Paul, Athens, and Navigating Culture

Ancient Athens

Have you ever felt like you live in a culture that you don’t recognize any longer? The values you are faced with every day are nothing like what you grew up with. The practices that people carry out in their lives each day are at times shocking to you. How do you respond as a follower of Christ when the culture seems to be so far removed from what you think God desires for you to flourish? Have you found yourself feeling out of touch with what is going on in the world and needing to figure out how to fit in?

Throughout history, followers of Christ have generally taken one of two routes when dealing with a culture that did not embrace biblical values. One route, taken by large numbers of historic denominations, is to embrace the cultural change and fill your sails with the prevailing cultural winds. That typically results in the loss of the Gospel and the loss of the power of what God does through the Gospel. The other route, one more common among conservative and evangelical churches, is to loudly denounce the sins of the culture and withdraw into a Christian ghetto in order to remain untainted by the culture all the while fighting the culture through political means or social media posts.

Here is the question. Is there a third way? Is there a way that avoids giving in and becoming like the culture AND avoids withdrawing while lobbing theological barbs and the culture? I think the answer is a resounding yes and we find the biblical example of this in Acts 17. In that chapter, Paul finds himself in Athens, a city of countless temples and altars to every imaginable God. It was a city rampant with all the sin a city could offer. When Paul visited there, he spent several days just walking around the city and getting a handle on its culture and values. Finally, only after digging into the research, does Paul begin to speak in the public square, the Areopagus.

What is striking about Paul’s response at this point is what he doesn’t do and say as much as what he does. One would reasonably expect that a man so deeply committed to Jesus and opposed to paganism and idolatry as Paul, one who comes out of the legalism of being a Pharisee, would have leveled both barrels at the Athenians. Like some contemporary, angry street preachers today who denounce the sin they see at every turn, it would not be surprising to hear Paul cry out, “You filthy, idol-worshipping pagans, you are all going to fry in Hell”. I have heard a few of those kinds of preachers in my day and have certainly seen more than enough of them posting on social media. Paul certainly has the kind of reputation that most people would probably expect just that from him. But it is a reputation that is not deserved.

Paul shocks the world when he begins, not with denunciations, but with compliments for the Athenians. That is shocking in itself. But it is the nature of his compliments that is really eye-opening. He compliments the Athenians for their idolatry. In Acts 17:22,23 we are told this, “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship”. Instead of ripping into their false religious ideas, Paul actually makes a connection with them. He recognizes that the Athenians care deeply about spiritual things. They want to make sure they are honoring the gods. They want to cover all the spiritual bases to the point that they have altars and temples to every god they have ever heard of, and even an altar dedicated to The Unknown God. After all, what if some god shows up one day and asks to see their temple and the Athenians don’t have one? They ask the name of the god and declare, “So that is your name! We wanted to give you an altar but had no name to attach to it. Here it is right over here. We will have the stonemason add your name forthwith.” They are clearly a deeply spiritual people.

Paul is also deeply spiritual and he uses that commonality to his advantage. It is that altar to the Unknown God, that Paul uses as the jumping-off point to help the Athenians know who God really is. In doing so, he begins where they are and with what they can all agree on together. He quotes some of their own poets and philosophers that speak of a creator and uses that to point them in the direction of the God of the Bible who is the creator of all. From there he points them to Jesus, the resurrection, and the Gospel. Paul’s goal in all of this is not to denounce what the Athenians believe but rather to show the truth that can be found in what they already believe in order to lead them to a more complete truth that leads to faith in Jesus.

Paul could have easily denounced the Athenians, their ideas, and lives and withdrawn into his Christian bubble, or he could have acquiesced and gone along with them just to keep the peace. Paul chose the third way, the way of engagement and dialogue. He researched the culture. He found points of common understanding and used that connection to point ultimately to Jesus. That was his goal, point people to Jesus. He chose a more difficult way. It is easy to withdraw and denounce. It is easy to go with the cultural flow. It is harder to show a better way.

Paul wanted to show the Athenians that Jesus was the answer to all their hopes and dreams. His goal was always for people to find life in Jesus. In Acts 26, Paul is making his case before a Roman official named Festus. Paul is awaiting being sent to Rome to stand trial before Caesar and is telling Festus and a Jewish official named Agrippa, about Jesus. “And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.”.

Paul’s deepest desire is for people to know Jesus. He didn’t let the idolatry of the culture force him into a cultural battle. He didn’t let the lifestyles of the Athenians turn him against them. He didn’t withdraw from difficult conversations and disagreements. What he did do was show them respect. It is what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15 that when we make a case for our faith, we are to always do it “with gentleness and respect”. That doesn’t mean doing it weakly. Paul was strong and courageous as he stood in the heart of academic learning of his day. Athens was the Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard of the ancient world. It took courage and grace to stand there and make your case.

How do you navigate the ever-shifting cultural landscape around you? Paul shows us how.

  1. Make sure you know what it is you believe and why. Being a follower of Jesus means being a student of the things of God, a life-long student.
  2. Make sure you know what it is that others believe. Paul understood the belief systems of the Epicureans and Stoics of Athens. He didn’t argue against a caricature of those beliefs that would have been easily dismissed by the philosophers. They knew that he knew what they believed.
  3. Find common ground to work from that leads to Jesus. Far too often followers of Jesus only point out where the differences are with others and never show the key points of agreement that allow for a true dialogue.
  4. Don’t freak out over practices and beliefs that defy the Gospel. Paul was surrounded by stuff in Athens that was clearly wrong and in some cases vile. He didn’t let that turn him away. Rather, he confidently lived the life that he knew Jesus wanted him to live, in hopes that it would be a light to others.
  5. Always show respect no matter how disagreeable and argumentative people become. Yelling louder and having the more witty retort, is not what brings people to Jesus.

Rightful Moral Outrage or Moral Smugness?

I am working my way through a book titled Exclusion and Embrace by Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf. It is an incredibly rich and dense book written by a Croatian Christian who has had to wrestle with forgiveness of people guilty of numerous war crimes and acts of genocide against his people, following the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars. There is a line in the book that I keep coming back to, “Rightful moral outrage has mutated into self-deceiving moral smugness”.

It causes me to immediately think of the moral outrage in the meta-verse of social media following the Will Smith slapping of Chris Rock at the Academy Awards. It is just one example of how the world so quickly becomes morally smug. The accusing, crooked finger pointing that was directed at Will Smith is typical of what happens every day. Someone does something morally repugnant and individually and collectively the fingers point, the tongues wag, and the heads shake in disgust. Yes, what was done is morally unjustifiable and needs to be identified as such. But is that really our motivation? Are we really so concerned with establishing a morally just society in those moments? Or are we more concerned with making sure none of the finger pointing, tongue wagging, and head shaking expressions of disgust are aimed in our direction? I am convinced that our moral outrage turned smugness is a result of trying to hide our own guilt and deflect attention from us. It is a society wide form of gaslighting.

Why do we do it? Why do we point to others in such times of failure? It is because we have forgotten what grace is. We have forgotten that we are all sinners in need of grace. In our efforts to say that all morality is relative and nobody can tell us what is right and wrong, we all still carry the deep seated sense that we are guilty. The rise of shame in our culture is epidemic. Saying there is no objective morality has not helped remove that shame. In fact it has made it worse because we have no way of dealing with our guilt even if we are only violating our own personal morality. So we resort to pointing the finger at others in hopes that no one will notice our sin while we try to live in denial of it ourselves.

Enter, the Cross, and Good Friday. Jesus went to the Cross to provide the cure for our guilt and shame. He died to pay the price, take the hit, settle our cosmic account. He died to make us free from guilt and shame. But there is a catch. In order to be free from it, you need to first own it. You need to admit you have it and that you are totally incapable of fixing it. Only by accepting the gift of grace and forgiveness can you be free of guilt and shame. When that happens, it is no longer necessary to point morally smug fingers at others. You can point out moral wrongs, but you do so, not to make yourself feel better, but to lead someone to the Cross and grace and forgiveness.

It is impossible to stand at the foot of the Cross and think, “I am glad he didn’t need to hang there for me”. He did hang there for you and for me, and for those people that we think are so far gone that we must cancel them. They are no more gone than you or I. When you experience the grace of God available through the Cross, and you really own your sin that made the Cross necessary, it becomes very difficult to withhold grace from someone else. In fact, without the Cross, without experiencing the grace of God, it is nigh unto impossible to give grace to someone else. You cannot give what do not have.

When I find myself being morally smug, it is time to go back and kneel at the foot of the Cross and weep over my immorality, so that I can rise up and stand in God’s presence, and rejoice in my forgiveness. Then I am equipped and empowered to give grace to others as it has been given to me.

When May a Christian Defy the Government?

In light of recent events at our nation’s Capitol Building and the close association of Christian banners and symbols with that event, I began to think about the whole question of when Christians may or even should defy the governing authorities over them. The fact that yesterday was the day celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and that tomorrow is the Presidential Inauguration, makes it all the more relevant.

Anytime I am faced with questions like this, I find that the only real answer is to explore the scriptures, what we call the Old and New Testaments. Far too often when people argue for things they think are “the Christian” way to do something, there is little time spent actually studying what God has already said about the issue. When it comes to obedience to governing authorities, the story of Daniel in the Old Testament as well as Matthew 22:20-22, Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 are essential to the conversation. (If you have not read and understood those, you are most likely off base when it comes to answering the questions surrounding civil disobedience and I encourage you to read and wrestle with them before diving into the conversation). As with any subject, especially one as complicated and emotionally charged as this one, it is essential to look at the full scope and context of what the Bible teaches.

The three passages from the New Testament make it clear that all governing authority that exists, does so because in God’s sovereignty, He has granted it to be so. Anytime we oppose that authority, we run the risk of opposing God. However, that does not mean that there are never times when a Christian may oppose those in authority. The story of Daniel, as well as the Apostles in Acts 4:19, gives us the guidance we need to understand the limits of obedience to authority and when disobedience is called for. When I speak of those in authority that can mean those in government, the workplace, or even the home.

What we get from studying the Scriptures is this; there are two times a follower of Jesus may and in fact should, disobey those in authority. The first is when they command you to do something God has forbidden. The second is when they forbid you to do something God has commanded. In the case of the Apostles, they were being forbidden to preach the name of Jesus, something they had been commanded to do by the Lord. That is why they said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge,  for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” In the case of Daniel he was being commanded to do something that God had forbidden and to not do something God had commanded. He was commanded to pray only to King Darius, and forbidden to pray to God.

There are only two times a follower of Jesus may and in fact should disobey those in authority. The first is when they command you to do something God has forbidden. The second is when they forbid you to do something God has commanded

There are two words of caution and clarification here. The first is, you need to be sure that what you are being forbidden from doing or what you are being commanded to do, is actually in violation of God’s commands and not a violation of your preference or some cultural value. As an example, some Christians have run afoul of local ordinances that are designed to make life good for everyone in a neighborhood. They can be things like, how many parking spaces you need to have for every seat in your worship space or how many people are allowed in the building. These are established as safety measures for everyone. They are NOT forbidding you to gather to worship. You may have ordinances that prohibit the noise level that can he heard so as not to disturb neighbors. These are also not forbidding you from worshipping. They are forbidding you from annoying your neighbors. There are all sorts of local ordinances like these. I have seen Christians object that these things are infringing on their “right” to worship and they they must obey God rather than man. I believe that opposing the governing authorities in those instances is not justifiable from the Bible. In those cases, worship, which is commanded by God, is not being forbidden. What is being forbidden is an unsafe practice in the case of capacity, or an unloving practice, in the case of annoying your neighbors. You may need to add worship times to accommodate everyone to be safe, or turn down the volume of your sound system in order to love your neighbor better, but you are not being forbidden to worship.

The second caution is to realize that when you do have a legitimate, biblical reason, to oppose those in authority, you must be prepared to face the consequences. Just because you are right and biblical doesn’t mean you will be treated justly. Dr. King rightly opposed the segregation laws of the 50’s and 60’s because such laws were in violation of God’s teaching that we are all made in His image and they required us to NOT love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet, even though he was following biblical guidelines, he still ended up in a Birmingham jail. Even though he was following biblical guidelines, Daniel still ended up in the Lion’s Den. Even though they were following biblical guidelines, the Apostles were still beaten for their faith.

There is one thing to note about the Apostles. They did not moan and complain about being beaten. Rather, they actually rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. We need a whole lot more of that kind of attitude and a lot less moaning and complaining about not being treated fairly by those in authority. We especially don’t need Christians suing the government everytime we find ourselves being put upon in some way and being angry and rebellious because of it.

There are legitimate times when disobeying those in authority is the right thing to do. Your boss may tell you to do something illegal or unethical. The government may enact a law that requires you to violate God’s commands. We need to be strong enough to do so when the time comes. But you better be absolutely certain that it is because you are being required to do something God has forbidden, or forbidden to do something God has required. It is my experience that those times are fewer and farther between than we usually imagine.

Relax, It’s Only an Election

In the history of the United States of America we have held 58 Presidential elections prior to 2020. Just to give you some historical perspective, in 18 of those elections, the person who went on to the White House received LESS THAN 50% of the popular vote. In 47 of the 58 elections a swing of 5% would have put the losing candidate in the White House. That means that in pretty much every election we have had, half the country wants one thing and half want another.

Why do I point that out? In part it is because we seem to have a utter lack of historical perspective these days. Everything is Unprecedented, The Worst Ever, Like Nothing Ever Seen Before. That fact is, like Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun.

On Wednesday morning, or whenever this thing gets decided, half of the people in this country will feel as if they have won the powerball lottery and the next four years will be great and half will feel defeated, mortified and that the next four years will be the start of the apocalypse. This year more than ever that seems to be the case but it is not unique. I remember Christians being mortified when Bill Clinton got elected, especially the second time. But we survived. I remember people being incensed when Nixon was elected and we even survived that. No matter what side of the aisle you are on, we will survive and eventually thrive, no matter who wins. It is part of the reason we vote every four years. We get the chance to correct whatever mistakes we think we made. If we cannot survive and even thrive for four years under any president then we have bigger issues than who the president is.

No matter who wins the presidential election, (and I am writing before any polls have closed or announcements made), we will, or at least we should, do like we have done for the last 58 elections. We will continue this great experiment of a country we have that was unlike anything ever seen before its founding and has been the example that so many other countries have built their constitutions on. We will continue to be the country that unlike any other, people want to move to.

Yet I have one thing further to say as a follower of Jesus. No matter who wins, the Bible is clear that I am to pray for that person to be a great leader and to lead with wisdom and justice. I am also called to honor that person, which means none of the vindictive, biting, hateful things that so many people resort to in our era of social media, where you type things you would never say to a person’s face. And before you come up with some lame excuse for not honoring whoever is president, remember the people who wrote in the Bible that we are to honor anyone in leadership over us had Nero as an emperor, and he went on to use Christians as human tiki torches to light the streets of Rome. But they didn’t whine and complain about it. So suck it up. It also means never saying, “not my president” unless you have renounced your citizenship. It does mean loving anyone who voted otherwise, NO MATTER WHAT.

If you are a follower of Christ this is a time to remember that you have Jesus as your king and he calls you to love everyone, even those who you disagree with vehemently and even if they persecute you. And by persecute he didn’t mean they call you names. He meant enemies who want to take your life. You are to actually pray for them and bless them.

So no matter who wins this election, followers of Jesus should be filled with grace, humility, love for others, and a confidence that Jesus is still King and no matter what, we will survive and thrive and share the Good News of Jesus wherever and whenever.

Why I Can’t Be Color Blind

Well actually I am color blind, the physical eyesight red/green color blind kind. Before you ask, yes I see apples as red and not grey, same with firetrucks and other things that are very red. Grass is green and when I have been to Ireland I have seen more shades of green than I can count. But some shades of green, ones that are more towards yellow, like neon green golf balls, I can’t pick up the green in them and see only yellow, very very bright yellow. Shades of pink that don’t have enough red in them can indeed look grey to me. The color gets washed out and actually looks bland and lifeless most times. Because I am unable to see the range of color that people without color deficiency have, that’s the correct phrase by the way, I am denied the experience of seeing the world in the greater beauty of what God has created. It is something I have lived with my whole life, other people see more of the worlds beauty than I do.

That leads me to why I can’t be color blind in the racial sense. I know that is a common phrase these days as people attempt to say, “I treat everyone the same no matter what color they are”. But I think we miss out on something beautiful and important when we try to be color blind in the racial sense. I miss out on a certain aspect of the beauty of God’s creation by not being able to see some shades of red and green, and I miss out on knowing something for what it really is, because I can’t truly see it. If I try to be color blind in the racial sense I run the risk of the same things and even worse. If I am color blind in the racial sense then I run the risk of seeing everyone in the same bland shade of grey and I will never be able to fully appreciate that they are in fact different from me and their color has given them experiences in life that are different from mine.

A fellow pastor named Darryl, who is black, is the one who opened my eyes to this a few years ago. If I claim to be color blind and not see that he is in fact black, then I will fail to fully appreciate who he is and what his life is like. I will be blind to what his life is like because I will fail to appreciate how life is different because of his being black and my being white. I will never ask the question, what was it like growing up in a black community. I will never want to know about the rich traditions or culture of black society and as a result I will be impoverished. I will fail to see the unique person God made him to be and fail to appreciate the experiences, good and bad, that shaped him into the person he is today. Being black is a part of the uniqueness of who he is and part of the beauty of who he is. Likewise if he looks at me and claims to be color blind and fails to see a white man, there are things about who God made me to be that he will miss. He will not be able to understand who I am and how my experiences as a white man have shaped me as an individual.

The question is not, can I be color blind. The question is, how will I treat you as a person who is different from me? When I see your color will I treat you as equally valuable and deserving of love and respect and dignity as Christ says I should? Will I see an opportunity to love another human being as someone made in the image of God, a God is is so vast and complex that His image is carried by people who are of so many different colors, and sizes, and shapes? Will I see a chance to grow in my understanding and appreciation for the diversity that God has made in the totality of this group called The Human Race? Will I see a chance for your different experiences in life to add richness and understanding to mine, and vice versa?

I don’t want to be color blind. Not in the red/green sense that I am. I want to see all the colors of the spectrum in their beauty and majesty., their richness and fullness. I don’t want to be color blind in the racial sense either. I don’t want to see people as shades of grey like I see shades of pink, washed out and bland, colorless and lifeless. I want to see people of all colors for who they are and see the richness and beauty of those many colors. I want to be able to know what they have experienced, their struggles and their victories, their hurts and their joys, their dreams and their nightmares. I want to know where those things are the same as mine and where they are different. I want that so I can celebrate with them and weep with them. I want to see them and have them know they are seen for who they really are. Just as I want to be seen for who I am and known for who I really am. I want that so I can grow as a Christ follower who loves God with all his heart mind soul and strength and who loves his neighbor as himself.

A Year of Listening to Jesus Day 34 Mark 1:38

38 And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”

Jesus has driven the demons out of a man by the power of his word. He has healed numerous people, including Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. But now he is moving on to the next town and for a very specific reason. He wants to preach the Gospel to them as well. That is why he came. It drove him. It consumed him. He launched his ministry by declaring that he came to preach Good News, freedom for the oppressed, the forgiveness of sins, captives set free.

We can never overestimate the critical task of spreading the Gospel. It is so easy for us to get distracted by so many things that seem to be important. Jesus could have easily been distracted by all sorts of things, opposition from his family, religious leaders who wanted to debate him, people with needs of every variety. But he kept his focus on declaring the Good News that salvation was available by following Him in faith.

The salvation Jesus preached about was not just a ticket to heaven. He offered a changed life here and now as well. That is obvious in the lives he changed and the message of freedom and abundant life that he preached. That new life was to be found in a relationship of trust, following Jesus no matter what.

Crucial to the task of following Jesus is being people who live life differently because of the new life we are given. It is also crucial that we proclaim the Good News to others as Jesus did. It is not enough to just live a nice Christian life and hope people get it. It is critical that followers of Jesus also preach the message, meaning we also declare and tell others what Jesus has done for us and what he can do for them.

A Year of Listening to Jesus The Power of The Word

Sorry for the hiatus of writing. It is amazing how a week of being down with an illness can put you weeks behind in so many areas of life. But we are back with A Year of Listening to Jesus.

 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” Mark 1:25

The Bible begins with God speaking and causing all creation to come into existence. The shear magnitude of the power of God’s voice and words is beyond what I can comprehend. That power is bound together with God’s authority as King. When He speaks, all creation must listen and obey.

When Jesus was confronted by a demon possessed man in the early days of his ministry the power of God’s Word became evident. The demon spoke through the man and challenged Jesus. But Jesus would have none of that and commanded the demon to be quiet and to release the man. As a result of just six words from Jesus the demon completely obeyed.

The crowd, including the religious leaders, were stunned at the authority that Jesus spoke with and that the demon obeyed him. This was unlike anything they had ever witnessed. For some it was a source of inspiration and encouragement. Here was a messiah whose words could bring healing and new life. For others it was a source of consternation and anxiety. Here was a man who could challenge their authority and cause them to lose control of their own destiny and power. They saw that they too would have to submit to such power and it did not sit well with them.

For 2,000 years people have had the same two reactions to the Bible. For many, it is God’s Word and a source of comfort and strength. The ability of the Bible to ease their anxiety, give them direction, instill confidence, and answer life’s most difficult questions, makes it a priceless resource. For others the call that Bible places on them for surrendering to God, giving up with idols, and admitting that they are not the center of the universe, maks the Bible a hard task master that they seek to remove from their lives.

If you were to go back and ask the demon possessed man who was freed by Jesus if he wanted his demons back or wanted to remain free, I am certain he would want to remain free. If you asked him his opinion of the words of Jesus I suspect he would want as much of those words spoken into his life as he could possibly get.

What is your reaction to the words of Jesus?

A Year of Listening to Jesus 2/1 John 4:50

50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.

After chastising the crowd for their desire for a show of miracles and wonders, Jesus speaks a very simple command to the man who came and asked for healing for his son. “Go, your son will live”. The man took Jesus at his word. Something in the way Jesus said those words caught the man’s attention as nothing ever before. He believed Jesus. Without any evidence at all, he took Jesus at his word. He demonstrated the exact opposite reaction that the crowd had. They wanted more signs and wonders before they would even consider believing.

Maybe it was the desperation of the man’s situation. He had no place else to turn for his sons life. Maybe it was the power of Jesus words. Maybe it was the work of the Holy Spirit giving the man faith. Maybe it was a combination of all three. Whatever the case, the man believed and began the journey home.

The next day he was met by some friends who told him that his son was well and would live. When he inquired about the time his son recovered it matched exactly with the moment Jesus spoke. How powerful is the healing power of Jesus? He doesn’t need to touch people to heal them, though sometimes he does. He doesn’t need to be near them to heal them though sometimes he is. All he needs to to command that healing take place and it does, even if the person being healed is miles away. Once again Jesus demonstrates his power.

How does that impact your picture of Jesus? So often we see him as this quiet, contemplative, wondering preacher. He is that but he is also the omnipotent God of power who spoke creation into existence. That God of power promises to be by your side no matter what as long as you put your trust in him. You are never alone. Not problem you have is too great for him. Trust him.

A Year of Listening to Jesus 1/31 John 4:48

48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

Jesus returned to Cana where he changed water into wine. He is meet by a father whose son is near death. The man is desperate for Jesus to heal his son. You would think this is the perfect time for Jesus to jump right in and heal the boy and demonstrate that he is in fact the Lord and Messiah. By he seems to actually chastise the father by claiming that he won’t believe unless he sees sign and wonders. That certainly feels harsh. I mean after all his son is dying. What is Jesus thinking?

Is it possible that he is speaking not only or even primarily to the father but to the whole crowd that has gathered around. The water into wine trick would certainly have become common knowledge. Many of these folks were most likely at the wedding. Have the come looking for another miracle to tickle their spiritual curiosity? Jesus deals with this on several occasions. People just want a show. They want more and more proof. They want him to make more fish and bread to feast on.

I often hear people say that it would have been so much easier to believe in Jesus if they had been there in the first century and seen him perform miracles like the fish and bread or walking on water or raising the dead. But the fact is you and I would be no different from the people who actually say those things. They had a hard time believing Jesus. Some did, many were just curious, some outright rejected him.

That raises the whole question of what does it take for you to trust God? How big a miracle do you need to be able to say, yes I believe? Jesus has previously said that the greatest evidence he will give for his deity is the raising up of his body after three days. That happened on the first Easter morning. We won’t get to that until near the end of the year but fortunately for us we know that is happened and can look at so much of what Jesus said and did in the light of the resurrection.

The evidence for the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is so overwhelmingly strong that we don’t need to have lived back then and seen the miracles he did. We look back on the greatest miracle of all and put our trust in him.

A Year of Listening to Jesus 1/30 Luke 4:33-35

33 And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm.

There could not be a more sharp contrast than that of the unbelief on the part of the people of Nazareth, who refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and the demons who possessed a man and proclaimed exactly who Jesus was. The demons recognized the Messiah, the Holy One of God, when they saw him. Yet, even though they recognized who Jesus was, they refused to submit to him. In that regard they were no different than the people of Nazareth, except maybe even more guilty since they knew who Jesus was.

This shows us that it is possible to have true knowledge about God but still not have faith. Faith requires being willing to trust God and be obedient to him. The demons had knowledge by not trust. Many people today can claim to have a knowledge of God but if they fail to trust him and submit to him, they are no better than the demons.

We also see the power in the words of Jesus. All he needs to do is speak and the demons, who refused to submit to him willingly, are forced to do so by the power of his word. It is that same word that spoke the universe into existence. It is the same word that called forth Lazarus from the grave. It is the same word that pronounced forgiveness on you if you have come to faith in Christ. It is a word of power that accomplishes what God intends it to accomplish. In this case it drove demons out of a man and healed and restored him.

The word of Christ can also heal and restore you. But you need to trust it. You need to believe it is true. When Jesus says you are forgiven you can believe it. When Jesus says you are loved, you can trust it. When Jesus says he will never leave or forsake you, you can depend on it because the word of God is powerful and reliable.

A Year of Listening to Jesus 1/29 Luke 4:23-27

23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

If Jesus wanted to get his hometown folks furious with him he could not have chosen a better way to do so. Upon receiving some pushback and doubt from them about the appropriateness of him identifying himself as the Messiah, he doubles down by calling their faith into question.

First he does it by connecting them to people in the past who rejected messengers sent by God. He especially connects them to people who cannot accept a prophet simply because he grew up among them. In doing this he is targeting their pride. “What makes this guy think he is so much better than us?” “We saw him grow up like the rest of us”. “He is not so special”.

Then he goes a step further and points out situations when people who were not ethnic Jews had greater faith than they did. Again he calls their pride into question. It is a spiritual pride. They think they are better than other people. They are certainly no worse than Jesus.

Spiritual pride is deadly. It eventually crushes the one who has it and the one who is made to feel unworthy. It is critical for followers of Jesus to understand that we are broken sinners who are far worse than we think we are. We have no room to look down on anyone else. We especially don’t have room to do that because we are following Jesus. That is all by the grace of God and is a gift. We cannot take any credit for our spiritual position before Christ and so we cannot look down on anyone whose position is different.

Sadly, the longer one is engaged in the life of the church and following Jesus, the greater the risk of becoming spiritually proud. One tends to forget the depths of their sin and the desperate need for Jesus. Reminding ourselves of our need for the Gospel is a daily exercise. It is needed to keep spiritually humble and to have a compassionate heart for those who do not know Him yet.

A second lesson in this passage is to remember that when you come to faith in Christ, it can be difficult for the people who know you best to accept the change. Being patient and allowing your changed life to speak for itself, and also staying humble, are necessary if you are going to reach the people closest to you. It took twenty years of me following Jesus before my father finally did. There is always hope.