Monday, March 13, 2017

Life as It Ought to Be - Part 3: Set Free…to Lift Up Our Neighbor

Theme:   After investing over 50 years of my life as a student and teacher in the life sciences, I have been reflecting on how important it is for a teacher to help students realize their potential and then encouraging them to work toward professional maturity.   Spiritually speaking, we can learn much from the example of Jesus Christ, the Master Teacher.  Instead of “looking down” on people, Jesus aimed to “lift up” men and women toward spiritual maturity.  As a Christ-follower, I want to learn more about how to "lift people up." On that note, I will conclude this article with some detail on a ministry God has given me to three generations of men.
God saw His creation was "good" because it fulfilled His plan.
When I was a little child, I learned the wonderful truth that “God is good” (Psalm 73: 1).  Since then, I have been learning that all of God’s works are good (Psalm 107: 1).   In the very beginning, before God created the heavens and the earth, Jesus Christ Who is the Word of God, existed.  Within the mind of God the eternal “blueprint “of a “good creation” already existed.  Thus, when God had completed His work of creation, He saw it was good because it was the exact representation of His preconceived “blueprint.” Note that Genesis 1: 31 contains the last of seven affirmations recorded in Chapter 1 in which God proclaims the goodness and completeness of His creation.

Sadly, Satan’s intrusion into the Garden of Eden and the wrong moral choices of Adam and Eve brought sin and death, or separation from God (Genesis 3).  But God did not give up on His creation.  Since the fall, God has been doing another “good work”—the restoration of fallen humans.  The biblical narrative immediately after the fall records the first of God’s promises that “the seed of the woman” would deliver mankind from the bondage of sin (Genesis 3: 15). 

Today, we can proclaim the good news that “the Deliverer has come!”  His Name is Jesus Christ.   Jesus died on a Roman Cross and rose again to deliver from the dominion of sin and death all those who believe in His death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15: 1-8).  But Christ came not only to deliver believers into Life Eternal, but also to offer them an Abundant Life here and now—i.e. “Life as It Ought to Be.” This Life is available to all believers who by the power of God’s Holy Spirit are saved to love and serve Him (“
Part 1: Set Free…to Serve”).  Spirit-led, Scripture-fed living also leads to renewal of the way we think (“Part 2: Set Free…to Renew Our Minds”).

In Part 2, I referred to a claim by Dr. Caroline Leaf that, next to God, the most powerful thing in the universe is the human mind.  How we think has major impact on our own lives and on how we relate to others.  One specific aspect of how we think about others relates to how we serve God and our neighbor.  Therefore, Part 3 of this series will combine the points made in the first two articles.  When we are “Set Free…to Serve” and “…to Renew our Minds,” we will respond to the Spirit’s call to “Lift Up Our Neighbor.”

Christ-followers who see others through His eyes and who love them as God loves them will be God’s instruments in their spiritual restoration.   Too often, we tend to “pigeon hole” others based on our estimation of their economic status, or education, or physical appearance.  As Christ-followers, we must realize that Jesus never viewed people in this way.   Just as He did before He created the heavens and the earth, Christ envisions each person not as they were but as they would be once they were following in His steps.

The Gospel accounts are full of instances in which Jesus lifted and transformed people into what He knew they could be as a Christ-follower.  Perhaps the best example is the transformation Jesus produced in Simon Peter.  The Gospel of John records that Simon’s brother, Andrew brought him to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter).
Jesus inspires people to strive to a higher level. (e.g. Simon Peter)
In giving Simon the name, “Peter”, meaning “the Rock,” Jesus was inviting Simon to view himself in a new light as a Christ-follower.  According to Mark Nelson, Senior Pastor of Crossroads Community Church, Auburndale, FL in his March 5 message, the name, “Peter” was a nickname something like today’s “Rocky.”  Simon’s new name required him to explain to his peers why he was suddenly being called “the Rock.” In the process of explaining his new name, “the Rock” would begin to grow into the strong, faithful leader Jesus foreknew Peter would become.

But Peter the Rock would have his faltering times like we encounter along our way.  After Peter’s bold assertion that he would lay down his life for Him (John 13: 37), Jesus told Peter that
a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times (John 13: 38).  Knowing all about Peter from the beginning of time, Jesus also lovingly explained to him that Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat;  but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32)Jesus saw beyond Peter’s faltering faith to what He would become through the Spirit’s power as for example when Peter preached his powerful sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2: 14-47).

But what about people who reject any claim of God’s love in their lives?  Surely, there would seem to be no hope of their redemption and restoration.   However, we must remember that any person who is spiritually lost is infinitely separated from God regardless of their lifestyle.  Thankfully, God’s redemption plan has no limit.  For example, John 4 records that when Jesus and his disciples visited Jacob’s well in Samaria, his disciples saw a Samaritan woman.  To the Jews of that day, she was a member of a disdained ethnic minority to be avoided.  But, Jesus knew even more about her.  He knew she was living an immoral lifestyle.  In spite of what He knew of this Samaritan, Jesus saw her as a person who was very “thirsty.” So, He offered her “living water” (John 4: 10) and by faith, she allowed Jesus to quench her thirst.  Within a short time, this woman who had been hiding in shame from the public eye had left her water pot, and went into the city and said to the men, "Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?"

Psalm 107 reveals how God longs to redeem the “hungry soul” and the “thirsty soul:”

They wandered in the wilderness in a desert region...
They were hungry and thirsty;
Their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble;
He delivered them out of their distresses…
For He has satisfied the thirsty soul,
And the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.

Jesus had another way of inviting people to “life as it ought to be:” He said, come unto Me all of you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest… (Matthew 11: 28).  A.W. Tozer comments that

“…Jesus was referring to the burden of the tuneless heart, the burden of the voiceless nightingale.  It was the burden of the heart capable of tremendous, infinite love, which could not find an object for that love.  It was the burden of the man whose tongue was made to praise God, but has been silent in his mouth for all these years.”  My Daily Pursuit. Regal, 2013. p. 72

The Bible repeatedly conveys God's aim of restoring prodigals.
The message of Scripture is clear—the redeemed who realize that they have been bought from the slave market of sin will want to share the good news.  In 2 Corinthians 5: 20, the Apostle Paul writes (emphasis mine), Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.   Paul himself was far from being a pagan, but when he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and was converted, he acquired a new zeal, driven by two motivations.

First, Paul had fallen in love with Jesus Christ and wanted to make Him known.  In 2 Corinthians 5: 14, he proclaims, …the love of Christ controls us...  Like many first century believers, Paul responded to Christ’s call-- you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8). 

Second, I must remember that God is sovereign over the lives of men and women.  I must submit to His timing and His leading as to how and when to share the claims of Christ with my neighbor.  The passage quoted from Psalm 107 above teaches us that each person must first realize their hunger and thirst, and then cry out in repentance to God before he or she can be transformed.  The Psalmist is grieved when he considers people who are focused only on this life and have not yet made provision for their eternal existence after death:

For he sees that even wise men die;
The stupid and the senseless alike perish
And leave their wealth to others.
Their inner thought is that their houses are forever
And their dwelling places to all generations
… (Psalm 49: 10-11a)

During the past year, I have been privileged to share the message of Christ’s love in two different families, each representing three generations of men—a grandfather, his son, and his grandson.  By regularly committing these men to God for His work in their lives, I have received both a burden for their souls and at least some vision of what they could be once restored in Christ.  I know that I cannot pretend to know all of God’s ways as He works in the hearts of people, but I still pray that He will give me a glimpse of what they can be when complete in Christ.

The grandfather in one of the families is the man of whom I wrote in an earlier Oikonomia article entitled, Taking in the Treasures on the Towpath Trail.  In that article, I had described some of the botanical, cultural, and historic treasures I found along the Towpath Trail in my bicycle trip from Massillon to Bolivar, Ohio.  That particular trip was my third out of six visits with this man over a period of five months.  During each visit our friendship grew and he allowed me to present the biblical claims of God’s love and provision for forgiveness of his sin and subsequent peace with God through faith in Christ. 

After several visits, it became increasingly evident that this grandfather had not allowed any place for God in his busy life as a hard-working farmer.  Nor would he acknowledge his need of a Savior Who, according to Scripture, died on a Roman cross bearing the sins of us all.  When I asked him if he had a Bible in his home, he said his wife had had a Bible but must have put it back somewhere because he has not found it.  He apparently had not been searching for the Bible because his wife has been dead for over 20 years.  Nevertheless, during my next visit, I brought him two Bibles, both marked with sticky notes to highlight passages that present the Gospel of salvation.  On the next visit, he apologized for being too busy to read the verses I had marked.

On December 23, I visited this grandfather for a sixth time.  I read to him the account of the first Christmas from the Gospel of Luke.  I also explained how Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection is God’s greatest Gift to mankind to save us from our sins.  Then, I presented a fruit basket to him, explained that it is a gift from me, and asked him to receive it gladly just as God asks us to receive His Gift of salvation through Christ.  The hardness of his heart remained, even at this time when the spirit of Christmas was all around us.  Afterwards, I decided to end my visits to this man and to continue my prayers that He would reach for the Bibles and allow the message of God’s love to transform him.

After a period of over three months, on April 1, I decided to visit my friend again.  I found his home locked up and no one answered the door, so I called his son and his grandson.  I was stunned to learn from the grandson that his dad had found the grandfather (his father) lying dead in his home on Easter morning.  I also learned that the funeral service was scheduled for that afternoon just a couple of miles from the grandfather’s home.  I decided to attend.  I also hoped that God had used my ministry or that of another person in this man’s life since my Christmas visit.  If this had happened, the pastor in charge of the service would be able to report that my friend had humbly called upon God to clothe him in His righteousness in Christ before he faced eternity when he died on that Easter morning the week before. 

I thanked God for making it possible for me to attend my friend’s funeral in spite of the fact that I had been unaware of his death until that morning.  I was also thankful for the opportunity to greet his family, including his son and grandson.  Unfortunately, the pastor gave no indication that my friend had trusted Christ to lift his burden of sin and present him spotless before the throne of the Father.  Although it is not possible for me to be sure of his eternal destiny, I was not encouraged by the pastor’s “assurance” that my friend had earned his place in heaven because he was a good farmer and cared for his family. 

I must remember that my friend’s eternal destiny is in God’s hands.  Was my bicycle trip down the Towpath Trail months earlier to share the Gospel all in vain?  Were my five other visits all in vain?  I don’t think so, but only time will tell.  Certainly, I realize that it is ultimately God Who transforms lives.  Our role is to humbly share God’s treasure, the light of His glorious Gospel which we have in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves…(2 Corinthians 4: 7).  Meanwhile, I am building friendships with my now-deceased friend’s son, grandson, and family.   With God’s help, I am learning to view these men and their family members through the eyes of Christ Who can transform us all into His image according to His plan so that we can each live “Life As It Ought to Be.”

How About You?   I welcome you to share your favorite characters or events from Scripture to illustrate God’s transforming work for good.   Or maybe you have your own personal experience of being present when God transformed the life of one of your family or friends.  

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