Personal Reflections

Focus on Faithfulness

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Whenever we spend a significant amount of time trying to teach others about God, we can easily get frustrated or discouraged when we see no immediate response or noticeable impact. This can lead to moments where we begin to question ourselves or become calloused towards those that we are trying to teach. Both of these options are not good.

This morning, I was reading through the first eleven chapters of Ezekiel, and I found some encouragement for these moments from the special assignment that God gives the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel describes it in 2:2-5 as follows:

And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.

God sends Ezekiel as his special representative to speak to the people on his behalf and to proclaim to them what God has said. And then God tells Ezekiel that whether they hear or refuse to hear they will know that a prophet has been among them.

This means that Ezekiel’s mission was not to make sure that people responded in obedience to his message but rather to make sure that the people had no excuse for their continual life of disobedience. The response of the people was out of Ezekiel’s hands; his responsibility was to faithfully deliver the message that God had given him.

God repeats this instruction to Ezekiel again in 3:11 when he says:

And go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD,’ whether they hear or refuse to hear.”

Jesus repeats similar instructions when he sends out a team of his disciples in Luke 10:8-11:

Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say: “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.”

God has given all of us a special assignment to teach others about him on his behalf. Our mission is to represent God with integrity and to faithfully deliver the message that God has given us with love. The response of those that we teach is out of our control. We should be disappointed and sorrowful when we don’t see the kind of response that we had hoped for, but we should not be angry or become calloused towards those that we are trying to teach.

From now on, when I find myself in a teaching environment where I am proclaiming what God has said in Scripture, I want everyone in that setting to leave there without any excuse knowing that they just heard the word of God. That’s a goal that I can control. Let’s focus on faithfulness and let God handle the fruitfulness.

Who Sets the Agenda?

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Following Jesus requires sacrifice. We must beware of any teaching that disregards this reality. Therefore, we must consider the question, “What has it cost me to follow Jesus?” And what are some things in life that could hold us back from truly being a follower of Jesus?

There’s a scene in Mark’s gospel that is the major turning point in the book and the decisive moment for the original disciples. Jesus is about to begin his journey to Jerusalem where he knows he will likely meet his death. His disciples cannot foresee or even comprehend what awaits him in Jerusalem, but in one more attempt to prepare them, Jesus declares what their allegiance to him demands of them.

Mark records Jesus’ words when he writes:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.”

The command is clear. If we want to follow Jesus then we have to devote ourselves to the denial of self. This means a complete willingness to turn away from the way we are currently thinking and living. We are no longer to live in order to satisfy ourselves; we are to live in order to serve Christ.

If Jesus is Lord, then he is the one who sets the agenda. There is no negotiating with him. The second someone attempts to negotiate the authority of a king then that person is no longer respecting or recognizing his authority as king.

Taking up our cross means for us to die to our self-seeking pursuits, to die to our desire for control, to die to our efforts to use God for our own agendas. And so, based on what our King commands and what our allegiance to him demands, may we lay down our swords of self-rule at the feet of the King and humbly declare, “Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.”

Totally Worth It

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As I’ve been spending time the last few weeks reading over Paul’s last letter to Timothy, I’ve been humbled and convicted and challenged by the tone in Paul’s voice and the way that he’s pleading with Timothy to not compromise his commitment to Jesus. To be honest, I’ve struggled with what’s being said in this letter because it just seems so far away from my own experience in my commitment to Jesus. 

Now, by no means, do I want to suffer anything close to what Paul suffered. But as I’m reading his words and thinking about his situation in prison and the fact that he is about to be executed, I can’t help but be a little envious of his level of intimacy with our Lord. Not that I want to suffer like him, because I don’t. But it seems that because of his level of commitment and the costs that he’s had to pay for that commitment, he is experiencing a relationship with our Lord on a whole different level than I am experiencing right now. 

This week I was teaching from the first half of chapter two (2:1-13), and so I just want us to listen to these words from Paul as he pleads with Timothy to endure whatever he has to for the sake of Jesus and his message to the world.     

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”

Paul is pointing out that our new life with Jesus gives us a new kind of strength and power. This is what he said initially when he told Timothy in 1:8 to “not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.

Paul continues: 

“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”

All three of these metaphors (soldier, athlete and farmer) describe people who are committed to something that is much bigger than themselves. And all three of these involve people who must exhibit strength, focus, discipline, obedience, patience and endurance.

These three metaphors and the kind of character that each one requires are great examples of the life of power that we ought to be living and experiencing with Jesus. Paul knows that if you possess the power of the Holy Spirit within you then you have the potential to live this new life of power. 

So Paul tries to fan into flame this life of power by reminding Timothy of the powerful perspective that ought to fuel our unwavering faithfulness to Jesus. 

Paul says:

“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:

    If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
    if we endure, we will also reign with him;
    if we deny him, he also will deny us;
    if we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.”

Paul reminds Timothy that the greatest example of a life that is willing to suffer for something bigger than themselves is the life of Jesus himself. It was his commitment to the Father that led him to endure execution by the Romans. And like Jesus, Paul points out that he too is now suffering in a Roman prison because of his commitment to Jesus. 

And so, following Jesus requires personal sacrifice and a commitment to something bigger than yourself. It involves risk and tension. But as Paul points out in his short poem, the resurrection of Jesus has become the source of a new kind of life full of strength and power and hope.  

So you see, it’s often the sacrifice and the struggle that makes our new life with Jesus real and more than just a belief system or a religious preference or an intellectual decision that we’ve made about life and God. Paul’s not just talking about something to believe in; he’s talking about a new life of power to experience right now and a new hope that at the end of this life is a resurrection into an eternal life of goodness and God’s glory with Jesus.

And he’s about to be executed for believing and sharing this hope with others.   

Following Jesus is not easy; but Paul was convinced that it’s totally worth it. 

The question is… Are me and you?

 

Avoiding Criticism

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As followers of Jesus, we should never give people a reason to criticize us, but we shouldn’t compromise our commitment to Jesus in order to avoid criticism either. We should not be ashamed to be associated with Jesus.  

Jesus told his first followers: “Whoever is ashamed of me and my message; I also will be ashamed of him.” (Luke 9)

Today, I was reading Paul’s second letter to Timothy where he pleads with Timothy to not be ashamed of the negative stigma that may come with being loyal to Jesus. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:8:

"Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God."

Now, we have to put ourselves into this scene and in this story to really understand what Paul is saying here because the context is so different from what we have grown up experiencing here in our own country where following Jesus is not viewed as an offensive insult to the president or an unpatriotic act of defiance.

So here’s the scene: Paul is once again in prison for proclaiming the message of Jesus. But for Paul, being criticized, persecuted and even put in prison has just always been part of the deal. For Paul, suffering for proclaiming the message of Jesus is just normal and expected. And so that’s what he’s reminding Timothy — that suffering shouldn’t shock him. 

In Paul’s mind this kind of suffering is closely connected to Jesus’ own suffering. In Paul’s mind, if Jesus experienced the shame, humiliation and execution of the cross then his followers shouldn’t be afraid or surprised if they experience similar suffering for the sake of Jesus and his message.  

Now, again, this is hard for many of us to understand because this is just not our experience (and how thankful should we be that it’s not!?). But we can relate to what he’s telling Timothy here about not being ashamed.

Paul points out that there is obviously a negative stigma in Roman society to being associated with Jesus. And the same thing is true for us today in our society and even in this game. You’re not going to be persecuted or put in prison for it here, but people are going to put a negative label on you the more you associate yourself with Jesus or being a “chapel guy”. 

And so Paul’s words here to Timothy are just as true for us today. He tells Timothy to not avoid the unwarranted humiliation that comes from being associated with Jesus. He tells Timothy to endure all the humiliation and to share in suffering for the sake of Jesus and his message to the world. And again, he reminds Timothy of the power of God that is available to him and that is able to help him embrace this life of loyalty to Jesus.

Paul is pleading with Timothy to not compromise his loyalty to Jesus by trying to avoid the negative label that might come with being a follower of Jesus. 

And this is a temptation that we still face today. 

Many people try to say that their faith is personal or a private thing and that they don’t want to be pushy with their beliefs or something like that. It sounds humble and comes across as respectful, but lets just be honest, many of us keep our faith in Jesus to ourselves because we don’t want to get labeled with any of the negative labels that people put on Christians.

Jesus was willing to be crucified for us, but many of us are not even willing to be criticized for him.   

Paul reminds Timothy that God has given him the gift of his Spirit that now dwells within him, and it is a Spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-discipline. 

We have this same Spirit dwelling within us. It is God’s Spirit that leads us into becoming more and more like Jesus himself. And Jesus was not a man of fear nor was he ashamed of his life and his message.   

And so lets remember what Jesus has done for us and reciprocate that kind of love with a loyalty to him that is willing to be criticized and mocked and even persecuted if that’s what it comes to.