Shout for Joy
As Jesus and his disciples approached the town of Nain they were met by a funeral procession. It was an especially sad affair because the deceased was the only son of a widow. When Jesus saw the mother, his heart was moved with compassion. Reaching out, he touched the coffin and the procession came to a stop. Jesus simply said, “Wake up,” and the corpse sat up and began to talk. Then Jesus presented the boy to his mother and the crowd could scarcely believe what they were watching. They raised their voices in prayer and news of this event spread like wild fire throughout the countryside.
Two things are important: the first is Jesus’ compassionate reaction to human sorrow. The mother had lost her husband and this made their son the only family she knew. Now he was gone and she was alone. Jesus saw the sadness in her eyes and was deeply touched by her anguish. This personal concern alone is an example of tender compassion for the heavy of heart, but it didn’t stop there; he hadn’t yet done all that he could. Reaching out, Jesus touched the coffin and the procession came to a halt. Then Jesus told the dead son to rise to life. He did and Jesus presented this “newborn” to his mother. The emotion Jesus displayed was not for the effect it might have on those watching but was a genuine reaction to her need.
This brings a second observation: genuine compassion led to action. Emotion is not for the benefit of the one responding but is the inevitable response to need wherever it occurs. One cannot care yet s tand idly by in a time of misfortune. If compassion is nothing but an emotion, then it has been stripped of its essential meaning.
What if we were part of a funeral procession like this? Would we speak kindly to the sorrowing mother? Would we check to see if her every day needs were being take care of? Would we drop by to spend a bit of time with her? Would we make sure that she knew we would be praying for her in her time of bereavement? If so, then our compassion would be real and we would be doing what our mentor Jesus would.
In discussing the state of the Jewish people, Paul rejects the idea that God had abandoned his people. To prove it, he reminds them of Elijah who complained, “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me” (v. 3). And God’s answer was, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”
In other words; it may look bad, but remember, I am still in charge.”
In times of difficulty we tend to lose hope. Our analysis of the situation leads us to think that whatever the problem, it’s still here and probably getting worse. That mindset does nothing, but to enlarge the problem. Elijah had run away and was hiding in a cave because Jezebel was threatening his life. They have killed the prophets,” he said, and “I am the only one left. Now they’re trying to kill me” (I Kings 19:10, 14).
Where there is no hope the atmosphere grows dark. What’s needed is for hope to spring anew in our experience. Without confidence in the future we are trapped in the discouragement of today. A contemporary author, Robert Fulghum, writes that “love is stronger than death” and that ”hope always triumphs over experience.” Elijah was bereft of all hope as he sat sulking in that cave on Mount Horeb. He needed to reflect that even in his dire situation – or should we say, specifically when hope is lost – one needs to remember that God is still in charge. Hope is a necessary ingredient in handling the perplexities of today’s world. To lose confidence in what you once held to be absolutely true is to enter the world of uncertainty. God being who is, especially in a difficult situation, one can’t question his helpful presence without undermining the confidence that brought you to Christ.
So, if you are in a sort of Elijah–in-the-cave situation, take heart because, “hope does not put us to shame (Rom. 5.5), in fact, “since we have such a hope, we are very bold” (2 Cor. 3:12). While the Christian faith does not prevent us from making mistakes, it always helps those who will listen to find an answer. In connection with today’s international affairs, apart from hope we would have just cause to take our prayer shawl to the chapel and plead with God for divine protection. But because “God’s got it all in his hands,” as Johnny Watson sings, we can rejoice. To question God in the larger issues of life is to deny that he’s the one he claims to be. So, cheer up! There’s hope in Christ for the hopeless of this world. Join us in the songs of freedom.
The first story in the gospels where Jesus is seen taking action is found in Luke 2:41-52. On that occasion he decided to remain in the temple to discuss theological issues with the rabbis while his family left for home. They had all gone up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and now they were returning. Late in the day his parents noted that Jesus was not with them, so they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple in serious discussion with the religious leaders. Jesus had decided that being in “his Father’s house,” asking and answering questions of the rabbis, was more important than returning with the family. But now he went back to Nazareth with his parents and “continued to live under their authority” (v. 51). The text adds that he “grew in wisdom and stature, gaining the approval of God and neighbors” (v. 52).
You might ask at this point, “What is it that we could possibly learn from this incident that would help us live as Christ did?” After all, even as a child he was the incarnate Son of God, and we are miserable sinners at best. I think there are at least a couple of lessons in the story for us today. First, by remaining behind to talk with the rabbis, he is saying that the spiritual concerns of life are more important than all its secondary issues. I’m not suggesting that we should view Jesus as a super spiritual young man with an extraordinary longing to be a religious leader. There is nothing in the evidence that would suggest that. He was simply a young man with a deep desire to know more about those issues that were central to life. To be like Jesus in this sense is to make the most of every occasion that offers us the chance to learn something of spiritual importance.
A second observation is that while this experience placed him, for the moment, at the center of attention, it did not go to his head. It did not change his responsibility to “live under his parents authority” (v. 51). The normal reaction of youth would be to make the most of that privilege at the expense of responsibility. It could be argued that a boy whose insight into spiritual matters was that high should be free from normal childhood obligations. The mature Christian recognizes that being a child of God does not relieve us from the normal restrictions of life. It is true that we are citizens of another country (the Jerusalem above) but for the time being we live under the authority of the land we used to call home.
After reading what Paul wrote so beautifully about salvation in Romans 10:9-10 one wonders what more can, or needs, to be said. One thing that should be emphasized is that everyone comes to God in the same way. “There is no difference” says Paul, “between Jews and Gentiles.” The nation that God created for himself (Israel) as well as every other group you could name, comes to God in exactly the same way. As Paul puts it, God “blesses all who call on him” (v. 12) and that blessing is that they “will be saved” (v. 13). The sad story, however, is that not all the Israelites accepted the good news; and that leads to some important words on the nature of faith and the “word of God” (v. 17 ff).
Some, however, do believe, and that asks how is it that faith arises? Paul answers, “Faith comes from hearing the message,” or as the NEB has it, “Faith is awakened by the message.” Although it is true that faith is our response to the gospel, it is also true that the message itself makes faith possible. God is at work even in our response to his gracious offer of forgiveness. Now that is remarkable! God not only brings us the message, but he helps us to believe what we are hearing. The message is about life from death and therefore in certain ways is outside our normal existence and requires spiritual insight and understanding.
Paul goes on to say that the message is heard “through the word of Christ,” that is, it is Christ himself who speaks when the gospel is proclaimed. All effective preaching is accomplished by God himself. The messenger is at best merely the instrument used by the Holy Spirit as a necessary part of the process. It is God’s own voice that confronts the sinner and offers reconciliation. This existential reality is what constitutes the gospel, “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16). (Much of this discussion builds on the summary chapter of my The Essential Nature of New Testament Preaching, Eerdmans).
So, as the good news is proclaimed throughout the land by faithful messengers, it awakens faith because it is God himself who is speaking to human hearts. Imagine, you and I are part of this spiritual process in which God himself speaks to the heart of man, awakening the faith that will transform their lives and prepare them for eternity. Not only are the listeners blessed by God, but we as well, share with him as part of this incredible experience.
Many years ago when I was teaching New Testament Survey in a college freshman class, I had a student tell me that since Jesus was God there was nothing he didn’t know or couldn’t do at any time in his life. I pressed him a bit and learned that he thought that when Jesus was a baby he just pretended not to know everything since the opposite would be hard to explain. The student didn’t know it, but he was holding to what theologians call the “hypostatic union,” the doctrine of the two natures of the incarnate Jesus (divine and human). It stems from the time of Athanasius (a fourth century bishop of Alexandria) and was adopted as orthodox at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 BC. In simple terms, the student didn’t want his Jesus to be like the rest of us. It amounted to a denial of the humanity of Christ.
While informed believers accept the doctrine of two natures, there is, at the same time, a tendency to view Jesus as essentially divine and only acting like a man from time to time. In the account of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44) I notice several very human reactions, things that you and I might do, but not characteristic of how we tend to view the actions of a divine being. Jesus had heard that his dear friend Lazarus was ill, so after two days he decided to go to Judea to see him. The fact that he waited two days has furrowed many a brow, but one thing is sure, putting it off is more like man than God. The text says that Jesus “loved Martha, her sister Mary, and Lazarus” (v. 5). The mention of each person emphasizes his love for them individually; the imperfect tense in the Greek text suggests a continuing state. Since Jesus was both man and God, which one did the loving? Or was it both?
Later in the account, when Jesus saw Mary and her friends weeping, he was “deeply moved in spirit and visibly distressed” (v. 33). A moment later when they invited him to come and see the body he “burst into tears” (v. 35). Once again I ask, was it God himself incarnate that couldn’t control his tears, or was it Jesus the man? I am not a theologian, but I understand that even today there is a difference in opinion on this issue between the Reformed and the Lutheran traditions. The important point for us is that Jesus cared. His concern for a dear brother taken so quickly affected him deeply: “He wept” (v. 35, the shortest verse in the New Testament.)
I do not believe in sentimentality, but the way Jesus lived tells us not to brace ourselves against an honest expression of emotion when appropriate. To care for the welfare of a friend facing death may move us to follow the lead of Jesus and give way to tears. While some have thought that Jesus’ tears were due to the gloomy sense of loss prevalent at the moment, I choose to understand them as the tears of “one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet did not sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Talk about the good news! This simple formula for salvation is the clearest I know of anywhere in scripture. It tells us the two things we are to do in order to be saved. If this and this, then this; that is, “you will be saved” (v. 9). Verse 10 then restates what’s going on when you do what verse 9 recommends. So, let’s examine what God says about the way to be saved.
First we are to declare that “Jesus is Lord.” Not simply a Galilean peasant who had some excellent ideas about loving your neighbor, but “Lord.” The Greek kurios , used in the Septuagint for the Hebrew Yahweh, is here applied to Jesus. There is no more exalted title. He is “Lord,” and that means that his authority is absolute, unlimited, and universal. By confessing him as kurios we place ourselves entirely and without reserve under his authority to carry out without hesitation whatever he may choose for us to do. It’s an all or nothing at all commitment. In Paul’s case it led to severe danger of every kind (in 2 Corin. 11:23-27 he lists prison, flogging, hunger, thirst, etc.). It is a serious thing to acknowledge Jesus as Lord!
The second part of the formula is to “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” The belief required for salvation is not a mild acquiescence to an ancient confession. To believe with one’s heart means to commit oneself at the deepest level to the truth as revealed and experienced. Biblical “belief” is conviction. You do not believe that your house is on fire if you don’t do something about it. You do not believe that an elevator is safe if you’re afraid to get on it. You do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead if it doesn’t change the way you live your life. To put it theologically – justification requires transformation. Put simply: If you believe that God actually raised Jesus from the dead and declare that he has absolute control of your life, you will be saved.
Verse 10 amplifies the previous verse by pointing out that genuine belief comes from the inner recesses of a person’s being. People believe (in a biblical sense) only that which moves them to take the necessary action. Both mouth and heart are involved in the process; as one requires the heart the other involves the mouth. The person who genuinely believes in the resurrection of Jesus will openly acknowledge that basic truth. Silent belief is questionable at best.
How wonderful is God’s provision for our salvation. On that brutal and humiliating cross he died for each of us. To believe it actually happened moves us to freely acknowledge him as Lord before all
Luke records the story of Jesus in confrontation with the religious authorities of his day. A Pharisee had invited Jesus to his home for dinner and was surprised when his guest did not wash his hands before eating. It was a Jewish custom and if not followed would make a person ceremonially unclean. That Jesus did not follow this practice was certainly not what they had expected. Instead, he corrected them very severely saying that although they cleansed the outside, inside they are full of extortion and wickedness. Then he went on to speak of their lack of justice and their habit of demanding respect in the marketplace. Far from being ceremonially pure, they were like “unmarked graves” that polluted anyone who stepped on them. Realizing that they were being insulted, they turned hostile. As Jesus left they tagged along behind trying to trap him in his speech.
When you read the entire account in Luke 11:37-54 you see how confrontational Jesus was on this occasion. After all, he was a guest at a dinner party. Was that the proper time to address the religious authorities with, "You fools!" and, "Woe to you, Pharisees”! Putting the other person on the defense creates an awkward moment at a dinner party.
Is Jesus teaching us how we are to conduct ourselves in similar situations? Or should we exercise a bit more restraint? Perhaps we should follow his example when he is doing nice helpful things but not when the situation calls for opposition? No, that can't be right. It would leave us the option of doing only what we wanted to do.
I believe the answer is to take a careful look at the principle that lies behind the action. Context is crucial. The way Jesus handled the situation indicates how serious it is to turn the worship of a holy God into a vast collection of legalistic rules. To drive home this point called for some very direct language. The fact that the Scribes and Pharisees were so well versed in the religious status quo made it all the more difficult. When we meet a somewhat similar situation our goal should not be to use the same words but to accomplish the same result. It’s the “Jesus thing to do.”
Romans 10 could be called The Salvation Chapter. In the very first verse we learn of Paul’s deep desire that his fellow countrymen be saved, in verse 10, what they must do to be saved, in verses 14 and 15, how the message of salvation is spreading. For the next several blogs we will be discussing this pivotal doctrine.
Paul was deeply concerned about his kinsmen who sought salvation, but were misdirected. They were “zealous for God” but were seeking his favor in the wrong way. They did not realize that the law, which they prized so highly, did not provide access to heaven. Fully aware of what will happen to the misguided, Paul did his best to stand in their way, blocking their path to destruction. That he prayed so earnestly for them shows how much he cared The message he preached was simple (as is all truth) but powerful because it was God speaking through him.
The question I have is whether or not in today’s church (even the evangelical wing) people are being challenged by the gospel. Is the message of God’s redemptive love in Christ Jesus being told to all who need to hear? My purpose is not to create guilt, but to ask whether in the church we attend are people being told how to go to heaven? My observation is that the contemporary church is more a social group with a religious theme than an army of evangelists intent on reaching the lost. There is absolutely nothing wrong with philanthropic activity and fun times together sanctified by the necessary prayer for God’s help and blessing, but I have real trouble imagining the disciples building elaborate sanctuaries in order to listen to quasi-religious ideas. The early church had an overwhelming desire to tell people how to go to heaven. When was your last altar call, or the last time you sang all 16 verses of “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me?” Okay, things have changed, we have different ways to reach people, but do they communicate the gospel with all its power to change life? Is something spiritual and eternal happening in our church? If we were a business would our yearly profit and loss sheet show that we were successful in reaching our goal?
Paul’s “heart desire and prayer to God” was that his people be saved. Let’s share that central concern for which Christ died, or is evangelism passé? Think about it.
The disciples had just returned from a long and arduous trip proclaiming the good news that Jesus had entrusted to them. The days were so full that they hardly had enough time to eat. So, how did Jesus greet the disciples when they explained how exhausted they were? “Being a missionary preacher is tough work, so buck up!” Well, not exactly. What he said is recorded in Mark 6:31 - “Obviously they were tired so I encouraged them to join me in a quiet place where they could rest.”
What strikes me here is the importance of common sense, not only in the ordinary issues of life, but in the more significant as well. There was nothing more urgent than telling the people throughout Galilee that God’s kingdom was breaking in. Since it was so crucial that every one learn about what was happening, doesn’t that mean that every last ounce of energy and every remaining moment be used to spread the message? So we might think. At least in our contemporary world we would work at it all the harder (and probably solicit donations as well.) But Jesus suggested that they find a quiet place and take a rest.
What does this suggest about how we are to carry out our responsibilities as ambassadors for Christ? One thing that Jesus’ recommendation infers is that, in an ultimate sense, God’s kingdom doesn’t depend upon how diligently we carry out our part of the task. Hard work pays off in earthly pursuits because, as a general rule, everything depends on us. Spend three or four extra hours on the job and we will earn more. Use ever evening and every vacation working on “your book” and your fellow academicians will praise you for your contribution to knowledge in the field. Preach the kingdom message every day of the week and . . . . Here it seems to break down because no longer does everything depend on how hard we work. Along with Paul, we plant the seed, but it is God who makes it grow (1 Cor. 3:6). Jesus was pleased with the disciples’ work, but more effort wasn’t the key to success. It was God stepping in and making their seeds grow. He knows that our enthusiastic involvement is not the key when it comes to matters of the spirit.
Interestingly enough, as they sailed away to the quiet place, the crowd got there first. When Jesus saw them “his heart went out to them . . . they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). So the day was spent in teaching and healing and then at the end of the day Jesus fed 5,000 with nothing but five loaves and two fish. Sometimes the quiet time has to be postponed but let it be Jesus who makes the recommendation.
Paul was deeply concerned about his people, the nation of Israel. That they were seeking God’s approval in the wrong way (by works rather than by faith) brought him “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (Rom 9:2). So, where does he turn for an answer but to the fact that the world is under the control of a sovereign God. Theologian, Wayne Grudem, explains that God’s omnipotence is his power to do what he decides to do, and his sovereignty is his right to determine what happens in his realm (Systematic Theology, pp. 216-17). This basic and powerful truth is clearly illustrated in verses 6-33 of chapter 9. That God is sovereign means that he has complete control of the course of history. That being so, let’s reflect on how it affects us some two millennia later.
In our changing world there is one thing that remains steady, and that is God himself and his plan for the human race. We sometimes wonder why bad things happen since he is in charge. And the answer is that having “sons” who freely reflect his character requires the possibility of failure. Nothing short of this will do. God wants real sons whose lives display to the world what he is like. For this they had to be free. Freedom was a necessary qualification and in the first test, man made the fatal mistake. He yielded to the lure of personal gain rather than living within the boundaries of one necessary restriction. Human history records the continuing effects of that sin. But God, by the incalculable gift of his only Son, provided a way of return to all that God intended in the beginning. Because God is sovereign his will must, by definition, be done; and that provides order in a world of conflict.
That sovereignty of God gives us a basic orientation for understanding life. We call it a Christian worldview. Of the various books and articles on the subject, I know of nothing better than James Sire’s excellent work The Universe Next Door. He reviews seven different worldviews and it is clear that, based on mutually acceptable characteristics, the Christian understanding of reality is the most compelling. We begin with a sovereign God and everything flows from that. I believe no one comes to faith in Christ on the basis of logic alone, but it is helpful to realize how consistent is a worldview based on the sovereignty of God. As Sire says, it is intellectually coherent, deals squarely with the data of reality, and is subjectively satisfying.
Much more could be said, but it is enough for me to read and rejoice with Paul about the way God oversees the world that he has created.
Robert H Mounce