Do You Know the Real Jesus?

Popular JesusOur culture is very familiar with Jesus, but often misinterprets Him and His words. Most people who have a problem with organized religion or the church in our culture don’t necessarily have a problem with Jesus because of the image that we have of Him. Typically, we see Jesus as:

  • A holy, religious leader
  • A bit of a rebel
  • Morally good
  • Spiritually wise
  • Friendly, gracious, and kind

The problem with this picture is that it is incomplete. Yes, He was a religious leader. People called Him “Rabbi.” He rebelled against the religious establishment of the times. He was morally good, spiritually wise, friendly, gracious, and kind. But…

Jesus also said some really tough, hard things. He brought…

  • Comfort to the afflicted, and
  • Affliction to the comfortable.

Jesus is mysterious and paradoxical. He’s hard to figure out. But if you want to live life to the fullest, following Him at all costs is the one and only pathway. May we discover the real Jesus more each day, like Peter:

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

– Matthew 16:16 (NIV)

photo credit: RubioBuitrago

God Has Great Ambitions For You

RulesGod never peddles Christianity as a spiritual benefits package to be enjoyed without challenges or adversity. He knows we’re going to go through some hard stuff. He remembers that we are made of dust. And He is all too familiar with our sin nature and how incapable we are of achieving perfection in our own power.

But He never softens His challenge. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus actually lifts up the highest possible standard…

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

– Matthew 5:48 (NIV)

What a standard, right? Perfection. When we face our imperfections, Jesus is our sacrifice. When we face our inability to grow into completeness on our own, Jesus is our source of power.

Jesus came to relieve people of the legalistic burdens of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but He didn’t lower His standards. He actually raised His standard for us, but He did so with grace and with a willingness to receive, save, and empower us.

God knows your weaknesses, and in spite of them, God believes you have huge potential!

photo credit: Gord McKenna

5 Ways to Preach Like a Pharisee

Pharisees and Jesus
Photo by bbaltimore.

Many of the Pharisees were probably great teachers and skilled speakers. I’m sure many were charismatic, skilled communicators. But by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Pharisees, on the whole, were killing the culture around them spiritually. Jesus had a lot of work to do just to unwire people from the performance-driven, legalistic trap of pharisaism.

I’ve been guilty of preaching like a Pharisee before, and as I review my sermons from the past, I cringe a bit as I peruse certain periods of my ministry when I placed undue burdens on my listeners in the name of “preaching the Word.” I’m writing out of my own past tendencies (and present tendencies I’m still trying to snuff out) as well as out of what I observe across the landscape of evangelical preaching.

The following tips will work to draw a moderate-sized crowd. A pulpit characterized by negativity and belligerence will draw a moderate-sized crowd of masochists who draw energy to go on another day by being beaten up spiritually. But it won’t make Jesus-like, craveable disciples. So use them at your own risk.

How do you preach like a Pharisee?

Preach Your Opinions Instead of the Absolute Truth of Scripture

Exalting your own opinions about extra-biblical issues as though obedience to them is equivalent to obeying Scripture is dangerous. It creates the very burdens on the backs of people that Jesus came to remove. It also hurts the trust of your hearers. Consider my hero, W. A. Criswell who once promoted segregation as a biblical mandate only to repent and change his policy later. His opinion about a cultural issue caused many to question his credibility. Thankfully, he had such a high respect for the authority of Scripture that he changed course, publicly and with apology. Besides, you’re probably wrong more than you think you are.

Promote Moralism Over Grace-based Living

Your role is to present biblical truth, allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the lives of your hearers with the power of God’s revelation. Your role is not to make people behave. Repentance has to do with changing the mind and belief system so that behaviors follow, but when we promote better behavior, we put the cart before the horse and fail to exalt the grace that enables us to live differently.

Make People Feel Guilty Enough to Make Short-term Commitments

Guilt is a terrible motivator. Yes, we sinners must come to grips with our sin by means of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, but it is the Holy Spirit’s job to bring that conviction. I can get people to give more money, sign up to serve in a ministry, or go share the gospel by making them feel guilty about not giving or doing enough. Or I can empower them to give, serve, and share by inspiring them with hope. God dangles rewards in front of us in eternity as motivation for action rather than feelings of guilt over our sinful past. I owe Him everything, but He doesn’t remind me of that. He simply challenges me to go forward in hope and for the pure enjoyment of Him and His grace.

Beat People Into Skepticism

Jesus once told the Pharisees that they had a tendency to make people “twice the child of hell as they were before.” What did He mean? People had come to the Pharisees, as religious leaders, to find the ultimate fulfillment God could offer. What they received was a long list of rules that were impossible to keep. After their repeated failures, they would finally turn away in disgust and it would be a long time before they listened to another religious leader again. Sound familiar? My heart breaks for the victims of spiritually abusive churches that have little understanding or compassion for the hurts and problems of people in pain.

Dress the Part

If you wear a three-piece suit and cuff links because you’re into that sort of thing or because it appeals to the community you’re trying to reach, more power to you. But if you just like to wear the “preacher” uniform and appear lofty and ministerial, repent now. I get a bit nauseated when I see a leader who has that “preacher strut.” I won’t describe it – you’ll know it when you see it. It’s usually the result of my desire to impress my peers outweighing my desire to connect with the lost. This is not a rant against “dressing up.” It’s just a warning against trying to “dress the part” of the superior religious leader.

More than ever, a skeptical, broken world needs our authentic, truth-saturated, grace-based, Spirit-filled message of the cross and the resurrection. And they need to see it embodied in our lives as much as they need to hear it proclaimed from the podium.

Let’s Fight FOR Worship!

Old PewsEverybody worships. Not everyone believes in God, or in gods, or in the God of the Bible, but everyone worships. Everybody ascribes worth to something, which is one of the basic definitions of worship.

My favorite book about worship, outside the Bible, is Warren Wiersbe’s Real Worship: Playground, Battleground, or Holy Ground?. Wiersbe offers this concise definition of worship…

Worship is the believer’s response of all that they are—mind, emotions, will, and body—to what God is and says and does. This response has its mystical side in subjective experience and its practical side in objective obedience to God’s revealed will. Worship is a loving response that’s balanced by the fear of the Lord, and it is a deepening response as the believer comes to know God better.

As my favorite Worship Pastor on the planet likes to say, “worship is both revelation and response.” It’s tuning in to listen to a holy God, and it’s responding to what I hear and see. Genuine worship results in a net increase in my personal awe of God and ultimately changes my life in a way that is contagious. It makes me craveable, as Artie Davis might say.

Jesus once had an argument with a woman about worship. It’s recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter four, but the short version is that when Jesus got personal with her, she brought up an argument about the “right way” to worship as a diversion. Funny how the subject of worship often becomes the source of conflict when we’re trying to avoid the real issues of the heart. This woman’s understanding of worship was pretty normal.

  • Worship is confined to a time a place (hence, a “worship service”).
  • Worship is defined by our rituals and traditions.
  • Worship is the sum total of the goodness I offer up to God.
  • Worship is about receiving or “getting a lot out of” an experience.

Jesus challenged all of her assumptions – not with answers rooted in Jewish tradition, but answers rooted in the eternal fellowship He had enjoyed thus far with the Father. Out of that experience, Jesus revealed a different and better way to approach the subject of worship.

  • Worship should be an everywhere, all-the-time activity.
  • Worship happens in truth (the “real” world), but also in spirit (the “unseen” world).
  • Worship is the response of sinful creatures to a holy God.
  • Worship is about giving or offering up, which is far more blessed than receiving anyway.

When we fight about worship, we’re usually fighting like the woman in the argument. We’re fighting about when, where, and how. We’re arguing about externals, traditions, and preferences. When we fight for worship, we’re fighting with the heart of Jesus, who sought to establish a connection between broken humanity and a healing Creator.

John Piper is credited with saying that “missions exists because worship doesn’t.” Right now, on planet earth, there are literally billions of people who are worshipping the creature more than the Creator (see Romans 1). They don’t know the One who showed up at the well that day, and we who do know Him are responsible. The woman at the well that day, out of the overflow of her worshipful spirit, brought an entire town to meet Jesus. Once she “got it,” she fought for worship. I want to fight for it too. He’s worth it.

Getting Explicit About the Gospel

The Explicit Gospel by Matt ChandlerRick Warren said, “If you read only one book this year, make it this one. It’s that important.” The gospel is a message that never loses its relevancy and always needs retelling. I found Matt Chandler’s The Explicit Gospel to be an awesome retelling of it.

Chandler’s explanation of the gospel is ultra-clear, and while I detect that hint of his Reformed leanings (to which he alludes a time or two), his book avoids extremes, stays between the theological rails, and at least once even seems to rebuke calvinists for making the TULIP the central issue of the gospel. (To be fair, he rebukes anyone  who makes anything other than the biblical gospel central to the gospel.)

The first four chapters of the book could stand alone as a great summary of the most essential truths ever articulated. I love this for several reasons.

First, we need to realize that there is nothing “deeper” than the gospel. The gospel – the good news of God’s holiness, wrath, and love in giving Jesus as our substitute and raising Him again so that all who repent and believe in Him will have their sins forgiven – is the essence and entirety of our faith. It is both the introduction, the body, and the conclusion of the Christian faith.

Second, I love Chandler’s example to Pastors. Augustine, Spurgeon, Criswell, Piper, Stott, and so many other voices of influence in the history of Christianity were what we might call pastor-theologians. Many of the greatest had little formal religious education, yet they were willing to study hard and articulate theology from the viewpoint of a practitioner who shepherds people living through real circumstances. I applaud Chandler for writing the book, and I hope to see many other Pastors with the courage to enter the arena of writing theologically.

In the second part of the book, Matt takes the church to task – not in a way that is condemnatory or condescending, but rather as a passionate plea to return to the biblical gospel. He writes…

The moralism that passes for Christian faith today is a devastating hobby id you have no intention of submitting your life fully to God and chasing Him in Christ. (p. 70)

and further…

… Rick Warren was onto something when he opened his best-selling book with “It’s not about you” and subtitled it What On Earth Am I Here For? (p. 106)

His book serves as a stern warning against our wanderings and our extremes. Any deviation of the church from the gospel once delivered to the saints is dangerous no matter how “good” it may seem for other reasons.

Though it occupies just one chapter, I also love Chandler’s treatment of eschatology, which he refers to as “consummation,” keeping it in line with the centrality of the gospel’s power to make all things new. I’ve felt his tension of hoping to avoid the subject of the end times because so many have treated and represented this area of theology so poorly and too dogmatically. But I love how he brings it all back around to the eternal enjoyment of the results of the gospel. Redemption is forever.

My biggest personal takeaway is the need to avoid reducing the Christian faith to mere moralism. It’s a trap that I’ve fallen into in the past in my life and leadership, and I want to be careful stay focused on Jesus instead. Hear Chandler’s excellent explanation…

“The person who understands the gospel understands that, as a new creation, his spiritual nature is in opposition to sin now, and he seeks not just to weaken sin in his life, but to outright destroy it. Out of love for Jesus, he wants sin starved to death, and he will hunt and pursue the death of every sin in his heart until he has achieved success. This is a very different pursuit than simply wanting to be good. It is the result of having transferred one’s affections to Jesus.”

The gospel is not about doing better. It is about Jesus, and the change that happens in us when we fully surrender to Him in repentance and faith. Our doctrine determines our direction, and soaking in the goodness of the gospel will do more to change our direction than a hundred practical tips for better behavior.

Therefore… read The Explicit Gospel.

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Finding the Right Path In Life – Jesus

Sandy PathJesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man comes to the Father except through me.” I remember a Bible college professor paraphrasing what Jesus meant with these lines:

I am the Way… walk Me.
I am the Truth… know Me.
I am the Life… live Me.

Jesus, paraphrased by Dr. Jesse Thomas

I love that! I wrote last week about getting off the wrong path, but that can never be the end of the story. To jettison ourselves from any path, we need a new path to follow, and for the believer in Christ, that path is the person of Jesus Christ.

In other words, it’s not just about doing all the right things instead of doing the wrong things. It’s about being involved with the right Person, Jesus. He is the right path. When we walk “in Christ,” and we’re coming to know Christ, and we’re living as Jesus lived, we’re guaranteed to be on the right path.

So how do you find and walk the right path, the path that is Jesus?

  1. Trust Him. Once and for all, completely trust Him as your one and only Savior.
  2. Hear Him. Get to know His voice through His Word.
  3. Talk to Him as you live, as you walk, and as you do life.
  4. Follow His example, emulate His character, and imitate His behaviors.
  5. Serve Him, by serving others in His name.

Here’s hoping you find the right path, that you fully commit to trusting, hearing, knowing, following, and serving Jesus!

Photo by jwtwel.

Approaching Easter Sunday As a Pastor

EasterEaster Sunday is special. In spite of the competition from little furry bunnies who deliver colored eggs and sugar-induced hyperactive episodes among children, it’s still a holiday that is fairly “religious.” That is to say, Jesus still gets a fair amount of attention, possibly because it’s always on Sunday and churches draw such attention to the resurrection. This is good.

As a Pastor, I know that Easter Sunday excites me because I’ll see new and unfamiliar faces in our weekend worship service. Most Pastors (those who aren’t jaded toward the occasion) get the warm fuzzies as we approach this big day because of the opportunity to address an unusually large crowd of attenders. As my own church gears up for this special Sunday, I wanted to pass along some wisdom I’ve learned from fifteen years of celebrating this special time as a congregational leader.

Here are tips for approaching Easter as a Pastor…

  • Remember Jesus. It’s all about Him. His resurrection is the first half of the Easter story and the promised and guaranteed hope for the future resurrection of all believers is the second half. Make it a day of worship.
  • Remember family. Easter Sunday afternoon has always been as meaningful to me as the morning service because our family gets to spend quality time together.
  • Remember Jesus as a family. I love peeps and chocolate bunnies as much as the next guy, but it’s even more important to have family conversations about the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Read it from the gospels together and talk about the wonder of that morning.
  • Remember children. I like church Easter egg hunts simply because we’re smiling at kids for the 4.2 minutes it takes for them to locate our carefully hidden plastic eggs. If having an egg hunt means you will welcome more kids to church on Easter Sunday, go for it. I know you’ll be faithful to present the gospel to them and their parents since you’re remembering Jesus already.
  • Remember to celebrate. This is a day of victory and triumph. It kinda deserves a smile.
  • Remember a lost world. People will come to your church on Easter who may only come once or twice the rest of the year. You can try to shame them into coming more (and it probably won’t work), or you can just love them and have compassion on them the way Jesus often had compassion on crowds who only showed up when he had food. Love them. Treat them lovingly. Maybe they’ll be back because of love.
  • Remember the questions of a lost world. The resurrection is unbelievable… if you’re a naturalist. If you don’t embrace the supernatural God of Creation, you’ll have a tough time with the miracle of the resurrection. Remember this. Don’t fear the big questions, and don’t be afraid to let Scripture give answers.
  • Remember to be the church. What do you do every Sunday when guests come? Do that, but do it even better. Welcome newcomers. Smile. Serve them. Love their kids. Guide them around your campus. Meet their need for friendship.
  • Remember who you are. Don’t try to be the church you’re NOT on Easter. Be you. Pastor, you should preach. Your worship leader should lead. And while the day is special, the worship service should give people an idea of who you always are, not just who you are on a holiday.
  • Remember that people count. So don’t just count the people. Metrics are valuable and big attendance days can help us envision what our church will look like if we work together. But don’t forget that every face is the window to a soul deeply loved by God.

And… remember Jesus… no matter what else you forget.

Graphic by Pierce Brantley.