Archive for July, 2011
Jesus is certainly interested in fruit bearing. In the text He spoke of fruit, bearing fruit, bearing more fruit, and bearing much fruit. As I see it, fruit bearing is the by product of abiding and obeying. When a believer abides in Christ and obeys Him, that believer will become fruitful.
Ancient viticulture used two processes to ensure the harvest of fruit. The first process involved training the vines. Grapevines would be trained by running them along poles or trellises. The vines were lifted up from the ground to improve their fruit bearing potential.
In addition to training was pruning the vines. The ancients pruned twice a year. In the spring, they would remove the tips of rapidly growing shoots so that the vine would not become an end unto itself and to prevent it from breaking in high wind. Some of the flowers and early clusters would also be thinned to improve the quality of the fruit that was permitted to grow. The vines would be cleaned from the suckers that would grow up from the ground and become attached to the true vine and sap its strength. After the harvest in the fall and the vines were dormant, the gardener would remove unproductive vines and cut back the desired branches.
In our discipleship to Christ we too experience training and pruning. What is our training? I think our training is in our study of Scripture, for the Scripture is the trellis our lives run along. We also experience pruning as we cut away the stuff of life that clutters our discipleship and stunts our growth.
So what is this fruit we are to be producing? Scholars are divided along two generalizations. Some see fruitfulness as reproducing our faith in the lives of others through evangelism and missions. Others see it as the righteous living that is shared in service and ministry to the world. Or even some combination of the two. However you choose to come down on your understanding of fruitfulness, one thing is certain. Fruit is not to be appreciated, it is to be consumed. That’s the purpose of fruit.
A casual examination of the text would lead one to believe that the goal is fruit bearing. While this is important, it isn’t what Jesus is ultimately trying to accomplish. Jesus’ goal is not remaining, obeying, or even bearing fruit. The goal that Jesus has in mind is that we glorify God. Remaining, obeying, and bearing fruit are the ways we glorify God, and make His name greater and His Kingdom larger.
Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seent he Father.” Who do people see when they see you?
Jesus spoke the words recorded in John 15 to his disciples on the night he was betrayed. Last words are important words, much like the final briefing to a squadron prior to their departure for a mission. One of the first words in the text that leaps off the page is the word “remain” (or abide in many translations).
The word remain speaks of a relationship that is organically linked, where the life of Christ flows into our lives and His nature becomes our nature. An example of this type of relationship is the union we see among the Trinity. “God in three persons,” as the hymn says. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit, all dwell in perfect community among themselves, yet remain One. Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”
The relationship we enjoy in Christ is not one of mimicking Jesus or even imitating Jesus. We share in the gene pool of the divine. Our spiritual DNA identifies us as the same. Six times Jesus bids his listeners to “remain.” His desire is that we find our life source in Him.
The second element in this passage is obedience, though it is more implied than overtly stated. Obedience usually bears a negative connotation. The word makes us uncomfortable because we usually associate obedience with being forced to do things regardless of our personal will. In the spiritual realm, obedience is not the rote activity of dutiful behavior. Instead, obedience is the joyful delight that comes when we respond to the life of Christ that is flowing like a river within us. When we obey Christ, we are simply acting in a manner that is consistent with our nature. Like children, we begin to act “just like the Father,” and “take after” Him.
When God urges us to be obedient, He’s calling upon us to live up to our nature. That’s why 10,000 “Thou shalt nots” will not make you one iota like Jesus. It’s not rote behavior. We are to remain in Him, and flowing out of that relationship is activity that is consistent with our spiritual DNA.
Tomorrow I’ll post more about the by-product of remaining and obeying, which is bearing fruit, and I’ll get into the ultimate end game that God has for it all.
I began to regularly eat fruit when I started my weight loss journey about 50 pounds ago. Before then, my consumption of fruit was limited to Fruity Pebbles, Hostess Fruit Pies, and Fruit by the Foot. But I’ve learned to enjoy and even appreciate fruit. One of the obvious attributes of fruit is its beauty. When I look at a ripe piece of fruit I marvel at the color and shading. Maybe that’s why you’ll never see an oil painting of bacon in an art museum. Don’t get me wrong, I like bacon. Bacon is pretty good, but it isn’t pretty. Fruit is also appealing. When you see it, you desire it. Which was the problem Adam and Eve ran into. What if the serpent would have approached the innocent Edenic couple with lima beans? Would things have turned out different? Can will really think in terms of the “forbidden vegetable?” Not only is fruit beautiful and appealing, it also satisfies. It’s edible, tasty, and nutritious.
Fruit is an important metaphor throughout Scripture. The Psalms, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Isaiah all utilize the metaphor to describe the special relationship God desired to have with His people. Israel got the imagery. In fact, according to the ancient historian Josephus, above the main entrance of the Temple in Jerusalem there was a grapevine with a cluster of grapes as tall as a man overlaid in gold. Israel understood the image but ultimately failed to live out the purpose of the image. Isaiah 5:7 states God’s disappointment this way, “The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s armies. The people of Judah are his pleasant garden. He expected a crop of justice, but instead he found oppression. He expected to find righteousness, but instead he heard cries of violence” (NLT).
It was against this Old Testament background of Israel as the vine that failed to produce good fruit that Jesus said, “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father” (John 15:1-8, NLT)
Jesus spoke these words to his disciples on the night he was betrayed and I believe He continues to speak these words to his Church. What does this have to do with our discipleship to Christ? Tomorrow I’ll unpack the important concepts from Jesus’ teaching in this incredible text.
“But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, ‘How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!’ But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, ‘LORD, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ” (Romans 10:14-17, NLT)
Paul has listed five verbs in direct succession: calling, believing, hearing, telling, and sending. If you invert that listing, you’ll see a marvelous description of God’s mission in the world. God sends the messengers, the messengers share good news, people hear the message of good news and believe the message, and believing leads to calling on the name of the Lord.
At the heart of the prayer for those who don’t is the prayer for God’s mission to be unfurled in the world. The prayer for those who don’t pray does not begin with the unresponsive or the unreceptive; it begins with the sending of the church into the world.
But this concept isn’t original with Paul. Decades before, Jesus said it this way, “When he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields’” (Matthew 9:36-38, NLT).
When we pray for the mission of God to be unfurled in the world, remember that God may use you to answer your own prayer.
So since self righteousness is not a valid option, what are the benefits of the righteousness provided by Christ? In the next section of Romans 10, Paul reveals the benefits of the righteousness that are available through Christ.
For example, we do not have to ascend to God through our own efforts because Christ has come near to us. In Romans 10:6-8, Paul continued, “But faith’s way of getting right with God says, ‘Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).’ In fact, it says, ‘The message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart.’ And that message is the very message about faith that we preach” (Romans 10:6-8, NLT). Through the incarnation and the resurrection God fully demonstrated His commitment to come near to us, rendering our efforts to ascend to God unnecessary.
Not only did God come near to us, righteousness is made available by believing and confessing the gospel. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved” (Romans 10:9-10, NLT). Self righteousness is pursued through external efforts which are believed to transform one’s inner life. But in these two verses Paul has shared that life change happens inside-out. Believing in the heart leads to confessing with the mouth. In other words, when the heart is right, right behavior will follow.
This Christ righteousness is available to all who ask! Regardless of race, gender, or status; all are welcome, and those who come to Christ are not disappointed. The next section of Romans 10 goes like this, “As the Scriptures tell us, ‘Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.’ Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved’” (Romans 10:11-13, NLT).
Tomorrow I’ll conclude this series on praying for those who don’t. Thus far I’ve observed that we should pray with understanding. What remains involves you and me and God unfurling His mission in the world.
“Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God” (Romans 10:1-4, NLT).
How do you pray for those who don’t? The first suggestion that Paul offers is to pray with understanding. Our prayers for those who don’t pray can be guided by understanding the heart of the problem. Paul shares three problems that his fellow Israelites have that are not uncommon with people today.
The first problem is what I would call religious enthusiasm. Paul acknowledged that his Jewish brothers and sisters had ample enthusiasm about spiritual things. It wasn’t just an observation that Paul had made about the Jews. He had observed the same thing about the Gentiles (cf. Acts 17:16-34). Clearly he would say the same thing today.
A simple search on Amazon.com revealed that if you searched on the word “christianity,” 280,099 results would pop up. For “spirituality” you would net 131,619 results, and “new age” would yield 13,307. If you amplify the search to a broader domain such as Google, “christianity” would provide a return of 116,000,000 hits. “Spirituality” would produce 136,000,000, and “new age” a whopping 422,000,000!
Our Christian houses of worship may reflect otherwise on Sunday morning, but the world is buzzing about spirituality with zealous enthusiasm!
A second problem that Paul identified was spiritual blindness. While people throughout history have demonstrated abundant zeal for spiritual things, “they don’t understand.” This enthusiasm is without knowledge. In other words, their passion is sincere, yet without truth.
In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul writes about how the god of this world has blinded the minds of people so they have a difficult time comprehending the truth about God’s way of making people right with himself. There is a spiritual battle involved concerned that we must be made aware.
Problem number three is perhaps the heart of the issue when it comes to understanding those who “don’t pray.” At the core is the attempt to make themselves right with God apart from Christ. Any righteousness they hope to attain is by self effort. In the specific case of the Jews, it is by keeping the law. But in principle, there is a sense that out of self effort will evolve the ability to connect with God. They refuse to accept God’s grace and acknowledge Him as the source of righteousness. With stubborn independence, they prefer to get to God based on their own efforts and accomplishments. Does that sound like anyone you know?
So what’s the point? The point is self effort is hard! In the next verse, Paul continues, “For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands” (Romans 10:5, NLT).
Self effort is hard because it requires the continual, unending process of learning and earning; of trying to impress God through dutiful observances and good deeds. It is based on the theory that if a person can accomplish enough good behavior that the good behavior will transform their hearts. In short, my external life will transform my internal life. The obvious problem is this: How good does a person have to be in order to be good enough for a holy God?
Let me explain it this way. How many times per day would you say that you sin? Let’s suppose for a moment that the number is three. Just three sins per day. There are 365 days in a year, so that would roughly calculate to about 1,000 sins per year. How long do you expect to live? Let’s say a number like 80 years. If you live to be 80, committing only 3 sins per day, at the end of your life you would have amassed 80,000 sins! How good would you have to be to overcome that? How many good things would you have to do to surpass that mark?
That’s Paul’s issue with self righteousness. It’s never enough. So when you pray for those who don’t, pray with that understanding in mind. Tomorrow I’ll continue in Romans 10 and share how Paul contrasts self righteousness with the righteousness provided by Christ.
Who do you know that doesn’t pray? Who do you love that doesn’t pray? How do you pray for those who don’t? The Book of Romans has been called the “Gospel According to Paul.” It is his treatment of what the gospel is and what the gospel does and how we are to approach it and spread it. As part of this great book, Paul spends some time talking about praying for those who do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Check out the following passages and observe Paul’s burden for those he holds near his heart:
“With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them” (Romans 9:1-3, NLT).
“Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved” (Romans 10:1, NLT).
Paul’s prayer for his fellow Israelites was passionate and vulnerable. It was hopeful and optimistic. He doesn’t condemn them, neither does he judge them. It is hard to imagine loving someone so much that you would be willing to take their place in hell if that would mean they would discover the righteousness that is provided through Christ.
What follows in Romans chapter 10 is an explanation of the righteousness of God and Paul’s description of the “never to be embarrassed faith” that one can find in Christ. Throughout this week I want to unpack Paul’s challenge for us to pray for people who have yet to discover God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
1. THE SIZE OF THE GIFT IS NOT EVERYTHING.
Have you ever noticed how a parent can melt over a picture drawn by their 5 year old? Or how a parent will always cherish the humble gifts given by their kids that they have purchased with their own money? Significance cannot be measured by volume. Sometimes the smallest of gifts add the most value. Jesus witnessed the offerings from the rich and the poor alike. But it’s important to understand that Jesus doesn’t count our gifts, He weighs them.
As a quick sidebar, this story is a good reminder that we should not judge the poor prematurely. Appearances can be deceiving.
2. THE POINT OF THE STORY IS NOT GENEROSITY. THE POINT OF THE STORY IS TRUST.
Who really meets your needs? I believe the response Jesus seeks from the reader is not for us to run to the bank and empty our bank accounts. The story calls us to wrestle with the question, “Who am I really trusting for my life?” “Who is the source upon which I place my reliance?” The widow gave her last two cents because she trusted God to supply her needs and to be her resource for living.
3. JESUS STILL WATCHES THE TREASURY
Jesus sees what is in your hand and He sees what is in your heart. The heart and the hand are organically linked. So it’s not a matter of the amount of the offering in your hand. What is in your heart?
Some hearts are filled with fear. What if I get sick? What if I get laid off? What if an appliance breaks or I have a car repair? What if the economy tumbles further? Fear works in our hearts to curb faith and trust.
Other hearts are filled with a sense of entitlement. I recently watched an interview of Ken Robinson where he shared some fascinating statistics concerning the earth’s ability to sustain the population. He said that according to research, we presently have approximately 7 billion people on earth. If everyone on earth lived like those in Rwanda, our world has enough resources to support a population of 15 billion people. But if everyone on earth lived like North Americans, we only have the resources to sustain about 1.5 billion people! I think many of us realize that we are blessed to live in the USA. But there’s a fine line between blessing and entitlement. Like fear, a sense of entitlement can also crowd out trust in God’s provision for our daily bread.
Jesus still watches the treasury. Yes, He sees the gifts you offer. But He’s not just looking at the size of the check. He’s weighing your heart as well. Does He feel the weight of your trust?
I’ve never had a problem with speaking on the subject of stewardship. I think the best time to teach on giving is when the church is not in dire straits. There is something about being behind in the budget and a mounting accounts payable that tends to make stewardship sermons more about immediate pain relief than the core issues of the heart.
This past weekend I spoke on stewardship from Luke 21:1-4. It’s the famous story of the widow who gave her last two “mites” (KJV) to the Temple treasury. Hence the title, “Giving with All Your Might.”
The passage reads as follows: “While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people dropping their gifts in the collection box. Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two small coins. ‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus said, ‘this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has’.”
According to the story, Jesus was watching as the rich dropped their offerings into the Temple treasury. The treasury was located in the court of women and consisted of 13 trumpet shaped collection boxes, each bearing an inscription indicating the use of each gift. It was not uncommon for the gifts of the rich to be announced publicly. Jesus observed these generous free will offerings without condemnation or criticism.
This image was placed in contrast to a simple widow who put in two “mites.” Widows in the first century were generally considered to be the poorest of the poor. They possessed no rights to property and had virtually no prospects to earn income. They were without advocacy or support. They held no status.
The widow gave two small copper coins, called lepta. The two lepta were the economic equivalent of 1 66th of 1 day’s wage.
Jesus’ evaluation of her act was straightforward: The widow gave more than the rich because she gave all. Literally, she gave all her bios, her life. While others gave out of their abundance, she gave all she had. She didn’t save a cushion. She had no promise for more income. And most intriguing of all, Jesus made no attempt to stop her.
Tomorrow I’ll share three applications on Giving with All Your Might from this simple story that occurred late in Jesus’ ministry. I was surprised at the real point of the story!
“And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for” (1 John 5:14-15, NLT).
Today I want to share six steps that have helped me in my personal approach to prayer. I trust that you can find something here that will benefit you as well.
1. Prayer begins when a God acknowledged need enters my life.
We are intimately related to the sovereign God of the universe. The God who spoke the universe into existence by the power of the word is the same God who insists we call Him “Father” and refers to us as His children. Many times when needs arise and problems intrude, instead of turning to our loving Father we respond in fear. How does God see our needs and problems? Some perspective here can be helpful. From God’s point of view, my need is a platform upon which God can prove to the world how powerfully He provides for his people. Additionally, my need is a signal from God that He has a blessing available for me for which I have not asked. And finally, my need is an indication from God that He has not given up on the possibility that I might learn how to pray. Prayer begins when we adopt God’s perspective on our needs and problems.
2. I turn to God in prayer as my first response, not my last resort.
Many of our public buildings have fire extinguishers encased in a glass cabinet. Etched on the glass in bright red lettering is the phrase, “In case of emergency, break glass.” Ironically, that’s how many people view prayer. When we have come to the end of our resources and our resourcefulness, we break the glass and make our desperate pleas to God. Our relationship to God is a love relationship, not a legal contract. He desires to be our first response when challenges arise.
3. In prayer, God reveals His will to me.
God does this through two means: by His Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:9-12) and through the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Spirit of God and the word of God are like two rails upon which a train travels. It takes both to get the job done. If you take one away from the other you risk derailment.
4. I align my will with God’s will.
Here’s the tricky part. Knowing God’s will is only half the battle. Once you are aware of God’s will, you have to take the next step and align your will with God’s will. I think the most helpful passage on this point is the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene. He clearly knew the Father’s will, yet asked three times for the Father’s “plan B.” The conclusion Jesus came to was the conclusion we must come to in this step, which is “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
5. I make a faith request based upon God’s will.
Jesus taught us to ask according to the will of the Father. God’s will is our guidance in prayer. We can know God’s will and must ask in accordance to His will when we pray.
6. God hears and grants the request that is made in His will.
1 John 5:14-15 indicates that God’s hearing and granting are simultaneous in nature. When God hears His will He grants his will.
These steps in prayer have been helpful to me, and I trust that you will find them helpful to you as you continue to learn how to pray. Like riding a bicycle, the only way we can really learn to pray is to pray! FB Meyer once commented that the most tragic aspect of prayer is not unanswered prayer. The most tragic thing is unoffered prayer. Let me encourage you to continue to pursue prayer daily. There’s no better way to learn!