3 Essential Aspects of Christianity

Living for Jesus is simple, but we often make it harder than it needs to be

3 Essential Aspects of ChristianityThough some people try to turn their walk with Jesus into a complex set of criteria, in reality living the Christian life is simple. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it is simple.

Here are the three essential aspects we should consider as we follow Jesus. In practical terms, this is what it means to be a Christian.

Worship God: As a follower of Jesus, we want to put God first. We do this as we worship Him. We must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). I understand this principle, but figuring out what it means presents a challenge. Yes, we worship him on Sunday morning, but we also worship him the other 167 hours of the week.

We worship God by how we live our lives. We worship him by the things we say and do. We worship him with our thoughts and attitudes. And we worship him when we practice the next two essentials of our Christian faith.

Pursue Community: God exists as Trinity, as three in one. God is a community. He wants to have a relationship with us that reflects his community. Yes, we should have a fearful reverence for God. And we should love him as our perfect heavenly Father. But amid this resides living with God in community.

Beyond having community with God, he wants us to be in community with his other children. He created us to crave connection. We aren’t to live out our faith in isolation but to love one another. Community means we encourage one another, support one another, and put one another first. Which takes us to the third essential aspect of living the Christian life.

Prioritize Others: As we walk with Jesus, we esteem others as more important than ourselves. This is hard in today’s me-first society. But it is Jesus’s way. We sacrifice our ego and set aside our plans in order to do what is best for others.

That’s what Jesus did. That’s what we should do. And this doesn’t just apply to those in our spiritual community, but it also applies—in fact it especially applies—to those outside our Christian bubble.

Putting others first concerns our neighbors, the people we meet as we go about life, and those within our circle of influence. By putting others first, we show them Jesus’s love. Without saying a word, we can point them to Jesus.

In considering these three essential aspects of Christianity, we can further simplify them with one word: love.Love is how Jesus lived his life, and love is how he summed up the entire Old Testament. Click To Tweet

Love is how Jesus lived his life, and love is how he summed up the entire Old Testament. He condensed the Law and the writings of the prophets into two simple perspectives: love God and love others (Matthew 22:38-40).

Furthermore, in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth he talks about love. He ends this well-known passage saying that the greatest thing of all is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Love is what matters most. As we worship God, pursue community, and put others first, we exemplify the love of God.

May we all love well. That’s what it means to be a Christian.

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Is God’s Forgiveness Conditional?

Jesus wants us to fully forgive others so that we may be fully forgiven

Is God’s Forgiveness Conditional?In asking the simple question, “Is God’s forgiveness conditional?” the answer seems obvious: “No! God’s forgiveness is unconditional.”

I was taught that if I followed Jesus, he would forgive me. It was a fact. Forgiveness was unconditional. It made sense, and it comforted me.

However, Jesus’s instruction in today’s passage seems to question this assumption.

Jesus teaches about prayer. He says that when we pray, if we think of someone holding something against us, we must forgive them “so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25, NIV).

Does this mean that if we withhold forgiveness from others that God will withhold forgiveness from us?

I think so.

Recall the Lord’s Prayer. One phrase says, “Forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, NIV). This phrase flows from our mouths with ease. On the surface these words offer us assurance of forgiveness. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus means by this simple expression. He seems to be saying that to the degree we forgive others, God will then forgive us.To the degree we forgive others, God will forgive us. Click To Tweet

Stated another way, the extent to which we withhold forgiveness, will be the extent to which God withholds our forgiveness.

What a terrifying thought.

Between what Jesus instructs us through the Lord’s Prayer and what he teaches in today’s text, we get the real feeling that the degree to which we can receive God’s forgiveness hinges on the degree to which we extend forgiveness to others.

This is a sobering thought.

May we always forgive fully, so that we may be fully forgiven.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is Mark 11, and today’s post is on Mark 11:25.]

The Three Priorities of a Church: Butts, Bucks, and Buildings

The things religious leaders focus on may not matter to God at all

The Three Priorities of a ChurchThe modern church measures success by attendance, offerings, and facility size. Perhaps this is because the world measures success by the number of people, amount of money, and size of buildings. We’re more like the world than we care to admit.

More people showing up for church each week is good. A larger campus impresses. Bigger offerings allow for more of the same. After all, churches with a sizeable attendance garner attention. They receive media coverage. Books celebrate them and elevate their leaders to lofty pedestals.

This is how the Western world defines success. And the church buys into it without hesitation. These measures of success become the focus. But this focus is off, even looking in the wrong direction. The triple aim of most churches—attendance, offerings, and facility size—doesn’t matter nearly as much as most people think.

Said more bluntly, most church leaders focus on the three B’s: butts, bucks, and buildings.

Butts: The greater the attendance, the more popular the church and, most assuredly, the more God has blessed it. Really?

Look at Jesus. After performing a miracle to feed over five thousand people, the multitude want to make him their king, by force if needed (John 6:10-15). Jesus could let them, but he doesn’t. Instead of playing to the masses to further his ministry and advance an agenda, he launches into a hard teaching that offends them, and most turn away (John 6:60-66). It seems Jesus is more concerned with the quality of his followers then the quantity. Maybe we should follow his example.

Bucks: The church institution needs money to operate. Ministers need their paycheck. Mortgage payments have monthly due dates. If the offering sags, the church leadership panics. Boards instruct their teaching pastor to preach more about money. Yes, it happens. I’ve seen it.

Yet Jesus says not to worry about the future (Matthew 6:34). This includes money. Although Jesus had people who financially supported him, he never took an offering. He never gave a plea for money. He trusted his Father to provide. So should we.

Buildings: Churches need a lot of people to give a lot of money to pay for staff, which is well over half of most churches budgets. Next up is their buildings, which is their second greatest expense. Together, salaries and facilities account for 80 to 90 percent of most church expenses, sometimes up to 100 percent. Imagine using all that money instead to help people and address both their spiritual and physical needs.

When Jesus said, “I will build my church (Matthew 16:18), he wasn’t talking about a building but a following. Jesus never said, “Go build me a grand building for worship, a multimillion dollar monument.” But he did say, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15). That’s hard to do if we’re stuck inside a church building.The church of Jesus should be about changed lives, community, and commitment. Click To Tweet

The Right Priorities: Instead of an unhealthy, unbiblical focus on the three B’s, what if we and our churches instead looked to the three C’s of changed lives, community, and commitment?

  • Jesus wants changed lives. He says, “Repent and follow me,” so that he can reorder our priorities. In fact, most all he says is about changing our perspectives of how we live.
  • Jesus wants to build a community. He calls it the kingdom of God, but we made it into a church. Shame on us.
  • Jesus expects our commitment. He desires people who are all in. He wants us to follow him, to serve him, and to be with him (John 12:26). That’s commitment, and that’s what Jesus wants.

If Jesus focuses on changed lives, community, and commitment, so should we. Let’s push aside butts, bucks, and buildings, because these things just get in the way of what Jesus wants for his followers.

[This is from the July issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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What is Our Answer When Jesus Calls?

What is Jesus calling you to do today?A grand adventure awaits us but only if we are willing to leave what we have behind

The first chapter of Mark talks about Jesus calling his disciples. As he walks along the shore, he comes across two brothers fishing. Jesus says, “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:16-18, NIV).

What a powerful way for Jesus to cast a vision. He takes the routine of what they’re doing, fishing in order to earn money. He turns it into a metaphor for a mission. Instead of seeking fish to sell in order to survive, Jesus calls these two men into something greater, to seek people for his kingdom.

While Jesus’s metaphor makes perfect sense to us today. I wonder how his disciples received it then? Were they confused by his call for them to fish for men? I think I would have been.

Yet something about what Jesus says compels them. For they stop what they’re doing, abandon the tools of their trade, and go with him. In that instant they make a life-changing decision. They give up what is normal, what is common, so they can pursue something that is grand and beyond them. Jesus invites them into a great adventure, and they accept, without hesitation.Jesus calls them to a great adventure, and they accept, without hesitation. Click To Tweet

What is Jesus calling us to do today? I wonder if he wants all of us to give up what is normal, what is common to us, so we can pursue something that is grand and beyond us?

I suspect that what God has in store for each of us is beyond what we can expect or even hope for. He offers us something more. It’s up to us to take hold of what he wants to give us. It’s up to us to answer his call.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is Mark 1, and today’s post is on Mark 1:16-18.]

What Is Your Path?

When we focus on other people, we may lose sight of our own calling

What Is Your Path?As Jesus wraps up his stint on earth, he spends some time with his disciples, the core group he trained for three years. They will need to carry on without him, and he wants to make sure they’re ready.

First, he must deal with Peter, who, a few days earlier, denied he even knew Jesus. Jesus is gentle but sure. To counter Peter’s three denials, Jesus has his wayward disciple give three affirmations of love. After each one, Jesus tells Peter to “Care for those who follow me.”

Then Jesus tells Peter what his future will entail. It ends with execution. But Jesus tells Peter to follow him, regardless.

Likely squirming and wanting to change the subject, Peter notices John and asks Jesus what the future holds for this disciple, “What are your plans for him?”

Jesus won’t play along. He basically says, “It doesn’t matter. You must do what I told you to do: follow me.”

It’s easy to become distracted by other people: People who seem to have more success, at least by the world’s standards; people who radiate God’s love in a way we fear we never will; or people who pray with a faith that eludes us.God says, “It doesn’t matter what others do, you must follow me." Click To Tweet

Frustrated and discouraged, we may ask God, “What are your plans for them?”

To which God says, “It doesn’t matter what others do, you must follow me.”

Look straight ahead and follow Jesus. We shouldn’t concern ourselves with what others are doing.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is John 21, and today’s post is on John 21:15-22.]

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Does Jesus Offend You?

Though many people like an easy Jesus, not everyone accepts what he says

Does Jesus Offend You?Jesus normally teaches the masses in parables. Though most don’t really understand what he means, they like his stories because they’re so countercultural. Plus, he sometimes gives them food and heals them. He’s a cool speaker who does nice things for them. What’s not to like?

Then one day he speaks to them directly. He’s blunt. There’s no compelling story, just some weird message about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He’s not talking about actual cannibalism; it’s a metaphor—of some sorts. It’s about life and death, sacrifice and reward.

The people grumble. They complain he’s hard to understand and say no one can accept his message. Many of his followers become ex-followers. They reject him and go in search for something else, but the disciples stick around; they’re all in.When things get tough, Jesus’s disciples stick around. They’re all in. Click To Tweet

Yes, the main message of Jesus is easy. He loves everyone and opens his arms to accept us. But sometimes he’s hard to understand, too. Sometimes his message offends people. Their response is to give up on Jesus.

But I’m all in. I hope you are, too.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is John 6, and today’s post is on John 6:53-68.]

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Is Being a Christian Easy or Hard?

Regardless of circumstances, God walks with us

Is Being a Christian Easy or Hard?In Paul’s second letter to the believers in Corinth, he warns them not to deceive others or distort God’s word (2 Corinthians 4:2). That is, don’t misrepresent God’s character or intent to the world.

Yet, this happens. Some people, in their zeal for Jesus, promise those on the outside that if they just say “yes” to Jesus, then all their problems will go away and life will become easy.

It doesn’t work that way.

Jesus says to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28), that his followers may pay a price for their commitment to him.

Paul details this heavy cost. But along with each threat he gives assurance of God’s provision (2 Corinthians 4:8-9):

  • Hard pressed from every direction, but not crushed
  • Perplexed, but not in despair.
  • Persecuted, but not
  • Struck down, but not

God promises we will not be defeated, anguished, forgotten, or ruined. Click To TweetSo when we follow Jesus we can expect to be harassed, mystified, attacked, and hurt. Yet in this, God promises we will not be defeated, anguished, forgotten, or ruined.

We must count the cost before we follow Jesus, because committing ourselves to him may bring about hardship, but take courage knowing that God will prevail and help us through these trying situations.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is 2 Corinthians 4, and today’s post is on 2 Corinthians 4:2, 8-9.]

Are You Grafted Unto God’s Family Tree?

God removes branches from his tree and adds others to it

Are You Grafted Unto God’s Family Tree?In Romans 11 Paul talks about graft. Not political graft but the biological kind. In this case, grafting takes a branch from one tree and attaches it to the stock of another tree. When done correctly the added branch will grow into the trunk of the other tree and will thrive.

Farmers often do this to combine the fruit produced by one tree with the hardy stock of another. In this way they get a resilient tree that yields desirable fruit.

Paul uses this type of grafting as an analogy to teach us about God’s kingdom and us.

Think of God and his people as a tree, with him as the root and us as the branches. Some branches of the tree are unworthy, and he breaks them off. But he also takes branches from other trees and grafts them on. The result is a beautiful hodgepodge of different branches all growing on one tree, God’s tree.Think of God and his people as a tree, with him as the root and us as the branches. Click To Tweet

From this Paul makes several points, implicitly about Jews and Gentiles:

  • When people reject Jesus, as some Jews did, God will remove them from his tree.
  • When people on the outside, Gentiles, accept Jesus, God grafts them onto his tree; he unites with them.
  • Just as God grafted Gentile branches onto his tree, even more so can he reattach the Jewish branches he once removed. This is exciting news.
  • Last, just as God removed some Jewish branches from his tree, so too will he remove some Gentile branches if they don’t produce fruit.

This analogy gives us much to ponder. It provides hope for all people. But along with it comes a serious responsibility to not take our standing with God for granted and to make sure we produce fruit.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Romans 11, and today’s post is on Romans 11:16-24.]

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Should Paul’s Self-Description Inspire Our Faith Perspective?

Paul’s letter to the Romans opens with three traits for us to ponder

Should Paul’s Self-Description Inspire Our Faith Perspective?Paul begins his letter to the church in Rome by giving them an overview of his situation. He shares three characteristics about himself, his mission, and his calling. Though he does this to establish credibility for his message, and thereby encourage the recipients to take his words seriously, the attributes seem like a mini-biography, one with spiritual importance.

In Paul’s self-assessment, he says he is:

A Servant of Jesus: I like to call myself a follower of Jesus—as opposed to the more general description of Christian, which means different things to different people. Being a follower of Jesus shows commitment, yet it still implies I have some say in the matter, that I made a choice.

Being a servant, however, carries with it a deeper commitment. I need to move my mindset from being a follower to becoming a servant. Maybe you do, too.

Called to be an Apostle: Instead of focusing on the meaning of the word apostle, which could suggest a missionary, a church leader, or a passionate adherent (all of which describe Paul), let’s instead focus on the word called. What does it mean to be called by God?

While we may not have a calling at the same high level as Paul, all Christians are called, first to follow Jesus (as in “Come and follow me,” Matthew 4:19) and then to obey him (John 8:51). As we serve him he will tell us to do other things, too. These are our callings, even if we’re not traveling around the world as his missionary.Everyone who follows Jesus should be set apart. Click To Tweet

Set Apart for the Gospel: While being set apart could be a Spirit-led summoning of the highest order (Acts 13:2), it could also be a simple command to set ourselves apart from the world, to not be conformed to it (Romans 12:2). Everyone who follows Jesus should be set apart in this way, while being open for him to also set us apart for something greater.

If we are a true Christian (as opposed to being one in name only), we will do well to adopt the attitude of Paul: that through Jesus we are his servant, called, and set apart.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Romans 1, and today’s post is on Romans 1:1.]

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12 Key Truths about the Kingdom of God

Consider the kingdom of God as the ultimate church model

12 Key Truths about the Kingdom of GodLast Sunday we pointed out that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God but we made a church. The Bible records Jesus talking about the kingdom of God (and the comparable phrase, kingdom of heaven) eighty-five times. Jesus only mentions church three times.

To guide how we should function as his followers today, we must consider what Jesus says about the kingdom of God. Here are twelve key truths about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God:

1) Is Close: A dozen times or more Jesus proclaims the present reality of the kingdom of God. He says it is near (Luke 10:11), it is upon you (Luke 11:20), and in your midst (Luke 17:21). It happened in that generation (Luke 21:32), and some saw it before they died (Luke 9:27).

2) Belongs to Us: Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of God has been given to them (Mark 4:11). As his followers today, his modern-day disciples, that truth extends to us. Another time Jesus tells the crowd that the kingdom of God belongs to them (Luke 6:20). Here he specifically connects with poor people, but aren’t most all of us poor in this world? (And if we consider ourselves rich, see #3.)

3) Is an Enigma: The kingdom of God is hard to understand (Luke 8:10), happens while we are alive (Luke 9:27), and goes against our sense of order (Luke 13:30). It can’t be seen (Luke 17:20), is hard for the wealthy to grasp (Luke 18:18-24), and is a secret to many (Mark 4:11). Yep, the kingdom of God is very much an enigma, but we need to try to understand it. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we can.

4) Has Different Priorities: The kingdom of God is more important than anything else (Luke 9:60-62), which includes church, by the way. In the kingdom of God we will have spiritual greatness (Luke 7:28) and experience the first being last and the last being first (Luke 13:30); see #3 enigma.

5) Provides Great Reward: What we give up for the kingdom of God will be given back many times over in eternity (Luke 18:29-30).

6) Requires Total Commitment: We need to remove anything that holds us back from the kingdom of God (Mark 9:47) and give up things that seem important (Mark 10:29), but when we do there will be a great return.

7) Represents Good News: Jesus says the kingdom of God is good news (Luke 4:43, Luke 8:1), which he shares with others. We should do the same; see #8.

8) Must be Shared: Not only does Jesus share the good news of the kingdom of God, but he wants us to do the same (Luke 8:1) and as we go, he expects us to heal people (Luke 9:2). Yep, the kingdom of God is about supernatural healing; see #9.

9) Includes Miracles: Part of the kingdom of God is healing (Luke 9:11, Luke 9:2, Luke 10:9) and driving out demons (Luke 11:20, Matthew 12:28). Don’t skip this part. The Bible says these supernatural feats are part of the kingdom of God package. And don’t we want the total package?

10) Offers a Huge Impact: The kingdom of God may start out small, but it grows into something significant (Luke 13:18-20), just like a tiny mustard seed and yeast. But the growth part is not our responsibility. God handles that (Mark 4:26-29).

11) Is Open for All and Inclusive: People will flock from all parts of life to be part of the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29), especially those on the outside (Luke 14:15-24). Plus it’s open for kids and those with childlike faith (Luke 18:16-17, Mark 10:14); see #12.The people we least expect to be part of the kingdom of God will be there. Click To Tweet

12) Is Counterintuitive: The kingdom of God is hard to enter (Matthew 19:24, Luke 13:23-30), especially for those who place their trust in money (Luke 18:25, Mark 10:17-25). Some of the people we most expect to be part of the kingdom of God will miss out (Luke 13:28, Matthew 21:31) as others take their place (Matthew 21:43, Luke 14:15-24). Being part of the kingdom of God requires we experience a new birth (John 3:3-6), a spiritual rebirth, which requires a simple, unwavering child-like faith (Mark 10:15).

There’s more, but this will get us started.

How can these teachings from Jesus inform how we act today as his followers? This should change everything, but will we let it?

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