The Lord doesn’t see him as Governor Bentley, he simply sees him as a son. I picture the Lord as the father in Luke 15 waiting on Robert Bentley to return home. If Dr. Bentley will humble himself, confess and repent of his sins, the promise of Scripture is “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9.  It is my honest prayer that my brother in Christ will run to the cross and find healing and restoration.  Being the governor of Alabama is of little importance when compared to being in good standing with the creator of the Universe. Every believer should join together and pray for our brother. “…but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘today’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 3:13.  

What lessons can Christians learn from Governor Bentley’s Failure?

  1. Surround yourself with Christians who will hold you accountable.Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” Galatians 6: 1-2.  It is critical that we create a circle of accountability around us and watch out for one another’s spiritual well being. One has to wonder if the governor had such a circle around him and if he did, why didn’t a brother have a heart-to-heart with him?  Did someone try and he wasn’t willing to listen?  Had he isolated himself so much that it become difficult for a fellow Christian to reach him? A strong accountability circle will simply not allow a fellow soldier to fall without a fight.  Every Christian needs fellow soldiers who will stand with them in life’s spiritual battles.  Do you have someone in your life who will give you “honest talk”?  Do you surround yourself with those who walk in integrity and have strong Christian character?
  2. Pride is perhaps the greatest sin and it comes into our lives gradually.Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.” James 4:10.  For a believer, down is up and up is down.  As we lower ourselves in humility before the Lord, he then lifts us up and gives our lives the greatest of meaning and joy.  It was the temptation of pride to which  Satan used to trip all of mankind (Genesis 3:1-5).  If enough people pat you on the back the risk is that you will begin to believe them. “For pride is a spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love or contentment, or even common sense.” -C.S. Lewis.  Lewis is correct, when pride creeps in we lose our ability of common sense and more important, spiritual sensitivity. When we exalt ourselves, we de-throne Christ from our hearts and our lives become a tail spin of mismanagement, mistakes and corruption.  Don’t let power or pride creep into your life, the results could be disastrous. 
  3. Invest more time in your marriage than any other relationship.  If you are spending more time with someone else of the opposite sex that doesn’t share your last name, the moral failure is surely around the corner.  Paul reminds us men to “love your wives as Christ loves the church.” Eph 5:25.  For both husband and wife there must be on display perpetual Christian devotion to one another that is rooted in the love of Christ.  The failings of the governor has reminded me of the primacy of my relationship with my spouse.  No other woman in the world should know my deepest secrets, biggest fears and grandest dreams.  I should share no intimacy with another except the one to which the Lord has given me. 
  4. The truth, regardless of how embarrassing and painful, will always be your best friend.  Solomon reminds us bluntly that “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in those who tell the truth.” Prov. 12:22.  There were many times in the past four years when simply telling the truth would have been a better choice for our governor, but it was not to be.  Every falsehood will eventually be revealed and all lies will, in time, come back to haunt you.  If you have failed, admit it.  Don’t cover up sin through lying and falsehoods.  Sin covered up by sin is a double portion of poison to the soul.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

A Cyrenian, a Criminal and a Centurion: The Power of the Cross

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. Isaiah 53: 4-5 NLT

As we celebrate Holy Week together we are reminded today that the greatest hope and healing was provided by Jesus Christ on the cross.  The healing provided for us by Jesus was not a temporary fix or simply an event to help you get through hard times.  On a Friday afternoon 2,000 years ago on a hill called Calvary all of the griefs, sorrows, corruption and failures of mankind collided with the grace, mercy and unconditional love of God.  Isaiah wrote these verses 600 years before the birth of Christ and yet his description of the cross event in chapter 53 could have been recorded by an eye witness.  Isaiah says that Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.  He was “wounded” and “bruised” and “Chastised” and “Striped” all because of OUR iniquities, OUR transgressions.   Isaiah would later say in verse 10 that “it pleased the Lord to bruise Him and put him through grief” and in verse 11, “When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.”

In Luke’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus we find 3 unlikely people who were profoundly touched by the power of the cross.

Luke 23: 26-47

The Cyrenian- A Person on a Religious Journey.  V. 26. As Jesus begins the “Via Dolorosa”, he was already in a place of great physical weakness. He had spent a night contemplating divine wrath to which Mark records, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”.  In front of Caiaphas, he would be struck time again, blindfolded and mocked, scourged with the flagellum whip to which his skin would have been flayed open.  As he began the walk from Pilate’s court to Golgatha upon his shoulders was thrust a patibulum, the 100 pound cross beam, his strength left him and he fell.  The beam landed beside the feet of a very surprised North African man named Simon from Cyrene.  The scripture informs us that “they laid hold of a certain man named Simon who was on his way from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.”  Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention Simon’s roll in this drama for a distinct purpose.  Simon, in many ways, reveals to us the expectation for every person who calls themselves a disciple of Christ.  We too are called to “take up our cross and follow him”.

If today you don’t feel the weight of the cross on your soul, if there is no sacrifice then you aren’t properly following him.  Charles Spurgeon said, “There are no crown wearers in heaven who were not first cross bearers on earth.”

Simon was a man on a religious journey.  He came to Jerusalem from North Africa to celebrate the Jewish Passover.  He had likely brought his family to the Holy city, like most sojourners he would have purchased a Passover lamb at the market and was in preparation for finding a place for his family to lodge and celebrate. The Bible says he was “Coming in from the country” directly to the spot where Jesus fell that day.  Simon trudged the way of sorrows with the blood of Jesus likely dripping from the cross beam onto his body.  He arrived at Golgatha and dropped the beam.  On that beam they placed Jesus and I can imagine Simon watching the events that followed. His heart was moved by what he saw and his religious journey found its destination. In the Gospel of Mark, Simon of Cyrene is listed as “the father of Rufus and Alexander” (15:21).  Mark named Simon’s sons likely because Simon and his family were known to the Christian community to which his gospel was written.  Most scholars agree that Simon left that day forever changed.  Simon, a man on a religious journey found more than a religious experience, he encountered the ultimate lover of his soul and committed his life to him.

There are many who are on a religious journey looking for hope. Their religious journeys have only yielded experiences, rituals and promises of hope.  Yet when you meet Jesus and encounter the cross your religious journey gives way to a life changing relationship with the living God.  People on religious journeys are seeking ways to get to God, yet the Bible reveals that God sent his son so that he could seek us.

The Criminal – A Person who needed Hope. V.39-43.  There were two criminals crucified with Jesus, one on either side.  Ironically, it was customary that the center cross was reserved for the criminal with the worst of crimes and on this day a perfect man was placed upon it.  It is possible that the two criminals were a part of the band of robbers and insurrectionist that ran with Barabbas.  Mark informs us that BOTH criminals joined the soldiers and throngs of people and hurled insults toward the center cross (Mark 15:32).  On top of the immense pain of the cross, Jesus was being insulted by the Romans soldiers at his feet, the hundreds amassed below in the crowd and to add to his grief, now even the men on either side of him joined the tongue lashing.  In Luke’s account we learn that after a while one of the criminals fell silent while the other continued to mock him.  “One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you are the Messiah, are you?  Prove it by saving yourself and us, too, while you are at it!”  A man at the point of death hung beside the one who would eventually overthrow death.  The criminal shared no words of regrets, no remorse, no repentance or guilt, no concern for Jesus.  And Jesus in turn, offered him no words, only silence.

The other criminal stopped speaking and now only listened to the words of Jesus from the cross.  He spoke up and in a stunning turn of events, “Don’t you fear God when you are dying?  We deserve to die for our evil deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  And then turning to Jesus with a humble heart asked, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.”  And in reply the words of Christ, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

A man with a death sentence found life.  A guilty man would soon stand in the presence of God with no guilt.  Though his body was bound by the nails of the cross, his soul found freedom.  Though his lungs struggled for air, his soul was nourished with the life giving power of Jesus Christ.

With Christ there is no such thing as a hopeless situation.   For those who feel their mistakes are too big and beyond forgiveness the criminal on the cross forever stands as a lasting image that “anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”. Romans 10:13.  Even though our sins are great, even though our sins and failures are glaring and perpetual, when faced with the glory and grace of Calvary our sins become white as snow.

The Centurion- An unlikely Worshiper. V. 47. A Centurion is a Roman officer in charge of 100 soldiers, thus the title Centurion.  Crucifixions were carried out by the Romans, and the local regiment stationed in Jerusalem were obviously in charge of such executions. While there is no way of knowing for sure we can assume that this centurion had seen and led many such crucifixions, and likely had become hardened to the whole experience.  It would likely had been him who stood by supervising the flogging of Christ and allowed his soldiers to place a robe and crown of thorns on Jesus before presenting him to the crowd. As a hardened war man he was probably not religious and had heard stories about Jesus, he was certainly no fan of the Jews and no follower of Christ.  He stood by as his soldiers gambled for the clothes of Jesus, he was silent as the criminals hurled insults at the center cross and he would eventually be the one to thrust his sword into the side of Jesus to confirm his death.

He was, in the greatest sense, the least likely person to be spiritually moved on that day. His persona was cold, his heart hardened, his hands had killed many men in his lifetime.  Yet, on this day, at this time this unlikely worshiper glorified God.  All of the synoptic gospels record his response at the climax of the event.  Both Matthew and Mark record his words as “Surely this man was the Son of God.” While Luke adds that he Glorified God or worshiped God and proclaimed that this man was “righteous or innocent.”  When you combine the three narratives you get one powerful picture of a war hardened executioner broken at the foot of the cross.

He had stood by as his soldiers beat, mocked, shamed, spat upon, flayed the skin off of Jesus and nailed him to a cross.  And yet he heard Jesus say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  He felt the earthquake and heard the rending of the Temple. He saw the sky darkened and heard Jesus say, “It is finished.”  His response was proclamation and glorification.

Three men, all from different backgrounds, different stories.  One was on a Religious journey, one was dying desperately in need of hope and one was working, yet all were immeasurably changed by Jesus Christ.  All three participated, all three were impacted by the cross.  That brings me to this question, how has the cross of Jesus Christ impacted YOU?

“But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.”



The Greatest Miracle of Christmas

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

This prophecy by Isaiah was given over 600 years before the birth of Christ.  The titles listed for the “son” that would be born have eternal ramifications.  Each one of the titles are divine in nature and point to a most significant event in which divinity and humanity would collide.  It is the most important prophecy in the Old Testament Canon because it points to both the incarnation of the birth of Christ and the redemption he provided by his death on Calvary.  Isaiah says of this “son“, that “…the government will rest upon his shoulder.”  The Hebrew word used here is misrah which could also be translated kingdom or empire.  In other words,  the burden of a kingdom would be placed on the shoulders of this “son”.   The cross was violently thrust upon the shoulders of the Son of God along with the burden of fallen humanity.  Thus the burden of the misrah or Kingdom rests solely on the atonement he provided for us.

Before the burden was thrust upon the shoulders of Christ at his death we are faced with the significance of his birth.  “A child is born, a son is given...”  Yet, not just any child or any son.  He would be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.  As a wonderful counselor He is the great High Priest who “understands our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15).  As Mighty God He came to us through the miracle of the virgin birth and incarnation. (John 1:14).  As Everlasting Father His birth was not his true beginning and his death would not be His end. (John 8:58 & John 1:1).  As the Prince of Peace He would reconcile forever the enmity between God and Man. (1 Timothy 2:5).

The greatest miracle of Christmas is found in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, John starts his narrative long before the birth in Bethlehem.  He looks back through eternity with the opening statement of his Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1).  Three different times John uses the word “Logos” to describe Jesus Christ.  This Greek word encapsulates the full meaning of all thought, ideas and reason.  It is a BIG word.  The Logos was God.   If there was ever any doubt of the deity of Christ, Isaiah’s prophecy in 9:6 ought to quiet the critics.  He would be born “Mighty God“.   The Word was God and John says, “So the Word (Logos) became human and made his home among us.” (John 1:14 NLT).  God made his home among us!  There it is!  That is the greatest miracle in history.

The fall of mankind occurred in Genesis 3 and from that time to the moment the angels announced the birth, there were only futile attempts of restoring the broken relationship. The Tower of Babel could not reach high enough,  no amount of slaughtered oxen could suffice and even the law could only reveal humanity’s need of reconciliation.  In Genesis 3, God cast humanity out of his presence,  yet in the Gospels he interjects himself into humanity.  John says, “He made his home among us.”  HE came to US.  We could never have come to him, but he came to us.  The uncorrupted seed was placed in the womb of Mary through immaculate conception and heaven came near.  In every religion there is a group of committed people who are seeking to find a way to “get to God.”  Yet the miracle of the Advent reveals God coming to us.  Deity did not only come to live among us, He came to die for us.  No wonder Paul said of this message, “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.” (1 Cor. 1:23)  It may sound foolish to some but to me it sounds like salvation. The angels announcement was very clear, “For there is born TO YOU this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11).   That announcement resonates through the halls of human history and in the hearts of broken humanity.  The Kingdom has been restored, the burden of our sin rests upon his shoulders and eternal life has now been made possible.  The story of Christmas is, “God became man so that man could come to God.”  On a very dark night 2,000 years ago light came and that light “gives light to every man coming into the world.” (John 1:9).

This Christmas I hope you enjoy being with family. I hope you eat lots of good food and exchange gifts with those you love.  In the midst of this busy season,  I hope you will recall the greatest miracle of all.  God came to us, died for us so we could one day live with Him.

These 4 Things May Be Limiting Your Worship

Christ is the one through whom God created everything in heaven and earth.  He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see, kings, kingdoms, rulers and authorities.  Every thing has been created through Him and FOR HIM”. Colossians 1:16

Through Jesus everything has been created.  Everything has his touch on it, everything.  The things we can see, the things we can’t see, even the rulers and authorities have been created through him.  Not only through him, but FOR HIM.   That is a big statement.  Those two words are critical to understand because they inform our biblical worldview like few other statements.  Everything exists because of him and for his glory.  During the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, the religious rulers told Jesus to stop the people from praising him, to which he replied that if they did the rocks would cry out.  Everything is created to worship.  The birds of the air sing for his glory. The flowers of the field express his glory. The Psalmist says in Ps. 19: 1-2, “The heavens tell of the glory of God.  The skies display his marvelous craftsmanship.  Day after day they speak; night after night they make him known.”  All of creation is pointing to a creator and all of creation exists to praise Him.

You were created to worship.

Some of us have lost our main purpose.  When you do not regularly encounter the living God, commune with him and have intimacy with him, you become miserable.  Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart….”  Deep in your heart is something that cries out to the Lord.  He has deeply planted eternity in your heart. To not respond to that deep longing will make you miserable.  When you are not having regular worship encounters with God, you will lose your sense of purpose. It all begins with the condition of your heart. “Who may climb the mountain of the Lord and stand in his holy place? Only those whose hands and heart are pure.” Ps. 24: 3.

These worship hindrances may be limiting your encounters with God and thus diminishing your sense of purpose:

A Disobedient Heart. When you live far from God’s will you will feel far from his presence.  It is impossible to have a powerful worship encounter with the living God when you are living out of his will.  In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel is confronting King Saul on his disobedience. God had given Saul clear direction on the destruction of the Amalekites and he had neglected his duty. When Samuel seeks him he finds him on Mount Carmel setting up an altar to himself and the animals that were supposed to be sacrifices for the glory of God were walking around. Saul gives lame excuses on why he didn’t follow through with the Lord’s will and Samuel’s response is something we all need to hear:

“What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Obedience is far better than sacrifice.  Listening to him is much better than offering the fat of rams. Rebellion is as bad a sin as witchcraft, and stubbornness is as bad as worshiping idols.” 

Worship is a lifestyle. It is something you do everyday.  It is not something you come and do, it is something you live and be.  “Obedience is far better than sacrifice.”  In speaking of the Pharisees Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man made teachings.”  Matthew 15: 8-9.  Powerful words.  God is not listening to the words coming out of your mouth when you worship.  He is listening to the music of your heart.  You can raise your hands, you can sing loud, you can bow down, you can appear to be a great worshiper of God, but if your heart isn’t in submission to his Holiness, your mouth will never sing songs that will be pleasing to him.

Worship begins or is limited through your heart condition. True worship is your spirit and his Spirit connecting in a deep intimate encounter and that absolutely can’t happen if you are living in blatant disobedience.  Disobedience and praise cannot sustain one another. Either rebellion will dissolve into repentance resulting in true worship, or the hardened heart will win out and attack the things of God.

An Unforgiving Heart. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus deals with various conditions of the heart.  He literally gets right to the “heart of the matter.”  Notice the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:23, “If you are standing before the altar in the Temple, offering a sacrifice to God, and suddenly remember that someone has something against you. You should LEAVE.”  Jesus is literally saying you should leave a worship service and stop worshiping Him.  The context of this verse is couched in a discussion on holding anger in your heart toward someone.

If your horizontal relationships are bad, it will affect your vertical relationship with God.  If your heart is divided through anger, hostility, bitterness and rage you will be unable to worship the Lord in purity and honesty.  Hatred in your heart will limit your connection with a loving God.

“If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people whom we can see, how can we love God, whom we have not seen. And God himself has commanded that we must love not only him but our Christian brothers and sisters.”  1 John 4:20-21. 

Forgiveness can be difficult and costly.  But the price of unforgiveness is even more.  It is a boulder you carry around on your back. It is limiting your worship and hindering your relationship with God. It has been said that holding unforgiveness in your heart is like drinking poison while expecting it to hurt the other person. Some of us need to heal  relationships before we truly experience the joy of the Lord’s presence.

An Unbelieving Heart. In Mark 6 Jesus comes to a much anticipated place to preach, teach and perform miracles. Nazareth was his own hometown.  A place that desperately needed the same touch that other villages had received.  A place that was despised by those around them.   It was in need of the power of God.

Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches the people. They were amazed at his wisdom, astonished at his knowledge of the prophets. Mark 6:3 changes everything.  “Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.”

Imagine having the presence of God and the power of God in your midst and seeing no miracles take place. Familiarity led to apathy and led to their unbelief. “This is just Mary’s son.”  “We know Jesus, he lived among us.”  He is nothing special.  They refused to believe.  With familiarity and apathy came a disconnect from the power of God.Familiarity led to apathy and apathy led to unbelief. “And because of their unbelief, he could not do any mighty miracles among them.” Could it be that so many churches are not experiencing the power of God due to the unbelieving hearts sitting in the pews?

What if God did something in church Sunday that you didn’t expect?  For many of us if God does something without it being in the bulletin, we get disillusioned.  Many of us will go to church this Sunday and hear the preacher, sing the same songs we have sung a million times, sit in the same pew, shake the hands of the same people we did last week and leave feeling good about coming to church.  The potential is there for us to miss out on the presence and power of God.  To the people in Nazareth, Jesus was just Mary’s boy, the carpenter.  Who is he to you?  Have you become so comfortable, so familiar with the stories, the songs, the sermons, the scriptures, the invitations that they have all lost their power?  When was the last time God amazed you? We often sing that great song, “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene” but I will honestly tell you that I don’t see too many church folks standing amazed in the presence of God.  I pray that we will not become so familiar that we lose the power of it.  Some of us have lost our belief that God is going to do something amazing in our midst.  We are merely going through the motions of worship.

A Cluttered Heart. Psalm 66: 16-20. Many of the Psalms reflect the troubles and spiritual struggles that David experienced.  Yet, one event changed his life, he finally confessed his sin and repented of his past.  He became prideful and his pride let to lust which led to adultery and murder. His heart became cluttered with ungodly things so that he lost his focus of God.

If you came to my house today my wife would not let you come through our garage to come into our house.  It is overdue for a good cleaning out.  Over the time we have lived there we keep placing stuff on top of stuff.  I was noticing last week that there are parts of the garage I cannot see anymore due to all the stuff we have stacked over the years.  Cleaning out the clutter of my garage is certainly in my future plans.  What my garage has become is what some of our hearts are now.  Over years, we have stacked up our disappointments, our defeats, our distractions and mistakes to where our hearts have become cluttered messes.

Look at the words of these verses in Psalm 66. “Listen to what he did for me.”  Essentially David says, “I cried out in praise, I confessed the sin in my heart, God listened and paid attention.  And afterwards I experienced his unfailing love for me.”

“What joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of sin, whose lives are lived in complete honesty.” Psalm 32:2

I think much of the worship Psalms of David found in Psalms is a result of the amazing forgiveness he experienced from the graceful hand of God. Unconfessed sin serves as concreted on our ankles, chains on our souls, leeches on our heart.  It will suck the spiritual life out of you.

Cover your sin and God will expose it, but if you expose your sin God will cover it.

Dwight L Moody said, “God has cast our confessed sin into the depth of the sea and put a no fishing sign on that spot.”

“Search me O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” Ps. 139:23-24.

Open Letter to the Class of 2016

It is hard for me to believe that my oldest daughter Maggie is counted among those receiving diplomas this year.  Seems like just yesterday I was feeding her strained carrots and making sure her bottle was the right temp.  A few weeks ago I sat down and penned a letter to Maggie.  I laid that letter on her bed last night.  It was simply a letter from the heart of a Christian father to a daughter entering the real world.  I decided that I would take out the personal parts of the letter and, in a more general way, share the main points with other graduates.  (Not that I am assuming that a graduate would actually take time to read my article, but maybe a parent will read it to them.)  Oh how I wish someone would have told me these things before entering my freshman year of college!

“Timothy, my son, here are my instructions for you, based on the prophetic words spoken about you earlier. May they help you fight well in the Lord’s battles. Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked.”  1 Timothy 1: 18-19

In 1 Timothy, Paul is writing these words to a young man who would be in the midst of the Lord’s battles.  He is preparing him for the things he will encounter in serving Christ and his church.  Timothy would encounter strong resistance and false doctrines.  Even Timothy’s battles may not have been as strong as the ones the class of 2016 will face.

Graduate,  you are preparing to enter a world that is increasingly antagonistic toward Christians.

We are losing large numbers of your generation to a worldview that is opposed to traditional biblical values.  Researcher George Barna conducted one of the largest research projects in relation to generational disengagement from the church.  He interviewed 22,000 adults and over 2,000 teens in 25 separate surveys. His finds are disturbing.  “Six out of ten 20 somethings who were involved in a church during their teen years are already gone.”  These teens were very involved in church youth groups, as children they attended VBS and sang in choirs, they participated in youth Christian clubs at school.  But by the time they reached 20 years of age, nearly 2/3 of them had not only left the church, but they have also stopped reading the bible, praying or engaging spiritually at any level.  Barna calls them “spiritually disengaged.”  Only 20% of teens who were spiritually active in high school maintain that level of commitment once they graduate.  (Barna Research Online, “Teenagers Embrace Religion but Aren’t Excited about Christianity,”

Dr. Ken Hamm also did similar research and his findings are even more sobering, “Of all the 20-29 year old we studied who attended church regularly as a teen only 11% were still going to church while attending college.” (From the book, “Already Gone” by Ken Hamm & Britt Beemer: Master books, Green Forest, AR, 2009).  I pray fervently that you will not become one of these statistics.  Don’t be like so many others who, after high school, who neglect the most important for the non essentials.  Your relationship with Christ is the cornerstone of your being and existence.  If you neglect Him, you will quickly lose your sense of identity.

In 1 Timothy 1:19, Paul gives 2 clear mandates for young Timothy:  “Always cling tightly to your faith in Christ and keep your conscience clear.”  If we neglect those two mandates we threaten to “shipwreck our faith”.  As already indicated too many young people’s faith will eventually be lost at sea, shipwrecked and wayward.

Therefore I charge you  class of 2016:

I charge you to cling tightly.   “Cling tightly to your faith in Christ.” V. 19a. The words that Paul uses here are very direct.  “Cling tightly” or take a strong grip.  The original language of this verse means to take a grip and don’t ever let go. Be stubbornly strong with your faith in Christ Jesus.  Three different times in this letter to Timothy Paul gives similar encouragement.  In 6:12 he urges him to “fight the good fight for what we believe and hold tightly to eternal life.”   The things that await you have the potential of loosening your grip with the Father’s hand.  Don’t allow it.   Your faith will be challenged by a world that is ambivalent and at times obstinate toward a Biblical world view.  You may even set under the teaching of professors who ascribe to a human centered philosophy and hedonistic ideologies.  You may be taught that the creationism is a short sighted myth which is only believed by small minded people.  You may be taught that there are no moral absolutes where right is right and wrong is wrong.  Anything goes in our 2016 American culture.  Some will say that you only need to look inside yourself to determine what is best for you.  They will tell you that the Bible is only a book of antiquated literature which at best gives us historical information about faraway lands and ancient people that has no real relevance to your life now.  They will tell you that no one religion is right and true.  All belief systems have some measure of truth and that all religions are leading to the same place.  Some may teach you that Jesus Christ was a historical figure, a Jewish teacher and prophet who founded a religion 2,000 years ago.

But I believe that you know better.

  • Jesus Christ is more than just a historical figure who founded a religion. He is the center of the universe and all religions are subject to him.  He is the way the truth and the life.   Through him everything live and moves and has their being.  He is the great I AM,  the savior of the world, the pre-eminent one. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the victor over death, sin and hell.   Paul says that God has super exalted him and given him a name that is above every name and one day every knee will bow before him.  He is not just a historical figure, not just a prophet and teacher, he is the only real hope for a sin sick world. Paul says of Jesus, “Christ is the one through whom God created everything in heaven and earth.  He made the things we can see and the things we cannot see, kings, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities. Everything has been created through him and for him.” Colossians 1:16. Cling tightly to this truth.
  • Not all belief systems are trustworthy and true. Jesus said that he was the only way to the father. “No man comes to the Father but by me.” John 14:6.  If a religion is not totally right, then it is totally wrong.  Christianity isn’t simply a religion or historical movement.  It represents the only truth worth embracing.  The world will tell you to remain open minded about everything, but If you are open minded about everything you have the potential of falling for anything.  You can be so open minded that your brain will fall out of your ears.  Jesus didn’t come to start a religion, he came to reconcile the world to God and offer you the hope of salvation. Cling tightly to this truth.
  • The Bible is not simply an antiquated book of literature and history. Hebrews 4:12 says “For the Word of God is full of living power.  It is sharper than the sharpest knife, cutting deep into our innermost thoughts and desires.  It exposes us for what we really are.”  The Bible is the living breath of God, alive, powerful, reliable, relevant and through it we come to understand the heart of the one who wrote it.   It doesn’t offer us moral suggestions, it tells us what is right and wrong in the site of God.  Don’t base your beliefs on right and wrong from movies, social media or simply what is “trending”.  God is on record of his expectations for us and I don’t believe he is going to water down those expectations just so we can feel better about ourselves.  The Scriptures teach us moral absolutes that we absolutely must heed. “The commandments of the Lord are right, bringing joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are clear, giving insight to life.” Psalm 19:8.  Cling tightly to this truth.
  • You are not a cosmic accident. You are not the result of natural selection and you are not the product of macroevolution.  You are created in the image of God.  The Bible teaches us that God created the world in 6 days and not through an evolutionary process of billions of years.  Everything has order and intelligent design.  Our world is a world of order which could not have been created from a chaotic big bang explosion.  “The Heavens declare the glory of God.  The skies display his marvelous craftsmanship.  Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known.” Psalm 19: 1-2. God’s fingerprints are on everything you see, especially on you.  Cling tightly to this truth.

And remember that the grip works both ways.  Your grip may slip, but his grip of grace is strong enough the keep you for all eternity.  In the coming year you will meet people who will try to loosen your grip of faith in Christ.  I guarantee that.  They will even say that they are trying to open your mind to new ideas but don’t let them.  Hold on tightly to him just as he is holding on tightly to you.

I charge you to live rightly. Paul says to “always keep your conscience clear” V.19b.  The word “conscience” comes from two Greek words meaning “To know” and “Together”.  Your conscience draws together that which you morally know is right and what you spiritually know is right so your spiritual conviction and moral conviction are combined and galvanized never to be separated.  Your life will ultimately be directed by the right or wrong choices you make.  To have a clear conscience means that you consistently do what you instinctively know is rightly enabled through the ministry of the Holy Spirit who lives in you.

When faced with a decision, don’t look around for help, look up.  “But remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience.  And God is faithful.  He will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can’t stand up against it.  When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you will not give in to it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13. 

When I speak to people my age who have wrecked their lives they consistently tell me the same thing.  It all started when they were 18-20 years old.  After high school they chose to find their own way in this world and they left the things behind that they knew were right.  Their choices wrecked their life.

Graduate, God is calling you to a life of Holy living.  There are over 7,000 promises in the Scriptures that God has made to us, but many of them are negated due to an unclear conscience.  God has this incredibly abundant life for you and it is all right in front of you.  However, if you choose your own way, make unholy decisions and follow the ungodly ways of this world you will miss out on the greatest adventure of your life, the walk of faith.  Don’t miss this adventure.  The world will try to allure you with flashy things that promise fulfillment but will leave you empty.   Keep your eyes focused on Jesus, make consistent choices that honor Him.

I charge you to impact greatly. “But you Timothy, belong to God; so run from all evil things, and follow what is right and good.  Pursue a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness.  Fight the good fight for what we believe.” 1 Timothy 6: 11-12.

How will you impact your world?  Don’t live only for you, make an eternal impact for the glory of Jesus Christ.  We need your generation to make a lasting impact on our culture.  We need you to be the light in a dark place.  The world doesn’t just need you, they need Jesus in you.   If they remember your name that is good, but if they remember his name because of you, that is even better.  If you want to make a lasting impact do what Paul encourages young Timothy to do:  Run from evil, follow what is good, pursue godliness and fight the good fight of faith.

We need a radical generation of Jesus loving, Bible believing, committed young people. I believe this generation could be the greatest missionary force in the history of our country.

Don’t become a statistic.  Don’t be like 2/3 of people your age who become spiritually disengaged.  It is my prayer that one day when you are old, you will have the pleasure of looking back at your life without regrets.  When the final page of your life is written may the last page of that book be signed by Jesus himself.