Archive for February, 2012

The Bible tells us that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. It is important to remember that these guys were serious criminals. The Romans didn’t generally crucify people for small violations like jaywalking.  These two criminals were definitely not the kind of citizens you would be proud to have living next door. They had done some heavy-duty damage, and Rome didn’t want them hanging around any longer.

One of the thieves launched into a verbal tirade against Jesus. He, no doubt, had heard of Him, and he cried out with a loud voice, “If you really are the Son of God, come down from the cross.  And, by the way, how about taking us down also?”

The other thief heard him say this, and it was obvious that he did not like what he had heard. Knowing that it would not be long before he would begin traveling in the direction of eternity, he began to think of the kind of wasted life he had lived.

Having heard as much as he could possibly stand, he blurted out to the other thief, “Shut up!  Can’t you see what is happening here? What you said is dead wrong, so cool it, will you?”

Then he turned to Jesus and said, “We are both guilty of the crimes with which we have been charged, and we are getting what we deserve. We have committed serious crimes against society. But you have done nothing wrong. I believe you are the Messiah. Is it too late for someone like me to find forgiveness for my sins?”

So what did Jesus say? The Roman government certainly would not have forgiven him, but Jesus had a different attitude. Without hesitation, He assured the man, “You matter far more than you realize!  It is to see faith like yours that I came into the world. Because you have repented of your sins and believe that I am God’s Son, you will join me this very day in Paradise.”

It is difficult to comprehend compassion like that, isn’t it?  It is so unlike the kind of attitude we see expressed every day. Let’s face it: it is often unlike your love and mine. We find it difficult to forgive the grievous wrongs that others have done against us and against society – for example, serial killers, child rapists, etc.  In all just societies those who break laws are apprehended and tried in court. If they are found guilty, they are given a prison term or death sentence.

It is simply not easy for any of us to have compassion for people who perpetually break the law and have no respect for the rights of others. We find it much easier to say, “You are guilty as charged!  You should have known better! You are only getting what you deserve!”

The words of Jesus to the unbelieving thief on the cross challenge every Christian to demonstrate compassion to those who have lost their way in life. It is one of the finest ways to express gratitude for the compassion and forgiveness Christ has shown to us.

Jesus had earlier said to His disciples, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion . . .,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:12-13).

God intends that His church be a hospital for sinners, not a haven for angels; a workshop, not a dormitory; a boot camp where Christians are trained for witness and ministry that is to take place on the battlefields of the world. Any church that is not reaching out is passing out.  Remember this: every person, no matter how low or lost, is a person for whom Christ died. Any church that shares this truth boldly and clearly will be blessed by God.


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For four decades he had written music that had thrilled people in the city of London. He had received the accolades of England’s crowned heads. He had received the praise of the continent’s nobility and was bathed with many honors.

Then things changed abruptly. The court society turned on him without explanation. Street gangs broke up his operas. His small fortune was gradually depleted, and he was soon reduced to abject poverty.

It took a severe toll on his health. Pressures mounted. A cerebral hemorrhage resulted in the paralysis of his right side. He could neither write nor walk. The medical community gave him no hope of recovery. He was a broke and broken old man.

He went to Aix-la-Chapelle to take hot baths in hope of finding help. Though he was told that staying in the hot waters longer than three hours at a time would kill him, he stayed longer than nine hours. Inert muscles that had atrophied were stimulated, and his limbs took on new life. The paralysis passed.

With renewed vigor, he resumed his work. His exhilaration resulted in the rapid production of four operas. His new success was met with renewed acclaim. Then, suddenly, his health failed again.

To further complicate his plight, his longtime patroness, Queen Caroline, died. The drastic reduction of his income was accompanied by a bitter British winter. His mounting problems distracted his attention and quieted his creative genius.

One evening, as he returned from an aimless walk on London’s streets, he found a package in his room containing a musical score entitled “A Sacred Oratorio.”  His soaring hope diminished when he saw that its author was Charles Jennens, considered by many to be only a second-rate poet. The postscript at the bottom said, “The Lord gave me the Word.”

He thumbed through the pages quickly.  His indifference was arrested by such expressions as “He was despised and rejected of men . . .”  “I know that my Redeemer liveth . . .:  “Rejoice . . .Hallelujah.”  His kindred spirit caught fire.  A responsive chord had been struck and he began to write rapidly.  Page after page was produced.

All through the night he wrote. Ceaselessly, he continued to chart score after score. The next day his manservant found him still busy at work. Choosing not to disturb him, he quietly left the breakfast tray. Upon returning at noon, he found the tray untouched.

The great composer continued to refuse food as he continued to write. Only occasionally would he stop and stride back and forth across the room flailing his arms up and down.  Then he would rush back and resume writing again.

He concluded his work with the greatest musical climax ever written, the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Tears were streaming down his cheeks. He said to his servant, “I do think I saw all heaven before me and the great God Himself.” I believe he did indeed.

George F. Handel had labored for twenty-three uninterrupted days. Totally exhausted, he collapsed and slept for seventeen hours. On a nearby table lay the score of what is unquestionably the greatest and most inspired musical oratorio ever composed, Messiah.

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T.R. Glover’s, The Jesus of History,” was one of my major resources in church history class when I was in seminary.  In this book Glover discusses the triumph of Christianity in the ancient world.  It was, I might add, a highly improbable triumph from the human point of view.

How did it happen that such a small group of simple and unlettered men and women could go out into the world with the story of a crucified Jew who was not part of the religious establishment of the day and persuade men and women to accept Jesus as their personal Savior and Lord?

Glover’s answer is that they were enabled by the grace of God to do three things:

They out-lived the world.  They did this because they could say of Jesus: “He loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).  They also believed that He died for the whole world.  Their faith in Christ gave them a new dignity and worth, a motive for service, and a reason to be forgiving that no one else in the world had.

They were also given a motivation to live lives of purity that no one else had.  They could look at a prostitute – “the victim of common lust”, as the early church father Tertullian, called her – and know that it was for even her that Christ died.  By being redeemed she – and every other sinner as well — could become “a new creation.”

They out-died the world.  Tertullian, prior to his conversion to Christianity, was a famous Roman lawyer.  He saw Christians die in a way that he had seen no other person die, and it shook him to the depths of his being.  “Every man who sees it” he said, “is moved with some misgiving, and is set on fire to learn the reason.”

The early Christians demonstrated the kind of bravery unseen before – even in the face of death.  When simple men and women could choose to die like that, generally in extreme agony, the world took notice of it and was greatly impacted by it.

They out-thought the world.  The citizens in the ancient world were generally very gullible and superstitious.  Christians were clear-sighted and fearless.  Notices were sometimes seen outside heathen shrines: “Christians keep out.”  They could see through the mumbo-jumbo that was being taught in them.

In that world the way to destroy your enemy was to attach his name to a demon and the demon would kill him.  “Go on,” said the Christian, “Attach my name to a demon.  This does not cause me to fear, for I have One whose name is above every name to keep me safe.”

If Christians today are to have anything like the level of influence on our world that those first Christians had, the way to accomplish that has not changed:

  • We must out-live the world in service, in love, in purity, and in joy.
  • We must out-die the world – if that is the price we must pay for believing.
  • We must out-think the world, not by clinging to old ways and patterns, but by being ready to give an honorable account of our faith in the face of every challenge that comes our way.

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C.W. Brister, in Dealing with Doubt, says, “There can be no greatness of devotion without the risk of defection from one’s cause.”  What he is saying is that human beings are capable of both trust and doubt.  This is a paradox, but it is nevertheless true.

Faith includes what you know, feel, fear, desire, decide, and do about anything.  It is so inclusive and essential to human welfare that the Bible says “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).  Examine the roll call of faith found in Hebrews 1 — Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob Joseph, Moses, etc. — and you discover that each of them witnessed to his or her faith through obedience and courageous action – often despite difficult circumstances.

God created human beings free and responsible.  Adam and Eve knew the privilege of close fellowship with God that contained the possibility of doubting God’s word.  The Genesis 3 story recounts the process of doubting God’s commands, desiring forbidden fruit, and disobeying His instructions.  The entire Bible testifies to the inner struggle between good and evil, between fidelity and disloyalty.  God gives us a choice and we can flee, fight, fold up, fume, or face it.

The companion to such freedom is anxiety.  There are times when you may feel like Simon Peter as he saw Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee and got out of the boat and walked toward Him.  “When he noticed the wind . . . he was afraid, and started to sink down in the water.  ‘Save me, Lord!’ he cried.”  Jesus took Peter’s hand, and then rebuked him: “How little faith you have!  Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).  Life’s decisions are often fashioned in the workshop of doubt.

Many Christians think it inconceivable that believers should have a faith which contains the possibility of vacillating between assurance and doubt.  The Bible is more honest than that, for it readily admits the possibility of disobedience, divine judgment, and mercy for the repenting sinner.

What, then, is doubt?  Webster’s dictionary traces its meaning from the Latin: “fear, to be uncertain about, lack of confidence in, distrust, to consider a fact or situation unlikely.”  Doubters are persons who deliberately refuse to believe or accept a matter until all the facts are known.  Meanwhile, they seek definite data upon which to form an opinion or base a relationship.

The Bible understands caution and the need for clear thinking before a person commits himself.  “The simple (person) believes everything, but the prudent (person) looks where he is going.  A wise man is cautious . . . but a fool throws off restraint and is careless” (Proverbs 13:15-16).  In other words, God desires faith with understanding.  The Bible knows nothing of blind faith.

On the other hand, the Bible distinguishes between reckless doubt – like rejecting God or His messenger – and cautious mistrust by religious persons seeking more light on some issue.  For example, the Old Testament character Job suffered many losses.  His wife suggested that he curse God and die.  His so-called comforters suggested that his misbehavior had caused his calamities.  This view was common in ancient times and remains current today.  Later you hear Job’s joyous trust: “I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see You.” (Job 42:5).

Is it a sin to doubt?  It can be if unbelief encourages disobedience of God or disloyalty to life’s best.  Since commitment to Christ is a growing process, not a static experience, doubt may furnish an opportunity for growth.  Think, for example, of Thomas’ skeptical response to the resurrection of Jesus (see John 20:24-29).  When Jesus appeared later to the disciples in the Upper Room, Thomas exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”  Doubt was transformed into faith when further evidence came.

You, also, may have experienced trying periods when faith floundered and you were forced temporarily into uncertainty.  Not all the battles of the world are fought with guns.  Doubt can destroy you.  But if you learn to master it, skepticism can strengthen your commitment.  Far from being a sin, an inquiring faith fosters curiosity, enlightened concern, and new commitment.  At least it can!

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