Jesus: A Surprising Success Story

thWhen looking at Jesus Christ one has to wonder why this poor carpenter’s gospel spread became the worlds largest religion. If you examine Jesus from a purely historical and secular mindset it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Andy Stanley (author of “Deep & Wide”) put it this way:

“At the center of this grassroots movement, originally referred to as The Way, was a Jewish carpenter whose message centered on a “kingdom” that wasn’t directly connected to this world. He spoke mostly in parables that few could understand. He insisted that those who followed him love the Romans and pay those onerous taxes. He alienated the influential and the powerful. He offended practically everybody. His family thought he had lost his mind. After only three years of public ministry, he was arrested, publicly humiliated and then executed. Sounds like a strange way to start a movement…”

– Andy Stanley

I have to agree with Andy on this one. Jesus was not only hard to get behind, he also openly criticized and challenged a religious system that had existed for thousands of years. His claims to be the “Son of God” and “Lord” were not only offensive to his Jewish audience, but also to the Romans who claimed Caesar to be a “Son of God” and a “Lord of Lords.” The way this Jesus guy carried himself it’s surprising he wasn’t caught and killed sooner. If Jesus was not who he claims he was then he definitely had one of the most arrogant and self destructive religious careers in history.

So what was it about Jesus that made him a success?  Why didn’t his movement die off right after his death?  The answer I point towards is that his followers were absolutely convinced that he was not dead.

We all know the resurrection story, and how Christ appeared periodically to his followers for 40 days following his death before finally ascending into heaven. Some struggle with these accounts, but I have to believe them. These cowardly disciples who were in hiding all suddenly abandoned all fear and became missionaries to the ends of the earth. Peter, who denied Christ three times during his death, chose to be crucified upside down instead of denying the risen Lord. These men were convinced that they were not carrying on some dead guys legacy. These men had seen the risen son of God, and in doing so they had lost all fear of death.

The reason Christianity thrived and survived was because it’s first preachers, teachers, and missionaries were not promoting a philosophy or a theology… they were attesting to a Gospel that they had witnessed first hand. Despite the brutal oppression the church of the first century would endure at the hands of various famous persecutors, the movement would not die. Death had no sting for those who had seen the resurrected Christ!

I hate to think what the first century church would think of the twenty first century one. While we have grown huge in our scope and numbers, we have also grown more dormant and complacent. A lot of established churches have change from a movement into a weekly meeting. We pass on opportunities to share the Gospel because the timing isn’t right or because we don’t want to be awkward. I’m guilty of this myself to my great shame, and I hope to avoid repeating my past mistakes.

If the early church was willing to be stoned, burned, tortured, mauled, and slashed to death for the sake of the Gospel I feel like I can maybe risk an awkward conversation for the sake of my neighbor’s soul. Christ has risen, death is dead, spread the good news.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” 

– Matthew 28:19-20

Miracles Are Everywhere

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So let’s talk about miracles. By definition a miracle is an act of God, or an event that appears to be contrary to the laws of nature. To simplify it even further, a miracle is anything that we think could not have happened unless God acted. I have recently come to the understanding that this might not be the best way to look at miracles. For starters this limits the miraculous to only events that seem to mystify and inspire a sense of awe in all of us. God becomes this great magician in the sky who on seemingly random occasions will do a trick that blows our minds. It also paints this picture that something cannot be miraculous if we can comprehend it.

There are certainly many aspects of God and his miraculous works that cannot be comprehended or understood yet. That’s fine with me, I’d much rather worship a God too big for me to ever fully comprehend than a God who is so small that my 3.5 pound brain could understand all aspects of him. But I still don’t think that we should be so hasty to just assign God to the gaps in our understanding.

When we limit God in this way we create an ever shrinking God. If we hold to the idea that God only reveals himself occasionally in mystical and incomprehensible miracles, then every scientific break through gives God less and less room to work in. No, I propose that miracles are all around us and that God works miracles all the time, even if we understand how he does it.

People have grown less and less taken with the idea of miracles the more we advance as a species. The more we learn about the universe around us the less we seem to see the careful hand of God at work. We have the strange idea that if we understand it God is not in it. It seems to me that the opposite should be true.

We live in a universe that is held together by natural laws, and these laws allow order to exist. If protons and neutrons were a little bigger or smaller, or if gravity didn’t work the way it does, or if certain elements didn’t exist, or any number of factors that hold our universe together were just a little off then we’d have a universe that was completely different from our own. The fact that our universe is not sterile is a miracle in and of itself. That we live in a universe that is life compatible is miraculous when one considers how many different universes could have existed. Just the fact that something exists instead of nothing is still boggling the minds of great scientists and philosophers today.

Our universe manages to be both chaotic and ordered in ways that we are just beginning to understand. The fact that we can even do science and observe repeated and testable results in our universe shows just how well oiled of a machine our universe is. A person doesn’t look at a car and assume it has no maker simply because they understand how the combustion engine could propel the vehicle forward when weight is applied to the gas pedal. The universe is much larger, more complex, and vastly more fine tuned than any automobile. In this way I say everything is a miracle because everything has Gods fingerprints on it. Let us not deny the creator his credit simply because we learn new things about how his creation operates.

Book Review: “Quarks Chaos and Christianity” by John Polkinghorne

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I decided to pick up “Quarks Chaos and Christianity” for two reasons.

1) The author (John Polkinghorne) is both a renowned theoretical physicist and an Anglican priest. How could I not be interested in a book by a guy with a resume like that.

2) The book is barely over one hundred pages long, so I knew I could read it quickly one lazy afternoon. While I do love a good long book, I’m also a big fan of the quick read as well.

In his book, John Polkinghorne tries to bridge the gap between science and religion by seeking a common ground of mutual understanding. This rare convergence of the empirical and religious mind is a welcomed break from the clash many readers might have come to expect in texts that deal with the relationship between the sciences and religion. The book is easy to follow, which is surprising when one considers the very advanced physical and theological concepts that the author deals with. As a reader who’s only knowledge of physics is what I’ve seen on the Discovery Channel show “How The Universe Works” I was still able to follow along pretty easily.  Polkinghorne manages the very difficult feat of tackling both theology and physical sciences in an accessible and non-threatening way.

The book is organized into eight chapters, each dealing with a specific problem that a scientific mind might have when it comes to matters of faith and religion. It is clear from the questions Polkinghorne chooses to address that this book was aimed more at the scientist struggling with faith than the faithful struggling with science, though readers from either perspectives could benefit from this book.  Religion, as presented in this book, is not something completely alien to science but rather just another tool by which man seeks to understand the universe that God created.  A person unfamiliar with science might have to overcome a slight learning curve as a result, but Polkinghorne does his best to explain any difficult concepts referenced within the text. I do not consider myself to be scientifically gifted, but I was able to easily following along most of the time.

The topics covered in this book are:

  1. Why do we need religion?
  2. Does the universe need a creator or designer?
  3. Why does evil exist from a scientific and religious stand point?
  4. Is a man more than a just a body?
  5. Can a logical person pray?
  6. How can a scientist believe in miracles?
  7. Where does Christianity stand in a universe that is materially pointless, hopeless, and inevitably doomed?
  8. What does all of this mean?

While I have some issues with this book, I feel it has done as excellent a job of trying to unite religion and science as anyone could hope for. Polkinghorne, for the most part, manages to stay both theologically and scientifically sound in all of his claims as far as this reader could tell. Though I do not agree with some of the author’s conclusion I could easily follow most of his thoughts and see how he came to most of the conclusions he did. Many sections of this book, I found to be extremely enlightening and challenging. The combined mastery that Polkinghorne shows for both science and theology is at a level that I have not experienced before in a single author. Of the weaknesses I found in this book, most were nothing more than leaps in logic I did not follow or assumptions that I thought were too readily accepted. I cannot really criticize Polkinghorne too harshly for this, since the subject matter he is dealing with exists largely in the theoretical and theological disagreements on my part do not equal a weakness on the author’s part.

This book should be seen as a valuable resource considering how well it is able to make sense of advanced concepts that could easily confuse most men. The amazing way in which Polkinghorne is able to work science into religion is heads above the usually heavy-handed attempts to force the two together. I would gladly recommend this book for either the scientific person wandering if religion can be for them, or for the religious person wanting to understand how the Christian faith works in this ever increasingly scientific world.  This book successfully manages to bring two different schools of thought together without overtly catering to one side or the other, and in doing so it achieves the goal it set out to accomplish.

What is Repentance?

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I think it is pretty safe to say that repentance is a major theme in Christianity. While we are saved by faith, we demonstrate that faith by repenting of our sins. Something I realized recently is that there are a lot of different notions about what repentance means.

Is repentance just saying sorry?

How do we know if we have actually repented?

How do we know that God has forgiven us?

I hope to answer these questions in this post and hopefully give a more clear view of what it means to have a truly repentant heart.

The Bible makes it clear many times in scripture that we are saved by our faith and trust in God rather than in simply doing good or not doing bad. This comes from the belief that man is not worthy of salvation, but that God is gracious, merciful, and forgiving. God is willing and able to forgive you of your sins, but there is some ground work that needs to be done first.

Before anything can be done a person has to believe. Repentance and Belief are two cornerstones in Christianity when it comes to our understanding of Salvation. The Greek word that we translate into “Believe” is “Pisteuo” and it means “to place one’s trust in.”  When we believe in God we are trusting him, and when we believe in Christ we are putting our trust in him and the power he has to save us.

By placing our trust in God we can say that we have trusted him to save us. We can take rest and find peace in the knowledge that God can and will save us, but what about Repentance? If it is our faith/belief in God and what he did through Christ that saves us, where then does Repentance come in?

The Bible makes it clear that if we hope to find salvation then we need repentance:

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

– Luke 13:3

So what does it mean to repent and how can we know for certain that we have repented?

When we look at scriptures Belief (Pisteuo) is often paired up with the idea of Repentance (Metanoeo). “Metanoeo” is the Greek word that we often translate to mean “repent” and it’s meaning conveys a “change of mind.”  This is not a purely intellectual change, but also a change in the direction of one’s life.

When we Repent (Metanoeo) we are in a sense turning from our allegiance to self, sin, and unbelief. We are abandoning our old ways and making a conscious effort to change our direction. This is where our Belief (Pisteuo) comes in. Our new direction and focus in life shifts from the self, sin, and unbelief, and is instead is replaced by a focus on service, righteousness, and trusting in Christ.

When faith or belief is mentioned, repentance is implied (if not directly stated.) The opposite can also be said that repentance implies that belief and faith are already present.

Repentance then, is more than just saying “I’m sorry.” It is a conscious effort turn from the old ways that drew you away from God and turn your life in a direction that seeks the Lord.

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

– 2 Chronicles 7:14

Just like the parable of the Prodigal’s son in Luke 15:11-32 our heavenly father does not want us to try to earn his love, and he does not expect us to be able to pay for our sins. Instead he patiently waits for us to turn our hearts back to him, and once we do he is quick to run to us, forgive us, and bring us back home.

Repentance is not some elaborate sanctification ritual, but it is also goes a lot deeper than simply saying “I’m sorry.” Repentance is a heart change and a desire to come home. Just like the Prodigal’s son, we can often times wander far away from the father, but he never stops waiting for us and he is willing to run out and welcome us home when we call out to him with genuinely repentant hearts.

Is God A Megalomaniac?

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It seems like there is a lot of confusion going around recently about the jealous nature of God, and in the past week I have had the subject brought up several times in my youth small groups. The idea of a God who is both perfect and jealous is a difficult concept to understand. It is not something that can be easily grasped or ignored. Having said all that, I feel that now is probably as good a time as ever to try to tackle this theological kerfuffle.

So the first question we have to address is simply is God a jealous God? To me scripture seems to point to yes:

“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”

-Exodus 20:5

God is a jealous God and very few things seem to frustrate God more than when we do not give him his due place in our life. The question then becomes, can we still say that God is good if he seems to be so petty and covetous of our praise and worship? If I demanded praise like God does then people would call me prideful, arrogant, and a megalomaniac, so why is God allowed to act this way? It seems most people understand that any being who demands to be worshiped under pain of punishment is a very faulty and emotionally fragile being, right?

To this I’d say no. As with any passages that deal with God’s nature we have many obstacles in our path that can trip us up. We are confined to the limitations of our anthropomorphic and finite language. This makes it extremely difficult to describe a being that is by His own admission, incomprehendable outside of what he divinely reveals about himself to us.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.”

– Isaiah 55:8

It is extremely hard to write anything about God without drastically limiting Him in the process. For example, when we say that God is “good” it is extremely hard for us not to undermine him in the process. If God is God then he must truly be the greatest thing in existence. For this reason, “good” seems a bit underwhelming when applied to God. We cannot compare God (the ultimate) with anything except what is beneath him, since anything greater than him would nullify the whole ultimate being thing. We have to use words and phrases that human being can experience if we are ever going to have any meaning conveyed in them, but by doing that we have to be careful not to give the wrong idea.

If we can establish that God is the ultimate greatest thing in the universe simply by nature of being God, and if we also know from scripture that God loves us and wants what is best for us, then by putting the two together we can conclude that if God is the best and he wants what is best for us, then he wants us for himself and himself for us.

If I had a child and I saw that he or she was striving after something harmful rather than what I knew to be the best for them, I would want to do everything I could to turn them in the right direction. For us the best direction is always going to be back to God. He deserves to be worshiped and he wants us to be with him because that is what we were made for. God made us to worship him and so that he could love us. We saw from the first few pages of Genesis and the last pages of Revelation that a life with God is the best of all possible realities. In this light God’s “jealousy” serves not only Himself, but also all others.  No other form of jealousy I know of can be said to be both self-serving and yet universally beneficial. In this way I feel it is safe to say that God is both jealous and good.