Spiritual Pride Needs a Context 1

“But so shall it not be among you; but whosoever would be great among you, shall be your minister; And whosoever of you would be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.”                                             (Mk. 10:43-44)

For it to surface, spiritual pride needs a suitable context in our Christian lives.

In Mark 9:33-37 and in Luke 9:46-48, the story is told of the apostles disputing as they traveled on the road, who should be the greatest among them.  They knew…by then…who Jesus was.  They knew that they had been chosen to be the apostles of the Messiah the King.  They suspected that events were coming to a head and that somehow Jesus would take His rightful place as the leader of the Jewish nation.  They knew this opened up opportunities for them to occupy positions of leadership in Jerusalem.

This new reality occasioned the dispute among them as to who should occupy the highest positions in the new upcoming kingdom.

This internal debate amongst these men could not have happened a few years earlier, outside of the context of their becoming apostles and disciples of Jesus.  The thought of who would be the greatest among them in God’s upcoming kingdom on earth, which they mistakenly thought would be politically established in the very near future in the capital city of Jerusalem, could not conceivably have happened while they were ordinary fishermen, tax collectors, or revolutionary zealots.

Only after successfully following Jesus for two or three years as apostles and disciples…did this tempting new context of events start to actualize into a foreseeable eventuality.

Matthew 20:20-28 tells the story of the mother of James and John coming to Jesus and asking Him if her two sons could sit on His right hand and on His left hand in His kingdom.  This request could not have been made without James and John being in the inner circle of apostles close to Jesus.  The extraordinary ministry of Jesus created high future expectations among His followers for the nation of Israel.  This provided the context for this forgivable and understandable ambition on the part of the mother of James and John.

Jesus did not rebuke the mother of James and John for this request (He probably inwardly admired the courage of her advocacy for her sons), but simply answered that she did not clearly understand the thing she was asking of Him.  The scriptures then say that when the other ten apostles heard what the mother of James and John had done, they did not get upset with her but they were “indignant” against James and John.

The response that Jesus has for the apostles arguing among themselves as to who should be the greatest…was to take a child and set him as an example in their midst, and tell them that “he that is least among you all, the same shall be great” (Luke 9:48).

The apostles and disciples learned this important lesson well, and had the right spirit regarding this issue in their first-century ministries.  After these specific lessons by Jesus, and after the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of the apostles (Jn. 13:2-17), we do not hear anything more about who will be the greatest among the apostles or disciples.

But the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, in place of a worldly coronation and political reign in Jerusalem, also removed from the apostles the previous context of determining who would have high positions in the supposed new government…under Jesus.

The first-century church of new Christian converts was the actual kingdom that resulted from the ministry of Jesus, not the worldly reign of Jesus the political King in Jerusalem.

In the context of the New Testament church, Jesus’ teachings about the least being the greatest, Jesus washing the apostle’s feet, and Jesus using a young child as the example of the correct attitude for spiritual leadership, now made perfect sense to the apostles.

Luke 20:46-47 reads:

46  Beware of the scribes, who desire to walk in long robes, and love greetings in the market places, and the highest seats in the synagogues, and the chief rooms at feasts.

47  Who devour widow’s houses, and for a show make long prayers, the same shall receive greater condemnation.

When the apostles disputed among themselves who should be the greatest, they were on a parallel road in terms of attitude with these scribes.  Although they did not realize it, they too were similarly thinking about wearing long robes, being greeted as “somebody” in the market place, having the highest seats in the synagogue, and occupying the chief rooms at festivals.

The sinful pride side of their natures was showing itself in this dispute, on account of the context of the possible upcoming rulership of Jesus in Israel.  This would have been the beginning of church-leadership personality conflicts, power structures, political intrigue, and unholy ambition in the Christian church.

That is why Jesus took the time to speak to them about this important issue on several occasions.

And that is why, in God’s infinite wisdom, He produced a different context for His Bride…the Church…from what the apostles had in mind as they disputed on their way to Jerusalem who would be the greatest.

God had in mind the humble New Testament church that could evangelize the world without the burden of worldly ambitions and concerns.  The three thousand new converts on the Day of Pentecost would need church leaders who were humble shepherds and “servants of all”, not self-important people more concerned with their outward appearances, titles, and reputations like the scribes of Luke 20:46-47.

In Peter’s speech to the multitudes on the Day of Pentecost, there is not a hint about himself, or about any personal ambitions regarding what he plans to do or to build in Jerusalem.

Everything in Peter’s message is about Jesus, and about people coming to Christ through faith.

Peter is no longer thinking about having drapes measured for his large corner office in the Temple.  Peter is fishing for men according to his true calling (Mk. 1:17), not fishing for financial donations to build something.

A Fourth Cross on Calvary Hill 3

The Character Manufacturing Furnace

Nearly every Christian can look backwards in time and say: “Now I understand why God took me through that trial.”  Every Christian looks forward to the future with hope that we will improve as people and that things will get better.

It is the present time that we all have difficulty with.[1]  Knowing, without a doubt, that we have surrendered and yielded our lives to Jesus Christ, and that the present situations and circumstances in our lives are not an accident but are in the control of God, is a mark of the mature Christian.  The mature Christian can apply every line of Psalm 23, along with David, with full assurance and confidence to their lives.

In-the-moment, present-time situations and circumstances is the furnace where Christian character is manufactured (Jas. 1:2-4).

Our self-in-charge natures will not venture anywhere near the character-manufacturing furnace.  Self-in-charge is terrified of the risk of potential failure that is associated with this furnace.

In the furnace of present-time, in-the-moment situations and circumstances, the issues are so important according to outward appearances that a real spiritual test is set up.

Is God reliable enough to place my faith in as the Lord and Sovereign King of my life, in the present-time circumstances, or do I have to take matters into my own hands because the issues are simply too important to trust to anyone but myself alone (1 Sam. 13:12)?

This is a fundamental, pivotal issue of faith outlined for us throughout the Bible.  Gideon was in the present moment when he went to battle with 300 men against tens of thousands of the enemy.  David was hunted by Saul in-the-moment.  Queen Esther made her decision to risk personal safety, in-the-moment, in approaching the King and opposing Haman to save her people from destruction.

God told the young prophet Jeremiah not to be afraid of the countenance of the people’s faces when Jeremiah delivered God’s message to them, thus declaring plainly that it took some courage on Jeremiah’s part to be God’s spokesman.  This challenge for Jeremiah occurred in-the-moment.

In the New Testament, Peter and John defending themselves before the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:29-32, had the very real risk of being stoned to death like Stephen a few chapters later (Acts 7:58-59).

These accounts are all variations of the central question of the reliability of God’s character in the fiery trial.  These people all put their faith and trust in God…in-the-moment of their present-time circumstances…thus declaring that they believed that the character of God was trustworthy.

The Holy Spirit is charged with the task of taking us to the character- manufacturing furnace of personally tailored situations and circumstances, but only if our self-in-control nature is subordinate to the will and plans of God.

Any attempt to skirt around the Christian character-manufacturing furnace is self-deceiving.  Certainly God is not fooled.  God is only dismayed and hurt that we do not trust Him enough to let go of self-in-control.  When we exercise faith and trust in God in the present-time, no matter what is happening or how bleak the circumstances look, we are saying we believe in the goodness and reliability of God’s character.

The furnace of in-the-moment situations and circumstances is always a test of character, both God’s and ours.

This is where the value of a real relationship with the living God rises to the fore.  It is not some homogenized, new-age diluted humanistic slogan like “let go, let god.”

People who say and teach these kinds of cleverly reduced, cheerleader-type motivational phrases generally have no actual intention of stepping down off the thrones of their lives and following the Holy Spirit into real-life circumstances that require genuine release and trust in the one living God.

The cross is difficult.  Death to self-in-charge is not easy.

Whether it is financial challenges, family issues, health struggles, or the opposition of people to our Christian ministry, God will set up the issues in our lives specifically to create this furnace of character-manufacturing for our spiritual growth.

That is why the outward appearances of some of these situations and circumstances are frightening and terrifying.  Without the genuine challenge of real consequences that matter, the decision to follow God would be too easy.  If the Christian life went perfectly smooth from beginning to end, we would never learn anything about ourselves, about eternal truths, or about God.

[1] Bob Mumford, Fifteen Steps Out (South Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Publishing, Inc.) 5-7

A Fourth Cross on Calvary Hill 2

The Narrow Gate for Paul (Mt. 7:13-14)

Paul’s appeal to Caesar in Acts 25:11 is another excellent biblical example of God’s foresight and intervention in guiding the fine details of the lives of people who are in the midst of a walk of faith with Jesus Christ.

Paul is under arrest in Caesarea for the tumultuous uproar that occurred in Jerusalem.  Paul does not know that the sympathetic Roman ruler, King Agrippa, will arrive in Caesarea in the near future.  Agrippa apparently would have released Paul (Acts 26:32).

The Jewish authorities want Paul to be returned to Jerusalem for trial.  Paul knows that there are forty Jews sworn to attack his escort of Roman soldiers conducting him back to Jerusalem, but even if Paul makes it safely back, any hearing in Jerusalem would be prejudicial against him.

But Festus, the Roman official having jurisdiction over Caesarea, suggests in an open hearing, for political reasons, that Paul be brought to Jerusalem to be judged before Festus regarding the accusations against Paul.  Before Agrippa arrives, Paul has no choice but to appeal to Caesar.

This is a fascinating and instructive development in the story of Paul.  It provides all Christians with a window into how God works in our lives if we will follow Him completely and not lose faith.

As events narrowly unfold in this account of Paul in Caesarea, Paul is compelled to appeal to Caesar for a hearing in Rome.  This changes the entire nature of the ministry of Paul from being a man of action…planting new churches in Asia Minor…to a man with quiet time to contemplate and compose the upcoming “prison epistles” written while in Rome (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians).

At this late stage in Paul’s career, more new churches in Greece and Italy are probably not needed.  History shows that the number of churches in existence when Paul set off for Jerusalem for the last time, were enough in number and quality to create a strong foothold for the spread of Christianity in the first century.

If left up to Paul, he would have continued to faithfully pursue his original calling, traveling and planting new churches in Greece, Italy, and he hoped even in Spain (Rom. 15:24).  But it was the God-appointed quiet time in Caesarea and in Rome that enabled the writing of these crucial last epistles to the churches that completed his inspired New Testament contribution of Christian doctrines and practices.

It is also this abrupt change in plans that provides the narrative story for the distinctly different final four chapters in the book of Acts, providing us with a look into the customs of Roman public hearings, an ancient shipwreck, and Luke’s unfinished history of Paul in Rome that enables conservative scholars to date the ending of the book of Acts as a milestone event sometime in the early to middle 60’s A.D.

This has enormous apologetic value in validating the authenticity of the New Testament gospels in relation to the activities of Paul, placing the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts so close to the time of the ministry of Jesus as to remove the possibility of legendary development or exaggeration entering into the New Testament.

It took God intervening in the situations and circumstances during this period of Paul’s detention in Caesarea for this change-in-mission to occur.  Through these tightly inter-related events, God closed one door and opened another door in the ministry of Paul.

            The lesson here for every Christian is that no matter how fierce are the winds and the seas of the storm of circumstances around us, the eye of the hurricane is in the center of God’s will.  God sets up, guides, and molds events in the life of Paul, above anything that Paul could manufacture on his own, which results in the optimum final outcome for a life that is totally and completely surrendered to Jesus.

What is uniquely instructive about this episode in the life of Paul is that after this final visit to Jerusalem, he is under Roman arrest for most of his remaining years.  Not only is solitude imposed upon him for the purpose of quiet reflection about all that he has learned and experienced, but Paul is also made safe from the external threat of harm that he daily lived with while he was out on the road, from the Jews or from any of his other enemies.  Tradition does say that Paul was released for some period of time in Rome between a first and second imprisonment.

But from Caesarea onward, Paul was for the most part within God’s bubble of protection through the use of Roman officials and the Roman judicial system.  Paul could not be safer (other than eventual martyrdom by Nero around 62-65 A.D.) in the Roman world of the first century than to be under house arrest in Rome in the care of a Roman soldier.  Paul no longer had to worry about hostile Jews from a previous city showing up suddenly, with deadly intentions, in the city he was currently ministering in (Acts 13:50; Acts 14:5; Acts 14:19; Acts 17:5; Acts 17:13; Acts 18:12; Acts 19:26).

Through the clarity of hindsight, we see that God accomplished two things at the same time…first a change in the nature of the ministry of Paul…and second in the protective environment for Paul to compose his final letters to the churches.

This is a clear-cut demonstration of the narrow gate that Jesus is referring to in Matthew 7:13-14.  It is an example of the benefits and outcomes that God would like to perform in our lives through experiential faith.

A Fourth Cross on Calvary Hill 1

“Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”     (Heb. 12:2)

One of the basic messages of the Bible is that God’s ways are higher and better than our own.

This is one of the pivotal, fundamental lessons of the Christian experience.  Only the real, supernatural God can compose and direct circumstances in our lives that will lead to genuine, everlasting spiritual growth.

It is within God’s unique character-manufacturing furnace of present-time experience that He forges mature saints who can trust and follow Him.  Peter and Paul are two of the best examples of this process from scripture.

Before the crucifixion, Peter thought (according to Peter’s understanding in the realm of the “natural man”) that Jesus was in peril from the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, and that Jesus needed Peter’s personal help for physical protection (Mt. 16:22).

When Peter utterly failed in this capacity, to the point that he actually denied knowing Jesus using cursing to save himself out of a difficult situation in the courtyard, Matthew 26:75 says: “And he went out, and wept bitterly.”

Peter was not just mildly disappointed in himself.  He thought he had failed in the critical, defining moment in his life.

But this was not the defining moment in Peter’s life.  God the Father knew from eternity past that Jesus would die on the cross, and that He would raise Jesus from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea.  God did not need or want Peter’s help to prevent the crucifixion of Jesus.  That was merely Peter’s best intentions according to his own thinking.

The critical moment that God had planned for Peter was not at the midnight trial standing alongside Jesus as a faithful companion, but on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, at the birth of the Christian church, as described in the second chapter of the book of Acts.

On Resurrection Day, when Peter first sees the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:5), Peter realizes in an instant that God did not need his well-intentioned help to guide these final events.  God did not need Peter to prevent what Peter thought would be a guaranteed negative outcome if Jesus fell into the hands of the Jewish authorities.

God the Father had raised and transformed the broken and mutilated body of Jesus Christ the Son from the effects of a violent death that had occurred only a few days before, into a new and glorious resurrected body.   In a moment of realization…in the light of finally understanding…it all comes together for Peter.

Peter thinks back upon Jesus by the lakeside, in a boat because of the press of the crowd, as He is brilliantly teaching truth like no one has ever heard before (Lk. 5:3).  Peter remembers the oversized catch of fish in the nets that nearly overturns Peter’s boat (Lk. 5:4-11), the miracle of the feeding of the thousands on the hillside (Mt. 14:15-21), Jesus walking on water (Mt. 14:22-36), the transfiguration (Mk. 9:2), lepers cleansed (Lk. 5:12-15), the blind receiving sight (Jn. 9:1-41), and the dead raised (Jn. 11:1-44).

When Peter intently gazes upon his risen Lord on Resurrection Day in amazement and appreciation, he cannot take his eyes off Jesus.  He realizes in a series of quick flashbacks the always up-to-the-challenge Son of God, working masterfully with the Father and the Holy Spirit through every imaginable human issue and crisis, but especially in this final, amazing, unexpected event of salvation for mankind through the bodily resurrection of Jesus after the seeming finality of death on the cross.

Peter realizes that Jesus had Peter’s denial in the courtyard factored into the whole process all along (Mt. 26:34).  With an enormous sense of relief, Peter now understands that his personal failure at the critical time…when under normal circumstances Jesus might have otherwise needed his support the most…that any well-meaning attempt on the part of Peter to physically protect Jesus…could not possibly have prevented or affected in any way…the monumental work of salvation planned by Almighty God so long ago.

Peter was also resurrected to an eternal hope in that single moment of time upon first seeing the risen Jesus (1 Peter 1:3).

In a bright flash of spiritual light, Peter in that instant finally realized that God was infinitely bigger than he was.  Peter saw with his own eyes the capacity of God to overcome anything, no matter how hopeless, when he saw the risen Jesus.

This experience changed Peter forever.

At that moment Peter shifted his reliance from self to God.  Peter could go forward from that day onward with the rock-solid hope of a living faith, and a vessel emptied of self-reliance, to serve his Savior to the end of his life.

This is how Peter was able to stand up before thousands of people in the center of Jerusalem during the celebration of Pentecost, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and not through his natural leadership ability and bold personality, to successfully proclaim the truth that Jesus was indeed the Christ of God.

Peter’s prior overconfident statement, before Gethsemane, that even though all other men might forsake Jesus, that Peter under no circumstances would forsake Him (Mt. 26:33), revealed a person who was still partially self-led.  Peter was talking out of his un-crucified self-in-charge nature, and this led to bitter spiritual defeat.

Peter, in the courtyard of Caiaphas the High Priest, was not operating “in the narrow gate” (Mt. 7:13-14) of listening to and following the Holy Spirit, as an apostle of Jesus Christ should.  Trouble found and exposed a vulnerable flaw in Peter, because self was still in-charge in this instance.

The character transforming lesson of Peter’s denial of Jesus in the courtyard, and the loving forgiveness he experienced in his personal interview with Jesus on Resurrection Day, changed Peter from self-led failure to a Spirit-led overcomer.  Peter’s encounter with the risen Christ is an example of experiential faith that actualized into spiritual victory.

Rewinding these events backwards in time, Peter could have faithfully and courageously stood at the side of Jesus, as he said he would, and been condemned to death as a follower of Jesus.

Peter would then have occupied the fourth cross on the hill of Calvary that Passover Day.

But God the Father had a much different plan for Peter.

How infinitely better and more exciting would it be, to be filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, and to stand up before thousands of people in Jerusalem and preach powerfully about both the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ the Messiah (Acts 2:14-36)?

How much more exciting would it be to bring Tabitha back to life (Acts 9:40), or to heal the crippled man at the gate to the Temple (Acts 3:7), or to participate in the revival in Samaria (Acts 8:14-25), or be preaching to the Gentiles when the Pentecost “gift of the Holy Spirit” was poured out on them as well (Acts 10:44-48), or be miraculously released by an angel in the dead of night from Herod’s prison (Acts 12:7-11)?

How much better was God’s plan for Peter than what Peter had in mind for himself prior to the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane?  To what purpose would a fourth cross on Calvary, bearing Peter, have served?

According to historical tradition, Peter was eventually crucified in Rome, sometime in the early to middle 60’s A.D.  Peter was finally crucified physically, but not before living a full life in service to his Lord Jesus Christ according to the much higher plans of God.

God’s Optimum Training Program 3

The greatest harm that man can do to the ways of God is to tinker with the training environment of faith that God sets up.

Mankind is constantly trying to replace the spiritual training program of a walk of faith with God, with empty religious practices that homogenize, sanitize, and nullify the environment of situations and circumstances whereby God can interact with faithful believers.

This occurred throughout the Bible.  It starts with the lethal contrast between Cain and Abel.  Cain wants to change the rules to suit his ideas.  Cain wants to do things his way, with deadly tragic consequences.

In the New Testament, replacing God’s ways with our ways is one of the underlying causes of the lethal differences between the Jewish religious rulers…and Jesus…which culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus the Son of God.

There is no basis for the extreme outcome of the crucifixion of Jesus the Passover Lamb of God sacrifice for the sins of man…if there are not stubborn and hard-hearted hypocrites sitting in the seats of power as religious and political rulers in Jerusalem.

The religious leaders of that day, and Jesus and His disciples, are in two totally different realities…two different character-building programs…two different spiritual “training camps” that are worlds apart.  This difference is what fueled the tension that finally resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers did not submit themselves to the spiritual equivalent of the grueling two-a-day August workouts that typically lead up to the start of the high school football season, orchestrated by a demanding coach getting his team into top physical shape to be winners on the football field.

The ministry of Jesus Christ exposed the fact that they had not gone through God’s spiritual training program.  Otherwise, they would have recognized the voice of God their divine Coach during the Sermon on the Mount.  They would have been conspicuous within the listening crowd of people, with heads nodding up and down in agreement with what Jesus was teaching, walking in amongst the audience patting people on the back and encouraging them to listen to what Jesus was saying.

Instead, Luke 11:52 reads: “Woe unto you, lawyers!  For ye have taken away the key of knowledge; ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.”

The ministry and teaching of Jesus exposed the fact that these religious leaders were outside of the uncompromising environment of faith that God sets up for the benefit of all.

Jesus exposed the Pharisees and scribes as unskilled and untrained players, posing as qualified players in the starting line-up on the field, and they killed Him for this (Mt. 27:18).

When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist at the river Jordan, John said “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bring forth, therefore, fruits befitting repentance” (Mt. 3:7-8).

In other words, John the Baptist said “show that you are genuine athletes prepared for real play on the field, and not just pretenders and frauds wanting to wear the uniform during the game, and wanting to walk around campus wearing the varsity jacket during the week.”

The context of situations and circumstances in which God sets up faith and trust to operate, is not a matter to be taken lightly.  God and Lucifer are in a constant spiritual battle over who controls the territory of the environment of situations and circumstances.

The Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, and the method of preparation for them to be able to conquer their promised land, is a straightforward biblical example of this concept.

God took Israel out of the context of Egypt and into the Sinai desert.  God changed the environment altogether.  In the desert God had more exclusive access and control of outward situations and circumstances to craft lessons of trust and reliance upon Him.  The external issues for the Israelites in the desert were narrowed down to the basics…food, water, and getting the memory of Egyptian idol worship out of their thinking.

In the desert God was able to get the undivided attention of the Israelites, and to get them trained in the spiritual areas of trust and reliance upon Him, so that they would follow Him and Joshua into the all-important impending military battles.

God did not want the Israelites to be terrified at the first sight of warfare.  God wanted the Israelites to march forward into battle with determined resolve and courage, for their own benefit and welfare.  God’s demanding and challenging training methods with the Israelites, at the very real risk to Himself of becoming temporarily unpopular…proved to be of the highest championship quality.

Lucifer, by contrast in this environment of the Sinai desert, had fewer tangible outward opportunities to work with.  The usual glittering worldly temptations and allurements were not present in the desert.  Spiritual military “boot-camp” provided fewer openings for Lucifer to operate within.

One of the fallacies that should be addressed as we approach the upcoming end-times is the idea that just because we are born-again Christians, God is satisfied with spiritually out-of-shape and overweight players on His team.

This idea of a soft brand of Christianity is not biblical.

Every born-again Christian will be raptured when the time comes, regardless of what shape we are in.  The thief crucified next to Jesus, who that very day would be in paradise with Him, with no future opportunity to live out his new faith on earth, tells us that salvation is entirely by grace through faith… and not conditioned upon works.

But the idea that Jesus Christ will not set up a rigorous training environment to get us all into top spiritual shape before the end, whatever particular eschatology the end-times may entail, needs some serious re-thinking within contemporary Christendom.

This current environment of earth is a one-time, non-repeating event.  The end-time is the last “football” season for all eternity.  Jesus Christ will not allow His team to go out with a losing final season, because we were out-of-shape, unprepared, and poorly coached.

The perfect, divine coach Jesus Christ unselfishly loves each one of us too much to allow that to happen.

God’s Optimum Training Program 2

The Easy Route Won’t Produce Results

When we pick up our cross and are following Jesus, God is intimately involved with our spiritual training program.  The cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ set up this initial beneficial environment.  Through Jesus, man can re-establish fellowship with God with a fresh start as new creatures in Christ.

God the Father looks at us through Christ.  Christians are sinless in the sight of God the Father through the blood of Jesus shed on the cross, so that we can experience a walk of faith through the situations and circumstances God composes for the believer in this life.

This program of spiritual training is extremely important to God.  In the Old Testament, God was constantly fine-tuning, changing, and using the outward political environment to get the Israelites back into a relationship of trust and faith in Him.

The various challenges of invading foreign armies, temporary military occupations of their homeland by surrounding nations, the powerful messages of prophets sent by God, and the Babylonian captivity, constantly re-established the correct environment for trust and faith in God for the Israelites during their long history.

The letters to the churches in the New Testament are designed to keep Christians within the purity of an environment of faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

As always, Lucifer attempts to get Christians off course by subverting and attacking the God-composed environment created for faith and trust to operate.  Lucifer’s strategy is a straight-on attack at the very program that God sets up in this physical world designed for the people of faith to discover His love and His care.

If Lucifer incites the Midianites to attack Israel, God responds with the calling of Gideon and the uniquely creative plan of the counter-attack with the 300 Israelite soldiers.  This re-established an environment in Israel for active faith in God.

If Lucifer incites the Philistines to invade Israel and defy the God of the Jews through a warrior champion like Goliath, God counters with the raising up…seemingly out of nowhere…of a courageous young man named David.

David kills the giant with one sling-shot stone perfectly aimed into the forehead of Goliath.  This starts in motion a process to establish the reign of a godly king in Israel that sets up the environment for the Jewish nation to again exercise trust and reliance upon God.

The scriptures tell us that Lucifer desired to “sift” Peter during the faith-testing period of the arrest and trial of Jesus (Lk. 22:31), to destroy Peter forever in self-incrimination and despair over failing to remain true and faithful to Jesus at the critical moment.  Lucifer successfully uses the unfamiliar, intimidating surroundings of the home of Caiaphas the high priest, as an unanticipated and underestimated new environment for Peter, who utterly fails in courage to acknowledge Jesus before a group of people assembled around a fire in the exterior courtyard.

Yet God counters by using this very same crushing defeat in Peter’s life to create a life-changing, positive character transformation in Peter, from previously being foolishly self-confident and self-reliant…to becoming humbly and wisely reliant upon the Holy Spirit for the remainder of his life.

Lucifer attempts to discourage and weaken Paul’s resolve for service by inciting a near-death stoning of Paul by the Jews at Lystra.  Lucifer tries to bring disruption and doubt into Paul’s calling, to bring in an element of fear and possibly unforgiving resentment and bitterness toward the Jews into Paul’s God-inspired program of evangelizing the Greco-Roman world.

Instead, this failed attempt by Lucifer to attack the ministry of Paul… probably only created more spiritual freedom in Paul’s outlook.

From that time forward Paul could consider that he was now operating on borrowed time.  Paul had looked a horrible death square in the face, and got up and carried on.

If Jesus Christ could raise Paul up from this stoning experience at Lystra, what more could Paul have to fear from opposition to his ministry?  Paul could look at each current threat and say to himself that he already experienced far worse and had survived.

But on a deeper level, 1 John 4:18 says: “but perfect love casteth out fear.”  This extreme physical attack upon Paul did not dampen his love for his Jewish brethren (Rom. 9:1-3).

Paul exhibits fearless ministry in perfect love (within human limits) throughout his calling to evangelize the first-century world, because Paul stayed faithfully within the rigorous training environment that Jesus Christ set up for him.  No matter what was occurring in the natural realm in terms of the deadly malice and hatred of the opposition, Paul remained steadfast.

These are all examples of a great, championship-quality Coach instilling the high standards of character and preparedness that produce victory on the field of play.

God’s Optimum Training Program 1

“I council thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with salve, that thou mayest see.  As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous, therefore, and repent.”                                                      (Rev. 3:18-19)

A truly great high school football coach who cares about his players will work them hard during the late summer two-a-day conditioning drills.  The football team that is heading toward a successful season can be heard groaning and complaining about the coach’s tough training methods and seemingly impossible standards for the entire six to eight weeks leading up to the first game of the regular season.

It is only after the team takes the field and discovers that they are well prepared to play high-quality football that they can look back at their coach’s emphasis on physical conditioning and the constant repetition of the same basic plays over and over again until they finally got them right.

The character lessons these players learned from their coach, about how to approach a particular challenge with intensity of purpose, hard work, and a will to never quit, often last them throughout their lifetimes, long after they stop playing football.

            A God who asks little of us cannot have much of an impact upon our lives…and can never be considered great. 

A compromised message from the pulpit tailored to please people will never inspire the type of commitment that will produce excellence of character in us.

A book like this one, on the subject of the high standards of God in the end-times…to have real value must inspire committed Christians to continue forward on their present journey of faith, and to jolt less dedicated Christians out of complacency.

The story of the Bible is God’s call to people to give their best, to surrender all to Jesus Christ in trust and faith.

God is a spiritual coach who demands the very best, by setting up a rigorous training program of situations and circumstances for our benefit.  He does this because He loves us enough to want to see us victorious on the playing field in the actual game of life.

Dumbing-down and diluting the Christian experience to a more comfortable level, results only in mediocrity.  The Holy Spirit would never inspire or condone “Christianity Light” (Acts 4:8).  God is not and never has been interested in producing mediocre saints.  That is why He gave us outstanding natural talents, abilities, and capacities, like His own.  God created us in His image.  That is why God says to us “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16).

God is the great playbook writer of the lives of faith portrayed in the Bible.  The reason that God wants to compose the playbooks for our lives is that He wants to set up a regimen of spiritual training where we can be challenged to give our all…the very best we have to give.

In the area of assimilating godliness, which we initially know nothing about, we need a demanding coach to set up the program and to push us to our limits.

We won’t reach excellence in the area of Christ-like character on our own.  Like learning to play championship football as a team, or learning to play classical piano at an advanced level, we need someone who is more knowledgeable than ourselves to show us the way and to push us toward a greater effort and a higher outcome.

The truly great teachers, coaches, and role models in our lives obtain our total commitment to do our best because we sense that their demanding standards are based upon the fact that they really care about our development as people.

The respect and sense of worth that is shown toward us through a coach or a teacher, who cares enough about us to demand our very best effort, will often inspire us to perform at our highest level for a lifetime.

Jesus said that He is the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus is telling us here that He has the winning play-book, and that He is the Championship Coach.  Only God knows what it takes to have godly character.  If we will join the team, and not quit, God will set up a tough spiritual training program for us.

God does this because He cares about us.  Like an inspiring college professor, a demanding high school athletic coach, or a respected parent, we will find ourselves wanting to please God and get His approval in everything we do.

That is the greatness of Jesus Christ.

Jesus inspires a life-long commitment to excellence in the course of our life.  God takes people like Abraham, Joseph, David, and Paul, and transforms them into people with spiritual character and power in the areas of life that really matter.

Abraham becomes the father of faith, Joseph leads the nation of Egypt through seven years of famine, David becomes a godly king, and Paul evangelizes the Mediterranean world.

These are the world-class results when God is our coach and we submit ourselves to His program of spiritual conditioning and training.

We Should Expect a Spiritual Adventure of Faith 3

Not Humanistic Invention, Myth, or Folklore

The issue that is contrasted here in this story of the Exodus, is the difference between play-it-safe security versus step-out-in-faith significance (Mt. 14:29).  It is the difference between a risk-free life that accomplishes little of eternal value, and a bold life that purchases faith and trust in the living God that is worth more than gold.

Either the God of the Bible is real or He isn’t.  Either God can be counted upon in a crisis, or He cannot.  Either the Bible is true or it is a collection of fables.

Unlike walking out of a theater after watching a fictional motion- picture for two hours, every Christian can choose to follow Jesus through a real, actual life of faith, and discover and prove for ourselves whether or not our God is the same God we read about in the Bible.

A true journey of faith with the God of the Bible is a testable proposition, with the real possibility of success or failure through situations large and small.

The Israelites could have continued living in Egypt, scratching out an existence with no purpose or meaning, or they could step out in faith and follow God.  But in this defining moment in the separation of belief from unbelief, in the dividing of trust in the living God from self-sufficient existence in Egypt, there was a real cost to following God.

God led them to the edge of the Red Sea.

It was God Himself who set up this life-and-death situation for the Israelites.

In this make-or-break test, there was not enough time for any self-generated options for the Israelites.  They could not set up an adequate defense, purchase weapons of warfare from surrounding nations, or send emissaries to hire foreign armies to come and help fight the Egyptians.  At any moment, either they would be killed by the Egyptians, or God would somehow deliver them.  Faith, trust, and reliance upon God were at the heart of this crisis.

We see from this example that it was the intention of God to initiate this final confrontation with the Egyptian army, so that God could demonstrate once again to Moses and to the Israelites His deliverance power and unfailing love.

God knew that He could and would open up the Red Sea, and it appears that Moses also knew this from God sometime before it actually happened.

It was the Israelites who needed to discover the depth of God’s love for them, and He did this through a spectacular display of His power over nature, in the midst of this seemingly unsolvable dilemma.  This was intended to provide the Israelites with hope and assurance to see them through the difficult days ahead and to provide us with a powerful example of hope we can apply today as well.

If we as Christians today have experienced through salvation that God is real…believe that the Bible is true…and that these events actually occurred… then we should not be surprised when God maneuvers us into similar situations and circumstances, albeit on a less dramatic scale, that enable God to reveal to us His deliverance power and caring love as well.

This is how we grow.  This is how we get spiritually strong.  This is how we each individually get to know God better.  This is how we become able to stand up spiritually on our own two feet and proclaim boldly what God has done for us.

God has not changed.  He has an infinite variation of scenarios and life-scripts at His fingertips.  We don’t all have to play lead roles like Robin Hood, Sidney Carton, or Luke Skywalker, but God has a carefully chosen and well-intentioned role for each of us to play as mature and savvy Christians to make an impact for good in our world.

Some great novels are so captivating, that the reader dreads the book coming to an end.  But as the pages turn one after another on a quiet Saturday afternoon, the last page is finally reached, the story ends, and the back cover of the book is closed.

Some movies are so entertaining we wish they would go on and on.  But these movies also end, the lights in the theatre come on, and people head for the exit doors.

After Jesus and the two thieves were taken down from their crosses, these blood-stained crosses presumably stood empty for awhile on Calvary Hill.  Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father had accomplished their plan for Jesus to be the Passover Lamb of God sacrifice for mankind’s sin, slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).

The time of the actual crucifixion came and went, with Jesus then going on to rise the third day (Lk. 22:37).  Like an empty stadium after a championship game, or like an empty theater after an award-winning play or a virtuosic music recital is over…the time for the grand event comes and goes.

All of the upcoming end-times events are scheduled to occur in the near future.  Jesus Himself talks about them in the gospels.  They must happen.  They are part of mankind’s destiny.  They were set in motion when Adam and Eve each took a bite of the forbidden fruit long ago.  The story of good versus evil has been playing out ever since.  Each of us has a part to play in that story.

We worship a real God who is both all-powerful and all-good, and who happens to also be a master screenwriter and director.  We can surrender the course of our lives (Romans 12:1) into His hands with confidence, discovering first-hand His goodness and trustworthiness through our own individual experience of a walk of faith.

An old proverb aptly applies here: “a ship in a harbor is safe, but ships were not made for harbors.”

We were created for an adventure of faith, out upon the wide-open seas of life, following the life-script that the true and living God of the Bible has written for us.

We Should Expect a Spiritual Adventure of Faith 2

The Most Qualified Talent-Scout in the Universe                

One of the themes that is hidden just below the surface of the lives of the people of faith in the Bible, which is clearly apparent once you see it, is that God wants to write the scripts and screenplays of our lives (Phil. 2:13).  People like Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David in the Old Testament, and Peter and Paul in the New Testament, put all of their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and even their lives on the line to follow the plans of God for them.

God is able to write and direct real-world life-scripts that are in most cases above and beyond fictional motion picture screenplays.  God wants to write the scripts for our lives because He is simply better at it than we are, and He has an overall message He wants to get across.  He wants the entire universe and all of creation to know that He is a trustworthy, capable, and loving God.

The reading of the Bible and our own present-day Christian lives become more understandable once we grasp and embrace this concept.

All of us want our lives here on earth to count for something positive.  Like our interest in a good adventure movie, we want the events and circumstances of our lives to be channeled toward some good conclusion.

But like motion picture actors who are not screenwriters, we are incapable of coming up with plot-lines that also include trust, reliance, and faith in a supernatural God.  To add these elements to our life-script, we need the great Screenwriter, the God of the Bible, to compose imaginative lives for us like those of the people of faith in the Old and New Testaments.

This is one reason why God inspired the writing of the Bible (2 Tim. 3:15-17).  The Bible gives us an accurate pattern and template of what He accomplished in other people’s lives so that we can also release our faith and have confidence in what He can do in our own lives.

Only God has the divinely creative imagination to compose life-scripts for us that contain eternal purpose, meaning, and truth.

When people plan and manage their lives while pushing God away, they opt for the default screenplay for life.  This default screenplay calls for the typical need for security, material possessions, the approval of friends and family, conformity to the conventional worldly pleasures of life, and usually putting as much distance as possible between ourselves and anything unpleasant in terms of character building.

The problem with this approach is that the typical 60, 70, or 80 year old life here on earth is like a vapor of smoke (Jas 4:14) that is gone in what seems like no time at all.  Before we know it, we can regretfully look back upon a life lived without purpose, meaning, or eternally beneficial impact upon others.

Sometimes a few exceptional people do manage to pursue exciting lives that have the outward appearance of challenge and adventure, but it is nonetheless on their terms and within the limits they set for themselves.

Because we cannot live two parallel lives at the same time, the self-led and self-directed life, no matter how attractive according to outward appearances, is by definition a God-less life.

There can only be a single plot-line for our character in the movie script of our lives.  If self-absorption and self-centeredness is the storyline of our lives, then God’s plan for us is pushed off the pages.

We choose who writes our life-script…ourselves or God.

To have eternal satisfaction, purpose, and meaning…our lives must include God.

A much higher purpose for life exists, which is described and recorded for us through the examples of the people of faith in the Bible.  That purpose is to live-out the fulfilling role that God has individually pre-written just for us in the great screenplay of human experience.  If we do not allow God full participation in our lives to lead us into that divinely inspired role, because of timidity, fear, unbelief, self-centeredness, being too worldly busy, or thinking we know better than God…in the end we will be the person most disappointed.

After the ten plagues in Egypt forced Pharaoh to release the Israelites from bondage as slaves, it was God, through Moses, who led the Israelites to set up temporary camp on the shore of the Red Sea.  When Pharaoh and the Egyptians changed their minds, and pursued the Israelites with their chariot army, the Israelites were trapped by the Red Sea.

This was God’s doing.  Moses had not made a mistake.  He was listening correctly in the Spirit to God’s voice.

When the Israelites saw the Egyptian army, they panicked.  The Egyptian chariot army was not going to pull up to the crowd of Israelites and calmly discuss the terms of their return to Egypt as slaves.  The Egyptians were going to massacre a large number of Israelites, in retaliation for what had recently occurred in Egypt, and then force the survivors back to Egypt.

Although their lives were hard and bitter in Egypt, they still had had wives, children, enough food to eat, and a roof over their heads.

At that moment the Israelites were wondering why they had given up their hard but secure existence in Egypt for the promise of freedom through faith and hope in a leader named Moses and in a God they barely knew.  The circumstances were real, immediate, and they did not look good.  The Egyptian soldiers had spears and swords they would soon thrust through the Israelite men, women, and children, without a second thought.  Yet they were trapped by the Red Sea.

Unlike the fictional stories of Robin Hood, A Tale of Two Cities, or Star Wars, this author believes that God actually did place a real pillar of fire to temporarily block the Egyptian chariot army, and that God did open up an actual dry land passage through the Red Sea.

I was not there.  I did not see it happen.  But I believe these were actual historical events.

If God can create the physical universe out of nothing through the Big Bang…bringing into existence all of the material particles and fields of energy in just the right quantities and proportions…along with all of the accompanying laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and the dimensions of time…it should be relatively easy for Him to supernaturally open up the Red Sea and hold back the waters long enough for people to pass safely through.

I know from the transformation that happened inside me when I accepted Jesus Christ into my life, and through several supernatural experiences of God’s faithfulness in my life since then, that this is just the type of thing that God would do with the Israelites at the beginning of their history-making exodus from Egypt (Isa. 14:24).

If Christians have experienced being spiritually reborn (Jn 3:3), then they personally know that God can supernaturally intervene in the affairs of mankind.

Something extraordinary like the parting the Red Sea for the Israelites simply falls somewhere along the sliding scale of the differing magnitudes of the various works of God.

We Should Expect a Spiritual Adventure of Faith 1

“No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.”      (2 Tim. 2:4)

In the 1938 movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, Errol Flynn plays a dashing and courageous hero whose band of men hiding in the forest prevents the treacherous Prince John from taking control over England in the absence of good King Richard the Lionheart.  Robin Hood steals from the rich Normans and gives to the poor and oppressed Saxons, wins the love of the beautiful Lady Marion, played by Olivia DeHavilland, and in the end kills the evil Sir Guy of Gisborne, played by Basil Rathbone, in a thrilling swordfight.

In the movie, King Richard returns from fighting in a Crusade, joins forces with Robin Hood, and together they win the day and banish Prince John and his supporters to France.  The movie ends with a large wooden door closing behind Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland as they triumphantly leave the castle together arm in arm.

What is it about this type of story that captivates audiences from the day it first played on the movie screen down to our present day?

The answer is that people simply love an exciting action story that pits good against evil, has a courageous hero who lives on the edge of defeat and death throughout the movie, and that resolves itself into a happy ending.

Even Errol Flynn probably envied privately the fictional life of Robin Hood somewhat as he played it, with all of its daring escapes, courageous stands against injustice, unselfish sacrifice to help others in need, and most of all Robin Hood’s fearless character that wins the admiration and love of the beautiful Lady Marion.

As the common saying goes, “it could only happen in a movie.”

But there is something else about this movie that tells us something important about ourselves.

Few people, if any, want to know (other than idle curiosity) what happens in the lives of Robin Hood and the Lady Marion after the castle door closes behind them.  Robin Hood vanquishes all of his evil foes, saves the day, wins the fair lady and that is the end of the movie and the end of our interest in the story.

No movie producer in his or her right mind would do a sequel to The Adventures of Robin Hood in the aftermath of this movie, unless some screenwriter could come up with an equally thrilling tale having Robin Hood and the Lady Marion again battling evil conspirators threatening England.

An adventure-less movie that had Robin Hood dealing with the everyday life problems of managing the Nottingham Castle estates, like repairing the north gate, or checking on the water level of the castle moat, or planting enough barley in the south fields, would have people quickly yawning and heading for the theater exits in ten or fifteen minutes.

In the 1935 movie A Tale of Two Cities, staring Ronald Colman, based on the classic book by Charles Dickens, again no one cares what takes place in the loving home of Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette after their friend Sidney Carton sacrifices his life on the guillotine, during the French Revolution, to secure their future happiness.

Sydney Carton uses a daring scheme to switch places inside the prison with the unjustly condemned man Charles Darnay, the husband of the woman Carton loves, and thus redeems his ill-spent life with a sacrifice so noble that it approximates on a smaller scale the death of Jesus on the cross for the sins of mankind.

Yet as the horse-drawn coach carrying the saved family speeds away from Paris and towards England and safety, and Sidney Carton looks peacefully upward toward heaven as he climbs the steps to the guillotine, the movie comes to an end and so does our interest.  The drama of the story with all of its interwoven themes and characters is resolved.

After this we do not care that much about the everyday life of Lucie Manette and her family.  As an audience we are not interested in the “they lived happily ever after” details of the story.

Coming up to a more recent time, the immensely popular movie Star Wars tells us the same thing.

At the end of the final movie in the six-movie series, the fallen but reformed Darth Vader is burned on a funeral pyre, balance in the cosmic “force” is restored, Luke Skywalker and the Jedi are victorious, and Hans Solo and Princess Leia are finally together.  The epic and adventurous parts of the story come to an end.  Presumably all of these people then pursue a normal life after this, without having to battle the “dark side of the force.”

What does this tell us about ourselves?  If we could live our lives in the middle of a motion picture, what movie would it be and who would write the script?  If we knew the story had a happy ending for us, would we really care how many adventures and narrow escapes we experienced to reach the conclusion?

Would we want a boring script, or would we want the script writer to come up with something that was meaningful, inspiring, and even had some measure of risk and adventure?  Would we be excited about even a small speaking role in an all-time great movie, as long as our character was well written and we knew we were part of something special and extraordinary?

As Christians, these are questions we should be asking ourselves as we look at our own lives in relation to the lives of the people of faith in the Bible.

Errol Flynn was a great adventure actor, but he was not at the same time renowned as a screenwriter.  The two men who wrote the screenplay for The Adventures of Robin Hood, Norman Raine and Seton Miller, were expert screenwriters but not famous actors.

Ronald Colman was a great leading actor, but was not a good enough writer to come up with a story as great as A Tale of Two Cities.  The screenplay for this movie was written by W. P. Lipscomb and S. N. Behrman, based upon the book written by the famous author Charles Dickens.

In all great motion pictures, the actors rely upon scripts and stories that are written by other people.

I am not aware of any great movie where the main actor also wrote the screenplay.  An exception in recent times is the movie Good Will Hunting, co-written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, in which both have leading roles.  At any rate, without screenplays, great actors would have no movies in which to act.

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