As Jesus hung upon the cross so many declared elements of the truth in the form of mocking Jesus. How often does that take place? They talked about Jesus destroying the temple and in three days he would rebuild it. They missed the point, not the literal temple, but his body and life would be raised in three days after his crucifixion. The chief priests mocked Jesus as saving others but not being able to save himself. That was his mission; he came to save us, not himself. They didn’t believe they needed saving so they completely missed the point.
It is easier for us today to see the mistakes and errors of those in the past, because we have the benefit of hindsight. It is much harder to identify when we ourselves are playing the role of those who mocked Jesus, while missing the truth plainly before our eyes. A place for us to begin might be when we mock that which or whom we do not understand or with whom we may not agree. The people and religious leaders did not understand Jesus or his mission, so they mocked him. They believed their own view was correct and failed to understand an opposing view point. Ironically, we all tend to do this, while declaring the opposing position to be off base and narrow sighted. I’m right, you are wrong, end of discussion. It is that attitude that led the people at Jesus’ crucifixion to miss the truth.
So what are we missing today, as we live in an extremely divided society? The answers probably won’t be arrived at by criticism bordering on mockery. Truth probably won’t be reached as we insist on others listening to us, while we fail to listen to them. A good step might be to ask Jesus to reveal to us what we are missing, what we are failing to understand, what incorrect assumptions we have made, which of our attitudes need to be adjusted.
Even for some of us who follow Jesus, life can be an enigma. We assume when we decide to follow Jesus that we will always be happy and life will go smoothly. It can be a rude awakening when we find that is not the case. I believe that two passages from Scripture can assist us in navigating the difficulties of life and maintaining equilibrium. In the often overlooked book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon brought to light a truth that reveals a lie many of us have believed. In Ecclesiastes chapter 2, Solomon declared that much of what we spend our life pursuing is actually meaningless; he listed as meaningless such things as the acquisition of wealth and possessions, of wisdom, the pursuit of pleasure and comfort and the receipt of fame. For many of us who have lived several decades and spent time and energy pursuing those things, we learn that these things that Solomon listed can only bring temporary enjoyment, but it doesn’t last, leaving a nagging emptiness in its wake.
While Solomon described the problem, the apostle Paul in his powerful and practical letter to the Philippians outlined the solution in a few brief sentences. In Philippians chapter 4, Paul expressed the joy in knowing that the Philippians were concerned about his welfare, while he awaited trial in a Roman prison. In his response, Paul described a very important lesson he had learned. It is important to emphasize that he had learned this lesson. It didn’t happen automatically when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. What was the lesson he had learned? It was the lesson of contentment in every circumstance he encountered, whether pleasant or unpleasant. By contentment, Paul in no way meant complacent. Paul was anything but complacent, he was actively pursuing what he considered his life mission of helping others know how much God loved them, revealed through Jesus.
What then does it mean to be content? To me it means to have the confidence at any given moment that all is well in our life and that no circumstance will change that reality. We refuse to allow pleasant circumstances to distract us from what is truly important. While at the same time, we do not allow negative circumstances to lie to us by believing that those negative circumstances will define our future. The foundation of such contentment is not at all related to circumstances, but that the living God, who allowed Jesus to die on our behalf loves us and will take care of us. No circumstance, either positive or negative will change that reality, but if we allow pleasant circumstances to deceive us into thinking they are the source of our contentment, or if we believe that negative circumstances will endure forever and rob us of contentment, then the contentment that Paul enjoyed will be lost.
So what is the secret to lasting happiness in this life. I believe it is rooted in thankfulness for God’s presence and love for us expressed to us at all times whether our situation is pleasant or unpleasant. The confidence that God is with us and nothing can separate us from his love, proven by his not sparing even his own son Jesus on our behalf produces a lasting happiness in our life. We just need to remember it when things go well and fight for it when things go poorly.
The brothers James and John desired greatness, when they asked for the positions of prominence on the right and left of Jesus in his Kingdom. Jesus revealed that even though they would suffer for their following Jesus, these positions were not for Jesus to give, but were reserved for those who’ve been prepared for them. Jesus went on to explain that there is a path to greatness in his Kingdom that does not resemble greatness in the world. Those who are great in the world seek for others to recognize their authority; they want to have authority over others. Conversely those who are great in God’s Kingdom seek out no authority over others; they serve others and in this way may receive gratitude and honor from those they serve. Later Jesus would remind his disciples that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. Jesus said those words just prior to his laying down his life for a world that largely ignores him.
If you seek greatness and honor you may achieve it in the world. People may give you recognition, honor and positions of authority because of your abilities and hard work. You may be given the authority to make decisions and direct those who are under your authority. You may be honored with invitations to speak at gatherings large or small, along with an ever increasing income. If you seek that type of greatness, that the world defines as great, true greatness in Jesus’ Kingdom will elude you. Greatness in the Kingdom of God doesn’t ask what others can do for you, rather it asks how you can serve others. The world does not equate serving others as great; it equates being on the top of an organizational chart as being great, commanding a greater salary as being great and being recognized as being great. The willingness to serve without recognition, without honor and without authority is often overlooked by the world, by those who have James’ and John’s perspective of greatness. It is quite possible that those who are great in God’s Kingdom will be invisible to the world. Having said that, there may be some who truly serve others with no desire to exercise authority and are still recognized. However in that moment of recognition those servants must also guard their hearts so that the recognition received doesn’t shift their servant heart to one that seeks more recognition.
The proverb familiarity breeds contempt was evident in Jesus’ neighbors’ response to him when he came to teach in Nazareth’s synagogue. They were amazed at his teaching and at the reports of what he had done in other cities, but rather than listening to Jesus, they were offended by him. The question is why? They should have been honored that he had been raised in their community, that they had known him as a child and young man, but they weren’t. Rather they were filled with contempt toward him, because they had known him, because they knew his brothers and his sisters. Jesus gave an answer for their contempt. He declared that a prophet is honored everywhere but in his own hometown. It can happen that a young person leaves their hometown and is successful and maybe becomes famous. Rather than enjoying his or her success, the response in the home town can be, who is this person, they aren’t so special. Jealousy becomes the response rather than honor and enjoyment of the success the young person has achieved. This was the dramatic response that the people of Nazareth gave to Jesus.
Their example is instructive to us all, because just because we’ve become familiar with someone or something doesn’t mean we have exhausted all that we can learn from that individual or about that topic. Just because someone has followed Jesus for decades doesn’t mean that they cannot learn from someone who has just met Jesus. Just because someone is older, doesn’t mean they can’t learn something new from a younger person. We get familiar and then we can develop blind spots; we stop asking questions, because we think we have all the answers. One of the fascinating aspects of following Jesus is the reality that there is always something new to discover, an aspect about Jesus that you had never noticed before that generates great excitement in us when we discover it. Following Jesus is more than developing good disciplines and routines. Always be on the look out for something you might discover either in the midst of your routine, or when you branch out and try something new.
A couple of months ago, Donelle and I had the privilege of having our dear friend Phil over for a dinner. Phil was out in San Diego visiting those he has known and impacted over the years. While he was with us he made a comment that was exactly what he told us over 45 years ago when he was the college pastor at First Baptist Los Altos, when Donelle and I were students under his ministry. His statement was that the good is the biggest enemy of the excellent. That is a concept that is very true, but it is easy to forget in the midst of day to day activities and all the distractions that modern life throws in our way. It is a concept I have always remembered and thought about, even though I haven’t always lived by it. It is also a concept that pops up at various times throughout the New Testament.
In Revelation 2, Jesus gave instruction to the Ephesian church. He commended them for their good deeds and how they have not grown weary in the pursuit of those good deeds. However, he did have correction for them. He reminded them that they had forgotten their first love; we could say they had forgotten that which was excellent in their pursuit of the good. Therefore Jesus called them to repent and return. So what is to be our first love? What is it that is excellent?
I believe Jesus revealed that to his followers toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:15-23, Jesus warned his followers about false prophets and how they would know them by their fruits. We often assume that Jesus is referring to their deeds or behavior, but what follows reveals what Jesus is talking about. He referred to those who claimed Jesus as Lord, but were not part of his Kingdom, even though they did great deeds such as healing, casting out demons or performing powerful deeds. Jesus informed them that even though they had done all these things, he did not know them and in fact they were workers not of good things, but of lawlessness.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 reveals the great chasm that exists between Jesus’ definition of “good” and our definition of “good”. We define good in terms of what is moral and produces results that we also categorize as positive. While Jesus does call for moral behavior, he has a further requirement of the good, that it is the result of living in relationship with him. That which is done outside of relationship with him, he actually views as lawless. This is very difficult for some to accept because they are so tied to man’s definition of good. It challenges their own perspective of themselves because most everyone defines themselves as “good” merely because they have done some good things. Yet Jesus declares that this is not so. To be truly good and to do truly good deeds is to be in relationship with him, to know him be known by him, to hear his voice and follow him as he mentioned in John 10.
Like the Ephesians, Jesus reminds us to return to our first love, to not let that which is good distract us from that which is excellent.
Immediately after Jesus returned from the region of the Gerasenes, Jairus, the synagogue ruler came to Jesus for him to come and heal his daughter. On the way, a woman touched Jesus’ clothes and was healed, because she believed she would be, if she touched his clothes. Jesus felt the power leave, but did not know who touched him until she confessed what she had done. Since according to Jewish law she was unclean, it was unlawful for her to be there, much less to touch anyone, but Jesus declared her healed and to be at peace about what she had done, because her faith had healed her. At this point others from Jairus’ house came to inform him that his daughter had died, but Jesus told him not to be afraid but to believe. Upon entering the house, Jesus sent out the mourners and went into the room where the girl was and took only Peter, James, John, Jairus and the mother with him. He grabbed the girl’s hand and commanded her to get up, which she did. Jesus told them all not to speak of what had happened and to give the girl something to eat. The question is: why did Jesus instruct them not to testify to what had happened?
Jesus reveals here that he is not a fame seeker, because healing people and raising people from the dead were not his main mission; he came to accomplish much more. As amazing and wonderful as healing and raising people are, it is not the main thing, otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have kept such works quiet, or at least tried to. On one hand he knew that his fame would provoke jealousy from the Jewish leaders and the Romans, and precipitate his death, but on the other hand, Jesus came to accomplish more than physical restoration. He came to reconcile mankind to God his Father. We tend to focus on the physical because that is where we live day in and day out and forget the more important piece of reconciliation with God, which Jesus offers to us. The reconciliation with God, Jesus’ Father and our Father will transform our lives and existence much more dramatically than any physical healing or restoration ever can, because we are much more than physical beings, we are both spiritual and physical beings created to live in relationship with God.
It is interesting that even after the resurrection as the disciples went to the mountain designated to them by Jesus, they still doubted, or at least some of them did. We often read past what Matthew wrote in Matthew 28:16 to get what follows, the Great Commission. However, in verse 16, Matthew used the same word here for “doubt”, that he used when Jesus pulled Peter back to the surface of the water after Peter had walked on the water; he doubted and sank. The Kingdom of God is such a drastic change from our own reality, that even when we see it and experience it, as the disciples did, we can still doubt. In other words, we trust our own knowledge and past experience more than we trust the reality of Jesus’ presence and words. Peter, the fisherman knew that men do not walk on the water, but he was walking on the water. His past knowledge caused him to doubt what he was actually experiencing. The disciples had seen Jesus scourged beyond recognition and crucified. They knew where his tomb was. Yet, there he was standing before them whole and alive. It was too good to be true. Even though they had witnessed Lazarus being called from the tomb, it was difficult for them to fathom and completely believe that Jesus was truly alive.
Even though, those of us who follow Jesus say that we believe what has been recorded in the Bible, we still on many occasions interpret our reality more according to our past experiences than we believe what Jesus said in the Gospels. We doubt that Jesus will take care of us when our back account runs low, or when we lose our job. We doubt that relationships can or will be restored after an emotional conflict has torn them apart. We doubt whether Jesus really heals diseases like he did in the Gospels, because we tell ourselves that was just for the first century. Then we find ourselves, just like Peter sinking in the water, because everyone knows men don’t walk on water. Or we are like the disciples worshiping Jesus, yet doubting at the same time. In those moments we reach out to Jesus, as sinking Peter did, asking him to draw us back to the surface so that we can once again walk above the wind and waves of our circumstances.
The immediate aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection is truly amazing. The fact of his resurrection was known to the guards, who saw the angel, who heard what was said to the woman and who likely went into the tomb and saw that it was empty. They had guarded the tomb the entire night and knew for a fact that no one could have come and stolen Jesus’ body. They communicated this information to the religious leaders who knew by the testimony of the guards what had happened. Rather than accepting the truth and repenting, the religious leaders fabricated a ridiculous lie to explain the empty tomb. After being paid money, the guards were instructed to incriminate themselves by saying they had fallen asleep and while they slept, Jesus’ disciples came and stole his body. The lie is ridiculous and unbelievable, because if they had been sleeping, they would not have known who had come to steal the body. If they had been awake and seen that it was the disciples, they would have stopped them and there would be no empty tomb. Their story is not credible. The only ones who believed the story were those who wanted some explanation for the empty tomb.
What is further interesting is how did Matthew discover what had happened? Either one of the leaders confessed what they had told the guards or one of the guards confessed what they had done. Since none of the disciples would have been present to observe this event, someone present must have confessed so that Matthew became aware of what had happened. What was supposed to have been a secret, confirmed with a bribe, has since become common knowledge. The truth of what happened that Sunday morning has become known throughout the world. The religious leaders’ and guards’ attempt to cover-up the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead, exactly what they had heard him declare, and the reason why they posted a guard had happened. All they succeeded in doing was revealing the greed of the guards and their own evil intent to hide the truth. Their example reveals the futility of seeking to maintain a secret, because eventually someone lets the cat out of the bag.
For those of us who affirm the deity of Jesus, it can be easy for us to assume that he did not face the same struggles that we face, because, we tell ourselves, he was God. While that is true, Jesus was, and is, God who became man, it does not follow that he didn’t face the same struggles that we face. One of the areas that we can assume that Jesus was different was that he knew the future. For example, he knew that he was going to be handed over to the Romans and killed. He knew Judas would betray him and that Peter would deny him. He knew that he had come to give his life as a ransom for mankind. In many ways, Jesus did know his future, but it also is clear that in other ways Jesus did not know all that would happen to him. As I said before Jesus knew how he was going to die, but there is an aspect of his death that he was not aware of. Through Jesus’ question, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”, Jesus indicates that he was unaware that while he was physically dying, he would also experience being forsaken by his heavenly Father. Jesus had already revealed to his disciples that they would forsake him. However, if he had known that he would have to endure being forsaken by God as well as man and even his friends, there would have been no need of him asking that question. His question addressed to God indicates that he was unaware of what he was currently experiencing. This unawareness on Jesus’ part reveals that he is an even greater role model for those of us who follow him. Even though he was unaware of aspects of his future, he still trusted God, indicated by his subsequent statement, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit”.
We should never discount Jesus’ ability to understand the struggles, including fear of the future, that we face. The fact that he was divine does not remove the reality that he also had to trust God. He was not aware of everything that would happen to him. Jesus’ example on the cross refutes the error that Jesus doesn’t completely understand our struggles because he was God. Rather, we can draw encouragement and strength from Jesus’ example, because he too, experienced times when he didn’t understand, but still chose to trust God.
While Judas was being deceived and doing what Jesus had revealed he was about to do, Peter and all the disciples didn’t realize their own weakness and fears. As he had done with Judas when he revealed he knew about his betrayal, Jesus warned Peter of his coming denial. As Judas went out willingly and betrayed Jesus, Peter denied that he would ever deny Jesus. As we would see later, Peter’s problem was not his love for Jesus, because he would later affirm his love for Jesus. Rather, Peter’s problem was his own fear and weakness coming on the heels of fatigue and shock. We all can be strong when we are with our own support group, but when our support is withdrawn and we are tired and possibly fearful then we run the risk of falling. This is what happened to Peter; he didn’t realize how weak he could be when he was tired, afraid and disillusioned. When he was with Jesus and the other disciples, Peter could not fathom denying Jesus and he was probably right. Peter would never have denied Jesus if he had been surround by Jesus and the other disciples. However, Peter was to become isolated and then challenged.
Peter’s example is illustrative to us as well. The famous football coach Vince Lombardi told his players that fatigue makes cowards of us all. Because of that reality, he made sure his players were in the best physical condition as possible so that in the fourth quarter when they were behind and tired they would not give up. We should not assume that just because we are strong when things are going well that we will be equally strong when things are not going well. Rather we should use the time we have to strengthen ourselves in our relationship with Jesus by following Jesus’ instruction to pray so that we will not fall into temptation, so that when we face difficulty we will not falter.