How to Find Hope for Tomorrow in Unsuspecting Places

Here We Are. In the Desert.

I want you to imagine something with me. I want you to think about your life. With all the good, bad, and ugly you have walked through. The pain of the past. The shame felt. The hurt caused by others. The abuses absorbed. The labels received. The failed promises. The failed vows. I want you to put all of that at the forefront of your mind. All those things no one else knows or has seen you weep over.

Now, I want to ask you a question. “What would it feel like to be completely whole, healthy, and restored?” Can you imagine what that would be like? To take a deep breath again with full healing from your past and present?

I have asked myself this same question before. I often find myself comparing my own journey and growth. However, not with other people as much. More times than not its with the people I have heard about in the Bible. They ALWAYS seemed to me as the prototype people of God who got it right.

I would idolize people like Moses who parted the Red Sea who lived so close to God’s holiness and healing that he met with God face to face!

I would think of Mary the mother of Jesus who had the honor to be chosen as the one to bear in the flesh the very Person of God in Jesus!

I would and have often thought of David who was called a man after God’s own heart. Clearly his life demonstrates the perfect image of what it means to be healed and whole.

I often thought of Paul and Jesus as well for obvious reasons. 

When I would look at these individuals, foolishly, I would only look at their highs. Never their lows. Focusing on the positive of their lives but not on the hell they walked through. Why did I and why do we often do this when looking at people we are inspired by? Because we have an ingrained allergic reaction to anything that will cause discomfort, difficulty, and friction. We hate it. But the reality is, these are the things that bring us health and new life—oddly enough. We just want to skip it all. 

You may remember the Extreme Home Makeover show. Well one of the biggest keys to making this show work was literally constructing a house in days. Newsflash: this isn’t reality. The problem is that the footers and materials used to make homes required time to set, mature, and become strong. And then the house would be durable. Many of these houses were riddled with issues because of unrealistic expectations in constructing them. Our lives are often no different. If we do not embrace even the difficult seasons, years down the road our foundations will rock and we will be a mess because we sought for short cuts. We ran from the pain.

Desert Roads

Many of the individuals mentioned above walked difficult roads: 

Moses was on the run for murder in the desert tending goats when God found him. 

Mary was pregnant with Jesus AFTER an angel appeared to her and had to journey through the desert region of Egypt to escape the violence of Herod who was killing babies throughout the area in search of the chosen one. 

David, before he ever walked into the fullness of his destiny was on the run from Saul in the desert region of En Gedi where many scholars believe he wrote some of the most powerful Psalms showing his deep love and trust in God. 

And Jesus Himself? Before his ministry launched he was literally “cast out into the wilderness desert,” being tempted and tried by Satan Himself. 

Paul too, when he found Christ did not immediately excel to this place of wholeness and healing. Instead, he spent 3 years in, you guessed it, the desert.

God’s strategy to bring us back to places of closeness and intimacy is seen above with these individuals. It is one word all of the examples we just heard about had in common. Moses, Mary, David, Jesus, and Paul. All of them walked through the desert to get where God desired them to go. This is God’s playbook. 

A Wounded Heart Finds Healing

Now, lets take a step back. From Hosea 1:1 (a prophet in the Old Testament) all the way up to 2:13, God is hurting. His heart is tearing in two. Because those whom He created have forgotten about him. Not in lip service or when in need—but in living faithfully for Him and growing in their relationship with Him daily. God is a scorned and angry lover. He is so consumed with jealousy for his adulterous bride that he is ready to hit reset on everything. 

“Start the rain water!… Bring the fire and brimstone!… Lets blow the whole thing up and start over!” But He doesn’t. He can’t. Something within Him always comes back to love and never giving up! 

After the two-timing behavior of Israel is exposed, and after God breaks a few dishes and slams a few doors, God waits on the porch brokenhearted long into the night. He remains hopeful, not only that Israel will return on her own but also that He may be able to draw her not just back… but somewhere deeper. Where is this “deeper place?” You guessed it. The desert.

What is so special about the desert? Isn’t the desert places where things go to die? Exactly. All through the Bible the symbolism behind the desert is meant to display the locations where God’s presence and power is felt most. Rarely did transformation ever happen in King’s palaces, lush land, or places where all the needs were met. 

This is why affluence in Western society is the slow killer of our spirituality. We have everything we need so why do we need the intimacy of God? Why pray? We have it all.

But in the desert we are reminded of our need and hopelessness. In the difficult areas we run from, we are running from our need for Him to work within us. It is there that the Holy Spirit can reach us. This is God’s playbook! As it was for his wayward wife. But what happens in the desert? Through Hosea (2:14-15), God says,

“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
    I will lead her into the wilderness
    and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
    and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
    as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

I encourage you. Read it again. Comfort is found in the silencing of competing voices. Vineyards are restored, which are a symbol of blessing and restoration. Trouble and challenge are turned into hope and opportunity. “Valley of Achor” meant the “place of trouble.” Do you see the transformation God is inviting unfaithful Israel into? He is not calling for divorce. He is inviting full restoration!  It is a “return to your first love!” God says that Israel will sing again as in the days of her youth when she was first set free from Egypt. Can you see all of this? Eugene Peterson gives a great window into Hosea 2:!4-15 when he translates it:

“And now, here’s what I’m going to do:
    I’m going to start all over again.
I’m taking her back out into the wilderness
    where we had our first date, and I’ll court her.
I’ll give her bouquets of roses.
    I’ll turn Heartbreak Valley into Acres of Hope.
She’ll respond like she did as a young girl,
    those days when she was fresh out of Egypt.

God’s relentless heart and pursuit of us is beyond our imagination. The very places we hide from one another and from God, the best we can, are the very places God wants to bring to the surface in that wilderness time when we feel at our lowest. When we feel furthest from God, in a moment, God can transform it into the closest of times! Not to help us make a home there and stay in our brokenness… but rather heal and walk us through it. But for them, all of it was dependent upon one thing for Israel: willingness.

The Deceiving Hyphen

What stands before A – B is a small hyphen. Beware, the hyphen is deceiving. It leads us to think the route from brokenness to healing is a straight and easy line. It isn’t true. What is in the middle is the desert and we have to get through it God’s way. We may want to swim under it, jump over it, teleport to the other side, but we cant.

We. Just. Cant.

There is only one way from A to B. There is only one method of travel where Jesus will be found. And that is in treading water and swimming bit by bit to the other side. Often while holding a cinder block in one hand and a dumbbell in the other. It’s the desert. It isn’t easy. But even still, we tread and swim with Jesus there hoping and trusting we will find comfort, restoration, the transformation because of what we have seen time and time again in the Scriptures.

But if we aren’t willing to make that swim, we settle and exist with our cinder block, often times unknowingly hurting others. 

In the book Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity, an author named Ronald Rolheiser explains this journey through the desert to healing well in our culture. 

One of the challenges, at least in the western church, is an inability to deal with our wounds in a healthy way. Our training as Christians has been focused on Bible studies, small groups, and Sunday worship. But little thought has been given to the connection between our emotional and spiritual lives. This, I believe, is why people can inflict so much damage on and within the church. There’s tons of spiritual head knowledge, but without healing the wounds of the past they are unable to experience healthy relationships.

Being OK With Desert Silence and No Manual

All of us begin our lives in Christ with a child-like hope and belief that we will always remain in this faithful dialog with God and we will grow to become so close to Him and so whole. But as time goes on, Some of this begins to change.  God becomes aloof to us, we perceive. We lose interest. All of this becomes a mindless and numb existence. We settle for it as though it were truth. Suddently then, God becomes really silent. 

But it is in the silence of God, the desert and the wilderness, we actually discover Him in a real and new way. There is no sequence or method. There is no practical application when it comes to surrender, repentance, and discovery of the intimacy of God. These are all relationship words; not a manual to build a playground set. I mean, think about it. Do you look at your friendships and spouse this same way? Expecting a manual to make everything fit together perfectly?  There just isn’t one. All of it is relationship and mystery. But what I do know, in the mystery where we hit our wall and surrender to the needed journey through the desert—God takes us to higher ground and deeper intimacy as seen in Hosea 2:16-18.

“In that day,” declares the Lord,
    “you will call me ‘my husband’;
    you will no longer call me ‘my master.’
I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
    no longer will their names be invoked.
In that day I will make a covenant for them
    with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
    and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
    I will abolish from the land,
    so that all may lie down in safety.

Did you catch that key phrase? He says, “In that day…” 

In that day when you Israel decide its time to surrender.

In that day son and daughter when you are finally ready to say, “Not my will but yours be done.” 

In that day when you finally say its time to enter the desert for growth and new life. 

There is so much healing and empowering God has for us in the places we least expect. Whether it is where we find ourselves which is difficult (desert) or a place within us we do not want to deal with (desert)—no matter what, there is healing to be had there. This is the playbook of God. And when we decide to do things God’s way… then “In that day…” we will find wholeness. I still believe Jesus heals and delivers us from our pain and sin. Do you?

Maybe you don’t. But you know what? It doesn’t change God. He relentlessly pursues his people. He relentlessly loves you. Our bad behavior does not make God love and pursue us less just as our good behavior does not make him love and pursue us more. We cannot earn the love of God, for He is love.

Take Time

I encourage you to take time. Take time to look where you are at. Your desert may be areas you have ignored. Failed expectations. Broken vows. Broken promises. Things in your past. The desert could be your current situation. So… ask Him.

“Lord, what do you desire from me?

What is my wilderness?

Am I in a wilderness? Where am I?

Where do you desire me to go?

Am I running with you, to you, or away from you?”

Take time to be in the Scriptures and to pray so that the noise can settle. When it does, embrace the quiet and still desert air and trust that even in that place, God’s love is loud, present, and ready to do its healing work.

Obedience.

Any mentioning of the word in Christian circles will conjure up diverse emotion. In many corners of Christianity, it has become a word of obscenity. Whether the context is obeying Jesus or learning to obey spiritual authority—no matter the context, this word has become problematic on many levels. A linguistic parriah. 

Don’t get me wrong; I get it. I really do. It seems that reports of sexual abuse and corruption from those in places of leadership in the Church are coming out by the week as more brave women and men step forward. The result is a large distrust of the church as we have known it as well as leaders within the church. Obedience and human spiritual authority is an entirely separate topic. Again, I understand. I have lamented for many hours in prayer over it.

Combine this with the origin story of my homeland, the USA, and we can understand on another level why this word is hard for us. The USA has a deep and innate obsession with individualism, autonomy, and freedom. It has come at a great price. There are positives to this part of our national identity. For the Christian though, if we are not careful, those positives can become problematic to our allegiance to Christ if not kept in check. If not kept in check, obedience in any form, drops into our ears like a threat to everything we hold dear.  

Though for the Christian, obedience is very much a foundational principle to live by, regardless of where we call home. Following and obeying Jesus in Scripture was never based on our emotional disposition or ease of comfort. There was never a standard to be met before we could obey. Following Jesus has forever hinged on pure obedience. Not the kind of obedience that comes across legalistic. Costly, yes. Difficult, yes. Painful even, yes. But never legalistic or shameful. The way Jesus speaks of it, is tied to a deeper submission of the heart to that which we are following. 

The Promises of Obedience to Jesus

This can be seen when Jesus, in John 14:15-15:16 includes or alludes to twelve promises which accrue to those who love and… obey God. 

  • 14:15-17: If you keep my commandments, I will send you the Helper, who will abide with you forever.
  • 14:18: I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.
  • 14:21: He who loves me will keep my commandments.
  • 14:23: We will come to him who obeys and make Our home with him.
  • 14:26: The Holy Spirit will teach you all things and remind you of my words.
  • 14:27: Do not be afraid, I give you my peace.
  • 15:7: If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.
  • 15:8: My Father is glorified when you bear much fruit.
  • 15:9-10: If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love.
  • 15:14: You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.
  • 15:15: I no longer call you servants, but friends.
  • 15:16: You did not choose me; I chose you–that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain.

Do you see how the above Scriptures highlight the role of obedience and it being for our ultimate good as Christians? This is what the unbelieving and secular society needs to see: indiviudals who walk out their faith at all costs. 

Unbelievers find faith in Jesus not because of a mental ascent to certain beliefs. They find faith in Jesus because they stepped out of their current existence and into a new one by faith; doing and following what they see within the Gospel of Jesus. Of course belief has a part to play.

But remember, Jesus first called out, “Follow me” to the disciples. Not, “Believe me.” 

Apart from unbelievers, followers of Jesus are renewed and find fresh faith themselves, not because they devoured books or went a week without a certain sin. They find renewal by obeying what they know to be true but have ignored for some time. That which we have read again and again but have been slow to put into action.

Following Jesus is not built on our terms. Following Jesus is built on his. He calls us to obey; submitting our whole hearts to him.

I pray that today you find yourself desiring to live out your faith in fresh and new ways. Seeking to crucify your own flesh and ego and with childlike faith, trusting the planted seed of the Gospel which has been planted within you. 

Lest you fear obeying Jesus like he desires is attainable, remember you have been given his Holy Spirit to lead you to a rediscovery of the deep things of God. In doing so, you will discover that obeying Jesus is not an adventure into drudgery. Obeying Jesus becomes a doorway into a hope and future that finds meaning in the present. It brings our faith to life!

To the point where, like the Apostle Paul, we are are able to say, “For I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Those things God has been calling / commanding / inviting / requesting you to do; those dreams which require you to put action to your lips, its time to move. Nothing will ever come by theorizing, talking, and dreaming. The things God destines for our lives come through our obedience to his Gospel truth. You can do this; the Holy Spirit is with you. The greatest transformations I have ever experienced have been the direct result of time of prayer when I know, read, and hear what God is inviting me to–and with fear and stumbling I step out and obey. I wish I was better at it. But I am learning. Learning to obey his voice above all others. Joy is found in no other place than obedience to Christ.

“So, you just got saved. From what? For what?” Part 1

Many who follow Jesus are able to pinpoint with clarity the moment they realized they were “saved” and the simultaneous relief and joy that surrounded that moment. However, understanding what they were saved from or for—that is less clear. I began following Jesus in April of 2002. Upon realizing my salvation, I began to evangelize those closest to me. With fervor and passion, I would explain the Scriptures to the best of my imperfect ability as well as what I believed God was communicating to me from them. I felt that I was well on my way to a healthy understanding of this new faith until a friend asked a rather simple question. Following my explanation of the Gospel to her and my reception of it she bluntly asked, “But what are you saved from?” Being unsure how to answer I gave a curt reply. “Hell, of course!” At the speed of light, another question followed. “But what are you saved for?” This one stumped me. It was then I realized although I could tell someone when I was saved, I was unable to give clear meaning to what this meant on a practical level for how I lived my life or functioned in the church I had recently joined.

In the many years since becoming a Christian I have learned that salvation is often spoken of in the church and yet rarely understood or even appreciated. I have noticed it becoming the favorite catchphrase between the spiritual “haves” and the “have nots.” Often people will cast judgement on others saying, “That person is definitely not saved.” or “This one over here is saved!” We haphazardly use this word so often that it has lost much of its root system from where it stems. As a result, the theology behind one’s understanding of salvation is often convoluted and rarely straight forward—just as it was for myself all those years ago. This should not come as a surprise since “salvation” (like all theological concepts) is developed from within contexts which possess their own contours. Whether or not those contours shift drastically, or subtlety will be the focus of what is ahead. 

For instance, protestant understandings of salvation are mostly born out of the struggle within the Reformation focusing on the tension of justification by faith which has brought about various stereotypes within Christianity. John J. Collins writes

Perhaps the most abiding stereotype of ancient Judaism is that it was a religion of the Law. Christian perceptions on this subject have been shaped to a great degree by the portrayal of the Pharisees in the Gospels as rigid observers of the letter of the Law. It is now recognized that this portrayal is polemical in nature and cannot be taken as an objective description.[1]

Add to this the subsequent influences of the enlightenment, scholasticism, revivalism, pietism, and many other “-isms,” the theological understanding of salvation moves well beyond faith and includes other imports that cloud a basic meaning of salvation which is tethered to its Judistic roots. Though not mentioned above but possibly the greatest influencer of such (negative?) diversity has been the fundamentalist/ modernist controversy where firm lines have been drawn to the point where biblical interpretation and how one does it can be a deciding factor if one is even “saved” or not.[2] All of these influences (not to mention the radical individualism and consumerism of Western society) has led many to “conceive of salvation in particular ways, shaped by the controversies of the past and the cultures of the present.”[3] We are left asking the question, “Will the real understanding of salvation please stand up?” 

New Testament[4] scholar Brenda B. Colijn asks similar questions of salvation while employing a unique method. In her book Images of Salvation in the New Testament she seeks to deepen the reader’s comprehension of salvation and what it encompasses. The goal of her study is not to land on one definition per se but rather appreciate the many ways it is described throughout the Scriptures. She explains

The New Testament does not develop a systematic doctrine of salvation. Instead, it presents us with a variety of pictures taken from different perspectives…. This reliance on images is typical of the Bible: ‘the Bible is much more a book of images and motifs than of abstractions and propositions…. The Bible is a book that images the truth as well as stating it.’[5]

If we want to go deeper in understanding what we are saved from and for or who the agent of salvation even is, the question we should then wrestle with is, “where do these concepts or symbols come from which are used to explain salvation?”

Being able to answer this question among others surrounding it positions followers of Jesus to better understand the story of salvation they are part of. Failure to do so will result in believers and a church unable to articulate why this message is called “Good News;” a truth about salvation that is not neatly defined; only described. 

To aid in our pursuit of understanding salvation it is imperative we remember that the core biblical description on this theme is embedded within a larger story that far expands outside of our individual selves. Joel B. Green states

The ongoing story of God’s relationship to the whole cosmos, and thus to all humanity, and especially to Israel, as this is narrated in the Old and New Testaments…. is grounded in the scriptures of Israel, and comes to expression above all in Jesus Christ, [and] continues into the present, and moves forward to the consummation of God’s purpose and self-revelation in the end.[6]

It is to this end—understanding salvation through the lens of the biblical narrative—that we must strive for. Anything short of a thorough study in what Green communicates above results in a stunted salvific understanding of God that is quickly reduced to the individualism which pervades much of modern Christendom. An individualism which communicates that salvation is simply the absence of judgment and condemnation resulting in heaven being our ticket. Thankfully there is much more to salvation than this tired and worn understanding of salvation.

As N.T. Wright famously writes regarding the importance of the New Heavens and New Earth in contrast to a simple understanding of going to heaven when we die, “There is life after life after death.”[7]

Much of the church’s thinking and language about salvation (and at times eschatology) is inadequate to reach those following Jesus as well as those who are yet to make the decision to. The only way forward is by going backwards to better understand what salvation meant to Israel, the Gentiles, Jesus, and early church. Will there be large differences? Will there be a linear understanding over time with minor shifting? It is hoped that through this journey of study that we will arrive at a wholistic understanding that better positions the Christian and church alike to give society something it has been longing for: “wholeness and hope.” A pleasant byproduct will also be the ability to answer what we are saved from and what we are saved for with the depth and beauty such a question, not to mention the Gospel of Jesus, deserves. 


[1] Abingdon Press, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible: General Articles & Introduction, Commentary, & Reflections for Each Book of the Bible, Including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 285.

[2] Brenda B. Colijn, Images of Salvation in the New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2010), 21.

[3] Colijn, 21.

[4] “NT” will be used to denote “New Testament” moving forward except when quoted. 

[5] Colijn, Images of Salvation in the New Testament, 13–14.

[6] Joel B. Green, Salvation, 1st ed, Understanding Biblical Themes (St. Louis, Mo: Chalice Press, 2003), 3.

[7] This understanding of life after death is built upon N.T. Wright throughout his work on early Christian hope. See  N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 1st ed (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

Jesus and His Kingdom – Part 1

What exactly is this “Kingdom” Jesus speaks of?

On May 2nd, 2011, the news broke. Osama Bin Laden had been killed for his role in the September 11th, 2001, attacks on U.S. soil. The reception of this news for many was marked with euphoria, joy, and deep seated—decade long—emotions of revenge. The masses gathered in front of the White House in celebration with liturgy of song and chant. The singing of “God Bless the U.S.A” as well as the repetitious and synchronized yelling of “Rot in Hell.” Many interviewed in the streets were speechless in their attempts to communicate their relief. In watching these interviews, it was easy to see a disturbing and shocking trend woven throughout their thinking: God’s approval. 

In the following months details began to come forward from the “situation room” where the president and other cabinet members watched the operation play out. We were told that if the mission were successful and Bin Laden was captured dead or alive a code word would be given, “Geronimo.” What was said through satellite communications to the President that night was, “For God and Country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” There it was again. 

Following that night over ten years ago now I had many conversations with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ about the subtle tension I and others were feeling. It was a disturbing tension I could not remove myself from: rejoicing over the death of another while simultaneously invoking the name of God and His approval. It just didn’t feel right though I did understand it’s origin. I battled in my own flesh the emotions of satisfaction that this man received what my flesh felt he deserved. However, deep-seated within me is an ethic of love and non-violence formed by the teachings of Jesus which challenged those emotions. 

Nonetheless, I struggled to see how invoking God’s blessing over this action differentiated us from those who also perpetrated these attacks in the name of their own god. But it was one comment from an individual that stands above everything I had seen on T.V. After graciously putting up with my long discourse regarding what I felt to be so un-Christlike and un-befitting for Jesus followers in celebrating the death of Bin Laden, a friend said to me, “I felt like what happened was just. It was a win for the Kingdom of God.” 

Really? A win for the Kingdom?[1] I could not believe that someone I had trusted and admired as a mature student of the Scriptures would say something like this. I was determined to seek out a fresh understanding of the Kingdom of God in response to his statement. Since that moment to the present, I have come to realize this may be the most important area to grapple with for the modern church. Judging from that one conversation to many others I have had as a leader in the Church I have also realized it might be one of the most diluted and misunderstood aspects of Jesus’ message. If the Church has any hope at all in displaying the awe-inspiring wonder, beauty, and creativity of the Gospel—we must go backwards before we can go forwards. We must do the hard work of recovering the width and depth of what the Kingdom of God meant to Jesus as well as those who came before him.  

When looking at the New Testament it is beyond clear that the central fulcrum on which his entire message swings is this very topic. The Kingdom is, as Bruce Chilton says, “…the center of Jesus’ message both as a fact and as a mystery.”[2] If this is true, which I believe it is, then how this message is understood and conveyed is of the utmost importance in our desire to bring profound hope and truth to an unbelieving world. These noble aspirations unfortunately will never come to fruition if this Kingdom message is not embraced in its right context. Failure to do so can and is already resulting in a crisis of identity for the Church and her mission. 

Thankfully there is hope. A fresh re-understanding of the Kingdom opens the doors for both disciples and churches to reemerge as beacons of light and substantial hope in a weary and worn culture. Again, Chilton states, “But if it is true in general terms that we can know Jesus, then it must be possible to understand what he stood for…the Kingdom of God, is conveyed to us powerfully within the gospels. They invite us to share the power of that vision.”[3] If our pursuit is to know Jesus and his central message thereby becoming faithful disciples and Churches, then our journey, as already stated, must go backward before it can go forward. 

What didKingdom” Mean Before Jesus? Was it Original to Jesus?

Often where there is a lack of clarity in any topic the result is almost always due to vague and incomplete explanations. This same truth could be applied to our endeavor in seeking to understand what Jesus, in Mark 1:15 as well as John the Baptist in Matthew 3:1, are seeking to convey when they both respectively declared this coming Kingdom.[4] We are wise to assume that this understanding of a kingdom was widespread at the time within early Judaism thus contributing to a lack of need to spell it out in detail.[5] However, this does not mean we are left in the dark. We are still able to comb through the Old Testament as well as literature within Second Temple Judaism to ascertain a firm understanding of what this phrase meant as well as the emotion it evoked when declared. 

Beginning first from the Old Testament we see a complete absence of the phrase “Kingdom of God” however there is present a certain “kingly” rule that is often mentioned. The language is used to describe earthly kingdoms throughout Judah and Israel to “denote a territory or politically organized unit under monarchial rule (e.g., Gen. 10:10; Num. 32:33).”[6] Related but still an offshoot of this would be found in 1 Chron. 28:5 and 2 Chron. 13:8 where the phrase “Kingdom of Yahweh” occurs. However, to be fair we need to differentiate between the relationship of the two above. The implied “Kingdom of Yahweh” was not synonymous to the “kingdom of Israel.” Dennis C. Duling rightly communicates that even though Israel adapted near eastern ideas of divine kingship for the earthly king, God and the king were not identical; the god/king of the world was also the god/king over the people of Israel, and therefore superior to any earthly ‘divine king.’ Correspondingly, there was also tension between these two kingdoms.[7]

This tension continued through Israel’s history through the time of the prophets and well into the era of Second Temple Judaism. This becomes especially clear when we leaf through the late prophetic book of Daniel. Though it is found within the canonical Old Testament it deserves to be treated in the next portion looking into the literature of the Second Temple period due to its dating of ca. 165 B.C.E. 

The book of Daniel has long been used when talking about Jesus’ conception of the Kingdom and his own eschatology because of Daniel 7 and its corresponding usage by Jesus in Matthew 24:30 and 26:64 as well as Mark 14:62. It could be said that Daniel 7 and the “Son of Man” phrasing is a favorite saying of Jesus.[8] But what exactly do these connections mean? Up to this time in history there was a clear separation between the secular kingdoms of humans and the Kingdom of Yahweh even if the former was led by a client king. But in Daniel 7:13 where it is prophesied that “One like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven… to the Ancient One and was presented before him.” we see a major shift. Obviously, this is a serious departure from a human client king. 

What is represented in Daniel 7 can be described as a continuation of development regarding the eschatology from within Judaism. In his masterful study of the Kingdom of God, G.R. Beasley-Murray rightly summarizes that this vision of Daniel “accords a prime place to the coming of Yahweh to subdue evil and to deliver his people.”[9] This coming and arrival of “one like a human being” should be kept in its proper category as a theophany. This is God showing up on the scene in both a redemptive and punitive sense. To the faithful within Judaism the one who is coming on the “clouds of heaven” is meant to symbolize consolation to the people of God.[10] This is the ushering in of a heavenly Kingdom led by a “human-like” individual. Murray states that this individual is representative of God and his sovereignty over the world.[11] The desire of Daniel is to place in juxtaposition both earthly and heavenly kingdoms. In doing so he makes it clear that the origin of this Kingdom is from above.[12] Martin J. Selman synthesizes this prophecy of Daniel and its implication for how this era of Judaism viewed the coming Kingdom as something God will give his everlasting Kingdom to Men [and Women]. Although human kingdoms arising from the earth are doomed to failure, God does not in consequence keep his Kingdom for himself and his untainted angels…. The Kingdom of God will be given to ‘the holy ones, the people of the Most High’ (Dan. 7:18, 27), and to ‘one like a son of man.’[13]

This development within Daniel 7 represents an emerging eschatology consonant with other examples in surrounding literature. Paying attention to a small sampling out of many will help our goal of understanding the development of the Kingdom of God theme from the Old Testament through to the time of Jesus in the first century C.E. 

1 Enoch and the Book of Watchers (1 En. 1-36) contain clear statements which reflect a belief that the elect people of God, including those who are resurrected will live in a final state with God whose throne is situated upon a mountain. He will be known as a King of Kings, Eternal King, and King of the Universe.[14] The core writings from Enoch which represent this are found in 9:4; 25:7; 12:3; 25:3-5, and 27:3. Outside of the Book of Watchers other elements of similar beliefs regarding the Kingdom can be found in the “Book of Dreams,” “Animal Apocalypse,” “Apocalypse of Weeks,” and the “Book of Similitudes.”[15] As Duling makes clear, in 1 Enoch God is called King and the Son of Man is a king/messiah.[16] The book of Enoch along with the prophecy of Daniel represent a unique turn from the Old Testament and it’s understanding of the Kingdom.

Another example can be found in the Testament of Moses which is dated around the Maccabean period down through to the time of Jesus. In 10:1,3-4 it reads as the following

And then His Kingdom shall appear throughout all His creation, and then Satan shall be no more, and sorrow shall depart with him…. For the Heavenly One will arise from His royal throne, and he will go forth from His holy habitation with indignation and wrath on account of His sons. And the earth shall tremble; to its confines shall it be shaken; and the high mountains shall be made low and the hills shall be shaken and fall.[17]

This text holds three elements that give us a window into the apocalyptic nature of the Kingdom and how this points to Jesus’ own understanding. First, we see the appearance or revelation of a divine Kingdom impacting all the earth. Is this not the connotation we read from Jesus’ first declaration of ministry in Mark 1:15? The usage of ἤγγικεν regarding ἡ βασιλεία τοῦθεοῦ in Mark 1:15 gives the impression that this Kingdom has either arrived or is on the precipice of arrival. Could it be that Jesus is flowing in this same stream of thought regarding the arrival of God’s Kingdom? More on this verse shortly. Second, this apocalyptic Kingdom is one that will be in direct opposition with Satan. In Luke 11:18 Jesus gives a line of demarcation between the kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God. Joel Green communicates that “Jesus thus positions the work of exorcism within the larger matrix of the struggle between the dominion of Satan and the dominion of God.”[18] Lastly, the phrase “high mountains shall be made low” is significant to our knowledge of what the Kingdom was expected to usher in. The immersion of Isaiah 40 in the messaging of John the Baptist in Luke 3 along with this verse from the Testament of Moses makes clear that there are kingly expectations of equity and justice being dispersed with the coming reign of the One from  Daniel 7.

By only looking at three examples from this era of Second Temple Judaism we can be confident of a few things. There was an already implanted understanding of a coming King who would be other worldly as seen in Daniel 7. In addition to this was a deep hope that one day the righteous will experience a new Kingdom marked by justice and equity led by a transcendent Lord of lords and God of gods, and King of kings. Enoch seeks to capture all of this when speaking of Kingly rule or the Kingdom of God as a whole. The Testament of Moses showcases what can be found in many other writings of this time. Namely, a line between the righteous and the evil as well as Satan and God. All of these common expectations, hopes, and tensions were part of the economy of religion in this era where a definitive concept of “good vs. evil” is apparent.

Another collection of writings from this era which give us a glimpse into the cultural thinking of the Kingdom of God were discovered in the caves at Qumran commonly called the “Dead Sea Scrolls.” The importance of these diverse writings cannot be overstated enough in terms of their importance for understanding Jesus in his own context. Scot McKnight explains that Jesus’ life and thinking took place within a diverse Judaism where there “options were many and orthodoxies were few.”[19] He further argues that Jesus and his thinking must be observed while keeping in mind the many complex societal communities of his day, especially the “sectarian Essenism of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”[20] Another noted scholar who would agree is James H. Charlesworth. On the similarities between Jesus and the Essenes he writes that they possessed the following:

the same territory and race; they were devout, religious, conservative, and anti-Gentile. They struggled against common enemies…were close to some Pharisees, were animated by the belief that God was about to bring to fruition his promises and were apocalyptically and eschatologically oriented.”[21]  

Within the large collection of writings found at Qumran the language and context of the Kingdom of God is well attested. For the present study we will focus on two primary areas: The War Scroll (1QM) and the Rule of Blessings (1QSb) due to their apocalyptic and eschatological orientation. Both scrolls highlight the thinking of the Essene community as it pertains to the reign of God in their time and space as well as the ethical implications of this coming Kingdom.

In 1QM 12:8 we see God being called “King of Honor” and “King of Kings” in 14:6. Around the portion where King of Kings can be found there is also an eschatological focus on a future kingdom being within Israel which will be established by the priestly prince of the congregation.[22] It is a kingdom where justice, peace, and a refined or renewed gathering of worshippers in a new Temple will manifest. 1QM 13:10 could easily have been the ideological atmosphere where many would be messiahs found their footing: “From of old you appointed the prince of light to assist us, and in […] and all the spirits of truth are under his dominion.”[23] The scroll reads like an anticipatory piece of literature marking out clearly who is righteous and who is not. The focus is on the eschatological reign of God that will soon be breaking in with the fighting of the “Sons of light vs. darkness.” (1Qm 1:11) The similarities thus far ought to be evident. The lines of demarcation as well as polemical language found here can also be found in the tone of Jesus and John the Baptist. 

The Rule of Blessings, though different from the War Scroll, gives a similar perspective on the eschatological Kingdom that is yet to break in. Our focus from this scroll is the “Prince of the Congregation.” In 1QSb 5:20-22 the prince will receive a special blessing from the Master which will confer upon the prince certain eschatological actions. 

The prince of the congregation… and shall renew for him the covenant of the community for him to establish the Kingdom of his people forever, [to judge the poor with justice] to reproach the humble of the earth with uprightness, to walk in perfection before him on all his paths.[24]

In this text we again see a focus on the ethical dimensions of the coming one. Both the War and Blessing Scroll illustrate something obvious: the time and era was ripe for an individual to come and dip their toes into the apocalyptic and eschatological pressure cooker which was continuing to grow by the day while Palestine was under Rome’s rule. 

Part 1 in Summary

In summary we can confidently see that: (1) the Old Testament had an understanding of the Kingdom of God that was connected to earthly kingdoms and client kings. There was tension brewing within the desires of the Kingdom of Yahweh in comparison with the kingdom of man, however, these references are scarce. So where did this development arise of a Kingdom that was to break in apocalyptically or eschatologically? (2) While Daniel (especially Daniel 7) is found within the Old Testament, for our purposes we included it in the framework of Second Temple Judaism due to its late dating. Within Daniel we see an expectation of a savior who is coming to establish a Kingdom in the here and now. As stated by Murray above, the vision accords a prime place in the vision and expectation of Yahweh who will subdue evil and redeem his people. The juxtaposition Daniel creates between two kingdoms in the Old Testament continues until “One like the Son of Man” comes from above. (3) In examining the Pseudepigrapha we can observe similar imagery and language in that of Daniel.

There is a coming one, an establishment of kingly rule, and his name will be Lord of Lords, God of Gods, and/or King of Kings. (4) All of this is continued not as a progression per se but more like the deepening of a well when we come to the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In both the War Scroll and Blessing Scroll there is all the above with the addition of ethical components regarding this coming Kingdom. To be fair, a full exploration of the Old Testament, Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, and Dead Sea Scrolls would yield a multitude of ethical expectations for the coming redemption of God’s Kingdom. However, for our brief study we have chosen only a few. Now let us turn to see how these influences had an impact on Jesus’ own understanding of the coming Kingdom. But what did Jesus, as a Jewish first century rabbi think about the Kingdom? To this we will turn next.

(The above is an excerpt from a doctoral paper I wrote in late 2021)


[1] Moving forward in this paper, any reference to the divine Kingdom of God (except when quoted from scholarship) will be capitalized while other occasions involving earthly kingdoms and kings will not be. The same will done with “Church” when in reference to the corporate body of Christ which is to carry out the Kingdom mission of God. Both are inherent in the title of this paper which focuses on a robust and healthy theology of the Kingdom understood in its context (going backward) which is the remedy the church needs for today (to move forward).

[2]  Bruce Chilton, Pure Kingdom: Jesus’ Vision of God, Studying the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich. : London: Eerdmans ; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), ix.

[3] Ibid, Chilton, x.

[4] Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 417.

[5] A common parallel to this would be if someone were to comment on how well they did at something in saying, “Wow! You hit it out of the park!” Most in North America would readily understand this to refer to hitting a homerun in baseball which is a tremendous positive. Thus, there would not be a need to explain in detail how one hits a home run in the game of baseball. 

[6] John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, eds., The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 860.

[7] Duling, Dennis C. “Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven: OT, Early Judaism, and Hellenistic Usage.” Ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York London Toronto [etc.]: Doubleday, 1992), 50.

[8] As confirmed by Scot McKnight in my first Doctorate seminar at Northern Seminary on the eschatology of Jesus. 

[9] George Raymond Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God, reprinted (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1987), 35.

[10] Ibid. 

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Barrick, William D. 2012. “The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 23 (2): 171. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=reh&AN=ATLA0001924487&site=ehost-live.

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Duling, Kingdom of God, 51. 

[15] Murray draws an interesting conclusion when analyzing the Book of Similitudes from Enoch. He states, “We are brought to the startling realization that the evidence points to the Similitudes as having been written at the same time as or during the generation after the ministry of Jesus. Does this suggest that the idea of the Son of Man as messianic representative was in the air, as it were, at that time?” He goes on to say that perhaps “we have the precipitate of two parallel movements of thought leading back to one source—namely, the vision of Daniel.” This statement by Murray furthers the mosaic of belief that was developing during and before the time of Jesus. (Murray, Kingdom of God, 68.)

[16] Duling, Kingdom of God, 51

[17] James H Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume One Volume One, 2016, 931–32.

[18] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1997), 455.

[19] Scot McKnight, A New Vision for Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 2.

[20] Ibid. 

[21] James Hamilton Charlesworth, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1992, 9–10.

[22] Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992, 4:52.

[23] Florentino García Martínez, ed., The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English, 2nd ed (Leiden ; New York : Grand Rapids: E.J. Brill ; W.B. Eerdmans, 1996), 107.

[24] García Martínez, 433.

That One Thing We Seek

In our lives, what is it exactly we are desiring? In other words, what we we wanting to see happen? How we answer this question matters greatly. If we are desiring security that we are often filling our time with the pursuit of tangible items which can give us a false sense of security. If we are desiring value or worth then we are often filling our schedules with things that will give us our sense of belonging into this world. An identity that usually comprises of a wonderful and inauthentic veneer. Whatever we desire will usually order our steps and priorities.

But one thing is very clear. Our answer as Christians ought to differ from the world’s answer. To be fair, I desire many things in this life that are not even connected to my faith directly. However, those things do not replace the primary desire which the world would not understand. You see, we as followers of Jesus are to be the ones whose lives are so purified and distilled where what can be seen, heard, and observed is none other than Jesus. Of course this is not always the case (I myself am quick to admit my failures in this), but the pursuit of such a life is nevertheless the goal by default.

“Therefore, since we have these promises (see 2 Cor. 6:3-18), dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.”

2 Corinthians 7:1

We are to be those who live unalloyed and uncontaminated. Not only by what the world sees on the exterior but also what drives us on the interior. How we answer the question of what we seek says a lot about our understanding of whether we are living the “called out” life Jesus is seeking.

We are living at a time when Christians in Western Society at many corners are having an identity crisis. We are mixing our allegiances with nations (nationalism), idols, and allowing the sins of the world choke out the goodness of God at rapid rates. We are substituting many things for an identity that is causing us to enter vicious cycles of heartbreak and unsatisfied longings. All of this is causing our pursuits and desires to be all over the place.

So what needs to happen? We need a seminal moment. We need to hit refresh and reset. We need to come back to the purity of what we were created to desire from the very beginning: the presence of God. This is something David in the Old Testament understood fully.

“One thing I ask from the Lord,

    this only do I seek:

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord

    all the days of my life,

to gaze on the beauty of the Lord

    and to seek him in his temple.

Psalm 27:4

He desired one thing very clearly: to encounter God in his fullness. So much so that he wanted to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and seek Him in his temple all the days of his life. Do we find it a coincidence that God also called David a “man after His own heart” in Acts 13:22? David was elevated in the eyes of God because of his insatiable desires and passion for the LORD. Does this not motivate and challenge us for today? David lived at a time when the Holy Spirit was upon a few. We are living in an era where the Holy Spirit is within all who yield to Him. How much more so ought our experience with God’s presence transform everything around us?

The Church is not starving for methods, ideas, solutions or steps. The Church of Jesus Christ is starving for an encounter with the very presence of God.

But instead, we are often consumed with books, devotionals, apps, videos, and more but are at many turns still missing what is needed: a fresh and pure stripped down encounter with Jesus. This is where our desire must be. Our marriage depends upon it. Our children depend upon it. The life of the Church depends upon it. Society depends upon it. Everything does. What are you giving to others if you yourself are not encountering the love of God within His presence and glory? Prioritizing the glory of God in our daily living is paramount for every follower of Jesus.

The Presence and Glory of God

The glory and presence of God is found throughout the Scriptures. The word ‘glory’ in Hebrew comes from the word ‘kabob‘ translated glory one hundred and fifty-five times. The word ‘kabed‘ from the same root word has been translated ‘heavy‘ seven times. The root meaning of ‘kabob‘ means weight or heaviness. In the New Testament the word ‘glory‘ is translated from the word ‘doxa‘ which has various meanings like ‘appearance, manifestation, magnificence, splendid array, radiance, or dazzling lustre. It is within this glory and presence of the living God that we find our true hearts desire. We discover our identity. When we have a true encounter with the Holy Spirit, our faith comes alive. We begin to see and feel the very glory and presence of God and we do not desire anything else! His anointing becomes tangible. His authority flows through us as it did with those in Scripture. This is the hope of God for your life and for mine. To desire Him and be close with Him. There is no substitute.

When this one thing–the very presence of God– becomes our insatiable desire, we then find the anointing of God for life and what we have been called to. Put simply, the anointing of God is a manifestation of the power of God while the glory of God is a manifestation of His attributes. With this understanding, the power or anointing of God is inseparable because God does not demonstrate His power without His presence.

For instance, Jesus says in Acts 1:8 says, “When the Holy Spirit has come upon you (His presence), you shall receive power (His anointing of power).” They go hand in hand. Mark 16:17 reads, “And these signs (His power) shall follow those who believe in My Name (His presence).

So what are we to desire? We can answer with many options. Many are valid. Many would not be. But for me, I would like to answer in the way David answered. I desire an encounter with the glory and presence of God through the Holy Spirit Whom Jesus gave to us. The One Who provides comfort, encouragement, truth, challenge, and more (John 14-16). Strip everything from me but do not take away God’s Holy Spirit. From where else would I or we find our place in His presence?

Please remember, no one is given the anointing of God based on books, titles, knowledge, degrees, or years of experience. These are subservient to God’s presence and are meant to support; not replace. They mean something–but not everything.

The anointing of God to break down the strongholds of the enemy is given to those whose lives are desperately seeking to be consumed with the Holy Spirit to degrees few will understand and many will ridicule.

Though His love is always unconditional; His authority is not. Seek first the Kingdom of God. Prioritize His presence and glory. Walk boldly in the power and anointing of God that comes from dwelling in His presence daily.

I pray that we, like David, would begin to possess a singular focus upon the presence of the God in every aspect of our lives so that we may find life where there used to be death. I pray the staleness of our time in prayer and the Word would be replaced with fresh revelation and child like faith, because, like children at Christmas, we have discovered the indescribable joy of being in and seeking the presence of God in our daily lives.

For those who have fallen away at times. Those who have but a flicker burning. The Lord is never too distant. He can handle the anger, frustration, and even hatred. You are loved and invited into His presence where joy, purpose, healing, and mercy is found. All we are asked is to seek Him while He may still be found. Seeking Him with everything we have.

That’s One Thing that would transform everything.

Leadership Matters

If recent years have taught us anything for those living in the United States of America it is that leadership matters. Our country has been steeped in self-serving and destructive leadership for quite some time. This truth is revealed when taking an easy glance at our country’s societal landscape. From vaccines to race to education to politics to the economy–at every turn there is disunity. Even outside of politics and into the corporate world. Organizations and Fortune 500 companies have been wrecked with scandal and corruption. While we would hope that the Church of Jesus Christ nationally and around the world would be immune–we too have been filled with our fair share of corruption and scandals. What does all of this tell us? Leadership matters.

Serving as a pastor has been a rewarding experience. I have learned leadership lessons through success and failure. I have hurt and have been hurt. I have experienced jubilation and betrayal. With everything good and bad; I have found a deep appreciation. All of the experiences have made me who I am and have forged a different kind of leader within me.

In the effort to grow and become a better servant of others God has led me in focusing on the importance of becoming a “high capacity” kind of leader. This has nothing to do with ego or status. This has everything to do with a servanthood kind of leadership and growing my capacity to serve and love people more effectively. Over the past year or so I have learned it’s important we strive in:

  1. Enlarging our theology of God’s role in how we lead: How deep does our faith go? Do we trust God will lead us? Do we trust God will give us the clarity and wisdom needed?
  2. Enlarging our circle of people different than ourselves: How diverse is the group around us? From whom do we draw influence, wisdom, and advice? Diversity of voices can nurture stronger leadership.
  3. Enlarging our willingness to cope and adapt with change: No one leads in a silo. True leadership arises from the varying circumstances which cause us to stay true to our convictions and direction.
  4. Enlarging our “tool box” of disciplines: Are we doing what is necessary to hear the voice of God? Are we disciplining ourselves? Are we positioning ourselves to be effective in how we serve others and show them the love of Jesus?

At first glance I can imagine many would think this list reflects important principles for leaders in a church. It doesn’t. You may also think these are all common sense. I assure you, they are not. This short list is for anybody and everybody and requires intentionality. At the very least all of us are the leaders of our own path. We are the ones who make the decisions. We are the ones who steer our steps. God guides, leads, and provides. But we make the first step every time.

In taking those steps, I encourage you: Stay focused! Your leadership matters. In a society starving for true leaders who reflect the best in what humanity can offer, choose to lead well! Show a better way. Beware of the following traps which take away your focus and drive:

  1. Choosing to be involved in things God did not call us to.
  2. Fighting the wrong battles which distract and drain everything in you.
  3. Chase every trend and fad thinking the answer to everything is within them.
  4. Striving to be someone else or in someone else’s situation. Own your lot!

At the very least, from one leader to another, I pray you will take tomorrow and recognize that when your feet hit the floor, its game on. How you lead tomorrow matters. Lead yourself and others well.

Choose to serve; not to domineer. Choose Jesus; not the flesh. Choose people; not advancement. Choose love; not selfishness.

Taking the Leap Part 1: “What in Us Must Die?

23 But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. 24 Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. 25 He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor. -John 12:23-26

Gardening, Growth, and the Bible

I love gardening. I love witnessing things grow. To me it is still one of the greatest mysteries. You take a seemingly “dead” looking seed—dry and shriveled up—seeming to be at the end of its rope. You put it in good soil. Surround it with good nutrients. Shower it with the rains from above. And then it happens. A little shoot climbing through the soil seeking to make a name for itself. No matter what kind of plant it is–it usually begins the same—a tiny blade climbing through the soil. How it happens is still a mystery. Science can explain the many variables, but it cannot explain what activates the seed to bring the growth and to bear fruit. 

This topic is near and dear to the heart of God. Most analogies found within the Bible often refer in one way or another to agriculture and the seasons of planting, growing, and harvesting. Whether it be Mark 4:26-29 or Luke 8—seed planting and growing is everywhere. Especially within the words of Jesus. Why is this important? 

In Death Comes Life

Because in gardening there is a fundamental truth tht applies to all of life: in death comes life. In the verse above Jesus likens His own life to a grain of wheat which falls to the ground seemingly dead and yet goes into the soil and multiplies or bears fruit—which refers to His own resurrection. But Jesus decides to take it one step further and turn it around on His listeners then, as well as you and I. He takes the “death to life” principle he is living out and reveals this is in fact the life-pattern you and I were meant to live. 

This understanding of going from “death to life” is foundational to the Christian faith. So foundational that the author of Hebrews explains it as being “elementary.” She or he states, “Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God…” You get the vibe from this statement that from the very beginning they were instructed to leave behind the things which are dead within them and embrace newness of life in Christ. To cut ties with the actions which multiply sin and darkness within us and embrace new habits, desires, and disciplines which move us into maturity and growth in the love and truth of God. This would be that same pattern of living; from death to life.

But when you read the verse from John above do you notice how Jesus describes His own death? He says that “the hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified.” He did not use the phrase “to die” or “to be crucified.” Instead he chose this phrase “be glorified.” Jesus saw that in death God can still be glorified. God was supremely glorified when Jesus went to the cross, died, and resurrected. I think for a Christ follower this conviction would be common sense. But remember how Jesus turned the gardening analogy around on you and I? That if we lose our lives we will truly find them? The same can then be said that when we choose to die to our own ways and desires and live for Him—we are glorifying Christ within us.  

What in Us Must Die?

This is the beautiful mystery of Christianity. We follow Jesus and in return experience the principle of death unto new life—if of course we allow the process to take place. What if the seed were to say to the gardener, “I do not want to be planted into the ground. I want to stay on the tree where I am. I do not want to fall into the soil and grow!” How ridiculous would this be? But the thing is we do this on a daily basis. We seek to cling to the trees we are planted on currently. The trees of bitterness, unforgiveness, sin, etc. 

Logically, the next question for ourselves then is, “what in us needs to die in order for growth and maturity to take root?” Is it gossip or slander? Is it addiction to alcohol, drugs, pain meds, or approval of others? Is it pornography which poisons the mind and pollutes the heart?  Perhaps it’s the love of money and possessions? Racism, prejudice, and/ or bigotry? Whatever it may be… it’s a dead work which is halting your growth. You must die in order to find life. You must call those things out within yourself and say, “Enough is enough” so that God is able to deposit within you something in its place. Something which brings true and everlasting joy, purpose, and hope. 

Jesus says in John 15:8, “This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” As followers of Jesus we are destined to bear fruit. We are destined to grow and multiply like healthy seeds planted in good soil.

But remember, to bear fruit a seed needs to what? It needs to die. Yes, its difficult. Yes, its painful. Yes, it’s a journey. But it’s the only way to leave a legacy for Christ. Isn’t that what you desire?

The alternative path is apathy. You do not want apathy. Apathy is the precursor to spiritual death where there is no hope of new life. You know full well you were created for so much more. Why settle? You’re bored. I understand. I have been there. But even in the pain of the wilderness and spiritual boredom we have to enter the door of death before we can walk the halls of newness of life. A newness best described as a daily living and breathing relationship with God where you are being used on the front lines for His glory loving and serving through the power of His Holy Spirit. It is impossible to have both. 

A Haunting Question for the Jesus Follower

One more thing. Do you notice what Jesus says in verse 26? He says, “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also.” The context of this verse is the Kingdom of God and the life to come. But the Holy Spirit brought this to life to me last week through a question. Jesus says the phrase “where I am” here. The question He gave me was:

“Is Jesus with you where you are or are you with Jesus where He is?” 

Of course, we could say both. But think about it. Is Jesus at our level consoling us in our continual haphazard efforts in growing but often choosing death? Or are we where he is which is the other side of “death to life” scenario. Grace abounds. We will never have it right all the time. But with everything we have in us, let us fight for new life. I want to be where Jesus is. I want to be driven by the Holy Spirit vs. continually consoled.

But to get to that place… I and we must die to ourselves and find new life in Him by trusting that His death and resurrection has freed us from everything which seeks to kill and destroy us.

What needs to die within you so that His life can resurrect you? 

Weathered Passion

It happens to the best of us. We began with passion, wonder, and mystery. We began with innocence, naiveté, and a splash of recklessness. And then, after a period of time, it happens. The zeal we once possessed in following Jesus and living a righteous life begins to take a turn.

Zeal turns into lethargy. A mind rocked by the freedom of grace grows bored. The heart-melting truth of God’s love becomes abstractThe stories of Jesus healing as well as the miracles of the apostles would fuel our passion and desire to see a move of God in our day.

This maybe is not how your story began with Christ. Maybe you have never experienced this kind of wonder or zeal or recklessness that myself and many others possessed. To be fair we were also ill-educated, often arrogant, and somewhat pharisetical. But hey, we really loved Jesus. Regardless, no matter what our journey has looked like the chances are we will find ourselves meandering a path of mundane Christianity at times.

An Old Journal

Earlier today I sat down with a journal from 16 years ago. I am growing old now. Yes I know 34 may not be old to some of you but in looking at my journal from 16 years ago I sure felt old. Or maybe it was when I stood up after reading it for a while? Regardless, 16 years is a long time. I came to a page that talked about my desperation for God and how I am empty without him. What is crazier is I remember writing it. It was at a table outside at Starbucks, on the right side of the outter wall.

I will be honest. After reading it I felt that sense of “where has this been?” I then began to do my usual self-defeating talk where I heap guilt and condemnation on myself for not having the wonder and joy I was reading about! “Noah, cmon! Where’s the passion? Where’s the joy?!?

But then I got out some more recent journals from the shelf and reflected on where my own journey has taken me. Through this the Spirit of God reminded me that though my joy may not be the same as it once was all those years ago, it has grown in unique ways. In that moment, I needed that reminder. Maybe you do as well.

We Have Options

We all have a few options before us as we reflect on our own journey in following Jesus. We can look backwards and remember the days of old with a longing to go back. Back to the passion we once knew and held on to. Or we can say no to this option and choose to stay in the lethergy, cynicism, and any other emotion that usually accompanies life experience, new seasons, dissapointments, and so on.

Or you can do what I believe is most beneficial. You can appreciate the past, acknowledge the challenges of the present, and embrace the journey you have been on.

You are a weathered follower of Jesus. You have been around the block long enough to know things don’t always end great. Your good intentions do not always amount to a happy ending. You might not get your reward until the other side. Not everyone will always be kind to you or walk with you–even if they claim to follow Jesus. In fact, following Jesus itself was never meant to guarentee any “smooth sailing” on this side of eternity. That is something this “Weathered Jesus Follower” struggled to realize over the years.

These and many other lessons we learn. But in the end we should take all of it and allow it to add character and depth to our faith. We then position ourselves to be able to be used by God with our children, grandchildren, and others younger than us who are beginning as infants in Christ. If we stay lethargic and cynical chances are we will be a stumbling block in front of those with fresh passion. But if we embrace our weathered nature we will then be able to guide and lead the next generation.

Weathered Passion

One more thing. I am writing this post while at a desk made of barn wood from the 1920’s I had made a few years ago. It has the circular saw marks still in it from the old saw mill. It has nails still protruding out which have been ground down to soft metal. There are divers and curves and edges that are uneven. I have never seen a more beautiful desk. It isnt pristine, new, or naieve. Its weatherd. Its beautiful.

I encourage you to embrace where you have walked. The challenges and difficulties can lead you to new places of wisdom and depth. Don’t allow yourself to forget the wonder of Jesus. If you have, I have great news. The Apostle Paul says that it is possible to have a complete renewal of the mind. The Holy Spirit can do just that. Read the Scriptures with fresh eyes. Pray and allow the Lord to restore your heart to be able to feel his warmth and tough again.

He won’t restore the passion or joy of 16 years ago. Instead he will dig new and deeper wells of revelation and love which will bring forth a new passion that has been weathered by the realities and challenges of a life of following Jesus. Because in the end–lets be real– Kendal Jackson will always taste better then Welch’s.

A Life Beautifully Interrupted

Bloody Elbows; Ragged Knees

Day in. Day out. He sat there. His knees bruised, and elbows covered in blood stained patches. His knees wouldn’t function like others because since birth he had a genetic defect which caused him to be paralyzed from the waist down. He would use his arms and elbows to maneuver himself to sit upright the best he could. He possessed no friendships or kin to assist him. This was how he lived his daily life. However, there was one day that was different.

As the bright sun rose that morning he gathered his few belongings. A cloth mat. Moth eaten satchel. Stale pieces of bread. With everything he had he made his typical slow crawl to his corner. Though it was a small space to call his own, it was his home. He had nothing and no one—only his corner. He passed the time dreaming of what it would be like to walk and run. To be included and valued like everyone else.

Each day he faced the same routine in this little spot next to the largest church in the city. His morning began with the religious folks passing by conveniently ignoring his plight. Perched high on their thrones of ego and vanity they would throw boulders of judgement and pebbles of slander.If he was lucky someone would throw a gift. It would come in the form of a faint and sporadic sound of metal clanging in his basket. Coins crashing against other coins as they are dropped by one who possessed empathy, compassion, or guilt. For this pathetic man it was the sound of hope, bread, or at the least—an apple. On this particular morning that sound was rarely heard.

Desperation Sets In

As the day went on, he was desperately searching for anyone who would help him. Finally, he saw a man walking into the church from a distance. There were two. The other was coming behind him. They looked different than the others. Their demeanor was pleasant but intently serious at the same time. It was the one who led the way that locked eyes with the beggar. Seeing this was his moment to get his attention he began to frantically yell to him. The man, not hearing him the first time, finally heard him the second time as the beggar reached a fever pitch scream.

“Sir!! Please! Look at my situation. Look at my body. Please… oh please. Will you give me something, so I can eat?”

It was at this time the second man who was walking with him caught up. They stopped their procession into the church and stood there as the crowds continued to pass by. The first man looked into the eyes of the one he traveled with. With a sort of unspoken gesture, they both knew they wanted to give something to this beggar.

The man slowly takes in his hopeless situation. He looks at his swollen and ragged knees. He pulls his arm back to see his bloody elbows. The beggar, feeling pain from his hand touching his arm, pulls him away revealing his deformed and crooked fingers. The man then looks past him to see the few positions he clings to as his own.

An Unexpected Gift

With an uncanny and firm face he says to him,

Listen, I do not have any more dollars or coins which you would expect. I don’t have the common gift you seek each week from all of these people walking past us. But what I do have—I will freely give to you.”

The beggar—confused and intrigued—grabbed his hand. The man then said,

“By the authority given to me by Jesus of Nazareth, who is the chosen One, rise up and stand here next to me.”

The beggar was unsure what to do. He had never heard of this king who possessed such authority to heal someone. But he couldn’t deny the undefinable emotion coursing through his mind and body. Something was happening. He allowed the tension of the man’s hand in his to pull him to his feet. Crying out in pain and fear he slowly arose from the dust. The man held his shoulders smiling and telling him,

“You can stand! Come on! We will help you!”

It was then he felt the deformity from within his body leave. His knees strengthened. His ankles gave him support. Tears began to stream down his face. Not only his but the other two as well. Each of them realized in that moment they experienced something no human mind could explain. All they knew is that it was good and God had just done something among them.

The man was healed. He was no longer a stigma in the society of his day. He was no longer forced to bleed from his elbows and knees. To declare this new reality to the religious elite he burst the doors of the church wide open and danced his way through the aisles. Interrupting the liturgy and teaching he smiled and locked eyes with each self-righteous individual who elevated themselves above him. It was gloriously and appropriately petty. They were unsure what to do or say. They were speechless and dumbfounded. Marveled and angry. For they recognized this poor wretched one they were so busy ignoring.

A Life Beautifully Interrupted

The man and his companion gave a gift that morning on their way to the Church. It was a gift of healing.  They restored value to someone who was ignored day in and day out. They restored someone’s dignity. The means by which they gave this gift was an authority and power they could not call their own. It came from Another. They didn’t wake up with this goal in mind. They weren’t seeking to find someone to heal that day. They were simply keeping their prayer committment with fellow Jews. But their routine, their route, their pathway was beautifully interrupted. I wonder how many beautiful interruptions await us? Are we even willing to be interrupted?


Three truths from a retelling of Acts 3.1-12:

Value and Worth before Dollars and Coins. 

Give the gift of value and worth before dollars and coins. This is not either/or. This is both/and. People in need have deep layers of shame and humiliation. Restore their hope and heart first by sharing your life and listening to theirs. Learn from them, value them, and honor them. From a place of shared interdependence and restored hearts—give tangibly. 

Celebrate Interruptions; Embrace “Pseudo-Inconvenience” 

The two men, Peter and John, did not wake up with the intent to restore this beggar’s entire life. They simply walked. But what undergirded their walk that morning was the notion that their life was not their own. They were simply empty containers willing to be filled with the power and goodness of God and at a moments notice were ready to give that which was not theirs and in turn experienced a powerful move of God.

Be Bold, Be Brave, Be Jesus. 

The same Spirit who healed this beggar through the boldness of Peter and John is within all of us who follow Jesus and seek to be filled with His Spirit. Do not worry when or how someone will be healed. Be obedient in prayer and boldness. It isn’t your job to heal. Its only your job to give what is within you. So be bold and be brave. You are living for an audience of One. May Jesus say of us, “You gave what you had so that others might find me. You were willing to be beautifully interrupted for my sake.”

 

A Prayer

Lord, give us more of your Spirit. So that we might have eyes to see people in need. Upon seeing people in need all around us give us the words to say as well as the boldness to get out of the way so your Spirit can work through us. May we be open to the spontaneous surprises of our day—bringing Jesus, hope, and love to all we come into contact with. We repent of being those who conveniently ignore the outcast, “annoying,” the difficult, the inconvenient, and all else who are equally deserving of your healing and wholeness which only come through you. Please burst the bubbles and routines of our daily lives so that we might be beautifully interrupted. In your name, Amen.

 

 

The Marks of Love…

We had just completed our first lap on our floor. With each aching step—slower than a snails pace—my mind began to swirl. “God this is hard. I am in serious pain. How long is this journey going to be? Is this child going to make it and do well? Is my mother going to be OK?” It was only day three.

My routine in the hospital was pretty simple. Each day began the same. Around 3:00 or 4:00am  I would be awoken for vitals and meds. It was hard to go fall back asleep, so I would usually stare at the ceiling and then decide I would get up and go on a walk with the help of a nurse. Then it would be back to my chair and then eventually back to the bed when I felt the need to spice it up. This process would repeat itself throughout the day mixed in with some Dr visits, reading, and mindless staring out the window at the Cleveland skyline. Bedtime was uneventful. Find the best position to sleep. When you find it… don’t you dare move. Take lots of meds. Get your nightly blood thinner shot and try to sleep off the pain.

But that day three morning was something. We came to my favorite spot on the floor. It was a window that looked outside. I loved going to it during my walk and watching the cars and everyone outside. Granted I was only in there for three days but at this point but my body felt like I had been steam rolled by a semi-truck. People and nature watching took my mind off of what I was feeling.

But during that morning’s routine I broke down. As Michelle and I stood at the window—one hand on the glass and the other grasping my IV pole—I sobbed. I couldn’t control it. Alarmed, Michelle asked what was wrong. All I could utter was, “It’s just so much… everything is hitting me. Hard.” I knew this moment would come. I am sure it will return at a later date.

Everything Set In…

What was hitting me was a wide array of emotions. There were the emotions of worry involving my mother. Which haven’t left. The emotions of wondering how the recipient was doing. I felt an odd mixture of humility, shame, and guilt watching Michelle and my nurses do literally everything for me. I went into the hospital as healthy as I could ever be. But in just a few short days I was experiencing something physically and mentally I was ill prepared for. Sure, I had knowledge, testimonies, and reading material. Nothing really prepares you to have a surgery like this.

The picture on the left was taken the night before. The picture on the right was a few days later. The bandage is covering a hole in which a drainage tube went up into the area where my liver was cut.

But there was something else that caused me to break down the morning of the third day outside of concern and worry. In that moment I was also overwhelmed with the reality of sacrificial love. The love that motivated our decision had finally set in. It went from talk to now something I see in the mirror, feel in my body, and it was costing me so much in that moment.

I had done interviews before this surgery. I had talked with Fox News out of NYC about “love” as the core motivator. I talked with a reporter from the local news about how common sense this decision was; because of “love.” A local newspaper wanted to do a story when they caught wind of everything and so we did. There too I explained that all of this was coming from a desire to “love” well—just as I would assume Jesus would.

But here is what I realized. We can use this word “love” quite easily. We can speak of a love for a friend, spouse, or God. But to bring costly action into the statements of our love; well it ceases to be just “love” at that point. It now becomes a love with some added adjectives: compassionate and sacrificial. That kind of love will almost always leave a mark.

It could be a mark that you bear on your body. It could be a mark that scars your soul. A mark that stays with you forever. Regardless, it is usually a mark that results from you loving sacrificially—with everything you have.

How did Jesus love?

I was asked a question by a reporter off the record before the surgery. “How is it that you are able to easily accept this kind of pain and struggle for someone you don’t even know?” Quickly I responded, “Didn’t Jesus? Wasn’t he reckless with his love? Wasn’t he driven by compassion and sacrifice for those he didn’t know?” Awkwardly, his response was, “I guess so.”

I really love Jesus. He is everything to me. I love him not only for how my life has changed because of him. But mainly for his example of costly love. The bleeding heart of Jesus was open to all those who were (are) lost, in anguish, in guilt. Thirsty for life, for love, for acceptance. He came to heal, to save, to free from bondage, to give rest, to empower—so that each one might know they are valued and honored. That’s how Jesus loved. It wasn’t easy and it was costly. So costly that his end was marked with torture and rutheless exectution.

While in recovery I have been prompted to study two areas: the life of Jesus and His desire for his church. Thus far In my study of the book of Luke I have realized a few simple things about his life. With this costly love in mind (the kind of love that is sure to leave a mark), Jesus was fully present to each person he encountered. He received more fully the pain of every person he came across. Strangers. Neighbors. Enemies. Family. Friends.

He took that pain and suffered with them in solidarity. He touched the deepest need in each person. Whether it be a cry for love, value, acceptance, vulnerability, or intimacy—he met each need. How? By demonstrating compassion. Grace. Mercy. Patience. Forgiveness. Kindness. By demonstrating sacrificial and costly love.

Jesus didn’t express this kind of love for the hell of it. He did it to demonstrate how Yahweh desires his children to live. It was the forging of a new way in how to love and welcome the poor and befriend the powerless, the strangers, and enemies.

Make no mistake. His followers were watching. They saw how Jesus lived—simply and poorly—open to each moment and each situation. Always open to the will of His heavenly Father. They saw how he was motivated. It wasn’t by a codified law or concrete set of legalistic expressions of righteousness. They knew. It was a motivation of costly love which came from above. A love the world had not known and was most definitely not prepared for.

Jesus the Agitator…

Jesus disturbed and agitated those who found him too radical, utopian, and unrealistic. Sadly, for those of us who love radically, we often hear these same accusations.

They would say,

“How can one give up wealth and share with the poor?”

“How can one renounce violence?”

“How can one love one’s enemies?”

“How can one live without security and money?”

“How can one become like a little child full of faith?”

“How can one eat his flesh and drink his blood?”

“How can one live in solidarity with sinners, rejects, and the broken?”

Those who questioned and wanted understanding were those who could not fit his ways and teachings into their own ideas and thus refused to trust him. As a result, they turned away. They found it impossible, unreasonable, and downright dangerous to accept the newness of his message. As I said in a previous post—Jesus was a badass in the purest sense of the word. He didn’t care what the “Righteous Monopoly” said.

As a result, his exression of love was costly. It left many marks in his young life. It was so costly that he even broke down in tears one lonely night in a garden. Perhaps then too Jesus was realizing just how costly this love was about to be.

Make no mistake. In no way could I equate my action with His. Ever. For goodness sake, he is Jesus who was crucified and tortured. I am a sinner saved by the glorious grace of God. I am nothing special nor of value. Only Christ within me.

However, the motivation of love is the same. Not only for me in giving a portion of my liver to a stranger but for all who would seek to love sacrificially. It will cost us like it cost him. It will hit us like a right hook out of nowhere as we fully realize just how costly and painful it will be and we just might be driven to tears. All of us at one time or another will have that opportunity in front of us. But what kind of love will we choose?

The Pain We Feel…

I beg you do not run from the pain this radical kind of love will bring. Pain is not the ultimate evil to be shunned. Neither is suffering. We must not flee it or be overcome by it. Those who flee pain flee people and opportunities. In fact, I believe Jesus invites us to accept pain. Nay, embrace it. To walk with it and even more to discover that it can be transformed by love into sacrament—a gift that brings life and enables new depths of love that is more akin to the love of God vs. the love of Man. Famed author and creator of Le’ Arche Jean Vanier dedicated his entire life to this kind of love. Much of what I have written here echos his teaching and example.

And when its all said and done… if your transition into a life of love that is compassion-driven, painful, and sacrificial—if that love bears marks upon you… be proud. Maybe take a picture with it so you don’t forget. Those are marks that will stay with you forever reminding you that you did your best to love like Jesus. And as you can see… that’s the only kind of love that can truly change the world.

Choose Compassionate and Sacrificial Love…

In conclusion I leave you with this: be compassionate. The world has enough hate, anger, and malice. What the world needs is compassionate love. A compassion that is best described by a beloved Dutch Priest named Henri Nouwen:

“Compassion is not a stooping down of the privileged to the level of those without privilege below. Neither is it a reaching down a hand from those above to the unhappy ones below. Nor a friendly gesture of pity to those who haven’t “made it.” Quite the opposite. Compassion goes and lives among people and in places where suffering and pain lives. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unlimited, and unbounded. It is the compassion of those who go to the forgotten corners of the earth and stay there until they are sure that not a single eye is still crying. It is the compassion of a God who doesn’t simply act like a servant, but whose behavior of service is the direct expression of his divinity.”

That.

Let’s do that and do it well. With no regrets.

And if it causes pain, leaves a scar across your stomach, or a mark on your heart.

If leaves you weary, broken, and tired…run down and even taken advantage of to an extent.

If you are told you are utopian, unbiblical, naïve, or reckless in your attempts to love like Jesus…

Well, who gives a damn.

I know Jesus doesn’t.