Next words of Jesus: Who is it you looking for?

“Woman, who is it you looking for?” — John 20:15a (NIV)

Everyone knows about the seven last words of Christ on the cross. Many churches probably offered musical settings of them some time during Holy Week. Of course, as I wrote in the immediately previous post, Jesus violated everyone’s expectations by his resurrection from the dead. And then he had more to say. Easter Sunday has passed, but not Easter season. It’s a great time to look at the next words of Christ after the cross.

[I recently came across a book by Shane Stanford, The Seven Next Words of Christ: Finding Hope in the Resurrection Sayings (Abingdon Press, ©2006), and acknowledge my debt to it.]

We probably can’t reconcile the four surviving accounts of what happened on that chaotic Easter morning, but all agree that Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Christ. In John’s account, when she saw the empty tomb, she ran to tell Peter and John. In Luke, she reported having seen Jesus. In both cases, Peter saw the empty tomb and didn’t stick around long enough to find out what happened.

John reports that Mary returned to the tomb, saw two angels, and said the same words she had spoken to Peter. They asked why she was crying. In other accounts they asked why she was looking for the living where the dead belong. Since she expected only to finish preparing a corpse for burial, what she saw and heard did not compute.

Like Peter, she was without a clue, even when she turned around and saw Jesus. Supposing him to be the gardener, she said exactly the same thing to Jesus she had said to Peter and the angels. Only when he spoke her name did she recognize him.

Today, we still find a world that obstinately refuses to conform to our expectations. In times of crisis, if we don’t act like Mary, we act more like Peter or John or Thomas,  or Cleophas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. That is, one way or another, we go into shock and it takes a long time for us to get our bearings.

In other words, no matter what we know in the spirit, no matter what we believe or how strongly we believe it, we easily miss the clues all around us that God intends what happened for our good, and not for calamity.

As Jesus came to Mary, so he came to all his other disciples, either singly or in groups. He always spoke the words or asked the question they most needed to hear in order to regain their trust and belief in him–and not only that, but to raise it to a previously unimaginable level.

I am still trying to recover from a shock that overturned my life more than two years ago, but I am no longer reeling. Jesus came to me. Look for him. Listen to his voice. He will come to you, too.

Holy Saturday and dashed expectations

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his admirers expected that he would eventually be crowned king and begin the process of freeing the land from Roman occupation. His disciples expected to occupy important cabinet ministries in the kingdom .

Jesus didn’t behave much like a king. By the end of the week, it no longer looked like he planned to live up to expectations. Perhaps Judas acted as he did trying to force Jesus’ hand.

On Thursday night, Jesus hosted a pre-Passover meal and behaved very strangely and started talking somberly about death. All of the disciples’ expectations and hopes were dashed when Judas led soldiers to capture him. Any remaining hope in the honesty of Jewish leaders and any vestige of trust in Roman justice suffered a fatal blow as the illegal trial resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus died on Friday, the day of preparation for the sabbath. All anyone could do was drag  his corpse to a nearby tomb and begin the process of embalming. So what did anyone expect on that sabbath (Saturday)?

The women who loved Jesus expected to get up Sunday morning and finish preparing the corpse for burial. The disciples cowered in the upper room, expecting to be arrested and tortured themselves. Those a little farther from the center (Cleopas and his friend, for example) considered what to do next after the death of their hope.

The Jewish leaders expected trickery and feared that Jesus could become as dangerous dead as he was alive. They requested a guard from Pilate. The guards expected a fairly routine and possibly boring three days. Once they exposed any attempt to steal the body and claim a resurrection, the leaders expected things quickly to get back to normal.

As Sunday dawned, everyone acted on these new expectations–that is, until a few at a time, they saw him. That dashed everything again. No wonder they had so much trouble believing that Jesus lived once again.

Jesus had a different set of expectations all along. He expected to suffer humiliation and great physical pain. He expected to die, descend into hell, and rise victoriously.

More than that, he expected that his disciples would eventually understand what he had spent three years trying to show them. He expected they would accomplish many things after his resurrection that they could never have envisioned before his death. He expected the church to come together and transform the world as a result of their new understanding and bold commitment.

Things turned out exactly as Jesus expected. Today, we all expect all kinds of things. Hardly anything actually turns out quite as we expect. Jesus still has different expectations. He will not be disappointed.

Jesus, the towel, and us

“The night before Jesus was betrayed, he took the bread. . .” We have probably heard that every time we take communion, but what about, “The night before Jesus was betrayed, Jesus took a towel. . .”? Why is that towel not as much a symbol of Christianity as the cross or the communion elements?

Jesus always surprises because he refuses to act like the rest of us. Before the feast of the Passover, when he knew he would be seized, tried, and executed illegally, he remained calm. He knew that Judas would betray him, but he remained loving. He chose an especially dramatic way to demonstrate  his love. He washed his disciples’ feet.

The disciples acknowledged Jesus as their leader and master, but among themselves, they behaved full of self-importance and desired nothing more than to be acknowledged as great and significant. What impels anyone to do that? Nothing but insecurity.

Jesus took off his outer garments. He removed everything that defined his surface appearance, everything by which anyone could and judge and divide one person from another.

Today, if we see one man wearing bib overalls, another a suit, and another cut-off shorts and a tee-shirt, do we not immediately make assumptions about them? We may not all make the same assumptions, but we make them none-the-less.

Now suppose these same men all go to the gym and come out of the locker room in indistinguishable gym attire. Unless we recognize them from before, we can no longer assume the same kinds of distinctions.

So here’s Jesus, stripping down as much as he dared. He knew and was secure in his true identity. He had nothing to prove to anyone. In that security and confidence, he had the freedom to choose service over making an impression. He took the towel and filled a basin with water.

The insecure disciples found that very troubling. Here was their acknowledged master acting like a common servant. Here was the man with the highest position among them acting less than the lowest.

Had they even noticed the towel and the water basin when they entered the room? Scripture never records that they had servants! If they saw it, did it mean anything to them?

But when Jesus took it up, it upset their entire notion of propriety, based as it was on the  notion that some in society are inherently inferior to others. That, it turns out, was the whole point.

Peter still tried to set the agenda. First he refused to have Jesus wash his feet at all. Then he said, all right, then wash the rest of me, too.

How much of our own communication with Jesus–our prayer life–likewise results from trying to maintain control? From responding with utter incomprehension of his ways? From attempting to look and feel good to the self-concept that Jesus wants to destroy?

In my own insecurity, I am not worthy to hammer this point home, but isn’t it obvious? Jesus wants us to follow his example, not Peter’s.

True spiritual leadership

Christians today find it easy to  hold the scribes and pharisees of Jesus’ day in contempt. If Jesus was so critical, then they must have been evil religious hypocrites, right?

We forget that they were among the most highly respected people in their society. Most of them, at least, must have been sincere and  honorable. Alas, too many modern Christian leaders take after the ones Jesus scolded. (One, of course, is one too many.) When they come under criticism, many of their followers go to great lengths to defend them.

Indeed, religious leaders who live less than godly lives have always presented a quandary.  Jesus’ message, essentially “do what they tell you, not what they do,” means that we cannot make any kind of snap judgment. We must use some discernment.

In recent decades, an alarming number of prominent Christian leaders (and probably many more known only locally) have fallen into some kind of sexual sin. Many people find it scandalous when some of them choose to keep on ministering as if nothing happened. At best, do what they tell you, not what they do.

That, however, is not the problem Jesus dealt with, and that problem remains common today, too. False leaders, trying to seem important, often try to make everyone’s decisions for them. Even preaching from the New Testament, some of them can manage to turn following Jesus into following them. That requires multiplication of man-made rules and distinctions.

True spiritual leaders demonstrate greater concern for service than for titles or position or reputation. Those who get it backwards eventually come to judgment as infected by the world.

Unfortunately, since all have sinned and nearly all of the worst abusers have some spark of anointing, it takes discernment to tell the difference. The best of Christian leaders want recognition, and the worst of them, on some level, care about the work of the gospel.

Godly preaching can come out of an ungodly lifestyle. If you discern an ungodly lifestyle, stop following that person. Why go to the trouble of separating the wheat from the chaff? But if worldliness does not rise to such an obvious level, determine to learn Scripture well enough to be able to rightly judge the teaching. Follow that, but follow what a leader does only to the extent that he or she follows Christ.

Christ’s attitude in us

What could have gone on in Jesus’ mind on Palm Sunday, as he received cheers that he knew would not last. Here was the Lord of the universe, deliberately riding a donkey into an ambush. He knew a judicial miscarriage of justice, an illegal trial followed by an ignominious death, awaited him in less than a week.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder what he thought. Paul tells us all we need to know. Jesus was God in human form: the fullness of deity, the maximum portion of being God that his fully human nature and body could hold.

He had laid aside all of his heavenly privileges to accept his humanity. He lived and died in obedience to the divine plan that sorely tempted him to retake his privileges instead. God the Father has rewarded him with glory and honor far above anything in creation. All creation will worship Jesus and glorify the Father.

God expects us to have the same attitude. Jesus laid aside his divine privileges to become human. We must lay aside our human failings in order to become Godlike. Alas, that means crucifying our flesh, that is, our fallen sin-nature. And our flesh trembles in fear and rebels.

Let’s look at Jesus’ mindset in some other ways to see how we can appropriate it. Jesus most wanted to give, not get. Having everything, he emptied himself for the sake of others. With the help of the  Holy Spirit, we can all keep becoming more giving and less grasping than we are. We can probably look back and notice we’re already  more giving and less grasping than we once were.

Jesus was secure. He knew who he was, but he didn’t have to cling to it. He didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. And it is Jesus, more than anyone else, who wants to be our friend–yours and mine. Unlike many other people, he wants to be our friend more intensely than he want us to be his friend.

Every one of us is secure. If someone else appears secure, he is either exceptionally good at masking his insecurity or we just haven’t noticed how  his insecurity manifests itself. Again, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can imitate Jesus, even if we can’t duplicate him in ourselves. If fact, if we make every effort to pretend to be secure, like Jesus, we will thereby become more secure.

In any case, we can all begin now to do what every created being will eventually do. We can bow in worship. In fact, as we pray in Jesus’ name now, it’s fun to picture the devil on his knees, confessing that Jesus, not he, is Lord of all.

The wisdom and folly of Solomon

People find it easier to start well than to end well. Nowadays, we see it in the tremendous number of anointed ministers of the gospel who fall into some kind of gross sin. (Failures of lay Christians get less press but provide similar evidence.) In the Bible, we see it in the lives of all of the ancient kings that God declared good.

Early in his reign, Solomon delighted God one evening. He asked God for a discerning heart to be able to judge rightly and thus fulfill his kingly duties. Because it is impossible to please God without faith, we know Solomon asked in faith for such wisdom.

God said he would give Solomon what he had asked. That’s an important principle of prayer. Several New Testament passages likewise teach that when we ask in faith, God will respond according to our words.

God also said that he would give Solomon all kinds of things he had not asked for.  Again, that follows an important principle. In Jesus’ words, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you as well.

In Solomon’s case, he did not ask for long life, riches, or victory over enemies, things many a king would have wanted. By faith he asked for wisdom and discernment to be able to judge disputes that came before him. By faith, he received not only that, but the riches and honor that he had not asked for.

Solomon was the richest king of his lifetime, as well as the wisest, the most renowned, and the only one in his entire dynasty who never had to fight a defensive battle. These other blessings were not simply tacked on to his prayer for a discerning heart; they came to him as a consequence of a discerning heart.

Unfortunately, he never personally walked in wisdom. He ruled in wisdom, more or less, but even before his prayer of faith, he launched on the path that would destroy the end of his reign. He made an alliance with Egypt and married Pharaoh’s daughter.

By the end of his reign, Solomon had married many more foreign women: a total of 700 wives and 300 concubines! That amounts to 25 new women every year, 7 or 8 of whom he didn’t formally marry.

They did not become good Jewish believers and settle down to worship the living God. No. They continued to worship their pagan deities and insisted that Solomon build them suitable temples. Not only that, but Solomon started to worship their gods, too.

By not walking in wisdom in his personal life, by not being fully devoted to the living God, Solomon disgraced himself and God in his besotted old age. He lost his moral standing. He grew so distant that even a scolding from God himself could not cause him to repent.

Among those whom God raised up to rebel against Solomon, he chose Jeroboam as king over a majority of the tribes of Israel. And how did Solomon respond to the news? He tried to kill Jeroboam, just as Saul had tried to kill David under the same circumstances.

Solomon, the wisest, richest, most successful king in history played the fool. As a result, his kingdom was divided. Both new kingdoms followed Solomon’s example of turning to pagan gods and called down God’s wrath.

Today, Christians have the Holy Spirit. If we do not quench him, he will empower us to repent as necessary and finish at least as well as we began. That gives us a tremendous advantage over the long list of fallen heroes of the Old Testament. Let us walk in that advantage.

Fear and unbelief while Jesus slept–and more fear when he woke!

Most of the fourth chapter of Mark is devoted to a sample of Jesus’ parables, along with his private explanation of one of them, the Parable of the Sower. The closing narrative amounts to an illustration of that one.

In demonstrating Jesus’ mastery over the natural world, this passage explicitly asserts his deity. Mark has already shown him as healer, as someone with authority over demons, and even recognized by them as the Holy One of God. (See, for example, Mark 1:32-34)

So when Jesus said, “Let’s go across the lake,” the disciples should have known enough to take it as the word of God. If Jesus, who had worked so many wonders in their presence, said they were going across the lake, nothing could prevent them from getting there.

Jesus, exhausted from a long day of ministry, fell asleep. In a way, that should have been a model for everyone else in the boat—not that they should have been asleep, but that they should have been confidently at rest as they went about their various tasks.

But the message of the Parable of the Sower had not registered. In teaching the parables, Jesus the sower sowed the word of God. Even with an explanation to his disciples, we can see that it fell on the path, and the devil came immediately to take it away. When the storm came up, they fell away, offended.

They woke Jesus up and rebuked him for not caring that they were about to sink and drown. He commanded the wind and waves to be calm, and they obeyed his voice. Then Jesus asked the disciples why they were afraid.

Probably no command in the Bible occurs more frequently than “fear not.” Fear of this kind cannot coexist with faith. The disciples thought they were perishing; Jesus didn’t. If Peter and the others had been at rest, displayed the same restful trust Jesus did, they would not have been offended at him.

They still feared when the sea became calm, but it was now a different fear. They were quite comfortable with a human Jesus. Who was this whom the forces of nature obeyed?

The church, too, seems much more comfortable with the baby Jesus, or the kind man who was nice to children, or the corpse taken down from the cross than with a supernatural Jesus who works wonders.

All the ancient creeds insist that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. We we must at least agree with the creeds in order to qualify as Christian.

It’s high time we start to really believe them as well. With Christ’s power at work in his church, we’ll do greater works than he did instead of looking nostalgically back at the Bible and wondering how much is literally true.

Is not his word like fire?

“Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” — Jeremiah 23:29

From the heavenly fire that consumed Sodom to the lake of fire in Revelation, fire serves as a powerful symbol in Scripture. I suppose most people, on associating fire and God, think of hell. Let’s not neglect other meanings.

Christians read, or ought to read, God’s word every day and think about it regularly even without an open Bible nearby. If God’s word is like fire, the Christian certainly does not experience it as hellfire. So what kind of fire is it like?

In Hebrews 12:29, we read that God is a consuming fire–this in the context of removing what can be shaken, with only what cannot be shaken remaining. It appears that God consumes what he removes in the shaking: the temporary, the broken beyond repair, the trivial, etc.

Similarly, Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 3.12) that our works will be tested by fire. Whatever we build on the foundation of Christ with wood, hay, or stubble will burn up, revealing whatever we build with gold, silver, or gemstones, if anything. The fire will both test and reveal our works. It is not hellfire, for even the person with nothing of value remaining is still saved.

Malachi 3:2 introduces another fire metaphor, the refiner’s fire. The process of extracting metal from ore to this day entails putting fire under a cauldron of ore until it melts. At that point the slag, all that is not pure metal, can be removed and discarded.

All of these fire images entail the removal and destruction of something worthless so that something worthy will remain. How do people experience the fire of God? It feels more like abandonment or punishment.

People wonder where is God in the midst of all of this pain? He’s the one that’s causing it. He cares much less about our comfort at any given time than about what his perfect craftsmanship can make of us. We are  his workmanship, his masterpiece. Whether he uses fire or a hammer and chisel, as in the other half of our verse from Jeremiah, it can really hurt while he’s working on us.

At times like that, it really helps to recall that our trials will not destroy us (unless we completely lose faith), that whatever role Satan plays does not matter much, and that God will turn down the heat when he’s finished with a process.

Is the fire a judgment on our sins? Maybe. But here is yet another illustration that judgment is never more than a means to an end. It is a tool he uses to demonstrate his grace.

A squandered opportunity to walk by faith

Perhaps not many modern Christians have read the second chapter of Judges. If you have, you may wonder what it has to do with today. Actually, upon closer inspection, it has plenty to do with today. The  consequences of missing the lesson will be tragic for our society if the church today misses the point.

God came from Gilgal (the place of the memorial to God’s greatness) to Bokim (the place of loss and weeping) to speak with them. Think of it! He had to follow them because they were no longer following him!

He told them that he would never break his covenant with them, but they had already broken it. As the serpent tested Adam, so the Canaanites tested Israel, and with the same result. While Joshua still lived, according to the first chapter, tribe after tribe had decided to collect tribute from them instead of driving them off the land.

So God announced that he would no longer drive the Canaanites out. That illustrates the statement I have often heard, that without God, I can’t; without me, God won’t. The grace of his covenant is free in the sense we can’t buy it or earn it, but costly in the sense that it requires us to be active partners in fulfilling its promises.

How did the people respond to this news? They did not repent and renew their commitment to the covenant. Instead, they wept some, offered a sacrifice, and then went on about their business.

God ordered them to drive out the Canaanites because he did not want Israel to fall into the Canaanites’ sin. The generation that left Egypt died in the wilderness for unbelief; the generation that entered did not teach their children the ways of the Lord or testify to what he had done. Therefore the next generation served the Baals.

Baal worship included harlotry and child sacrifice. It has a painful similarity to the level of sexual licentiousness in our own society. A diet soft drink once adopted the slogan “sinfully delicious.” How could society accept that idea unless it had already elevated sin to something desirable and begun to view good with suspicion?

Within my memory, people were ashamed of getting caught having a one-night stand. Now it seems almost unnatural not to. The promiscuous now face less likelihood of social ostracism than virginity. Harlotry does not refer only to sex for pay or even sleeping around. It also includes using the idea of sex to sell cars or beer or a web domain registration service.

Abortion is only the most obvious parallel to Canaanite child sacrifice. Children who don’t get aborted become targets advertising for junk food and other harmful projects. Society subjects them to TV shows and games that desensitize them to violence and other sins.

Statistically, the church does not differ from the rest of society in its practice and toleration for these trends. Perhaps that explains why it has not been able to mount a credible challenge to pervasive sin. Christian organizations that make their voices heard in standing against socially accepted wickedness find themselves demonized in the media.

Israel compromised with the Canaanites, so God stopped helping their armies. Has God similarly withdrawn his support from the American church? I have no answer.

Where’s the grace here? God allowed the Canaanites to rise up and oppress Israel, but whenever Israel cried out to him, he rescued them. The pattern of sin, oppression, and an undeserved rescue continued for hundreds of years until finally the armies of Assyria and Babylon wiped out the Canaanites. Then Israel returned to the land from captivity and never fell into idolatry again.

So, I don’t know if God has abandoned the church in the same way, but I do know that he will eventually rid the world of sin. Everyone will wonder what they found attractive about it. Life will be so much better without it.

Judas

“What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. — Matthew 26:15

What was Judas thinking? He had followed Jesus as one of the twelve chosen apostles for three years. He had received teaching not trusted to outsiders. He had not only seen miracles but performed them under Jesus’ tutelage.

He had been present when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. From that time on, he must have known that whenever he looked at Jesus, he saw the face of God.

John’s gospel points out that Judas kept the money  for the group. It was certainly John’s view that the money corrupted Judas and that he helped himself to it (John 12:6).

Writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John judged rightly. But Judas betrayed his master to cover embezzlement? Probably no one finds that explanation entirely satisfactory.

Some modern commentators suggest that Judas never quite figured out what kind of kingdom Jesus intended to introduce. According to this view, he thought the Christ should rid the Jewish Promised Land of Roman influence and establish a permanent earthly kingdom.

Impatient that Jesus either did not understand his role or that he was moving to slowly, they say Judas tried to force his hand by going to the priests. Does that satisfactorily explain why Judas betrayed his master?

Perhaps God never intended to explain it to us. Perhaps instead, he intended Judas as an object lesson of the depths to which sin can drive even those closest to Jesus.

If we take our attention from Jesus and place it on our own thoughts and motives, Satan can make almost anything seem right. Perhaps when we look at Judas, God only intends for us to shudder and return to looking to Jesus.