The Demand of Jesus: we must die in order to live

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39)

Jesus demands our first love and allegiance. He has not come to be one among many loves, but first over all loves. Even our familial ties—the closest of our relationships—must fall lower in priority than Jesus, who is Lord. It is not that Jesus wants to decrease our other loves, but that He wants them to find their right place in relation to the primacy of our love for Him. It is only in light of Jesus and our love for Him that all other people and things find their right place and our love for them is set in order.

Who or what do we love most in our lives? If the decision was before us and we had to choose between that person or thing and Jesus, which would we really choose? We may readily say it would be our Savior, but does our daily life, use of time and money, and all other pursuits show that to be true? Do the inner dialogues of our life reveal something to us about our love?

Jesus calls us to a sacrificial life in pursuit of Him. While this may sound counter-intuitive to the good life, sacrifice is essential to what is good. We all know this from our various life experiences. We know that pursuing a goal requires sacrifice. We know that loving another person requires sacrifice. Why would this be different in spiritual matters? The good life spiritually is one that is marked by Jesus’ Cross. It calls for sacrifice at the center of our being, a sort of death to self, which serves as a gate into the real, abundant life with God. As Jesus said, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). What we often call “life” is not truly life. It will not bring what we hope it will or, at times, what it promises to bring to us. And so, Jesus must be the touchstone of all existence for us, which requires first a dying to self and then a living in Him. When Jesus is that touchstone, we will begin to see what true life and love is all about.

Are we willing to “die” as we turn toward Jesus? What do we still grasp for desperately that we need to release so we can live in Him?

Is Spiritual Conflict Real?: guidance from the Apostle Paul

In Matthew 12:22-37 Jesus is accused of exorcising demons by the power of Satan. The entire episode raises an important question: is spiritual conflict, or spiritual warfare, real?

The Apostle Paul addresses that pretty directly in the last chapter of the book of Ephesians, where he closes out the letter by writing these words:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”(Ephesians 6:10-12)

Paul’s final word to the believers here is that there is a spiritual conflict, and the struggle is real.

So, do I believe in real spiritual forces that stand against God and His people? Absolutely, yes. The Scripture is replete with that idea, from Jesus’ encounters with demons to hints of demonic forces in the book of Daniel and Revelation.

Because of that, we must arm ourselves appropriately for such a struggle by relying upon the strength of the Lord and not our own strength. We all know that our human strength is limited, but that God’s strength is unlimited.

As it says in Psalm 73:26, “My strength and my heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forevermore.” Or as it says in Isaiah 40: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and the young stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”

If we want victory, we must rely on God’s strength.

Paul says that we do this by arming ourselves appropriately in what he terms “the armor of God.” Notice that this armor is made by God and has its source in God. The goal of relying on God’s power and arming ourselves with His armor is so that we can “take our stand.” This tells us something important here: the armor and our role in the conflict is primarily defensive. Paul helps us understand how to defend ourselves against the onslaught of the devil and his forces.

What are those forces? Well, Paul lists out several aspects of them:

  1. they are not flesh and blood
  2. they are rulers and authorities
  3. they are the powers of this dark world
  4. they are spiritual forces in the heavenly places

We are not talking about people here, but about forces running higher and deeper than mere human force. Certainly, we are talking about the devil and spiritual forces. Jesus faced them and the early apostles faced them and we too will we face such demonic powers.

The words of 1 Peter 5:8-9 are still true for us: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

Returning to Ephesians 6, we must also remember that along with the purely spiritual forces against us, Paul also speaks to the reality of other powers at play in the world.

There are kings and rulers of the world, there are social-cultural dynamics, there are hidden powers of sin and injustice that seem to have super-human power within societies and the world. The Ephesians believers lived in a context dominated by worldly living, idolatrous religion, and perverse customs and practices.[1] These, too, Paul says will often stand against us as believers. They are impersonal but often used by personal beings, whether human or demonic, to oppose God’s people.

Sometimes this evil is readily apparent, but at other times “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). This requires even more vigilance. Therefore, the attack comes in ways that might be appealing or enticing or just plain nice to be around. Yet, as Eugene Peterson writes, “Paul is calling us to be alert to the evil that, in fact, looks like the good.”[2]

“Believers,” Paul says, “this struggle is real. See it. Name it. Prepare yourself for it. And stand in the face of it.”


[1] John Henry Jowett, The Whole Armour of God (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1916), 13-15.

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection:  A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 257.

Too Long Delayed?: Kenneth Bailey on the parable of the young women in Matthew 25

This past Sunday in my message, “Keep Your Lamps Lit,” I mentioned some insights from Kenneth E. Bailey about the parable of the ten young women and their lamps related to the wedding banquet. If you’re not familiar with Bailey’s work, particularly his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies on the Gospels, I strongly recommend you take a look.

Bailey, a New Testament scholar who lived most of his life in the Middle East, describes the scene of Jesus’ parable in this way:

The scene focuses on preparations for a wedding banquet that is to take place in the home of the groom. A great crowd of family and friends fills the house and pours out into the street in front of the dwelling. As the crowd is gathering, the groom and several close friends are making their way to the home of the bride, which is assumed to be across town or in a nearby village. From there the groom collects his bride and escorts her back to his family home, where the crowd awaits and the marriage feast will be held….When she [the bride] was ready, she would be placed on the back of a riding animal, and the groom, with his friends, would form a disorganized, exuberant parade. This happy group would take the longest possible route back to the groom’s home deliberately, wandering through as many streets of the village as possible so that most of the populace could see and cheer them as they passed. 

“In traditional village life in the Middle East, weddings would take place during the seven months of the hot and cloudless summer. At the groom’s home some of the crowd would therefore wait in the street as they anticipate the arrival of the meandering wedding party.”[1]


[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 271-272.

Standing Firm in the Lord: a reflection on Ephesians 6

mountaintop

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Ephesians 6:10-11)

What always captures my attention in these verses is the reality of our conflict and the source of our defense. Paul takes it for granted that the devil has schemes that work against the Christian community. The devil opposes  God and God’s people with efforts that are sometimes straightforward and at other times are wily schemes. As followers of Jesus, we do well to be on alert with watchfulness and ready at all times to take our stand against these attacks, regardless of what form they take.

The source of our defense, though, is not our own watchfulness or steadfastness. Instead, our strength is “in the Lord and in his mighty power.” We clothes ourselves not just with the greatest of human virtues but with “the full armor of God.” Our source is God Himself and the strength that He offers. Our defense is a God-birthed and God-like character of life: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvations, and the word of God. Armed by God to become more like God, we are well-equipped to stand firm in the face of attacks.

To take one’s stand in the face of attacks, particularly the schemes of the devil, is not easy. We all have encountered the power of gossip, falsehood, slander, distortions of truth, and more. These are the mere tip of the iceberg of the devil’s schemes. The moment you give attention to defusing one, another pops up unexpectedly.

It is in facing into these schemes with all their diverse nefariousness that standing firm is both so difficult and so powerful. It should come as no surprise that of all the exhortations Paul offers in Ephesians, this is one that he repeats several times. “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13, emphasis mine). Again, Paul offers a similar exhortation to the church in Corinth because of the power of Christ’s resurrection. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you” (1 Corinthians 15:58a). This is not the immovability of prideful stubbornness, but the persevering steadfastness of humble dependence upon God. When attacks come, and they will, the believer must stand firm in God.

Lord, give us grace today to stand firm in You. Help us not to be surprised by the attacks, but to turn to You for power to persevere. Save us from trust in fading hopes—”chariots or horses”—that often appear so powerful. Instead, we declare that we will “trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7).

Left Behind?: R. T. France on the rapture in Matthew 24

This past Sunday in my message, “The Unknown Hour,” I made a side comment about verses 40-41 and the rapture. The verses are:

“Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” (Matthew 24:40-41)

I basically said that while some take Jesus’ teaching in these verses to refer to the rapture, a close reading of this specific text doesn’t really support that. In case someone had further questions about this, I thought I’d share the wise words of biblical scholar R. T. France on these verses in his wonderful commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.

What could be more normal and unthreatening than working on the farm or grinding grain? Yet in those routine situations there will be a sudden crisis which will result in one being ‘taken’ while the other is left behind. But where are the unlucky (or lucky?) ones ‘taken’ and for what purpose? The verb is paralambanō rather than a simple lambanō, and if the compound is more than just a stylistic variation, it might be understood to mean ‘take to oneself’ (as in 1:20; 17:1; 18:16; 20:17). If the passive verbs are understood as ‘divine passives,’ that would mean the God has taken selected people to himself, leaving the rest to continue their life on earth. Some have therefore suggested that this passages speaks of a ‘rapture’ of the faithful to heaven before judgment falls on the earth. This is not the place to investigate the complex dispensational scheme which underlies this nineteenth-century theory, but it should be noted that insofar as this passage forms a basis for that theology, it rests on an uncertain foundation. We are not told where or why they are ‘taken,’ and the similar sayings in vv. 17-18 about people caught out in the course of daily life by the Roman advance presupposed a situation of threat rather than of rescue; to be ‘taken’ in such circumstances would be a negative experience, and Matthew will use paralambanō in a similarly threatening context in 27:27. The verb itself does not determine the purpose of the ‘taking,’ and it could as well be for judgment (as in Her 6:11) as for refuge. In the light of the preceding verses, when the Flood ‘swept away’ the unprepared, that is probably the more likely sense here.

The different fates of two apparently similar people (as also the different fates of Noah and his contemporaries) raise the issue of ‘readiness’: what is it that will determine who is and who is not ‘taken’? The example of Noah suggests that it is not purely arbitrary, and the rest of the discourse will explore the basis of the division between the saved and the lost, which reaches its climax in the separation of good and bad in the judgment scene in 25:31-46. For the moment saved and lost live and work together (as in the parable of the weeds, 13:30), but when ‘that day’ domes, the separation will be made and will be final.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 940-941.