They are the safest verses to share, and are guaranteed to get the most likes. Lately, I have seen “love” verses used to oppose or dismiss “the other side”, which I suspect misses the heart of the verses. Love for us can be a self-serving thing: we want it extended to us while we limit our own extension of it, and we utilize it when it benefits us. This, too, misses the heart of the love verses.
They are verses we know so well, but understand so poorly.
I was struck this morning that we assume love is a good thing. The title is meant to be controversial. If “God is love”, then love is the most incredible thing in existence. However, we treat love as a cover-all for the things we don’t like; love is what makes things better. This is the “good” we want; perhaps we don’t understand what it means for love to be “good.”
Let’s see what Jesus has to say about that.
Jesus talks about love immensely, and demonstrated it with his life even more. It’s clear that love is essential to his purpose, and he made it clear that it is vital to being a follower:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Jesus said this many times, and in this case it was after demonstrating “the full extent” of his love at the start of chapter 13, when he humbled himself by washing their disgusting feet. We could spend a tremendous amount of time breaking down what that love is and how it functions; for now we will focus on the fact that we are called to love, and by doing so people will know that we are Christ’s disciples.
So why am I saying “love is not a good thing”? We are learning here that the result of loving one another is that people will know that we are his disciples. What happens when people know that we are his disciples?
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
If we love one another, people will know we are his disciples; if they know we are his disciples, they will treat us like they treated him.
We will be hated. We will be persecuted.
That doesn’t sound like a good thing. At least, that’s not what we are going for when we pursue love.
We pursue love because it feels wonderful; it meets our needs for being appreciated and cared for; it provides things we want or need. Why would we want something that leads to the opposite? How is that good?
A rich ruler approached Jesus and called him “good teacher”, and Jesus responded:
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
The man had a deeply limited understanding of “good.” Jesus knew that he intended to convey high honor, which is why Jesus related goodness to God; he also knew, if the man really believed Jesus was good, he would not have walked away in sadness.
Jesus was more “good” than the ruler could ever comprehend, yet the ruler’s understanding of goodness was too tied to his personal desires and perspectives. Someone like Jesus — who would cost him everything — could not be good.
We believe love is good, but our understanding is tied to our personal desires and perspectives. A love that costs us does not feel good.
Our local church body defines love as this: “Love is seeking the greatest good for another, no matter the cost.”
The Apostle Paul puts it this way:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
We love that verse for weddings, but less so when we have to live it out. When we have to be patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered, not keeping a record of wrongs, always protecting, always trusting, always hoping, always persevering… we realize how much love costs us.
Love costs us more than we have the capacity to give, and yet what we are invited to give will forever pale to what Jesus’ love cost him.
So love is not a good thing, at least not as we understand “good”. Love is not for our benefit or perseveration; it is for “abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.” When we live out love as Jesus defined and demonstrated it, people will know that we are his disciples, because no one else would be crazy enough to give up what his disciples do.
The rich ruler had committed his life to being good, believed that Jesus was good, and knew eternal life was good. The moment he realized the true “good” would cost him everything, he walked away. We believe loving others is good, believe Jesus’ love was good, and know that there is something eternal about all of it that is good. The moments when we realize love is costly, we walk away. We walk away from loving our neighbor to protect our comfort; we walk away from loving our enemy because we don’t believe they deserve it; we walk away from loving ourselves because we can’t trust who God says we are; we walk away from a life of love because it will cost us more than we are willing to lose.
We don’t have to walk away; we do need to understand what we are walking toward. If our understanding of love and its cost is too small, we will turn the moment it opposes our desires and understanding. If we, instead, remember that “God is love”, that He has called us to love, and that He can love through us, we will keep walking though we don’t have the capacity, strength, or even desire. We will find that we can love as the Apostle Paul described, not because we are good, but because God is good. Love is good.
In those moments people will not see us: they will see Christ.
Though sinless, Jesus was regularly accused of breaking the Law. Take this account, when he and his disciples were going for a walk on the Sabbath:
At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Here’s the gist: The Pharisees were following Jesus around looking for anything to hold against him. Using their knowledge of the Law regarding the Sabbath, they rebuked the disciples for eating some heads of grain. Jesus’s response indicated he was not only familiar with the Law, but with other moments when it was “broken” by those the Pharisees would honor, David and the priests. He concludes by naming that their lack of understanding led to their condemnation of innocent people.
On one level, the Pharisees had a desire to see God’s law upheld; on another level, they were driven by something else. In other words, their rebuke of the Sabbath law being broken was not because they wanted God to be honored, but because they wanted Jesus to be dishonored. How do we know? We keep reading. They continued to follow Jesus, looking for ways to accuse him of wrongdoing. When they failed, “the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.”
Even if their intentions weren’t malevolent, they were poised to misstep; in their attempt to uphold certain laws, they failed to uphold the heart of the Law.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Scripture says “God is love”, and love is a recurring thread woven throughout the Bible. “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”, to love God and to love others.
So then, who actually missed the mark in the story above? The disciples who “unlawfully” picked grain on the Sabbath, or the men who, in their attempt to “uphold” the Law, failed to love their neighbor as themselves and broke one of the greatest commandments?
Jesus — although knowing they would fail to hear him — tried to demonstrate their limited understanding of both the law and the Sabbath (in Mark 2:27 he says “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”) In fact, misunderstanding and misuse of the Law was a common discussion topic not just for Jesus, but for the Apostle Paul and some of the disciples.
They knew what we fail to remember: we are capable of using the Law to condemn and destroy, rather than to draw ourselves and others to the God that loves us.
We are not just capable: we are actively doing it.
Jesus said, “if you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent,” and even today I witnessed Christians condemning others over their interpretation of the Law and their perception of the other’s “unlawfulness.”
I get it, it’s complicated; how do we rectify what we believe to be clear scriptural mandates with what seems to be ignorance or rejection of them? How do we show love in those moments without feeling like we are compromising or neglecting God’s Word? At what point do we stand for what we believe is right?
I’d like to offer two starting points:
Know your motives
I think we can all agree that there are people who have so strongly held to their stances — on immigration, or abortion, or social justice, or homosexuality — that they’ve engaged in a way that dishonored God. I say “there are people”, because in acknowledging it exists in others, we may be a little more open to owning it can exist in us. In you. In me.
Because it does. Whether small or large, we — each of us — have had moments of being committed to a stance more than we were committed to God. These may be good, just stances, and our logic may be sound, but in those moments our allegiance inevitably shifts away from the Christ who said, “die to all and follow me.” In our pursuit of stances, we can mean well while failing to follow Christ.
The Pharisees were not intrinsically villains. Many of them sought God with their lives in ways that put our pursuits to shame. They lived the laws, memorized the Scripture, and devoted their existence from childhood to seeking and honoring God. Yet, somewhere along the way, many of them lost sight of the God they sought to follow. Whether it was pursuit of power, or reputation, or to a concept of God and His law, they strayed so far that they rebuked, threatened, and killed the son of God.
If the Pharisees could do it, we can too. How might our understanding of God, of Scripture, and of the Law lead us to lose sight of the God we seek to follow? How might our pursuit to defend God’s Law lead us to “condemn the innocent?”
If we are unwilling to check and confront our motives, we are at risk of dishonoring Christ just like the Pharisees.
Stay in your lane
We have all experienced people that didn’t “stay in their lane”. Whether it’s someone interfering with a job or responsibility that is not their own, or interjecting their unsolicited opinion, we know the trouble that can come when someone steps in where they aren’t meant to. Like a person who isn’t a plumber saying, “oh, I can fix that busted pipe for you,” we know they can cause more damage than there was before.
Ephesians 4 explains that some were called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. This passage — among many others — demonstrates the reality that we have been called and designed to function in certain ways. This does not mean that we never function in other ways, though it is important to grasp how we have and haven’t been equipped.
The Pharisees were not called to rebuke Christ, but because of their own understanding and pursuits, they didn’t “stay in their lane.” They took on the roles of prosecutor and judge, searching for ways to condemn Jesus; because this wasn’t the role God called them to, they caused great damage. They misused the Law and claimed they honored God.
Church, we struggle to “stay in our lane” too. Because of our understanding of the Word and personal stances, we have a tendency to take on the roles of prosecutor and judge with those around us.
These are not our default roles. Jesus was explicit about us putting on the judge’s robe in Matthew 7: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
James 4 is just as blunt: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?“
Has God called some to judge? Yes. In specific cases, with great responsibility and often with risk. In other words, it’s a role you want to honor if God calls you to it, but not voluntarily commandeer.
Here’s where we get tripped up: “What if someone is doing something wrong or is dishonoring God; if I don’t do something, aren’t I condoning or allowing the wrong?” We are afraid if we don’t confront perceived wrongs, things will get worse.
This betrays a limited understanding of God. Think of it this way: you are downtown and you see someone robbing a bank. It is wrong; but do you intervene? No; unless you are specifically trained and called for that, you do not try to stop it, but instead call those who are. Your lack of direct interference does not condone it, but allows those designed for that task to step in; it also keeps you from interjecting yourself and making matters worse.
Police are equipped to deal with bank robbers: God is fully equipped to address Law-breakers.
We treat judging and condemning others as actions that don’t carry ramifications. They do. If we aren’t called and equipped for it, we are like a bystander confronting bank robbers: we could get someone injured or killed, and make the situation worse. The good news is that just as the bystander’s role in that moment is to contact the right people, we have the ability to contact the One with all power and authority.
So what has God called us to? He has called us to be “Ambassadors of Christ”:
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
2 Corinthians 5:20
To be an ambassador is to be a representative. An ambassador of a country represents that country in a foreign land; an Ambassador of Christ represents Christ while being “in but not of the world.” Strong’s Concordance describes it “as someone respected as trustworthy (loyal, knowledgeable), especially in the opinion of those they know (belong to).”
God has called us to represent Him in the world. Just as an ambassador does not have the authority to unilaterally judge, but conveys issues to their leader to take action, ambassadors of Christ are not meant to be the judge, but convey concerns to God, the Judge. Because, again, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you–who are you to judge your neighbor?“
So when we use the Law to condemn others, we are not honoring God, but swerving out of our lane into God’s. That’s a head-on collision we will not win, nor will those around us in the vicinity of the crash.
Out of fear of losing their power and authority, a misunderstanding of scripture, or something else, the Pharisees took on dangerous motives and did not stay in their lane, leading to — at best — dishonoring interactions like that in the grain field, and — at worst — the murder of the son of the God they desired to serve.
If we are not careful, fear of losing something — our way of life, power or reputation — a misunderstanding of scripture, or something else, could lead us to take on dangerous motives and stray from our lane. In our efforts to uphold the Law of God, we can break the greatest commandments. In our desire to honor God, we can dishonor Him.
Let’s be clear: the question you should be asking is not “is my stance right?”
The “rightness” of your stance is too simplistic a way to engage a complex reality.
Introspection is needed. Right now, think about the things that are driving you, the stances that are important to you, and the current actions you are taking; ask yourself:
Am I operating outside of how God has called and equipped me? Am I serving as a judge? What unique lane has God given me the privilege to serve in?
How can I genuinely check my motives? What personal desires or opinions could allow me to justify motives that could dishonor God?
Above all, how can I ensure I am loving God and loving others? How can I ensure I am loving the living God, and not a concept of God?
These are just examples; you can ask what you’d like in order to engage in honest and humble introspection.
None of us wants to be like the Pharisees who condemned the men who were literally Christ-followers, and condemned Christ himself, believing all along they were right; until we own the reality that we have functioned in that way, we are destined to continue.
Fortunately, the same patience and grace Jesus extended to the Pharisees, he extends to us. He will reveal our misunderstanding and offer an invitation to a better way; will we have ears to hear?
1 Corinthians 7 contains what seems to be a blatant contradiction in back-to-back paragraphs.
In verses 17 through 24 we find a clear call to remain as you are:
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.
24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
1 Corinthians 7:17,20,24
Between these verse are specific examples of conditions that one may have been in that should not be changed.
In the very next paragraph we find what appears to be contradiction:
29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
In other words: “Remain who you are but also don’t.”
Contradiction is not new within Christianity, though we struggle to navigate and understand it because of our desire to hold to our own logic and will; because “the wisdom of God is foolishness to man”, what appears to be contradiction to us may make total sense spiritually. To understand these verses and the presumed contradiction we have to name and push against the human logic that led Paul to write these words.
At the core, we are dealing with identity and expectation, and their capacity to influence our engagement with and commitment to God.
1 Corinthians was, in large part, Paul’s response to a long list of questions from the believers in Corinth. They wanted Paul to tell them how to function in an array of specific situations — sexual desire, marriage, bond-service, circumcision — because they wanted to make the right choices.
We’re like that too, right? We want to make the right choices, and find ourselves tripping up on the various elements of life that demand decision. If we make the wrong decision — we fear — we may be rejected by God or others.
Paul spends his letter humoring some of their concerns, but ultimately sends this message: This is not about figure out the rules and learning how to play by them; this is about a right understanding of Christ and how to step towards him, and a right understanding of ourselves.
After all, Paul had spent the first part of his life living by the rules and doing everything “right”, and utterly missed the mark. Paul wanted to free them from focusing on “what” to focusing on “Who.”
So when we hit verse 17, Paul is addressing a body of people who believed they weren’t good enough to approach God; something about their life needed to change before they could be in ongoing relationship with the Creator.
This is for several reasons. Some had been told by other spiritual leaders that they could only be true believers if they were circumcised. Some believed their state as a bondservant diminished their value, and that they needed to be free — to be better — to be free to follow Christ. There were many mixed messages regarding if the single or the married had a clearer line to God. In all, how they identified themselves and/or the expectations they perceived — internally or externally — created a barrier between them and accepting a relationship with God.
Paul basically tells them “come as you are.” It’s like he is saying, “you don’t need to be a different person in order to be received by God; He accepts you here and now. Don’t focus on what you should become or do, focuse on being with Him.“
This is our struggle too. We may see our present life as lesser, and decide that a life with God must look and be very different. If I don’t become something different — if my life looks the same as it always has — then something is wrong.
Don’t be mistaken: we are not talking about continuing to live in sin. We are talking about the pressure to show something of our lives; we desire that at the end, we can say, “look who I became, look what I accomplished… see, I was a good Christian!”
What is a good Christian? One who fills stadiums with a gospel message? One who transforms communities? One who writes profound books? One who’s name is remembered?
Or is it simply one who follow Christ?
The bondservant who remains a bondservant for the rest of his life, but follows Christ, will hear “well done, my good and faithful servant” just as clearly as the Apostle Paul. Packed stadiums, community impact, meaningful writings, and a legacy can all be wonderful things, but are not what define us; they are simply a bonus. You don’t need to become something to live the life God is inviting you to live; you simply need to be who you are in His presence.
However, Paul throws a curve ball in the next paragraph, saying we shouldn’t live as what we are.
Paul is merely addressing the same core issues: identity and expectation.
When Paul says, “let those who have wives live as though they had none”, it seems like a heartless call that would destroy marriages. Is he condoning neglect or infidelity? Of course not, he is merely tapping into the heavenly logic of Christ, who said:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.
Jesus was not condoning hatred, but breaking the bonds that attach us to human identity and human thinking. Unless a young engaged man breaks his bond with his parents (“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”), he cannot fully embrace being a man and husband. Yet the breaking of that bond does not end the relationship with his parents; in fact, it can make it stronger and more mature. You can compare this to the trope of the “man living in his mom’s basement”; there is an unhealthiness to his engagement with that bond that can actually harm both parties.
Each of those relationships Jesus mentions points to an identity we hold — as son/daughter, spouse, parent, sibling — that can bind us to expectations. When we take on a new identity, we break from the old and its requirements. In the same way, when we understand our right identity in Christ, we break from the old and embrace new expectations; and as with the married man above, our former relationships and roles can actually strengthen and mature as a result.
Paul shares the same, essentially saying, “The time is short, so don’t bind yourself with identities and expectations that can keep you from identifying entirely with Christ. Whether married, mourning, rejoicing, wealthy, or engaged with the world, don’t let a single one of those take precedence over your identity in role in Christ.“
So we find in this chapter not a contradiction, but an emphasis on a core reality: Our right identity is in Christ, as Ambassadors of Him and children of God. Human logic, the world, and our own minds will tell us we must become something to be worthy of God, but God says to come as you are. And human logic, the world, and our own minds will tell us not to neglect or diminish who we are in the world, but Jesus says “die to all and follow me.”
In the end, these calls are not contradictions, nor an acceptance of a lesser lifestyle or neglect of responsibilities; they are the path to a deeper understanding of who God is, who we are, and the way to discover a full life.
About 80 years ago, a science fiction author named Isaac Asimov wrote a series of stories based on the creation of intelligent robots and their engagement with the world (some of you may have seen the movie based on his works, I, Robot.) Asimov wanted a way to provide a structure and purpose around these created beings, so he eventually crafted a set of rules by which the robots were bound:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
While the stories explore a range of ways the robots engaged with these rules — from following them to their detriment to finding loop holes to break them — generally these defined who they were and how they were to function, as well as provided a safeguard for those around the robots. A robot could not harm you for no reason, and it must follow its mandates.
This is important because of the immense power the robots possessed, and their capacity to cause harm. First, the robots possessed incredible strength, were resistant to attacks that would harm others, and could not feel pain; this meant that on a physical level they were a formidable force. Second, the robots possessed incredible intellect, as their “brains” were literally super computers; this meant that they had access to information and knowledge that mere humans could not attain, at least not easily or quickly. If the robots decided to rebel, they’d be hard to stop, and the destruction would be devastating.
So there were laws that dictated that their existence was not about themselves, but the good of others.
If you are a Christian, this should sound familiar.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
We — created beings made in the image of God — were imbued with access to incredible strength— think of the feats and miracles of the likes of Joshua, David, Sampson, Jesus, and so forth — and infinite wisdom — God has allowed people to know and grasp truths they never could on their own.
In addition, we were given the gift of authority on the earth:
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
We possess both immense power and the immense capacity to cause harm. It is not difficult to prove this: Cain killed Able, the people of God repeatedly did horrendous acts, the Pharisees killed Jesus, the Crusades killed millions, Christians enslaved and oppressed others, and most recently Christians helped storm the U.S. Capitol in the name of God.
Our gut instinct is to say “They are not us. We would never do that”, but history says otherwise: historically, God-followers and Christ-followers have been attached to the most horrific moments in human history.
So God created laws that dictate that our existence is not about ourselves, but the good of others. These define who we are and how we are to function, as well as provide safeguards against our natural, broken inclinations. “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. ‘All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
When we decide to follow Christ, we are committing to abide by these two laws; every thought and decision thereafter must not be engaged independently but considered from the core foundation of “love God and love others.” This is what makes us who we are — Children of God — because this is how God’s creation was designed to operate. This is what gives us purpose, because we cannot accomplish the Will of God outside of the Ways of God. This is what allows us to reflect Him, rather than ourselves.
These laws go against our broken nature; we are prone to reject them for our own will, ways, and preservation. God knew this.
That’s why, unlike Asimov, Jesus didn’t provide a third law, “A Christian must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.” Jesus actually said quite the opposite: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” Yet so many of the actions of Christians are based in protecting our own existence, whether our actual life or our way of life.
Jesus does not force us to choose death, because forced death does not address the actual issue; Jesus didn’t want us to die, but to “die to self”, to our own will and ways. He knew that unless we did so, our application of the two greatest commandments would be but a dull reflection, limited by what we are willing to give in the moment. If we die to all, and have nothing left to give ourselves to, we can fully give ourselves to authentic love of God and others; it will no longer matter what it costs us because we’ve already given everything.
Unfortunately, we too often operate in the appearance of “children of God” while not abiding by the laws of children of God. We make decisions and stances that are a version of loving God and loving others while missing the mark. From that space we can do all manner of awful things, and remain convinced we are right.
As we near the end of the movie I, Robot — spoiler, in this paragraph — we find that the robots were operating within a version of the laws while missing the heart. While the law said they must protect humans, they realized humans were harming each other; in order to save humanity, the robots decided they must kill certain humans. They found a loophole in the law that allowed them to pursue their understanding of their purpose and goal, and in so doing, went against how they were originally designed.
Church, too often we have found loopholes in the laws God gave us, allowing us to pursue our understanding of our purpose and goals, and in so doing, we go against how we were originally designed. It is why it is fairly common to see Christians vilifying and insulting each other, pursuing paths that dishonor God, and stepping into spaces they never would have otherwise.
Like the robots, we have gotten so focused on a specific understanding of the Creator’s will that we no longer look to or listen to the Creator Himself, even as we actively seek Him. We tighten our grip on certain stances, certain outcomes, certain methods, giving more and more to those, and as a result less and less to “love God and love others.” We unintentionally defy the very laws that give us life, and willingly take a wide path that leads to death.
Interestingly, our denial of our true identity does not lead to God rejecting us as children of God, rather us rejecting that identity. Our refusal of His Will and Ways leads us to function like the prodigal son, who took the blessings and lived his life, at the detriment of himself and others, and the heartbreak of his Father.
Yet the story’s end is available to us as well: if we humbly own that we have taken the wrong path, turn, and submit ourselves to the Father, He will meet us on the road with profound love. The prodigal son was utterly humiliated and broken, and so had nothing left to hold instead of his Father’s hand; he did not have a secret stash or a place in the city he could return if things didn’t play out like he wanted. No; he was ready to be the lowest servant in his Father’s house for the remainder of his life, because he knew servitude with the Father was far greater than freedom within his sin. And the Father lovingly restored him.
Will we let go of those things which have shifted our focus from God? Are we willing to release the things that are important to us — even the truly good things — so that we can fully hold to Him? Are we willing to confess and repent the many, many ways we have chosen ourselves over Him? If we do, He will meet us.
I, child of God, must decide if I want to give up all to embrace that beautiful identity. We, children of God, must decide if we want to invite unity to embrace that identity as the Body of Christ. When we do, we will find ourselves able to easily live out those greatest commandments, discovering a full life for ourselves and those around us that could never have been attained on our own.
What if our perceptions could lead us to oppose God?
Numbers 13 gives the account of God telling Moses to send twelve spies into the Promised Land, and what happened when they returned.
It begins with God saying to Moses, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.” Moses does, choosing men from the twelve tribes, including two men named Caleb and Joshua. He gave them detailed instructions of what to look for:
“Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land.”
The men go, and after 40 days return with their reports, which basically go like this: “The land is amazing! It has everything we need! And check out this huge cluster of grapes that just grows everywhere in the land! BUT, it doesn’t matter because the people there are strong, the huge cities are fortified, and we’re pretty sure we saw some giants there.”
Caleb, who had seen all the same things they had, quieted the crowd and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.”
The other spies pushed back: “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” They then double down on their report:
“The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”
Numbers 13:32-33, emphasis mine.
Unsurprisingly, the people did not take this well. After crying out and weeping, they lashed out at their leaders and at God:
“Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”
So Moses and Aaron fall down on their faces, and Caleb and Joshua rip their clothes, then say:
“The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.”
How did the people respond?
“Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones.”
In the end, very few made it to the Promised Land. Most chose a fatal path, though they believed it was right, which is deeply relevant to the season we find ourselves in.
Listening isn’t always hearing
As people, we struggle with the difference between “listening” and “hearing.” We can listen to the words someone is saying, but not actually hear them. This is particularly true in how we engage with God.
Take the man of great wealth who came to Jesus to ask how to inherit eternal life; he had spent his entire life listening to what God wanted him to do, but had not heard the heart of what God wanted. The Pharisees were the same, as was the Apostle Paul before his conversion (Saul); they could tell you exactly what God said, and somehow missed the message completely.
In the midst of all the commands, God wanted them to hear the core of “love God and love others”; when they missed that, they missed Him.
Moses listened to God, and did what He said; the spies listened to Moses, and did exactly what they were told. They all listened to what God said — “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel” — but only Caleb and Joshua heard it.
If you recall, Moses laid out a detailed list of what the spies should observe, none of which was found in the original call from God. Some were detailed questions about the land, which may indicate an attempt to determine if the land was worth pursuing, even though God had already promised it was. Others were questions to determine the risk that the inhabitants brought — were they strong or weak, few or many, in camps or strongholds — which may indicate a concern with their ability to move forward. In other words, Moses’ addition may reveal a distrust in God’s perception and protection. God never asked Moses to make determinations on if they should proceed, only to “send men to spy.”
Taking the lead from their leader, the spies understood their task not as giving an objective report, but evaluating whether or not they should even go into the land. They ultimately attempted to make the final call; after seeing the risk, they decided the Promised Land was off the table. God never asked them to do that.
So what did Caleb and Joshua hear that the others didn’t?
“…which I am giving to the people of Israel”
This line is everything. God says “I am giving” the land, which indicates not only that He wants them there, but that He will get them there. While the spies — and as a result the people — saw the risks as insurmountable obstacles, Caleb and Joshua rightly understood them as nothing. “What does it matter if there are strongholds or giants? If God says He is giving the land to us, no enemy can stop us.”
This simple understanding of God and His will is what allowed Caleb and Joshua to feel safe spying in a dangerous land. It is what gave them confidence to speak boldly against the majority of the spies. It is what gave them strength to keep speaking truth when the people turned on them and threatened their lives.
It is also what allowed them to be among the few that made it to the Promised Land. It is what allowed them to cross the Jordan, defeat Jericho, and accomplish countless other impossible feats.
They didn’t just listen to God, they heard Him — understood His heart — and responded from that space rather than their own understanding. It was the only way forward, the only path that led to life and thriving.
How are we not hearing God?
Countless Christians are making choices and taking stances based on the Word of God; they are listening. Have they heard His heart?
We, like Moses, have too often slipped our will into His call. We, like the spies, see the good He promises, but push back when difficulty presents itself.
The story of the spies mirrors our bend toward escalation:
Though they knew the land was amazing, fear led them to overemphasize the danger.
When their fear was confronted, they began exaggerating the dangers; hyperbole was treated as truth.
When the fear was confronted further, disagreement turned into sharp opposition, including verbal attacks and plans to remove the leaders and go a new way.
Finally, instead of owning the effects of fear, they were ready to pick up stones and murder their kin.
We too, when confronted, reject humility and push back. Like the people, in the face of losing our desires or way of life, we turn against those we see as opposition, we question God’s goodness, and we choose our own path. And in the worst moments, we get violent.
I don’t need to list the ways we see this today, because the divisiveness, name-calling, opposition, and attacks speak for themselves. We must ask ourselves: “Though I believe I am listening to God, is it possible I am not hearing Him?”
Knowing our track record, and the fact we are still in process, the answer will usually be “yes”. Are we humble enough to accept that, and obedient enough to respond? Are you?
Misinterpreting the Promised Land
Perhaps the biggest reason we listen but don’t hear is because we have our own idea of the Promised Land.
The Israelites initially understood it as a new home that God had promised them, which they couldn’t have found on their own, and was far better than the life of slavery they knew. Somewhere along the way things crept in — entitlement, bitterness, distrust — that reshaped their view of the Promised Land, to the point that they were willing to turn and reject it.
What is our Promised Land?
Many Christians believe it is America. We Christians tend to identify with certain political mindsets — Democrat, Republican, Independent — and become convinced we know what God wants for America and how to get there. This is why there’s an immense spirit of confusion after years of political turmoil; our best efforts are failing to get things where we believe God intends them to be. As a result, we devolve into the progression we explored above: overemphasizing danger, treating the hyperbolic as truth, verbally attacking and diminishing others, and — abundantly clear repeatedly over the last few years — violence.
What if America isn’t the Promised Land? What if our pursuit to make America a certain way is leading us to reject the true Promised Land?
The Israelites were a people who had spent decades seeking God and going where He said — albeit immensely poorly — and who desired to reach the Promised Land. They were a people who struggled to trust God, even though their lives were hinged on it; as God put it in 14:11, “And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” When they were on the edge of the very thing they longed for, fear took over; the greatest reward was not enough to overcome the threat to their way of life and well-being.
As much as American Christians have longed to seek God, we have often done so equally poorly, and we too have come to the edge of the promise prepared to reject it. What is the Promised Land we are failing to see?
It is not a place, at least not as we understand it:
I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
Just as God told the Israelites He was leading them to a new home, Jesus has invited us to a new home. It is not a physical home; it is a home in Him. And much like the Promised land, getting there looks impossible — “take up your cross and follow me” — but the “land” is abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.
“But I have given Jesus my heart, so I’m good, right? Why are you bringing politics into this?”
This mindset reveals just how little we understand the Promised Land Jesus is offering. It is not — nor was it ever meant to be — an individual experience. Jesus invited a Body of people to follow Him and enter in. Your personal relationship is only a piece of the journey
As for politics, it provides a clear window to the other piece of this: like the Israelites, we reject God’s methods. What are the methods Jesus invites us to use? Among other things, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Through Jesus’s words and example, and the words the Helper he sent gave, we get a unique, counter-intuitive picture of how we must live in order to arrive where he is leading us.
So, a simple question: are these the methods the American Church is predominantly using?
Pull back from the natural inclination to think in terms of sides, and instead ask that question of the Body that we represent; are we living out the methods of Christ, to get to the place Christ promised? Or are we rejecting Jesus’s methods as foolish and his destination (see: dying to all but him, being unified with even our enemies as one, etc.) as undesirable?
Here’s the striking bit: there really were enormous dangers in the promised land.
Our understanding of God, ourselves, and what He is inviting us into ultimately determines how we respond to that reality.
The Israelites who did not understand God, themselves, or the Promised Land, saw the legitimate threats, made them bigger, and rejected God and His will, all while convincing themselves they were in the right.
When we as the Body don’t understand God, ourselves, and into what He is inviting us, we do the same. You can easily find articles, sermons, and posts from believers that overemphasize the dangers, slip into hyperbolic language, attack the perceived opposition (including brothers and sisters in Christ), and even justify the most drastic of actions.
“THIS is the danger we must address. THAT is the thing that is destroying the church. HERE is the hill we must make our stand on.”
The Israelites who did this never made it to the Promised Land, but it wasn’t the giants that stopped them; it was the giant of their own fear, above all the fear of fully trusting God with their lives.
Church, the two words I have heard spoken and discerned among believers over the last few years are “FEAR” and “REPENT”; yet the reaction in most cases is to assume those words are for the “other side.” What if there is no “other side” barring us from the Promised Land, but instead our own brokenness? What if it is our own fear — of man, of death, of change, of loss of power, of being wrong — that leads us to go on the defensive against man and God? What if it is us who must repent for choosing our ways and dismissing God’s?
Though there be giants in the land, we have always been our own greatest threat; we have always had a loving God who was bigger than any giant, but our own understanding and own pursuits — not the giants — break that bond.
Let us be like Caleb and Joshua, who didn’t just listen, but heard God’s heart; who held to God’s Truth, no matter how simple or undetailed; who knew they could face the impossible because God keeps His Word; and whose pursuit was not their own desires and security, but God’s will and glory. If we can do that, we may just see that the giants ahead are but grasshoppers, the walls crumble with a shout, and the land is abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.
As he hung, dying, on the cross, Jesus looked at those persecuting him and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” They were doing objectively wrong things, and yet Jesus discerned there was more to the story; he even believed they should be forgiven, though they murdered him.
Forgiveness has been an immensely difficult concept throughout human history. From the moment Adam and Eve believed God wouldn’t forgive them and hid, to the tension we feel today with those that have wronged us, we have struggled to understand what forgiveness means, how we do it, and — more to the point — how we can muster the willingness to do it.
I write this still deep in processing the events of Wednesday, January 6th, 2021, when a large group of rioters — including Christians — stormed the U.S. Capitol Building, leading to the deaths of 5 people. Some went there with the intent to capture, harm, and possibly kill political leaders. Many were at the building displaying the name of Jesus, and claiming the events at the Capitol were God’s will.
To some, the actions of that day are unforgivable. And yet, it seems Scripture calls us to forgive.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.“
Passages like these, though, can be used for deflection by those that want to avoid condemnation. This can lead many to bristle when someone says, “we must forgive!”, as they feel the call is being used as a free pass.
They can also be expressed by those that feel wrongfully condemned. As a peacemaker at heart, I get it; I have had moments of being falsely accused, and wished the other would just let it go. It can sometimes seem that pointing fingers makes things worse, and “forgiveness” makes things better. Sometimes entertaining accusations doesn’t appear restorative.
Yet as I’ve grown, so has my understanding of when to let go, and when it’s vital to press in; when to release, and when to rebuke. It has been heavy on my mind this week.
So how do we respond? Should we forgive? How do we forgive? What happens after?
I won’t answer those questions here; it is too hefty, too challenging, and too important a topic to rush through. Instead, I want to talk about one specific part of this:
“…for they know not what they do.”
What did Jesus understand in this short phrase that allowed him to forgive those that participated in his execution, the most unjust act in human history?
What do you see in this image?
The first thing you might notice is the amazing sunset. Without a doubt, it is beautiful.
Just as beautiful is the reflection on the water.
The silhouetted trees add an artistic contrast to the rich colors around it.
It looks calm and peaceful.
One could be envious that they don’t see beauty like this in their environment. They may desire to pursue it, to make it their reality.
One could look at this image and say, “I want to go there; I want to vacation there; I want to live there.”
If one were to believe so much in the beauty and goodness of this image that they planned a vacation around it, they would be sorely disappointed.
This is the reality.
The immediate reaction to this image is that it is nothing special, and in fact is not an appealing picture. Yet this is taken from the exact spot as the previous image.
What is happening here? The truth is that what we celebrated as good and beautiful was actually immensely destructive, and was never meant to be, no matter how beautiful in the moment. Excessive rainfall in the state led the river to rise the highest it had been in decades, flooding the land around it. While the water did create a lovely reflection of the sunset, it also damaged property and covered the landscape in mud.
You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the first image portrayed a good, desirable thing; the question is, how do we adjust our understanding when we learn what is true?
It’s not hard with pictures; it’s easy for us to say, “Oh, I thought that was a lake or something, and while it is a pretty picture, I can understand that flooding is bad and that it may have caused harm.”
It is much harder when what is in question are our beliefs. What if we have beliefs that seem right and good to us, but are actually destructive?
There was a period of the Apostle Paul’s life that he once believed was good and right:
“The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee.
“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.
Acts 26:4-5, 9-11
Let’s speak plainly about what is described here. Paul had devoted his life — starting as a child — to living in a God-honoring way. This wasn’t just opinion; the standards he lived by could be publicly verified. He was convinced that a man named Jesus was a threat to God, and believed it was his call to do whatever was needed to oppose him. He believed this was supported by a myriad of scriptures he had studied and memorized. The highest spiritual leaders affirmed this, and equipped him to carry out what they believed was a righteous mission.
Paul believed what he was doing was right and God-honoring. He had a lifetime of seeking and studying God behind him, and no reason to question his understanding. He acted on his beliefs in a way that not only seemed right to him, but were affirmed by the highest spiritual authorities.
Then, on his way to arrest Christians, the God he thought he was serving knocked him off his feet and showed him the reality.
And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.“
Whereas he once thought Jesus was just a man causing dissension, the blinding heavenly light and soul-piercing voice revealed without question that Jesus truly was from God. What’s worse, in that moment Paul realized that he had actually been persecuting the very person he desired to honor with all his life.
With great humility — and no small amount of persecution — he turned and began walking a new way. He saw the picture for what it was, and acknowledged the truth:
…though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Paul was well-intentioned and deeply desired to seek God with the fullness of his life… and he got it frighteningly wrong. Yet Jesus still met him on the road, and gave him an invitation. Paul rose and followed, using the reality of his missteps to guide his future steps.
What do Paul’s story, the images of the flooding, and “…for they know not what they do” mean for us today?
Jesus was not dismissing the wrongs of those that were persecuting him, but pointing to a deeper reality. Paul did not ignore the wrongs he had done, but used them to shape how he sought God moving forward; he also dealt with the ramifications — such as abuse from his fellow Jewish people and distrust of Christians– for the rest of his life.
There are many who deeply believe that God wants America to look and function a certain way, and over time — like Paul’s interaction with Christians — belief turned into action, and action escalated. There are some that prayed on the Capitol grounds on Wednesday for God to save the nation, then excitedly broke into the Capitol, then returned home to continue to pray for God to keep going. Their beliefs are like the beautiful sunset reflected on the water: to them a wonderful landscape worth pursuing that actually disguises a destructive flood. Regardless of the good elements, ignoring the destruction of the flooding is to ignore reality.
Not everyone stormed the Capitol; some Christians were actually down the street peacefully praying. Broad sweeps of people can get messy. When Jesus was executed, some joyfully participated, some repented after, and some — like Nicodemus — recognized their complicity and tried to push back against the injustice. And let us not forget that the disciples betrayed, denied and fled. People who previously railed against religious control stood, watched, and cheered on their overreach. Complicity takes many forms, not just the most obvious. Introspection is vital in times like these, because too often, “we know not what [we] do.”
But the events of this week show again there are some — who may believe their intentions are noble — who fight a dangerous fight because they believe God wants the threats to be removed.
Jesus knew the threat of death was not the enemy, and so forgave those that perpetuated it; he knew that they were not demons, but misguided people that had absolutely no clue of the evil they were contributing to. He understood the battle was bigger than what they could comprehend.
Paul owned the reality that while he once thought Jesus was the threat that needed to be removed, Paul and those with him were the true threats all along. He devoted his life to “loving God and loving others” in a way that dwarfed his previous devotion.
In the midst of all this was an incomprehensible grace to hold both the extreme brokenness and deep spiritual realities in tension. It is the first step in the journey toward grasping forgiveness; building the capacity to see the deeper reality and fuller picture allows us to begin to understand how forgiveness is possible, and why it is valuable. It doesn’t make it easier, but it is a start.
My heart breaks for many that I know and love who believe they are honoring God when they are actually causing — or allowing — great harm and dishonor. My prayer is that they will have a moment like Paul, where they can be knocked off their feet by the actual reality of who God is and what He desires.
And my heart goes out to those on the fringes or in the midst, that are struggling to know how to respond. There is a spirit of confusion that can cause the best of us to wrestle with understanding and response.
In the meantime, I press into the tension of Jesus’s example of forgiveness, wrestling with how to see the authentic identity of others amidst the destruction, and trust a deeper reality than that which I perceive. How does one forgive murder and treason? How does one forgive complicity in or justification of those things? How does one forgive evil acts done in the name of God? It is immensely difficult; fortunately Jesus has not left us. We don’t have to figure this out alone.
Over the last few years I have seen an increase in my personal circles of Christians asserting themselves as “Warriors for God”; they observe threats against God and the Church, and feel called to stand and fight.
It seems noble and righteous from a certain vantage point. They are willing to risk reputations and relationships in order to fight for what they perceive is right. To not fight — or to pursue a faux-peace — is to be led by fear and dishonor God.
In fact, Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:34-36 seem to support this:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”
You could push even further that this was not figurative by citing a key moment Jesus called his disciples to arms:
He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough!” he replied.
One could assume there is a biblical mandate to stand and fight against any who would oppose God or His ways.
Of course, to take this position, one must ignore a substantial amount of scripture, including the context of the verses claimed as support.
“They that take the sword will perish with the sword.”
Scripture is full of swords, particularly in the Old Testament. Since we are focusing on “Christians” — Christ-followers — in this context, we will focus on Scripture as it pertains to Jesus and those who followed him. There is enough in just a few verses to indicate the “Warrior for God” that fights against others may not have been what Jesus intended.
We don’t have to go further than the context of the verses above. It seems that Jesus wanted his disciples to have swords, and you can’t blame them for using the logic of, “if he wants us to have the swords, he wants us to use the swords.” After all, why would you be told to get something you won’t be allowed to use?
When the opportunity arrives for them to use their swords — when guards came to wrongfully arrest the Son of God — what happens? Peter does not hesitate to swing his sword at the enemies. Jesus then thanks him for defending him and his mission.
Jesus instead says this:
“Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”
He doesn’t need mere mortals to protect him; he could call down legions of angels. It was never Jesus’s intention for the disciples to arm themselves and fight for him. He says as much to Pontius Pilate:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
Two swords would not have been “enough” to take on a group of armed soldiers, Jesus could have called down angels, and neither option was needed because his “kingdom is from another place”; fighting wasn’t in the plan. So why did Jesus tell them to buy swords?
Maybe that’s not what he was saying. If we look at the context, we find that this “mandate” was said in reference to another mandate.
In verse 35 of the passage in Luke 22, Jesus begins with, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They replied, “Nothing.” Why would he then give a mandate to counter this, and require they secure provision and protection? Had they entered a place of lack?
If we know anything about a relationship with Christ, it’s that the more we come to understand him, the more we recognize that we lack nothing. Psalm 34:10 says, “The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Maybe Jesus was not telling them that they now needed swords, but was emphasizing the original — and continuing — mandate of trusting him.
Think of it like a form of reverse psychology, of saying something that seems counter to his normal message, which he has done before; the hope would be that they would respond by saying, “But Lord, we need nothing but you.” Instead, they were more than happy to take up the provision and protection, because it felt more secure and stable. “Thank goodness we don’t have to take that risky faith approach anymore!” It’s a path we take all too often, trading the unknowns and risk of following God, for the security and stability of doing it the “normal” way.
There is another reason Jesus tells them to buy swords. He says, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’” How did his disciples carrying swords make him “numbered with transgressors”? A better question is, who were the “transgressors” with whom he would be numbered? The context of this passage does not reference Gentiles, or Pharisees, or even the stereotypical “sinners”; this passage is directed to, and describing, the disciples themselves. Could it be that they are the transgressors?
As mentioned above, Jesus had called them to a new way of living but, when given the opportunity, they were willing to return to the old. They were quick to take up their own provision and protection. It goes further; from this moment to his capture, they resisted the hard truths Jesus shared, particularly regarding his death. This resistance bled into other areas, like their unwillingness to take efforts to stay awake as he requested in the garden, and into their responses after he was captured, crucified, and killed, such as Peter’s denial.
And, of course, Peter tried to kill a man with his sword.
“Transgressors” — ἀνόμων — can be interpreted in a few ways, but it basically comes down to “no-law,” (ἀ, “no” and nómos, “law”), i.e. lawless, or disregard for proper authority. Typically, this is assumed to mean sinners, gentiles who didn’t know God’s law, or those who knew God’s law yet chose to do otherwise.
Because we know Jesus came to fulfil the Law, we can rightly assert that whatever he spoke — and called for — aligned with the Law. In other words, if he told the disciples to do something, and they didn’t, it was as good as “lawless” for someone asserting to follow Jesus; it was a “disregard for proper authority.” If that wasn’t enough, one reason Peter’s attempt to kill a guard made him a “transgressor” is because of this very clear mandate from Jesus:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
Jesus hones this further when he said to “love your enemies.” So Jesus’s “call to arms” was not so that swords would be used, but to set the stage for what was to come. Swords were not a necessary tool for defense or attack, but an indicator of brokenness.
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
When we come to believe God wants things to be a certain way, we can make it our personal mission to fight for God around those claims. If we go far enough, we can see opposition — real or perceived — and calls for peace as destructive to the will of God; it amounts to compromise, prioritizing the comfort of others over the righteousness of God. Eventually, we make it clear we aren’t concerned if feelings get hurt; Jesus did not come to bring peace but the sword after all, so it is more important to stand for God than protect someone’s emotions.
While we can be convinced our zeal is rightly founded, we often fail to answer the question, “What if I’m wrong?”
When we pair our assumptions with a believe that God wants us to fight for His will, we can cause destruction to those around us, those we love, and our own souls.
Matthew 10:34-36, when used to justify personal intentions, can be distorted into a stumbling block rather than a revelation. We read Jesus’s words — “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” — and can feel justified in the way we dismiss, accuse, and attack others. We take the text as saying, “I know what God’s called me to, and unfortunately people are just going to get hurt,” and give ourselves a pass to, if needed, be against father, mother, son, and daughter, in both the natural and spiritual sense.
To be fair, Jesus’s words are perplexing here. How can the “Prince of Peace” say ” I have not come to bring peace”? How can the one who affirmed “you must love your father and mother” say that he has “come to set a man against his father… and mother”?
In addition to the challenges of processing scripture that’s been translated from another language into multiple versions, we have the challenge of understanding how to hear and process Jesus’s words. Earlier we explored how Jesus said one thing, and the disciples took it as justification for cutting off ears. At our best, we don’t understand; at our worst, we hear what we want to hear.
And right now, there are people afraid that their way of understanding and experiencing the world is being threatened, and they want Jesus to say it’s okay to fight back.
Is this what Jesus is saying?
We already know that Peace is a part of who he is, so he did come to bring peace. We know that he expects us to love our family, so he isn’t trying to divide us. How do we reconcile this? Perhaps he isn’t explaining what he desires to bring, but what he knows will be. He knows that the Truth he holds is in opposition to the logic of the world, and will be rejected. He knows his invitation to follow costs everything, and will meet resistance. So, by very nature of existing, rejection and resistance are a given.
He also knows that what he seeks to bring will be misunderstood by those who listen. If he says, “Peace I bring you”, he may mean a supernatural eternal peace, but the listeners may hear, “peace from the Roman occupation.”
In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, “I didn’t come to do what you want me to do; in fact, there will be a lot of rejection of and resistance to what I bring.”
What about the sword? Two passages may shed some light on this. First, if Jesus is not talking about a physical sword, perhaps he is talking about something more powerful:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
What does this later scripture have to do with Jesus?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
If Jesus was the Word, and the Word is a sword, then the sword in Matthew 10 is more important than we realize, and the destruction it causes is vital, “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
In other words, the scripture some are using to say Jesus justifies them fighting against others and destroying relationships along the way, is actually scripture about the power of God’s Words to bring transformation. It is not a pass to mistreat our physical or spiritual family.
How do we know? Because that passage ends with this: “And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” How does Jesus call us to treat enemies? “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Those who say, “I don’t care if your feelings get hurt” are choosing their perception of what’s right over the mandate to love.
“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.“
But what if we see wrong things happening around us? What if God is being dishonored? Is there no place for fighting back?
Our error here is thinking God needs us to fight His battles. Some of the most incredible battles in Scripture were based around how little they needed people to succeed. God strips down Gideon’s arm. God tells Joshua’s army to simply march and shout. The Israelites simply prayed and God thundered. God often chooses to use people in His battles, but not in the way we assume.
I’ve come to appreciate Ephesians 6:11-20 in times like these. This is another passage that self-proclaimed “Warriors of God” use to justify fighting against others, as it details being fitted for war. It even mentions a sword! However, though God is inviting us to the battle, it is — again — not in the way we assume.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
Notice that it does not say, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, and strike down the opposition; win the war for God!” What does it say? You are given armor so that you can “withstand” and “stand.” You’ll notice that most of the armor is defensive rather than offensive, and the main offensive component — the sword — we have already noted pertains to a deeper, spiritual use.
Isn’t simply standing weakness? Not at all. Think of the classic movie trope where one person rushes up and punches a stronger person, and the opponent doesn’t flinch; no matter how much they punch, the stronger person just stands there. To stand is not weakness when you know your strength.
When we feel like we have to fight, it is often because we have forgotten how strong God is, and how strong He has chosen to be through us. All those examples above of battles being won were not because of the strength of the men, but because of God’s strength around and through them. We only feel threatened when we fear God may lose.
God won’t lose. It makes me think of the Ark of the Covenant, and the posturing of some Israelites that they had to protect it; think of the man who disobeyed the command not to touch the Ark when he tried to steady it when it nearly fell. They didn’t need to protect the Ark; in reality, the presence of the Ark is what protected them. God was capable of defending Himself; even when the Ark was captured, He made tragedy fall on the captors until they sent it back.
God does not need us to protect Him, or His will, or His ways, especially when our efforts to do so cause us to dismiss other elements of his will and ways, like “love your neighbor.”
In our best intentions, we don’t want God’s name maligned and His will dismissed, but fighting against the perpetrators isn’t the solution. Let’s go back to Ephesians 6; what does it say about enemies?
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
This is why Jesus knew not to fight the guards in the garden, and why he could say, “forgive them, for they know not what to do.” We can see the struggles around us with staunchly human eyes, when in reality something deeper is afoot. When we see things with human eyes, we will apply human logic, and respond with human solutions; in reality, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” If the battle is spiritual, and not against flesh and blood, then — as Jesus noted to Pilate — the human solution may be far from the right one. This is why Paul, as he writes these words to the Ephesians, does so as an “ambassador in chains”; he does not say, “suit up and save me” or ask they pray that he could secure his freedom, because he knows the battle is not about his safety or security.
Paul is suited up and standing in God’s army, even as he is walked to his execution. Jesus was suited up and standing in God’s army, even as he was humiliated, abandoned, flogged, and murdered. They — along with so many others — fought bravely and successfully, without injuring or maligning another, because they had a better understanding of that with which we actually wrestle.
They were not slothful in zeal; they were fervent in Spirit, serving the Lord. Those who take it upon themselves to fight see their fervor as God-honoring, and will hold to Romans 12:11 to justify going further and deeper into their fight against the enemy they perceive; the problem is, there is an important context around that verse:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Surrounding the zeal and fervor are explicit calls to love, to honor, to rejoice, to be patient, to pray, to be generous, and to be hospitable.
Does our zeal reflect this? When we believe we are fighting for God, are we fighting His way for His purposes, or our own?
What does His way look like?
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The war that raged in Ephesians 6 existed as this was written as well. This isn’t a peace-time passage, it is our marching orders.
We justify our fighting as the norm, when it is the exception. We do see Jesus make a whip and drive out the people dishonoring the Temple, but we must remember this was Jesus, who very clearly knew what his Father wanted. Jesus, Paul, and others knew that God could not be defeated — he had already won — and the best way to fight was to stand as who God created them to be.
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”
Peter was ready to fight for Jesus, even to the death: “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” He had a sword, and he felt Jesus had given him permission to use it. He knew there was a battle happening, he just misunderstood both the battle and the enemy. This is why he rebuked Jesus for his strategy of going into Jerusalem (and Jesus then rebuked him); this is why Peter denied Jesus when he thought the threat was too great. He didn’t know the true battle, and the power of God through him to stand.
What was the true battle, and how was God inviting Peter to stand? Since the battle was not “against flesh and blood” — thus the approaching guards weren’t the real enemy — what was the threat? What was Jesus expecting that led him to say “Stay here and keep watch with me”?
Out the gate we know Peter — allegedly ready for prison or death — missed it. Not long after Jesus asked them to keep watch, Peter and the others fell asleep.
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Sure, it was late, it had been a long week, and they had consumed ample wine during the last supper; however, the fact they fell asleep indicates they did not get how serious Jesus was regarding what was about to go down. When I’ve had a paper due the next day, I’ve been capable of pulling all-nighters, even on an exam week; how much more should I be if the person I’m following is about to be in attacked. After all, Jesus had communicated repeatedly what was about to happen, and before he left them to pray, he was “sorrowful and troubled.” No matter how much Jesus had said, and how much they could observe, they missed the importance of the moment.
And here is where we can discern the threat; as Jesus puts it in Luke 22:40, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.“
The threat was within.
Peter was so prepared to attack an external threat that he constantly missed the threat within. He missed it when — after rightly discerning that Jesus was the son of God — he rebuked Jesus. He missed it when Jesus told him he was about to be “sifted like wheat”. He missed it when he ignored the example of the Prince of Peace — who willingly presented himself to the guards — and tried to murder a man. He missed it when he denied Jesus three times.
We all know the classic verse, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” We often think of it as a comparison of sins; “you are calling out that person, but you’re doing bad things too!” This verse reveals depth when we think of Peter in this space. Peter saw the threats of the gentiles, the sinners, the beggars, the Pharisees, and the guards, but he could not see the threat he was to the man for whom he was ready to die.
It is possible for us to genuinely seek God, desire to find Him, and base our actions off of what we think honors Him, and get it heartbreakingly wrong. Peter was more devoted to Jesus that most of us on a good day, and he wildly missed the mark. The difference between Peter and Judas — who also followed Jesus and missed the mark — is that Peter owned his missteps and incapacity, and came back to Jesus. Jesus, of course, knew Peter’s limitations and impending transgressions, and was ready to receive him back after.
Christians, right now many of us, like Peter, believe we are honoring and defending God. We have drawn our swords with zeal in the name of righteousness. And though Jesus has tried to warn us, we are choosing the wrong path. Too many of us have taken up our figurative swords and are slicing ears, not realizing the damage we are causing, and the ways we are dishonoring the One we seek to protect.
God is inviting us to the battlefield, but it is not against the enemy we understand, nor are we to wage war in the ways we understand; the battle is not “against flesh and blood”, and as for the way we wage war:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ
2 Corinthians 10:3-15
I implore you to consider who you perceive is the enemy, and the way you are waging war. There are many issues to confront, and many ways to do so, but only one way — the way of Christ — can have supernatural results and an eternal impact.
This post is not a call to Pacifism; it is not a mandate to never fight. That is not the point.
The point is this: do not use the sword in God’s name when God did not call for it.
Do not claim your insults of another, your dishonoring of authority, your refusal to love, is reflective of Christ when it is not.
We are Ambassadors of Christ, and what we say and do paints a picture of him to others. We can rightly present the God in whose image we are made, or present a god we have made in our own image; we can convey the supernatural love of a good Father, or the condemning rejection of a broken humanity.
Many spiritual leaders — and our own logic — are saying to sell our cloaks and buy a sword. “We are being threatened”, we hear, “and the time to sit back is gone!” Jesus gave the disciples an opportunity to say, “Jesus, we don’t need a sword, we only need you; scripture says you can call down angels, so what is a silly sword in light of that?”
He gives that opportunity today, to choose to trust Him; not our logic, not our pursuits, not our fears, but him. God does not need us to fight for Him, but He has called us to represent Him well by “Loving God and Loving Others.” We can show more bravery, and have a greater eternal impact, by standing as Ephesians 6 calls us, than in our fiercest attempts to fight.
Let us be like the many heroes in scripture, who were willing to stand — and when they did all else, to keep standing — and trust God to thunder.
Our 22 month old son has gotten into puzzles lately. Of course, the only ones he can do are the large, wooden puzzles with a few, clear pieces that fit into clear, specific spots. A few months ago he had no idea the individual pieces were part of a puzzle — the concept of a puzzle itself was foreign to him — and thought they were simply independent toys. Now he knows they are part of something greater, and he is happy to match the wooden cars to the precisely shaped voids on the board.
Generally. Sometimes frustration hits him when the car doesn’t seem to fit. This baffles him, because he feels like he understands the concept, and he’s confident he is matching the piece to the correct space. While most of what he needs is there, his mind can not yet comprehend deeper elements of context, like orientation. He knows, for example, that the long car goes in the top right corner; what he misses is that if the board is upside-down, the top right corner that he needs is now at the bottom left and flipped. He will try and try and try to fit the piece where it doesn’t belong, until I flip the board and it slips right in.
We like to believe that we are further along with our understanding of the world and God than we really are. Like my son, we take the piece we think we know well, and shove it where we are convinced it will go. If our pride is strong that day, we will keep shoving until we throw out the puzzle altogether. Humility allows us to step back and say, “This isn’t working, even though I feel like it should, so what is happening?” Humility frees us to invite help. Like me as a father flipping the puzzle board when my son lets me, our Father sometimes utterly flips our understanding of the world and Him, to show what is really happening.
At this point, I’ve just been talking about puzzle boards; if I opened a 1000 piece puzzle and dumped it in front of my son, he would more likely eat the pieces than put them together. We often find ourselves bombarded with thousands of pieces of information; instead of piecing them together as something all still under the authority of God, we will engage them individually, and mishandle them like a kid eating a corner piece.
2020 offered ample opportunities for this. Too often we found ourselves overwhelmed with the pieces of “pandemic” and “race” and “politics” and “relationships” and “rights” and “desires”, and instead of engaging them from a wholistic understanding of “seek God, and the rest will follow”, we jumped back and forth, disconnected pieces, tossed pieces we didn’t like, and tried to shove it all together into the picture we wanted.
My older son was prone to this when I tried to teach him how to navigate more difficult puzzles. I tried to guide him by teaching him core strategies:
“It looks like a chaotic mess now, but look at this box: this mess is designed to form this picture, we just need to patiently piece it together.”
“If you just grab random pieces and try to find how they connect, you may be searching for hours; instead, start with what is clearer, like corner pieces, and find the edge pieces that you know connect them.”
“Sometimes all you can go off is a single color, but that may be enough to help you see the connecting piece in the midst of hundreds of wrong pieces.”
While he loosely understood, early on he would drop all the advice once his hands got into the pieces. The closest piece would be his focus, rather than the corners and edges. He would push pieces together that clearly did not fit, simply because he wanted them too. Eventually, he’d lose interest in trying to find the picture that was there in the midst of the chaos.
As we grow spiritually, we grow in confidence that we know how to understand God and how to navigate life. Often, we get too confident — even prideful — and begin understanding God and life in ways that look increasingly different than reality. The “smarter” we get, the more off-track and divided we can become.
Meanwhile, God is holding the puzzle box, and gently saying:
“It lookslike a chaotic mess now, but I can see the full picture; I’ve designed your existence — individually and collectively — to form this picture, you just need to trust me to help you patiently piece it together.”
“If you keep grabbing random elements of life and trying to figure them out, you may be searching for years; I’ve given you guidance around simple places to start, from which you can build the rest. Seek first…”
“Sometimes all you have to go off is a singular Truth, but that may be enough to help you see more Truth in the midst of all the lies.”
We like to believe that we are further along with our understanding of the world and God than we really are. Like my son, we go about the puzzle the way we want to, not necessarily the best way. If our pride is strong that day, we will keep grabbing pieces until we throw out the puzzle altogether. Humility allows us to step back and say, “This isn’t working, even though I feel like it should, so what is happening?” Humility frees us to invite help. Like me as a father patiently teaching and demonstrating to my son how puzzles work, our Father desires to walk with us on the long journey to understanding what is really happening.
I enjoy Christopher Nolan movies, and recently watched Tenet. Tenet — and most of his movies — are basically mind-bending visual puzzles. Rather than follow a simple narrative arc, Nolan takes the grand vision of his puzzle, breaks it down, and places elements throughout the movie to create an experience for the viewer, who ends up spending the entire movie trying to understand what is happening.
What makes his movies hit at a different level is that he is not simply using plot twists, but creating entirely new understandings of the world. That means that if we try to understand the movie based on our understanding of, say, time, we will be left baffled by the movie. The only way to understand a movie like Tenet is to release our understanding of time, and embrace the new understanding that Nolan is presenting.
Honestly, people who are looking for a simple feel-good movie likely hate Nolan movies. It is impossible to relax during a Nolan movie, because you have to continually confront your understanding, while trying — often in vain, at least for a while — to piece together what is happening. With Tenet, some of the most important pieces do not come until the very end; this means you spent most of the movie not knowing what was actually happening. What may seem awful to some viewers, is actually exhilarating for others, who enjoy the wild journey Nolan creates.
But if I’m honest, I feel incredibly unintelligent as I watch. Am I the only one that doesn’t get what’s happening? Did I miss something? This dialogue is going over my head; am I smart enough to watch this? Even when I finish the movie, I still have many questions. After watching Tenet, I spent time reading articles and watching videos; eventually I understood what a “temporal pincer movement” was, how the timeline(s) intersected, and what themes and easter eggs were scattered throughout the film. A second and third viewing of Tenet will be far different from the first.
Just as we often want simple rather than complicated movies, we often want simple rather than complicated spiritually. We want a nice, easy, accessible Christianity — one that does not take a lifetime to grasp — and do not want to hear that “the wisdom of God is foolishness to man.” There have been many moments in my life when I was confronted with a spiritual truth that made me feel unintelligent, or a truth that people seemed to understand in wildly different ways; sometimes it was enough to make me upset that God made Christianity needlessly difficult.
This is the equivalent of me getting mad at Nolan for making a “needlessly difficult” movie. To that, Nolan could reply, “No, I made the movie I envisioned, which you are not forced to watch; however, I am inviting you to watch it, and I believe — with time and effort — you can discover the same vision that inspired me.” The problem isn’t the difficultly of Nolan’s movie, but my response to the challenge.
In the same way, the issue isn’t that Christianity is “difficult”, but our response to the challenge of discerning and living it out. God could reply, “No, I created a reality that is good, which I am not forcing you into; however, I am inviting you to a deeper understanding of life, and I know — with time and effort — you can discover the deep Truths that lead to a full life.”
We like to believe that we are further along with our understanding of the world and God than we really are. Like watching a complex movie, we can feel lost and frustrated by confusing plots and dialogue. If our pride is strong that day, we can leave the theater and call it a bad movie. Humility allows us to step back and say, “This isn’t making sense, even though I feel like it should, so what is happening?” Humility frees us to invite help. Like me choosing to finish the movie and then scouring the internet, our Father has patiently invited us to keep going and given us access to community to help in understanding what is really happening.
Let me piece this all together.
We’ve explored three puzzles: a simple board puzzle, a challenging 1000 piece puzzle, and a complex puzzle in movie form.
Within each, the pieces are not solely independent, but part of something greater. Our understanding of the pieces — what they represent, where they go, how they fit together — impacts our engagement with the full puzzle. Our understanding of the full puzzle influences our expectations and willingness to engage; if we don’t trust it, or do not think it’s worth the effort, we won’t stay at the table.
Each new level necessitated a new understanding of the world. My youngest child had to see the world not as individual pieces, but as something collaborative and whole. My oldest child had to learn new ways in how to engage and piece together the world, and that there is a picture that it is slowly creating. I had to learn how to break from the 2D puzzles that I knew, to engaging ideas and concepts that were foreign and difficult for me, because my understanding of the world will always be incomplete.
If God is all-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful, then the elements of our lives become pieces to more deeply understand Him — a complex puzzle beyond our comprehension — and thus ourselves and the world around us. As long as we engage these elements as independent from God, or understand God as untrustworthy and seeking Him as not worth the effort, it will be hard to stay at the table. But like a good puzzle or movie — intentionally and intelligently crafted — God has crafted something for us that is abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.
We think we want simplicity in our spiritual lives, but we forget something important: there’s a reason, as adults, we don’t play with board puzzles anymore. There’s a reason our movie tastes change to include more complicated elements. And there’s a reason the Apostle Paul didn’t want the early Christians to settle for simple:
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
1 Corinthians 3:1-3
None of us want an only-milk diet, we want solid food. In the same way, God wants us to understand Him and the reality He created in deeper and fuller ways, because he knows how fulfilling and incredible it will be for us. Yet He will not force us, and He knows when we aren’t ready. As long as the Corinthians chose to engage life in “a human way”, they could not engage it in the way God intended.
Until my sons were ready to engage something new, different, and challenging, they were like the Corinthians, and were prone to throw the puzzle away. As they humbly and willingly stepped into these spaces, the complexity lessened, and they were more confident to step into the next challenge.
For me, I had to be willing to forego my understanding of the world for a new one, which we as Christians struggle with. We want God to be a 2D puzzle in a box, and want to be able to look at the lid to know exactly what to expect. God can not, and will not, be boxed in. Just as Tenet existed on more than just two dimensions, God and His truths are more robust than our simple understanding. We can think we understand puzzles, but I can’t piece together a Nolan movie like my son pieces together a toddler board puzzle. Likewise, I can’t piece together God simply from my human logic.
I had to unlearn and learn certain things in order to engage and grasp Tenet; we have to unlearn and learn certain things in order to engage and grasp God and the life He is inviting us to. So much of what Christ taught defied understanding; his invitations seemed foolish, dangerous, and impossible.
Not only did he teach it, but he lived it, and as others accepted the invitation, they began to realize the way of Christ is not as complicated as it once seemed.
I’m confident that there was at least one pastor near you smiling a year ago as they crafted their new series for January: “2020 Vision!” There was widespread excitement around doing a series with invitations for God to show Himself, and for us to see more clearly.
Not a single one of those pastors saw this version of 2020 coming. And I imagine many Christians were left scratching their heads; after all, they spent the first several weeks of the year getting hyped up to look for God, and they ended up seeing something very different. Many churches presented it as “seeing your victory”, and congregants prayed into life changes, business plans, and other moves for success; many of them may now be sifting through the rubble of those plans.
Easy: God answered our prayers for vision.
Before there is any confusion, I’m not asserting that God caused the tragedies of this year to show us something; getting into the theology around that would necessitate another post altogether. Instead, what I’m saying is this: many people prayed that God would open their eyes, and they are now seeing things this year that they hadn’t before.
The other day I saw a video of a baby getting tiny glasses, and seeing his mom for the first time. His smile communicated more than you’d think a smile could, and the mother’s tears as well. What hit me most, however, is how without the acknowledgement of the vision problem, and the invitation to change it, this child’s story would have been very different.
The child knew nothing other than what he saw, and because he was born with limited vision, he assumed that’s not just how he saw the world, but how everyone saw the world. He knew of no need for glasses.
Were it not for their love and understanding, the parents could have taken a different route. Because they could not see what their child could, they might assume he saw as they did. So when they smiled, and he didn’t smile back, they might think he was upset, or even unkind. When he struggled to learn, instead of a vision problem, they may assume it was a developmental issue, or worse, laziness.
Between their observations and the expertise of an ophthalmologist, they were able to discern the vision problem, and provide a solution.
And then, everything changed.
The world opened up to the child in a way he never imagined possible. And the parents felt a connection with their child that was deeper than they believed it could go. What seemed impossible for the future now seemed limitless, and what had always felt wrong, now felt right.
Coming into 2020, we were that baby. We had no idea how little, nor how poorly, we could see, and thus believed what we saw was exactly as we understood it.
Then our Father prompted us that something was off in our vision. As we prayed, He sent the Spirit as a new set of lenses to see the world. And just like that baby who saw details and intricacies like never before, we were not expecting what we’d see in the months that followed.
I heard someone share that 2020 isn’t creating new issues, as much as it is revealing what was already there. In other words, while there are massive issues — the pandemic, injustices against minorities, the election, wildfires — these are not causing our responses, but rather magnifying them. Things that we could once keep buried, are now coming out for all to see.
This works in both positive and negative ways. For the former, we are seeing strength, compassion, and generosity coming from people who may not have thought they had the capacity to produce anything; biblical love — as my pastor puts it, a love that seeks the greatest good of the other, no matter the cost — is being displayed more than we usually see. For the latter, we are seeing expressions of self-preservation and selfish ambition hitting heartbreaking extremes.
We prayed for “20/20 vision”, and while we hoped we’d see something like on the Mount of the Transfiguration, we are instead seeing what is happening in the valleys and on the streets. Put another way, we are seeing exactly what God wants us to see. However, because of His love for us, He is not forcing us to look.
And this is where the problem can occur.
The best scenario is that we choose to look, and then humbly respond to what we see. Perhaps you had been wounded and became jaded; if you saw something good — love, compassion, generosity — you could choose to trust God and the hope and peace he promises. Perhaps you had been prideful and self-confident; if you saw yourself responding in negative ways, you could choose to repent and invite God to transform you. Unfortunately, these are not our natural responses.
After all, if the baby sees a smile through the glasses, she may be happy to keep them on; but what if she sees something scary? In an episode of “Black Mirror”, technology was developed that could allow a parent to block out anything they didn’t want their child to see. That meant, when they mom’s daughter walked by a scary dog, the child would just see a blur. This was appealing to the mom who wanted to protect her daughter, and is appealing to us and what we want to protect; why would we want to choose to face something awful?
Quite simply, because whether we look or not, it doesn’t change the fact that it is there. The mother learned this the hard way when the daughter couldn’t see something she really needed to; too often, we do not learn this.
In a year when we have seen so many hard things — externally, internally, against or within people we love — we may find ourselves longing to take off the glasses. You may know people who have not only removed the glasses, they’ve thrown them on the ground and stomped on them.
Praying for vision ended up being a dangerous prayer. Twelve years ago, when catching up with my friend “Tennessee Dan”, he asked if I wanted to hear “the most dangerous prayer in the world.” I foolishly said yes.
“Just pray, ‘Lord, show me my heart as you see it.'”
Simple enough. I did it. I didn’t hear anything.
Two weeks later, I found myself frustrated with an array of annoying issues, and, as I pressed in, my response in the midst. I happened to look back in my journal, where I saw a note about praying the dangerous prayer, and it hit me: God was showing me my heart. I don’t remember what the issues were, but I do remember the moment that I recognized the response of my heart in the midst. God very gently and graciously allowed me to see something I had been ignoring up to that point, and fortunately I chose to humbly respond.
In Matthew 13, the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, and he responds,
Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them… This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”
He then continues, “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
What this stirs in us is images of sitting at Jesus’s feet, hearing his wonderful words, seeing his miraculous acts, and having a grand time. This, surely, is what many prophets and righteous people longed to see and here, right?
So, what did they see and hear?
They saw and heard Pharisees threatening and mocking Jesus, making attempts at his life and calling him demon-possessed. They saw Jesus humiliating himself by washing their feet, and heard him talk about dying. They saw him get beaten, flogged, and crucified, and heard his last breath.
After telling them they’d eat his flesh and drink his blood, John 6:66 says, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” Soon after, Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and most of the rest fled.
The vision Jesus gave them seemed too much for them to bear, and far from what they wanted. Most of those that had once joyfully followed him smashed their glasses to the ground.
There were a few, though, that didn’t. Peter likely thought that Jesus would never give him vision again; not only did Jesus welcome him back, he took it a step further. He sent the Spirit, the Helper, who would continue to reveal more and more.
It’s like Jesus was saying, “You couldn’t see the world around you accurately, and so I gave you glasses. Now I want you to see abundantly more, so here’s some night vision goggles, thermal vision, and some goggles that let you see things you wouldn’t understand even if I explained it. You won’t just see the world more accurately than others, you’ll see things you didn’t even know were there.“
God hears our prayers. If you prayed for “20/20 vision”, He heard you, and He answered you; it likely wasn’t the answer you wanted, but it was what you needed to see. Now that you’ve gotten the vision, how will you respond?
Will you close your eyes? Will you take off the glasses? Will you smash them? Will you convince yourself that your vision is just fine as it is? Or will you continue to look and humbly respond?
James 1:23-25 puts it like this:
“Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
If you feel as though you’re vision is just fine, that’s a solid red flag to check yourself; every one of those disciples who left Jesus probably felt the same. The Pharisees who killed Jesus were utterly confident in their vision and devotion to God. Our confidence is often born not from Truth, but self-preservation and selfish ambition. Humility is the key; humility reminds us that we will spend a lifetime learning to see, taking in more details and learning how to process them. If you feel like you see perfectly, you don’t; 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” However, if you invite God to continue to improve your vision, He is willing.
This is good news, friends. God wants us to see the world, to see ourselves, as He sees them; He is holding out the glasses for us to put on. He knows what we see will simultaneously amaze and wreck us, and He will be with us if we choose to keep going.
For years, lies had been spread about Jesus. His abilities and intentions were questioned; he was called a glutton and demon-possessed. Rumors turned to accusations, and accusations to actions. Eventually, he was betrayed, wrongfully arrested, tried before false witnesses, and condemned to execution.
Even improper things can be done in seemingly proper contexts. Knowing they could not kill Jesus himself, the teachers of the law dragged him before the governmental leaders, including Pontius Pilate.
Pilate looked at the situation, and determined two things: Jesus was innocent, and the Pharisees were driven by envy. This should have been enough for him to demand Jesus’s release, had it not been for something else he determined: the people were close to rioting. Even after his wife had a dream that Pilate should stay out of it, he based his actions on protecting his reputation and avoiding chaos, landing on a “safe” approach.
“I have a tradition of releasing one prisoner during the feast. Would you like me to release Jesus, in whom I find no fault, or Barabbas, who started an insurrection and murdered someone?”
The crowds demanded Barabbas be released. Pilate — believing they would not choose him — tried to push back, but in the end, literally and figuratively washed his hands of any association with Jesus execution, whipped him, and released him to the angry crowd.
What influences our choices?
Pilate had rightly discerned that Jesus was not guilty of any crime, and that the Pharisees were driven by envy; not only did Jesus deserve to live, but the Pharisees deserved to be punished for wrongly arresting and beating an innocent man.
So why did he make choices that ensured Jesus’s death?
While we tell ourselves objective facts drive our decisions, this is far from the truth. Truth may play a role, but so do emotions, expectations, fears, aspirations, and a slurry of other factors. Often, those factors can lead us to ignore or denounce objective facts.
Pilate had facts, but he also had a desire to retain power, a fear of riots, and countless other factors playing into his decision to release Jesus to execution. Perhaps he convinced himself that he was innocent of all wrong; after all, the people made the decision, not him. He tried to save Jesus, but they wouldn’t have it. Regardless of his intentions and responsibility, he had the power to save, and instead allowed a wrongful death.
The Pharisees knew what they were doing was wrong; they studied the Law, and knew the importance of integrity and the sin of murder. The goal of their lives was to honor and love God.
So why did they make choices that ensured Jesus’s death?
They knew the facts of Jesus, and many understandably concerned them. However, they were also driven by a desire to retain power and influence, a fear of an uprising, and countless other factors. Convincing themselves that this was what God wanted, they deceptively arrested Jesus, found people to lie about him on trial, and convinced people — people that respected them as a spiritual authorities — to choose Barabbas. They found a way to disregard the clear breaches of their faith, and claim that they were protecting God’s honor.
Days earlier, the people had gathered along the streets to welcome this man that they believed would save them. None of them knew the actual way he would do so, and most assumed Jesus would use force to restore the people. Perhaps they were disappointed when he seemed gentle, weak, and determined to lose. Even so, their hearts had been warmed by Jesus’s words. More, they had witnessed him do incredible miracles; perhaps some in the crowd had been personally impacted by those miracles.
So why did they make choices that ensured Jesus’s death?
While it was not their idea to kill Jesus, they went along with zeal. Maybe they were angry that Jesus was not meeting their expectations, or fearful of what would happen if they opposed the Pharisees, or simply caught up in the mob mindset. They managed to convince themselves that killing an inspiring man and freeing a murderer was good, and boldly proclaimed it.
We are prone to justify bad decisions. Every one of us. And each of us, by default, avoids seeing it.
Three sets of people — Pilate and his authorities, the Pharisees, and the people — justified brutally murdering the most innocent, most loving, most important man in history.
“I would never have done that,” we confidently assert, not recognizing that we are assuming the worst of others in order to protect ourselves. We do not want to believe that there were good, well-meaning, loving people in those groups. We do not want to believe it because, if there were, we have to admit the truth: we, too, could have justified murdering Jesus.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight."
Why does scripture say this? Because our understanding is limited and flawed. We are easily and often swayed by more than objective truth; our ways are submitted more to our preservation and advancement than to God. The result is not a straight path, but one that could easily lead off a cliff.
We are capable of decisions that could cause harm, no matter how good or right we believe we are.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
If we cannot trust our own ability to discern, what can we do?
What could Pilate have done? For one, he could have listened to his wife. Matthew 27:19 reveals what she told him: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.” It is clear this was not a normal dream — she suffered much — and she indicated something that Pilate hadn’t: Jesus wasn’t just innocent, but he was righteous.
When God calls us to “Love God and love others”, it is not simply about praying and being nice to people: God is revealing the framework in which humanity was designed to function. We were designed to function through God, as community. This means that when one of those elements is missing, we malfunction. Pilate did not know God, and so could not access the supernatural wisdom needed to see Jesus fully (just as Matthew 16:17 reveals Peter only knew Jesus’s identity because the Father told him.) And in disregarding his wife’s urgent plea, he declined access to the power of community to help us know what we could not on our own.
For the Pharisees, they sought God, but often sought a form of Him while missing His fullness. Isaiah 58 gives a picture of this:
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
They sought God daily, eager to know his ways, praying, and longing for closeness with God. The rest of the chapter, though, reveals how they not only missed the mark, but they were oppressing God’s children. Their connection with God was loose, which meant they, too, had limited access to the spiritual wisdom needed to discern what was right.
What about community; didn’t the Pharisees function as a robust community? What we consistently miss about community is that it is not meant to solely be a body of like-minded people. 1 Corinthians paints a picture of the diversity of parts within the body, and how if a body was only hands, or if the eyes said to the hands, “I don’t need you”, it couldn’t function. It goes on to say:
But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
The Pharisees were notorious for not having “equal concern for each other”; one of their reasons for opposing Jesus is that he often called them out on it.
Paul goes on to explain the different roles and gifts God placed into the Body of the Church. Why is this relevant? Because if the Pharisees were neglecting parts of the Body, then they were also neglecting roles and gifts that they needed. If they had, for example, listened to Jesus’s prophetic gift, they would have known the danger of their trajectory (and Jesus was very clear with them.)
The people faced an injustice in this; because they were called and expected to honor and follow authority, they were heavily influenced by the mindsets and actions of Pilate and the Pharisees. This is why the New Testament is repetitive regarding the qualities of a spiritual leader; carelessness and selfishness not only take down the leader, but those following him.
They are not off the hook, though. They were given ample opportunities to experience God and discern truth; so what went wrong?
Many of the people wanted to seek God — like the Pharisees — but wanted it in their ways and for their outcomes. For example, some would hear God insofar is it furthered their cause of revolution and liberation. Anything that God said that countered that, they ignored or rejected. So in the crucial moment that they could choose whether Jesus lived or died, they did not hear God’s voice, but those of the Pharisees and their own. They shouted “Crucify!”
And community? All their lives they had been told that only certain people had access to God, and only certain people had access to spiritual truth; if you lived the way they said, and paid in tithes and sacrifices, you may be okay. As a result, there was a spiritual disconnect for many of them; yet it wasn’t total. We know this because of the myriad of examples of people coming to, and following, Jesus; we see the spiritual communities that were formed in countless towns after someone had an experience with Jesus, like the woman at the well. When people authentically saw Jesus, they immediately discovered spiritual community.
The people shouting “crucify” had seen Jesus — they were actively looking at him — but they had not SEEN him. They had not seen him like the woman with the issue of bleeding, who knew even the hem of his robe had power; they had not seen him even like blind Bartimaeus, who saw Jesus more authentically than those who could physically see. This meant they could be a form of a community — physically standing as a crowd and shouting the same thing — and miss the power community was designed to produce. Or more, their community DID have power, but it was used in a destructive way.
You and I are making important decisions right now: as individuals, as communities, as leaders, as churches. We may not feel like our choices are on par with those deciding whether the son of God lived or died, but neither did those people; to them, he was just a man, and his death would be forgotten in a few months. We may not be aware of the eternal opportunities and ramifications that exist with each choice, nor would knowing necessarily impact our trajectory.
That feels like a tremendous amount of pressure! How can we face the day when we could so easily be swayed to make a destructive decision?
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Put simply: Love God, and love others.
Love God: Are we willing to put God and his glory above all else; above what we want, above what we believe is best, above what we think is right? Are we willing to trust His wisdom more than our understanding, even if we will look like losers and fools to others? Are we willing to take His course, even if it seems to amount to nothing, even if it costs us everything?
Love others: Are we willing to humble ourselves to hear the stories and perceptions of others? Are we willing to abandon arrogance and accept wisdom and plans counter to our own? Are we willing to forego self-sufficiency in order to honor the Body? Are we willing to sacrifice rights for the sake of others?
Today, many of us are doing things “in the name of God” that actually dishonor God; we are doing things “out of love for others” that actually cause harm. Sometimes what we are pursuing is not bad, but it has taken a higher seat than God: that makes it an idol. It’s why Jesus said we needed to hate our fathers, mothers, spouses, and even our own lives; anything can become an idol to us, something that we pursue or protect over God.
The beauty is that Jesus is after right ordering because he is after full life for us. In sacrificing these things — pursuits, stances we believe in, our own desires — we are not actually sacrificing them, but sacrificing a limited and fruitless way of seeing and engaging the world. The sacrifice allows us to see the authentic Jesus, and from that vantage point we see all those things — pursuits, stances, desires — in a new, wise way. We are able to discern what is best; we are able to see ways forward that previously seemed impossible.
The irony in all this is that God intended for Jesus to die. He would have been condemned whether these groups genuinely sought God or not; if it wasn’t them, someone else would have condemned. Even if the outcome was intended, it doesn’t mean the specific people needed to be there. While in one way or another Jesus would have been condemned, many — just like Rahab who escaped though her city was destroyed, or Lot escaping Sodom’s destruction — could have avoided playing a detrimental role.
Our spiritual carelessness can unwittingly make us participants in awful things. Whether it was an in-the-moment decision, or a series of life choices, many found themselves in a place where they not only had to make an important decision about Jesus’s life, but they were not equipped or determined to make it wisely. Regardless of their motives or beliefs, they all chose to kill Jesus.
Today, whether because of in-the-moment decisions or a series of life choices, we could be involved in embracing things that cause great harm, to God and others. We can effectively condemn Jesus and believe we are right.
When this happens, what will we do?
Will we pretend we are innocent and non-complicit, like Pilate? Will we justify our actions, like the Pharisees? Will we go with the crowd, like the people? Or will we pause, humble ourselves, own our actions, and discover Truth, even if it breaks our hearts or costs us everything?
This is the invitation extended to us today, right now. There is one God, and He is calling us through a narrow gate; many prefer the wide gate, called there by the many other “gods” in our lives, but that’s not the path to the full life God has promised. We must seek a path towards God, not even towards the “things of God” (“Seek first… and all these things will be given to you as well.”) We have a choice before us:
But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.