The Second Greatest Commandment

 

What is the most recognizable feature of Christianity? I don’t mean in terms of visuals, like the cross or skinny jeans or bad movies or something like that, but in terms of actual characterization, how do people see Christians? Often I hear the words “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” or “always pushing an agenda.” I admit, these qualities aren’t hard to find if you look in the right places. But it’s also true that there are some churches who take Jesus commandments very seriously, especially those to love God and love others. It’s easy, especially now, to become discouraged by everything happening around us. It’s easy to look at the world and only see the ugly, petty, ungraceful conduct that people seem to live by. There is one mark of Christianity, however, that I think goes entirely unmatched by anything else; one mark that can save us from the discouragement that’s almost overwhelming at times: the mark of love.

I know how sappy that sounds, believe me, but I also think it’s well founded. It’s not a cheesy, all-tolerating, reserved kind of love. It’s a tough love. It’s a painful love.

Before He was crucified, Jesus said to His disciples two things that caused me to think this way. First He said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Then, in John 15:12-13, He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have love you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” The Christian life should be characterized primarily by one thing, that we love God and do what He says, and what He says is to love others by laying down our lives for them.

There are two things in John 15:12-13 that, if lived out, would show the true Christ-loving heart of His followers. First is the qualifier to the way we are supposed to love. We can’t love people the way we think we ought to. By command, we are supposed to love people the way Jesus has loved us, and if you read through the Gospel, you see Jesus do a lot we have trouble with. Look at the Pharisees. I fully believe Jesus loved them, but He also called them snakes, hypocrites, blind guides, and fools. Jesus was not hesitant to call sin out when He saw it, especially when it came from people who thought themselves righteous.

The thing about Jesus’ love is that it’s not tolerant. Don’t misunderstand me; Jesus was and remains absolutely accepting of us despite our sin. Romans 5:8 is clear enough, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s a continual showing of God’s love for us that Christ died in our place. But God does not accept us without an expectation of change. We are to “put off the old self with its practices and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10). As much as God loves us, He doesn’t want us to stay the same as we are. I would even say because God loves us, he can’t let us be unchanged. In His love for us, He pulls us towards Himself and away from sin.

If we are to love each other as Christ loved us, and this is the kind of love with which He loves us, then we have to mirror it. We have to push each other to God and out of sin, as much as is in our power to do so. Granted, we can’t change anyone’s heart as God can, but we can encourage each other and protect each other, even if it means protecting someone from themselves. If I have a desire to sin, then the most loving thing someone can do for me is to keep me from it, no matter how I may protest, not try to help me justify it.

The second thing from John 15 is the greatest visible show of love possible. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Laying down one’s life isn’t limited just to dying for someone. I would go so far as to say it’s any kind of self-sacrificing behavior done by the power of God’s work in our lives, up to and including dying for someone else. Seeing it this way does two things for me. 1) It lowers the bar of what “great love” looks like. I may not have to show great love for someone by dying for them if I can do something as simple as talking to them, even if/when it inconveniences me. 2) It increases the responsibility we have for others. Denying yourself and taking up your cross daily, even in the small ways, is an act of great love that we are commanded by Jesus to do. There’s no getting around it. If you love Jesus, you will keep his commandments, especially when it doesn’t cozy in with your schedule.

This is the kind of love we need right now. And it’s the kind of life we’re told to live by the God who loves us more than His own physical life.

In our current political/societal climate, we Christians have to show that our leader is more than anything or anyone found in our world. He hasn’t been elected to office. He’s always had absolute power and is the only one able to wield it. The way we show His kingdom here on earth isn’t by visceral rhetoric against any opponent. It is by acts of true, Christ-like love. Ours is a practical faith, not a theoretical one, and when we actually put it into practice as we’ve been called to do, we speak louder for our King than anyone shouting about a president.

If You Had Been Here

“If you had been here…”

I don’t think words have been repeated so often to God as those five. Neither have they ever been said with anything less than strong emotion or deep pain. Maybe you’ve gone through something you thought was almost unbearable, or you’ve lost certain things you aren’t able to get back. Maybe, like the original speakers of those words, someone you care most about has passed away, and though you prayed for their healing and you asked God to come in and fix things, it didn’t seem like He showed up in time.

It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where I’d yell at God. I think a kind of reverence has been so hardwired into my head at this point it seems like a sin to complain directly to God, yet I have no problem complaining when I’m not praying. I’ll grumble and moan about a situation, sure, but most of the time I’ll try to suck it up, tough it out, and wait until things get better. No one likes a person who complains without a solution to their problems, but if I’m complaining, I’m generally too mad to think of one. The farthest I typically get in my solution making is, “take the problem away and things will get better.” It’s less about moving forward to something better and more about going back to when things were already good. Besides, thinking of a solution means dealing with a lot of “ifs,” and if there’s anything I like, it’s thinking about what is or has been, or the things that are known to work, not what could or might be.

Unfortunately for me, the Bible presents a much different picture to dealing with problems. Go back to the words at the beginning of this post, “if you had been here.” These are first spoken in John 11, where, after the death of their brother Lazarus, both Mary and Martha tell Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Think about how this statement compares to how I tend to deal with problems. You can’t get around the tone of the words themselves. I can’t hear these words being said without a faint sense of accusation in them. I try to think of a situation where I would tell God, “if you had been here, [insert hypothetical here],” and I don’t think I could do it without also telling Him how He’s wronged me or how He should apologize for not doing what I thought He would do.

This is the polar opposite of shutting up and dealing with it. At least Martha added that she believed in Jesus as she cried to Him; Mary just laid her pain on Him and left it there. There’s nothing to soften the blow, nothing to ease into it, just, “you could have fixed this.” I couldn’t tell my own parents something like that without feeling guilty, and I’d certainly expect them to give a reasonable justification for whatever I was blaming them for. All that’s left is finding out I was mistaken in the first place and apologizing for placing the blame one someone else.

Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t do things the way I would do them. Though He has a plan from the very beginning (see vs. 11-15), He doesn’t rebuke the sisters for their cries to Him. He doesn’t offer a defense for His actions or reprimand the sisters for not trusting Him. In verse 35, John shows He even weeps with them. Instead of seeing Jesus do all the things He justifiably could do, we see Him do one of the last things we’d expect from the God of the universe: He takes it. He comforts those in pain. He cries with them for more than a few reasons. In the end, He proves Himself to be the God who raises the dead.

We’re not told whether the sisters were right or wrong for confronting Jesus about what could have been. What we do see, though, is the effect it has. In Psalm 62:8, David writes, “Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts before Him; God is a refuge for us.” From all the scripture I have read, I have yet to find a single verse that advocates for the way I deal with problems. Stoicism is the last thing the Bible peddles. We’re called to pour out our hearts to God, not stifle everything down. Rugged, emotionless suffering is the least supported position for dealing with your problems in the Bible, yet it’s one of the most sought temperaments in our culture, keeping a stiff upper lip and handling whatever comes your way.

It’s not wrong to tell God how you feel. It might be wrong to say “if you were here, such a thing would have happened” if you actually have the pride to believe that you could predict whatever would change, but even that’s a problem from the pride, not the sad feeling or the confrontation. It’s not wrong to be unhappy with the way things are, even if you believe that God made it that way.

When He heard that Lazarus was sick, Jesus stayed where He was specifically to bring Lazarus back from the dead. From Jesus’ perspective, every part of the story played out for a purpose, from His own waiting until Lazarus’s death to raising him as He did, and He states the purpose clearly enough, “It is for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified through it.” In all His purposes, he never blames Mary or Martha for how they feel.

Sometimes, life throws us a curve ball. I used to believe that the best way to handle it was to go along with it, to accept it as fate even if I hated it. I have come to believe, however, that God actually cares about how I feel, and even wants me to tell Him, even if I’m mad or hurt and have a problem with the way He’s done something. It doesn’t mean that I’m right, or that He actually has wronged me, or that I deserve some kind of apology. It means that God is still kind and good when I don’t understand what’s going on. It means it’s okay to tell God, “if you had been here.”

At the very least, you’ll know He’s with you then, and He’ll comfort you in the way you need comfort, as He did with Mary and Martha.

And who knows? Jesus surprised everyone when He raised Lazarus from the dead. He may surprise you too.

Suffering for God’s Sake

What would you give up to stop some kind of pain in your life? What would you be willing to lose to be healed? Most people go to the doctor’s when they get sick and have to pay a little out-of-pocket before they can get looked at. It may not always be cheap, but it’s ultimately a small price to pay for health in the long run. For more serious diseases like cancer and other long-term sicknesses, one might sacrifice a few relationships. Not the important people, just those you don’t normally hang out with in the first place. What if, on the other hand, you couldn’t choose what to give up? It might be something small and more or less insignificant, but it might be important. What if it was the single most important thing in your life? Would you still want to be healed?

In John 9, we’re taken to a man to whom these questions apply. We are told he’s blind from birth, but not a whole lot of other information is given about him save but one thing: that Jesus’ disciples initially believed that the cause of his blindness was either his sin or the sin of his parents. The question they ask, if we could reword it for today, is simply this: Who did something wrong that he should suffer for it? Why did God let this man suffer blindness from birth?

This is why I love the Book of John so much. The questions they asked 2,000 years ago aren’t far removed from the questions we ask today. Humanity doesn’t change very much at all despite the range of our environment. We’re still looking for why things happen, both good and bad. We still tie it to some kind of cause-and-effect reasoning.

It’s not always as simple as “x caused y,” though. In our reasoning we might draw lines and connections between places that aren’t necessarily related. Case in point, while the disciples thought that the man was blind because of sin, Jesus showed them the true reason for his suffering, “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” God made the man blind from birth, not as a punishment for something wrong that he did, and neither as a punishment for something his parents did, but so that at the right time God’s power could be made known through his blindness. So Jesus, proving Himself to be the “light of the world,” made the blind man see.

But the lesson of suffering doesn’t stop there. The healed man doesn’t just go on his merry way and live happily ever after. This is real life, after all.

After he’s seen to be healed, the man is taken to the religious leaders and questioned about how it happened. This is where we see the man shine, because he doesn’t break under the weight of his questioning. When he hears what the Pharisees think of Jesus in v.16, he doesn’t hide his own opinion, but stands with Him. When the Pharisees think he’s lying about his own life, that he was born blind, they bring in his parents, who at least affirm that part of his story, but also kind of throw him under the buss in v.21. When the Pharisees double down and press him even harder, accusing Jesus of having sinned, he stands in the truth of what happened, saying “Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I do know, that thought I was blind, now I see.” As the Pharisees continue to question and dig into him, he finally rebukes them, and says that Jesus came from God.

This is the point where it would seem he loses everything. The Pharisees, reacting against the man’s claims, throw him out of the Temple. This isn’t a temporary suspension either. This is excommunication from the center of Jewish culture. This would cut him off from all the temple sacrifices, the worship, the very faith of the Jews. From the eyes of an ordinary man, he’s lost almost everything.

Here we see the double goodness of Christ. He not only gave the man sight after being blind, but in an undoubtedly vulnerable moment for the man, v.35 says that Jesus found him. Jesus heard of what happened, and He sought the man out. He finally revealed Himself to be the light of the world to the man, and instead of sulking in the thought of what he had lost, the man worshiped Christ in the reality of what he gained. The man who had been blind his whole life could see for the first time, and he gazed at the face of the One who healed him.

While everyone who looked at the man saw loss, I don’t doubt that he felt anything but gain.

What would you do in the blind man’s position? What would you give up if you could get life itself in return?

What Are You Looking For?

What are you looking for when you go to God? I often find myself convicted even at the start of this question because most of the time, my answers don’t seem very sufficient. What do I want from God? Well, I’d like good grades, safe trips for my parents, healing for my sick friends, etc, etc. Ultimately, though, it never feels very satisfying. I go to a God who created everything, who set the world in motion and keeps it there, who has literally raised people from the dead, and I say such mundane things as “If I could just get an A in that class, Lord, that’d be awesome.” I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been asking God for the wrong things.

This isn’t to say that asking for good grades is necessarily wrong, or that a person shouldn’t do it. Philippians 4:16 tells us it’s fine to ask God for such things as good grades as long as we do it with humility and thanksgiving. The content of my requests aren’t really the problem, but the heart behind the request shows whether I’m asking correctly or not.

Look, for example, at John 4:46-54. Jesus is in Galilee, and a royal official comes to Jesus and asks Him to heal his son. How different are my requests from this? Not too different at all, actually. Indeed, there are plenty of sick people that I pray God will heal. But Jesus replies to the man with an unexpected answer, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” This is far from an unreasonable request, but Jesus challenges the man, and almost makes it sound like a refusal.

Why?

If we go back a couple chapters, we find Jesus in Jerusalem during the Passover feast. While He was there, he zealously cleansed the temple from the merchants and the money-changers in the court of the Gentiles. If 2:23 and 3:2 are any indication, Jesus performed other signs as well. While John has no explanation for the kind of signs Jesus performed in Jerusalem outside of the temple cleansing, it was apparently enough that “many believed in His name,” and certainly enough that a Galilean official had heard about Him and thought He could heal his sick son. With all this in mind, we get a little glimpse of the heart of the official coming to Jesus.

The man isn’t coming to Jesus in faith, but in expectation of a miracle. He doesn’t care who he’s talking to so much as he cares about what the person he’s talking to can do. So Jesus rebukes him. He says “unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” Unless I perform for you and do everything you want me to do for you, you won’t believe.

And to reiterate, the official’s request is not a bad one! I’m positive that in the 3 years of Jesus’ ministry, this was not the dumbest request to pass by Jesus’ ears. But even so, without a right view of Jesus, there is no request that we can make that doesn’t deserve the same rebuke.

God isn’t some kind of monkey on display, doing whatever trick we want Him to do if we ask nice enough. When we talk to God, the first thing we should realize is that we have almost no control over anything. The entire reason we ask God for things in the first place is because we know they’re out of our control. Genuine, heartfelt prayer begins with humility. But it’s a humility that must itself be genuine and heartfelt.

It’s almost worse if we try to fake humility. In Isaiah 7, God tells the king of Syria, “Ask a sign of the LORD you God; let it be as deep as Sheol (Hades/The land of the dead/The afterlife-ish) or as high as heaven” and the king says, “I will not put the LORD to the test.” God’s response to that isn’t “Good job, you’ve learned the system.” His response is, “Is it too little to weary men, that you must also weary God?”

What does this show? You can make requests to God with a wrong mindset, and you can refuse to ask anything of God with a wrong mindset. Both can be done incorrectly. Both are incorrect when all we’re thinking is what we can get from God as we pray. When I pray, the last thing that should be on my mind is whether I can get something out of the relationship. Just the fact that I can pray at all is incredible. To be able to talk to the very God whose power is shown infinitely throughout the universe as a Father, as someone who cares and loves deeply and knows better things for me than I can even imagine. It’s certainly worth all the humility and thankfulness God calls for.

In the end of John 4, the official’s son is healed, but it’s not because Jesus was performing like a street musician to prove Himself. It’s because the official’s heart changed and actually believed Jesus could and would help him.

So what do you go to God for? Is it because you want something from Him?

Or is it because you actually need Him?

 

Are You Zealous For God?

Zeal is a difficult term. For one, you can’t avoid the religious, almost hyper-religious, tone of the word. One rarely hears about zeal without it being in the context of religious persecution. “ISIS zealously persecutes Christians,” or “The crusaders zealously brought Christianity into the Holy Land.” Neither one of these sounds like something a person should try to imitate. More often than not, when “zeal” or “zealous” are thrown into the description of something, it’s almost enough to turn people off to whatever is being described. “Lance Armstrong zealously chased victory in the Tour-de-France.” Yeah, the problem was his zeal, his obsession with victory. He couldn’t let it go. If he was less zealous for victory, maybe he wouldn’t have cheated in the races. Maybe he would have won fairly. But here is not the place to discuss what Lance Armstrong should or should not have done. Either way, we see the implication of the word “zeal” isn’t exactly a good one, and generally connotes an obsession with something to an unhealthy degree.

So we have a bit of a problem when we read in John 2:17, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” as Jesus dramatically sends the merchants and the money-changers out of the temple by overturning their stalls and wreaking general havoc. We then come to several different places throughout the New Testament where we’re told to imitate Christ (Eph. 5:1, 1 Pet. 2:21, 1 Cor. 11:1). The question arises, “How do I imitate a man who sent merchants in the Temple running while being told to love people like the merchants at the same time?” How can I love someone while apparently acting unloving toward them?

The problem isn’t a matter of loving someone and then stopping for whatever reason, though. Instead, it is a matter of the priorities of love. I full-heartedly believe that Jesus never stopped loving those merchants, even as he overturned their tables and poured their money on the ground. “But,” I hear someone asking, “how could Jesus do something like that and still love them?” Because in the priorities of Jesus’ love, those merchants were not in the first spot.

Think of it like this: A man has a wife and a kid. He loves both of them dearly, being willing to give up anything for their benefit. Now in this family, the kid at some point comes into conflict with the wife. In this conflict, the kid acts out and hits the wife. Now the man comes into the picture and intervenes, disciplining the kid with a quick spanking, then like a good father, explains why he spanked the kid, and tells the kid that he loves him. Here, we come to the point of the story. The man loved both his wife and his kid, but in the priorities of his love, his wife ranked first. This is why when it came to a conflict between his two loves, he chose to side with her. It isn’t because, if only for a moment, he stopped loving his kid for the sake of discipline.

Coming back to John, we see the same principle applied. Jesus loved the merchants, but he had a higher love to which he was much more devoted. But what is that higher love? By what authority could Jesus come into the Temple and tear down the market? Or like the Jews asked in v.18, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus gives an interesting answer. He doesn’t tell them “you’re making a mockery of the Temple,” and he already told them in v.16, “do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” No, He answers them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it up.” Hindsight and v.21 show us that he was talking about his own body, and it’s not an insignificant answer. When asked “What sign do you show,” he points to the resurrection. What was Jesus’ priority love? He points to the resurrection.

Jesus was entirely devoted to the glory of God and the witnessing of that glory by everyone. Looking at the Temple historically, you see the merchants were in the court of the gentiles. By doing business there, the merchants were actively hindering the gentiles’ ability to focus on God. Jesus showed his primary love by reestablishing the gentiles’ ability to worship God in the Temple, and then by pointing to the establishment of the ability to worship God everywhere.

If we are to truly imitate Christ, as we are told to, our priority must be the glory of God in the resurrected Christ. Whatever acts we do must point to His greatness. Remember 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.”

That is what true zeal looks like.

Jesus: Creator, Light, and Life

Why should we know Jesus? Billions of people around the world would say that we don’t need to. Many others would actively attempt to stop others from ever trying to know about Him. Yet, looking at the first 18 verses in the Book of John, it would appear that the author is trying with great effort to convince us that we should know Him. One might even conclude that, from the way the author communicates, nothing could be more important.

The question is even more serious when the context of the history in which these verses were written is taken into account. The Book of John wasn’t written to the people of modern society, which, for the most part, is largely accepting or at least tolerant of any kind of belief. Certainly in the West, very few beliefs are actually dangerous to hold. Some might be unpopular to speak of or try to share, but rarely will anyone face persecution simply because they hold to a certain religion or worldview. Our world, however, was not the world in which the Gospel of John was written. Christianity back then wasn’t the “safe” religion most people understand it to be today. Under the reign of Domitian, the Roman emperor around the time of the gospel’s writing, Christians could be accused of their beliefs and imprisoned if they did not renounce Christ. Indeed, the longer Domitian held power, the worse he punished Christians in Rome who held to their convictions. In the face of all this, John still wrote his message: Jesus must be known.

What could John say that would convince someone that knowing Jesus was worth the trouble? He begins with a simple point: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made” (vs.1-3). Nothing in or out of the world was made without Him. To say it better, the entirety of existence depends on the Word of God, Jesus Christ. He is the active and powerful Word of God, completing everything which He is sent out by God to do. This is John’s key point in the prologue. Jesus is the pre-existent, self-existent God that made the universe. The entire book of John is devoted to witnessing to this point. He says in 20:31, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…” But what does this offer to our original question? How does this show we need to know Christ? Because “by believing, you may have life in His name.” This is what John wants for people, no matter how dangerous their position in life is, so that they may have LIFE. But we only gain that life when we believe in the Creator of that life.

I’m drawn to the words of Colossians 1:15-17, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Not only was creation made through Him, but it was made for Him. Everything in the world exists to show that Christ is the greatest, above everything else. One may ask, “but what about us? Surely we’re important, if not as individuals then at least as members of humanity. We have an intrinsic value even as individuals, so how do we relate to Christ? I thought the Bible taught that no one is greater than anyone else.” My question to that fictitious question asker is this: are you part of the “all things” mentioned in verse 17? If so, congratulations! You were created to show His greatness! I wish I had the time and space to say more, but may it suffice to say this: It is the essential purpose of man to show that “in everything, [Christ is] preeminent” (v.18). No greater achievement can be made than to show the ultimate worth of God in Christ.

But Christ is not just Creator. John continues, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (vs.4-5). What more can be said? As dark as the world may appear at times, it has not overcome the light. Indeed, it cannot. Keep in mind that this was written after Christ had been crucified. If there was any point at which darkness had overcome light, Christ’s death would be it, yet John holds “the darkness has not overcome it.” Darkness had not overcome light before the crucifixion, it did not overcome it during the crucifixion, and it  certainly cannot overcome it after. Christ is light and life to everyone who believes, and through this light and life, we may be called “children of God” (v.12). This is echoed by Jesus in different words later in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus is the Light in a world where the darkness is almost tangible. He is the Way when everything else fails and leads to an unfulfilled life. He is the Life and the creator of life.

So why should we know Jesus?

Because, frankly, nothing else in the world is worth knowing in comparison.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective, Second Edition. Accessed September 11, 2016.