In his classic book Holiness (you can read it here for free), J.C. Ryle, a 19th-century Anglican bishop who once thought Christianity “one of the most disagreeable occupations on earth, or in heaven,” tells the real life story about a perplexed, irreligious English traveler and a Native American convert to illustrate how those who know Christ as the Redeemer who paid for the forgiveness of their sins are compelled to tell others about him and what he’s done for them.
In the story the Englishman asks the Native American Christian why he “talks so much about Christ,” and the Native American man’s answer is a vivid, apt representation of what Christians believe Christ did, for those who would believe in him, by his death and resurrection. I believe his answer may also be a helpful illustration for those who have asked such questions as, Why won’t Christians stop talking about Jesus? Why don’t they keep their faith to themselves and why do they insist on telling others about things like sin, damnation, forgiveness, and…Jesus? Why are they so worked up or even obsessed about this man who died two thousand years ago? Read the Native American man’s answer, and then ask yourself: If you believed that God through Christ has done the same for you, wouldn’t you be wanting to tell the whole world about it?
“Man,” said a thoughtless, ungodly English traveller to a North American Indian convert, “Man, what is the reason that you make so much of Christ, and talk so much about Him? What has this Christ done for you, that you should make so much ado about Him?”
The converted Indian did not answer him in words. He gathered together some dry leaves and moss and made a ring with them on the ground. He picked up a live worm and put it in the middle of the ring. He struck a light and set the moss and leaves on fire. The flame soon rose and the heat scorched the worm. It writhed in agony, and after trying in vain to escape on every side, curled itself up in the middle, as if about to die in despair. At that moment the Indian reached forth his hand, took up the worm gently and placed it on his bosom. “Stranger,” he said to the Englishman, “Do you see that worm? I was that perishing creature. I was dying in my sins, hopeless, helpless, and on the brink of eternal fire. It was Jesus Christ who put forth the arm of His power. It was Jesus Christ who delivered me with the hand of His grace, and plucked me from everlasting burnings. It was Jesus Christ who placed me, a poor sinful worm, near the heart of His love. Stranger, that is the reason why I talk of Jesus Christ and make much of Him. I am not ashamed of it, because I love Him” (301).
In his book The Message of the New Testament (Crossway 2005) Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (full disclosure: I’m a member here and love it), helps us see how in the Gospel of Luke we encounter a Jesus whose manliness is expressed in a special concern for the vulnerable: namely, women and children. This is striking because it runs counter to the popular image of a “man’s man” who is usually surrounded by other “manly” (I use quotes not because I don’t believe men can be manly, but because the way manliness is often portrayed is so superficial) men and concerned with “more important” things than those affecting women and children. Keeping in mind that in Jesus the fullness of God was made manifest (Colossians 1:19), Jesus’s manliness is also a good reminder that women and children are of great importance to God, and that if they are not to us, then that is to our shame.
“Jesus did give much time to discipling men. Yet Luke’s Gospel shows he had great compassion and concern for women as well. To see this, consider first Luke’s attention to Jesus’s infancy and youth. He recounts the celebration shared by the two pregnant mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, as well as Mary’s song of praise following the angel’s amazing announcement. It is also hard to miss the fact that John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, appears to have had more faith than his father, Zechariah. Mary’s faith is evident as well in her song of jubilation. She trusted and believed.
“…Chapter 10 highlights Mary and Martha’s friendship with Jesus. As Martha busied herself with meal preparations and Mary sat and listened to Jesus’s teaching, Jesus invited Martha to give attention to his teaching as well (10:38-42). Of course, inviting a woman to sit and learn was a radical idea in those days.
“…All told, Luke refers to more women than any other Gospel. This might reflect something about Luke, but it also reveals something of what Jesus considered important” (85-86).
Simply put, “Jesus taught and exemplified love and benevolence toward women when too often they had been ignored or abused in the name of religion” (87).
Jesus also showed a “special awareness of children”: “He healed children (8:41-42, 51-55). He said they should be welcomed (9:47-48). He described them as recipients of God’s grace in understanding (10:21). He even rebuked his disciples for keeping the children from him, and then pointed to them as models of trust (18:17; cf. 17:2).
“What other religious leader has been concerned with children? Perhaps you are a Buddhist or a Muslim, and you know of such stories involving Buddha or Muhammad. But I have not yet seen them, and I have looked for them. Jesus seems to have been unusual in his attitude towards children” (87).
- What do you believe is the most important thing about God?
- What kind of father did you have?
Do you realize that every time your father loved you – such as by putting thought and energy into making sure you were protected, or embracing you and forgiving you after you did something you weren’t supposed to do, or giving you that toy or dress you’ve wanted, and delighting in watching you receive it with joy – he was reflecting God? And even those, like me, whose fathers were absent, or worse, abusive, have seen this phenomenon of the created being reflecting a perfect Creator because we have seen fathers act like this – that is, as they were meant to act. (I have been especially blessed by the care, counsel, and example of many fatherly figures who at different times were to me the father I didn’t have.)
But compelling as they are, these images are mere shadows of God, who “before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.” From Michael Reeves’s Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (InterVarsity, 2012):
“… The most foundational thing in God is not some abstract quality, but the fact that he is Father. Again and again, the Scriptures equate the terms God and Father: in Exodus, the Lord calls Israel ‘my firstborn son’…he carries his people ‘as a father carries his son, disciplines them as a man disciplines his son’…
“… Since God is, before all things, a Father, and not primarily Creator or Ruler, all his ways are beautifully fatherly. It is not that this God ‘does’ being Father as a day job, only to kick back in the evenings as plain old ‘God.’ It is not that he has a nice blob of fatherly icing on top. He is Father. All the way down. Thus all that he does he does as Father.” (21-23)
In Can I Really Trust the Bible? (The Good Book Company, 2014), Barry Cooper offers a compelling series of arguments for the historical reliability and truth of the Bible. Cooper puts forth several types arguments – historical, logical, philosophical – but my favorite type of “evidence” he gives is the living testimony of those he calls “Bible-shaped” people. The best part of this for me is that I know many people like this. They’re many of the people at my church, and they were among those in the church where I used to attend before moving to the District. Some aren’t from my church but were part of the campus ministry my wife and I were part of in college. What they all share, as Cooper writes, is a love of God and others that is informed by what the Bible says about who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ. But enough of what I think. Below, see what these “Bible-shaped people” – who do exist! – are like:
“As people look for certainty that the Bible really is from God, they sometimes miss what seems – to me at least – to be very persuasive evidence.
“The most Bible-shaped people I know are a wonder to me. You don’t hear much about them in the media because their lives are self-sacrificial and other-centered. They love tirelessly and genuinely, in the background, under the radar. They want to find ways to encourage you or mourn with you or give you practical help. They are patient. They are kind. They take their Bibles seriously, but not themselves. They know how to laugh. Engage them in conversation, and they want to talk about you. They don’t pelt their Facebook feeds with mock-humble pronouncements of their own greatness. And when others say that Christians are bigoted or stupid, they don’t lose heart or respond with anger. They carry on, quietly loving and serving others.
“The most Bible-shaped people I know have been men and women who opened their homes and their lives to me. They spent time with me. Loved me when I was at my least lovable. Some of them, having no education to speak of, spoke with a wisdom that left me slack-jawed. During periods of depression, when I was seemingly unreachable, they sat patiently with me, they put their arms around me. They never lost patience, they never lost hope. They called me to throw off the sin that so easily entangles, but they weren’t shocked or self-righteous about any darkness they saw in me, because they acknowledged it in themselves. Love like that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. It isn’t self-seeking, or easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs.
“I’ve only ever seen love like that in two places. I’ve seen it in Jesus. And I’ve seen it in the most Bible-shaped people I know” (75-76).
BONUS: Here’s a funny promotional video of Barry Cooper talking about the book, the “most yellow” that’s ever been written.
One of the amazing things about the Christian faith is that it presents a God who is almost embarrassingly extravagant in his love for his people. This, despite the far-from-lovely character of his people, who’ve exchanged his glory for lesser things, including ourselves, and scorned his patient mercies and entreaties to repentance. Yet this – the gospel – is at the heart of the Christian faith: that God gave up his only Son, Jesus Christ, to not only forgive his enemies, but to adopt them as his own sons and lavish his riches upon them. And in all this, God is joyful and exultant. This is the wonderful truth that John Piper brings out in this passage from The Pleasures of God (Multnomah, 1991):
“Jesus uses [the story of the Prodigal Son] to help us feel the force of what it means to have the Father rejoice over us with all his heart… He illustrates what happens in heaven by telling a story about a father who had a wayward son who left home and squandered all his inheritance. The son comes to his senses while feeding pigs in a far country, and decides to go home and seek mercy from his father. He heads home and, as he goes, prepares a speech something to this effect: ‘Father, I’m not worthy to be called your son; so maybe you would let me live in the servants’ quarters and work and eat with them?’
“As Jesus tells this story you can feel the energy of love building as he shows how the father rejoices ‘with all his heart’ over the boy’s arrival. While the boy is still a long way off the father sees him and his heart warms with compassion (v. 20). He doesn’t hold back and watch to see what the boy looks like; he bursts out the front door and starts running down the road. Now don’t miss the force of this scene. Well-to-do, dignified, aristocratic, aging men don’t run, they walk. They keep their composure. They show that they are on top of their emotions. But not in Jesus’ story about God’s joy over his people.
The father runs. Can you see them both running? Or maybe the boy was too stunned to run. Perhaps he couldn’t believe his eyes. Maybe the smell of pigs was still on him. Maybe the thought flashed through his mind to turn and escape this utterly unexpected demonstration of affection. But he does not turn. Jesus say the father embraced him and kissed him – pig smell and all. Can you see that embrace without feeling the emotion? I can’t. Maybe that’s because I have four sons…
…But I think the emotion goes deeper than that. I know I am that son in Jesus’ story. And I cannot comprehend that the Father in heaven – the great and glorious Creator of all the universe and Sovereign over all things – throws to the wind all dignified self-consciousness and runs to me and embraces me and kisses me, as though – no! it is no fiction – rather, because he is happy with me. He is glad with all his heart that I am part of the family. This is why I cannot see that embrace without pausing to let my eyes and throat recover.”
Prayer is essential for the Christian. It’s the mark of a meaningful relationship with God, and a daily, even constant, necessity: it’s as vital for the soul as food and water are for the body. It’s also a wonderful privilege, for it means that you can talk to the Creator of the universe at any time and with complete honesty; you don’t have to pretend with God – you can come to him just as you are!
Concerning the time of prayer, Scripture and the testimony of countless saints in the history of the Church commend the early morning as an appropriate time for extended prayer. The Gospels show Christ rising early, “while it was still dark,” to pray to God the Father, giving us not only a clear example but impressing on us our great need for prayer, since even Jesus, the perfect man, felt the need to pray. This prayer was also key to the power and peace which followed Christ through all his activity, showing how one may be very busy while remaining peaceful and focused at heart. I believe this is what the great German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was getting at in his book, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Augsburg, 1970):
“The entire day receives order and discipline when it acquires unity. This unity must be sought and found in morning prayer…the morning prayer determines the day. Squandered time of which we are ashamed, temptations to which we succumb, weaknesses and lack of courage in work, disorganization and lack of discipline in our thoughts and in our conversations with other men, all have their origin most often in the neglect of morning prayer.
“Order and distribution of our time become more firm where they originate in prayer. Temptations which accompany the working day will be conquered on the basis of the morning breakthrough to God. Decisions, demanded by work, become easier and simpler where they are made not in the fear of men but only in the sight of God” (64-65).
When’s the last time you went out of your way at work to help someone?
When someone at work asks you for a significant favor, do you first think about how doing this favor will help you advance your own interests?
Are you frustrated because your boss or co-workers don’t give you the recognition you think you deserve?
In the theologically-grounded and practical book The Gospel at Work (Zondervan, 2013), Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert show why being accepted by Christ means we really are free to serve and do good to others at work without expecting recognition or personal gain. They write:
“It’s incredibly difficult to find someone who simply wants to do good to others. As somebody who is working in order to love God and love others, you can be that person. You should be that person! Why? Because all that you really need is already secured for you by Jesus. It’s nice to be appreciate by your boss and respected by your peers. But everything you think you need that appreciation and respect for – affirmation, love, acceptance, a sense of well-being, future reward – is already yours in Jesus. You are freed from having your identity tied to what people think about you. You are free to serve them without an agenda” (53).
So it was a significant event in my reading life when, as I turned the last pages while sitting in the plane during our recent flight, I realized I had found my favorite book: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Harper, 1954).
This was actually the second time I read this book. I first read it two years ago, in preparation for a fellowship program that I didn’t end up doing (I got married instead!). The first time I read it, it was excellent. But it was as if I took a few bites, tasted it. The second time, I enjoyed the full meal, and it was so rewarding that before I finished it I was already anticipating the next time I would read it.
Bonhoeffer – a German theologian and pastor who was murdered by the Gestapo for plotting to assassinate Hitler – wrote the book while teaching an underground seminary in Nazi Germany. He instructs on doing life together in Christ, as a community of Christians or as a family, and deals with topics such as prayer, common devotions, daily work, solitude, and serving one another. It’s a small book, running just over a hundred pages, but it is rich in wisdom and practical instruction. If you want to grow as a member of your community or your family, I cannot think of a better book you can read than this one.
Here are three excerpts to pique your interest. More posts will follow.
“Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts” (29).
“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30).
“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door” (38).
From J.D. Greear’s Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (B&H, 2011), this is a four-part prayer aimed at saturating oneself in the truths of the gospel. As he says, “There’s nothing magical about this prayer. It’s not an incantation to get God to do good things for you,” but “simply a tool to help you train your mind in the patterns of the gospel. The point is not the prayer; the point is thinking in line with the gospel” (40).
Pray this consistently, and watch how God transforms you:
“In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less.”
“Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.”
“As you have been to me, so I will be to others.”
“As I pray, I’ll measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”