“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” (1 John 2:15-16 ESV)
This was “the verse of the day” today, and it’s a timely one. It’s easy to get caught up in this world, what is happening day to day and thinking about the future… in this life… and forget about or gloss over the importance of the kingdom of God.
Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God. Jesus came looking for followers. He challenged people to leave behind the things that anchored them to this world. To the rich young ruler, he said, “Give everything to the poor and come follow me.” When Jesus invited Peter and his brother Andrew, “Come follow me,” they left their nets to follow him.
But, it isn’t just about leaving things behind. The reason John urges us not to love the world is that “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:17) Paul said the same thing to the Corinthians: “[T]his world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:31) Why would we want to hold onto it?
This blog post is inspired by today’s sermon: God Has A Plan. As I was listening, my mind took off in different directions from the various points that were being made.
To begin with, I need to note that I am an attorney, and I do estate planning. That is relevant because it explains the first place my mind went. Probate.
Ok, sorry. Let me explain, and I beg your indulgence not to jump off at this point. I know that it may seem a bit boring!
The thing is that I often tell people when explaining estate planning that, “If you don’t do your own estate plan, your estate will be controlled by probate.” That may sound more ominous than it really is (only because most people don’t know what probate is), but the point is that estate planning puts you in control of your estate, rather than leaving your estate to the default rules of the probate statute.
Enough of the legal stuff! (It’s Sunday after all) The reality is this: even when people do estate planning, things don’t always go as they planned. I’m here to testify that they don’t. We don’t foresee changes in circumstances, and we don’t always accurately assess the way things really are. One of the worst family fights I was ever involved in began with a family meeting in which they told me how close their family was!
We put a lot of time, effort and confidence in our own planning. We don’t want to trust that planning to anyone else – not to the state, not to others, and not even to God.
Did you know that God has a plan for you? Don’t you wish you could know what it is? Have you considered that it might be helpful to row with God rather than against Him?
It turns out there is a pretty sure fire way to know and follow God’s plan.
“They are teachers who point to their teaching or show some particular way. In all of these, there emerges an instruction, a way of living. It is not Zoroaster to whom you turn. It is Zoroaster to whom you listen. It is not Buddha who delivers you; it is his Noble Truths that instruct you. It is not Mohammed who transforms you; it is the beauty of the Koran that woos you. By contrast, Jesus did not only teach or expound His message. He was identical with His message. ‘In Him,’ say the Scriptures, ‘dwelt the fullness of the Godhead bodily.’ He did not just proclaim the truth. He said, ‘I am the truth.’ He did not just show a way. He said, ‘I am the Way.’ He did not just open up vistas. He said, ‘I am the door.’ ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’ ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ ‘I am the I AM.’ In Him is not just an offer of life’s bread. He is the bread. That is why being a Christian is not just a way of feeding and living. Following Christ begins with a way of relating and being.”
― Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message
I imagine it’s hard for someone, generally, to understand when another person talks about “having a personal relationship with Christ”. The quotation by Ravi Zacharias from his book noted above provides some explanation for a statement like that, but I suspect it isn’t enough.
“But to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God— children born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)
Johns packs a lot into these short verses, tucked into the first chapter of his Gospel that is profoundly full of other significant meaning:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were made through him….In him was life, and the life was the light of men…. The true light…. was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him… he gave the right to become children of God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….”
These are some of the most profound and remarkable verses in all of Scripture. God became flesh, and He lived among the people He chose as His own, but they didn’t even recognize who He was. But those who received – who believed Him – He gave the right to become children of God.
I see two choices here: the choice of receiving Christ and the choice God gives us after receiving Christ – the right tobecome children of God. My Reformed friends might be tempted to overlook the import of this power-packed passage. I am little unnerved by it myself, truth be told. I don’t trust my own heart to make the right choices!
One of the more iconic things Jesus is recorded to have said is, “Come follow me!” We read those words or similar words over and over in the Gospels. According to Wikianswers, Jesus talks about people following him at least 23 times in the Gospels. He is noted to have asked specific people point blank to follow him about a dozen times by my count.
Following Jesus is so much of a primary theme in the Gospels that even today, 2000 years later, we talk about people “following Jesus”. People identify themselves as “followers of Jesus”. The idea of following Jesus, therefore, is central to Christianity and what it means to be a “Christian”. The idea is so ubiquitous in our western society that we might even take that phrase for granted, forgetting the significance of it.
The unique significance of the idea of following Jesus is, perhaps, best noted by looking at people in the non-Christian world. As I was writing this and thinking of the examples of the areas where we see the idea in operation, starting with the Gospels and extending to the way Christians refer to themselves today, it dawned on me that non-Christians don’t seem to use the same phrase in referring to Christians.
What does it mean to take up the cross and follow Jesus? Maybe it means being willing to be vulnerable and willing to be weak for the sake of the Gospel. Maybe it means putting the Gospel first and my desire to preserve myself last. Maybe it means being more concerned with the spread of the Gospel than my own reputation.
We hesitate to be outspoken about the Gospel because the Gospel means something different to the world that is perishing than it means to us. For those being saved, the Gospel (the message of the cross) is the power of God for salvation. But for the world, it is received much differently.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
God is about the business of destroying “the wisdom of the wise” and “the discernment of the discerning”. If that is God’s business, and if we are following after God, this should be our business as well. How then is God destroying the wisdom and discernment of the world?
The Jews demanded a sign, but Jesus dying on the cross was not the sign sign they expected. They expected a savior that would overthrow the Roman government and set up a self-governing, Jewish state in the Promised Land. Jesus didn’t meet their expectations and became a stumbling block to them.
The Greeks wanted sophistication and clever philosophy. Their standard was Aristotle, Plato and the Stoics who developed systematic philosophies. The Gospel to them was foolishness, dull and lacking in the sharpness of thought that the Greeks expected of their thinkers. The Gospel seemed like foolishness to them.
The world today wants tolerance, acceptance, validation and normalization of every form of thinking, affection and lifestyle. Anything goes, and the world demands validation of any identify, affection or behavior that someone wants to embrace. The Gospel that embraces self-restraint over self-love and carries a message that following Jesus is the only way is contrary to the spirit of this modern age.
Wisdom and systematic philosophy is out. The world doesn’t believe in signs anymore. The standard today is tolerance, acceptance and pluralism, sacrificing the truth on the altar of individual rights, freedoms and the license to be or do whatever one wants with no moral constraints.
In this world today, people who hold stubbornly to the Gospel are considered Neanderthal, provincial and vulgar. Taking up our crosses today means being accused of intolerance and “bronze age” thinking. The Gospel is seen as moral depravity in this world that values the morality of man over the righteousness of God.
The Gospel is the word of an Infidel to the Muslims who bow only to Allah and are instructed to convert, subject or kill those who will not also bow. Yet our modern pluralistic society gives the Muslim world a pass while blaming the Christian church for intolerance.
In any age and in every age, the Gospel runs counter to the prevalent norms and worldviews of the times. The Gospel stands apart, and the followers of Christ stand with it.
Paul preached only Christ and him crucified to the Greeks who thought it was foolishness and to the Jews to whom it was a stumbling block. So we preach Christ who is the way, the truth and the life to those who think we are intolerant, to the Muslims who think we are infidels, to the scientists who think we are ignorant and to the modern moralist who thinks their own morality surpasses the righteousness of God.
Significantly Paul, who’s ministry was to the Greeks and the Romans, did not eschew knowledge or philosophy or the signs the Jewish world was looking for. It wasn’t as if Paul was not a learned man, full of knowledge of Jewish history and scripture. He was trained up in the finest school of the Pharisees run by Gamaliel, the greatest teacher of the time.
It was not as if Paul was an ignorant or unlearned man in Greek philosophy. When he addressed the crowd at in Athens, he cited by memory Greek poets and philosophers.
It’s just that Paul did not buy into the Jewish interpretation of scripture that missed the very Son of God among its pages. Paul did not buy into the knowledge and philosophy of the Greeks because knowledge and philosophy cannot save a man from his sin.
So today, it’s not as if Christians are intolerant. The message of Jesus is universal, but it is always, in every age, counter-cultural. Jesus has instructed us to welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, love those who are unlovely and even to love our enemies. Still, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and there is no other way to the Father but through Jesus.
It’s not as if Christians are not intelligent in the ways of science. Until very modern times, Christians led the world in science. In the last couple hundred years, Christians have abdicated the realm of science to the atheists and agnostics. The atheists and agnostics, in turn, have shut the Christians out by defining science narrowly, excluding any thought of god from it. Yet, people of faith are still involved in the sciences. We may even be going through a Renaissance of faith-based science today.
It’s not as if Christians are immoral. Far from it, Jesus called his followers to a higher morality even than the Jewish Pharisees, rooting out thoughts that are sinful and serving others to the point of self-sacrifice. Jesus exemplified that morality because Jesus, the exact representation of God on earth, is the standard. .
It’s not as if there is any other way to salvation. Muhammad lived and died and remains buried. There is no one in the history of religion of whom we cannot say the same, except for Jesus. Jesus rose from the dead. There is no other Messiah.
There is no other person in whose name is the power of life and salvation. Jesus is our bread. He is our water living water. Everything boils down to Jesus. As it was in Paul’s day so it is now in our day.
Taking up the cross and following Jesus, holding out the Gospel, will be met in much the same way as it was meet in Jesus’ day. The world that is perishing will not receive it, but it is salvation and life to those who will receive it. Even if no one receives it, still we carry the cross because there is no other Messiah and are no other words that give life.
Sophia means “wisdom” and supplies the root of the English terms “sophistication” and “philosophy”. In this sense, the Gospel is contrasted to the sophistication and philosophy of the world.
Sýnesis is translated discernment or cleverness. Literally, it means holistic understanding by joining facts together; synthesized reasoning by bringing implicit (indirect) truths together. In short, it means a worldview. Thus, the Gospel is contrasted to the prevailing worldviews.
Mōría means folly; literally, dull (lacking sharpness).
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”[i]
What does it mean to take up our crosses and follow Jesus? What does it mean to lose our lives for Christ’s sake?
In the context of this passage, it means that we should embrace Jesus and His words, and not be ashamed of them. If we read the first two verses in the context of the third verse, taking up our crosses daily means daily embracing Jesus and His words and not being ashamed of doing that.
Wide is the road that leads away from Jesus. Narrow is the gate through which we must go to be saved. Following Jesus has never been the popular way. It costs, above all things, the thing that we seek most. It costs our pride, our reputation in the world. It costs our ability to fit in with the world. It costs our self-esteem and self-promotion.
Am I really following Jesus? If my reputation is good, if I fit in with people wherever I go, am I really following Jesus?