Reflections on the Glorious & Terrifying Lordship of Jesus

This past Sunday was Easter and I preached a message called “The History of Redemption.” The sermon was 25 minutes of only Scripture, telling the story of the Bible from beginning to end. It was a powerful day for our church, but for me it was a powerful few months of memorizing and internalizing the Scriptures.

I’ve been reflecting on all of this and want to share some truths that keep gripping me.

1. Jesus claims to be Lord of all.

Though the culture and world would have us believe that faith and religion are merely private matters, Jesus claims to be Lord over all things. Some verses from the sermon:

  • All things came into being through him. (John 1:3)
  • God…has in these last days spoken to us through his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his image and he upholds all things by the word of his power. (Hebrews 1:2-3)
  • I am the way and the truth and the life. Nobody comes to the Father except through me. (John 1:14)
  • And the government shall be upon his shoulder. And he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)
  • On his robe and on his thigh a name was written, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:16)

These are staggering claims. They do not represent a Jesus who merely takes the wheel of your private life and infuses it with a bit more meaning or hope. Rather, they represent the one who rules over the universe that he spoke into existence with absolute power.

2. Without Christ, people are evil and hostile to God.

Since our first parents plunged the world into sin, we are all sick with the disease of sin. We sin by nature and we sin by choice. Two illustrations that accompanied the sermon (from Chris Koelle) depict this masterfully.

First, we see the idea that our very DNA is tainted by sin, broken and covered in thorns. This means that we are all “born this way” and it is no excuse.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope. And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Romans 8:20; Genesis 6:5)
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope. And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Romans 8:20; Genesis 6:5)

Then, while depicting the downward spiral of Israel away from God, we see an image of people sacrificing their children to the gods of Canaan. But look closely into the fire. Do you see how this practice continues today?

They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons. They poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters. (Psalm 106:37-38)
They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons. They poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters. (Psalm 106:37-38)

This kind of evil demands a response and, amazingly, God patiently offers kindness to sinners who deserve only wrath.

3. Jesus offers scandalous grace to people who repeatedly dishonor him.

I often say that there aren’t good guys and bad guys, there are bad guys and Jesus. This is evident throughout the story of Scripture. We do wicked, dishonorable things, continually exchanging the truth about God for a lie and worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). Despite this, Jesus offers amazing grace:

  • But he was wounded for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned aside–every one–to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6)
  • But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even while we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5)
  • For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6)
  • All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18)
  • And he said… “I will give to him who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things and I will be his God and he shall be my son.” (Revelation 21:6-7)

This grace is real and powerful. It can change lives and bless communities. But it is a limited-time offer. You get one life to accept this grace and joyfully bow the knee to King Jesus. Either he took the sword for you or you will take the sword.

4. The Bible threatens terrifying things to those who will not acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus.

Because we think about faith in mostly private terms, when people reject it we often think something like, “Oh well. Too bad. They’re not going to be very fulfilled until they find Jesus.” Which is true. But much more is at stake. Consider these verses from the sermon:

  • But if that wicked servant thinks to himself, “My master is delayed,” and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, then the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know and will cut him into pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:48-51)
  • From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. (Revelation 19:15)
  • They will make war on the Lamb and the Lamb will conquer them… (Revelation 17:14)
  • And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)

Get the picture? This is not little Jesus, meek and mild, passively sitting on the sidelines. Rather, this is the Lord of all history who has poured himself out for sinners–who continue to reject his authority or his grace–promising to rule the world of evil by destroying all who will not joyfully come under his Lordship.

You don’t have to like it. You don’t even have to believe it.

But it’s the way the world really is.

5. Christians will suffer greatly and be disliked by the world.

Somehow it continues to shock Christians that we are hated, mistreated, and misrepresented. But this sermon reminds me of these powerful words of Jesus:

  • You will be hated by all because of me but the one who endures to the end will be saved. A disciple is not greater than his teacher nor a slave than his master. And do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul. Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:22, 24, 28)
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven. (Matthew 5:10-12)

I desperately want to connect with a culture that is far from God and needs his grace. I want to communicate in ways that are understandable. But I also must realize that many simply will not receive the message. They will hate it and belittle it. They will mock it. The days are coming (and are now here around the world) when they will arrest and fine those who will not capitulate to the winds of cultural “progress.” Buckle up. It’s going to be a tough ride.

Want proof? The man who put “The History of Redemption” together, Ronnie Smith, was murdered as a missionary in Libya in December 2013. I think God was preparing him and his family for the suffering they would face, and his widow boldly shared the gospel to the world as a result.

6. Jesus is on the right side of history.

We repeatedly hear that Christians are “on the wrong side of history.” The Bible is regressive and backwards, not appropriately adapting to fit our enlightened, scientific, modern culture.

I walk away from this sermon thinking, “No. Jesus is on the right side of history. He made the world. He sustains the world. And he is coming to renew the world. He will conquer evil, make war on those who oppose him, and make all things new. By his undeserved grace, he has brought me to himself. If I’m with him, I’m on the right side of history because history belongs to him.”

You can view the sermon, with the illustrations, here.

The Hardest Part of Real Love

Real love is real hard.

Harder than we often think. Reading some of Jesus’ words recently exposed what I think is the hardest part of real love:

[32] “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. [33] And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. [34] And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. [35] But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. [36] Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36 ESV)

The hardest part of real love is “expecting nothing in return.”

Loving this way is what demonstrates that you are a child of God, who loves us this way.

Leader, you know that you are called to love the people in your care. You know that your leadership means nothing if you don’t have love (1 Corinthians 13:2).

Love expects nothing in return. May this reality shape the way you lead and love.

What I Learned from a Weekend with Ex-Cons

This past weekend I spoke at a men’s retreat for Desert View Bible Church. There were about 140 men, mostly guys who attend the church. One of the men works with Alongside Ministries, a ministry that provides Christ-centered mentoring to the incarcerated community. He brought about 15 men who have been released from prison in the last year and now live in a transitional discipleship home, where they are learning to walk with Christ “on the outside.”

Alongside Ministries

The retreat was a blessing for many reasons. But one of the highlights was spending time with these ex-cons. They all thought I was the teacher for the weekend, but I think I learned a lot more from them:

1. Realizing the depth of your sin makes you more grateful to God. These men were grateful. Thankfulness oozed out of them everywhere. They loved singing praise songs and jumped right in, even if they didn’t already know the songs. They loved walking outside in the cool mountain air. They loved the camp food. They loved all the fellowship. There was an appreciation of the small things that was convicting and refreshing for me. And it comes from knowing, with clarity, what they’ve been saved from.

2. Broken people are accepting people. At meal time, it was open seating and I moved around to a bunch of tables to meet different guys. The most friendly and accepting guys were the ex-cons. They know what it’s like to be looked down on and avoided, and they go out of their way to make sure others don’t feel that way.

3. Jesus truly makes people new. A number of these guys had been in prison 20+ years, but they were new men in Christ. Except for their passion for Jesus and gratitude for everything, you wouldn’t have even realized they were ex-cons.

4. The Bible is a rich well for those who will take the time to drink from it. Many of these men knew the Bible really well. I think that’s partly because they didn’t have a lot else to do, but it’s mostly because the depth of their salvation makes them hungry for God’s word. One guy practically recited my sermon notes to me before I spoke just because he knew the Bible so well. I said, “Maybe you should teach this.” How much spiritual richness do we forfeit because we are too lazy or too busy to soak up Scripture?

5. What man intends for evil, God intends for good. The theme of the weekend was “Faithful,” as we looked at the faithfulness of God in the story of Joseph and Judah (Genesis 37-50). The key verse is Genesis 50:20, where Joseph tells his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” One of the men told me he shared the gospel with 14 cell mates and 6 came to faith in Christ. He started praying, “God, I’ll gladly stay in prison if it means you’ll use me to win more people to Christ.” At the end of the story he said, God meant it all for good. I don’t know the specifics of the crime that landed this man in prison. But what he intended for evil, God intended for good.

6. It’s really fun to preach and lead when people are fired up. I already knew this, but what a great reminder. What a blessing to teach people who are eager to learn and hungry for God. May we give this gift to those who lead us.

7. It’s challenging to have your identity be in Christ instead of your past. Many of these men are now struggling to figure out how to have their identity be in Christ, rather than what it used to be in — their crime(s). They are no longer inmates, but this identity clings nearby. Ironically, it reminded me of the many former athletes I know who struggle to integrate into normal life after being set apart for so long. Just goes to show that all of us struggle to find our identity in Christ instead of what we do or have done.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That’s what I saw this weekend.

 

Stop Putting Jesus First

It’s common for Christians and Christian leaders to talk about their priorities. Usually they list it something like:

  1. Relationship with Jesus.
  2. Family.
  3. Friends.
  4. Work.
  5. Church.

While this approach is surely well-intentioned, I think there’s a better way.

wheel

Rather than seeing Jesus as the top priority, picture him as the hub of the wheel of your life.

Jesus is the hub. The other things are spokes. Everything connects to your relationship to him.

This way, Jesus is at the center of your:

  • family, informing how you spend your time, invest your money, use your tongue, and make memories.
  • friendships, reshaping how you encourage, challenge and enjoy one another.
  • work, infiltrating even the most mundane aspects of life and invigorating some of the most exciting ones.
  • church involvement, freeing you to give, serve, participate and love out of joy instead of obligation.

At Redemption Church, we say it this way: all of life is all for Jesus.

Jesus isn’t just the top priority, he’s the hub of the wheel of your life.

Christians Should Know Better Than Anyone That They Aren’t Better Than Anyone

The prerequisite to becoming a Christian is to admit that you are a failure before God. Without this awareness, there’s no real appreciation for God’s amazing grace.

NotBetterThanAnyone_306x172

The longer you live as a Christian, the more of a failure you realize you are. At the beginning you see the failure in your actions. But over time, you see how you fail to obey God with your attitude, thoughts, motives, and intentions. You realize that not are there sins you commit (sins of commission), but good things you fail to do (sins of omission). Then you realize that even many of your good works are really just sinful efforts at self-justification. Even your best moments are laced with sin.

This is why Christians must continually re-discover the gospel. Otherwise we’d despair.

But this is also why Christians should know better than anyone that they aren’t better than anyone.

Anytime we swell with pride or think to ourselves, “I would never do that,” we have forgotten who we are apart from Jesus and his grace.

God, forgive us.

Image: Jim LePage

Lessons from Les Misérables

This post is probably a few weeks late, but perhaps that will allow for more people to have seen the incredible film adaptation of Les Misérables and appreciate these lessons. I have loved Les Misérables for a long time in play form and was thrilled by the film version. While the singing was not as naturally beautiful as the play, the acting brought the songs alive in a fresh way.

les mis main

Here are some things I’ve learned Les Mis:

1. Grace is powerful — transforming some and hardening others.

One of the major themes of the story is grace — received and given. In every instance it has a powerful effect. For Jean Valjean it leads to a whole new life of love and service. For Inspector Javert, driven by law, it leads to his demise.

As the Puritans used to say, “The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay.” Either way, you don’t leave unchanged after an experience with grace.

2. You never stop needing grace.

Jean Valjean is the hero of the story, but he never stops needing grace. Though dramatically changed after his experience with a gracious bishop, he remains a flawed man. The movie wonderfully highlighted his fear and the somewhat strained relationship he had with his adopted daughter Cosette.

This is an important lesson, because we often think that everything in our lives will change after some dramatic moment. But that’s not how life is — we always need grace.

3. Young leaders are often foolishly idealistic.

One of the most tragic aspects of the story is the foolish idealism of the rebel leaders. They are outnumbered and outgunned. They have no chance of winning this battle, let alone a war. But they plunge ahead to their own demise.

This is the plight of young leaders. We are often foolishly idealistic and end up dying on hills that should never even be fought on. Oh, that every young leader would have an older, wiser leader to coach and help them along the way!

4. Most people are carrying significant pain.

The most striking thing to me about the film version of Les Misérables was how everybody was suffering. This shouldn’t be a surprise since the title is “The Miserable Ones.” Nonetheless, it reminded me that most people in the world and around me are carrying significant pain.

It’s a suffering world and, though we try to hide it well, there is a great deal of pain in us and around us. We think everything’s OK because the houses look pretty, but it’s not. We need the grace and love of Jesus to break into our pain and give us hope.

5. Powerful love is sacrificial and substitutionary.

Jean Valjean showed his love for Cosette by sacrificing his health, and ultimately his life, to save the one she loved. This is the nature of sacrificial love. As Tim Keller says in The King’s Cross:

All love, all real, life-changing love, is substitutionary sacrifice. You have never loved a broken person, you have never loved a guilty person, you have never loved a hurting person except through substitutionary sacrifice…

There are a lot of wounded people out there. They are emotionally sinking, they’re hurting, and they desperately need to be loved. And when they are with you, you want to look at your watch and make a graceful exit, because listening to them with all their problems can be grueling. It can be exhausting to be a friend to an emotionally damaged person. The only way they’re going to start filling up emotionally is if somebody loves them, and the only way to love them is to let yourself be emotionally drained. Some of your fullness is going to have to go into them, and you have to empty out to some degree. If you hold on to your emotional comfort and simply avoid those people, they will sink. The only way to love them is through substitutionary sacrifice.

This is the essence of our gospel of grace. God showed his love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This is why the gospel is so powerful and this is why Christian love can be so transformative.

I am Far More Sinful and Wicked Than I Ever Dared Believe and Far More Loved and Accepted in Christ Than I Ever Dared Hope

I’m doing a series of posts on sentences that have changed my life (part 1, part 2, part 3) Here’s another: I am far more sinful and wicked than I ever dared believe and far more loved and accepted in Christ than I ever dared hope.

far more sinful and wicked than I ever dared believe and far more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope

I first heard this influential phrase from Tim Keller, author and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. I don’t really remember exactly what message or sermon I heard it in, but he says it a lot.

This sentence has changed me by helping me see that my sin is real and serious. No minimizing, deflecting, or blaming. I bear the full weight and responsibility for my disobedience. And it’s deeper and darker than I typically realize.

At the same time, this sentence declares that my salvation is glorious. God accepts me in Christ not because of me, but in spite of me. I could not be more loved by God. This is good news!

This sentence gives humility and boldness, which rarely come together. Humility because I see I truly am deserving of God’s wrath. I’m not better than anybody. Boldness because I see that God truly loves me and is for me. As Keller says, “No swaggering or sniveling.”

Question:

Which part of this statement is most difficult for you to believe? Why?