Tidings: A Shepherd’s Testimony

Everybody’s got their lot in life. Some people is born to be a king or a soldier or a fancy priest up in the temple. Others is fishermen, businessmen, wood-builders. Yeah, everyone’s got their lot. My lot in life? Well, I’m a shepherd. Been one near all my life, just like my daddy ‘fore me and his daddy ‘fore him… all the way back to Moses, I expect.

Now before you all run out on me, let me tell you: we shepherds ain’t as bad as our reputation makes us out to be. Oh sure, we ain’t as educated and smart like those scribes and teachers up there in Jerusalem. And we don’t make much money neither, which is why so many of us shepherd’s got a few tricks to help them rich folks make some “involuntary donations to the cause”, if you get my meaning. But that doesn’t make us shady. Just… resourceful.

And, of course, our lot in life has a distinctive smell to it, too. Yeah, we stink. Comes with the territory, out there in the dust and grime, with all that livestock. (Do you know how hard it is to get sheep poop out of a tunic after you been sleeping in it for hours? You know, that reminds me: I think I’m past due for my annual bath.)

O.K., well maybe our reputation is deserved: stinky, stupid and shifty. Least, that’s what most folks around these parts think of us anyways. Can’t hardly blame ‘em. But one thing I can tell ya: at least we stick together. Oh yeah, us shepherds we stick together alright, no matter what comes. We have to: sheep business ain’t so easy as you think it is. Oh I know you’ve got all them happy pictures in your mind of nicely dressed shepherds surrounded by a cute little flock of fluffy white lambs bein’ all friendly with the shepherd. Well I tell ya, you get that thought outta yo mind right now cuz that’s a bunch o’ lies. Them sheep is ornery! Nasty little beasts!

And what they lack in manners they make up for in stupid! Oh yeah, they is dumb! They so mind-numbingly stupid, I wonder how they manage to eat and breathe! Just the other day I found one sheep with his head stuck in a fence — in the same exact place that I had rescued him from three days in a row! Stupid!

And when one tries to escape? Oh, give it up! You ever tried to catch a runaway sheep? Might as well tackle a bull. They might be lost out in a desert, miles from food or water, their wool all tangled with sticks and burrs. You come out there to rescue them; you know what they do? They run away from you! Where you goin, sheep?! The pasture’s over here! Stupid!

No, wrastlin’ with sheep is not for lightfoots, I tell ya. That’s why I always carry my tools of the trade: a staff in my hand and a rod in my belt. Mm-hm, a shepherd’s nothing without his staff and rod. Oh come on — you don’t think I hold onto this thing just to keep my balance, do ya? No, sir. But it comes in awful handy out there in the pasture with them ungrateful varmints.

Yeah. That’s my lot in life. Being a shepherd may not be a glamorous life, but it’s what I am; it’s what I do. An’ I always will; ain’t no gettin’ away from it. But in the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way. For one thing, I got to grow up raising sheep in the exact same fields that King David raised his sheep as a boy, and that’s sayin something I spose. But there’s another reason even more important than that. You see, if I weren’t never no shepherd… I never woulda met the Messiah — the one what rescued me.

Now there’s a story.

Oh, I’ll never forget the night I first met him. (You wouldn’t neither.) It was years ago now; I was just a young boy back then, out there in the fields helping my daddy watch the flocks with some of the other shepherds. We were about a mile from town — my home village, Bethlehem. We was on the night shift. (Yeah, that was all we could get. We were all a bunch of scoundrels, I reckon, so you get what you get.) Course, as a boy, I didn’t much mind the night shift. Kinda liked it, actually. Looking up at all them stars ever night. Wishing I could just reach out and grab ‘em.

But something happened that night I will never forget. That was the night them stars exploded!

It was a quiet evenin’. Wadn’t any wind. And it was late — past midnight — so it was dark. There wadn’t any moon to speak of, just a few clouds. We had a campfire, but it had burned down pretty low, so it was real dark and real quiet. But then, it happened: I saw something — something fearsome and terrible! I was the one what saw it first, but when I tried to yell to the others, I… I was so frightened I couldn’t make a sound. I never been so scared. What I saw was… well, I’ve tried to describe it a thousand times since that night, and I just ain’t got the words to do it justice. But I’ll try.

There was a light — the brightest light you ever seen, brighter than lightnin’ — like a tiny sun that appeared all of a sudden and was just floatin’ up over the trees. The light was so bright it lit up the clouds in the sky and the hills off in the distance. At first, I just shut my eyes tight. I thought it was so bright I’d go blind instantly if I looked at it. But something inside me made me want to try. I figured I just had to look — even if it meant I couldn’t never see anything else ever again. So I did. I looked right at it… and it didn’t hurt.  I was still scared outta my mind though.

The others had seen it by now too. I glanced around and I could tell they were as terrified as I was. Most of them just dropped to their knees or tried to hide behind rocks. I woulda too, but I couldn’t. I was just frozen in fear. I was more terrified than I ever been in my entire life. Fact, I was pretty sure I was already dead.

As I looked closer at that light, I gradually realized there was something… or someone… inside the light. (I didn’t know it was an angel at first. I didn’t figure that out till later). And then I realized, well, he was looking right at me! (Oh, my heart was pounding!) And then…all of a sudden… the most dreadful thing: he spoke! He started talking! And do you know what he said? Do you know what that fiery creature said to us? He said, “Fear not! Don’t be afraid!”

Hah! Can you believe that? He told us not to fear! Right there, in the most terrifying moment of all my life, he told me not to be afraid! And then — all of a sudden — I wasn’t! Something changed in me that moment. Something mighty.

I looked away for a moment, took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and then I looked back at him. His face was like nothing I had ever imagined in my most magical dreams. But would you believe — he was smiling! Right at me! (The others told me later they all thought he was looking right at them, but I know what I saw.)

And then he spoke again, and oh! that voice! It sounded like… like all the temple trumpets blowing at the same time; like a waterfall in a rumbling thunderstorm; like a huge crowd of people all shouting together in unison or singing in harmony. His words didn’t just fill my ears — they rattled every bone in my body.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what he said to us. Well, I’ll tell you. He said he he had come to bring a message — an announcement. He said he had some great news to tell us, something that would bring joy and happiness to people all over the entire world. He said, that very day, in our very own village, the Messiah had been born. Now, when I heard him say that, everything inside me jumped to attention. You gotta understand: my daddy been telling me about the coming Messiah as long as I could remember. He told me someday God was gonna send somebody who could rescue us all from all of our fears and all of our troubles. I said, “Daddy, how you know that?” He said, “Son, it’s in the Scriptures! The Holy Prophets they been promising for hundreds of years that he’s coming. The Messiah is coming!

So when that fiery angel said that the Messiah was born, well I just couldn’t help myself — I fell to pieces. I started crying like a little baby. But I kept listening to him. And he kept talking. He told us how to look for the little baby. He said we’d find him wrapped up in rags and lying in a feeding trough. Course, that didn’t make no sense to me, but I was too excited to give it much thought. I just stood there, wiping my nose and trying to catch my breath. I didn’t know what to do. I glanced over at my daddy. He was still on his knees. But he didn’t look frightened anymore. In fact, he looked… happy. He looked stronger and happier than I ever seen before. He turned and looked at me and… he had tears in his eyes.

And that’s when it happened. The most extraordinary thing I have ever witnessed. That’s when them stars exploded. You see, this creature, this angel that had visited us — turns out he wadn’t alone. Five more suddenly appeared with a great flash just behind him. And then a hundred more up in the sky, and then more and more. Thousands of em! Each one appearing like an explosion of fire and light. It was as if the very stars themselves were coming to life, bursting into living flames.

And then, oh, the wonder! — they started singing. Singing! They sang a song that was so beautiful, so heavenly, I knew then and there that the music I heard that night would never leave my heart for as long as I lived. And it never has. I hear it ever morning when I wake up and ever night when I lie in bed. Them angels still singing. I still hear em.

And then, when the song was finally done (and, oh! we didn’t want it to ever end!) but when it did, those angels left and they flew back to heaven where they came from. And I spose it’s a good thing too, cuz I don’t reckon any of us woulda ever moved a muscle till the day we died if they hadn’t. I looked at my daddy again and I still couldn’t say a word. Neither could he. But the others, why, they couldn’t stop talking. My daddy, he just looked at me. He was grinning so big. Then he nodded, and motioned to me and he jumped to his feet and he started running. I knew exactly where he was headed, so I caught up to him real quick. I could tell the others were right behind us too. Now, they knew right well if anything happened to them sheep, they’d all lose they’s jobs, but no one cared a whit about any of that. We had to see for ourselves what the Lord had told us about.

It didn’t take us long to find him. Bethlehem is a pretty small village — just a few hundred people. And everyone was sleeping, so all the lights was out. All except in one little stable. We all stopped outside and caught our breath. We just looked at each other, and then, without a word, we stepped up and looked inside.

And sure enough, it was just exactly like the angel had told us. There was a donkey and a goat and a couple chickens, dirty straw scattered all over the ground. And there was a lady and a man. (I remember thinking that they both looked real tired.) The lady, she looked up at us and she just smiled. It was the prettiest smile I ever seen. And they both had their hands stretched out, resting on a box of hay. And I could see the man’s hand was trembling. And there in that box, lying in the hay, wrapped up in strips of cloth that looked like they’d been ripped from the man’s own tunic, was a tiny little baby. And he was sleeping. We didn’t say nothing, of course. We just all got down on our knees. I could tell my daddy was crying. (I didn’t look at him, I just heard him blowing his nose in his scarf.) I couldn’t keep my eyes off that little one.

I can’t say much about that moment. They aint’ no words for it. Spose the best I can do is tell you, when I was a boy, my daddy he used to tell me about the the temple up in Jerusalem, and all the priests that serve the Lord up there. And ever year, on Atonement Day (that’s one of my favorite holidays) Daddy’d tell me the story about how the Highest Priest would go on that one day into the innermost room of that temple, carrying nothing but the blood of a lamb. He’d go into a place they called the “Holy of Holies”. I always wondered what it meant for a room to be called Holy. I had always tried to imagine what it must be like. But there, on that night, in that stable, I finally knew. And now, to this day, whenever anyone talks about a “holy” place — that little hay barn is the spot I think of. Now, I know I gots to be careful about what I say, an’ I don’t mean no disrespect, but that night, next to that little baby, I felt like we was in the presence of the Lord God Almighty Himself.

~~~~

Now, you might think my story ends there. And in some ways, I spose, I wish it did. But it doesn’t. And what I’m about to tell you, I none too proud about.

You see, that little family didn’t live in Bethlehem. (They was just visiting, and they didn’t stay long.) But I did. That’s where I grew up. The thrill of that night stayed with me for an awful long time. My daddy never did stop talking about it. A lot of people didn’t believe him, but he didn’t care. He told ever person he ever met all about it as long as he lived. I even heard him singing that angel song on his bed the night he died.

But after he was gone, things sorta quieted down a little. I remember I used to go into Jerusalem ever once in a while. (It’s only a couple hours away, walking.) I always thought maybe I might run into that little child. I just knew I’d recognize him if I ever saw him. But I never did. And as the years went by, it all started to fade. Eventually I stopped thinking about it altogether.

In fact, after a while I started wondering if I could trust my own memory. Ya see: my daddy told me that when the Messiah came, he’d rescue us. He’d save us. But nothing like that ever happened. Things didn’t get better. In fact, they just got worse. The Roman soldiers started coming around more often, always demanding higher and higher taxes. When I grew up, I took over the sheep business, but I could hardly keep food on my family’s table.

Now, you probably think it strange that a shepherd couldn’t feed his family, what with all them lamb chops all around. But you don’t understand: those sheep weren’t for us. The flocks of Bethlehem weren’t just ordinary sheep. And we weren’t just normal shepherds. Remember that temple up in Jerusalem I told you about? You know what they did there? They sacrificed lambs to the Lord there. Ever single day. Hundreds of ‘em. And thousands more on the holy days. So where do you suppose they got all them sheep? That’s right: The shepherds of Bethlehem were their sole suppliers. And I’m here to tell you, they didn’t pay us too much. No, between them and the Romans, we barely had enough to keep a few crumbs of bread on the table.

Things was bad everywhere. The whole world seemed like it was fallin’ apart. Far as I could tell, there weren’t no Messiah coming around to save me or my family. And all them Scriptures and stories,… well I just got to the point where I stopped believing em. The song was still in my head, but I just didn’t sing it no more. Fact, ever time it came into my mind, I tried everything I could to push it back out — right along with everything else that came from God. I figured if I’m gonna have the reputation of bein a scoundrel, I might just as well live like one.

And I did. For a lot a years.

Well, one day I was leading my sheep to Jerusalem. It was Passover, which to me means market day. Course, I only brought my best ones. The priests wouldn’t accept any animals less they was spotless. The critters couldn’t have a single blemish on em if they was gonna be fit for the sacrifice. So I picked out the very best of the flock and I was leading em up. Now, like I said, them priests considered us shepherds to be “unclean” — which means we weren’t allowed anywhere near the temple, which was fine by me cuz I didn’t want anything to do with it. I just wanted to get my money and go. So when it came time to sell the sheep, I always set up shop down by one of the city gates called the Sheep Gate. The priest picked that spot; they liked it cuz it was right near the temple. But I hated it cuz it was also right next to the Roman quarters where the soldiers stayed, and where they tried all the criminals, and I hated bein around all them Roman soldiers.

On that particular day, there was a big noisy crowd there outside the gate. Appears the Romans had just finished nailing up some lawbreakers on a hill not too far from where I was working. That’s what them filthy Romans loved doin: They’d arrest some scoundrels and they’d gut em or flog em and then pin em to boards and hang em out in the sun till they bled to death. Gruesome affair. I’d seen them crosses many times and it always made me sick to my stomach. But today, there was something peculiar about one of them sticks. It had a sign on it with writing. Now, it was a good distance away, and I ain’t much of a reader, so I asked the fellas next to me what the sign said and they told me it said, “King of the Jews”.

Right for a moment there, my heart just stopped. I said, “King of the Jews? You mean, that there’s the … the Messiah?” Now you might think I’m making this up, but I’m telling you right now just as straight as true, that as soon as I said those words, that man on that cross he lifted his head and he looked past all that crowd, all the way over to where I was standin’. And then I knew. It was him. I could see it in his eyes. It was that little baby that I seen way back there in that holy stable.

And I asked them, “What’d he do? Why’s he up there?” And they said, “Hard to know for sure. Some folks say he was just a crazy rabble rouser. Some say he claimed to be God. Most people say he just spent too much time with the scoundrels and prostitutes.”

Was he a scoundrel?” I asked.

“No.” they said. “Ain’t no one says that about him.”

Well, I guess it goes without saying that I couldn’t get that out of my mind. For days I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I seen men die before. But not like him. I kept thinking: I knew who he was. Who he really was. The angel told me. Maybe if I…. maybe if I’da told more people the truth about him — like my daddy always did — well, maybe he wouldn’t a wound up hangin’ from that stick, like a… slaughtered lamb. Maybe it was my fault he died.

And then I thought about how I’d been living all these years. I couldn’t help but think that I was just like one of them stupid sheep… always running. Running away from the one who was trying to rescue me.

I had forgotten the song.

So I decided one day, about a week later, that I would return to Jerusalem one more time. Go back to where they killed him, maybe find where they threw his body. Try to pay my last respects somehow. And I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t thinking about throwing myself off a cliff after that.

So there I was at the Sheep Gate, looking up at that hill, just thinking about everything. Thinking about how I had helped kill the Messiah of Israel. When suddenly from behind me, I heard someone say my name. I thought it was one of my priest customers, an’ I wasn’t in the mood to be polite so I swung around rudely…

…and it was him. He was alive!

I just looked at him. I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. My mind was just exploding all over the place. In that moment I was gripped with the exact same fear that I had felt all those years ago out under the Bethlehem sky. Only this time, it was me who dropped to my knees, just like my daddy had done before. I sank my head in the dirt. I couldn’t look up. I was so afraid. I was literally terrified.

And then… he spoke to me again. And do you know what he said? Do you know what the Messiah said to me? He said,

“Fear not! Don’t be afraid! — For, behold! I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the world. For unto YOU was born THAT day, in the City of David, a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.”

And you know me — I just started crying like a baby. And then he reached down and touched me, and he helped me to my feet. And then he looked at me,… and he smiled. He took me in his arms. He embraced me. Can you imagine that?

And that, friends, is how the Messiah rescued me. Because in that very moment, I figured it out. I suddenly realized what it all meant, what the Prophets had been saying all along:

He was the “lamb” of God,

…born in the hills of Bethlehem,

…destined to die one day in Jerusalem,

…as a sacrifice… for me. For everyone.

So now, I’m telling everyone about it. Everyone I know, everyone I meet, just like my daddy done. Cuz now, he’s my Messiah.

He’s the Shepherd what rescued me.

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The First Letter from Peter (Chapter 2)

With this is mind, it is time for you to deep-clean the refuse from your heart: your crafty little half-truths, your disingenuous masks, your spiteful discontent and malicious backstabbing. If you want to grow stronger in your deliverance, you must crave the nutrients of God’s words like a nursing baby craves milk — assuming you have tasted the sweet kindness of the Master.

Getting close to Him is like finding a living stone — one that most people dismiss as worthless but in God’s eyes is a chosen and precious gem. And you are living stones as well — ones which God is using to construct His own home. He is erecting a temple in which you yourselves are sacred priests who present spiritual offerings to a smiling God because of Jesus the Messiah. For the sacred writings contain these words: “Pay close attention: I have chosen a priceless stone, and I am designating it as the principal foundation stone, and whoever places their confidence here will absolutely not be disappointed.” This stone is precious indeed to you who trust it, but for those who don’t: “The stone which the construction crew threw away turned out to be the most important stone in the entire building.” It became “a rock they smashed their foot against and a stone that tripped them up.” And because they stubbornly refuse to comply to God words, they find themselves smashed against that stone — a fate to which they were destined.

You, on the other hand, are a family hand-selected to serve as royal priests, a tribe set apart from all others, a people He can call His very own, in order that you might joyfully broadcast the boundless excellence of the One who enticed you out of the dark and beckoned you into His dazzling light. You once were just a crowd of strangers, but now you are the people of God; once you were helpless and pitiful, but now you have been happily pardoned.

My precious friends, please understand: you don’t belong here; don’t get comfortable here! The cravings that beset humanity will bombard your inner life like a barrage of artillery — you must stand clear! Maintain such first-class behavior among the residents of this land that, even if they bad-mouth you as a bunch of delinquents, they won’t fail to notice the beauty of your accomplishments — and then give God all the credit on the day He comes to inspect the troops!

You have one Master — but He expects you to surrender your rights to every human authority He established: from the Commander in Chief all the way down to the officers with the delegated authority to prosecute the guilty and exonerate the innocent. This is exactly what God wants: that by living honorably you will muzzle the mindlessness of obtuse critics. You have indeed been liberated, but do not cling to your freedom as some license for misconduct — live as slaves of God!

Give everyone what is due them: to your brothers, sacrificial love; to God, trembling reverence; to the king, honorable obedience. If you are slaves, accept the authority of your masters with reverential respect, not just if they are kind and fair, but even if they are unjust. For this is a picture of grace: willingly accepting the grief of undeserved suffering because your minds are fastened on God. Look, if you break the rules and are punished, and you “bravely endure” it, how is that noteworthy? But if you are doing what is good and wind up suffering, that is actually a demonstration of grace from God’s point of view.

This, after all, is the party that God invited you to: the Messiah blazed the trail by suffering for you, and He left footprints on the path so you can follow right along behind. He’s the One who never broke a single rule, who never let a falsehood escape His lips; He’s the One who was blistered with insults but did not retaliate, who suffered but made no snarling threats — He simply rested His case in the hands of a reliable Referee. And He’s the one who carried the weight of all our sin on His shoulders as He hung on the cross, so that we might permanently escape our sins and live lives of honor. It was His grievous injury

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The First Letter from Peter (Chapter 1)

From Peter, an emissary of Jesus the Messiah.

I write to those who were beckoned by God, people who no longer fit in this world like they used to, scattered in homes and cities across SouthWest Asia — God knew you and selected you before you were even born, and He washed your spirit in His, so that you might have the joy of obeying Jesus the Messiah who purifies your heart with every drop of His blood.

Gracious greetings to you, and “Shalom” (peace) to fill every crevice of your heart!

Joyful praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Out of His extraordinary kindness, He has given us a brand new Life — with Hope itself as its beating heart — a Life and Hope that spring out of the very grave of Jesus the resurrected Messiah. And He has bequeathed his entire inheritance to you — put it all in your name and placed it under lock and key in His very own storehouse, where it can never decay or get dirty or depreciate in any way. In fact, He has placed you under the same safe-keeping, powerfully shielding you with an unshakable confidence until the day when your ultimate Safe Haven is unveiled on the last page of the story.

I know all this thrills you deeply, even though right now you are being tested in a season of sorrows. These tests serve to authenticate your faith, proving it more valuable than gold (whose gleam is short-lived, even when refined by fire), and leading ultimately to the accolades and applause and adulation that will sound at the curtain call of Jesus the Anointed One. He is the one you are in love with, even though you’ve never seen Him; and even though you can’t see Him now, your trust in Him elates you with a glorious joy words cannot describe and ushers you to the climax of faith: a rescued life!

This rescue was so profound that the ancient prophets who originally foretold the arrival of this gracious gift earnestly probed and peered into its mystery, desperately trying to understand the details and timing that the Spirit of the Messiah was referring to when He gave them advance notice of the sufferings that the Messiah would endure and the glorious stage lights that would follow. The news was broken to them that they were not in this business for their own benefit, but for yours. And now this incredible message has landed on your doorstep, hand-delivered by the Holy Spirit, emissary of Heaven, with the angels themselves kneeling down just trying to get a glimpse of it!

~~~~

Now then, get your minds suited up for battle and stripped of all distractions. Rest all your hopeful expectations squarely on that gracious gift that is about to be presented to you as soon as Jesus the Anointed One finally steps on stage. As well-mannered children, don’t let your desires become slaves to the fashions you chased after when you didn’t know any better. But the One who beckoned you is flawless in character, so likewise, every aspect of your lifestyle should resemble His — in all its otherworldly purity, because God has engraved this command: “You must be spotless, because I am spotless.” And if you call Him “Father” — this One who inspects everyone’s behavior even-handedly — make sure to make your way along this winding, unfamiliar trail with a healthy sense of fear.

Remember: the ticket that brought you deliverance out of the soul-sucking meaninglessness that stained your entire family line, was paid for, not by paltry little trinkets such as silver or gold, but by the priceless blood of a perfectly innocent lamb — the Messiah. His story had already been authored before the cosmos even existed, but when He finally made His climactic debut, He came for you. And through Him you learned to trust the God who extracted Him out of death and enveloped Him with grandeur, so that the focal point of all your confidence and expectancy might now be fixed exclusively on God.

And now that you have allowed the Truth to invade and control you, disinfecting your very souls, so that genuine camaraderie characterizes your relationships, it is time to stretch out your hearts to a whole new level of sacrificial love for one another.

A brand new Life has burst forth inside of you, sprung not from the seedling of a dying plant but from an immortal one — one spoken into existence by the animating, resonating words of God. Indeed, all mankind is His front lawn, and all our triumphant achievements are the wildflowers of His garden. The grass inevitably dries up and the flowers become compost, but the life-giving voice of the Gardener reverberates perennially.

And this is the voice that proclaimed the Great Announcement to you.

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Paint-By-Numbers

sill-in-a-studio-old-paintbrushes-in-a-creative-workshop-artist-equipment_r8ovxiju__F0000

The child stepped into the artist’s workshop. Surveying the room, he was struck with the beauty that surrounded him. Paintings on canvases were strewn about on walls and tables. Some were half-finished, and some consisted of little more than just a few simple brush strokes, Others, however, were massive: giant vistas and murals extending from floor to ceiling. Filled with vibrant colors and vivid scenes, the paintings were glorious and grand. Lush, swirling landscapes, photo-realistic still-lifes, and ornate architectures filled the boy with a sense of awe. Other paintings were more fanciful designs containing only random brush strokes and abstract splatters of color, but were composed so evocatively that they stirred up emotions the boy never even knew he had. The breathtaking beauty that surrounded the boy was so transfixing that it chased away any memory of why he had entered the room in the first place.

“Welcome, lad.” The gentle voice of the artist woke the boy from his awe-inspired stupor. “I was hoping you’d come.”

The man didn’t look up as he spoke. He stood facing an easel on which was propped a canvas that was as wide as his arm-span. In one hand he held a paint-brush and with the other he clutched a plate-sized palette daubed with paint of all imaginable colors. A portion of the canvas before him was decorated with a majestic design that, though unfinished, already glistened with a grandeur that penetrated the young boy’s tender heart.

“Come closer,” invited the kind old man with a beckoning wave of his brush. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

The boy hesitated, but bashfully edged nearer to the man. Glancing down to his own hands, he suddenly remembered the picture he was holding, which he had come into the workshop to proudly share. His page had the printed outline of a child’s toy. It was a color-by-numbers picture, smeared with the three primary colors that came in the boy’s finger-painting set. But now, in comparison with the incredible skill on display all around him, he was no longer quite so proud of his own work. He quietly shoved it into his back pocket as he approached the master’s work area.

Studying the half-finished masterpiece, the boy searched his vocabulary for words to voice his admiration. He had not yet learned terms such as “spectacular”, “magnificent”, or “staggering”, which he surely would have used had he known them. He settled for the only words he could think of.

“Wow, grandpa,” he whispered. “You’re… really good.”

The old man smiled. He squinted at his painting for another moment and then turned to the boy.

“I’ve got something for you”, said the aged painter, placing down his brush and palette, and wiping his hands on the work apron at his waist. He stepped over to a workbench and reached high up to the top shelf. From there he brought down a palette — just like his own, but brand new without any paint on it. Next, he stooped over and lifted from the ground what looked to the boy like a large toolbox. Setting it on the bench, he opened it, revealing to the boy’s marvelling eyes at least a hundred tubes of paint, each one with a different colored cap. Thoughtfully, the man studied the colors, and then slowly, one by one, he selected various tubes and squeezed a dab of each onto the new palette, arranging the dollops in an arc around the edge. Finally, he reached to a glass jar in which stood a collection of paint brushes, each one a different size and shape. With similar deliberation, he selected a single brush, then turned and handed both to the boy.

Smiling at the boy’s bewildered expression, he explained, “I’ve been hoping for a helper.” And with that he returned to his easel and resumed his craft. The boy looked at the tools he had been handed, but stood motionless.

“Come,” the man added, after noticing the boy’s reluctance. “There is much to do. A half-empty canvas awaits.”

“But…” the boy’s voice stammered nervously as he searched for words. “I can’t… I don’t know how to…” He looked back and forth from his grandpa to the canvas. “Where’s the outline? Where are the numbers? How am I supposed to know what to paint?”

“No numbers, my boy. I have given you all you need.”

“But, grandpa… I can’t paint like you. I’ll mess it up. I’ll do it all wrong. I’ll ruin it.”

The gracious man said nothing, but just continued to paint, dabbing his brush to his palette and then adorning the canvas with long graceful arcs of joyful color.

The boy stood there, frozen. He was eager to join in the delightful work, but he was deeply fearful of his own inabilities. Looking at the palette in his hand, a thrill slowly arose in his soul, but when he turned his attention to the blank canvas, his heart became strangled once again with a feeling of hopeless inadequacy.

He really wished there were numbers.

And then his eyes shifted once more. He turned and looked at his grandfather. He studied his face: the gleam in his eyes, the expression on his lips. He watched his arm and hand, noticing carefully exactly how it moved, the angle that he held the brush, the pressure with which he applied the paint, the speed, the direction, the flair.

After focusing intently on all these details for several moments, he gradually noticed a sensation emerging in his own heart. He had always loved his grandpa, always wanted to be like him; but now — with his grandfather’s own brush resting against his small fingers — he felt the spirit of the great master rising up in his own muscles.

In that moment he decided that his best strategy would be to imitate the older artist as closely as he could. When the aged hands selected a color from his palette, the boy chose the same color from his own. When the man twirled the brush in his fingers, the boy tried to do the same. When his grandpa used particular strokes on the canvas — long and flowing sweeps, or brief stippled dots — the boy did his best to copy the movements exactly.

Of course, the results were anything but identical. Despite the boy’s most earnest efforts at imitation, every stroke he made seemed rough, crooked, and out of place compared to the effortless flowing strokes of his grandfather. The colors were off as well: his mixtures never seemed to have the right hue or tone. Then they would mix and bleed on the canvas in terribly disagreeable ways. The more he tried to fix things, the worse mess he made.

His frustration was mounting. His mistakes were multiplying. The hodgepodge of squiggles in front of him just seemed to mock him.

And then, just when he felt like throwing his brush to the floor in exasperation, the most remarkable thing happened. During this whole time, the old man had been working on one edge of the canvas while the boy worked in a small section of his own on the other side. The master painter had not seemed to be paying any attention whatsoever to the marks his grandson had been making.

But suddenly, all that changed.

With a grand sweep of his broad brush, the master painter brought the two sections of the painting together. With several agile flourishes, he brought swooping colors down and around the boy’s jumbled smudges. And in that instant, right before his astonished eyes, the boy saw, what only a moment ago was nothing but a blotchy mess, was now suddenly transformed into… art.

His grandfather not only incorporated the boys contributions into his own, but he did it in a way that made it appear that it was exactly the master vision he had intended to paint all along. He turned the boy’s jagged scribbles into a delicate pattern that blended and flowed seamlessly into the entire masterpiece.

After a few more moments of work, the two painters finally took a step back to survey their accomplishment. It was extraordinary: a brilliant showcase of artistry. Nothing seemed out of place anywhere from edge to edge.

Eventually the artists turned to look at each other. The twinkle in the older man’s eyes communicated a love and delight that filled the young boy’s heart to the brim. It was a gleam of joy which the boy instantly recognized, because he had seen it on every canvas in the room. It was a deep-seated gladness that danced on every painting. His grandfather’s smile communicated to the boy (in a way that words never could) how pleased he was to have been able to share his life’s passion with his grandson.

And now the boy, having experienced the deep satisfaction of watching his artwork become intertwined with that of his beloved grandfather, knew in that moment that his own life had been transformed as well. In that instant, not just their paint but their hearts had been knitted together. From that day on, he saw every blank canvas with new eyes, he saw the world with new colors, and  whenever he picked up a brush, he felt his grandfather’s spirit within him.

And of course, he never painted by numbers again.

~~~~

“And now we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His likeness, with ever-increasing glory that comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” 1 Cor. 3:18

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Birds of a Feather

wings

The birds all gathered at church one fine Sunday morning. They sat on straight rows and lifted their beaks in worshipful praise. When it came time for the sermon, Pastor Plummage stood before them and delivered a splendid message. He praised the Lord for all His bountiful gifts. He reminded his congregation of all the mercies that they had received. Together, they all gave thanks for their nests and for their daily meals. They praised their Creator for their strong legs and toes, for their sharp beaks, and for their warm and silky feathers in all their beautiful colors.

And then the Pastor rose to full height and, in a grave and glorious voice, sang a doxology, praising the Lord for that pinnacle of all His good gifts: their wings! At his bidding, the congregation all stretched out their wings, lifting them up towards heaven. Together they all expressed their profound gratitude for their Creator’s mercy and power. Then they closed their service with one final chorus praising God for the pinions and feathers, the sinews and strength of their wonderful wings.

And finally, with a smile on their face and joy in their hears,

    they all walked home.

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A Foggy Battle

foggy battleWhen I learned that my dear friend Thaine had begun a website devoted to the stories of God’s faithfulness in his life, I was truly delighted. I have read these stories, and I can bear witness to the profound impact they have had on my life. I consider it one of the greatest privileges in my life to be counted among Thaine’s friends. His life and testimony has long been a stirring inspiration to my own walk with Jesus.

And so it was, that when Thaine invited me to contribute a story to his site, I was both deeply honored, but also extremely hesitant. I hesitate because my satchel of stories is far slimmer than Thaine’s; I have not explored nearly so far as he has out into the frontier of God’s faithfulness and provision. But at the same time, I knew that there was one story, at least, that did need to be told. And, fittingly, it is a story in which Thaine himself plays a crucial role.

~~~~

It was a foggy Wednesday, last November. I had been struggling with feelings of depression for several days (which, as it happens, is not uncommon for me). But this day was different. I woke up under a cloud that was darker and deeper than anything I ever remember experiencing before. I was utterly befuddled and confused. I climbed out of bed and went downstairs to a dark living room and got on my knees to pray. But no prayers came. Only darkness. I found myself questioning everything in my life: my faith, my relationship to God, my very sanity. I had no idea if anything I had ever believed was true, or if I would ever be able to know anything again. I was genuinely afraid that I might be having a psychotic break.

Eventually I got dressed and drove to work. I stumbled through the morning in a lingering fog. I’m sure I accomplished nothing productive that morning, as my concentration was simply strangled. I felt utterly alone in the universe.

As I mentioned, this was a Wednesday, which means it was the day of my weekly office Bible study. Each week for the last couple years, around a dozen engineers gather in a conference room, and I do my best to lead them through an inductive study of 1 Peter. Usually I love these times, but this particular study I had been dreading all week because I didn’t feel ready — my preparation had been fruitless and dry; I felt like I had no spiritual insights to bring to the table; nothing with which to “feed the flock”. I would have loved to have cancelled the meeting for the day, but I knew that several of the men would be driving from a few miles away — giving up their lunch break to be there — so I didn’t want to disappoint them. But I have to admit, today my heart wasn’t in it — fear and dread had a chokehold on me.

The study proved to be even more excruciating than I had anticipated. From the very moment I began, voices of accusation began to fill my mind. Not audible voices, of course, but vivid thoughts of internal criticism and derision.

“What are you doing here? You have no business doing this! You’re a fraud!

“This is ridiculous! You don’t have anything for these men! You should have spent more time preparing!

“You really just need to shut up! Don’t you realize you are wasting these men’s time? They are never going to come back!

“Not only that — look at yourself! All you are thinking about is your own image! All you care about is what these guys think of you! You’re so vain, so proud!

“You’ve got nothing to say here! This is just nonsense — you really need to just shut up!”

I have never experienced anything quite like it. For the entire meeting, those infernal voices never let up. When I finally stumbled out of the room thirty minutes later, I literally felt like I was in shock. PTSD. I walked down the hall in a daze, found an empty office and collapsed into a chair. I was beside myself and felt hopelessly spent. Inside I knew that I couldn’t face this alone, but I didn’t know where to turn. I felt so alone. In desperation, I decided to text one of my accountability brothers. Here are the words of that text:

“Quick prayer request: since Monday I have been experiencing some sort of attack. Don’t know if it’s spiritual or psychological. It’s as if God suddenly decided to withdraw his hand from my life to show me what life would be like without Him. Very painful, and kind of scary.”

Within moments my friend replied with a single word. “Praying!

I have another friend — a pastor from the other side of the state that I only speak with a few times a year. For some reason, I felt like I needed to tell him as well.

“Prayer request, Randy:  Experiencing an attack of some sort, unlike anything I ever really remember experiencing before. At the psychological level. As if God had suddenly removed his hand from my life.”

His reply was just as swift, but even more intriguing:

“Interesting. That’s exactly how I would describe my last 4 days. You should give me a call.”

As I described my experience in more detail to Randy over the phone, and as he described his, we were both amazed at how similar our attacks had been: he also had experienced days of frustration and unproductivity, followed by a men’s Bible study which he had led the previous evening in which his mind had been bombarded with the same sort of accusatory voices that had berated me. It was at this point in our conversation when he had an insight.

“I think I know what’s going on here,” he said. “It’s because you were praying for us.”

~~~~

Just a week or two earlier, Randy had been leading a John Eldredge-style men’s Boot Camp. He had invited me to come, but I couldn’t make it. But I told him that I would love to be on his team of intercessors. And, indeed, I did spend time that weekend going to battle on their behalf. Now, on the phone, he told me that the weekend was filled with numerous spiritual breakthroughs. God had captured the hearts of several men. Afterwards, the leadership team gathered for a time of prayer and “debriefing.” During their time with the Lord, they got the distinct impression that He had a warning for them: “Be on your guard,” He said, “because the enemy is going to try to convince you to never do this again.”

“Kevin,” Randy explained, after telling me this backstory, “I’m sorry, dude. I think what’s going on with you right now is because you were praying for us. Pretty sure you’re picking up our crap. Welcome to the battle.”

And then he asked me, “Are you familiar with Eldredge’s ‘Battle Prayer’?” (I wasn’t.) “Dude! I can’t believe I haven’t told you about this. If you’re going to be an intercessor, you need to know this. Let me pray it over you right now.”

John Eldredge has written an amazing prayer for men who are involved in spiritual warfare. He calls it the Daily Prayer. It is an epic petition, calling on the authority of Christ against the schemes of the enemy. And it is quite extensive — it took Randy about fifteen minutes to read it over the phone. By the end, I was in tears. The dismal clouds were evaporating. The sunlight of God’s mercy and grace had finally pierced through my darkness.

But something else happened too.

While Randy was still praying, my phone buzzed with the notification of an incoming text. Of course, I couldn’t check it until after the end of my phone call, but when I finally did, I was completely floored.

~~~~

Thaine Norris and I were friends in High School. He was the first brother I had who really resonated with my earnest desire to be a genuine disciple of the Lord. After graduation, I spent a month at his home in Colorado. It was fantastic. But we both went off to different colleges and fell out of touch with one another. Suddenly 30+ years had gone by and we rarely connected. I think it had been at least five years since our last contact.

And so, when I looked down at my phone and realized that the text which I had just received in the middle of Randy’s vanquishing prayer was a note from Thaine, I was stunned. Now, the primary reason Thaine wanted to contact me is a story for another post (a miraculous story if it’s own — regarding Brother Yun). But that’s not what I read that day. Because, before telling me about that, Thaine (as he explained to me later) felt prompted to tell me something different.

He proceeded to write how much of an impact I had made on his life back in high school. He shared with me details that literally brought tears to my eyes. I was overcome. I knew at that moment that it was not just Thaine talking to me. It was my loving Heavenly Father looking down upon me and smiling… through a long lost brother. It was as if He wanted me to know, in the most compassionate way, that He truly was with me — in high school, and in all the years since, and even on this day that had begun so darkly. He had never left me at all.

And He never will.

~~~~

I’m glad to say that my friendship with Thaine has been reunited. We have spent some wonderful long conversations in the last few months finally catching up with each other. I have also returned to John and Randy’s prayer a number of times since then as well. But what I am most grateful for — and what I won’t ever forget — is how my precious Savior reminded me on that foggy Wednesday last November, how deep His love is, how faithful His friendship is, and how grateful I am to be counted among his soldiers.

And grateful as well for the incredibly special brothers he has blessed me with.

 

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1 Peter 1:22-25: A Devotional Commentary

Lord, every time we get a glimpse of You, our hearts are moved with a deep and unshakable feeling that there is more to this Christian life than we have yet tasted. So, if we hear You today calling us up to the next plateau, give us the boldness and courage to climb with all our hearts. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. For,
“All flesh is like grass,
And all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
And the flower falls off,
But the word of the Lord endures forever.”
And this is the word which was preached to you.

1 Peter 1:22-25

If you have ever had the privilege of entering the vestibule of a European cathedral during the afternoon vespers when the sound of the choir was echoing from inside, then you know what it is like to be stirred with emotions that words cannot possibly express. And once you have arrived at that entryway, nothing in the world could keep you from proceeding on into the expansive sanctuary to view the sublime beauty of that sacred place. In recent weeks I have felt like the first chapter of Peter’s epistle is like the vestibule of an ancient and glorious cathedral. His introductory verses were like a profound cantata praising the Triune God who bought our freedom at infinite cost. And his celebration of our extraordinary redemption beckons us to follow him in deeper, into the inner chancel of his inspired message.

Following his initial doxology of praise, Peter turned to the implications of our salvation — the “imperatives”, as we have called them. This chapter contains four of them: four somber commands that prescribe the lifestyle of those who have been rescued. The first three, which we have already studied, were “Be hopeful” (v. 13), “Be holy” (v. 15), and “Be fearful” (v. 17). We now reach his fourth and final command of the chapter. There is another way we could organize these instructions, however. Some Bible scholars consider the first three commands to essentially be three ways of saying the same thing: “Be holy”, while the rest of the book describes what that entails, in which case we now arrive at the first and most overarching command of that list. But in any case, whether it is the culmination of four ascending stairs of God-fearing holiness, or the first and foremost description of a holy lifestyle, there is no question that the command in these verses is preeminent in Peter’s heart and mind.

Like a sparkling gem at the center of a resplendent crown, the command sits right in the middle of verse 22: “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable…” The command, of course, is to love one another, but it is surrounded in front and behind by supporting statements that provide both the means and the motivation for the instruction — the how and the why, if you will.

In the first phrase, Peter paints a picture of the starting point — the ground rules for the rest of the verse. He looks into the recent past, and states his assumptions about his audience’s history. He says to this group of believers, “You have already done something that makes you eligible for the instruction I am about to deliver.” His words start out, “Since you have…”, or in another version “Now that you have…”, which indicates that his readers have already accomplished something. They have arrived at the entrance or entered the vestibule, so to speak. So, what is it they have accomplished? They have “purified their souls by obeying the truth.”

So what does that mean? Commentaries are rather evenly divided between two basic interpretations of this phrase: some believe Peter is referring to their initial salvation, while others think he is referring to their behavior subsequent to salvation (i.e., their “sanctification”). Both interpretations have strengths and weaknesses. Some argue that this cannot apply to salvation, because that would imply that our salvation is the result of “obedience” rather than faith, which clearly contradicts the rest of Scripture. In support of this position it is noted that “obedience” was used earlier in this very chapter to refer to moral conformity to the Father’s standards (v. 14). It is also noted that the word “purified” is usually used in Scripture in reference to the ritual purification that priests and worshippers regularly participated in at the Temple (cf. Jn 11:55, Ac 21:26).

From the other perspective however, to speak of “purifying your souls” seems to imply a much deeper and more seminal act than mere ritual cleansing. It sounds like what Peter preached about in Acts 15:9 when He proclaimed that “God purified their hearts by faith” which was a clear reference to salvation. This seems to be in concord with the next verse in which he specifically mentions their new birth. But if this is the case, then how can we understand this salvation to be the result of “obedience to the truth”? To answer that, we first refer back to verse 3, where Peter proclaims that salvation is a matter of (1) God’s foreknowledge, (2) the Holy Spirit’s sanctification, (3) obedience to Jesus, and (4) sprinkling by His blood. But what kind of obedience are we talking about? Well, there seems to be a clue later in our passage. At the end of verse 25 Peter mentions God’s word, and he clarifies that “this is the word that was ‘evangelized’ to you.” In other words: the gospel. So, if I’m putting this together correctly, then what Peter appears to be saying is that they obeyed the ones who first brought the words of Jesus to them; in other words, they obeyed Jesus’ call and came to Him in faith, and as a result, their souls were purified.

But, however you interpret this opening phrase, one thing is clear: there has been a noticeable change. Something has happened in the lives of Peter’s readers, and he acknowledges the transformation. And what does he provide as the primary evidence? He points to their love for each other. He calls it “a sincere love of the brethren.” The word for sincere is the greek word anupokritos, which could literally be translated “unhypocritical”. It means “undisguised and unfaked”. Peter sees a genuineness in the fondness they express for each other. The word for “love” in this phrase is a word that is even more familiar to us. It is philadelphia, which is often translated “brotherly love.” The apostle is commending these men and women for the evident change that has emerged in their lives and has produced in them a genuine love for each other.

I believe the same thing can be said for all true believers: one of the principal hallmarks of anyone who has been born again is the desire to connect with others in the same Family. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that if such a desire is not present, it should raise suspicion about that individual’s true spiritual nature. It is only natural (in a spiritual sense) to be drawn to fellowship with others who share the same Father as you. Peter says he sees their genuine camaraderie as an indication of their purified souls, and he is evidently pleased by it. And as a human father who loves to see my own children playing happily together, I can only imagine how much it delights the Lord God when he sees his children expressing philadelphia towards each other. I suppose it’s one of his happiest sights.

But, of course, that’s not Peter’s main point here. As you will recall, this was just the entryway.

My apologies in advance for this illustration, but I can’t help but think of the scene in the original Willy Wonka movie, when Gene Wilder, with Top Hat in hand, crouches down in front of the Door at the End of the Hall, and whispers to his privileged visitors, “My dear friends, you are about to enter the nerve center to the entire Wonka factory. Inside this room, all of my dreams become realities, and some of my realities become dreams…. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, … the chocolate room.” (Yeah, such a great movie. Gotta watch that one again…)

If you hadn’t noticed, that’s Peter there with the top hat. He standing here before all of us holders of the Golden Ticket, and he’s saying, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m delighted to see the signs of true Life in your souls. I can see that you have obeyed the truth, I can see that you love each other. But I’m here to tell you, you are only standing in the entry hall; I am inviting you to the next level.”

“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. (v. 22, NIV; emphasis added)

Permit me to unpack a few observations about this daunting command. The first thing that Peter’s Greek readers would have noticed, is that he used a different word for “love” than the one in the first phrase. This command uses the word agape. I’m sure anyone who is reading this study has heard many sermons on the similarities and differences between phileo and agape. I would note that sometimes the distinction between these words is overstated, as if phileo is a lower, earthly type of love, and agape is a higher, heavenly type of love. That is an inaccurate understanding. God uses both of these words to describe His love for us, and both words are used in various commands for us to love Him and each other. (See this discussion, for example.)

Nevertheless, the words are clearly not synonymous. Peter himself demonstrates the distinction, both in his conversation with Jesus (Jn 21:15ff), and in his second epistle (2 Pt 1:7). In general (without going into too much detail), suffice it to say that, phileo usually refers to a feeling of deep affection for someone, whereas agape usually refers to a self-sacrificial dedication to a person, regardless of emotional affinity. Vine defines the latter as “the deep and constant love and interest of [someone] towards [potentially] unworthy recipients.” I think a mother’s love for her child probably comes closest, on an earthly level, to exemplify what such love looks like.

But it is not just the verb itself that would have captured the attention of Peter’s readers, but the adverb that modifies it. The NIV translates it “deeply”; other versions say “earnestly” or (my favorite) “fervently”. The word literally means “stretched or strained”. If you want a vivid picture of the real meaning of this word, draw your attention to Luke 22:44. There you will encounter the Lord Jesus as he laid in the garden of Gethsemane. Listen to Luke’s description: “And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” The word used to describe Jesus’ prayers is the same root word that Peter uses. This is the image that should be seared in our minds when we hear Peter command us to “fervently love each other”. He is calling us to “stretch ourselves out in self-sacrificial love for each other.”

And as if that’s not enough, he adds that we are to do so “from the heart.” The “heart” in Peter’s thought is a synonym for “the inner person” (3:4) and the seat of the Savior’s lordship (3:15). It is analogous to the unhypocritical genuineness with which he described our brotherly love, but it goes deeper. He is saying that this is an intense, earnest, fervent love that should be welling up from the very core of our souls and overflowing on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Perhaps you understand now what I meant when I said that Peter is charging us, challenging us, commanding us, to come up to the next level in our devotion to God and, in particular, to His children. Can anyone doubt that the words of his Savior were still ringing in Peter’s ears — the words he heard mere hours before the cross: “This is the new commandment I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (Jn 13:34)

If I could expand Peter’s charge in modern vernacular, I think it would sound something like this: “My dear friends, I see that you love each other: you are kind and considerate, you gather together every Sunday and sometimes more often than that. You take interest in each other and pray for each other and share jokes and Facebook accounts with each other. You have a genuine mutual love that the world sees and (for the most part) admires. And I commend you for it. But, as your pastor and mentor, I need to implore you: It is time to go deeper. It is time to stretch yourselves out — to strain yourselves far beyond what you ever thought possible before. It is time to lay yourselves out for your spiritual siblings in deep, genuine, Christ-like, self-sacrificial love — the kind of love that leaves scars.”

Friends, do you have any idea what it would look like if we really obeyed that command? It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Earlier this week, as I was trying to think of an example of this type of commitment, I happened to read the words of a Navy SEAL who described the tight-knit community exhibited in his squadron. Listen to this elite warrior’s piercing words: “The last person a SEAL thinks of is himself. We value our brother next to us more than our self. We never have to cover our backs, because we know our SEAL brothers will. As a Navy SEAL, everything I do is for the sake of my brother next to me. We believe this to the very core of our being. We are trained not to think of ourselves as individuals, but as a unit. When we are on a mission, we are absolutely dedicated to ensure that every single brother gets back home. This is our number one agenda. We all have different jobs to do, but we are all there for each other. At any cost. Each one values the man next to him more than himself and is willing to die for a cause bigger than himself” (Source: Killing Kryptonite, p. 46).

So, right now, in whatever seat you are sitting as you read this, I want to ask you to lean back, and close your eyes, and just imagine what the Church of our Lord Jesus would look like if we learned to love each other like that. Imagine what your church would look like if there were one, or two, or three dozen people who had that kind of at-all-cost devotion to the spiritual welfare of those around them. Fervent. Heart-felt. Agape.

That, brothers and sisters, is what the Apostle Peter is calling us to. I don’t know about you, gang, but to me, that is deeply convicting. Because I will be the first to admit that my love is pretty far from that ideal. I have very few scars to prove my love for the brethren. Just the thought of this makes me take a deep breath and bow my head and whisper to the Lord, I really need to up my game.

But before we leave this passage, there is one last observation that I want to point out. Peter, you see, doesn’t just drop a command on us like this and walk away without providing a little motivation. If, after receiving this command, we are brash enough to ask “Why should we do this?” he doesn’t just respond, “Because I told you.” Instead, he gives us a reason, and a deeply profound one at that. Let’s read the rest of the passage again:

…Fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. For,
“All flesh is like grass,
And all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
And the flower falls off,
But the word of the Lord endures forever.”
And this is the word which was preached to you.

I’ll have to admit, when I first studied this passage, I kept coming back to it again and again over several days, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how all these verses fit together. Peter seems to be bouncing from one thought to another without any connection between them. Frankly, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Apostle might have had some age-induced dementia that side-tracked his train of thought. (It certainly happens to me a lot these days!)

But as I looked at it closer and prayerfully scrutinized it, I finally found that there is a theme that is intricately woven through this entire paragraph. If you haven’t noticed it yet, let me try to trace it out for you.

On the face of it, the motivation for the love command appears to be trivial: “Love each other fervently, because you have been born again.” Of course, we all know that once we’re born again, once we become a Christian, we are obligated to love each other. But, to be brutally honest, that “motivation” doesn’t exactly put any fire in my engine, if you know what I mean.

But, as it turns out, that’s not the real incentive that Peter is leaning upon. It is not the fact of our new birth that lights Peter’s fire. It’s the nature of that new birth. Look at those verses once more, and notice the adjectives and terms that keep coming up over and over again:

He mentions a seed that is “not perishable, but imperishable.” (These are among Peter’s favorite words. He has already used them several times in this chapter to describe the permanence and unending certainty of our inheritance and our faith.) He says this is the nature of the seed with which you were born. But he continues…

That seed is the “word of God”. That makes sense, but notice the adjectives he uses to describe that “word”. He doesn’t say the “true and holy word of God”, or “the sharp and powerful word of God”, (all of which are true). How does Peter describe it? He says the “living and enduring word of God.” Once again, he is emphasizing the eternal nature of the seed from which our lives have sprung.

Next, he underscores this comment about God’s enduring word with a quotation out of Isaiah. In this passage, Isaiah contrasts the eternally abiding word of the Lord with… what? With the temporary, fleeting mortality of flesh. Mankind is like grass, he says; all our achievements are like fast-dying flowers. We are all about to wither away and die. And that, indeed, would be our ultimate fate…

Unless…

Unless a new seed was planted in our soul. A magical seed. A miraculous seed. A seed that never dies. Peter is here proclaiming one of the most astounding realities of Christianity. A pronouncement that sounds so preposterous it borders on the mythological:

He says we… believers… have been born of immortal stock. THAT is Peter’s audacious claim. We are now eternal! We will never die! This blip of a moment on planet earth will certainly fade away like the wintery grass in my backyard. But our souls will endure forever! And THAT, Peter exclaims, makes all the difference in your relationship with other believers.

Do me a favor: the next time you gather at church or at a small group Bible study, look around the room. Look at each face. Intentionally study them. And then remind yourself that everything else in the room, everything else on this PLANET will be gone in a few hundred years. But the souls of the people that you see across the room, the true hearts of the people that you greet in the church foyer this Sunday will be standing with you, worshipping our Allmighty God, for ever and ever! We alone are the immortals! Together we are God’s children. Together we will delight in His presence. The rest of the props in this dandy little play will dissolve when the curtain falls, but the cast and the Director shall never be separated. (But, don’t let that frighten you: all the sins and selfishnesses that make some of those people so unbearable right now, will be obliterated as well!)

I don’t know about you, but that changes my perspective dramatically. This world is such a fleeting garden. For all of eternity I will be loving the Lord… and YOU… far more than I can even imagine right now. Every one of us will love each other JUST like the Lord loves us! Can you imagine the bliss of that kind of fellowship? And the revered Apostle Peter is saying, “Don’t wait for it! Enter into that type of communion now! Pour yourself out, stretch yourselves beyond the breaking point, earnestly strive to give of yourself to the point of perspiration and pain and blood for your eternal brothers and sisters. THIS is the Forever Family, and YOU have been invited in.”

Have you ever known anyone who loves like that? In my opinion, they are very rare. But I have had the privilege of experiencing a few tastes of that kind of love before.

I recall my best friend in college, Randy Lawrence. I could tell he loved me like this just from his prayers for me. When he prayed for me, he really entered into my world. He told me once that when he interceded for me, he didn’t just think of me as how I was, but he saw me as how he knew I would one day become. His love profoundly changed my life.

I think also of my good friends, Darrie and Debbie Turner. This sweet couple have been missionaries nearly all of their lives. I had the honor of serving with them in ministry for a few years. I got a front-row seat to watch how they spent themselves in their tireless commitment — not only to their own (large) family, but also to the college class in the church we attended. Darrie worked full-time in a print shop, went to school full-time at the Bible college (while Debbie home-schooled their children), and they still had time to open their home regularly for the church, and to mentor me in my early ministry years, and to pour their lives into people all around them. At the age when other people start thinking about retirement, the Turners decided to move to Uganda, to invest themselves in fervent love to yet another whole body of believers. They taught me what genuine agape looks like.

It is people like this (and a number of others) who have been my role models over the years. But sadly (and here I think you’ll have to agree with me), there are far too few of their tribe. And I say this as I look straight in the mirror because — I need to be totally honest with you: I’m not there yet either. I will admit it right now, and perhaps some of you can echo these words with me: I have been in the entry hall far too long in this regard. It’s time I enter in the Sanctuary. It’s time to raise my love to the next level. It’s time, my friends, for some serious, heart-felt agape.

So I urge you to join with me in this quest. Decide now to set aside some time this week to earnestly and prayerfully ask the Lord: what would it look like if I were to become an earnest lover of His children? What would fervent agape sound like in my conversations and my prayer life? In what ways would it transform my home, my Bible study, and my free time, if I were to embrace this command with all my heart? And then the most important question of all: Lord, how can I get to the next level?

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