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Story of God 7: Death & Resurrection

Sometimes life can leave us with little hope.

I’ve had a loss of hope lately. That’s probably not the best way to start a sermon on an Anniversary Sunday, but it’s the truth. And my guess is you’ve been there too.

Sometimes we lose hope because of our work. You get up every day, go into your place of work, meander through the list of things you need to do, come home and your head hits the pillow. Next day you do the same thing all over again. You’re not sure you’re making any difference at all.

Maybe you’ve lost hope in your relationships. With a spouse, with a child, with a friend. You feel as if you are in a rut. A big one. It seems as if it is going nowhere and takes more work to change anything than you bargained for. Maybe you want out.

Or it could be you’ve lost hope for your future. As you get a little older you realize there are some dreams you may have had when you were younger that just aren’t going to happen.

Whatever it may be, when we lose hope we tend to feel like giving up. Ray Johnston notes that “When people lose hope, they lose their ability to dream for the future. Despair replaces joy. Fear replaces faith. Anxiety replaces prayer. Insecurity replaces confidence. Tomorrow’s dreams are replaced by nightmares.”[1] Maybe you know the feelings.

I think the disciples might have felt that way. They were gathered in an upper room. John tells us the doors were locked because “they feared the Jews.” If a movie opened with this scene it would then give you one of those title lines that would say “X# of hours earlier.” And the story they would tell on screen would be the greatest one ever. Here’s how it goes:[2]

Jesus had been praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as he finished, one of the disciples named Judas showed up with an armed mob. He greeted Jesus with a kiss, a predetermined sign to show the guards who to arrest. This was all a part of God’s plan.

When the guards arrested Jesus, the disciples all ran away and hid. Jesus was taken, beaten, and brought before the Jewish leaders for questioning. They asked, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” Jesus answered, “I am, and you will see me seated next to God in power—coming back on the clouds of heaven.”

When Jesus said this, the high priest tore his clothing and said, “Any man who claims to be God must be put to death.” Then they slapped Jesus in the face and spit on Him.

Jesus was brought to the Roman governor, Pilate, since Jews could not execute anyone without official approval. The Jewish leaders stirred up the crowds and pressured Pilate to have Jesus put to death. They shouted, “Crucify him!”

Pilate feared a riot would break out, so he handed Jesus over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified. Crucifixion was the most cruel and humiliating way to die. Jesus was brutally beaten and whipped by the soldiers. They put a crown of sharp thorns on His head and a purple robe around His shoulders. “Hail the King of the Jews!” they laughed. All night, the Roman soldiers continued to beat Jesus and mock Him.

When morning came, they led Jesus to a place called Skull Hill. Like a criminal, Jesus was nailed to a heavy wooden cross between two thieves. Hanging there, He cried out, “Father, please forgive them they don’t know what they’re doing.”

At noon, darkness filled the skies—blocking the sun for three hours. Suddenly, the thick curtain hanging in the temple tore down the middle! At that moment Jesus shouted, “Father! I give you my life It is finished.” Then Jesus breathed His last breath and died.

Late Friday afternoon, Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross, wrapped in long strips of cloth, and buried in a rich man’s tomb. A large stone was rolled over the entrance to the tomb, and Roman guards were posted to make sure nothing happened to His body.

Early on Sunday morning, on the third day, some of the women who followed Jesus went to prepare His body for burial. When they arrived at the tomb, they saw the stone rolled away and the soldiers were gone!  Suddenly, two angels appeared. They said, “Why are you surprised? You are looking for Jesus, but he is not here he’s been raised from the dead.”

The women were excited but afraid and hurried to tell the disciples the amazing news. Some of them ran back to the tomb and looked inside for themselves. Jesus was not there!

As soon as Jesus was arrested, hope was lost and fear set in. Think about it: the disciples had placed their futures banking on the belief that Jesus was going to usher in a new way of life for them. A kingdom. The problem was they had misunderstood some of the story.

They thought he was going to set up a kingdom with a palace and all the amenities that go with it and they would get to share in the position and wealth. No one had paid attention to what Jesus had told them about dying and then being raised again.

When they lost hope they scattered. They hid. They shut down.

Maybe you’ve done that too. I have. Recently I just hit a wall. 20 years of church work here and then finding ourselves as a church in a financial challenge again left me without hope. You’d think that over the years as we’ve faced the same issue a few other times my faith would be resilient by now and I’d trust that God would give us some kind of new beginning. Another fresh start.

But I didn’t. Johnston was right. My joy was replaced with despair. My faith was replaced by fear. I felt anxious. Lost confidence. And it was difficult to dream of a future.

It’s not a good place to be. You feel like you are in a locked room, stuck “in there” because you are afraid of what might be “out there.” It’s really not a good place to be when you are a pastor and the church is going through a difficult time.

You might feel stuck for some of the same reasons. It could be something you’ve done that is holding you back. That’s one reason the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is so important. We have an enemy who wants to get inside our heads and remind us of why we aren’t worthy of God’s love. He does a pretty good number on us at times. But this story tells us that Jesus ransomed us from him. Whatever the enemy thinks he can hold against us or whatever we think someone else can hold against us, Jesus took care of that by his death on the cross. He freed us from that. We don’t have to be stuck there anymore.

It could be you’re stuck because you need a new beginning. Mark and John’s gospels both start with the word “beginning” in their first lines. That word is intended to remind us of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, or “beginnings.” The life of Jesus and especially his death and resurrection are intended to give us new life. And that new life comes to us in the same way it did to him. Through a death of some sort. There are times our “stuckness” is really just a time for God to get our attention and get us ready for something new.

And that could be what’s going on with our church at this moment in time. He may be trying to get all of us to pay more attention to him, to watch for him, and get ready for something new. That happens when we see Jesus like the disciples did.

Remember they were in a locked room? Their hopes were dashed and they could not see a future. Then Jesus showed up in the room. No one opened the door, mind you. He just showed up. And he said, “Peace be with you.”

That’s what he is saying to me and to you and to ChristBridge today. Peace. He’s here with us regardless of how things look around us. And that is a cause for hope.

It is a cause for us to look ahead and follow him where he leads us. Some things will not change. We will always believe that gathering on the first day of the week is important, even if people’s attendance patterns in America these days suggest otherwise. We will always believe that connecting with other believers in the home is vital to this walk of faith. And we will always believe that bearing fruit by serving others is a mark of those who are connected to Jesus.

This is his church. And if we listen to him he will do with us as he wishes. One thing we believe he is telling us now is that most church growth—96% of it—is due to transfer growth. Wouldn’t you like to be the church that is hitting on that 4% that would come from people who have not heard or received the gospel coming to be a part of this place?

That would take us knowing this story and believing it to the point that we retell it when possible to people who have not heard it or have not received it. People who have lost hope in their world too.

It only takes one person with some hope to change a life. Just think about it. When you were down on hope and someone came into your life with some encouragement, what happened? We can be that for each other. And we can be that for those outside of here.

My hope is coming back. But it is not based on what I see around me. Sure, an increase in giving to this ministry will help. But my hope is coming back because of people around me who have given encouragement and because of this story. It has reminded me that when we are imprisoned in a room of hopelessness, Jesus will come to us.

And when he does, everything changes.


[2] Adapted from

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Story of God 6: The Work of Jesus

We all tell stories. And we “make stories” too to make meaning of what we see and experience around us. One story that is told about Christians is that we are judgmental. In fact, 87% of the unchurched view Christians as judgmental.[1]

Before you make a judgment about that you may want to pause.

Before you want to say they are wrong, consider this. A survey was given to self-identified Christians that measured their attitudes and actions and whether they lined up more with Jesus’ attitudes and actions or those of the self-righteous Pharisees. The result? “Just over half of the nation’s Christians—using the broadest definition of those who call themselves Christians—qualify for this category (51%). They tend to have attitudes and actions that are characterized by self-righteousness.”

Christians who judge others even judged themselves as judgmental. Amazing!

The same study revealed that many Christians are more concerned with pointing out unrighteous behavior—especially in pointing fingers at immorality in the culture—than they are with self-righteousness and confronting Christians who exhibit this trait.[2]

We can easily make up stories about others while letting ourselves off the hook. And in doing so we give those who do not know Jesus an opportunity to create a story about us. The problem with that is that often the story about us becomes the same story for God. He is judgmental. He is pointing fingers at us when we do wrong.

Sometimes we need a new story. Fortunately, Jesus gave us many that give us a view of God that is accurate. If you were to choose just one story to know and tell that Jesus told, you’d want to choose the one we will look at today. Charles Dickens called it the greatest short story ever told. You might know it as the Prodigal Son.

Here’s how the story goes:

A man had two sons. The younger son asked his dad for his inheritance, which basically meant he wanted his dad to just go ahead and die. The father gave each of his sons their share of the inheritance.

The younger son took what he had and went off to a distant country. He spent everything he had on foolish living. After he spent everything a famine hit the land and he really had nothing. He had to go to work for a Gentile who sent him into the fields to feed the pigs…not something a young Jewish man would want to do. It got so bad he even wanted to eat what the pigs were eating.

One day he came to his senses. He thought, “My father’s hired hands have plenty of food and I’m dying here of hunger. I’ll go to my father and tell him ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m not worthy to be called your son. Let me be like one of your hired workers.’”

When he was close to his father’s home, his father so him from a distance and had compassion on him. The father ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. The son started into his speech, but the father told his servants to bring the best robe, a ring, and sandals for his son. Then he told them to find a fattened calf, slaughter it, and prepare a feast to celebrate his son coming home.

Meanwhile the older son was in the field and as he came to the house heard music and dancing. He found out his brother had come home and the celebration was for him. The older son got so angry he didn’t want to join the feast. He told his father, “I have been slaving many years for you and I have never disobeyed an order. But you never gave me a goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has devoured your assets with prostitutes comes home, you throw a party.

The father said, “Son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate because your brother was dead and is now alive. He was lost and is now found.

That’s a great story. When we listen to stories, we find ourselves in the characters. You have some options with this one.

You could see yourself in the younger son. Maybe you’ve done some things in your life that you are ashamed of. Shame hits us hard and tells us we are not enough: not good enough, smart enough, good looking enough, rich enough. Shame is hard to defeat.

Maybe it was the teenage years. Or into your twenties. Or just this week. And now you wonder what God would think. You have felt the judgement of his people over the years and now you have begun to wonder if he looks at you the same way.

If you see yourself as the younger son, then you need to see the Father. I don’t know what the younger son expected. I don’t know what you expect from him either. But I do know what the son and you or me get. We get a father we most likely did not expect.

Did you notice what the Father did? First he ran to greet his son. Running was not a dignified thing for a father in that world to do. Kind of like if you saw the President of the United States getting of Air Force One and running across the tarmac to greet some foreign dignitary. It just doesn’t happen.

But it did in this story. That’s how much the Father wanted to be with his son. He didn’t wait for him to get to the house. He went out to him while he was still “a long way off.” Have you ever wondered why?

One reason is his love for his son. He wanted to be with him. He didn’t want to wait.

But there’s another reason. After he embraced him and kissed him he had a servant bring a robe, a ring and sandals. These were items that restored him to his son ship in the family. But the robe especially did something. It covered his shame.

Don’t miss this! The robe covered his shame. Sometimes we think God wants to broadcast our sin to everyone. In this story Jesus says, “no.” The son confessed to his Father but he didn’t have to tell anyone else. The Father covered him so that when he did get to the house, no one would have to know where he had been or what he had done. All that mattered was that he was home.

If you see yourself in the younger son, you need to see this part of the story. Let it sink in. feel the Father’s embrace. Talk to him. And let him restore you.

And learn from the Father. We have a world that needs us to be more like him, especially when we fall. Instead of being concerned about pointing out other people’s unrighteousness maybe we should be more concerned about self-righteous attitudes. The Father was.

The other character in the story is the older son. You don’t want to be him. The story began because the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Jesus was spending time with tax collectors and sinners. They did not see themselves as “sinners.” Their hearts were hard. Callous. They grumbled. Grrrr-ited teeth. A low rumble. Grumbling.

They didn’t see themselves as the older son. But they were. “Angry that the sinner was welcomed.” “Always with you.” “Never disobeyed.” Really? Maybe we need to sit down and rehearse your life. Not to condemn. But to help you see yourself for who you are.

The only people Jesus gets upset with in the gospels are the self-righteous. They are quick to point out the faults of others without taking into account their own. And because of that they have no room for the one who has made some mistakes in life.

You may wonder why the father had not gone looking for his son. In those days a younger son would get 1/3 of the inheritance. But the older son—who received his share too in this story—would receive 2/3. The Father gave 3/3…or everything he had. The person with the resources to go looking for the younger son was the older brother. And he did nothing.

But Jesus did. He says in Luke 19:10 he came to seek and save the lost. He wants us to do the same. But it will never happen if we continue in older brother tendencies.

As long as we harbor a desire to point out the unrighteousness in others and not address our own self-righteous behaviors, we’ll always be on the outside of the party looking in. Older brothers have to choose how they will respond to the party invitation.

That’s why Jesus leaves the story in the same way we will leave it today. we don’t know if the older brother came in or not. And I don’t know if you will or not, but my hope is you do. The Father is preparing a great feast and he wants you to be at his table.

You can’t come alone. There will be tax collectors and sinners, some recovering Pharisees and scribes. All in need of a savior. You’ll see his seat at the banquet. But don’t be surprised if it’s empty. He’ll probably be out looking for the next person who’s lost their way to the party.




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The Story of God 5: The Person of Jesus

In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, loved to play cards in his free time. But he had a problem. He liked to eat a snack while playing and needed to keep one hand free for the cards.

So he came up with the idea of putting some beef between two slices of toast. He could hold his snack in one hand and play cards at the same time. He called his new invention a “sandwich”—two slices of bread with meat in between—and it became one of the most popular inventions in the western world.

That’s a good story. And good stories follow a common framework. Here’s how it goes: there is a person in the beginning, who has a problem, and finds a resolution.  Donald Miller writes that:

Keith Quesenberry, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins Center for Leadership Education spent a season studying the effectiveness of over 100 Super Bowl commercials. He successfully predicted the commercials that told the clearest story would be the most likely to go viral. And he was right.

A Budweiser commercial featuring a puppy who made friends with a horse, a 30-second spot that could almost be considered a movie plot condensed into a beer ad, got more traction than any ads featuring scantily dressed women or humorous pranks. “People think it’s all about sex or humor or animals, but what we’ve found is that the underbelly of a great commercial is whether it tells a story or not,” Quesenberry said. He went on to add, “The more complete a story marketers tell in their commercials, the higher it performs in the rating polls, the more people like it, want to view it and share it.”[1]

Stories have pre-decided plots as opposed to a random series of events. The clearer the story, the more our brains are drawn to it. Good stories have a good framework, whether it’s a three-act play or a five-act, it has to know where it’s going for people to want to follow.

It’s no different with the Gospel writers. Some of the best stories we find are about Jesus. And when Mark begins his gospel account he gives us a fast-paced set of stories in the first 15 verses that also follow a framework for the entire writing.

Here’s how Mark begins the stories:

This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The prophet Isaiah had said a messenger would come as a voice crying out in the wilderness. So John came baptizing in the wilderness. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Many people came to him at the Jordan river to be baptized while confessing their sins. John wore camel hair clothes with a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey. It was quite a scene. (1-6)

He told the people that someone more powerful than he was would come. He said, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (7-8)

And it happened. Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. When he came up out of the water he saw the heavens open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased. (9-11)

Right after that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. He was in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels came and ministered to him. (12-13)

After this John was arrested and Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God. He said, “the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel!” (12-15)

The first person we find is John. The problem is sin. And the resolution is the Messiah has come, Jesus, who gives them the Holy Spirit. It’s a clear story. And it has form.

New Testament writers were skilled at crafting their gospels, or their good news. Sometimes we think they just started writing. But remember the people then did not have Bibles as we have either in book form or on apps. They had to listen well. And so the writers would give them ways to remember the story as they are listening to it.

One way Mark does this is through his first few words. He says that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. As the story unfolds we find two main sections. The first ends in Mark 8:29 where Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, or Christ.

The second section ends with Jesus on the cross. A Roman centurion makes a confession there too. He says in Mark 15:39: “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Two great statements about who Jesus is. He is the Christ, or anointed one. And he is the Son of God. Right off the bat the story tells you some amazing things and also gives you a way to remember the sections of the writing.

But the first 15 verses do even more. In the Greek language a literary device called a chiasm was used to alert hearers to themes and key words in the writing. A chiasm follows a pattern that can be likened to walking down the rungs of a ladder and then back up the same rungs. In other words, you may have one word followed by another followed by another. Then, the writer will go back and hit the same words in reverse order until he reaches the first word. In Mark 1:1-15 the chiasm is formed by three words: gospel, wilderness, and baptism.

Notice first the use of the word “gospel” in verse 1 and 15:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (vs. 1)

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel.” (vs. 15)

“Gospel” or “good news” as it can be translated, both come from the same Greek word. When you see that it is the same word regardless of your translation you can also see that this word forms a section of Mark. He is telling us that the arrival of Jesus on the scene is good news for us. “Gospel” was a word used regarding Roman Emperors whose enthronement was regarded as a new beginning for the world. The coming of Jesus is good news.

But what does that mean? In America, the good news of Jesus is often presented as “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” That “wonderful plan” is closely aligned with the American Dream: good family, good bank account, good looks, good health, good breath, and good assortment of friends. Hardly anyone would expect to hear anything associated with struggle or suffering in the same context as good news.

But stay with the chiasm long enough and your view of gospel might change. The next word Mark uses is “wilderness” or “desert.” It is found in Mark 1:3 and 12.

“…a voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (1:3)

Immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels were serving him.” (1:12-13)

Good news to me would be that I had won a completely paid round trip all-inclusive stay somewhere in Italy. But the desert? It’s called a desert because its deserted. Nothing there but heat. No comfort. No amenities. No luxuries.

In Jewish thought, wilderness is the place God prepares his people for their promised salvation. In the Old Testament, his people spent forty years in the wilderness before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. In Isaiah 40:3 (from which Mark quotes), the prophet speaks of preparing the way for God to lead the Israelites back across the wilderness from exile in Babylon. Throughout history “wilderness” has been connected to God doing something new in the life of his people. In the wilderness there is struggle with evil and a wrestling of trust in God.

Which brings us to the third key word in the chiasm: baptism.

John came baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (1:4)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. (1:9)

Baptism in Mark involves a pivotal point in the life of Jesus. Baptism establishes the identity of Jesus. Mark has told us who he believes Jesus to be: the Christ and the Son of God. He tells us who John says he is. Now he tells us who God says he is. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”

Baptism in Mark is not only associated with identity. It has to do with suffering. Later in Mark 10:38-39, Jesus connects baptism with his suffering on the cross. Gospel in Mark has something to do with wilderness and baptism. And both of these have something to do with struggle and suffering.

Right after Jesus’ baptism the Spirit “drives” him out into the wilderness. Jesus goes from one moment when he’s in the water and the heavens open up and embrace him to the next where he is in the waterless wilderness and seems alone. From one moment a dove descending to being surrounded by wild beasts.

You may be able to relate to that. You made a decision to follow Jesus and for a while everything seemed like a honeymoon period. You fell into the arms of Jesus and things seemed safe, secure, peaceful. You read your Bible. You prayed. You even enjoyed going to church.

But then life hit. A job loss. Issues with kids. A spouse left. You found yourself in a wilderness of worry, a desert of disillusionment. Maybe you couldn’t see any wild beasts but they were circling you inside your head. You suddenly were unsure if God were really with you. You doubted whether or not he loved you.

These may have been some of the same beasts that attacked Jesus. One moment he hears that he is God’s beloved son and the next he’s not so sure. If God loves him, why is he in the desert? Why the struggle? Why the suffering?

Early Christians felt the same. They were beginning to experience persecution under Nero after the fire in Rome. The prospect of being thrown to the wild beasts in the arena became very real for them.

Wilderness is something we all know. It is a time of testing. But it is also a place for prayer as Jesus will retreat there from time to time in Mark. And it is a time that God will minister to us. And when Jesus emerged from the wilderness he was ready to be used by God.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18).

That’s good news. That is gospel. In our wilderness Jesus will come to help us. And he can because he has been where we are. He knows the dusty terrain of the desert. He understands the suffering of a baptism that places one’s trust in God regardless of what happens to us or around us.

That’s quite a story. It has a clear form: good news, wilderness, baptism. And if we follow Jesus, it will be our story too.

[1] Donald Miller, How to Tell a Story e-book at

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The Story of God 4: Exodus

Sometimes we get enslaved to systems.

A number of years ago Karen decided to attempt to eliminate caffeine from our lives. (I hear you gasping. Hang on. It gets worse.) One morning Karen substituted our full strength blend with a half-blend less caffeine. (I know. I know. She should be locked away.) By mid-morning my head was pounding. By mid-afternoon I was unable to concentrate. (See here for more with this story)

I had work to do that was not getting done. So I did what any resolute real man would do. I borrowed some coins from a preschooler and bought a Mountain Dew. Within minutes the highly caffeinated carbonate calmed my caffeine deficient cranium.

Able to think again, I pondered the predicament of the past day. How was this system of demand and supply created? Until thirty I had never been a connoisseur of coffee. But until thirty I had never been double teamed.

You see, we had a new addition to our family. Our firstborn confused his days and nights. When most people were dreaming in bed he opted for bonding with his dad. He would wake up, bond and go back to bed, wake up, bond and go back to bed an average of four times a night.

I was a good dad at night but a grumpy husband in the morning. That’s when he tagged his mother who then stepped into the ring. With her most tempting voice she whispered: “Try some coffee. It will help you get going in the morning.” I was an unsuspecting victim, lured into the dark world of caffeine.

Soon after, God confronted me. “Did you drink of the coffee in the kitchen?”

I answered along with my ancestor Adam: “The woman you put here with me gave me some coffee to drink!”

Next thing I knew the system was in place. Wake up. Start the coffee. Drink the coffee. Sounds harmless. Until you try to change the system. A first attempt and I quickly realized that systems don’t go away easily. They fight back.

First a dull pain. Followed by foggy thinking. Full blown headache. Pounding. The culture I created was not going to go away without a fight. So I gave in and found another shot of caffeine.

Systems don’t go away easily. They fight back. What happens in our bodies happens in our world. Just attempt to change a system and you will find the system pushing back.

Moses understood. While in Babylonian captivity the Hebrew storytellers wrote down a huge piece of their history. It is a story about their people being enslaved in a system of a world power. Egypt. Here’s how it goes. (See this book for this adapted summary of the Exodus story.)

The people of God had gone to Egypt to survive a famine. A king had come to power that was afraid of the numbers of the Israelites. He made them work hard with forced labor. They were enslaved. Worse yet, the Pharaoh decided to have all the Hebrew boys born to be thrown into the Nile.

One of those babies was saved when his mother put him in a basket—a tevah or ark—and placed him along the banks of the Nile. His sister watched as Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing and found the baby. She took him in as her own son and had the baby’s mother nurse him. She named the baby Moses, which means “drawing out,” because she drew him out of the water.

God grew this baby Moses into a leader for his people. Moses had an incident where he saw an Egyptian beating one of his fellow Israelites and he killed him. Pharaoh heard about it and wanted to kill Moses, so Moses ran to the wilderness where he stayed for 40 years.

Then God sends him back to Egypt to deliver his people from their slavery. There are ten plagues that he sends on Pharaoh and Egypt. Each plague was like a cage match with a different Egyptian god including Pharaoh himself.

The first encounter involves Moses throwing his staff down before Pharaoh. Then the staff turns into a serpent. The cobra was a symbol of Pharaoh’s power. God is playing with these other gods. So Pharaoh’s advisers, who are also armed with some divine strength, throw their staffs down and duplicate the same feat. But then Moses’ serpent swallows the serpents of Pharaoh.

The plagues start coming after the snakes. The first turns the Nile and all of Egypt’s water supply into blood. The Nile was the source of Egypt’s existence and worshiped as a god. When it turned to blood it meant that Yahweh could turn their source of life into death.

The second plague multiplies frogs all over Egypt. The Egyptian goddess of fertility was Heqet, who was supposed to have control over all of the fertility, and was depicted with the head of a frog.

Every plague corresponds to an Egyptian god. Dust in the wind became gnats in the sky. People were swarmed by flies. Cattle began dropping like flies. Boils landscaped flesh and hail pounded landscape. Locust devoured the leftovers.

By the time we get to the ninth plague the god being attacked is the sun god Ra. He is the highest god of the Egyptians and the patron god of Pharaoh. Yahweh, with a snap of his fingers, darkens the sun and blots him out.

On the eve of their Exodus from Egypt God sends the tenth and final plague. This plague is the death of all the firstborns in all the land. He announces this plague by saying he will execute judgment “on all the gods of Egypt.” The Egyptian god of the dead is Osiris. By controlling what Osiris is supposed to be a god of, Yahweh is moving in for the final blow.

Ten rounds. Yahweh wins each round. It is clear who the winner is. The Israelites head out and make their way to the Red Sea.

Once they get there they see a cloud of dust behind them. Pharaoh has decided to chase them and take them down while they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea. Moses raises his rod and does as Yahweh tells him to: Be still and watch.

An easterly wind starts blowing. That means it is blowing from the other side of the Sea from where Moses and the Israelites are. It blew all night and parted the water so that dry land appeared. The Israelites make their way across the dry land and, once they are safe, as the Egyptian army has now followed them into the dry sea bed, the waters are let loose to come back down over them. They drown and the Israelites have found that God is their way out of their slavery.

The Exodus story contains many takeaways. Originally it is hard to miss that a group of enslaved people in Babylon needed some assurance that their God was greater than those of the Babylonians. They were caught in a system of power where those in power took advantage over those who had none.

And so the Exodus story, although from another time, reminds them that their God took on the gods of the great nation of Egypt and won.

He can do the same for you and me. When the systems of our day hold their power over us, the Exodus tells us we have a power working for us and fighting for us that is greater than any of the other powers in the universe.

But maybe you don’t think you are enslaved. It’s difficult for those of us living in the most powerful nation of the world to see ourselves as the Israelites in this story. We are in the position of the Egyptians. This story was not told often in churches less than two hundred years ago in our country to people in churches who owned slaves because remember, Pharaoh was the bad guy. It’s needy people who talk about the Exodus. It’s hard to talk about entering the kingdom of Jesus when we are content in the one we are already in. If we don’t talk about the Exodus it’s because we aren’t looking for one. We don’t think we need one.

But we do. The powers of this world enslave us. Advertisement tells you what to buy. What car to drive. Peer pressure tells you who to sit with at school. Status tells you how much to own.

It doesn’t take long to discover that although we live in the land of the free we are not as free as we think. Our cravings control us. Our eyes follow after things that please us. Our pride tells us what to have and do. Our schedules dictate the time we allow for others.

It’s the world system. Culture tells us to do what feels good and we get addicted to pleasures. Money tells us to buy on credit and we get enslaved to debt. The world says those with the most and live the largest are on top and we get shackled into filling our days with more work and more activities. All to appease the gods of this world.

When we can see our own enslavements we will look for an exodus, a way out. That’s what the Greek word ex-hodos means: way out. Remember how the Israelites were trapped between the oncoming Egyptians on one side and the Red Sea on the other? An easterly wind began to blow all night, parting the waters. That means that the waters began to part on the far side of the sea. Imagine that. You have to forget the Cecil B. DeMille film where the water opens from the Israelite side toward the other side. I think it’s the opposite. It opened from the other side towards the Israelites. They couldn’t see all that God was doing. The enemy was approaching. And then, just when they thought they had no escape, an escape route opened up in front of them.

We can’t always see what God is doing either. But he’s working for our rescue. He’s working to make us a new creation.

The parting of the water in the Exodus story echoes the creation story again. God splits the sea in two and reveals the dry ground below, just as he did on day two of creation. There he splits the deep in two, pushing it apart, and creates waters above and below. Then on day three he focuses on the water below. He divides it to reveal dry land beneath. The parting of the Red Sea is described in the same way.

The God who brought order to chaos in creation tamed Pharaoh and his gods to create the nation of Israel. The same God who provided a way out then provides a way out now for us.

That way is Jesus. There’s a story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is on a mountain and Moses and Elijah show up. We’re told they were talking about his “departure.” The word is ex-hodos. Jesus’ exodus, or his death, burial and resurrection. He is our exodus.

The Israelites followed Moses and found their way home as a people with God.

Their story is our story. We follow Jesus through life as we experience battles against the powers of this world—struggling, fighting, sometimes falling—but we follow. And he will lead us home to a better place where we are no longer slaves.

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Story of God 3: A People of God

Sometimes we don’t get stories right. It happens every day. Your friend tells you about their day and maybe, although it’s highly unlikely, you are not listening well and you miss a part of the story. You say “yes” when they are finished and later find out you signed yourself up to help them with a booth they are sponsoring at some exhibit. You think to yourself, “I need to learn to listen better.”

Or you and your spouse watch the same movie in the same movie theater at the same time sharing the same popcorn. You leave and one of you says, “That movie was about a precious ring that gets lost and has to be recaptured.” The other one says, “That’s all you got out of it? That movie was about how courage is in each of us and under the right circumstances we can all rise to the occasion and withstand evil in our time.”

Sometimes we don’t get stories right. We don’t listen well. Or we hear different things. The same is true with the Bible. For instance, take the story of Abraham. He is called the father of our faith (cf. Romans 4:16). We hear his story and we might come away thinking, “I could never have the kind of faith Abraham had.”

And that’s not what his story intends for us to “get.” If you don’t know the story, let me give you a refresher.

It starts with a short story about a tower. It’s known as the Tower of Babel.

The whole earth had the same language and vocabulary. 2 As people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let us make oven-fired bricks.” (They used brick for stone and asphalt for mortar.) 4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered throughout the earth.”

5 Then the Lord came down to look over the city and the tower that the humans were building. 6 The Lord said, “If they have begun to do this as one people all having the same language, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let’s go down there and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So from there the Lord scattered them throughout the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore it is called Babylon, for there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth, and from there the Lord scattered them throughout the earth. — Genesis 11:1-9 (CSB)

The name Babylon and the root word for “confuse” sound similar in the Hebrew language.[1] Something was confused at this place. And the Hebrew storytellers, who are telling this story at the time of their exile in Babylon, want their own people to know what that is.

The tower, or ziggurat, dotted the landscape of early Mesopotamian cities. It served no real purpose other than it was a sacred space for the gods. One name of a ziggurat was “temple of the stairway to pure heaven.” There may be a song about that somewhere. There were steps for the gods and people to connect. The god could descend the stairs and the people would connect in an adjoining temple. But Israel’s worship structures had no stairs going up to heaven. They waited for God to come to them.

Thus the confusion. The Tower story is meant to say that these other gods that are seen dotting the landscape by towers are not the true gods. The God of Israel is and they are the true people of God. They are because of faith. And that brings us to the story of Abraham which follows the Tower.

A few generations later, God appears to Abraham who is still called Abram and makes a promise with him. He is going to make of him a “great nation”—which means he’s going to get a lot of offspring—and he is going to give him “land”—which inconveniently is currently inhabited by the Canaanites (Genesis 12:1-9). So Abraham packs up his truck and moves to Canaan, just like that.

The words of the promise were hardly finished when a famine hit the land which causes Abraham and Sarah (who is still named Sarai) to move to Egypt so they won’t starve. (You should know there is another story coming at the end of Genesis where God’s people go to Egypt so they won’t starve.)

All is well and good until on the way Abraham realizes that Sarah is a “woman beautiful in appearance” (12:11). He thinks that the Egyptians will kill him so they can take Sarah into Pharaoh’s harem.

Instead of turning back because there is a famine, Abraham devices a scheme. He tells Sarah that they will tell the Egyptians that she is his sister so that his life will be spared. He does that and then makes a profit. “He treated Abram well because of her, and Abram acquired flocks and herds, male and female donkeys, male and female slaves, and camels (Genesis 12:16).

Nice move for a father of faith. Pimp out your wife so you can save your own back. That’s what’s great about these stories. They seem disinterested in presenting Abraham as a model of virtue. And maybe Abraham is showing some faith. The two promises made to him were that he would be given land and he would be given an heir. That’s not going to happen if they die in a famine.

And it’s not going to happen if something happens to Abraham. Sarah wasn’t mentioned in the promise. The promise was made to Abraham. All that needed to happen for the promise to have a chance was for Abraham to live. He’s willing to “sacrifice” Sarah for that. And later he’ll be willing to sacrifice his own son for that promise.

The next thing that happens is that the promise is renewed. Abraham and Sarah are still childless, so Abraham thinks that maybe his slave, “Eliezer of Damascus,” is to be the fulfillment of the promise. So God steps in and clarifies that it is “one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” Then God took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous” (Genesis 15:4-5).

Notice that still the promise involves Abraham. Sarah is not mentioned. In fact, at the start of the story in Genesis 11 we are told that Sarah was barren, so we might expect there to be someone else to give Abraham a child.

And that’s exactly where this old couple looks for one. Sarah suggests that Abraham sleep with her handmaiden. He thinks about it for a nanosecond—it was a legal and reasonable move in that time—and next thing you know Ishmael is born. This creates some serious family tensions that exist even today, but at least now there is a child. His name means “God sees.” So surely this is the path forward.

But it isn’t. Now God comes to Abraham and tells him it is Sarah that will give him a child. Now, if we’ve heard this story before we think that they should have just waited for this to come about. But Abraham and Sarah had no idea this was going to happen.

Instead of getting upset at this old couple for making Sarah out to be Abraham’s sister so Abe can live and then using the slave-girl Hagar to produce an heir, maybe we should see that they are trying to be obedient. They are doing the best with what they know. In their own way—maybe not the way we think we have to think about faithfulness—they are being faithful.

It makes for a better twist in the story when God steps in and does the unexpected. Sarah has the baby. Then, in another surprise move, Ishmael is removed from the scene. He and his mother are sent away. All of the eggs are placed in one basket—Isaac. Plan B—Ishmael—is not an option.

That’s a big enough twist. Then all of a sudden God tells Abraham to take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice. What would you do? (If you have a teenager who is currently acting as a teenager acts, don’t go out and follow this command. It was to Abraham. Not to you.)

Here’s what Abraham did. He did not hesitate. He did not question. He obeys. And he doesn’t know where it will lead.

Abraham is the father of faith. But maybe he’s the father of a faith you thought you couldn’t have. You thought his faith was a perfect faith. It was a faith that never did anything wrong. It was a faith that could not ever be reached.

If that is what you heard in this story, then maybe you heard wrong. A mentor of mine named Stanley Shipp used to say that there was nothing really that special about any of the Bible characters. They just happened to be around when the Bible was being written.

What that taught me is that you and I could have been Bible characters. And when we hear this story correctly we can be people of faith too. The Israelites needed to hear that when they were off in a foreign land in captivity. You know they were thinking about what put them there—their disobedience. That cycle of obeying and living in the land and disobeying and finding themselves in exile was a story written in the Adam and Eve story.

It was the Adam and Eve story. But it is also your story and mine. The humankind story. You and I know that cycle too, don’t we? We are obedient and things may seem to be going well. We are disobedient and then things might fall apart.

But sometimes the opposite happens. We think we are being faithful and we see little good happening for us. We can be unfaithful and find things go pretty well for us in some ways. Life can be confusing at times and even in seasons.

That’s where it helps to hear the Abraham story well. The faith he shows us is a faith that does the best it can at the moment.

Maybe you’ve had days like that. Days where you’re just able to do the best you can at that moment. I have days like that. Days when I’m not sure what all God is up to. I hear part of what he tells me and I don’t know how what he tells me is going to work out. So I take a step. I just take the best step I can come up with at the moment.

Rich Mullins wrote a song about the struggle of faith years ago. In it he mentioned the Abraham story:

Sometimes I think of Abraham

How one star he saw had been lit for me

He was a stranger in this land

And I am that, no less than he

And on this road to righteousness

Sometimes the climb can be so steep

I may falter in my steps

But never beyond Your reach

O God you are my God, and I will ever praise you…

And I will seek you in the morning

… And I will learn to walk in Your ways

And step by step You’ll lead me

And I will follow You all of my days

Abraham is a story about how to have faith. Not a perfect faith that behaves correctly all the time or sees the future clearly. But a faith that does its best at the moment.

And then watches God come to them and sees what He does.

It’s an earthy faith. One you and I can have.


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Story of God 1: Creation & Rebellion Part 2

God found them hiding in the garden, the man blamed the woman, the man learned he would have to work hard now and sweat, the woman found out she would find sorrow in childbearing, and most importantly they were exiled from the garden. But they did not die on the day they ate of the fruit.

I want to give you some ways of seeing this story that you may not have before. The Hebrew writers were skilled storytellers. In this case they tie nakedness and not being ashamed to the crafty serpent who gets them to disobey God and then suddenly they are still naked but now they are ashamed. And it all happened after they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

You’d think God would want them to have that knowledge, wouldn’t you? But he told them not to eat of it because they were not ready for it. The serpent said “you will be like God.” Is that a bad thing? No, it’s what God wants for us. He wants for us to become like him: “be holy for I am holy” (e.g. Leviticus 19:2). But they weren’t ready for it. They had to grow into it.

That’s what the Old Testament is about. It aims to give its people the knowledge of good and evil and how to live wisely. Wisdom is crucial. But just as we teach our children different things as they grow up, so does God. For instance, a stove is a great thing. But you don’t want your 3-year old touching it yet, do you? You wait until they can understand how it is to be used.

The same with the knowledge of good and evil. The man and woman were naïve and innocent at the end of chapter 2. In 3:1 they are tricked into taking part in something they are not yet ready for.

“That’s right. But wait,” you say. “They didn’t die. Why did God tell them they would?” I’m glad you asked. To the Israelites who had experienced and maybe were experiencing exile when this was written, this is a story that tells how they came to be. Not so much how humans came to be, but how Israel came to be.

Isn’t the history of this man and woman the history of Israel? And isn’t it the history of humankind—which by the way in case you’ve already forgotten is what “man” or “Adam” means. If we obey God we get to live in his land, with him. If we disobey God, we are exiled.

The man and the woman were in the garden with God. They disobeyed and were exiled. God’s people had a history of being brought to his land. Then when they disobeyed they would find themselves in exile.  Metaphorically exile is the place of death.

And isn’t that our story too? We want to make sense of our world: how it began, where we come from. We are either going to believe in some theory that excludes a creator and still be left with questions, or we are going to believe that behind the creation we see is a Creator. We may not get all the answers we would like to every question we might have, but we have an answer. Where did this all come from? A good and loving and powerful Creator.

And isn’t the man and woman’s story ours too? When we obey God’s guidance we find ourselves living in his land, with him, where things are good. And when we disobey we eventually find ourselves dying a slow death. Something isn’t right. We’re in exile.

When you sense that, you need the rest of the story. Even though Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden, God clothed them so they would not have to be ashamed, and he gave him a different place to live. He moved them away from the knowledge they weren’t ready for so they could learn and grow into wisdom. In other words, even though they disobeyed he still loved them and cared for them.

And he loves you too. You may have left Winnie the Pooh behind as you grew older. Don’t leave these stories behind. They are your stories and mine. The human story. And it begins with a powerful Creator who loves and cares for his creation.

That’s not a bad start to this story.













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Story of God 1: Creation & Rebellion Part 1

He started taking walks through the dense forest with his young son where the air was fresh, the skies were filled with billowing clouds, and both their imaginations were ignited. Walks in the woods with your son lends itself to making up stories. The father had moved his family to the English countryside and the Ashdown Forest. The boy would bring along his stuffed animals and the stories would begin.

One of the stuffed toys—a bear—would come to say “For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.” The son at first called him Edward the Bear. But after seeing a real bear in the London Zoo named Winnipeg he decided to name his bear “Winnie.”

You know the boy as Christopher Robin, the bear as Winnie the Pooh, Ashdown Forest as the 100 Acre Wood, and the father as the author AA Milne. These stories helped a tired and weary British society move past the horrors of World War I. And these stories have helped many parents bond with their children ever since. The bond created by reading stories that begin with characters that are merely stuffed toys but by the time parent and child are caught up in them they had become real: they talked, they had adventures, they taught lessons.

That’s what stories do. And that’s why we like stories. Just say “let me tell you a story” and bodies lean in, eyes look your way, and ears block out other noises. It’s happened to you, hasn’t it? When someone tells a story, the language processing parts of our brain are activated. But so are any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story. Taste. Sound. Motion.[1] The storyteller is reliving the events. And research says so are the listeners.

We love stories. In fact, more than 80% of the world’s population are oral learners. Some have no choice. Some prefer it that way. Oral learners communicate through storytelling, drama, songs, poetry, parables, proverbs and other oral arts.[2] Journalist Jeremy Hsu discovered that “Personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”[3] Not so sure the gossip part is good, but you get the point.

So if you love stories, that means you’re in the majority. The problem is an estimated 90% of the world’s Christian workers present the gospel—which we received in story form about the life of Christ—using literate communication styles. Think bullet points. Think lecture. Think … but not using the majority of your brain.

We need to tell stories. In the USA more than 50% of people over the age of 16 are functionally illiterate. 58% of the U.S. adult population never reads another book after high school. 42% of college graduates never read another book. 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. Each day, people in the US spend four hours watching TV, three hours listening to the radio, and 14 minutes reading magazines. And researchers believe that 70% or more of the people in North America prefer non-literate means of communication.[4]

People prefer stories. Apparently, so does God. Not stories in the sense of a tale that is not true. But story in the sense that he used writers who shaped the past to teach something about the present situation they found themselves in.

For instance, we have the creation story. The account found in Genesis is not the only one. The Babylonians for example, who were around long before the Israelites, had a creation story called the Enuma Elish. Ancient people wrote to tell about how they understood their beginnings.

So did the Israelites. In their late period they wrote of the earliest beginnings to say something about their God and themselves. Genesis 1 tells us how God created the world. Their story was similar in some ways to the Babylonian story (and other cultures’ creation stories too). And their story was different in at least one very important way. And it’s the point of their story.

The Bible story starts with the earth “formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” There is darkness as creation opens.

Then God prepares three spaces:

  • First there is light. And God separates the light from the darkness.
  • Next there is a separation of water from water. There is an expanse of water above and one below which creates the sky.
  • Finally, there is the separation of land from water under the sky. This separation creates the land and the sea.

Once these three spaces are prepared, God creates objects to inhabit them:

  • He put lights in the sky, namely the sun and the moon.
  • He put sea-creatures in the sea birds in the air.
  • He put on the land “livestock, creatures that crawl, and the wildlife of the earth according to their kinds.”

God did all this by speaking. The writers want to tell how powerful their God is. They are writing to tell that it is their God—not one of the gods of the superpowers like Babylon and Egypt—who is the one responsible for what you see.

And it is this God who created humankind. The crowning point of his creation is “man,” or “humankind.” He created them male and female.

When we read stories we need to let the story tell us what it wants to tell us in its way and in its time. That’s the point of other origin stories like the Enuma Elish. The point is not that the Israelites borrowed that story and made it their own. The point is that ancient people had ways they thought about their beginnings, and so did God’s people. When we understand that, we can learn to ask the questions Genesis 1 was written to address rather than intruding with our own questions.[5]

For example, Genesis 1 is not a science manual meant to explain scientifically our beginnings. The ancient people did not think in those terms. So when the writer says God created something and it was a “day,” he did not envision that modern people would think that “day” would have to be a 24-hour period or else the story was false. Hebrew language uses the word much like we do. You might say “I spent the day in downtown Houston” when in fact you spent some “time” there. But you didn’t spend a full 24-hours. The Hebrew word for “day” can mean a 24-hour period. But it can also mean a half day or even a period of time.

That’s not what the creation story cares about. It cares about setting this God, the God of Israel, as the One who created all that we see. And in that creation in chapter one he created humankind.

We turn the page and we find another story. Now we have the story of a particular man and woman. We know them as Adam and Eve. It is important to know that the Hebrew word “Adam” is the same word for “man” or “mankind.” Here’s how the story is told in a nutshell:

God has created this wonderful world for his humans to inhabit. A mist would come up from the ground to water the land. Then God took some of the dust of the ground and formed man out of it—Adam—and breathed life into him.

Then God planted a garden and put the man there. He planted trees for appearance and for food. Two of those trees were the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God told man that he could eat of any tree except from the tree of Knowledge of good and evil and gave him a warning: that on the day he ate of it he would die.

God had man name all the animals and as each one passed by there was not one found that was fit to be his companion. So God put the man into a deep sleep, took out a rib, and formed woman. (God does his best work when man is asleep.)

The chapter ends with this line: “Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.”

The next chapter opens with this line: “Now the serpent was the most cunning/crafty of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made.” “Naked” and “crafty” come from the same root word in the Hebrew language. Hang onto that for a moment.

You know how this story goes. The serpent comes in and asks Eve, “Did God really say you couldn’t eat of any of the trees in the garden?” The woman said, “We can eat of any tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If we eat it or touch it we will die.”

The serpent countered with, “You won’t die. God knows when you eat of it you will be like him. You’ll know good and evil.” So she ate some, shared it with her husband, and their eyes were opened. And they knew they were naked. (There’s that word again.)

[1] The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains at


[3] Ibid., The Science of Storytelling

[4] From Saturate Resources, Story of God Training


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Jesus. (Period) 10: We Get by with a Little Help from our Friends

Some say Tracey Crouch is the first minister to tackle the problem of loneliness. Crouch was appointed “Minister for Loneliness” in Great Britain this year.

She may be a perfect fit. After giving birth to her first child in 2016 she said that even though she had a “network of friends, family and a wonderful partner, she began feeling cut off from the world.”[1] She also suffered from depression six years earlier when she joined Parliament. She described that time as feeling as if she was “in a very dark place, a very lonely place.”[2]

Prime Minister Theresa May appointed her. A report a year earlier revealed that “more than 9 million people in Britain—around 14 percent of the population—often or always feel lonely. That costs U.K. employers up to $3.5 billion annually…”[3]

Britain may start a trend. They aren’t the only ones who need a Minister for Loneliness. “In a Harvard Business Review article, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States Vivek Murthy, who served from 2014 to 2017, wrote that ‘Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.’ He continued by saying that ‘Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.’”[4]

Ever need a Minister for Loneliness? I have. You can be lonely even when you are not alone. You’ve had moments where you felt that no one understood you. No one listened deeply. Like Tracey Crouch you may have had a relational network but still felt cut off from the world. Loneliness does not discriminate. The rich, poor, male, female, old and young can feel its sting.

The Apostle Paul may have some help for us. Paul may not have intended to be a Minister for Loneliness, but he was one. Everywhere he went he built relationships. He did not minister alone. Reading through his writings is like taking a trip through Paul’s book of friends.

It may not have always been like that for Paul. He had been changed by Jesus from a person bent on killing people to one that kept collecting people. In Colossians alone he mentions twelve people. His other letters reveal even more names—e.g. over thirty in Romans 16. Even as he writes final greetings in his letter to the churches including this one in Colossae, Paul tells us something about the gospel: it’s always relational.

And, unlike what some would teach today concerning how to grow a church, Paul did not adhere to the homogenous principle. You can have a network of friends who are diverse. There is a social mix in his list: a householder, a doctor, and a slave. There’s diversity in the unity he has with his friends. Name tags he uses for people include “coworkers,” “fellow slave/servant,” and “fellow prisoner.” Several designations are compound terms using “co” or “fellow”. They are placed with personal family terms like “brothers and sisters” which by itself tells us that these early Christians enjoyed relationships characterized by a mutual bond.

We find all types of people in Paul’s circle of friends starting with Tychicus. Tychicus is probably not the name for your next child but he is someone who can deliver a letter for you. He is also charged with reporting to the Colossians about Paul’s circumstances. This was a common practice in the ancient world. Instead of just giving the letter to someone bound to the same destination as the letter—as some chose to do—many would send a letter with a messenger who could then tell the recipient even more information or explain the letter.

He is described by Paul as “beloved brother,” a “faithful minister,” and a “fellow servant.” These are ingredients that bind people in the church together. Paul loves these terms and loves to see these traits in his friends.

Onesimus is traveling with Tychicus. And Onesimus is also tasked with telling the church more about Paul’s situation. Paul calls him a “faithful and dearly loved brother” and notes that he is “one of you.” He is part of the church in Colossae and owns a unique name, probably given to him by his master. Onesimus’ name means “useful one.”

We discover in the short letter of Philemon that Onesimus was a runaway slave. His master is Philemon. Onesimus found his way to his master’s friend, Paul, while he was in prison. Paul says of Onesimus: “I became his father while I was in chains.  Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you” (Philemon 1:10-12). Paul uses a play on his name to tell Philemon that Onesimus is a changed person. The slave is returning to his master and to the church that meets in his home. But he is returning as a brother, equal to the others.

The next three friends mentioned are Jewish converts starting with Aristarchus. He’s mentioned three times in Acts (19:29; 20:4; 27:2) as a traveling companion of Paul’s. He’s called a “fellow prisoner.” It could be that he is really in prison with Paul or it may be a figure of speech meaning he is a fellow “prisoner of war” in the battle against the powers that be. Aristarchus was arrested in the riot in Ephesus. And when Paul was going to Jerusalem—where he thought he would die—Aristarchus went with him. He then traveled with him to Rome where he was eventually put to death. That’s a special kind of friend who will travel with you to your death knowing his might be following yours.

Mark is mentioned next as the cousin of Barnabas. In Acts we read there was a fracture between Paul and Barnabas over Mark (Acts 12:12; 15:36-41). Mark had deserted them earlier and Paul was not sure he was trustworthy to travel with them to other new churches. Barnabas disagreed and so he and Paul parted ways. Barnabas—whose name means “encouragement”—took Mark with him. But now he has reconciled with Paul and is with him since Paul sends greetings to the church from Mark. In Mark we see that even Apostles had personal conflicts but they also did their best to find ways to resolve the conflict. Mark was back in the friendship fold.

The last of the three Jewish co-workers is Jesus. Not that Jesus. Jesus “called Justus.” Jesus was a common name in that time, a Greek form of Yeshua. Justus is the Latin form. Nothing else is known of him except what Paul tells us here: he is one of three that are the only Jewish co-workers left with Paul. What we know of Justus is that he caught the vision of the mystery Paul has talked about, that the Gentiles too were included in God’s plan for everyone.

Paul then lists Gentiles that he is close friends with. Epaphras is a fellow-prisoner. We know this from Philemon 23. This designation tells us that Epaphras was faithful to God to the point of imprisonment, the kind of person Paul can rely on in the ministry. He is also someone who “struggles” in prayer for the Colossians. The word is similar to Paul’s own struggle to spread the gospel (1:29, 2:1). He prays that they “stand firm” in God’s will which is described as “mature and fully assured.” His will? That the redemptive plan of God includes the Gentiles in the people of God. Wouldn’t you like to have a friend who “struggles” for you in prayer?

Luke is called the “dearly beloved physician.” In a world where doctors were often looked upon as “worthless, promising cures they could not deliver,”[5] Luke had integrity. His name is mentioned only three times in the New Testament: here, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. But when you add the Gospel of Luke and Acts he becomes one of the most significant voices in the early church period.[6]

Paul then sends greetings to the church in Laodicea, especially the church that met in Nympha’s house. Most likely there was more than one house church in Laodicea, and we don’t know why Paul singles out the one that met at Nympha’s. My theory is she served great Mexican food. Nevertheless, we can assume she was a Christian of some means since she had a house big enough to host a gathering of thirty to fifty people. She may have been instrumental in the teaching and leadership of the house church too. But we do know at the least offering hospitality in your home aided the spread of the gospel. If all you have to offer is your home, it is something God can use in a great way.

Did someone ask, “What about Demas?” I skipped him on purpose. My hunch is Paul reluctantly added him. There is no description concerning his role in ministry with Paul or his friendship. He is mentioned in Philemon 24 as a “fellow worker” and in 2 Timothy 4:10 it is implied he is a coworker. But nowhere is there any praise or commendation for him.

In 2 Timothy 4:10—written maybe 3-4 years after Colossians—Paul writes: “Demas has deserted me, since he loved this present world, and has gone to Thessalonica.” Can you hear the heartbreak in Paul? The disappointment? Maybe even the frustration?

If so, you can relate, can’t you? You’ve had people desert you. Like Paul, you’ve had people who have traveled alongside you in life. People who have ministered side by side with you in church. People who you’ve shared your heart with.

And then they leave. They desert you. They abandon you. They forsake you. That’s what the word means. And more than the meaning you know the feeling, don’t you? It’s often a struggle to know what to say when people leave. Paul helps us. He says nothing. No description. No false praise. It’s like being at a dinner party and the name Demas comes up and Paul just looks at you without any response. Silence speaks loudly.

He does say in 2 Timothy that Demas deserted him because “he loves the present world.” This is not true for all cases, but in many cases, when someone deserts you and the ministry of the particular church you are a part of, it may be that they love the present world more than the kingdom world. Instead of staying and growing, they find a reason to leave and go.

We have all experienced a Demas or two in our lifetime. And when you do you experience loneliness. But when loneliness hits, don’t let it win. Paul kept moving forward with those who stayed with him. His highest value was faithful fellowship in Christ. Be true to those who claim to be part of the fellowship with you. Find others who have learned to be faithful to Christ and they will be faithful to you as a friend.

And find those who have a mutual commitment to the gospel ministry. Serving together—as Paul did with his friends—bonds you with others because you are serving something bigger than yourself. It’s not about you. You cannot serve Christ alone. You can only get by with a little help from your friends in Christ.

Even this letter was not meant for just the church in Colossae. Paul closes by having them share it with the church in Laodicea, about eleven miles away. It was to be read there as the literacy rates were between 10-20%, although 20% is said to be on the high end.

And the word to Archippus, the last person mentioned, is a good word to us. He may have been the son of Philemon. We do know he had a specific personal commission that was not a private matter. The gospel is relational. The church knew about it and Paul calls them to encourage him to complete it.

Paul signs off with his own handwriting, having had someone else write the body of the letter. He ends with a simple blessing: “Grace be with you.” “Grace” sums up his message. Grace is not about Jesus plus anything else. Grace is about Jesus.



[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.


[5] Thompson, 106.

[6] See McKnight, 394.

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Jesus. (Period) 9: Prayer Walk

The summer of 1980 was a critical time in my faith development. I participated in an internship in Miami, Florida. Just committing to travel to Miami and spend three months there took this West Texas novice out of his comfort zone.

I suddenly found myself in the heart of Little Havana, walking down the streets hearing Cuban men behind me saying things like, “Oye, flaco.” They were calling out to other friends but I didn’t always know that. It was my first experience feeling like a minority.

I felt that way too when it came to prayer and sharing my faith. Prayer was a struggle for me at twenty years old and still can be. And I had been in few opportunities to actually share my faith seeing as how I spent most of my time with people who were already believers. Now I was in a city where I could expect that most people I bumped into did not believe in the gospel.

The internship threw us all into both areas where none of us had much training. Our mornings started with an hour of prayer. We would find an empty upstairs classroom in the church building and claim it as our prayer closets. An hour seemed like eternity. Especially when we discovered that the air conditioning was not turned on.

Our afternoons would be spent serving people and looking for opportunities to share our faith. Some days we would be given assignments: “This person came to a Seeker Event we held in the Spring. Go follow up with them.” Not easy for a 20-year-old that was still more introverted than extroverted. But I would get in my car with another intern and off we would go.

It took about half the summer before it dawned on some of us that the prayer time in the morning and the witnessing in the afternoon were not disconnected. They went together. When we started connecting the two we began to see more opportunities right in front of us and as a result, more fruit.

How do you feel about prayer and witnessing? Most would say they feel like a failure when it comes to one or both. Maybe we have guilt over our prayerlessness or anxiety knowing there is someone in our circles we could be telling about Jesus. But we just don’t know how.

I have felt that way. And I feel that way at times today. But instead of being racked by guilt, we can train to become more adept in these areas. It is part of our calling as Christians.


In fact, as Paul begins to close his letter he tells the Colossian church: “Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving” (1:2). Literally, the Greek reads: “Prayer—devote yourselves to it.” By placing the word “prayer” at the start of his directive, he emphasizes it. Prayer is an integral part of the life that follows Jesus. It is not something to be added on as a second thought. It is essential to our lives.

So Paul gives a short lesson on prayer and mentions three characteristics of a praying Christian.[1] First, one is to be devoted. The word can mean to be persistent, but it also carries with it the idea of patience. Devotion does not mean a person stops everything else they are doing and gives every minute of the day to prayer. But it is to be regular and central in our lives.

This devotion to prayer can be easily read as individual prayer, and that is certainly a part of our lives. But Paul is speaking to corporate prayer—he’s writing to the church. And so the Christian church should find times to prayer together and be devoted to prayer, just as the first Christians in Jerusalem devoted themselves to it together (Acts 2:42).

Another characteristic of prayer is that we are to be “watchful” or “alert.” Jesus had told his disciples to “watch and pray” so they would not enter into temptation (Mark 14:38). Surely that is part of his meaning. We need to be asking God to search our hearts and help us to be wise in our lives, placing boundaries where they need to be so that we can “…walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).

But there may be more Paul is referring to. He may be connecting devotion and alertness in prayer to our walk. We’ll talk about that in a moment. But before we get there, a third characteristic of prayer is thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a theme in Colossians. This is the fifth time Paul has mentioned it (1:3,12; 2:7; 3:17). Remember Paul is telling them to pray with thanksgiving while he himself is in chains. How can he be thankful?

Thanksgiving in our lives grows from a life that has learned to trust God. We learn that in life we are dependent on God and interdependent on the people of God. Even Paul is dependent on God and the Colossians. He says: “At the same time, pray also for us that God may open a door to us for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains, so that I may make it known as I should” (Col. 4:3-4).

He requests their prayers for an “open door” to speak the “mystery of Christ.” Paul may be in chains, but his prayers are unchained. He is around guards. He most likely has people coming and going as they visit him. He could be asking prayers for his freedom. Instead he prays for doors to be opened.

Those with time on their hands debate whether the “open door” has to do with opportunities to preach or means a positive response to his preaching. My guess is meant both. You need one to have the other. And because he trusted God and knew the proclamation of the gospel was dependent upon God’s actions, he asks them to pray. It has been said, “When we work, we work. But when we pray, God works.”


And often God works through us. There are times we need to pray and wait. We wait for God to give us direction. But eventually we pray and then walk. We go on a prayer walk.

Not necessarily the kind you might see today. You may have heard of some individuals or churches going on a prayer walk. They go to a specific location, walk through the area, and pray. The idea is that the nearer the proximity the clearer the prayers can be. You might see houses and pray for the spiritual and physical health of those living there. You may pray around a school for the teachers and students. You get the idea.

And you may be starting to feel some guilt now because you’re thinking, “I’ve never gone on a prayer walk.” Relax. There is no biblical injunction to go on that kind of prayer walk. It’s fine if you do. But search the scriptures and you’ll find no biblical model for that kind of prayer walk.

There is, however, a model for another kind of prayer walk. After Paul tells the Colossians to devote themselves to prayer, he says, “Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time”. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.” (Colossians 4:5-6).

You didn’t hear the word “walk” but it was there. The Greek word for “act” is the word “peripateo.” You’ve heard it before in 1:10 and 3:7. It has to do with the way you go about your life. These first century believers walked everywhere they went. If they were devoting themselves to prayer, then they did a lot of prayer walking.

They are to walk in “wisdom.” This is the wisdom of Christ and not of the world. Paul’s prayers for them has been that they be filled with wisdom (1:9) and has said that Christian teaching is marked by wisdom (1:28; 3:16). This teaching is marked by wisdom because it is centered in Christ, in whom all the treasures of God’s wisdom is found (2:3). When he says to walk in wisdom, Paul is tying together all that he has been teaching them since chapter one.

You might ask what a “walking in wisdom” would look like. Paul gives two characteristics. The first is that we “make the most of our opportunities.” Literally we are to “redeem” or buy back the time. Like Paul, we pray for an open door and we are watchful for when one opens. We watch for opportunities to speak and opportunities to do good.

In other words, you don’t have to go out and try to manufacture a time to witness. Instead, pray for open doors and then be alert. How many opportunities have we missed because we were not praying for them and, because we were not devoted to prayer we weren’t watching for them?

Paul had learned the secret to seeing the gospel spread. It wasn’t some new silver bullet that would bring about instant church growth. In fact, the growth of the church then may not have been connected to the size of the congregations but rather that the gospel had made inroads into all the world.[2] Historians estimate that a house church may have held around 35-50 people. But these were people learning to pray and walk. And as they made the most of their opportunities some people responded positively to the gospel.

They do that because walking in wisdom is also characterized by gracious speech. People with gracious speech use words that are “attractive, winsome, and wholesome.” It is the opposite of the kind of speech he told them earlier to “put to death”—things like foul talk, abuse and slander.

“Gracious speech” is to be “seasoned with salt.” Salt brings out the flavor in foods. We need to learn the art of seasoning our speech so that it leaves a good taste with the other person.

Gracious speech takes wisdom. We are to learn to speak this way for a reason: “… so that you may know how you should answer each person.” Living a new life that is lived in contrast to the world will prompt questions. We will find some open doors, especially when we are praying for them. That’s when we need to know how to walk through them.

One early Christian theologian of the 300’s wrote:

Paul therefore tells us that we should discuss religion at the right time and place and in great humility, and keep quiet if one of these people is shouting at us in public. We should behave one way toward the powerful, another way toward the middle class, another way toward those lower down the social scale, and yet another way to those who are gentle and another way to those who are irritable. Letting them be is redeeming the time, because if you give way to someone who attacks the Lord’s words or who rages because he is free to do so, you turn the insults of this unhappy experience into gain.[3]

Early Christians were a minority group in a largely hostile world. It is not too different today. it takes wisdom to know when to speak and when not to speak.

And it takes prayer. This is what we learned to do in Miami. Pray in the morning. Walk in the afternoon. In between was study so that we would have something to say whenever we had the opportunity.

What might happen if we learned this two-step rhythm for our lives? Prayer, then walk. Prayer Walk. We might be less stressed about both.

[1] Thompson, 98ff.

[2] Thompson, 99.

[3] McKnight, 377.

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Jesus. (Period) 8: When the Church is in Love with Falling in Love

The 1991 movie Point Break coined the phrase “adrenaline junkie.” You’ve known one. Maybe you are one. An adrenaline junkie is someone who engages in somewhat dangerous activities so they can get the adrenaline rush that comes along with it.

You don’t have to be a surfer or a bank robber to get the rush. Some get it through always being in crisis, packing their schedule so they’re forever in a rush, having conflicts with people in their lives, or waiting until the last minute to get a homework assignment or work project done.

Then you have tech junkies. They get their rush by watching for the next tech improvement. They have to be connected to the current technology and are constantly thinking and talking about what is just around the corner. Whether it’s the internet speed, gaming consoles, smart phones or smart TV’s, the tech junkie knows where to find it. Maybe you know one. Maybe you are one.

We live in a world of junkies. I want to add one to the list. Worship Junkies. For the worship junkie, every Sunday has to be a high. The pastor has to be a mix of comedian, theologian, and self-help guru. Worship teams have to amp up their amps and lead the church to a new level of experience: new songs and new styles. And if ever the current church loses its luster, the worship junkie is quick to find the next shiny model somewhere else.

The worship junkie is consumed by worship music. They could drop the teaching, drop the Supper, drop baptism and be completely happy. The worship could go on for hours and it would never be enough. And the worship junkie believes there are special songs that can usher you into the presence of God.

One ad for a conference made such promises: “Join us for dynamic teaching to set you on the right path, and inspiring worship where you can meet God and receive the energy and love you need to be a mover and shaker in today’s world…Alongside our teaching program are worship events which put you in touch with the power and love of God.”[1]

Maybe you’ve known a worship junkie. Maybe you are one. If you are, blame our church culture in America. It’s taught you to be one. It’s taught you to expect higher and higher experiences. And if you don’t experience that experience, you are led to believe it is either the fault of the worship team or preacher, or there is something at odds in you.

When that happens, you can be left to feel judged and condemned. Worship junkies are nothing new. Their ancestry goes all the way back to 1st century Colossae.

Paul is writing this church that is new and needing to get its grounding in Christ. The problem he’s facing is there are others teaching something different than what he is teaching. They are telling the people in the church there are other ways to reach new heights.

Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ. Let no one condemn you by delighting in ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm. Such people are inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind.  — Colossians 2:16-18

The false teachers were telling the people they had to observe certain laws in order to be close to God. The practices they were putting on people involved what to eat and what not to eat, what to drink and what not to drink, what they could touch or not touch. These were most likely taken from Jewish dietary laws which were boundary markers of who was “in” and who was “out.”

They were also teaching observance of religious rituals in the calendar year, also carried over from the Jewish practices. The Gentile converts were not fully “in” until they adopted these practices. And these practices promised to give them a fuller experience of God.

Along with dietary laws and calendar observances, they were also teaching some sort of asceticism—most likely fasting—that would lead them to an exalted angel-like worship experience. If you could tap into the right form of self-denial you would enter right into heaven itself and there have a revelation of some sort.[2] They could go to a higher level of spirituality than they had ever been.

This group was sending judgment and condemnation to the rest of the church. The false teachers were, by their teaching and “puffed up” arrogance, making the others in the church feel unacceptable to God.

They had Jesus. But they were being told they needed more.

Have you ever felt that way? I have. Here’s a confession: I have been a worship junkie. And not just with music in the church. I have been a junkie looking for the silver bullet that will move my own spiritual experience as well as the church’s experience to higher levels.

As a result, I would salivate over every new book I could find. I would go to seminars and then webinars when they came along. Everywhere I looked there were teachers and every one was telling me there was something else to be tried to give me an experience.

Especially there were the worship encounters. I’d see people looking as if they were being transported to another dimension—beam me up Scotty-like—and wonder why that was not happening to me. I’d hear worship leaders talk about how the set of songs would usher us into the presence of God.

Being the Bible student that I am, I’d think to myself, “But I thought I was already in the presence of God? Do they mean these songs will help us be more aware of being in God’s presence? I can live with that. But how do songs usher us into the presence of God?” By the time my mind had gone through its mental gymnastics the song set was over.

I often felt judged. Sometimes condemned. Until I began to understand what Paul was writing to the church in Colossae. He flat out says to not let anyone judge or condemn you in these matters (2:16,18). I had to start applying that to my own life in Christ. Then I examined why it is we are always looking for that new “experience.”

Scot McKnight helped when he wrote about the “courtly love” of the medieval ages. Here’s what happened: Married men would basically have an emotional affair with either another married woman or a single woman. This “courtly love” would not be physical. It would remain at the emotional level.

Strangely, the man would prefer the feelings he got from being apart from his “courtly love” over actually being with her. “Courtly love” was more about being intoxicated with love, enjoying the feelings of fantasy more than the faithfulness of fidelity. In other words, the essence of courtly love was to fall in love with falling in love.

The church today might be guilty of courtly love. McKnight has said, “Some folks love church, and what they mean by ‘loving church’ is that they love the experience they get when they go to church.”[3]

“Courtly love” happens in our Christian life when we have more of a religion of excitement than we have an excitement of religion. That’s not how Paul and the other Apostles approached bringing people who were far from God close to him. They would never have planned out a time of worship where songs were selected to help people “feel” a certain way. They would never have thought of creating a certain mood with lighting and staging.

Want to know how they believed people would encounter Christ?

I thought you might. Paul explicitly taught that “…faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ” (Romans 10:17). Watch Paul’s missionary travels and strategy and it was based on teaching new ideas to combat bad ideas. We see that happening in Colossians—(remember the word stoichea?)—as he counters the false teaching with teaching about Christ.

And Paul does love songs. Go back and read Colossians 1:15-20. But notice how he says they are utilized within the church: “Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16). The singing in a church gathering should help the “word of Christ” dwell in us.

Should there never then be a “feeling” that we feel when in worship? I think there will be feelings from time to time. But the “feeling” is not what we are to seek. Christ is the object of what we seek.

Our relationship with him is much like our relationships on earth, especially those grounded in love. Not every day is some mountain top experience. If you think it is, just ask your spouse or a good friend if every day with you causes fireworks to go off in the sky.

See what I mean? Some days we have we have great feelings in relationships. But most are more average. Quiet. Steady. Just there. Most days have to do with us juggling the demands of this life and learning in the midst of this life how to live it as Jesus would live it if he were in our shoes.

That is worship according to Paul. In Romans 10 he shares with the church in Rome words similar to his ideas in Colossians: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2).

Jesus’ greatest act of worship was enduring the cross. Ever wonder how he felt during that ordeal? No euphoric feelings for sure. But worship? Yes.

Our true worship is all of our life and how it is offered to God on a daily basis. That’s the problem with living sacrifices, though, they keep wanting to crawl off the altar! And sometimes we crawl off and go looking for something more than what we already have. We conform to this age that tells us there is more.

If we believe that we will leave our first love and find a courtly love. We will fall in love with falling in love. Instead we are to love Christ. We are in him and he is in us. Fully. “For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ, and you have been filled by him…” (Colossians 2:9-10).

So don’t be judged. Don’t be condemned. Enjoy good feelings and don’t feel guilty when they come. But don’t fall in love with them. Just like the latest tech toy or rush from an adventure, feelings can come and go. But Jesus—he has come to you and he will stay.


[2] See McKnight, Colossians, 277.


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