Last week at the local high school, I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged janitor in the faculty lunchroom. When he discovered I was a retired preacher moonlighting as a substitute teacher, his face lit up as he told me he too was a Christian, and he then began to share with me the joy he was experiencing from the Christian life in which he had immersed himself. He attends his church whenever the doors are opened (several times per week), reads his Bible daily, and tries to witness regularly. His enthusiasm was infectious and we had a great time fellow-shipping together.
However, after a brief time of conversation I realized that we were functioning from two opposite mindsets while believing the same truth. He was sharing with me the good things he was very purposefully doing in his Christian life as he followed Jesus, while I was sharing with him how I was learning, also purposefully, not to do those very same things as I followed Jesus, but somehow, in some way, those things were not only getting done but it was occurring naturally, spontaneously and unconsciously with no effort on my part whatsoever!
I thought I had lost him when I told him I was learning, slowly but surely, not to go to church until I couldn’t stay away, not to read my Bible until I couldn’t put it down, and not to witness to anyone until I couldn’t keep quiet. Nonetheless, practically every day I experienced corporate Christianity (the church, “where two or three are gathered together in my name” – Matthew 18:20 – just as he and I were currently experiencing), I end up proclaiming Jesus in some way to those around me, and I eat of God’s word. That’s amazing to me, because I have not tried to do any of it!
These ideas were a shock to him, but they are illustrative of what I believe is Christianity’s best-kept secret—what the Bible means when it speaks of “living (or walking) by faith,” and “living (or walking) by the Spirit,” rather than by a recipe to follow to help us do “good” things. Most serious Christians have not given those phrases a lot of thought, assuming that if they are serious and all-in with their commitment to Jesus, those bases are automatically covered.
But are they? The New Testament, when discussing our relationship with God as we follow Him, describes any effort to keep rules, follow recipes, or obey laws, even the law of God, as “living by the law” as opposed to its antithesis, “living by faith” or “living by the Spirit.” Paul describes living by the law of God as seemingly “glorious,” as the conduct of all good, law-keepers always appears to be. But, as with the Pharisees, that glory that looks so good will always produce death, not life (2 Corinthians 3:6-8) when we live by trying to obey it. Yes, the very law of God, describing His standard of holiness and His own righteous character, Paul calls a “ministry of death, written and engraved on stones” (vs. 7).
We came out of the womb in human, sinful, unredeemed bodies, living our lives by “the law.” Today (I am writing this on Easter Sunday) we commemorate the day we came out of the tomb in Christ now living our lives “by faith!” What does this much-repeated phrase mean? When does this already-accomplished fact of history become true in our experience?
When Jesus calls us to “take up your cross and follow Me” (Luke 9:23), He is calling us to follow HIm in His life style which for Him would culminate in death on the physical cross. That may not be the physical case with us if we follow Him, nor is it to give up our favorite sins and then practice rigorous, religious disciplines, as many believe that verse to mean. Instead, He demonstrated for us a way to live so counter-intuitive to many believers that they cannot understand it, much less implement it in their own lives.
When Jesus became a man at the Incarnation, He laid aside the way He had always lived as God, the Second Person of the Godhead, and lived as a man for 33 years the very way we were created to live. As He said. “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing . . . “; “I can of Myself do nothing . . . “ (Romans 5:19, 30).
What does it mean for Him to take up His cross and do nothing? it means He did nothing to improve His lot, advance His cause, promote His ministry or to accomplish anything. He was showing us what it means to live “by faith,” trusting His Daddy, who loved Him since before the foundation of the world, to accomplish everything He was called to do in His life. He had no independent thoughts, words or actions, but always listened intently to His Father, who always knows best. By His own admission, He always spoke His Father’s words, thought His Father’s thoughts, and did His Father’s works.
In Jesus’ final recorded prayer to His Father in John 17, He mentions Daddy’s love for Him three times in the last four verses, as He prepares to follow Him to His death.
“You have sent Me, and have loved them (His disciples) as You have loved Me. . . for You loved Me before the foundation of the world . . . And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:23-26). How did Jesus’ Father show this love for His only begotten Son that caused Jesus to trust Him with His life?
Here’s how: He caused Jesus to be scorned, reviled and rejected by the leaders of His own people. Rather than being honored by the few people who did follow him, Jesus became their servant and constantly thought only of their provision and protection. He was completely misunderstood by the crowds who heard Him teach. Ultimately, His Father’s final demonstration of His love was to ask Jesus to embrace our wicked sin, the sin of the whole world, take it all upon Himself (when He had none of His own) and die on the cross in order to redeem us to live forever. And we think God doesn’t love us if our spouses don’t do what we think they should!
The author of Hebrews sums up his Hall of Faith in chapter 11 (his list of great men and women of God who lived this way in crisis times), with these words: “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus’ vision of His Father’s eternal purpose, God ruling through His people over the whole earth, so filled His heart that He was able to face the circumstances of His life with joy and victory. He lived by faith as our “pattern man.” Next week we will look at several factors that will help us to follow that pattern and enter in to that same life.