Tag Archives: gospel

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Everything happens to move you forward.

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A Righteousness by Faith #39: Everything happens to move you forward.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. Romans 8:28-29 (NIV)

There are some verses that just seem to be begging us to take them out of context. Romans 8:28 is one of them. Someone you know is going through a hard time, so what do you say? Some version of, “Trust God because He is going to bring good out of this.” While this sentiment is certainly supportive, Paul is not offering us a platitude for times of trouble. He is speaking of our whole life.

This is really the conclusion Paul has been driving towards since “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” at the beginning of his letter. How does the gospel make our lives different? Especially when we see behaviors and attitudes in our lives that do not line up with the character of Jesus? Or when we realize that life is not easier just because we follow Jesus?

I recently chatted with someone who was troubled by this. She felt some despair over an apparent lack of support from God. And I took her to Romans 8:28 to make sense of her situation.

She needed to see that what was happening in her life was included in the ‘all things.’ Everything we experience in life—the good, the bad and the ugly—is part of the ‘all things.’ God, who has the right to reign over us, is aware of everything that is happening in our lives. But his goal is not to make us happy, or promise us that things will get better as we go along. Instead, all of our ‘all things’ are being used to move us towards the purpose God has for each of us—to conform us to the likeness of Jesus.

God uses everything that has happened to you to draw you to Himself. All things are meant by God to catch your attention so you will surrender to His transformational work. The triumphs and happy days that make up some of the ‘all things’ remind you that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of heavenly lights (James 1:17). And the bad days, the sorrow and hurt from living in a world affected by the Fall are the part of the ‘all things’ that should remind you that only God is your protector, healer and the one who makes all things new.

So why this is true? God’s salvation is more than a trip to heaven someday. It is the power to live out righteousness in this life. We need this power to be at work in us. The struggle that we face is being truly convinced that only God knows how to shift us from arrogant self-sufficiency to the humility of knowing we have no power of our own. This is like Paul’s thorn-in-the-flesh eye opener. After praying three times to be freed from it, God essentially said “No.” That had to be staggering to Paul after all he had sacrificed for the sake of the gospel. Yet God went on to say that His grace was sufficient for Paul—and then Paul realized he wanted that grace most.

If you were to ask anyone what they wanted to avoid most in life, most would say suffering and pain. Yet, if you asked the same people what had brought them to experience the greatest change in their lives, again they would say suffering and pain. Whether we like it or not, suffering is more likely to teach how much we need God to save us, define us, comfort us, and help us to keep our balance in a world where everyone is affected by the Fall.

So, yes, God is going to bring good out of this. But it does not mean He is going to restore your health or ease the pain of loss or bring vengeance at this moment on your behalf. Neither is He planning to rob you of the joy of a new baby or satisfaction of completing a difficult task. He is using ‘all things’ to confront us with our deepest need for intimacy with Him.

The ‘good’ is God’s powerful salvation at work in you and me, continually beckoning us to Himself and remaking the ‘broken us’ into something gloriously like Jesus.

-Steve Smith

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What does Jesus do with rejects?

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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #37: What does Jesus do with rejects?

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Mark 2:15-16

Every society has its rejects. The word carried an outcast sting to it. You’re not one of us. You’re defective in some way. You’re the wrong color. You’re the person we will give to the other team when we are choosing sides. You’re wearing the wrong kind of clothes. We don’t want to play or eat with you. You’re a reject. No one likes you—except other rejects.

The Jewish nation of Jesus’ time also had its rejects. Jesus’ life intertwined with so many of these rejects—shepherds, women with menstrual problems, people born blind, prostitutes, those who failed to keep the purity laws. And especially tax collectors, those men rotten enough to collaborate with the Roman overlords to extort money out of their own people. The word on the street to these people was, “Don’t even bother to show up at the temple. You won’t be let in.”

Do you ever wonder what it was about Jesus and his good news of the kingdom that was so attractive to this lot? Why did tax collectors and sinners party with Jesus?

We who look back might say that it was because Jesus loves rejects. And we would be partly right. There is no question that Jesus had a ‘yes’ face instead of the Pharisees’ ‘no’ face. He was approachable and right at home with people who were out of step with the religiously righteous without being wishy-washy about truth. He challenged them to know God and to live righteous lives, and they still came to eat with him.

But they came not just because he loved them. He had something to give them, something we now call grace. This grace he offered was not merely a free pass into the kingdom, but the power by which people were genuinely changed.

John Barclay, in his book Paul and the Gift, argues that the nature of God’s gift of grace was its incongruent nature. By incongruent he meant that those who receive this gift are totally unworthy of it. This kind of gift giving runs counter to how social gift exchanges were supposed to work. Gifts were supposed to be given to people of merit. But God, through Jesus, goes beyond the social and religious niceties. He reaches out to the rejects and offers them the same gift that the Pharisees believed they already had.

Why?  Because they understood better than the Pharisees that they were a mess. They had no hope that they would ever muster up the strength to become a transformed child of God. They were persona non grata to man and God, and would continue to be. Except, here was this Jesus who offered them wholeness. The Jewish religious system would never open the door for them to have that. They were the sick ones that needed a doctor. So the doctor came to them.

Take Zacchaeus. After Jesus came over for lunch, Zac readily gave a generous gift to the poor, as well as repaid all those he ripped off. In effect, he is saying, “I am free to act righteously.” Jesus noted, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Even though he had been messed up, Zacchaeus was transformed by Jesus who was full of grace.

Or, how about the sinful woman who crashed Simon the Pharisee’s party in order to wash Jesus’ feet, anoint them with perfume, kiss them repeatedly and dry them with her hair. In answer to Simon’s unspoken contempt, Jesus told him that she, who had been forgiven much, loved just as much. As strange as this was to Simon, who was shocked by her display of gratitude, she was a changed woman.

And what of Levi (Matthew), at whose house a motley crew of sinners and tax collectors were partying with Jesus? He had pulled them in because he had not only been changed, but had been invited to follow Jesus as part of the inner circle of disciples. Incongruent grace has him declaring, “I am included!”

Why were the rejects attracted to Jesus? Because he offered them hope: They were not stuck forever living as rejects by God, but could actually receive power to become the children of God.

-Steve Smith

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Are you ready to declutter your soul?

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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #35: Are you ready to declutter your soul?

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Mark 10:21-22

One story of Jesus that causes more eyebrows to be raised is his encounter with a rich young guy who seemed eager to get the same answers Nicodemus came looking for. How do you get eternal life, peace with God? Notice that Jesus’ conversation with him did not follow the same lines as those found in John 3— no ‘born again’ allusion; no ‘for God so loved the world.’ Instead, Jesus put the greatest stumbling block it seems he could find between this man and his hopeful query. “Give it all away. Then you can come follow me and discover the answer you seek.”

No one can accuse Jesus of making the good news of the kingdom easy-peasy. So easy and inviting that everyone and anyone would choose it. But why does this one story send the most disquieting shivers up our collective spines? I say this because I find that believers are often making excuses for Jesus’ asking him to part with his wealth. I think this is because we may wonder if we, too, need to divest our lives of our wealth—after all, compared to the rest of the world, almost all American believers are rich. Should we take this seriously? Or was Jesus’ admonition only meant for this one rich guy?

Frankly, I think this story gets down to the reason the good news of the kingdom was revealed in Jesus. All of us in our rebellion against the reign of God hold something closer to our hearts than our Father. For one, it was burying his father. For another, it was a goodbye party with his family. For this guy, it was his wealth. Some of the things that lay claim to our soul are made up of the ordinary things of life; a contented life; close family ties; financial security; responsible decisions. People would argue that these things must surely be what God wants for us. Yet what we hold most dear will divert our hearts from the pearl of great price.

What this rich young man thought he wanted was eternal life. “Alright,” Jesus responds. “For this to happen, I need you to be ready to declutter your soul of all that competes with that desire. Get ruthless and chuck away all the financial props you have depended on to make yourself a secure, even a ‘good,’ person, and follow me.”

What the good news of the kingdom does for us is to expose the lie of the non-essentials in us. We have been convinced by the enemy that we cannot live without some things in life; convinced that our souls will not be satisfied without them. But Jesus is offering transformation, which starts its work by waking you up to the fact that you have embraced the lifestyle of the lie so deeply that you are not really free. You might go away sad and still trapped.

You know how this story turned out. But it did not have to end with him going away sad. He might have chosen to receive the eternal life he asked Jesus for. He could have been freed from the burden of success in the same way that others have been freed from the burden of failure. If he had confessed his inability to let go, Jesus would have supplied him with the power he lacked. This is the nature of the gospel.

So what’s your version of this story? If you were the main character, what would Jesus challenge you to let go?

-Steve Smith

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Why did John 3:16 matter to Nicodemus?

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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #34: Why did John 3:16 matter to Nicodemus?

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

I always feel like Nicodemus gets lost to us somewhere along the way. This iconic verse is so powerful that we tend to forget that Jesus was in a teaching mode, challenging Nicodemus’ thinking about what God was up to in sending Jesus, and also about the state of his own soul.

Nicodemus is an unusual person in the galaxy of individuals who crossed paths with Jesus. Influential, a teacher of Israel, he is mentioned in the Jewish Talmud as a wealthy and popular holy man reputed to have had miraculous powers. He had demonstrated through seeking Jesus out that he was looking for the elusive answer to his deepest question. In spite of the immense knowledge of the Scriptures he had evidently gained as a Pharisee, he was discontented. What would it take to meet God’s expectations for a holy life? How did one undo life’s mistakes already accumulated? When, so to speak, did one become all he or she was meant to be?

Nicodemus represents a lot of people in every age. They have so much going for them. They are accomplished, wealthy, smart. They sacrifice for the good of mankind. They are continually developing their minds and expanding their influence for good. A way of describing these amazing people is that they have achieved the fifth stage of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These start with the physiological needs, followed by safety, love/belonging, and esteem. Maslow believed that when a person has these unfulfilled needs met, he or she is open to growing into self-actualization. The sky is the limit to what such a person can achieve and do.

Except, of course, in satisfying the ‘Why’. Why am I here? Why, if I have done so much good, am I not whole? Why am I still seeking answers and where do I get them? No matter how good you are, you never escape these internal questions.

The impact of Jesus’ words in John 3:16 on its first audience—Nicodemus—showed him that he had come as far as he could by his own efforts and was still disquieted that it was not enough. Nicodemus simply could not make himself whole. His achievements paled in comparison to what he wanted for himself.

Jesus invites him to take a risk. He says that whoever believes in the only (one-of-a-kind) Son would have the kind of life he was looking for—and have it forever! If he did not believe, Jesus went on to say, he was already condemned. Here is a risky undertaking. Under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus had come to see this prophet, looking for answers. And what does he get? “I am the answer. Believe in me.”

Nicodemus must have been quite taken aback by the direction of this conversation. He was looking for answers, not a leader. But Jesus was laying out the heart of the gospel of the kingdom. Your options are to continue as you always have, to the admiration and adulation of the nation. Or you could humble yourself and get what you truly desire, a transforming life by faith in the Sent One.

We cannot be sure of the outcome of this encounter. Yes, Nicodemus later speaks up for Jesus and contributes the customary embalming spices while assisting Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial. But faith in Jesus against all he had achieved? We have no way to know if he ended well.

Paul’s life demonstrates a better outcome to Jesus’ gospel. Like Nicodemus, he had been a Pharisee, zealous for the law and faultless in how he lived it out. But after encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus, he came to regard that all he had achieved was a loss compared to knowing Jesus as his Lord. In fact, he saw his life attainments as equivalent to barnyard muck, “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” (Philippians 3:8-9)

Frankly, it is when we arrive at self-actualization that God invites us to die to self; to take up a cross and follow Jesus. It is when we are on this kind of faith journey that we are transformed into what we were created to be. No achievement ever brings as much soul satisfaction as the Good News.

-Steve Smith

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Is your soul at rest?

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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #24: Is your soul at rest?

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. -Matthew 11:28-29

I am not sure that we know enough about what Jesus meant by rest—about the Sabbath for the soul that he promised. Many believers I meet are anxious that they are not doing enough; that they are not holy enough; that they are still falling short of the glory of God.

Jesus is inviting us to leave anxiety behind by coming to him. To recognize that no spiritual improvement program, no regulation of righteousness nor any Christian service guidelines will lay to rest the angst that we believers get when we check the pulse of our spiritual life.

But there are a lot of voices out there suggesting that those responsibilities are exactly what the Father wants you to carry out. The other rabbis of Jesus’ time were concerned that people were not anxious enough about keeping the law of God. Their job was to ‘yoke’ their hearers to the law properly. The idea of yoking people to the law was that the rabbi would explain what he understood God expected of them, both in terms of not breaking the law (sin) and also of being careful to keep it rightly (holiness). The law would then pull them along to their destination. Those rabbis’ lists of what were do’s and don’ts created several different denominations within Judaism. So people were interested in Jesus’ list. What did Jesus know about God’s intention?

Instead of starting with the law, Jesus starts with his unique relationship with the Father. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” In other words, if you are looking for God’s intention in giving the law, Jesus knew it intimately. It was not about working harder, doing more, groveling or showing greater restraint. It was about rest. The transformational gospel of the kingdom counseled people to stop striving for holiness—stop being anxious about God’s expectations—and trust that Jesus himself would make them holy.

Why? Because Jesus is the only person who can fully keep the law. This truth is captured in Paul’s amazing observation: “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3-4)

This is not merely about entering the kingdom. Our theology rightly tells us that we are justified—saved from the penalty of sin—by faith in what Jesus did through his death and resurrection. But often we are then prompted to go into a work mode. We owe Jesus so much that we need to serve and sacrifice and work hard to make the teachings of Jesus true in our lives. Balderdash! That is not the good news.

Jesus’ gospel includes being sanctified by faith in him as well. Being made holy by faith in the power of the one who lives in us quiets the accusations of the lie that, if I just work harder, I will finally get it right, be freed by my efforts from a habitual sin and have a relationship with God that far outshines my present one.

I recently read an article taking a ministry to task because they seem to take Jesus seriously on this point instead of pushing the hard work of sanctification. Just writing those words reminds me why I struggled so long to be made whole in so many areas. I was striving. However, Jesus was inviting me not to strive in my own strength, but to surrender to his power. To rest from my best efforts to be good for him and rest in what he alone would accomplish in me as I trusted and cooperated with him to do it. Jesus knew what his followers needed was not more requirements, but Sabbath rest. And that is transformational.

Steve Smith

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Calming Anxieties

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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #21: Calming Anxieties

So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat? or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘Wat shall we wear?’ But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  -Matthew 6:31-34

I have always been fascinated by the contrast of priorities between Manslow’s hierarchy of needs and Jesus’ gospel. Abraham Manslow studied emotionally healthy people to discover why they developed differently from emotionally challenged people. He concluded that they had their ‘deficiency’ needs—physical needs, security, friendship and love, and esteem—met. They had no reason to feel anxious and fearful. Instead, they felt secure enough to develop further and reach their full potential.

In contrast, Jesus tells his hearers that God turns this on its head. The Father, he declares, knows about your basic needs. But your path to reaching your potential does not start with getting your deficiency needs met. It starts with pursuing something infinitely more valuable and far reaching—His kingdom and righteousness.

Jesus’ challenge to seek the kingdom first comes after a this-is-my-Father’s-world series of observations. You’re worried about food? God makes sure the birds are fed daily even though they do not have a barn to their name. You’re worried about having clothes on your back? The Father is the Ralph Lauren for the wildflowers. And aren’t you worth a great deal more to Him than anything else that exists?

In Jesus’ day as well as ours, to be human is to worry. It’s not that every person has the curl-up-in-a-ball-on-the-floor kind of fears. I mean that somewhere in your inner spaces you have issues that cause you to feel anxious. Stuff that you push away mentally because you do not want to remember, to feel accused by it. Will I succeed? Will I be able to pay my bills? Will people laugh at me? Am I pretty enough? What do people really think about me? Why don’t I have real friends? And on and on—the list of anxieties is endless, all reminding us that we are failures at some level in life.

Where do these anxieties actually come from? Why are they common among people? They come from our brokenness, which is a product of the Fall. Satan lied that Adam and Eve’s eyes would be opened to their being by like God when they ate of the tree. Instead, their eyes were opened to their nakedness. They were so overwhelmingly anxious over this that they sewed together fig leaves to hide. Nothing that they or their descendants have done since then has freed us from the nagging feelings of inadequacy and fear of being found out.

But the Father has done this for us. His reign and His righteousness is our ticket to wholeness, our pathway to transformation. We can chase after getting our ‘deficiency’ needs met, but they will not bring the relief that our soul is looking for.

The good news Jesus proclaims challenges us to bypass making our basic needs a priority and trust the Father. Why? Because He values us. Our feelings of worthlessness and daily concerns that we internally worry about actually are distracting us from our journey to wholeness. He knows our fears and answers them with His reign. His righteousness makes us whole from the inside out.

This is, as Jesus concludes, a daily reminder. Surrendering our anxiety into God’s hand, especially in the face of opposition and the neediness found in our world, can seem like another reason to worry. But consider who Jesus is speaking to. They are people who have put themselves under God’s reign and have been blessed by God. These disciples would go on to turn the world upside down. Deprivation, opposition, and death did not define them or their worth. Neither will it define you as you pursue the kingdom and righteousness.

Steve Smith

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How did Jesus start his best sermon?

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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #9: How did Jesus start his best sermon?

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them. -Matthew 5:3-11

Many of you probably have seen the Trick Baby testimony of Bishop Ron Archer, how God’s word delivered through a Gideon Bible toting teacher transformed him from a bed-wetting, stuttering, born of a prostitute, ten-year-old boy putting a gun to his head so he could end his misery into a mighty man of God being used around the world for the gospel. When God speaks, powerful things happen. Bishop Archer is a visible example of this.*

God speaks and what comes out is the Word. John uses this strong picture in how he presents Jesus in his gospel’s opening statement. Jesus, the Word, became a living and breathing human being. He opened his disciples’ minds to what the Father wanted them to hear so their lives would be transformed. For this reason Matthew gives us a record of Jesus’ teaching, which we call the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ because it was on a hillside where Jesus sat down in the manner of a rabbi and began to teach.

He opened his mouth . . .” When this phrase is used in the New Testament, it refers to the seriousness of what is to follow. Pay attention! Don’t miss this! When Jesus opened his mouth, what he will share will change the shape of the disciples’ souls—our souls. It will cause them and us to rethink all we think we know about righteous living, and challenge us to pursue the righteousness of the kingdom in place of that of the religious leaders.

Jesus started with eight Beatitudes, referring to a series of blessings that Jesus declared are characteristics of those who are under his reign. Often people try to understand these statements separately, but they should be taken progressively instead. Rather than describing different aspects of Kingdom living, each blessing leads to the next, moving people towards a transformational goal. Not only does this approach make better sense of the Beatitudes, these then become the signs of personal growth progress as we enter on the journey towards becoming whole. Each one shows us something about our personal progress.

Why do I say progressive? I think that there is something in us that wants to jump to the end of the transformational process. Are we there yet? Aren’t we done? We embrace the good news of Jesus and long to be holy and blameless in God’s sight. But the next test comes. The next temptation bangs on our door. The page turns in life and all we thought we knew about God’s reign has to be relearned all over again. Not because God is making the good news hard. It’s because we know so little about our own hearts—because we, too, have been affected by the Fall—because He has planned to transform us deeply and, no, we are not there yet.

What Jesus opened his mouth to say here will matter in your next stumble. When you look into the mirror and are appalled by what you see. At that moment, the good news that Jesus is speaking here will be light in the darkness. You have not lost your way. The Beatitudes reveal the pathway you are on towards becoming the person you were created to be.

Listen to him.

* If you haven’t seen the video, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_x1RpFwrKOU

-Steve Smith

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Grace and Truth revisited

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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #6: Grace and Truth Revisited

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

Over the past couple of decades, a number of scholars have again tried to decipher the historic Jesus. The book versions of their conclusions include portraying Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, cynic, philosopher, Jewish Messiah, and prophet of social change— none of which has generated strong scholarly agreement. Somehow, each portrait misses the essence of Jesus, whose death and resurrection changed the world.

But one eyewitness to the historic life of Jesus shared a personal understanding of him. The apostle John introduces Jesus as the Word becoming human, full of grace and truth. Why is this portrait so powerful for those who know Jesus even to this day?

This picture of Jesus is all about why he is the good news. He is the God-Man. His existence did not start with the virgin birth, but before eternity with God—as God. Yet he was born within time, at the right time, to bring God near to those whose whole existence was to be God’s chosen people, then to us who were—as Paul put it in Ephesians 2—far away. And it was what Jesus exuded that makes this statement so much more remarkable. He was full of grace and truth.

Somewhere along the way from the first century to today, the meaning of grace got hijacked. If you read comments on this verse, you will find teachers referring to this as an indication of Jesus being gracious. Others suggest that this means Jesus is merciful, forgiving and compassionate. Jesus is certainly all this and more, but that is not what grace meant to the earliest church.

To them, grace is a word referring to the empowering work of God. Paul shares the conclusion of his thorn-in-the-flesh moment with this bit of conversation with the Father: “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (Corinthians 12:9) In other words, grace was about God exercising His power in Paul’s life to accomplish much through him despite his ‘thorn.’

When we weaken the meaning of grace, we miss the point of the word ‘truth.’ Jesus being full of truth was more than a comment on one of his virtues—like he was a truthful person. Truth is about the whole gamut of what Jesus reveals. As the Word, he reveals the truth about God. His hearers thought they knew God, thought they spoke for God, but were dead wrong about God and didn’t know it until Jesus showed up as God.

But the truth of Jesus reveals even more. As the last Adam, he reveals the truth about man. We had no idea what the image of God in Adam was supposed to look like until Jesus lived this out in front of us. Without sin. Intimate with the Father. So obedient as to be willing to lay down his life for the sins of the world.

The grace and truth of Jesus continues to transform the world. As we put our faith in him, we are transformed by the empowering work of the Spirit from the broken people we were (grace) back to the people we were created to be before the Fall, hungering again for the reign of God over our lives (truth). If I have to choose a portrait of Jesus, John’s is the one that catches his essence.

Steve Smith

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You need to repent about . . . what?

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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #4: You Need to Repent about . . . What?

From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ -Matthew 4:17

Why did Jesus start his ministry on this note? This catchphrase, which he shared with his forerunner cousin, John the Baptizer, seems an odd place to start telling the good news. Why didn’t he begin with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world.”? Or Matthew 11:28, “Come unto me all you who are weary.”? Or John 4:14, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”? Each of these feels so much more inviting and winsome than “Repent!”

I suspect that many of us have an emotional reaction to this word. It provokes feelings of guilt and fear. Or reminds us of people carrying signs of coming judgment. In Somersworth, NH recently, an undercover police officer stood at an intersection carrying just such a sign so he could spot drivers using their cell phones, handing out a $100 (plus fees) ticket. The 96 people ticketed are really sorry now.

This is a widely held concept of repentance. It is about getting caught. Being weighed in the balance and found wanting. Turning or burning. It produces deep shame. When we are caught, we feel awful for what we have done. And boy, have we done stuff that offends God. We are sorry that we did it. We promise to never do it again. Repentance for many ends up focused on the bad actions themselves.

This is not exactly the focus of Jesus’ message. Jesus’ call for repentance is the song of reconciliation. Through Jesus, the God we were glad to be rid of in the Garden is offering us a fully restored relationship. Reconciliation means that the war we thought we were having with God is over and by His own power we have laid down our weapons to find ourselves being swept up into His embrace. The gospel tells us that we are invited by God to be fully included again into His family. It tells us that He has declared us free of all penalties because Jesus took them all on himself on the cross. This aspect of the gospel confronts our rebellion at its root cause. We rebelled so we could run our own lives. We believed our knowledge of good and evil was deep enough to make the right decisions for ourselves. We were dead wrong.

This is why Jesus starts with repentance. If you have ever done a word study on ‘repent,’ you know that it means ‘to change one’s mind.’ But change my mind about what? About sin? About what I did wrong? Defining repentance in those terms leads us away from Jesus’s point. Since ‘the kingdom of God’ points to God’s right to reign over all He has created, true repentance is to change my mind about who is in charge. Repentance is saying, “God reigns,” and really meaning it!

Repentance is real when I give up my false idea that I have the right to reign over myself and instead acknowledge that my Creator has the right to reign over me and all my decisions. Repentance comes from godly sorrow for believing that I could run my life apart from Him, even if I was ‘doing okay,’ as so many have thought before me.

This is why embracing Jesus’ good news and entering into a new covenant with God requires a broken spirit and a contrite heart. It opens wide the door to the pathway of transformation. And that is good news.

Steve Smith

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What did Jesus mean by ‘the kingdom’?

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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #3: What did Jesus mean by ‘the kingdom’?

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. -Matthew 4:23

I love Dr. Seuss. He was so creative with the use of words to make the craziest ideas come to life. He adapts words to describe unusual scenarios and people, which sometimes caused his word use to land in the Oxford dictionary.

Jesus does the same when he emerges into public ministry. He proclaims the gospel of the kingdom. Many of his hearers think they knew what he meant. They had been waiting for this kingdom, this call to arms under the leadership of a political leader in order to cast off both Rome and the Herod dynasty. Except that Jesus was not offering them that kind of kingdom. Nor was he proclaiming some future kingdom in ‘the sweet by and by’. It wasn’t even a place in time. He was using this word in a fresh, different way.

In Luke 19, Jesus taught with the parable about a nobleman giving his servants ten, five or one talent to invest, as he was going on a long trip. Where was this man going? Jesus said, “. . . into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.” This story was better known in his day than ours. He was actually referring to an event in the life of Herod the Great, who went to Rome to ask that the Senate give him a kingdom over the land we call Israel. It was a wide open opportunity, yet when he received the kingdom from Rome, he controlled not one foot of land, neither did one person hail him as king. The ‘kingdom’ Herod received was the right to reignif he could!

This is exactly what ‘kingdom’ signified in Jesus’ proclamation—the right to reign. Here again we have to backtrack to the story of the Fall. When Adam and Eve decided to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in defiance of God’s command, they effectively rejected His reign over them and replaced it with their poor imitation of personal ‘godhood’. All humans that have descended from them share this same innate view of personal freedom. Except it is an illusion. We are not free. We are bound to the destruction of our own desires. Nor did we really cast off God’s reign. He told us that death would follow eating the fruit. No one in the human race has negated this penalty—even those who deny the existence of God.

This is the face of hope in Jesus’ word picture. The gospel of the kingdom is the good news that we who are the created—having rejected the true reign of God over our lives and affairs—can come home. We no longer have to be enemies with God. To live bound to sin. To fear death. We can be reconciled to His reign over us. We can be restored to the kind of intimacy with God the first couple shared in the garden.

How could Jesus’ hearers know this to be true? Matthew reports that Jesus was healing diseases and sickness among them. This was a sign that his good news was really good news. For what God was about to do through Jesus’ death and resurrection was to open the door for all who put faith in Jesus to live a new life, to experience a reversal of the Fall.

Steve Smith

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