Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Category: Jesus Christ

For Love’s Sake

“Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you”.

The apostle Paul, Philemon 8-9

The apostle Paul wrote this to his friend and fellow-Christian Philemon. Philemon was apparently a wealthy Christian who lived in Colossae. He was wealthy enough to own slaves, one of whom was Onesimus whose name meant “profitable” or “useful” (v. 15-16).

If you carefully read Paul’s this letter, it seems that Onesimus ran away from Philemon’s household and may have even stolen from his master (v. 18-19). He wound up in Rome where Paul was imprisoned. At some point, Onesimus met and was converted to Christ by Paul’s efforts (v. 10). Now Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter to effect reconciliation (v. 15-16). 

The wording of Paul’s appeal to Philemon is striking. Legally, Philemon had the right to do pretty much anything he wanted to Onesimus. He could treat him as harshly as he wanted and could even have him executed. Slaves were considered the property of their masters and were treated according to their whims. Onesimus was returning to Philemon at great personal risk. Paul knew this and took a different approach. 

Paul says that he could “order” or “command” Philemon to do right. Paul wasn’t asserting legal authority but moral authority. As an apostle he could have required Philemon to receive Onesimus, but Paul let him choose. He appealed not to authority, but to love (v. 9). 

Doing this “for love’s sake” meant that Philemon should treat Onesimus with brotherly love since now they both were Christians. Paul says to treat him like a brother, not just a piece of property. Hovering in the background is also the love we have for others because of our love for God (cf. 1 John 4.11). 

It’s for “love’s sake” that we rise above ordinary expectation to extraordinary action. For love’s sake a mother stays up all night with her sick child. For love’s sake a man may work for years at an unfulfilling job to support his family. For love’s sake a sibling helps a younger or weaker brother or sister with homework and chores. For love’s sake we help our neighbors with yardwork and errands and paying bills when they’re struggling with poor health, or they’ve lost their job. For love’s sake we sit with the sick and dying. For love’s sake we volunteer for hopeless causes, truly believing that our actions make a difference. For love’s sake we exhort others to faithfulness to Christ. For love’s sake we pray for one another. 

For love’s sake we do all these things and more, knowing it was for love’s sake that God saved us from our sins. That’s a love worth imitating. 

Refreshing

I took out a small trash bag early this morning and was pleasantly surprised at the temperature. It was significantly cooler and less humid than it’s been for some time. My wife’s word was “refreshing.”

“Refreshing” means “serving to refresh or reinvigorate someone” (Oxford). “Making you feel less hot or tired, or pleasantly different and interesting” (Cambridge). “Agreeably stimulating because of freshness or newness” (Merriam-Webster). 

I’m not a hot weather fan, so this morning’s conditions were invigorating, pleasantly different, and agreeably stimulating. I was refreshed.

There’s a pair of words in the New Testament which carries the same connotation. Literally, the words meant cooling or to cool. The adjective (anapsuxis) means refreshing or providing rest and repose. Metaphorically, it means to provide breathing room, relaxation, or relief. The verb (anapsucho) means to refresh. Metaphorically, it means to revive or provide breathing room. Each word is used only once in the New Testament.

The adjective is used in Acts 3.19, where Peter said, “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” He was speaking about faith in Jesus of Nazareth, who was raised from the dead by God. Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament promise and prophecy who brought these refreshing times. Peter was talking about finding rest, repose, and breathing room in Christ. From a lifetime of carrying the burden of sin to a new life of refreshment in Jesus.

The verb is used in 2 Timothy 1.16, where Paul said, “The Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains; but when he was in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me.” Paul commends his friend and fellow-Christian to Timothy for refreshing him while he was imprisoned in Rome. We don’t know the details, but likely Onesiphorus provided food and presence when the apostle was isolated and forsaken by others. 

Apart from Christ there is no refreshment, no rest, no repose, no breathing room. Sin has a way of smothering us and amplifying our misery. As Peter said, there is refreshment available if we’ll just repent and return. 

For those who are in Christ, we must remember what that refreshment felt like when we first experienced it, then make every effort to refresh others. We should want others to experience the breathing room, the rest, and the comfort we have known.

May God help us to find refreshment in his Son and extend it others in the name of his Son.

Not What But Whom

You’ve probably heard the old business adage that when it comes to finding a good job, it’s not what you know but whom. You’ve probably known talented, motivated, and honest workers who didn’t have especially good jobs, largely because they weren’t well-connected. On the other hand, you’ve probably known workers who weren’t talented, motivated, or honest, but who had great jobs because Uncle Bob owned the business, or because Daddy knew the CEO.

Before we decry this as being unfair, let’s apply this to our spiritual lives. Is our salvation because of our talents, hard work, motivation, and skillset? Or is it because of something else? Is it because we know Someone?

Near the end of his life, the apostle Paul wrote, “for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” (2 Timothy 1.12). He doesn’t say “I know WHAT I have believed”, but “WHOM I have believed”. 

Paul wasn’t discounting WHAT he believed, he wasn’t discounting doctrine. In fact, in the letters to Timothy and Titus, he repeatedly emphasizes teaching and believing “sound” (healthy) words and doctrine (cf. 1 Timothy 1.10; 6.3; 2 Timothy 1.13; 4.3; Titus 1.9, 13; 2.1). WHAT we believe is vitally important.

But as Paul approached death, he wasn’t thinking about SOMETHING, but SOMEONE. Someone who knew Paul better than he knew himself. Someone who had never deserted Paul. Someone whose promises and plans would ultimately prevail. 

Paul had entrusted his work, his plans, and his life to God. He says in this text that God would guard whatever Paul had given him for safekeeping. It would be safe until the day that Christ returned to reward his people. For Paul, knowing his redeemer was the ultimate reality (Philippians 3.7-11). Nor was it simply knowing facts about God but knowing him relationally and intimately. 

For Christians, it’s not about what you know but whom you know. Do you know Christ?

The Power of the Resurrection

In 1812 during the Napoleonic Wars, Lord Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington) won a critical battle at Salamanca in Spain. To announce his victory, he sent a courier to England. One of his admirals also attempted to send a message by using semaphore. His message said, “Wellington defeated the French.” Just as the first two words were sent, a heavy fog rolled in, ending all visual communications for 48 hours. In England, all they saw was, “Wellington defeated.” 

When the fog lifted, the message was re-sent, this time in full. The semaphore message & courier arrived at the same time to confirm the victory. What appeared to be a message of defeat became a message of victory.

When Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, his followers were crushed. The one they believed, trusted, and followed for three years died as a common criminal. Their hopes were dashed. 

When the resurrection morning came, they saw the empty tomb and later saw him. What appeared to be defeat became victory.

Ephesians 1.18-21 says, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”

Paul says he wanted the Christians in Ephesus to experience the power of God. This was the same power that God used to raise Jesus from the dead. Think about it! Think about what it would take to raise someone from the dead. What would it take to reunite body and spirit? To not only stop but reverse the body’s decay. To restore the person to perfect health. To reanimate the corpse’s organs and cells. To bring life out of death. That’s what God did when he raised Jesus from the dead. 

Most remarkable of all is that this same power is available to believers. Someday this power will raise our bodies from the dead and prepare us for eternal habitation (Ephesians 1.19-20; 1 Corinthians 15.42-57). This power is what raises us up from spiritual death and its consequences (Ephesians 2.1-10). This same power transforms us from ungodliness to godliness, from sin to righteousness, from darkness to light (Ephesians 4.17-24). This is ultimately the power of God to save (Ephesians 6.10-17). 

However dark and hopeless this world seems to be, Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God. This power can be yours if you trust and obey.

A Daily Dose of Discipleship

Zig Ziglar, motivator extraordinaire, once said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

Ziglar was right. All of us have important daily rituals and habits: bathing, brushing our teeth, checking our bank balance, catching up on email, reviewing our schedule, calling or texting children or parents or siblings, reading the newspaper or watching the news, counting calories, drinking so many glasses of water, etc. We all know that when we stop doing these things, bad habits and bad consequences follow.

What Ziglar says about motivation is also true of discipleship. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9.23). Following Jesus is a daily event. Discipleship demands daily commitment, daily service, daily attitude adjustments, daily goals, daily decisions. 

That means there’s no moment in your day when you’re not a disciple of Jesus. Every action, every relationship, every decision, every word, and everything you do is filtered through the lens of your relationship to Jesus.

When you’re at work, you’re a disciple of Jesus. Whether you’re the CEO, an accountant, an engineer, in HR or marketing, or if you’re making minimum wage flipping burgers, you’re a disciple. Whether you’re dealing with the boss, your coworkers, or your clients, you’re a disciple of Jesus.

When you’re at home, you’re a disciple of Jesus. Whether you’re dealing with your spouse, your children, your siblings, your parents or grandparents, or even your next-door neighbors, you’re a disciple of Jesus. Every day, your relationship to Jesus determines how you treat your family.

When you’re on vacation or on your day off, you’re a disciple of Jesus. If you’re traveling, you’re a disciple. If you’re puttering around the house, you’re a disciple. If you’re by yourself away from the noise and distraction of your normal routine, you’re a disciple. If you’re surrounded by ten thousand other people, you’re a disciple.

All of this means that every day we should remind ourselves that we’ve made a lifelong commitment to the Lord Jesus. It also means that every day we follow through on that commitment. We need a daily dose of discipleship.

Motivation for the Weary

“There is a great deal of difference between the eager man who wants to read a book, and the tired man who wants a book to read.” 

(G. K. Chesterton; English writer, Christian apologist; d. 1936)

If I’m reading Chesterton correctly, he was distinguishing two types of motivation. One form of motivation comes when we’re energetic, when we have a clear schedule, and when we find something interesting. Doing what we want to do when conditions are ideal is easy.

The other form of motivation comes when we’re tired, when we don’t have a lot of time, and when we’re sorely lacking in enthusiasm. Doing what needs to be done, even if we’re not feeling it, is hard. But this is probably the highest form of motivation. We’re motivated not by external factors, but by internal forces. We’re motivated by the demands and concerns of character. We do something because it’s right, not because it’s easy.

A great illustration of this comes in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus is traveling with his apostles near a Samaritan village. He stops at Jacob’s well for a rest while the apostles go into town to buy food (v. 27, 31-33). While he’s resting, a Samaritan woman approaches the well to fill her waterpot for the day (v. 7). Jesus initiates a conversation with her by asking her for a drink (v. 7), then he steers the conversation toward the subject of living water (v. 10-14). By the end of the conversation, she leaves her waterpot behind, goes into town, and tells all her friends about Jesus (v. 28-30).

At the beginning of the story, John tells us that Jesus “wearied” from his travels (v. 6). The verb means to be spent from arduous labor. The form of the verb suggests that he had already grown weary and continued to be weary. He was exhausted. 

I don’t know about you, but when I’m tired, I don’t want to socialize. The last thing I want to do is strike up a conversation with random strangers in public places. I don’t want to think lofty, theological thoughts. I want to sit in a quiet spot and be left alone. I want to be a lump.

Jesus’ example reminds me that to love my neighbor as myself means that if I have a chance to help someone else, I should go for it. If I have an opportunity to tell someone about Jesus, I should seize the moment. In other words, I should be motivated by something other than my feelings and circumstances. I should be motivated by love for God and love for my neighbor. 

I’m not saying (and neither did Jesus) that we can never take a vacation or never unplug. That’s not the case at all (see, Matthew 14.22-23; Mark 6.31; Luke 5.16). But it does remind us that when we’re tired and presented with an opportunity to do good, we mustn’t let fatigue make the decision. Whatever we decide, we should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Remember the Lord

Whenever Christians around the world take the Lord’s Supper, they’re honoring Jesus’ instructions, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22.19). In this feast we consciously remember that Jesus gave body and blood for us. However, remembering the Lord and his death should be a daily habit, not just an occasional one.

Paul, writing to Timothy to encourage him in his labors, said, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel…” (2 Timothy 2.8). That wasn’t a reference to communion; it was a reminder of the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to shape Timothy’s life and ministry.

Clement of Alexandria (an early Christian apologist, AD 150-215) said that the apostle Peter and his wife were executed by Nero on the same day. She was executed first, and as she was being led away, Peter called out her name and encouraged her, saying, “Remember the Lord” (Stromata, VII.11).

How different would your day be if you remembered the Lord in each and every moment?

  • Remember the Lord when someone insults you.
  • Remember the Lord when someone ignores you.
  • Remember the Lord when someone angers you.
  • Remember the Lord when someone assails a family member.
  • Remember the Lord when you’re sick.
  • Remember the Lord when you’re struggling at work or school.
  • Remember the Lord when you’re in the middle of a severe temptation.
  • Remember the Lord when things are going well.
  • Remember the Lord when you are blessed.

In other words, remember the Lord always.

What a powerful weapon we’ve been given! The mere memory of Christ Jesus can encourage us, strengthen us, help us, and protect us. 

All we have to do is remember the Lord.

The Look

But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” Immediately, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22.60-62)

There are only a handful of incidents from the life of Jesus recorded in all four gospels. The few we have are significant. That’s certainly the case with Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus.

Jesus had warned Peter of it (Luke 22. 31-32). Peter, a chronic victim of “foot-in-mouth disease” denied that he would deny Jesus (v. 33). Then reality set in as Peter followed Jesus’ movements after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Three times, Peter denied Jesus. Three times a rooster crowed. At the moment of the third denial, Peter and Jesus were in a position to see each other (v. 61). 

Who knows what passed between them? Jesus’ friends had betrayed, denied, and abandoned him. In his eyes must have been heartache, disappointment, and immeasurable burden. Peter had thought himself beyond temptation. In his eyes must have been regret, despair, and self-loathing. 

Only Luke records the gaze between Peter and Jesus. Of the disciples, only Peter and John were present (John 18.15). Since Luke claims to record eyewitness information (Luke 1.1-4), Peter was apparently Luke’s source. Years after the fact, Peter still remembered. 

The real tragedy of Peter’s sin was that it was preventable. Of course, the real tragedy of our own sins is that they too are preventable. 

Just as Jesus warned Peter (v. 31-34), he warns us (1 Corinthians 10.12). Just as Peter had a way out (Luke 22.31-32, 40, 46), we too have a way out (1 Corinthians 10.13). Just as Jesus assured Peter of repentance and recovery (Luke 22.32), he assures us of the same (1 John 4.4; 5.4-5). 

If Peter’s eyes said, “What have I done,” Jesus’ eyes must have said, “What will you do?” When we fall and fail, that’s always the question.

The Bright & Morning Star

Early this morning, as my wife and I were walking, we saw the moon and the morning star. The temperature was in the forties, and the sky was clear. The moon was in its waning crescent, so we saw just a sliver of it. But above it were two stars (planets, actually): above it and to the left was the planet Jupiter, and just above it and to the right was the planet Venus. 

The planet Venus was named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. It’s called both the “morning star” and “evening star” because it can appear in the early morning and early evening hours. It’s the second brightest object in the nighttime sky besides the moon. About once a month, it appears in the nighttime sky in close proximity to the moon. On a clear morning, they’re a beautiful sight when seen together. 

In Revelation 22.6, Jesus said, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” What did he mean, and how does that affect us?

First, I think Jesus was alluding to an ancient prophecy from the Old Testament Book of Numbers. The prophet Balaam saw a star coming forth from Jacob and a scepter arising in Israel (Numbers 24.17). He was talking about the Messiah’s future dominion over all of Israel’s enemies. Readers of the Book of Revelation were suffering intense persecution, and John’s allusion to Balaam’s prophecy would assure them that Christ was, even then, in the process of fulfilling his role. He would be victorious over the enemies of God’s people.

Second, Jesus was reminding us that he’s King of Kings and Lord of Lords. From the earliest times, the Roman emperors believed they were descended from the gods. Julius Caesar believed he was descended from the goddess Venus. The emperor Domitian (who may have been emperor when Revelation was written) believed he was descended from the god Jupiter. Around the time that John wrote the Book of Revelation, the Roman poet Martial honored the emperor Domitian, saying, “Thou morning star, Bring on the Day! Come and expel our fears, Rome begs that Caesar may soon appear.” So, when Jesus called himself the “bright morning star,” he was countering the notion that any human leader could be his equal.

Third, Jesus was reminding us that he’s our ultimate reference point. When we see the morning star rising above the horizon, we know that daylight is near. Jesus was assuring his disciples that despite their suffering and persecution, they could look to him as the dawning of a new day, the arrival of a new era. That promise holds true for us as well.

So, the next time you’re awake before dawn, take a moment to look at the eastern horizon, and look for Venus, the morning star. Then take a moment to remember that Jesus is the ultimate bright morning star. He’s our king and our hope. Because of that we can rejoice at the dawning of each day. 

The Old Rugged Cross

In 1968 archaeologists in Jerusalem unearthed the skeletal remains of a Jewish man who died in his twenties in the middle of the first century. His remains were inside an ossuary (bone box) within a family tomb. His name was Yehohanan and he was executed for political crimes. We know this because of a single artifact found with his bones: a seven-inch nail driven through his heels. Yehohanan was crucified.[i]

The Jewish nation understood crucifixion. In Jerusalem and Judea, thousands of Jews were executed in this way during the Roman era. In 88 BC the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Jews in Jerusalem in a single day.[ii] When Herod the Great died in 4 BC Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, crucified 2,000 Jewish rebels in and around Jerusalem.[iii] During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Roman general Titus executed as many as 500 Jews per day before the wall of the city.[iv]

Because of its extreme nature, crucifixion in the New Testament era was applied only to certain crimes: treason, desertion, robbery, piracy, sedition, and assassination. It was originally for slaves, fugitives, and prisoners of war. It was deemed so horrible a death that Roman citizens were spared this means of execution. Nonetheless, God chose this as the means of death for his Son (Acts 2.23; Philippians 2.8).

The four gospels altogether provide only about three pages of information on the actual crucifixion. Yet they furnish enough details to give us a sense of what Jesus endured for us. 

Fatigue. It’s easy to forget what preceded Jesus’ crucifixion. He had spent the previous week in Jerusalem, often in confrontation with Jewish officials (Luke 19.47-48; 21.37-38). He spent an intense period of prayer just prior to his arrest (22.39-46). His captors tormented and beat him in the night (22.63-65). By morning, he would have been nearly exhausted.

Trials. After his arrest, Jesus was interrogated six times before being formally condemned. He was first brought to Annas the former high priest who briefly questioned him (John 18.12-14, 19-23). This was done out of deference to him although he acted without authority.

Jesus then appeared before the sitting high priest Caiaphas. This hearing was at night, which was illegal, and was a pretext for finding suitable charges. False witnesses were produced, false charges were made, and Jesus was charged with blasphemy for affirming that he was the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 26.57-68; cf. 16.13-20).

The Jewish council formally charged Jesus at morning by simply rubber stamping the previous two interrogations. They sent him to Pilate the governor of Judea, who had the authority to execute Jesus (Luke 23.66-23.1). He saw through their pretext and pronounced Jesus “not guilty” (23.2-5). They persisted, however, so he sent Jesus to Herod, effectively sending the case to a lower court (23.6-7). Herod continued the mockery and abuse but could find no reason to charge Jesus (23.8-12, 15). 

Pilate again affirmed Jesus’ innocence and tried three times to release Jesus, but to no avail (Luke 23.13-25). The Jews threatened Pilate (John 19.12-16), and when a riot nearly erupted, he gave Jesus into their hands (Matthew 27.24-26).

Scourging. Before being crucified, Jesus was flogged with the Roman flagrum or flagellum, a whip with three to twelve leather straps, each with a lead ball or piece of bone attached to the end. It lacerated the skin and left muscles, bones, and organs exposed.[v] Many prisoners died from this. It caused massive blood loss, excruciating pain, dehydration, and shock. Jesus knew this beforehand (Mark 10.32-34).

Crucifixion. As many as 600 Roman soldiers gathered to mock Jesus just before he was led away from the Praetorium to Golgotha (Matthew 27.27-31). Along the way, Jesus was too weak to carry the patibulum (the 30 to 40-pound horizontal beam of the cross), so the Romans forced a visitor from North Africa, Simon of Cyrene, to help (Mark 15.21). 

At the crucifixion site, they nailed Jesus’ hands (or wrists) and feet to the cross, which was dropped into a hole with Jesus’ feet only a few inches above ground. Victims were close enough to the ground that spectators could spit upon them and strike them. They were usually naked, adding humiliation to pain. While on the cross Jesus’ enemies continued their mocking and derision (Matthew 27.39-44). Often victims would scream and curse at the crowds, but Jesus is seen praying for them (Luke 23.34). 

The Romans supported the victim’s body by a small, pointed seat (sedile) and a footrest (suppedaneum) to prolong the agony and prevent a rapid death. The awkward body position made breathing difficult, and the lacerations on his back would dry and stick to the rough wood of the cross, adding to the pain. The heat and blood loss caused dehydration and produced an intense thirst (John 19.28-29). 

Death. After six agonizing hours, Jesus succumbed to death (Mark 15.25; Matthew 27.45-50). Many victims lasted for days. The mechanism of his death isn’t revealed. It may have been asphyxiation. It may have been shock. It may have been a heart attack. The cause of his death is beyond dispute: he died because of our sins (1 Peter 2.24).

Not surprisingly, the Roman statesman Cicero said, “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even his thoughts his eyes, his ears.” For Christians, however, the cross is our only hope. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6.14). 

The Romans thought that a crucified savior was nonsense. The Jews thought it was blasphemous. Even today atheist Richard Dawkins describes atonement as “barking mad.”[vi] But God used this to save us eternally: “…we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1.23-24). In the cross we see the love, glory, power, and wisdom of God.

“To that old, rugged cross I will ever be true, its shame and reproach gladly bear; then he’ll call me some day to my home far away, where his glory forever I’ll share.

“So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.”


[i] https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/11/1/6

[ii] Josephus, Antiquities 13.14.2

[iii] Ibid., 17.10

[iv] Josephus, Wars 11.1

[v] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.15

[vi] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion 253