PEOPLE WITH ATTITUDE #3 Attitude to Sin

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Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)

Righteousness is one of the most significant ideas in the Bible. As such it has been complicated through over-thinking and under-pursuing. I am talking about theological speculation. I could fill these lines with summaries and analyses of what everyone has written on the subject, but that wouldn’t help me to recognise righteousness more clearly let alone stir me to pursue it. One of the imbalances has come about from the very worthy discussion about our relationship with God, commonly referred to as salvation (justification, regeneration). I will always be thankful for the fact that a German Augustinian priest named Martin Luther was scared witless during a severe electrical storm in July 1509.[1] It was the beginning of a long journey to discover how a person could be assured of his salvation. That journey changed the shape of the church forever when he read Paul’s quote from a prophecy of Habbakuk in the Letter to the Romans: “the righteous shall live by their faith.”[2]  Those of us whose Christian journey has been shaped in part by the evangelical movement will be pressured to think that all references to righteousness must be connected to the work of Jesus that brings the opportunity for our salvation.

I want to urge us to see righteousness in its broadest sense – inclusive of salvation but not restricted to it. I think a basic understanding comes directly from the English word itself. Righteousness exists when things are right, and unrighteousness, when things are wrong. For followers of Jesus, right and wrong are defined by God – his nature, his purposes, his deeds and his desires. In the Bible, I think righteousness and holiness are almost interchangeable. My reading of the New Testament makes it hard for me to distinguish between the two – especially in the practical sense. I can’t see how someone can be righteous and unholy or holy but unrighteous. My longstanding thesis that “Jesus is our hermeneutic” reminds me that he was called “the righteous one.”[3] Jesus is referred to constantly as the “Righteous one” through the preaching of the apostles recorded in Acts.[4] John makes it quite clear: My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.[5]

So I need to ask a simple question. Which day and which particular set of actions demonstrate Jesus as being righteous. The answer can only be – all his actions every day. Not just his actions but his desires, his thoughts, his feelings, his attitudes and his relationships. He was the One who lived entirely as a righteous Son of God. And this is my point. If I asked what it was that defined Jesus as being righteous, what might the answer be? I think the righteousness modelled by Jesus is “indiscriminate redemptive love.” It is the only definition that covers all the different things that Jesus said, did and taught. Whenever I hold attitudes or carry out actions other than those that display indiscriminate redemptive love I am being unrighteous. When I tolerate or show indifference to those things, I will not qualify for the blessing Jesus talked about here in Matthew 5.

Jesus had a definite attitude to the unrighteousness he witnessed, especially religious unrighteousness, and it was not just anger and frustration. It was a hunger and a thirst for God’s people to see the difference between sin and righteousness. It’s not only Satan who dresses up as an angel of light. The sin he promotes in a thousand different “respectable looking” forms will often be mistaken for righteousness. Every day of the three years of Jesus’ ministry he WAS the revelation of genuine righteousness, yet he was accused of being the devil and/or being in league with the devil. He was criticised, challenged and finally crucified by those who defined righteousness differently. Jesus’ life and ministry exposed the true nature of their wickedness. If you read through any chapter of the gospels, you will see Jesus hungering and thirsting after righteousness. You will see him teaching about righteousness, imparting righteousness and responding with redemptive love. This love was driven by his desire to see sin defeated and righteousness imparted. It wasn’t just about external behaviour, but the attitudes and desires of the heart. His hunger for righteousness was the back story to what Hebrews says of him, “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” [6]

The compelling aspect of Jesus’ righteousness is the impact it had on others. It was because Jesus was righteous that he loved unrighteous people. Similarly, it was the same righteousness in Jesus that attracted unrighteous people to him. The Jesus kind of righteousness repelled those who thought themselves to be the standard of what is righteous. Jesus loved sinners and sinners loved Jesus and Jesus was totally righteous. How sad that so much of our righteousness drives sinners away from us and keeps us away from them. Whatever argument we might put up to support either of those two things, we will find ourselves challenged by the righteousness modelled by Jesus.

And the final thing to say about righteousness is the fact that it defines the way we were designed to live by our Creator. It is the life calling we are given by our Redeemer. This isn’t some dreary duty roster that we have to commit to. Righteousness is beautiful and desirable. It produces the deepest form of wholeness. It is the very definition of genuine humanity. We hear a lot about humanity these days. There is always a deep sense of what it means to value and honour humanity. Well, God is the one who designed us, and he created us to live righteous lives and to work for righteousness wherever we are and whatever sphere we belong to.

This attitude includes all of the different aspects of life we experience. Abortion is unrighteous because it generally focuses on the well-being of one person at the expense of another. Sexual immorality is unrighteous because it steals from our own and other people’s future for no other reason than self-indulgence. And so it continues.

Jesus tells us that the people of the kingdom will never be able to dwell comfortably where unrighteousness is wreaking its havoc. The corrupt world we live in needs people whose deep driving desire will not be sated until things are put right and until people begin to live according to what is right. As followers of Jesus, we are to lay down our lives so that others will get to see righteousness and we will work alongside them until righteousness exalts every nation on the earth.[7]

The whole atmosphere of Jesus’ words here is practical. The metaphor is pragmatic. What could be more concrete than the idea of hunger and thirst? These are entirely universal and basic to human existence. We are created in such a way that our bodies make sure we know when we lack food or water. The feelings of hunger and thirst begin and don’t go away until we eat food and drink water.

Other health problems do not make their presence known as easily. I have had an issue with blood pressure for many years. It is a hereditary trait in my family. So, I have to take one small white tablet each day, and my blood pressure stays completely normal. The problem is that if I forget to take the pill, I don’t feel any different. If I don’t take them for a week, I still don’t feel any different. The only way I can tell if my blood pressure is high is by using a machine. I can feel perfectly fine, but the machine will tell me that my blood pressure is dangerously high and at risk of a heart attack. So my self-awareness about this issue is totally unreliable.

Hunger and thirst are not like that. I will always remember the first time I tried to have a day of fasting and prayer. I was still working on our family farm, so we started early and then came in for breakfast. I didn’t come home but stayed working. When lunchtime came, I was beginning to feel very hungry. This body had not been without food for that length of time apart from a few bouts of sickness. Bravely I pushed on into the afternoon. We were fencing at the time, and it was reasonably hard work. By four o’clock I was almost dying with hunger. When I had to drive back to the house to pick up some more supplies, I couldn’t help myself. I screeched to a halt at the back gate, ran into the kitchen, opened the fridge and saw a roasted chicken sitting there before me. I ripped one leg off and then the other and wolfed them down. Then I made a sandwich with a bit more and then returned to the work site. I can tell you that I felt a dismal failure as a spiritual man, but I was no longer hungry. I was satisfied and worked away without a single pang of hunger (except a few feelings of guilt about failing God). Hunger is like that. The only thing that will stop the urgent pangs is food.

So Jesus is talking about the attitude kingdom people have to unrighteousness. A more common word for that is “sin.” Just think about the attitudes of a lot of Christian people to sin. Some don’t seem to care. Others choose a selection of sins and make sure everyone who commits one of the sins on that list is judged and condemned. Neither of those attitudes belonged to the ministry of Jesus. His attitude to sin was to do whatever was possible to enable the sinner to be aware of their sin and choose to become righteous. For that reason, he was criticised. His accusers said things like this: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ ”[8]  The truth is, if you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you have to be where sinners are. Jesus was as committed among the non-religious sinners as we was to the religious ones. He ate with Matthews friends[9] as well as at the home of a prominent Pharisee [10] for precisely the same reason. He wanted his hunger and thirst for righteousness to be assuaged. 


[1]         On July 2, 1509, Martin Luther was returning to University and was caught in a violent electrical storm. He feared so much that he cried out to St. Anne. He promised her that if he was delivered from the storm, he would become a monk. It was the beginning of his journey, first as a priest. In October of 1517, he posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg marking the beginning of the Reformation.

[2]         See Romans 1:16 and Habakkuk 2:4

[3]         God is referred to as the “righteous one” in Isaiah 24:16, From the ends of the earth we hear singing: “Glory to the Righteous One.”

[4]         Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14

[5]         See First John 2:1

[6]         See Hebrews 12:1-3

[7]         See Proverbs 14:34 “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

[8]         See Matthew 11:19

[9]         See Mark 2:15

[10]       See Luke 7:36-50

PEOPLE WITH ATTITUDE #2 Attitude to Suffering

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Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Here is the second distinctive kingdom attitude. It is supposed to make its presence felt when a situation arises that warrants sadness and grief. That happens a lot in our world as it did in the world of Jesus. It was pronounced enough to get a special prophetic mention. Isaiah talked about the coming Messiah, more than seven hundred years before it happened. His repeated statements caused considerable problems for the religious leaders of Israel at the time and later because they referred to the fact that the Messiah would experience great suffering.[1] Here is a sample: “….. a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3)  All of us know something about personal loss. I am aware that our culture preconditions us to think about most things from an individual point of view, but I don’t think we should be ready to limit our understanding to that assumption.

When I read what others have written on this matter, I am surprised to find that they mainly talk about the sufferings associated with Jesus trial and crucifixion. There is no surprise about this. I have no idea at all as to the measure of that suffering. At the same time, as I have hinted above, I am not sure that Jesus was referring to that in his call to us to become people moved only by personal sadness. My appeal is, again, to the record of Jesus life and ministry. I ask the question of the stories in the gospels as to whether the experience of the cross was the main thing Jesus was grieved about. And I am sure you would come to the same conclusion as I. The answer is that Jesus was grieved on many different circumstances. So, to understand how this “attitude” works inside of us, we need to look at the record of Jesus’ grieving.

1. Jesus grieved over human lostness.  Jesus walked throughout the region with the joyful message of God’s kingdom realm. He taught in their meeting houses, and wherever he went, he demonstrated God’s power by healing every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the vast crowds of people, Jesus’ heart was deeply moved with compassion, because they seemed weary and helpless, like wandering sheep without a shepherd. ” (Matthew 9:35-38)  We have to pause a moment to read this story lest we miss the information that is telling us about something that kept on happening all the time. I’ve been a pastor for nearly fifty years and have been in the presence of people with all kinds of needs. Many times, those circumstances evoked a very natural sense of sadness and grief for what had happened. There have also been times when my job required me to get up and go out in all kinds of circumstances when I would have preferred not to, so I went and did my “duty.” Other times I have given my heart and soul to some situation only to find that people were using me for their own destructive self-gratification. This story tells me that Jesus went to a lot of places around the province of Galilee and every time he saw a crowd of people, his compassion was stirred by their sense of lostness and helplessness. They were like sheep without a shepherd, weary and helpless. And he gave them the very best of heaven’s compassion. It had nothing to do with how tired or depleted he might have felt. The voice of lostness called out to his heart, and his heart responded with deep and unending compassion.

We need to have an honest think about this. It seems to me that most Christians I know in my nation of Australia don’t have much of a feeling for lostness at all. They can quite successfully pursue their careers, raise their families, go on vacation and the like without feeling what is around them every day the way Jesus felt. We have often gone one better and hurled judgements at lost people. Every time Jesus witnessed human lostness it filled his heart with sadness, and from that sadness he responded to them.

2. Human heaviness and depression. 28 “Are you weary, carrying a heavy burden? Then come to me. I will refresh your life, for I am your oasis. 29 Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways, and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. 30 For all that I require of you will be pleasant and easy to bear.” (Matthew 11:25-30) Jesus made the experience of his Father’s love accessible to all. The religious system and its protectors shut people away from God through a ruthless system of demands. They portrayed God as distant, aloof and/or repulsed by sin. The only tangible connection with God was likely to be his disapproval and disgust. There have been times when the church has been obsessed with the same ideas. If you read the famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” you will undoubtedly be persuaded to think that way. It was especially so for the multitudes of very poor people whose poverty, though often contributed to by the authorities and their taxes, was construed as the judgement of God on their sin. The reference above stands in its own judgment on such an attitude. Instead of shame, blame, guilt and punishment, Jesus was calling on those who were weary with the complex burdens of life to come to him and experience rest. Notice he didn’t give them a ten point plan of how to deal with stress. His solution was for them to draw close to him so that they could experience rest.

In our own day, we are still plagued with the weights and burdens of the day, and it seems so common for people to be crushed by them. How sad, that a society like ours that seems to offer so many ways to be happy is exposed by a seemingly endless line of depressed people. Often, they are led to that horrible place where the only source of release seems to be to take their own lives. Jesus didn’t offer advice on how to avoid depression. He didn’t point out all of the things they might have done to avoid getting in such a state. He offered himself and his presence, his love and compassion as the answer. And he invited them to journey with him, be yoked to him so that they could learn from walking that journey WITH him. His willingness to open the door to people loaded up with cares meant that he would be carrying their load until there was no more load to carry. And he was going to do it without making them feel obligated and guilty for doing it.

Paul shares a similar sentiment while writing to the church in Thessalonica: “With a mother’s love and affectionate attachment to you, we were very happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our lives—because you had become so dear to us.”[2] All of this is the outworking of what Isaiah was shown about the ministry of the promised Messiah-King: For sure He took on Himself our troubles and carried our sorrows. Yet we thought of Him as being punished and hurt by God, and made to suffer. 5 But He was hurt for our wrong-doing. He was crushed for our sins. He was punished so we would have peace. He was beaten so we would be healed (Isaiah 53:4,5)  The beautiful attitude modelled by Jesus with regard to human load-bearing is to invite them to unload and find rest. He is moved by the weight and touched by the tiredness. If we are willing to come to him, we will not only NOT be pushed away, as we so often find in our own community, but we see someone willing to relieve the burden and carry the load. 

One of my character flaws relates to my ability to put down my keys and then forget where they are. When all my children were growing up, it was a legendary proneness. So when I shouted out in a house full of wonderful fellow humans asking if anyone had seen my keys (and I was always rushing to get somewhere), I would be met with grunts and comments lacking in any form of compassion. And it was even harder to raise a search party. Everyone was too busy asking me where I had left them. Everyone knew exactly who to blame. And they were right. This story of human load bearing is not complete without referring to a particular occasion. When I had looked everywhere without success, I didn’t know what to do – so as a last resort I cried out with a loud voice to Jesus. I acknowledged that he knew exactly where the keys were and would he tell me so I could get on with my ‘important’ job of serving him. Immediately, into my mind came the words, “They are in the garbage tin.” I searched the household bin with no joy. I went to the bin outside but nothing. Then I went over to my office and in the little paper bin by my desk were the said keys. Voila! As I said, Jesus’ offer is for us to come to him so that he can give us rest – and this rest is available not only to the spiritual giants who never lose their keys, but to those of us babes who seem to make it a habit. And the postscript to the story is a habit I have now developed of always putting my keys in the same place at home, and at the office. Not a problem.

3. Sicknesses: 13 On hearing this, Jesus slipped away privately by boat to be alone. But when the crowds discovered he had sailed away, they emerged from all the nearby towns and followed him on foot. 14 So when Jesus landed, he had a huge crowd waiting for him. Seeing so many people, his heart was deeply moved with compassion toward them, so he healed all the sick who were in the crowd. (Matthew 14:13,14)  Have you ever spent an extended period in a hospital, perhaps in the emergency department? Human sickness creates a huge burden. From a personal point of view, it can dominate the life of an individual along with the members of their family. A large city hospital represents a concentration of sadness and suffering that cannot be measured. On the occasion recorded here Jesus had decided it was time to get away from the crowds and their needs. He sailed across the lake with his disciples. When they saw what was happening, the crowds simply followed around the edge of the lake. Perhaps the wind wasn’t very strong that day so while Jesus had a slow boat ride the crowd was gathering at the place he was about to land. They were waiting for him. That very statement doesn’t fill me with much excitement. I can imagine the disciples being moved, not by compassion but by anything from frustration to anger. Today we would go into some room, close the door and turn off our mobile. It wasn’t so easy in those days.

Regardless of how inconsiderate it might have been and even though Jesus was worn out from the previous ministry demands, something characteristically beautiful surfaced: an attitude of deep compassion. He was moved more by what he saw in them than he was by his own needs and emotions. Now there’s a challenge for people like us who measure out our availability based on convenience and personal preference. A challenge for those whose doors close at 5:00 and whose phones go to message bank; for those whose sense of responsibility is governed by some set of workplace agreements; for those who never answer their phones and don’t often respond to messages. Jesus felt deep compassion, and that compassion didn’t run dry until the last sick person was healed. What they felt from Jesus was not just the opportunity to be well, but the opportunity to be in the zone where they felt the compassion of heaven rather than the often indifference of this world. While grubby human selfishness makes it hard to connect with them, divine compassion is always accessible and welcoming.

The attitude Jesus was referring to regarding human sickness was not the sorrow of the sick persons themselves, but the compassion for those who are sick within the ones who are well. The blessing is not that Jesus heals sickness, but that the kingdom of God should be made up of people who are not able to live around sick people without moving to relieve their burden because of spontaneous and consistent compassion. Comfort happens because they find the presence of Jesus there.

4. The death of a family member or close friend: When Mary finally found Jesus outside the village, she fell at his feet in tears and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus looked at Mary and saw her weeping at his feet, and all her friends who were with her grieving, he shuddered with emotion and was deeply moved with tenderness and compassion. He said to them, “Where did you bury him?” “Lord, come with us, and we’ll show you,” they replied. Then tears streamed down Jesus’ face. (John 11:32-35)  There is a lot about this story that is unusual. Jesus was told that Lazarus was sick, but didn’t leave immediately. When he was told that Lazarus had died, he said he was sleeping. When he came near to Bethany, he waited outside the town rather than going to the home of Mary and Martha even though they were grieving. He was deeply moved with compassion, having seen Mary’s sadness. When they took him to where Lazarus was buried, and he saw the people filled with grief he began to weep also, even though he knew that Lazarus was about the be raised from the dead. Instead of getting obsessed about finding the answers to those questions I would instead allow the information to tell me something about Jesus and the personal life of someone who is proclaiming and advancing the kingdom of God. 

It is typical of western culture to see that Jesus was overcome by emotion, even though he had already told the disciples that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. The fact is that Jesus’ display of emotion and the outcome of the incident are two very different issues. More to the point, it shows the way “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” works in practice. Regardless of the large story going on, people are grieving for their lost brother and friend. That’s what Jesus connected with. It shows empathy, not analysis. The empathy for Jesus was immediate. Being surrounded by people experiencing the pain and loss brought about by death was something that belonged to the very core of his personhood and mission. He had come to destroy the power of death. Like Paul would say a bit later, “Death, where is your sting, grave where is your victory? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55,56) So Jesus looked at the sorrow and was immediately and deeply moved to tears.

We often lock away our feelings, especially those of us on the male side of the gender line. God isn’t locked up. We know that by what we witness here. Jesus wasn’t feeling sadness for himself; He was feeling the grief of those around him. This identification is another example of “blessed are those who mourn.” Kingdom people will have an attitude about the sufferings of others. They will readily and fully identify with those feeling. On that basis, they will not only share in the circumstances of others, but bring the very presence of the King of the kingdom of God. Jesus knew the big story and the big picture. It never prevented him from registering and sharing in the feelings of the smallest story – in this case, a small group of Lazarus’ friends gathered around his tomb in mourning. What Jesus does, God is doing. As Jesus wept with the mourners, he was making the unseen heart of the Creator and Father God known. That is amazing. We are the people of God when the sadness and grief of others genuinely moves us. I am not talking about sending a sympathy card or writing some nice words in it. I am talking about something that comes from inside your heart and meets or resonates with their hearts.

Kingdom people have attitude about the sadness and suffering of others. We are deeply touched by it.

5. The stubborn resistance of the people of God  34 O city of Jerusalem, you are the city that murders your prophets! You are the city that pelts to death with stones the very messengers who were sent to deliver you! So many times I have longed to gather your wayward children together around me, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings—but you were too stubborn to let me. 35 And now it is too late since your house will be left in ruins. You will not see me again until you can say, ‘We welcome the one who comes to us in the name of the Lord.'” (Luke 13:31-35)

41 When Jesus caught sight of the city, he burst into tears with uncontrollable weeping over Jerusalem, 42 saying, “If only you could recognise that this day peace is within your reach! But you cannot see it. 43 For the day is soon coming when your enemies will surround you, pressing you in on every side, and laying siege to you. 44 They will crush you to pieces, and your children too! And when they leave, your city will be totally destroyed. Since you would not recognise God’s day of visitation, your day of devastation is coming!” (Luke 19;41-44)

There are a variety of reasons for experiencing grief. We have no trouble relating to the previous example outside the tomb of Lazarus. Here is a very different set of circumstances. Luke records these two occasions. There were at least two occasions where God mourns the stubbornness of the people he has called to proclaim his nature and purpose to the families of the earth. If you were to read the whole of the Old Testament in a couple of sittings, it would take you a bit more than 52 hours. But if you did that you would notice how prone these people were to forsake their special relationship with God and how they were so easily compromised by turning to worship idols and adopt the values of the nations around them. Then read the gospels. Jesus, the awaited Messiah, comes. Tellingly, John writes these words to describe what happened, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13). Jesus came to people who should have been the ones most likely to recognise him but was rejected by them. I don’t know whether anyone has ever rejected you? Worse still, to be rejected by a whole group of people, or worse, rejected by your own people – but Jesus was. In human experience, it is the stuff that breeds resentment, bitterness, separation and retribution. With Jesus, it was tears of sadness. Please read the two passages at the beginning of this section and soak up the environment created by Jesus attitude. No slighted anger. No abuse. No threats. Just sadness at what they were doing and the consequences they would experience.

There is a particular poignancy about the second of the two statements. In the narrative, it comes as he finished entering Jerusalem on a donkey. He saw the sad prophetic act of triumph as they waved palm branches and then burst into tears at what was about to ensue. Even the atmosphere of victory could not cover the deep feeling of remorse. In a week these people would be part of a different crowd with very different intentions. In his book, “Postcards from Babylon,” Brian Zahn has made the profound observation that it is likely that two different kings were entering Jerusalem at about the same time. From the west came Pontius Pilate, representing the Lord Caesar. His credentials of office were displayed by his armed soldiers marching before and after his chariot and showing off the might of Roman oppression. On the other side of the city, a rabbi from Galilee entered on the colt of a donkey. His feet were likely dragging on the ground. A very different King representing a very different kingdom. As he entered, I think Pilate might have looked at the gathering crowds of pilgrims and strengthened his resolve to keep the Jews under control until the Passover was finished. Jesus looked at the same city and burst into tears. They were from different worlds and saw different things as they entered.

My point is to note the attitude. Jesus was filled with grief, not for himself but for the people who thought they represented God but were as lost from him as the older brother in the story of the prodigal son.[3] When we become sons and daughters of the kingdom what is going to be released in us is the same attitudes to rank stubbornness and arrogance. Not the passions associated with personal hurt but the flow of sadness for the people who remain in peril. Within forty years the city would be sacked, the temple destroyed and the people massacred. I want to feel the same way toward the people who resist and reject my message and ministry. I want to make tangible to them the way God feels. It’s funny how we, as followers of Jesus can be compassionate toward people with no commitment to Christ but show hatred to those people who follow Jesus but disagree with us. Here is a ‘heads up’ on how God feels toward them.

6. The unbelief of Jesus’ disciples Jesus said, “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you and put up with you?” (Luke 9:41)

This statement may well mark the deepest expression of sadness and frustration from Jesus apart from the events leading up to and including the cross. Jesus had just come back from the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James and John. They found the remaining disciples surrounded by a crowd of people and a demonised boy. The disciples had unsuccessfully tried to cast out a demon and were engaged in a verbal altercation with some religious leaders. When the boy’s father told Jesus, he responded with an expression of deep grief. There is an obvious question needing to be asked here. Was Jesus upset at the disciples or the generation of people who had collectively contributed to the chronic level of unbelief? A literal translation of the text would be as follows, “O generation (of) unbelieving and perverted (people). Until when will I be with you and bear with you.” My own conclusion is that he was referring to both. It was the disciples who couldn’t cast out the demon, so we can only assume that they were the ones directly implicated. It is very easy to understand that their level of faith was connected to the collective views of their ‘generation.’ The shallow demonised religious system that weighed people down with obligation and locked them away from knowing God had played its part. Compromises with both Hellenistic and Roman pressure and influence had also played a role. The outcome was displayed in the fact that the disciples he said and done everything they knew how to do, but the demon remained. The gospel record will show that they had had previous experience at casting out demons before. This demon was able to resist their efforts. More correctly, they were not able to operate at a level of authority needed to give the maleficent presence its marching orders. When they ask Jesus about it later, he explains that the only way for them to gain that level of authority is through prayer (and perhaps prayer with fasting). In other words, a change is needed in the relationship between God and the disciples for them to exercise the full measure of his power.

I guess some people will assume that Jesus is merely expressing disappointment and/or anger at the remiss of the disciples. They should have been able to cast out the demon. No teacher or parent will scold a pupil or child if they have been asked to do something that is impossible. Would I ask my ten-year-old son to jump over a two-metre wall and then berate him as he is lying on the ground after a failed attempt? I would be cross with the same son if I asked him to pick up his clothes from the floor of his bedroom and found that he was still playing on his Xbox. In the latter case, the problem was nothing to do with ability but will. The same must be true for the disciples. Their lack of faith must have related to their lack of commitment rather than ability.

This is not the place to become embroiled in the broader issues of living a life of faith in Jesus. On one occasion some people came and asked Jesus what they should do to do the works of God. Jesus said their most significant and most important task was to believe on the one God had sent (i.e. Jesus himself).[4] I am convinced that faith is not just some kind of temporary mental posture or less still, an affirming emotion. At the same time, it is a measurable state. Jesus talks about little faith and great faith in precisely that way. As here, he also talks about unbelief as a measurable human condition. The famous words from Hebrews 11 tell us that faith is the “substance” of things hoped for and the “evidence” of things that are not seen. So, faith is a level of conviction about something we can’t see. We see it as reality, even though it has not yet happened. This phenomenon is everywhere in the Bible from the beginning to the end. We are also told that “without faith, it is impossible to please God.”[5] On this occasion, recorded by Luke, the disciples were able to exercise faith but had allowed the “unbelief” of their generation to override the trust they should have had in what Jesus had modelled for them and taught them. I think that makes sense, both for them as well as for us. We also live amid a generation that has worked hard to convince itself of its own independence and self-reliance. 

It would be wrong for us to assume that “unbelief” should be thought of as an empty space or a vacuum created by the lack of faith. The word for unbelief is “apistos” (and the word for faith is “pistos”). The prefix works like our English prefix “anti-.” It is an active state, not a passive one. A contemporary idea would be a phrase used to describe people who oppose the idea of climate change. They are called, “climate-deniers.” That term more correctly carries the idea of “unbelief.” A person manifesting “unbelief” is a “belief-denier.” They are actively opposed to the idea of faith in (or faithfulness to) God. They have chosen an alternative belief system, one which they are actively pursuing.

To get back to the point of all this, we learn from this incident in the Gospel of Luke that when Jesus own disciples choose an alternative belief system than the one that Jesus was showing and teaching them, the response from Jesus is deep grief -, not anger or resentment.

When Jesus teaches about the second of nine attitudes that will be trademarks of the citizens of the new kingdom, one such expression of grief will be toward unbelief – our own or other people’s. The grief is understandable when you think that the Creator, Father, Redeemer, Provider, Purposer has made known to us the way we are to live as sons and daughters of God – and we take the capacity we have to respond to that love by rejecting it and trusting in a humanly contrived system, such a rejection is met with an outpouring of grief. That such a thing should happen? The reward for those who share this sadness is going to be blessed. Notice that we are not told we will see everyone we care about putting their trust in God. What we will experience will be the comfort of that very God who feels precisely the same as we do only more so. This grief doesn’t cause Jesus to give up or turn aside. He doesn’t pick up his ball and go home. He challenges that unbelief by continuing to fulfil his Father’s purpose. He continues to model and teach how to exercise faith. Such comfort is precisely the blessing we need. God intended deliverance for this demonised boy. As soon as the demon in the boy realised Jesus was present the boy was thrown into a convulsion. When Jesus drove out the demon the process demonstrated the effects of the struggle. When he told the demon to go, the boy fell on the ground as if he was dead.[6] Then, the boy revived and was totally set free. When the disciples settled for something less than what God intended, Jesus called it “unbelief.” That is hugely sobering for all of us who trust what is written for us in Scripture. Then they started arguing with the religious leaders. Now, there is a definite example of unbelief. They should have grieved as Jesus did. So should we. When they were told what do to get from a place of unbelief to a place of faith – i.e. prayer (or prayer with fasting), we should heed the same advice.

So all of these are examples from the life of Jesus where he was giving expression to this attitude. We need to check out our own hearts. We need to measure how we are doing soberly. Otherwise, we will do what most people do who don’t know God or his attitudes. We will grieve for ourselves and a small group of family or friends and conveniently close our hearts toward the needs of people we meet every day in every place. Let us pursue God until this compassion is fully released from deep inside us so that we make God known in this compelling way.


[1]         These are called the “Servant Songs.” They are also referred to as the songs of a “Suffering Servant.” They are found in Isaiah 42, 49, 50 and 52,53.

[2]         1 Thessalonians 2:8

[3]         See Luke 15

[4]         See John 6:29  “Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

 29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

[5]         See Hebrews 11:6 “, And without faith, it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

[6]         See Mark 9:26,27

PEOPLE WITH ATTITUDE #1 Spiritual poverty

” Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 5:2)

“Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19)[1]

 

What was Jesus talking about when he used the phrase, “poor in spirit?”   Poverty usually refers to a lack of material wealth. I come from the richest city in one of the richest countries in the world. Our images of poverty usually come through our television screens.  It breaks your heart to see families, especially children, in abject poverty. Around the world, one child dies from starvation every five seconds. That means if I count to ten all of our four children have died, and in another twenty seconds, our eight grandchildren have also died. That reality is mind-numbing as well as heart-wrenching.  The majority would be watched or held as they died. Many families spend all of their waking hours and all their effort to keep their families alive. For those families, no matter how hard they work, there is nothing they can do to break the cycle of poverty. But all of this is largely academic for people like us.  By contrast, I have not lived a single day of my life without access to food. I don’t know what it is live in poverty and have no internal reference for it.  I am assuming most of the people who will read these words will be the same.

The Bible has a lot to say about people who are poor.  Jesus clearly stated that he had come to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah[2]. His stated goal was to proclaim good news to poor people.  There he describes three types of poverty:  people who were in some form of imprisonment, people who suffered from sickness and those who were being oppressed.  The gospels are the record of him accomplishing that goal. I want to be a follower of Jesus.  From my own study of the Scriptures, I have formed a definition of what it means to be “poor.” A person is poor when they lack any of the basic things that are needed to embrace God’s purpose for their lives – not just money or food, but all of the other things – freedom, justice, self-worth, love, community, vocation, meaning.  People whose circumstances and decisions have locked them away from these things should be included among the poor as well. I think someone should be considered to be poor when, regardless of what effort they make or how clever they are, they are not able to bring about change. By that definition, there are very many “poor” people in countries like Australia. And a lot of them live in big houses and drive expensive cars. The sad reality is that very often, our culture will regard them as wealthy and not poor.  All the time the spiritual and social fabric of our society will not see the poverty of their personal world.

The only reason I say this is to make the point that when Jesus talks to us about being “poor” in something, we will have difficulty relating to that idea just because we only have our imagination to draw on to figure out what “poor” might be like. Jesus’ reference to poverty is being used in a semi-metaphoric sense. He is asking us to see something about ourselves and understand that we ARE literally poor, but he is also asking us to look at how poor people think and react. What happens when those who are food poor see a truck filled with food entering the camp. They don’t think about being proud or ashamed. They know there is food there and they need to get enough for their family and themselves. They would wait in line and not complain just because there is food they can access. They won’t be sleeping in their beds or listening to music through their earphones. They will be doing whatever it takes to get food. When people are food poor, it is the first and last thing they think about every day of their lives.

In this teaching, Jesus is telling us that there is a kind of poverty shared by every human person that we are not going to recognise easily. Jesus calls it “spirit poverty,” or spiritual poverty. This is a strange idea simply because every other form of poverty is almost impossible to avoid when it exists. Those people who have worked with aid agencies come back from Africa or other countries and often needing counselling to deal with the impact of death and suffering they have experienced. And they themselves were guaranteed food and clothing and everything else they needed. But spiritual poverty is different. It can exist everywhere but not be felt or recognised. Wow!! That is weird for sure.

Think about it. We are created by God. We are the only species on earth created in the image of God. We are designed to live as sons and daughters in the family of God. Even so, it is possible for us to live our whole lives without a relationship to God or reference to God. We can live on God’s earth, breath God’s air, sustained by God’s grace and yet have no awareness of any kind of need to be connected to God let alone worship and serve him. The story of the Old Testament people of God is a story of God making himself known in gracious amazing ways. This God establishes a connection with these people called a covenant. He commits to dwell among them with the intention that all the peoples of all nations will be able to see their “spirit poverty” and be guided to a restoration of this relationship and a life of spirit wealth. Instead, they choose to worship the idols and adopt the culture of the people groups around them and lose the distinctiveness of that very spirit wealth. Instead of attracting people to God they become religiously arrogant and cause God’s name to be dishonoured.[3]

The life and ministry of Jesus Christ gave all of us an opportunity to see how the relationship between God and his people was meant to work. We know from the famous piece of poetry recorded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians[4] Jesus set aside his divine status but not his relationship with the Father. So, when we look at the way Jesus lived, we can see what it means to live “spirit poor.” The key information on this comes in a number of references from the Gospel of John.[5] At least six times, Jesus specifically reveals something to his observers that they cannot see but is nonetheless real. What they can’t see is that He takes no initiative of his own. Everything he says and does is sourced from his relationship with his Father. He even goes as far as saying, “He tells me what to say and how to say it.”[6] These words are a bit of a mystery to those of us whose personhood has been so profoundly wired to the ideas of independence and self-reliance handed down through our culture. We default to them without missing a heartbeat. It is made harder because of the way our relationship with God has been culturally domesticated over the years. You only have to compare what happens in revival times and then compare it to non-revival times. We seem to be able to revert to something controlled and built on external behaviour rather than heart relationship. Jesus reminded the disciples about this just before he left them: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [7] If ‘with’ means what ‘with’ usually means and if ‘always’ means what always usually means, then we are talking about a reality that doesn’t stop when the worship team get off the stage, or the prayer meeting finishes up. Jesus lived this way privately for thirty years and then demonstrated how it worked throughout his three-year public ministry.

One of the features of the renewal movement centred on the Toronto Airport Vineyard has been a re-discovery of the “presence” of God. Despite some criticisms of certain unusual behaviours[8], people began to talk about God “showing up” in a meeting. It was explained by comparing two theological words: omnipresence is the belief that God is present everywhere all the time, but that presence may not be identifiable in any tangible way. The Toronto contribution has pointed to the “manifest presence” of God. This means that the God who is always omnipresent made his presence known in some tangible way – able to be experienced by at least some people and able to be observed by others. This is indeed a pattern that is consistent with the Old Testament experience. God spoke at certain times to certain people. He also intercepted normative human experience and did supernatural things (burning bush, plagues, sea pushed back, walls falling down and the like, rescuing from fire, stopping lions from eating people etc. The Toronto renewal re-awakened people to the fact that God desired to make his presence known. It was a soft but strong rebuke to a church that had become all-too-preoccupied with words spoken about God rather than the experience of a relationship with God.

And the question from me is whether that phenomenon is still too much a replication of the Old Covenant rather than the New Covenant. That question will only be answered if we ask whether it was consistent with the relationship modelled and described by Jesus. Here is the problem. Did Jesus have a constant awareness of the presence of God or was the presence of God only manifest through the signs and wonders he performed – or in the times he spent in prayer? If we are going to take seriously what we know from the six references in John’s gospel, there could be little doubt unless the words are going to be considered as metaphorical and not literal. Here they are again. You be the judge:

“Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19)

I can do nothing by Myself; I judge only as I hear. And My judgment is just because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (John 5:30)

For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me. (John 6:38)

So, Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He and that I do nothing on My own, but speak exactly what the Father has taught Me. (John 8:28)

I have not spoken on My own, but the Father who sent Me has commanded Me what to say and how to say it. (John 12:49)

And I know that His command leads to eternal life. So, I speak exactly what the Father has told Me to say.” (John 12:50)

If we are to take these statements on face value, we must assume that Jesus had an awareness of his Father’s presence, if not all the time, then often. I would say the more likely option would be the former given the information provided in these verses. This experience was not at all vague. When Jesus spoke about how that relationship worked, we have to conclude that when Jesus found himself in a given situation, he was able to “see” what his Father was doing. From that relationship, he was able to “hear” his Father’s assessment. He was told what to say and how to say it. That represents a relationship of significant bandwidth. Of course, we are going to ask the question as to HOW Jesus gained this awareness and experienced this level of intimacy with a Person who could not be seen OR whose presence could directly be verified. What was confirmed was the fact that Jesus knew what people were thinking (word of knowledge, [9])? He was able to perform healings, deliverances and miraculous provision. He was able to make storms cease and walk on top of the water. Later the apostles would testify that these were, in fact, the signs that God was WITH HIM.[10]

What does all this have to do with “spirit poor” you might ask? To me, the very nature of Jesus modus operandi on earth is a living testimony of this very phenomenon. Jesus lived his life on the earth as a model son of God. He lived the way every other son and daughter were designed to live. He is the second Adam, and the relationship with God has been restored. As from the very beginning we were designed to live in fellowship with the Father (and the Son[11]). Adam and Eve forsook that relationship. Jesus not only restored that relationship but took it to a whole new level. Jesus describes this by using a very extreme metaphor. He says we must become so dependent on God that it should be like the way a vine branch is connected with the trunk of the vine.[12] Our goal must be like his – to do nothing separately from him. To take no initiative just because we have a good idea or a well-reasoned opinion. He speaks further about this relationship by using the phrase, “Just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us”[13].

This little phrase: “poor in spirit” encapsulates just that. In terms of spiritual things, we must regard ourselves to be as spirit poor as South Sudanese people in the camps are food poor. As they are aware that they have nothing and need to find food for themselves and their families. Every time the UN food trucks show up, they rush to get what they need. In the same way, we must look to foster this relationship with God so that our only spiritual resource comes from Him. We must reject the lie of our culture that will want to tell us that we are clever enough and capable enough to live each day by our own efforts and skills. Remember Jesus said, “Without me, you can do nothing.”[14] The moment we think we can go it alone we should feel the pangs of our hunger for God. Even the Psalms can express what this feels like: “How lovely are your dwelling places, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.[15] The imagery is according to the understanding of the day. God’s presence on earth was located only in the temple in Jerusalem. We know from the New Testament that Jesus invented a new temple. I am that temple, and we are that temple. God dwells in us and is with us. When we are poor in spirit, it is because we are convinced that this relationship is urgent and essential for all of us all the time. We should regard living without being totally dependent on God as impoverishment. We should look to our dependence on God as singularly essential. We need to learn to live our lives in this way and learn from Jesus how to do precisely that.

Jesus tells us that when we offer no self-created alternative to depending fully on our relationship with God, we experience the kingdom of God. Little wonder. When we take no initiative of our own, when we offer no substitute of our own and when we depend on God for all of it his rule comes to all of our lives all of the time. This is a life challenge that we must not avoid. When the world wants to tell us how clever and how capable we are, we need to set aside those lies. We need to adopt the attitude of a spiritual pauper deliberately and that we will never BE anything or be able to DO anything worthy of our calling as sons and daughters unless it comes directly from Him.

This first distinctive attitude of kingdom people is the attitude of total dependence on God.  To be disconnected from God’s presence, his wisdom, his intentions and his ways is to be considered akin to abject poverty – a poverty of the soul. Since our culture has taught us to be self-centred, self-preserving and self-determined, we need to adopt this attitude and learn to live as Jesus did, not wanting anything that does not begin with God and end in his fulfilled purpose.

 

HOW DOES THIS WORK?

  1. We need to do an audit. How much of what we do reflects something that has come from God? Where are the areas that lack the signs of the kingdom rule of God?
  2. We need to begin to coach ourselves to “see what the Father” is doing in a given situation and then discover how we can serve that purpose.
  3. We need to ask God what to say and how to say things so that we reflect his nature and will in a given situation.
  4. We need to start in the place of prayer but extend out from there to all of the familiar places where we live our lives.
  5. We need to deliberately and directly relate to God during our daily living – asking him things and seeing if there are things, we can know from him that will enable us to link up with his purpose.
  6. We need to guard our lives in the areas of our human capability and ask if we are living by our own cleverness and ability OR living by the grace and power that comes from heaven.

[1]   See also John 5:30  I can do nothing by Myself; I judge only as I hear. And My judgment is just because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.   John 6:38   For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me.    John 8:28    So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He and that I do nothing on My own, but speak exactly what the Father has taught Me.   John 12:49   I have not spoken on My own, but the Father who sent Me has commanded Me what to say and how to say it.   John 12:50   And I know that His command leads to eternal life. So I speak exactly what the Father has told me to say.”

[2] Isaiah 61

[3]         See Romans 2: “As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’ ” Paul is referring to Isaiah 52:5 or perhaps, Ezekiel 36:20,22

[4]         See Philippians 2:6-11   Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death —even death on a cross!   Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

[5]         See the quote at the top of this article and the references in the footnotes

[6]         See John 12:49

[7]         See Matthew 28:20

[8]         things like uncontrolled laughter, rolling around on the floor, falling to the ground under the power of the Spirit of God, barking like a dog etc. have been reported by participants and witnesses of the meetings.

[9]         See First Corinthians 12

[10]       See Acts 10:38

[11]       See First John 1:1-5

[12]       See John 15

[13]       See John 17:21

[14]       See John 15

[15]       Psalm 84:1,2