Saved and Sent

Hundreds of times in the Bible, God either is called Savior or speaks of saving his people. What do we need to be saved from? In Matthew 1:21, Joseph heard an angel proclaim, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

The cross was God’s plan to sacrifice his son to rescue us from the penalty and consequences of our sins. The work of God through his son redeems us because sin enslaved us, reconciles us because sin separated us, justifies us because sin condemned us, and restores us because sin shattered our lives.

Titus 3:4-6 reads:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.

God’s act of grace in response to our sin is the heart of the gospel. It’s the essential truth all our beliefs are founded upon. But it isn’t the end of the story.

When Jesus appeared to his disciples following his resurrection, he didn’t just enjoy their company, he gave them a mission.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

John 20:21

God sent Jesus to be our Savior, but God was not finished sending. As disciples of Jesus, we also are sent into the world to proclaim that God has come to redeem and restore his creation. Do you know what we call sent people?

We call them missionaries.

This is your new gospel identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. You are a missionary. You might think, I’m not a missionary. Missionaries take their families to remote areas of Africa to evangelize natives you might see in National Geographic – then you never hear from them again. That’s a missionary. I’m not a missionary! However, if you look up “missionary” in the dictionary, it just means “one sent on a mission.”

We are sent as missionaries to our family, neighborhood, workplace, schools, and every other sphere of life. In other words, we’re given a mission to reach the people around us, wherever we are.

Some may question whether this truly applies to every follower of Jesus or only those sent to remote corners of the world – people who chose mission work as their full-time job. But Scripture answers this question without reservation.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Everyone God saves, God sends. The result of our reconciliation is we are also entrusted with the mission to implore others to be reconciled to God. Where have you been sent?

The Christian faith is a viral movement. You heard the message of the gospel from someone. They heard it from someone too. When the gospel came to you, it was on its way to someone else. Therefore, it must not stop with us. As missionaries, going and multiplying becomes our new purpose for living.

This isn’t only important because of the potential impact on other people. When we don’t live as missionaries, we are short-circuiting God’s plan for our lives, choosing a lesser story that will not ultimately satisfy our hearts. God wrote eternity in our hearts. But we easily get intoxicated with smaller stories. The apostle Paul warns against this kind of distraction.

As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

2 Timothy 4:5

You are a missionary. If you don’t see yourself with that gospel identity, go back to the fact that God sent you. If you don’t see yourself as sent by God, go back to the gospel truth of God as Savior. When we see God as the Savior who, in Christ, rescued us from sin, we understand better that everyone who God saves, God sends. And if we are sent, that makes us missionaries. And if we are missionaries, then our new purpose in life is to go and multiply.

(This article adapted from Go & Multiply: Sharing the Gospel in Word and Deed)

 

It’s a Myth! Paul Wasn’t Saul’s Christian Name

This article was originally published on September 2, 2020 at blog.yanceyarrington.com and posted here by permission. You can read the original article here.


Let’s make this short and sweet. God didn’t change the apostle’s name from Saul to Paul when the man from Tarsus became a Christian. That’s a myth far too many Christians believe and, more unfortunately, far too many pastors have taught Christians to believe. The truth is Saul and Paul were both the apostle’s names well before his conversion to Christianity on the Damascus road.

Like Jews living in the Roman empire, Paul had two names. His Hebrew name was Saul. His Roman name (a Latinized version of Saul) was Paul. Paul likely deferred to his Roman name (e.g., in his letters) because he primarily ministered to the Roman world which included both Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews.1  He was just being a good missionary. If a Jewish name might be a potential hangup for some of his audience, then he would merely refer to himself by his other name.2 It was as simple as that.

In his commentary on Acts 13 concerning the Saul/Paul element, Dr. John B. Polhill, professor of New Testament at Southern Seminary, writes:

In v. 9 Luke identified Saul by his Roman name, “who was also called Paul.” From this point on in Acts, the name Paul appears, whereas before it had been “Saul.” The only exceptions hereafter are Paul’s recounting his conversion experience when he repeated the call of Jesus to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Why did Luke change the designation at this point?…Paul was now entering Greco-Roman territory as he worked on Cyprus, no longer working primarily among Palestinian Jews. He almost certainly had both names. Paul was his Roman cognomen, and every Roman citizen had such a name. It would be the name natural to every Greek and Roman who crossed his path. Paul also had a Hebrew name, called a signum, an additional name used within his own community. It was Saul, the same name as the ancient Jewish king who was also a Benjamite. This signum “Saul” was surely that used of him in Jewish circles. Luke’s switch at this point is thus natural and quite observant of the situation. Moving into Greco-Roman territory, Paul would be the name primarily used to address him.3

Polhill clearly doesn’t say God changed Paul’s name. Why? Because Paul already was his name! Indeed, the professor points out that the author Luke is the one who changes the designation in the Acts narrative and subsequently offers the likely reason why. That’s it. The issue is fairly straightforward.

Sorry to ruin all those “New Life, New Name” sermons that get preached to unsuspecting congregations, but to say that Saul changed his name to Paul because of his coming to Jesus is attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole. It’s doesn’t work. It’s inaccurate. It’s also sloppy with the text and, frankly, a lesson in either shoddy preparation or eisegesis, both of which pastors do well to avoid.


  1. Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora born outside Judea. Contrast them with native born Palestinian Jews who spoke Aramaic. Acts 6:1-7 highlights a tension between the two groups.
  2. Scholar E. Randolph Richards points out that the word saulos translates into a pejorative term in Greek and thus, offers one more reason why the apostle might have chosen Paul over Saul in Greek or Roman settings. See Richards’ First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection, pp. 128-129. Richards also notes on p. 128, “Paul did not change his name from Saul to Paul when he began working with Gentiles. Rather, he stopped using Saul, his first name, and began using his surname when he moved into the Gentile world.” Hat tip to my friend Matt Davis for sharing this reference with me.
  3. Polhill,  Acts: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary), pp. 295–296.

 

18: Pharaoh

On this episode, Moses confronts Pharaoh about letting God’s people go free from Egypt. But Pharaoh is stubborn, and takes some convincing…

 

Focused on God

Filling out my children’s back-to-school forms this year has been anything but normal.

In the week leading up to the deadline, I was bouncing between choices for our girls’ elementary schooling. My husband and I talked over our options so many times, and I even consulted with friends and listened to their reasoning.

Parents, this is one of the most difficult back-to-school season we have ever faced.

Usually at this time of year we are gearing up to get back to dependable routines. We look forward to beloved pastimes at our kids’ schools and the sense of belonging in those communities.

Instead, we’re grappling with sending our kids into unfamiliar and likely ever-changing environments at school, embarking on a new online academy, or choosing to dive into teaching our children ourselves at home.

Though the circumstances are indeed unique this time around, we’ve all faced our fair share of difficult choices in life.

Years ago, my husband and I made drastic changes to our lifestyle in order to get out of debt on one income. Part of the changes involved downsizing our house, and we were faced with two choices at the beginning of our journey — one seemed safe while the other was more a leap of faith. Either choice was fraught with difficulty, and I remember feeling that we had to make the right choice or be doomed.

We made our choice, and I was humbled by how quickly doubt and uncertainty sprang up. I thought we had made the “right” choice, but I battled uncertainty for several months. It would be years before we learned the ultimate fruit of that one decision. But the lesson I learned in the midst of uncertainty was that I had to cling to God for any hope of steadiness. When I wasn’t able to hold it together, God did it for me.

I look back to that time because it was a personal primer for what we are dealing with now on a macro level. We hear people talking about doing “the next right thing,” but sometimes that next thing just isn’t clear.

The good news is that this isn’t about making the right decision. There is no right decision. It’s about trusting God with the decision we have made.

This notion can be hard. Often, I want someone to just tell me in plain black and white what exactly I need to do. But that kind of living does little good in producing strong faith. Trust isn’t about emotions but obedience.

As Christ-followers we ask for peace in the midst of uncertainty. We seek him in Scripture and in our biblical community. And then, in faith, we trust God with what we can’t predict or control.

Ultimately, this is what Christians should do with every decision, every day, pandemic or no pandemic.

God is the same. Always.

Listen to what Isaiah tells us about God:

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.

– Isaiah 26:3

I love the circular idea of this. God keeps me in peace as I look to him. I trust him because he sustains me in peace and because he is everlasting. This shows a connection between God and me. It’s only when I pull away from God that this circle is broken and my peace falters.

But God does not pull away. He is the one who sustains me. My job is to go back to him when I have gone astray.

The answer is right there in black and white.

Though current circumstances are more challenging than usual, our God has not changed. He will give us the same measures of peace, faith, and trust as he has always done when we ask. He will give us direction as we make difficult choices.

So, let’s continue the dialogue with him in prayer, asking him for these intangible gifts.

Let’s seek to understand more of his everlasting nature in the pages of Scripture, building our faith in him.

Let’s lean on our biblical community for encouragement and camaraderie when doubt darkens our minds.

And let us not abandon our ultimate hope in Christ who has paid our penalty at the cross so that we can have this peace that God so freely and abundantly wishes to give us.

God is there, unchanging, for the one who keeps his mind on him.


 

17: Moses

Who’s in the Bible is back for season 2! Aric and Lance jump into Exodus to learn about Moses and the fate of the Israelite people in Egypt.

 

052: Christianity and Mental Health

During the Sticky message series, we’re sitting down with preachers right after they finish preaching to continue the conversation. On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen talks with Lead Pastor Bruce Wesley and counselor Tara Warner following Bruce’s sermon, “Christianity and Mental Health.”

Resources: 

Grace for the Afflicted by Matthew S. Stanford

Hope and Healing Center and Institute in Houston

Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation

Clear Creek Care and Support

In, But Not Of

If you’ve spent enough time in church circles, you’ve probably heard the saying, “Live in the world, but not of the world.”

But is this just a cliché or is this actually something Christians can and should do?

How do we live in a world that is broken among those who reject God, but still love our neighbors and remain faithful to Christ?

Let’s look at a story from the Old Testament to help us understand what living in the world, but not of the world can actually look like for followers of Jesus in today’s world.

After the city of Jerusalem was brutally attacked by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army, thousands of Jewish people were forced to relocate to a foreign land. Among them was a young man named Daniel. Every aspect of his life was changed quickly and completely as he walked through these dark days.

Daniel was relocated to Babylon, a majestic city and home to over 50 temples dedicated to various gods – a new world where the freedom might have appeared to be endless. Babylon provided abundant opportunity for sexual indulgence, extravagant food and drinks, lavish comforts and the prospect of wealth and success. In the book of Daniel, we read that Daniel was recruited to work for the king, but faced a tough choice: he could completely give in and embrace every pleasure the culture seemed to offer, or he could try to maintain his loyalty to God in this specific place and time.

Daniel was taken into the king’s service. He learned the language and literature of the Babylonians and was given royal food and wine. But, Daniel was convicted, as one of God’s chosen people, to live differently than those around him and honor God in every aspect of his life.

In Daniel 1:8, we see that “Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.”

He made up his mind and purposed in his heart that he was not going to compromise his wholehearted faithfulness to the Lord.

Being far from home, he could have easily come up with excuses for his behavior.

“No one will ever know.”

“Everyone else is doing it, it would be weird for me not to join in.”

“It’s not really that big of a deal.”

“Just this one time.”

But it was never worth it to him. What can Daniel’s story teach us about living in, loving, and serving the world, but not being conformed to it?

The pleasures of this world always battle for our time, money, attention and heart, but when we pull back the curtain we find they often offer empty promises that can’t deliver.

They promise life, but give death.

They promise freedom, but make us feel more enslaved.

They promise happiness, but leave us feeling empty.

The freedom we yearn for and the satisfaction we chase will never be found in the fleeting pleasures of the world. Seeking the approval of man pales in comparison to the fullness to joy that is found in a life with God. Daniel remained obedient to God in the temptation of sinful pleasures. Staying close to God and continuing to obey him meant peace in the chaos and light in the darkness.

So, is to “live in the world, but not of the world,” merely a cliché?

It can be. It can also be used as an excuse to reject God’s good creation or stay away from those who don’t know Christ. But a deeper understanding of how God calls us to obey him and love others can transform this much used and simplified phrase into a mission.

We are called to be missionaries in this world without letting the pleasures of the world sink their distracting and deadly fangs into our hearts. Instead, we are called to live in a way that shows that our identity, hope, joy, and peace come from God alone. Becoming a follower of Jesus means we live the rest of our lives fighting the darkness of sin and sharing the hope we have in Christ with others.

Just like Daniel, God has called us to live in this specific time and place, with our own unique opportunities to love those around us.

As citizens of his kingdom, we must listen to and obey Jesus – the true king, who loves us, protects us and has already accomplished everything necessary to make us right with God.

In a world that is still broken, may our allegiance to Christ be a light that breaks through the darkness.

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

– Matthew 5:14-16


 

Zechariah

This week we wrapped up a summer-long series entitled For the Love of God: A Study of the Minor Prophets and after 11 weeks, I can personally attest to the Minor Prophets’ significance in my own understanding of the character of God. Each week, through each book, we saw different facets of God’s steadfast love for his people. For me it was like looking at the most precious diamond in the world and each angle provided yet another glimpse into the brilliance of the gem. That’s how we see God’s character revealed through each minor prophet.

But, if you’ve tracked along throughout the summer (and you kept the table of contents in your Bible open) you may have noticed we missed one of the twelve minor prophets: Zechariah. We had planned this teaching series for 11 weeks, simply due to some natural rhythms in the church calendar, but all along we knew one of the 12 would be forgotten. Ironically, the name Zechariah means “God remembers.”

So, for those who might feel short-changed or, for the love of God, can’t imagine making it this far through the Minor Prophets and missing the last one, we wanted to provide a few resources on the book of Zechariah to conclude the series. As we have all summer, you can study the book with us by utilizing the Bible Project video and discussion questions provided here.

But how might the book of Zechariah give us one last glimpse into the character of God this summer? What is the unique facet of God’s love revealed in this minor prophet’s writing?

In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying…

– Zechariah 1:1

Names, in the Old Testament, often serve as a literary device in which the author hints at the point of the story through the names mentioned in the text. For example, we see this in the story of Hosea when each of Gomer’s children’s names reference Israel’s state of disobedience and then are changed to reflect God’s grace towards them.

Well, in Zechariah 1:1 we are given a clue as to the point of this story, too.

As mentioned above, Zechariah (in Hebrew) means “Yahweh remembers.” So, what does the LORD remember? The next two names in the verse give us some indication. Berechiah means “God will bless” and Iddo means “at the appointed time.” God remembers, and at the appointed time, he will bless his people. This is one of the main thrusts of Zechariah’s prophecy.

The context of Zechariah is similar to that of Haggai, in fact their prophecies overlap in history. The nation of Israel was returning from exile to a city and a temple in ashes. It had been utterly destroyed by the previous Babylonian conquest. But God remembered. God remembered his covenant with his people. He remembered his promise to bless them and keep them. This does not mean, that God had somehow forgotten at some point. Rather, despite Israel’s cycle of disobedience, God faithfully remembered his promises and still desired a relationship with them.

So, God continued to reach out and pursue them. God gave Zechariah an oracle – a message – to serve as a love note to his people.

Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.

– Zechariah 1:3b

Notice the repetition of the name for Yahweh here: the Lord of hosts. This moniker appears 261 times in the Old Testament, 80 of which occur in the short books of Zechariah and Haggai. The emphasis is on God’s control. When the people are discouraged by the state of their city, disheartened by the state of their temple, and disillusioned by feeling out of control, God reminds them he is sovereign; he is in control of history; he remembers.

And he calls his people to remember as well when he says “return to me.” He’s calling for a renewed commitment to obedience.

What follows this call can only be described as bizarre, and exactly what you think of when you think of Old Testament prophecy: visions with images that are hard to explain, sections of poetry, and non-linear illustrations of Israel’s current state, mixed with their future hope, and  promises of a Messianic king.

The non-linear flow of this book mirrors the non-linear nature of history and our lives. It’s a reminder that not everything is as neat and clean and perfect as we might like, and yet even when the world feels out of control, the Lord of hosts remembers. God remembers his people. He has not forgotten his promises or turned his back on the people he loves.

In fact, Zechariah looks to the future Messiah as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s remembering. Zechariah describes Jesus as humble, coming on a donkey (9:9-11), and as shepherd who would be rejected (13:7-9) 500 years before it all happened.

Jesus – through his perfect life, death, and resurrection – continues Zechariah’s theme of God’s control over history, God’s pursuit of his people, and the fact that God remembers his promise.

At the appointed time, he will bless his people.

This promise was partially fulfilled in Zechariah’s time as the people returned to the Lord and obeyed for a brief period of time. But, it was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus when, at the appointed time, God blessed his people with his presence on earth.

In times where we are discouraged by the state of our nation or our culture, when we are disheartened by our inability to gather for worship and become disillusioned by feeling out of control, be reminded by Zechariah that God is in control.

God remembers.

God loves you.

And his promise is still being fulfilled, today, as God continues to call people to himself.

At his appointed time, not yours or mine, he will bless his people.

All of this points us to the sovereign love of God.


 

A Study of Zechariah: The Sovereign Love of God

In the summer 2020 message series “For the Love,” the Clear Creek Community Church Teaching Team will examine one of the least known sections of the Bible, the books known as the Minor Prophets, to better understand the great love of God and our faithful response to that love. Join with us in reading each book along the way! Each Sunday afternoon we will post an introductory video by The Bible Project and a 5-day reading plan with reflection questions to prepare you to hear the following Sunday’s message.


DAY 1—Read Zechariah 1-3

Zechariah begins with a clear identification of the setting for this prophet’s preaching: the reign of the Persian king Darius, during which God’s people are living back in Jerusalem after 70 years of exile. Verse 3 contains a clarion call which resonates through the remainder of the book: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you. To whom does Zechariah compare his audience in 1:2-6? What does he want his listeners to return from doing?

The rest of today’s reading is a series of visions, sent to Zechariah by the Lord, in order to deliver his message to the people of Jerusalem. The first three visions involve a horseman, four horns and craftsmen, and a man with a measuring line—but thankfully Zechariah doesn’t leave us to guess what these varied images represent. For each vision that he sees, an angel accompanies him to explain God’s message. What is the overarching message of these three visions? Is the tone of Zechariah’s prophecy more positive or negative, more hopeful or frightening?

Our reading today closes with a vision of Joshua, the high priest of Zechariah’s day, being clothed in clean garments—a symbol of holiness in the presence of the Lord. This vision is accompanied by a promise: The Branch, God’s servant, will come to remove the land’s iniquity and bring full restoration (3:8-10). Who is this promised Branch (Isaiah 11:1-5, Jeremiah 33:15-16)? What characteristics of his are displayed in these passages? How does Jesus fulfill these promises with his coming?

 

 

DAY 2—Read Zechariah 4-6

Zerubbabel was the leader of the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem after Cyrus’ edict, who had led the people to begin work on rebuilding the temple before its construction was stalled (Ezra 3:1-4:5). What does the Lord promise that Zerubbabel will do? By what power will this work be accomplished?

Zechariah’s visions continue in Chapters 5-6 with a flying scroll, a woman in a basket, and four chariots. What do these visions have in common? Would these messages have produced hope or fear in God’s people?

 

APPLY—Today’s reading again concludes with a prophecy regarding Joshua, the high priest, and the promised Branch who is to come. The crowning of Joshua seems to imply that both the priesthood and the Davidic kingship are essential to the future restoration of God’s people. Read Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-22. How does Jesus fulfill both of these roles? How might an awareness of the kingship and priesthood of Jesus on our behalf transform our relationship with him?

 

 

DAY 3—Read Zechariah 7-8

These two chapters were written two years after the visions of Chapters 1-6, addressing a different dilemma among God’s people. During the exile, the Jews had made a practice of regular fasting to mourn the tragic loss of their nation and pray for God’s mercy. What question do they ask Zechariah in 7:3? Zechariah answers their query with both a question and a history lesson—what does he ask, and whose history does he recall?

Chapter 8 begins with a statement of the Lord’s jealousy for Zion, just as he declared in 1:14. As opposed to the more familiar concept of being jealous of someone, what do you think it means to be jealous for someone? What desires does God have for his people (v. 4-8)?

 

APPLY—Twice in today’s reading, Zechariah summarizes the law of God into some simple statements of how we treat others (7:9-10, 8:16-17). List the commands given in these verses. What difference can it make when we see these as instructions for a flourishing life in community rather than arbitrary laws to keep in order to avoid punishment? Which of these is most challenging for you—remembering to evaluate your own thoughts and attitudes as well as behavior?

 

 

DAY 4—Read Zechariah 9-11

Today’s reading has a lot going on: multiple audiences, both blessings and curses, promises of redemption and judgment. Although we could examine many different aspects of these chapters, we’re going to focus in on a few select verses that are referenced in the life of Jesus.

Zechariah 9:9 foretells the coming of a future King who would rescue God’s people. What aspects of the Messiah’s character are emphasized? Read Matthew 21:1-11. How would the crowd’s familiarity with Zechariah’s prophecy have influenced their response to Jesus?

Zechariah 11:12-13 is cited (in combination with a related passage in Jeremiah) in Matthew 27:1-10. In what ways do we see Judas fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy? What connections do you see between the chief priests in Matthew 27 and the sheep traders of Zechariah’s story?

 

APPLY—The shepherds of the flock of Israel are a recurring theme throughout today’s reading, for their leaders had been marked by irresponsibility and exploitation rather than compassion and faithfulness. How does the guidance given by Israel’s leaders (10:2-3, 11:5-6 & 16) compare to the care that God promises to give (9:16-17, 10:3 & 8)? Read John 10:11-15. How have you experienced Jesus’ tender guidance and care in your life?

 

 

DAY 5—Read Zechariah 12-14

These last chapters of Zechariah also contain references to the gospel accounts. Zechariah 12 speaks of the Lord’s promise to bring salvation to his people, ending with their mourning over one whom they have pierced(v. 10). Read John 19:31-37. How does John explain the fulfillment of this prophecy? Why is Zechariah’s description of how they will mourn significant?

Chapter 13 again alternates between promises of future judgment and restoration, connecting back with his earlier prophecies regarding the shepherd and his flock. Read Mark 14:26-31. How does Jesus connect Zechariah 13:7 to his disciples’ future behavior? What hope and grace does he extend to them despite his awareness of their coming failure?

 

APPLY—Zechariah 14 concludes the book with a prophecy of the coming Day of the Lord, in which great suffering (v. 1-2) will be followed by the final victory of the Lord and the restoration of Jerusalem. Though there are multiple ways to interpret the details of this passage, we can be assured that the definitive fulfillment will come in the establishment of the New Jerusalem following the Second Coming of Christ. Read Revelation 21:22-22:4—what similarities do you see between this passage and Zechariah 14? What hope do these promises give you about our ultimate future and the Lord who will bring it to pass? How can you live today in light of that hope?


 

Love Your Enemies

There are some days when life feels like the first 10 minutes of a Disney movie. The sun is shining, your hair looks great, the people you cross paths with at the grocery store are really friendly, and you feel like you could just burst out into song at any moment.

Then there are days when you feel like you’re trapped in a war movie or maybe a horror flick. Everything goes from bad to worse as you deal with your own wounds and brokenness coming to bear in your relationships and interactions; or the effects of other people’s scars, hurts, and hang-ups; or the ugliness of the world playing out right before your eyes.

This year has felt a lot more like the latter.

The tricky part for Christians is that Jesus calls his followers into both kinds of days.

He doesn’t say to love the Lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength only when things are going well for you, or only when your back isn’t against the wall, or only when you aren’t facing a global pandemic, national tension, and an election year.

It’s an all-the-time thing.

Similarly, he doesn’t command us to love people only when we feel like it, or when they’ve earned it, when we’re allowed to leave our houses and actually see them, or when they agree with us.

It’s an all-the-time thing.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

– Matthew 5:43-45

God values people. No matter how righteous or lost an individual may be, they are someone God dreamt up and breathed his breath of life into. You and me and everyone else.

When people are mean to us, or directly oppose us, or seem to be blind to our very existence, it can feel like the best course of action is retaliation.

But this is where Jesus’ words counter not just our culture, but our human instinct.

“Love your enemies.

“Pray for those who persecute you.”

Jesus is saying, see past their actions; care about their souls.

He isn’t commanding us to allow evil and let violence and corruption run amok. Nor is he condemning self-defense.

He’s telling us to see our enemies the way God does.

In the book of Acts, a young Christian named Stephen was taken out of the city to be stoned to death after he had just stood before the Sanhedrin (Jewish council) and preached through the Old Testament in order to show them that they had missed the Messiah.

But as Stephen lived out his final moments on earth, literally dying for the mission of Christ, he did something unexpected.

“And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he said this, he fell asleep.”

– Acts 7:60

This religious group had executed Jesus and were subsequently executing his followers. They fit the bill as much as anyone to be an enemy to Christians. But Stephen displayed the greatest love anyone could in the midst of such a tragedy. As they threw their ill-meaning rocks at his body, he threw back genuine prayers for their good to the only one who could do anything about it.

And who should be presiding over this scene, but Paul, known then as Saul, who would later pen the words:

“For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

– Romans 5:7-8

Paul was one of those people Christ died for when he was still in willful rebellion to the gospel.

And you know what?

You and I were too.

The best thing anyone could ever do for you is love you enough to rescue you from your own destruction.

And so when Jesus says to love our enemies, he’s not saying that means we should turn a blind eye to what they’re doing. He’s not saying what they’re doing is right. Love is in no way undermining the fact that God is perfectly just, and that there are very real consequences for sin on this side of eternity and beyond.

But rather than leaving them to their fate, Jesus is saying we should not give up on them in light of the gospel.

Because he didn’t give up on us.

The apostle Peter said it this way: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” (2 Peter 3:9).

If the story of Stephen sounded familiar, there’s probably a reason.

Jesus, as he was hanging on a cross dying for the sins of the world, was also dying for the sins of those who put him there – the enemies of his ministry and those carrying out their orders.

“And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.”

– Luke 23:33-34

Upon first reading this gospel account, it’s hard not to feel anger and indignation at the people who beat and mocked Jesus as he was becoming the propitiation for those very sins. But that’s not how Jesus saw them.

He could have called down curses upon them or proved them wrong by coming down off the cross unharmed.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he chose grace – the undeserved gift of mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and hope.

My prayer is that in this season and all those still to come we would be people who choose grace too.