From my notebook, February 2018…
During the 8th Century B.C.E., a holy man named Isaiah said God’s Son would eventually come on the scene. You can read all about this and many other prophecies in the Old Testament. They came true nearly 800 years later when Jesus Christ arrived to save his Father’s lost children.
By tracing Jesus of Nazareth’s family tree all the way back to King David, the writers of the gospel narrative established the Savior’s entrance onto the world stage as a historical fact. The claim that the Holy Spirit resuscitated Jesus from physical death established him as the divine Son of God.
If you muster faith in these two things, you’ve discovered the hidden treasure spoken of by Jesus himself. As a direct result of your faith, your very identity is changed. It’s because you trust him that he grants you, through the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit, the same vitality that conquered the grave. And with your new identity, you give evidence of your faith to others by living a certain way. Don’t overcomplicate this truth.
I write this with the hope of keeping only what is essential about God’s plan of rescue for anyone who trusts him. The Jews were first in line to receive God’s riches for reasons I’ll get into later, and they developed an elaborate system of rules. The plan today is much easier, and it’s open to anyone who hears this good news, regardless of age, gender, religion, or nationality.
Faith is and has always been the secret key. Even with all the rules Moses laid on his people, faith was still the effectual part of the bargain. The very ones who established the strict law for the litigious nation of Israel admitted: “The just shall live by faith.”
On the other hand, there’s a problem. Irrespective of where we are on a historical timeline, simple, childlike faith has always been threatened. For reasons I’ll attempt to explain, atheism seems more prevalent than ever. But the truth is, it’s always been this way.
Thankfully, we’ve never needed advances in technology to discern the existence of an infinitely marvelous God. Turn your handheld device off for a day and spend some time in the quiet stillness of nature. Take in the trees and animals and stars around you. See if you don’t encounter a glimpse of their majesty and ingenuity.
So what’s happening? Actually, there’s a vicious cycle that repeats itself in human history every time we start to forget or deny God. The cycle begins with virtually everyone enjoying a sense of connection with their “Father,” or Source. Then, people get “wise” and deny the Father’s existence, and as a result, make up new rules. Before long, everyone’s living in a self-serving way, and life becomes meaningless. Whether temples are being defiled in ancient Babylon or love turns to lust in modern America, everything gets confused in this sad repetition of events. Regardless of era or culture, once we trade God’s glory for self-made trinkets, we cheapen life to utter worthlessness.
When we ignore God long enough, he leaves. And in losing the attention of our maker, we become truly lost. In our self-loathing, we become more and more evil, inventing ways to harm each other and our environment.
How do you break the cycle in your own life? Start by not judging people as evil. See the futility in criticizing anyone for the way they live, when you yourself harbor your own pet faults, perhaps, even detestable secrets. God knows you, and in his merciful kindness he’ll change you if you let him.
It doesn’t matter where you attend church, whether you’re an evolutionist or a creationist, what you think you know, how wealthy you are, or where you get your education. If you embrace the good news found in the Bible, you’ll be alright.
You don’t have to be perfect, but you need to move the needle. Hearing without doing isn’t in your best interest. Even so-called “moral” unbelievers do what’s right some of the time by nature. Whether they like it or not, they’re affirming God’s existence through good behavior.
Being born a Baptist or a Catholic or a Jew won’t save you. There’s no magic pill or secret mantra or club fee where God is concerned. Those who know the most about theology are, in fact, the greatest danger to themselves. Knowledge tends to make you smug.
Here’s a question for those who know the Bible from the inside out: while you’re telling others how to live, who’s holding you accountable? It’s easier for you to get away with murder since no one suspects you. And what about church attendees who represent nothing of Christ at work or school? How are the lost ones supposed to know how to find their way back to God?
It’s no wonder the world hates God then, and like the poisonous fruits of atheism, this hatred is nothing new. Holy men like Ezekiel called his people out for the same thing when he said, “Thus saith the Lord God, ‘I do not this for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for mine holy name’s sake, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither ye went.’”
Outward appearances like church attendance, or like circumcision for the Jews, are only as good as the behavior behind them. If you’re going to live like hell, it’s better not to portray yourself as a friend of God. Likewise, if you don’t consider yourself religious but you’re genuinely spiritual, you’re as good as “circumcised.” Who’s going to say otherwise? God knows the heart. You know who you are, and you don’t need a church’s approval. The pressure’s off.
So, does it matter whether you go to church, whether you’re a scholar of the Bible or not? Well, sort of. It does make a difference, but not the way you might think.
If you’re an authority on the Bible, you’re indirectly connected to a noteworthy lineage. Abraham, the father of the Jews, was the first honored with the task of revealing the nature of God’s will and works through a “covenant relationship.” How confused would Christians be without the Old Testament to help make sense of the New?
So the Jews were blessed in a unique way. Regardless of the perpetual bad behavior that earned them the nickname “stiff-necked,” God never abandoned them. Why? Because unlike us, God keeps his word. King David said of God, “That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.” If God says it, he does it.
Maybe you’re tempted to think that since you’re no match to the integrity of God, you should pat yourself on the back for making God look so good. As if evil makes God shine. Come on, that’s twisted. Instead, thank God he’s so consistently good, otherwise none of us would ever get better.
So all of us, regardless of religious affiliation or station, are on equal footing with each other: We’re flawed. Again, King David said, “The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.”
That’s iron-clad proof that the Bible we wield as a weapon against others is also aimed at us, the so-called knowledgeable ones. Just because we “know” what’s right doesn’t mean we are.
Thankfully, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel and the rest were right when they preached of the coming Savior. He came on the scene to fix everyone who trusts in him, having proved throughout history that we’re incapable of fixing ourselves and living the successful life that God wants for us. What a generous and astonishing gift, to fix all that’s broken in us if we’ll only trust his plan through the eternal Son, Jesus Christ.
Two-thousand years ago, Jesus died on an altar of sacrifice on our behalf. Those who believe this are made right with God in the here and now. Individual merit has no bearing on this point. God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit did the work for us. Our job is to believe it. We become better people as a result of letting God take the lead.
Step into this reality on faith, and you’re going to be alright, whether you “practice” religion or not. The old system of blood sacrifices may be foreign to us today. The old-time religion that satisfied our grandparents may seem irrelevant. That’s okay. Just as Christianity today looks nothing like the traditions of a small band of believers at Pentecost, the trappings of our religions tomorrow will seem just as different. Therefore, it’s not important whether or not you’re a member of a particular “social club.”
Does this mean all your “righteousness” is canceled out then? No. By reordering your universe with God’s work in its proper place, you’re just further validating your behavior, not to mention the grace of God.
So how do we reconcile the old rules with the new plan? Let’s talk about Abraham, the father of this faith.
You could argue that Abraham deserves credit for building the ultimate brand, but that doesn’t make it so. Moses said, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.”
God’s promise to Abraham that he and his lineage would literally possess the earth had nothing to do with Abraham doing good or applying success principles or chanting the right mantra. The rulebook, as we know, hadn’t been established as such. Abraham didn’t succeed because of his ingenuity, creativity, or his leadership skills. He simply exercised faith in the promise he was given. He stepped in line with God’s plan, and then began his work. You and I should be no different today, except we understand the big picture. Jesus Christ, being the doorway by which numberless nations could graft into the Abrahamic tree, was the crux of the promise.
When you work hard and get paid, it’s a wage earned. If your boss does your job for you but pays you anyway, it’s a gift. The latter is exactly what God’s doing for you right now. He finished a job you couldn’t handle on your own—sonship with him—and his gift is a new life in the ultimate royal family.
King David said, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.”
As I said before, this gift isn’t just for the outwardly religious, or another way to say it, “circumcised.” Remember, it was by faith that Abraham was repaired and made whole, and what’s more, he received this gift before he was circumcised. His circumcision was evidence of the work that had preceded it. Only after faith is exercised are your “temple-building” works worth anything, whether they be outward religious practices or run-of-the-mill good behavior.
If you believe in Jesus Christ, his death, burial, and resurrection, then Abraham is your father. He’s the father of all who accept God’s salvation through Christ while still in the milieu of the old life. Abraham is the father of all who follow Christ in obedience, even when it seems there’s no benefit.
Do you think this faith is difficult? How would you like to be one of Abraham’s clansmen on the day he rounded everyone up for the cutting off of their foreskin? We have it easy.
Let’s look at the alternative. What’s the opposite of this faith? It’s relying on your own goodness in this life with the faith that either heaven in some form doesn’t exist, or that you’ll know the host of the party when you get to the golden gates. Not only does this scenario cancel out the personal nature of the faith God requires, but it puts a heavy burden squarely on your shoulders. You need the gift God offers, for reasons already discussed.
Need another reason why God presents a gift instead of a wage? It’s so that everyone, religious or otherwise, is eligible for it. God made Abraham the father of all the faithful, not just Israel. In Genesis 17, God says, “For a father of many nations have I made thee.” God named Abraham father, not only before he actually was a biological father, but also while Abraham was ninety years old!
You really think your faith is so hard?
Just as Abraham trusted that God could animate the dead (Sarah’s womb) and make him a father, and as his faith made him righteous before he acted outwardly with circumcision, we are also called to trust that Jesus Christ the Son vanquished death and the grave for our wrong actions.
Why fight it? You can trust it even before you straighten up the messes in your life. He wants to perform a spiritual resurrection in you by making you alive through faith, not obedience. Obedience comes second and has nothing to do with the miracle that God wants to do inside of you.
Faith in Jesus is the doorway to peace with God. Instead of letting the problems of life get the best of you, why not learn a little patience? Patience builds character. Good character sharpens our senses, making us alert to whatever may come next. This is a glorious give and take as God blesses his faithful through the Holy Spirit.
Can you imagine dying for a worthless criminal? Can you imagine how uninspiring we are as specimens and recipients of such a selfless sacrifice?
Now that all is good with God through the blood of his Son, there should be no more talk of conflict with him. After all, he put us on good terms when we were at our worst. Just think of how expansive and wonderful life would be if we were on our best behavior.
Our first father, Adam, started the problem. Through Adam’s sin, all people are separated from God and given a death sentence. The full extent of the problem was clarified through Moses: Sin causes separation from God, and this is much more devastating than mere physical death. Through Jesus Christ, everything is reversed. Written laws do nothing but create more lawbreakers. Grace, on the other hand, breaks the chains of sin and death. Sin has no chance against this radical forgiveness from God.
Here’s where obedience and good behavior come in. Now that you’re free, choose to keep your freedom. You already know from experience that sin enslaves you. When you go under water in baptism, this is a picture of your old life being nailed to a cross and thrown into a grave with Jesus, ending the misery that sin produces. Emerging from the water is your resurrection with Jesus, the cessation of death, and your entrance into a life of grace, light, and a new life with the Father. You’re dead to the slavery of sin, alive in the freedom of God. Keep your freedom by obeying the command of your new master.
Talking of freedom is a great way to remind ourselves what’s at stake. We all know that the more selfishly we live the worse our life seems to get. This is because acting against God and our neighbor naturally diminishes our freedom to enjoy the fullness of life. How different it is to reside as a free agent in God’s kingdom.