12My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
It is not possible to experience depth and fruitfulness in our Christian lives without daily engagement with God through the Scriptures and prayer. However, this does not mean that the Christian faith is just about “me and Jesus.” Jesus’ call to abide in him was originally given to a group of his followers. Jesus expects us to remain (collectively) in him. How? He tells us in verse 12: “12My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
This command is a powerfully clarifying one within a society and culture that holds out many definitions of love to us. Jesus makes it clear that he and his example are what love looks like.
What does this command lead us into as followers of Jesus?
It leads us into a commitment to a local church. While it’s a popular option to make faith nothing more than a personal matter, a Christian cannot follow Jesus alone. Jesus calls us to love other members of his body. The local church is the arena of learning with and from each other how to love each other well. It’s not without its headaches and hardships, but we cannot jettison meaningful commitment to a local group of Christians while also expecting depth and fruitfulness in our Christian walk.
It leads us into greater spiritual maturity. This process of learning to love one another in the same self-giving, sacrificial, courageous, and generous way Jesus modeled takes time. We’ll have to learn patience. We’ll have to learn to forgive others and bear each other’s immaturities and fault lines. We’ll have to be prepared to be hurt as we enter into relationships that require vulnerability. Perhaps most challenging of all, we’ll need to abandon a transactional view of relationships (i.e. “what’s in this for me?”) and adopt a covenantal expression of love (“how can I give and serve without strings attached?”). Being meaningfully engaged in a local church isn’t easy, but it’s critical for any Christian. As we obey this command Jesus will honour our commitment and bless us with depth of character and spiritual maturity that can be cultivated in no other way.
It will lead us back into communion with Christ. To love others as Jesus loves us, we’ll need to return to the gospels again and again and discover how to love like Jesus. But more so, we’ll have to return to Jesus in prayer again and again as we come to see all of the ways we fail to love each other well. We will learn very quickly that one cannot build genuine Christian community without building intimacy with Jesus.
Note: This reflection first appeared in the January 26th edition of the Nelson Star News.
7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
There is a mysterious, but powerful relationship between reading the Bible and prayer. Jesus draws attention to the fact that if his words remain in us, our prayers have a power that lead to God’s glory and our lives being fruitfulness for Him.
The Bible is spiritual food. In Deuteronomy 8:3, God reminds his people that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” We need to feed on God’s word in order to avoid being spiritually malnourished. In a similar way, prayer is oxygen to the Christian’s soul. It is the process of learning to turn theology into experience, and develop a personal relationship with Christ himself.
But how do we do both in a way that is meaningful? Many Christians want to read their Bible and pray, but many struggle. I believe this is because we are often told what we should do, but are not instructed in how to do it.
If you are looking for a daily devotional structure that help you engage God through the Bible and prayer, try the following for the next few weeks:
Pick one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John). Head over to www.biblegateway.com if you don’t have a Bible.
Read one chapter a day. Read the chapter slowly at least twice, but ideally 3 times, each time taking notes of what stands out to you.
But instead of trying to figure out what to say, let the Bible teach you to pray.Turn each verse (the little numbers at the start of some sentences) into a prayer. Example: 8This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples can used to pray, “God, help my life to bear fruit that brings you glory. Help me to live in such a way that it is clear to others that I am a genuine disciple of Jesus.” By turning each verse into a prayer, you’ll combat the three biggest obstacles most people encounter when they pray: a wandering mind, repetitive prayers, and boredom.
Reading the Bible and praying is the central way in which we abide in Christ. This ritual, when done with a surrendered, obedient heart, leads to untold riches in our Christian walk.
Note: This reflection first appeared in the January 19th edition of the Nelson Star News.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit” John 15:5
Practically speaking, how do we abide (i.e. remain) in Christ? In their book Resilient Ministry, authors Burns, Guthrie, and Chapman identity five characteristics that help pastors build and maintain a spirituality of depth and fruitfulness. Although their research focused specifically on pastors, I believe all Christians can learn from their findings.
They build rituals. Rituals are highly intentional habits. Instead of relying on sheer willpower to grow, wise Christians will strategically build rituals into their days, weeks, and months that keep them connected to Jesus.
They practice spiritual disciplines. To abide in Christ requires us to not simply form rituals, but rituals that strengthen us in the Lord and in his calling for our lives. From engaging the Bible, prayer, serving, fasting, giving, etc., the Bible holds our specific habits that will deepen our walk with Christ when done with a surrendered heart and a view to love God and serve one’s neighbour. Integration of these spiritual disciplines takes time, so patience is required. Like toddlers learning to walk, we should expect the process of learning to walk with God to be clunky, awkward, and full of missteps. But over time, slowly and steadily, practicing core spiritual disciplines will create spiritual momentum.
They maintain accountability. Learning to abide in Christ is an individual and communal calling. Those who are sustain depth and fruitfulness in their Christian walk regularly invest in Christian community where they are supported, encouraged, challenged, and held accountable in their desire to combat spiritual drift.
They grow through hardships. To remain in Christ and connected to him, we need to learn to suffer well. Pain, suffering, and hardship often present a spiritual crossroads. Will I allow my suffering to harden me towards God and others? Or will I seek to glorify God by learning to suffer well? Those who choose the second path are those who remain in Christ and allow the pruning of God to be a process of refinement and not hardening.
They establish all activity in the gospel of grace. You cannot learn to abide in Christ through clench-fisted striving. Successfully and fruitfully abiding in Jesus often comes from a foundation of grace-filled surrender. The gospel is not “if you religiously perform, God will love and accept you.” The gospel is “you are loved and accepted in Christ. From that place of security and grace, learn to walk in a way that honours God and loves others well.” The gospel of Jesus frees you from the anxiety that a transactional/karmic conception of religious obedience creates. Those growing in depth and fruitfulness will live from a place of gospel grace and security.
Note: This reflection first appeared in the January 12th edition of the Nelson Star News.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” John 15:5
For those who humbly embrace him as Saviour and Lord, Jesus offers a life-transforming spirituality characterized by two things: depth of intimacy and fruitfulness. However, many people find the experience of both to be out of reach. As a result some resolve to try harder, but quickly arrive at spiritual burn-out. Others simply give up, believing themselves to be insufficiently spiritual to “take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19). Then there are those whose hearts grow cold having believed the lie that the abundant life Jesus offers was never meant for them.
Sometimes the root of this disconnect lies in the fact that people expect the fruit without being connected to the Vine. Many who call themselves Christians have never personally surrendered their lives to Jesus. They understand Christianity as civic religion, a moral framework, or perhaps even as short-hand for “Western values.” They attend church, serve the poor, and are genuinely good people. Jesus, however, makes it clear that the term Christian (i.e. “little Christ”) is only for those in him through faith.
In John 15 Jesus talks a lot about abiding (i.e. remaining) in him, and the fruitfulness that comes as a result. However, the first condition of remaining in Christ is to place yourself in Him. No one is automatically “in Christ.” Jesus refers to himself as the true vine (John 15:1), and we are branches that have been cut off from God due to sin’s power. However, through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus opened up a way by which we could be saved out of this separation from God and into a unique relationship with God. Like branches that are grafted into a strong and life-giving vine, by placing our trust in Christ we are reconnected to the source of life, hope, love, and truth. Then Jesus’ life begins to flow through ours in surprising and powerful ways.
A person is not a Christian if they are not connected to the Vine. And a person cannot experience the promises Jesus declares for those in him, while they choose to remain outside of his redeeming love.
Do you long to experience a spirituality of depth and fruitfulness that touches every dimension of your life in joyous, restorative, hopeful, and redeeming ways? Place yourself in Christ first, and then learn to abide in him.
Note: This reflection first appeared in Nelson Star News on January 5th, 2018.
Mark 12:41-44 41Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. 43Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
In Jesus’ day, if you had asked people, “Who do you look to for spiritual leadership? Who are your spiritual role models?”, people would have likely named prominent, religious “experts” like the Pharisees or perhaps the Scribes. These men were the cultural influencers and thought leaders. They were the ancient equivalent of New York Times best-selling authors; prominent and popular religious celebrities that were believed to be the authorities that sincere, devout believers should seek to follow and emulate.
Jesus rewrites the script dramatically.
“Guys, come over here. Did you see that poor, widowed woman? She just gave more to God than everyone else, because although her amount was small compared to everyone else’s, they were giving out of their wealth. She, from a place of poverty, gave her whole life.”
Notice that Jesus not only rejects the religious leaders/experts as spiritual role models (he actually condemns their leadership and “expertise” in Mark 12:38-40), he points to someone who by every conventional metric has the least to offer in terms of spiritual authority, influence and expertise: A poor, widowed woman.
Jesus wants the disciples to learn from a woman...who is poor…and widowed? Why? How? In the context of the first-century this woman is second-class, impoverished, and lacking any meaningful social capital or cultural influence.
What kind of kingdom is Jesus inviting us into, that a poor, widowed woman is a role model for faithful discipleship?!
There’s an important lesson here. Those that the world dismisses as irrelevant, unworthy, insufficient, damaged, and useless are often the very people through whom God’s kingdom breaks into this world.
This is precisely the reason Paul encourages the early church in Rome to “be willing to associate with people of low position” (Romans 12:16). And its a truth that is reinforced by Paul in his first letter to the early church in Corinth:
1 Corinthians 1:26–29 26Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him.
The kingdom that Jesus is building is built through “lost causes” and “nobodies.” That’s an essential part of the gospel (i.e. good news). We are all lost causes spiritually speaking. We can’t rescue or save ourselves from the power of sin. But Jesus comes to deal with our sin issue by dying for us, in our place. But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus is resurrected and enthroned as King and Lord over all things, so that those who turn their lives over to him can be saved into a new kind of life. A life God begins using within His mission to mend the world and overcome evil.
Weak, insignificant nobodies–in the hands of Jesus–become strong, significant somebodies. No expertise required.
James and John approach Jesus and petition him: ““Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (v. 37). They believe Jesus is destined for great things. Power. Glory. Fame. When Jesus establishes his kingdom rule, they want places of prominence within the coming government. They are hungry for power and the attending privileges that come with it.
Jesus uses their request to subvert their entire worldview.
42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)
Jesus offers a contrasting vision of authority, power, greatness, and glory. James and John, who desire power OVER others, must learn that those who follow Jesus are to use power FOR others. Power and authority are gifts that must be stewarded for the benefit of those under the power and authority.
Jesus makes it clear that authority and greatness in God’s kingdom is defined by one’s ability to use their power to serve others. Tightening the screws on this upside-down paradigm, Jesus even insists that “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
The path to greatness Jesus holds out looks very different in a world that values power over others. He calls his followers to the pattern of leadership that he embodied; a self-sacrificing use of power that leads to life and flourishing for others.
Walking the Path to Greatness
Even if it is meager, each of us holds a certain measure of power and influence. What might it look like to move into our marriages, workplaces, schools, sports teams, relationships, etc., with a view to use that power to serve and bless others?
In his book The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf defines those who live out of this Jesus inspired paradigm as servant-leaders.
“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
Like James and John, our hearts crave greatness. But too often we seek to satisfying this craving by putting ourselves in positions of power over others. We desire to be on top and in control; masters but never mastered. Jesus declares this path to “greatness” to be an anti-God and anti-human path to walk.
Embracing the heart of a servant, Jesus says, is the path to true greatness. And it’s a glorious and world-transforming path to walk.
Several times a year I’m asked the question: “What do you believe about Christianity and Science?” Sometimes the question is posed directly over a coffee. Other times it expresses itself through a concerned mother seeking faith-forming, but scientifically robust literature for her children. Recently, the question was nested within a conversation with someone who had been grappling with questions of origin and meaning that had arisen from their undergraduate studies.
“What do you believe about Christianity and science?” is an enormous question that extends out into thousands of branching considerations and a seemingly endless subset of questions. To address these in one fell swoop is neither possible nor pragmatic. Instead, I thought I would highlight a resource that has helped me sharpen my thinking around this question and cultivate an integrated perspective between my biblical convictions and the scientific data.
BioLogos seeks to help “the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.”
BioLogos’ five core commitments:
We embrace the historical Christian faith, upholding the authority and inspiration of the Bible.
We affirm evolutionary creation, recognizing God as Creator of all life over billions of years.
We seek truth, ever learning as we study the natural world and the Bible.
We strive for humility and gracious dialogue with those who hold other views.
We aim for excellence in all areas, from science to education to business practices.
In an often polarized environment where biblical faith is presumed to be antithetical to reason (and vice-versa), I’m extremely grateful for BioLogos. Their team is doing some heavy lifting; thoughtfully challenging the dismissive caricatures that each side of this “debate” has often resort to in the quest for legitimacy. Refusing to play within the confines of the “warfare” model of faith vs. science, BioLogos’ contributors are crafting an intellectual framework that upholds both biblical and scientific integrity. They are reasonably, faithfully, and joyfully pointing us towards the full riches of complete understanding as they celebrate Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3).
The question, “What do you believe about Christianity and Science?” is one that deserves the best from our intellectual capacities. We do not honor God by skirting this issue due to laziness or dismissing it away while professing the virtues of holding to a “simple faith.” We are called to love God with all of our minds (Matt. 22:37; Prov. 18:15), and in response to that calling we endeavor to bring our best thinking to bear on these questions, seeking to articulate a worldview that is faithful to the witness of both Scripture and science. I hope BioLogos becomes a helpful resource to you on that journey.
John is an exile on the isle of Patmos. His crime: bearing witness of Jesus (Re 1:9). Somebody didn’t want John spreading this gospel message, and so they’d shipped him off to an island. He’s contained.
But now John has received even more news to share.
It all starts one Sunday, when John hears a voice behind him: “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches (Re 1:11).” John turns around to see seven golden lampstands, and among them, the risen Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Jesus gives John a message for seven churches in Asia (modern-day Turkey). Of the seven, one is about to undergo intense suffering (Re 2:10), one has kept His word (Re 3:8), and the other five were faltering in their loyalty to Jesus. The Lord warns the churches that He is the righteous judge, and He knows their deeds. He calls the faltering churches to repentance, and makes seven encouraging promises to those who overcome.
Then, John is whisked into heaven to witness “what must take place after these things” (Rev 4:1). So begins a long series of prophetic visions for the churches, including:
A Lamb (who represents Jesus) breaks seven seals holding an old book shut—each time a seal is broken, it triggers an event on earth, some of which are catastrophic (Re 4–7).
Seven angels blow seven trumpets, and each trumpet blast brings a plague on the earth (Re 8–11).
A great dragon (Satan) and two beasts make war against a certain woman and the saints (Re 12–14).
Seven angels pour out seven bowls, and each bowl brings another plague on the earth (Re 15–16).
The Lamb overcomes the wicked city of Babylon, the dragon, and the beasts, then brings about a final judgment day (Rev 17–20).
A new heaven and new earth appear, where God and the Lamb dwell with people in harmony forever (Rev 21–22).
John faithfully writes everything down as a prophetic letter to the seven churches, with a closing message from Jesus: “I am coming quickly.”
Theme verse of Revelation
Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things. (Re 1:19)
Revelation’s role in the Bible
Revelation is traditionally attributed to the apostle John, who also wrote a Gospel and three New Testament letters. He was a leader in the early church, and he probably wrote his documents after most of the other New Testament books were already written.
Two characteristics of Revelation set it apart from the rest of the New Testament:
It’s the only book of its genre. Most of the New Testament is history or a letter. Revelation is indeed sent as a letter with a traditional greeting (Re 1:1–8), direct messages to the recipients (Re 2–3), and a sendoff (Re 22:18–21), but the bulk of the letter is a record of John’s vivid symbolic visions. No other book of the New Testament feels like Revelation.
Jesus directly addresses the readers. You’ll have to flip back to the Old Testament to see someone write down a message from God for someone else. The Gospels record Jesus’ teachings, and the letters draw application from His teachings, but only in Revelation does Jesus Himself speak directly to the churches (Re 2–3; 22:16).
Revelation may be distinct from the New Testament, but its style and theology are right at home in the Bible. Revelation’s symbolic visions are similar to what you’d see in the Old Testament prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah.
Of course, even after going over the book’s content, it can still be difficult to know what Revelation is all about. Some of the visions are explained for us: the Lamb is Jesus (Re 17:14) and the dragon is the devil (Re 12:9). Others—most, really—aren’t so directly explained.
Some say all (or most) of John’s visions are about the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.; others say the prophecies haven’t been fulfilled yet. As you read and study Revelation, keep a few things in mind:
This message is written to churches in Asia, which had both Jewish and Gentile members.
Jesus begins everything with messages to the churches who were dealing with distraction, persecution, false teaching, immorality, laziness, and stagnation.
The correct response to this letter is to come to Jesus and invite others (Re 22:17).
Revelation is the last book of the New Testament and the Bible—what a finish!
Quick outline of Revelation
John’s greeting and introduction (1:1–8)
Jesus’ messages to seven churches (1:9–3:22)
Visions of what comes “after these things” (4–22:9)
The Lamb who was slain breaks seven seals (4–7)
Seven angels sound their trumpets (8–11)
The dragon, the beast, and the saints (12–14)
Seven bowls of God’s wrath (15–16)
The Lamb overcomes Babylon and judges the earth (17–20)
The new heaven, new earth, and new Jerusalem (21:1–22:9)
How to respond to John’s vision (22:10–21)
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Jude hadn’t always believed in Jesus (Jn 7:5;Mk 3:21), but after He rose from the dead, things changed. The world changed (Acts 17:6). His brother changed. Jude changed.
Now he shared this glorious salvation with people all over the world: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female—all united in Christ. He wanted desperately to write about it. But he couldn’t.
The church was facing a more pressing issue: people were creeping into the church unnoticed (Jd 4). These were not “seekers,” nonbelievers who were genuinely curious about Christianity. They claimed to be believers. But they denied the exclusive authority of Jesus, twisting His grace into a license to sin all they wanted.
They were infiltrators. They indulged in sexual immorality, greed, and grumbling. They rejected the authority of the apostles, angels, and the Lord. They caused churches to split up into opposing factions.
The children of God needed to keep their eyes open for this kind of behavior in the churches. So instead of writing about the salvation they shared, Jude wrote a brief, hard-hitting letter to the churches of the world.
In just 25 verses, Jude covers a few important points for Christians to remember:
The threat to the faith. The ungodly people are perverting the grace of God and denying the only Master, Jesus (Jd 4). God will judge them, just like He has judged the unbelievers in the past (Jd 5).
Characteristics of the ungodly. Jude compares these unrestrained, divisive people to unruly angels, Sodom and Gomorrah, Cain the murderer, the profit-hungry Balaam, and the rebellious Korah. Jude brings in examples from both the Old Testament and other nonbiblical writings.
The apostles’ warnings. The church had been dealing with false teachers for a while—some people were even pretending to be apostles of Jesus, with the authority of Peter, James, Paul, and John (2 Co 11:13). The apostles had warned that “mockers” would arise, causing doubt and division in the church.
But Jude is more than just a detractor. He doesn’t just write a list of red flags. This is a letter that urges the Christians to “earnestly contend for the faith”—to fight long and hard on behalf of their Lord. And Jude tells them how to combat this attack:
Build themselves up in faith. They are to pray in the Holy Spirit, maintain themselves in God’s love, and wait for eternal life in Jesus.
Show mercy to others. They should have mercy on those who doubt, even on those who are stained by sin. They’re to be rescuers, snatching some out of the fires that will come.
Jude is a call to fight, but it’s not like any other battle cry in history. It’s a charge to delight in God and show mercy to others. This is how the church fights valiantly for the faith: by loving God and showing mercy.
Theme verse of Jude
[. . .] I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. (Jud 3b)
Jude’s role in the Bible
Jude is the seventh and last of the General Epistles (or Catholic Letters), the writings of apostles to the church at large. While Paul wrote to specific congregations and individuals, Peter, James, John, and Jude wrote to broader audiences across the Roman empire. We’re not sure when Jude was written.
Jude’s content mirrors the second and third chapters of Peter’s second letter. We don’t know if Peter borrowed from Jude’s letter, if Jude borrowed from Peter’s letter, or if both men were drawing from a prior discussion. Both letters, however, warn the church of two dangerous influences:
False teachers who lead the people to indulge in sin
Mockers who dismiss the idea of Jesus’ return
One major difference between the two books is Jude’s use of apocryphal literature (Jewish writings outside of the Scriptures). Jude mentions events that aren’t recorded in the Bible, such as an argument between Michael the Archangel and the devil over the body of Moses, or Enoch’s ancient prophecies. These examples come from the Assumption of Moses and First Enoch. Jude’s intended audience was familiar with these pieces, and therefore would have appreciated the references.
But Jude also relies heavily on the inspired Scriptures, especially Genesis and Numbers. Jude references all sorts of Old Testament figures and events, including:
Cain, the son of Adam, who killed his brother (Jd 11; Gn 4:8)
The prophet Balaam, who tried to curse the Israelites in exchange for money (Jd 11; Nu 22:31–33)
Korah, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron, but was swallowed up by the earth (Jd 11; Nu 16)
Enoch, the descendant of Adam and ancestor of Noah, whom God “took” from earth before he died (Jd 14; Gn 5:24; Heb 11:5)
Jude is only one chapter long, and it’s the fifth shortest book of the Bible (Third John is the shortest).
Quick outline of Jude
The ungodly contending against the faith (1–16)
How we should contend for the faith (17–25)
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