Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire

Lately I’ve been noticing some differences between general “Christian living” type books publish today and those published two or three decades ago (not often but sometimes). Many of the authors of those past books are still writing today along with a plethora of Christian writers who have arrived on the scene since then. Over this time span postmodernism has had a major influence on the church, and it is sometimes apparent when comparing some of what is being written today from what was written twenty or thirty years ago. The following brief description of postmodernism as it relates to the church is found at GotQuestions.org:

Postmodern Christianity is just as difficult to lock down in a concise definition as postmodernism itself. What started in the 1950s in architecture as a reaction to modernist thought and style was soon adopted by the art and literary world in the 1970s and 1980s. The Church didn’t really feel this effect until the 1990s. This reaction was a dissolution of “cold, hard fact” in favor of “warm, fuzzy subjectivity.” Think of anything considered postmodern, then stick Christianity into that context and you have a glimpse of what post-modern Christianity is.

Postmodern Christianity falls into line with basic post-modernist thinking. It is about experience over reason, subjectivity over objectivity, spirituality over religion, images over words, outward over inward. Are these things good? Sure. Are these things bad? Sure. It all depends on how far from biblical truth each reaction against modernity takes one’s faith. This, of course, is up to each believer. However, when groups form under such thinking, theology and doctrine tend to lean more towards liberalism.

For example, because experience is valued more highly than reason, truth becomes relative. This opens up all kinds of problems, as this lessens the standard that the Bible contains absolute truth, and even disqualifies biblical truth as being absolute in many cases. If the Bible is not our source for absolute truth, and personal experience is allowed to define and interpret what truth actually is, a saving faith in Jesus Christ is rendered meaningless.

There will always be “paradigm shifts” in thinking as long as mankind inhabits this present earth, because mankind constantly seeks to better itself in knowledge and stature. Challenges to our way of thinking are good, as they cause us to grow, to learn, and to understand. This is the principle of Romans 12:2 at work, of our minds being transformed. Yet, we need to be ever mindful of Acts 17:11 and be like the Bereans, weighing every new teaching, every new thought, against Scripture. We don’t let our experiences interpret Scripture for us, but as we change and conform ourselves to Christ, we interpret our experiences according to Scripture. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening in circles espousing post-modern Christianity. (Quote source here.)

What initially got me thinking about this difference came from a book I found yesterday at Goodwill that was originally published back in 1997. The book is titled,Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire,” by Jim Cymbala, pastor at The Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City and author of numerous books. The full title of the book is Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire: What Happens When God’s Spirit Invades the Hearts of His People,” originally published 21 years ago, and coauthored with Dean Merrill, former magazine editor, editorial director, and a former vice president at International Bible Society (now Biblica). He is also an author of numerous books.

In a 1998 book review on Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire,” written by Michael J. Dies, reviews editor for Pneuma Review, he states the following:

Jim Cymbala is the pastor of  the Brooklyn Tabernacle, New York, NY. Pastored by Cymbala since 1972, the Tabernacle has, as of 1996, began holding four services a Sunday, each with at least 1,600 per meeting. This is despite the fact that they have been sending groups out to plant churches since 1985, seventeen as of the printing of his book. In the inner city, a church isn’t likely to grow due to transference of members from other churches, or slick programs. Churches grow in dark places when they meet the deep spiritual needs of the people. Clearly then, Jim Cymbala has something to say.

The first part of the book shows the struggle Jim and his wife Carol endured when they took on a small dying church in Brooklyn, that could not even pay it’s bills. A young man with no formal training in ministry, he heard all manner of church growth advice (p. 24). Finally the Lord spoke to him, saying that if he would lead the people to pray and call on his name, that they would never build a building large enough to accommodate the crowds God would send. On that word from the Lord, Cymbala instituted Tuesday night prayer in his church and, as they say, the rest is history.

Cymbala told his church that the Tuesday prayer meeting would become the barometer for the church, the gauge by which they would judge success or failure (p. 27). By this measure Cymbala sees the church in America sadly lacking. In Brooklyn, broken lives were healed, from prostitutes to drug addicts, not because of polished sermons, or better teaching, but because of love birthed in prayer.

“Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire” is a plea to the church in this country to return to prayer. “Pastors and churches have to get uncomfortable enough to say, ‘We are not New Testament churches if we don’t have a prayer life’” (p 50). Many pastors have come to him and told Cymbala that they would be embarrassed to have a prayer meeting in their church because nobody would come. “Does the Bible say anywhere from Genesis to Revelation that  ‘My house shall be called a house of preaching?’” (p. 71). He is bold enough to say that he is embarrassed that religious leaders in America talk about having prayer in public schools, when we do not even have prayer in our churches (p. 72).

Cymbala rounds out the book with an assessment of the church’s penchant for novelty (chapter 7), marketing (chapter 8), and doctrine without power (chapter 9). This includes a sober and refreshing look at fads, and “new” doctrines. . . . (Quote source here.)

From the Parable of the Persistent Widow (click on pic to go to Luke 18:1-8)

The Church was born shortly after Jesus’ resurrection, and the Book of Acts in the New Testament tells the story of its beginning and its complete dependence on God for everything–literally everything. When I stated above that I sometimes noticed a difference in the writings of Christian authors from two or three decades ago compared with today, that statement isn’t made as if I’m pining for some type of “good old days.” God and Jesus Christ don’t change from generation to generation or culture to culture (see Hebrews 13:8). However, our focus over time has shifted in ways we might not even notice or recognize.

In the 21st Century we are constantly inundated with new information that molds our thinking and our choices through social media, advertising, peer pressure, and the constant 24/7 flow of information. And there are forces at work that are detrimental to us that we don’t even recognize. Read the description again on postmodernism and the church stated above and see if you don’t agree. We are being molded in a myriad of ways that might seem normal when they aren’t. And they are leading us astray from the only Source of real life that there is. For example, money and materialism has a massive hold on many Christians, yet we fail to recognize the danger it presents to us.

Cymbala’s book, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire,” is primarily a book about prayer and how powerful it has been in his church and among those attending Brooklyn Tabernacle over the years. In Chapter 3 titled, “A Song for the Desperate,” he states (on pp. 49-51):

Prayer cannot truly be taught by principles and seminars and symposiums. It has to be born out of a whole environment of felt need. If I say, “I ought to pray,” I will soon run out of motivation and quit; the flesh is too strong. I have to be driven to pray.

Yes, the roughness of inner-city life [where Brooklyn Tabernacle is located] has pressed us to pray. When you have alcoholics trying to sleep on the back steps of your building, when your teenagers are getting assaulted and knifed on the way to youth meetings, when you bump into transvestites in the lobby after church, you can’t escape your need for God. According to a recent Columbia University study, twenty-one cents of every dollar New Yorkers pay in city taxes is spent trying to cope with the effects of smoking, drinking, and drug abuse.

But is the rest of the country coasting along in fine shape? I think not. In the smallest village in the Farm Belt there are still urgent needs. Every congregation has wayward kids, family members who aren’t serving God. Do we really believe that God can bring them back to himself?

Too many Christians live in a state of denial: “Well, I hope my child will come around someday.” Some parents have actually given up. “I guess nothing can be done. Bobby didn’t turn out right–but we tried; we dedicated him to the Lord when he was a baby. Maybe someday . . .”

The more we pray, the more we sense our need to pray. And the more we sense a need to pray, the more we want to pray.

Prayer is the source of the Christian life, a Christian’s lifeline. Otherwise, it’s like having a baby in your arms and dressing her up so cute–but she’s not breathing! Never mind the frilly clothes; stabilize the child’s vital signs. It does no good to talk to someone in a comatose state. That’s why the great emphasis on teaching in today’s churches is producing such limited results. Teaching is good only where there’s life to be channeled. If the listeners are in a spiritual coma, what we’re telling them may be fine and orthodox, but, unfortunately, spiritual life cannot be taught.

Pastors and churches have to get uncomfortable enough to say, “We are not New Testament Christians if we don’t have a prayer life.” This conviction makes us squirm a little, but how else will there be a breakthrough with God?

If we truly think about what Acts 2:42 says–“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”–we can see that prayer is almost a proof of a church’s normalcy. Calling on the name of the Lord is the fourth great hallmark in the list. If my church or your church isn’t praying, we shouldn’t be boasting in our orthodoxy or our Sunday morning attendance figures.

In fact, Carol [his wife] and I have told each other more than once that if the spirit of brokenness and calling on God ever slacks off in the Brooklyn Tabernacle, we’ll know we’re in trouble, even if we have 10,000 in attendance. (Quote source: “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire,” 1997, pp. 49-51.)

In Chapter 6 titled, “A Time for Shaking,” Cymbala writes (on pp. 97-98):

Whether we call ourselves classical evangelicals, traditionalists, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, or charismatics, we all have to face our lack of real power and call out for a fresh infilling of the Spirit. We need the fresh wind of God to awaken us from our lethargy. We must not hide any longer behind some theological argument. The days are too dark and too dangerous.

The work of God can only be carried on by the power of God. The church is a spiritual organism fighting spiritual battles. Only spiritual power can make it function as God ordained.

The key is not money, organization, cleverness, or education. Are you and I seeing the results Peter (in Acts) saw? Are we bringing thousands of men and women to Christ the way he did? If not, we need to get back to his power source. No matter the society or culture, the city or town, God has never lacked the power to work through available people to glorify his name. 

When we sincerely turn to God, we will find that his church always moves forward, not backward. We can never back up and accommodate ourselves to what the world wants or expects. Our stance must remain militant, aggressive, bold.

That is what characterized General William Booth and the early Salvation Army as they invaded the slums of London. It characterized the early mission movements, such as the Moravians. It characterized Hudson Taylor in China as well as revivalists on the American frontier. These Christians were not bulls in a china shop, but they did speak the truth in love–fearlessly.

In the familiar story of David and Goliath, there is a wonderful moment when the giant gets irked at the sight of his young opponent. “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” he roars (1 Samuel 17:43). Goliath is genuinely insulted. “Come here, . . . I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!” (v. 44).

Does David flinch? Does he opt for the strategic retreat behind some tree or boulder, thinking maybe to buy a little time?

Absolutely not.

“As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him” (v. 48).

That is the picture of what God wants for us today: running towards the fray!

David’s weaponry was ridiculous: a sling and five stones. It didn’t matter. God still uses foolish tools in the hand of weak people to build his kingdom. Backed by prayer and his power, we can accomplish the unthinkable. (Quote source, “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire,” 1997, pp. 97-98.)

Easter is just two days away. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is about new life, and the power available to us to live this new life–fresh wind, and fresh fire. God never asks us to sit on the sidelines but to enter the battle, just like David did in the story above. But we should never enter that battle alone. Prayer is our vital link and the source of our power (through the Holy Spirit). In fact, Paul commands us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing” (see article titled What Does It Mean to Pray Without Ceasing? at this link).

A statement in that article linked above states: “As we go through the day, prayer should be our first response to every fearful situation, every anxious thought, and every undesired task that God commands. A lack of prayer will cause us to depend on ourselves instead of depending on God’s grace. Unceasing prayer is, in essence, continual dependence upon and communion with the Father” (quote source here). So with that in mind, this Easter let’s not just dress up nice to go to church, but learn to lean on God as our source for everything all the time, and . . .

Pray . . .

Without . . .

Ceasing . . . .

YouTube Video: “Because He Lives (Amen)” by Matt Maher:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

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Be Still And Know

God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried
into the midst of the sea;

Though its waters roar
and be troubled,

Though the mountains shake
with its swelling.

There is a river whose streams
shall make glad the city of God,

The holy place of the tabernacle
of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her,
she shall not be moved;

God shall help her,
just at the break of dawn.
The nations raged,
the kingdoms were moved;

He uttered His voice,
the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has made desolations in the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariot in the fire.

Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!

The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.

~Psalm 46 (NKJV)

What does it mean to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)? GotQuestions.org states:

Be still. This is a call for those involved in the war to stop fighting, to be still. The word “still” is a translation of the Hebrew word “rapa,” meaning “to slacken, let down, or cease.” In some instances, the word carries the idea of “to drop, be weak, or faint.” It connotes two people fighting until someone separates them and makes them drop their weapons. It is only after the fighting has stopped that the warriors can acknowledge their trust in God. Christians often interpret the command to “be still” as “to be quiet in God’s presence.” While quietness is certainly helpful, the phrase means to stop frantic activity, to let down, and to be still. For God’s people being “still” would involve looking to the Lord for their help (cf. Exodus 14:13); for God’s enemies, being “still” would mean ceasing to fight a battle they cannot win.

Know that I am God. “Know” in this instance means “to properly ascertain by seeing” and “acknowledge, be aware.” How does acknowledging God impact our stillness? We know that He is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (present everywhere), omnipotent (all-powerful), holy, sovereign, faithful, infinite, and good. Acknowledging God implies that we can trust Him and surrender to His plan because we understand who He is.

I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. It was tempting for the nation of Israel to align with foreign powers, and God reminds them that ultimately He is exalted! God wins, and He will bring peace. During Isaiah’s time, Judah looked for help from the Egyptians, even though God warned against it. Judah did not need Egyptian might; they needed reliance on the Lord: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

When we are still and surrendered to God, we find peace even when the earth gives way, the mountains fall (verse 2), or the nations go into an uproar and kingdoms fall (verse 6). When life gets overwhelming and busyness takes precedence, remember Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Run to Him, lay down your weapons and fall into His arms. Acknowledge that He is God and that He is exalted in the earth. Be still and know that He is God. (Quote source here.)

YouTube Video: “Let God Be God” by Phillips, Craig & Dean:

Photo #1 credit here
Photos #2 & 3: Photos by Sara (me)

The Nice Factor

Since its inception, my blog has been specifically related to Christian topics as I come from a Christian worldview (see my blog post on the topic of worldviews titled, Worldviews,” at this link). A worldview is not something one can just turn off or turn on like a faucet. It permeates everything a person does and everything they believe, and everyone operates on the basis of what they believe regardless of whether or not it has a religious component.

That is not to say, from time to time, that I haven’t written a blog post where Christianity is not mentioned or isn’t the focal point. Take, for example, a blog post I published back on February 18, 2012 titled, A Heartfelt Thanks to Andy Rooney.” Andy Rooney died on Nov. 4, 2011 at the age of 92 just three weeks after retiring after his 1097th appearance on the TV show, 60 Minutes.” He was an American radio and television writer who was best known for his weekly broadcast A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney,” a part of the CBS News program 60 Minutes from 1978 to 2011.

Andy Rooney‘s religious beliefs (well, the lack thereof–he was agnostic) are expressed in this short article on the Freedom From Religion Foundation website titled, Emperor Has No Clothes Award”:

In his 1999 book,Sincerely, Andy Rooney,” he [Rooney] included a final section called “Faith in Reason.” In it he reprints a thorough letter about his agnosticism and free-thought views. Sample quotes:

“I don’t differentiate much, except in degree, between people who believe in religion from those who believe in astrology, magic or the supernatural.”

“We all ought to understand we’re on our own. Believing in Santa Claus doesn’t do kids any harm for a few years but it isn’t smart for them to continue waiting all their lives for him to come down the chimney with something wonderful. Santa Claus and God are cousins.”

“I just wish this social institution [religion] wasn’t based on what appears to me to be a monumental hoax built on an accumulation of customs and myths directed toward proving something that isn’t true.”

“Christians talk as though goodness was their idea but good behavior doesn’t have any religious origin. Our prisons are filled with the devout.”

“I’d be more willing to accept religion, even if I didn’t believe it, if I thought it made people nicer to each other but I don’t think it does.” (Quote source here.)

I liked Andy Rooney for his upfront honesty even if I disagreed with his set of beliefs and some of the things he said or wrote. And the fact that he was agnostic doesn’t change my feelings about him (although, obviously, I never knew him personally). Sometimes I think that if I had not believed in Jesus Christ since I was a very young child (and I never “outgrew” it as is often the case with childhood conversions), being an agnostic might be appealing to me if I had no other particular belief system as the church isn’t always a friendly place. It’s sort of like his last quote above where he stated, “I’d be more willing to accept religion, even if I didn’t believe it, if I thought it made people nicer to each other but I don’t think it does.”

Fortunately, believing in Jesus Christ doesn’t have a “nice” factor attached to believing in him. Kind? Yes, but being “nice” doesn’t prove anything, especially when it comes to religious beliefs. Yes, it’s nice to be nice to everyone, but a lot is hidden behind the facade of “being nice.” There is a socially acceptable type of “being nice” (as in being pleasant) and we all recognize it when it happens, but our “niceness” doesn’t prove anything and often covers a lot that we won’t say but actually feel. Passive/aggressive behavior is often hidden behind a facade of “niceness” (see article titled, 10 Things Passive-Aggressive People Say,” at this link.) Hidden agendas are also hiding behind nice, compliant words, actions and facial expressions.

It might have helped if Andy Rooney had described what he thought “being nicer to each other” really meant. I think we all know, but that kind of genuine “nice” is becoming rather scarce, and it seems as if kids aren’t even being raised today to know what being genuinely “nice” is all about. I’m not even sure their parents know what it is all about, either. On the surface, there is a whole lot of “niceness” going on that isn’t sincere, so if religious belief depended on niceness, it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Here’s a definition of what being genuinely “nice” should looks and act like. It comes from Paul in Philippians 2:3-4 (NLT): “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” In today’s world we don’t experience that very often (at least that comes off as being genuine). We live in a “you scratch my back and I”ll scratch yours” world. We almost always expect something in return if we do someone a favor. Rare is the person who isn’t looking out for themselves first (even though most people won’t admit that openly), and this attitude permeates the religious world, too. Actions really do speak louder than words.

Religion as Andy Rooney describes it in his statement above, (e.g., “I’d be more willing to accept religion, even if I didn’t believe it, if I thought it made people nicer to each other but I don’t think it does”) reminds me of the religious folks Jesus was always running up against in his day (the Pharisees, et al). In an article titled, Jesus Challenges the Pharisees,” by Jerry Bridges (1929-2016), author, speaker, and former staff member at The Navigators, he stated:

The Pharisees were the ultimate religious people among the Jews during Christ’s life on earth. Determined not to break any of God’s laws, they had, over time, devised an intricate system of oral tradition to keep them from breaking the Mosaic law. One would think with such a desire to obey God that they would have recognized the perfect obedience of Jesus and affirmed and followed Him. And yet, as demonstrated by the events recorded in Matthew 12:1–37, they were His most bitter and implacable opponents. Why was this so?

The essential problem lay in their different understanding of the nature of God. For the Pharisees, God is primarily one who makes demands. For them, the Scriptures of the Old Testament were a set of rules that must be kept at all costs. For Jesus, as well as the Old Testament believers, God is primarily “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 145:8).

Also for the Pharisees, God looked only at their external compliance with the law of God. For Jesus, God looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). That is why, for example, Jesus would equate the lustful look, which actually expresses the desire of the heart, with the actual committing of adultery (Matt. 5:27–28).

The most proximate cause of the Pharisees’ antagonism toward Jesus, however, lay in His ignoring of their hundreds of elaborate but petty rules that they had devised for interpreting the law of God. Not only did they devise these hundreds of man-made rules, but they had also elevated them to the level of Scripture, so that to break one of their rules was to violate the law of God itself. And yet these rules not only obscured the true intent of God’s law, but also, in some cases, actually violated it (see Mark 7:9–13).

What really got the Pharisees upset with Jesus was the way He ignored their trivial and burdensome rules for keeping the Sabbath. In Matthew 12 verses 1–8, the Pharisees objected to the disciples of Jesus plucking and eating heads of grain as they walked through the grain fields on a Sabbath. According to their oral tradition, plucking the heads of grain and eating them was work — a violation of the Sabbath.

Almost immediately afterward, on that same Sabbath day, Jesus entered their synagogue where there was a man with a withered hand. Now, eager to again accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (vv. 9–14). Before healing the man, Jesus answers their question by asking which of them, if his sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath, would not lift it out. If, then, it is lawful to relieve the misery of a sheep on the Sabbath, how much more is it lawful to relieve the misery of a fellow human being who is more valuable than a sheep?

In both instances — that of the disciples eating the grain and of Jesus healing the man’s withered hand — the scriptural principle that Jesus applies is God’s Word that “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (v. 7).

Apparently, not long after the Sabbath episodes, Jesus healed a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute (Matt. 12:22). Not having a Sabbath violation charge to bring against Jesus, the Pharisees now resorted to the slanderous charge that Jesus cast out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons (that is, Satan himself). Since Jesus cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 28), their slanderous charge was actually blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin that Jesus said would never be forgiven. Commentators differ on exactly what this sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. As a result, some people have become afraid that they have committed “the unpardonable sin.” However, it is safe to say that no one who is afraid that he or she has committed that sin has, in fact, committed it. The evidence from the text itself indicates that this blasphemy committed by the Pharisees can only come from a heart that is totally and implacably hardened against God. Obviously, a person with a sensitive heart could not commit that sin.

Since all Scripture is profitable for us, there is a present-day lesson for us to learn from Jesus’ clash with the Pharisees. We need to be careful that we do not add our own man-made rules to the Scriptures. Some convictions that we hold dearly may be derived more from our particular Christian culture than derived from Scripture, and we need to learn to discern the differences. It is okay to have cultural convictions, but we should be careful that we do not elevate them to the same authority as Scripture. So much judgmentalism among Christians today occurs because we do this. But that is basically what the Pharisees were doing. So, let’s be careful that we are not modern-day Pharisees. (Quote source here.)

Most people attending church on a regular basis probably don’t think of themselves as being in the same category as the Pharisees, but as Dr. Bridges stated above, we need to be careful that we do not add our own man-made rules to Scripture and expect others to follow them. Having spent years in church settings, it’s a fact that there are many “unwritten rules” that we expect others to follow to be considered “Christian” that aren’t biblical but are a part of Christian culture. Again, as Dr. Bridges stated above, it is okay to have cultural convictions, but we should be careful that we do not elevate them to the same authority as Scripture and judge others accordingly, as that is exactly what the Pharisees were doing. A genuine sign of being Christian is our love for others, not our judgment of others.

When I was in high school, the students who came from well-to-do families with intact homes and manicured lawns ran the show, and they determined who could or could not be a part of their clique. The rest of us who were not as fortunate as they were had no choice in the matter of being accepted by them or not. They looked down on the rest of us since we didn’t measure up to their set of standards. The church can too easily become just like those students who judged others according to their family background and economic and social status.

In another article titled, Why Did the Pharisees Hate Jesus So Much?” by R.C. Sproul, Jr., pastor, theologian, and son of R.C. Sproul, the founder of Ligonier’s Ministries, he states:

It may well be in the calculus of evil that the only character faring worse than a Nazi is the Pharisee. These were the original black hats. In each of the gospel accounts they are the no-accounts, the very foil of Jesus Himself. We, because we are sinners just like them, ascribe to the Pharisees every conceivable sin that we think ourselves not guilty of. We may have to confess to this sin or that, but at least, we tell ourselves, we aren’t like those guys. In our scapegoating narrative we think that when Jesus showed up the Pharisees hated Him for the simple reason that He was good and they evil. He walked down the street, and they hissed and sputtered. He healed a puppy and they kicked it.

The truth is that the Pharisees did hate Jesus, and He rightly isn’t known for showing them a great deal of grace. He called them out for their hypocrisy. He exposed their inner tombs. But the hatred they felt for Him wasn’t mere sour grapes at His approval rating, nor was it as principled as mere evil versus good. It was rather more craven. They hated Jesus not because He called them names, but because He threatened their security, prestige and income. He was going to ruin everything they had worked so hard for, and getting everybody killed. (Quote source and the rest of the article can be read at this link.)

Enough said . . . . I’ll end this post with the words from Micah 6:8He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice . . .

And to love kindness . . .

And to walk humbly . . .

With your God . . . .

YouTube Video: “Lose My Soul” by TobyMac, Kirk Franklin, and Mandisa:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

 

Fan or Follower

Many people in America consider themselves to be Christians but what does that really mean? Do they consider themselves to be a Christian because they go to church every Sunday, or because their parents were/are Christians, or because they think they live a fairly good life or follow the rules, or because America had been known around the world as being a Christian nation? Perhaps some people join a church to elevate their standing in their local community, especially if they are seeking a political office or to get ahead in the business world. But what does it really mean to be a Christian?

Yesterday as I was browsing through the bookshelves at a Goodwill store, I found a paperback book titled, Not a Fan,” that was first published in 2011 (and recently revised and updated in 2016) by Kyle Idleman, Teaching Pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. The book is written in a style to relate to a younger audience but the message is relevant for anyone. On the back cover of the 2011 edition is the following statement:

“Jesus never asked us to sit on the sidelines and cheer for his cause.”Craig Groeschel, senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv

Are you a fan or a follower? The dictionary defines a fan as “an enthusiastic admirer.” Fans want to be close enough to Jesus to get all the benefits, but not so close that it requires sacrifice. Fans may be fine with repeating a prayer, attending church on the weekend, and slapping a Jesus fish on their bumpers. But is that really the extent of the relationship Jesus wants?

Jesus was never interested in having admirers. It’s not fans he is looking for.

“Not a Fan” challenges you to consider what it really means to call yourself a Christian. With a direct frankness that you’re not likely to hear in Sunday school class, Kyle invites you to take an honest look at your relationship with Jesus. His call to follow may seem radical to us, but Jesus desires it for every believer. (Quote source here.)

The following is taken from a section titled, “Selling Jesus,” in Chapter 2 titled, “A Decision or a Commitment,” pp. 35-36:

Have you ever been flipping through the channels late at night and come across an annoying infomercial telling you how to get rich quick? An obnoxious spokesperson is looking into the camera and asking questions like, “Would you like to make more money? How would you like to only fly first class? Any interest in retiring early? How would you like to never worry about finances again?” And then you’re asked, “Does that sound like something you might be interested in?” Then the Billy Mays wannabe goes on to explain that all this can be your for free. You don’t even have to pay shipping and handling.

How do you respond to that? How can you say no? It costs you nothing and offers you everything. And I wonder if some well-intentioned preachers may have missed their calling as late-night infomercial salesmen. Because many people heard a gospel presentation that went something like this: “How would  you like to live forever? Would you like to have your sins forgiven and have a fresh start? Do you want to spend eternity in paradise instead of burning in hell?” Some take it even further . . . “Would you like to live a prosperous life? Are you ready to claim the health and wealth God has in store for you? Does that sound like something you might be interested in?” And while some people rolled their eyes and changed the channel, a lot of fans signed up.

They ordered a gospel that cost them nothing and offered them everything.

So in case someone let it out or forgot to mention it when they explained what it meant to be a Christian, let me be clear: There is no forgiveness without repentance. There is no salvation without surrender. There is no life without death. There is no believing without committing.

At a church where I am a pastor, someone sent an email asking to be removed from the church membership. The stated reason for leaving read as follows: “I don’t like Kyle’s sermons.”

Note: at this point Kyle contacts the person who gave that reason for leaving in the next two paragraphs in the book (not included here), and the guy, after a lengthy explanation, ends up stating the following:

“Well. whenever I listen to one of the messages [by Kyle] I feel like you are trying to interfere with my life.”

Kyle continues with the following: But do you hear what he is saying? He’s saying–“I believe in Jesus, I’m a big fan, but don’t ask me to follow. I don’t mind coming to church on the weekends. I pray before meals. I’ll even slap a Jesus fish on my bumper. But I don’t want Jesus to interfere with my life.” When Jesus defines the relationship he wants with us he makes it clear that being a fan who believes without making a commitment to follow isn’t an option. (Quote source: “Not a Fan,” 2011 edition, pp. 35-36.)

In Chapter 3 titled, “Knowledge About Him or Intimacy with Him,” I had to smile (from my own experience) when I read about Kyle’s childhood growing up in a Christian home on pp. 45-46:

I was born into a Christian home and rarely missed a weekend of church. From before I can remember I could quote the Lord’s Prayer, John 3:16, and the 23rd Psalm. When I was around five years old I threw a fit because my mom was making me wear a tie to church. She was trying to understand why I was so upset, and through my tears I explained, “If I wear a tie they might make me preach!” By the age of thirteen I felt pressure to have the “Baptist blow-dry” hairstyle that my father was somewhat a legend for perfecting. I would regularly model the latest “witness wear.” My collection was impressive: God’s Gym; Jesus, The Real Thing; This blood’s for you . . . I had them all. When I was in junior high I even had a picture of Jesus hanging on my wall right next to the poster of Michael Jordan. In some ways that is a visual example of how I would define my relationship with Jesus at the time. I was a fan of Jesus, like I was a fan of Mike. I had memorized his records and knew his stats, but I did not know him.

If you would have confronted me on being just a fan of Jesus and not a completely committed follower I would have defended myself by trying challenge you to asword drill.” That’s where you see who can turn to a Scripture reference the fastest. I would point to my impressive record whenever I competed in a “quote off.” A “quote off” is similar to a “dance off” except you quote Bible verses. I think it would be safe to say that what Ben Stiller is to dance offs I am to quote offs. As I grew older I would have pointed to the religious traditions I followed and the moral code I observed as evidence that I was a follower of Jesus. I would have filled you in on the fact that I don’t drink, I would have let you know that I’ve never said a cuss word, at least not loud enough to be heard. In fact, my friends and I were such committed followers, we made up Christian cuss words.

If you really had pushed me I would have had to break out the Spiritual Leadership Award I won at a Christian basketball camp. I may have pulled out the ribbon I won for getting runner-up for camper of the week at church camp. I would have also explained that I got ripped off because the kid who got first place was the son of the dean of the camp, or, as I like to call him, a cheating S.O.D. Instead of describing a relationship where I truly knew Jesus, I would have told you what I knew about Jesus. But when there is knowledge without intimacy, you’re really no more than a fan. (Quote source: “Not a Fan,” 2011 ed., pp. 45-46).

Wow, reading how he grew up takes me back to my own childhood days in church and summer Bible camp. I’m still laughing as his picture is so accurate! And what he said is true–most folks growing up in church get lot of Bible knowledge and learning about Jesus (which is good, so I’m not saying it is bad) with a whole lot of rules to follow, too, but learning about having in intimate relationship with Jesus? Well, not so much. . . . But like Kyle, if you had asked me if I was a genuine follower of Jesus back then, I could have shown you badges and ribbons I earned (mostly for Scripture memory), etc. But Kyle is right; it does not replace an intimate relationship with Jesus, and without that, it means nothing at all.

Too often we also get into “rule following” as a measuring stick of how “committed” we (or others) are as Christians. In Chapter 5 titled, “Following Jesus or Following the Rules,” Kyle opens the chapter with the following story on pp. 69-72:

Do you remember the story of Matt Emmons? He was one shot away from claiming victory in the 2004 Olympics. He was competing in the 50-meter three-position rifle event. He didn’t even need a bull’s eye to win. His final shot merely needed to be on target. Normally, the shot he made would have received a score of 8.1, more than enough for the gold metal. But in what was described as “an extremely rare mistake in elite competition,” Emmons fired at the wrong target. Standing in lane two, he fired at the target in lane three. His score for a good shot at the wrong target: 0. Instead of a medal, Emmons ended up in eighth place.

That’s a picture of what happens to a lot of fans. If you asked them, “Are you a fan or a follower?” they would confidently respond “follower.” It’s not a question of their effort or desire. They are following hard. Here is the problem; it’s not Jesus they are following. Without realizing it, they are aiming at the wrong target. Instead of following Jesus they are following religious rules and rituals. They have confused the targets.

In Matthew 23, Jesus tries to get the attention of a group of fans known as the religious leaders. If you were trying to determine who were the fans and who were the followers in Jesus’ day, it would be likely that these religious leaders would quickly be identified as the followers. They had a mastery of the Scriptures and were considered expert theologians. They were especially known for their strict observance of the law. They would have received high scores for their religious rule keeping, but that’s not the target Jesus was most concerned about. Following the rules kept them focused on the outside, but who they were on the inside is what Jesus paid attention to. And the problem with these religious leaders is that, like many fans, who they were on the outside didn’t match up with what was on the inside. In this chapter Jesus preaches one of his last sermons here on earth and it’s directed right at these religious leaders. He doesn’t hold anything back. If you grew up thinking of Jesus as a Mr. Rogers of Nazareth who was always smiling, winking at people, and wearing a sweater vest, the tone Jesus takes with these religious leaders may surprise you. The name of the sermon we’re going to study is not “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” This sermon is traditionally called “The Seven Woes.”

The word “woe” is an onomatopoeia–a word where the definition comes from its sound. The word “woe” is both an expression of grief and a curse. Seven times in his sermon Jesus says, “Woe to you…” Each “Woe” is followed by a scathing rebuke. This isn’t a warning by Jesus. He’s isn’t cautioning the religious leaders. He isn’t offering them counsel or advice. Jesus is going to strongly opposed these religious leaders because he doesn’t want people to confuse following the rules with following him. His indictments against these religious leaders should serve as a warning to those fans who consider themselves followers because of their religious rule keeping and Christian credentials.

These spiritual leaders Jesus is addressing in Matthew 23 made up a religious ruling body of 72 men called the Sanhedrin. Within the Sanhedrin there were two different groups called the Sadducees and the Pharisees. These two groups did not get along. When interpreting Scripture the Sadducees were very liberal, and the Pharisees were quite conservative. The Sadducees served the roles of Chief Priests and Elders. If you were a Sadducee, it meant you were born into that position. There were, of course, other requirements, but it had to be part of your heritage. But to be a part of the Pharisees it didn’t depend on the family you were born into; it was your hard work. Becoming a Pharisee required an incredible amount of textual study and theological training. And what I’ve noticed is that many fans fit into one of these two camps.

Some fans are like the Sadducees. Their faith was something they were born with. It was never really something they chose. Maybe when you were born your parents handed you a mask, and you grew up acting like Christians act, talking how Christians talked, listening to the music Christians listened to; but you never fell in love with Jesus. Your faith has always been more about honoring your heritage than surrendering your heart.

On the other hand, some fans are like the Pharisees. They would measure their faith by their hard work at learning and following the law. Their intellectual knowledge and behavior compliance was the target they were aiming at. But even though they were saying the right things and doing the right things, it wasn’t a reflection of who they really were. You may say the right things and do the right things, but that’s not enough for Jesus. He wants all of you.

I was waiting in an aisle of the grocery store when the cover of “People” magazine caught my eye. It was a picture of the famous tennis player, Andre Agassi. For years he was one of the top players in the world. He turned pro when he was sixteen and won eight Grand Slams over the span of his twenty-year career. The headline said “My Secret Life.” I picked it up and began to read. The article was about his new autobiography “Open.” It turns out he doesn’t really like tennis. He never did. In fact, he hated it during his growing up years and through most of his career. He writes: “My dad decided before I was born that I would be the number one player in the world.” In the article he describes a practice session at age seven: “My arm feels like it’s about to fall off. I ask, ‘How much longer Pops?’ No answer. I get an idea. Accidentally, on purpose I hit a ball high over the fence. I catch it on the rim of the racket so it sounds like a misfire. My father sees the ball leave the court and curses. He stomps out of the yard. I now have four and a half minutes to catch my breath.” Maybe the most telling sentence in that article was this one. Agassi says, “I never chose this life.” On the outside you would never guess his heart wasn’t in it. He’s put in countless hours of practice. He’s battled for championships. He was really good at what he did. But he was wearing a mask. Because he never chose it. it was never his. As a result there was no love.

And this describes many fans that I know. You look really good. You have this part down. You know what to say, and what not to say. You can pray the prayers and you can sing the songs. But you never chose it. It was just handed down to you. Or you’re going through the motions, putting on an impressive performance but it isn’t real. Your heart is not in it. (Quote source, “Not a Fan,” 2011 ed., pp. 69-72.)

So . . . fan or follower? Is our heart really in it or are we just wearing a mask and doing it out of sense of obligation? Right before Matthew 23, Jesus made the following statement in Matthew 22:36-40, when a Pharisee asked him this question:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The mark of a genuine follower of Jesus as stated in the words of Jesus is found in John 13:35 . . .

By this everyone will know . . .

That you are my disciples . . .

If you love one another . . . .

YouTube Video: “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love” by Jars of Clay:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here