"We ask you not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled..." ~ II Thes. 2:2 *** "But stir up the gift of God that is within you by the laying on of hands..." ~ II Tim. 1:6

Category: New Testament Page 1 of 3

Jesus As The “Author & Finisher” of Our Faith: What Does This Mean?

“Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2)

Sometimes in my bible study, I bump into a phrase that I’ve read a million times, but suddenly consider it in a different way.  I’ve always loved the phrase above—“author and finisher”—but until recently, never went beyond the surface to meditate on what it should mean to me.

But when we spend some time with the words that Paul (at least we think it’s him) used, it really illuminates Jesus Christ’s role even further, and the blessings we receive as a result.

This one small phrase is an interesting illustration of how different translations can decide to lean into individual nuances of a Greek or Hebrew word, because many of our English words are much more narrow in scope.  Let’s look at a few of my favorite bible translations:

  • “…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (NKJV)
  • “We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith” (NLT)
  • “…looking away to the Initiator and Completer of that trusting, Yeshua” (CJB)
  • “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (ESV)
  • “…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (NIV)

I like to think of each of these two main Greek words we’ll look at today like a diamond…having many facets so that when you turn it this way and that, you see the light and color and sparkle a bit differently.

So let’s briefly explore some of these facets…

The Initiator of our faith, blazing a trail for us to follow

The word that the NKJV translates as “author” is G747, archegos, and here are some of the ways we can understand it.

First inventor of a thing, initiator, founder, pioneer

Jesus is the trailblazer, the one who went first to “go boldly where no man has gone before”, as the famous Star Trek line posits.  He was the firstborn from the dead (the first to be resurrected to ETERNAL spiritual life), and the first to ascend to heaven to be with God (Col. 1:15, John 3:13).

And, because HE has gone boldly before us and wiped clean the death penalty we’d earned, WE are also able to come boldly before the very throne of God in heaven and bask in God’s grace and mercy (Heb. 4:16).

Jesus Christ was the forerunner, like a scout sent out in advance to see what lies ahead and set up camp.  He told His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for us, so that He can come back to get us (Heb. 6:20, John 1:2 and 14:1-4).

He (along with the Father) initiated the process.  No one else could be Mediator of a better covenant, one founded upon the sacrifice of our sinless Messiah as High Priest (Heb. 9).  He was the first.

“Take Up Your Cross Daily”: How Should Christians Look at the Cross? (Passover Study)

As the Passover approached this year, I found myself meditating on the question of the cross and what it should mean to God’s people today.

I grew up in a church tradition where “cross” was practically a dirty word.  We seriously avoided saying it, preferring to substitute “stake” when reading the bible aloud or in songs.  The word made people very uncomfortable, I think mostly because they saw mainstream Christianity putting crosses on everything in a way that felt like worshipping an image.

I’ve also heard many people say, “Why would you put a focus on something that was the torture and death device for our Savior?”  And I can certainly understand that perspective.

But the thing is…both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul directed our focus there to some extent.  And they both referenced the cross plenty.  So while the idea of the cross may make us uncomfortable, we need to examine which of our concerns are actually biblical.

If you come from a similar tradition as I did, our study today falls into the category of a bit of a paradigm buster.  All I’ll say is, stick with me for a while…my goal isn’t to be deliberately provocative, but rather to wrestle with God’s word in order to winnow what’s biblical truth versus human feelings or manmade tradition.

It’s also important to remember that Christ’s death alone was not what accomplished our salvation.  He also had to be resurrected and ascend to the Father to be accepted as a perfect sacrifice on our behalf (this is what the wave sheaf ritual symbolizes, Lev. 23:9-14 and Heb. 10).  So myopically focusing on the cross at the expense of the complete sacrifice and resurrection process is also not biblical.

One thing I do feel confident in saying is that we should not hold the cross as some kind of icon or symbol of our faith.  We should not worship it.  I don’t believe it should be a visual representation in our walk with God.  That is another ditch, the opposite of the one I was brought up in, but veers away from biblical teaching just the same.

So whether you were brought up to avoid the topic of the cross, or grew up always wearing a cross, or don’t have any relationship to it all, let’s dive into what the BIBLE tells us.

Let’s get this out of the way…was it a cross?

The word translated consistently as “cross” is stauros (G4716), which basically means a stake, upright post, or cross as an instrument of capital punishment.  The Strongs dictionary notes that it also figuratively indicates exposure to death, self-denial, and the atonement Christ made for us.

What it looked like—whether it was a cross or a stake or a T-shaped pole—isn’t the point.  Historical records indicate all sorts of forms were used.  It’s kind of like us saying “fence” or “fencepost” today…that could look like a lot of different things.  It isn’t the focus of the bible’s narrative, nor should it be a semantical obsession for us today.

More importantly, what did the cross MEAN in Christ’s day?  The cross was a death sentence.  It was a shameful, excruciating, and often protracted death, one typically reserved for slaves, disgraced soldiers, and foreigners.  The Romans would force convicts to carry their crosses (or, more likely just the cross beam) to their own execution, with crowds harassing them as they did so, as further humiliation.

While we don’t have the same level of cultural understanding, the bible speaks to the cross plenty.  And in this Passover season, it’s worth spending some time figuring out how it applies to your life and my life today.

“Take up your cross daily and follow Me”

Let’s start with what Jesus tells us about our relationship to the cross:

“Then He said to the crowd, ‘If any of you wants to be My follower, you must give up your own way [CJB: “Say ‘No’ to yourself”], take up your cross daily, and follow Me. If you try to hang onto your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for My sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?’” (Luke 9:23-25, NLT)

Matthew 10:38 is very similar, as are Matthew 16:24 and Mark 8:34.  The gospel accounts indicate that Jesus talked to the crowd and His closest disciples on this topic multiple times, usually in the context of trials they would suffer in this life, but particularly as He was trying to get them to understand what HE would suffer (it’s important to read the verses surrounding each account for context).

We don’t know if they “got it” at the time, if they truly understood what would happen.  Almost certainly not, or they wouldn’t have been so shocked, scared, and lost when it did.  They had a paradigm as well, that the Messiah would come as a powerful conquering ruler, to get rid of Rome and establish His kingdom on earth.

But regardless, the cross and the idea of having to carry your cross (or execution-stake, if you prefer) is a word picture they would have understood culturally.  As we saw a minute ago, the cross was a death sentence.  There was no going back from it—that was it.

Once we’ve committed ourselves to God’s way and risen from the waters of baptism, we have made a full, lifetime, unending commitment to follow Him.  It can’t be half-hearted, but must be a full surrender to His will and His ways.  Our previous life ended permanently, there’s no going back.

What Did Jesus Mean By “My Yoke Is Easy to Bear”? Going Beyond the Surface Meaning of This Verse

Have you ever found, at points throughout your life, all roads kind of leading or pointing to a particular topic, or even a certain bible verse?  It just keeps popping up and you eventually can’t ignore it any longer?  That’s what’s happened subtly over the past year or so with this verse.

Jesus issued an invitation to the people following Him:

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy [NLT: easy to bear], and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30)

This verse has been one that I’ve mentally skimmed most of my life, picking up the gist but not really internalizing.  And that’s because I’ve never really been completely sure I knew what to make of the last part.

The part about rest, gentle, etc., I was following.  But then I questioned whether the last part contradicted other things Jesus said about following Him being hard…about having trials in this world, counting the cost, and the narrow, difficult way (e.g. John 16:33; Matt. 7:14; John 12:25).

But after having this verse shoved in my face enough times recently, I’ve spent more time meditating on it, and wanted to share some thoughts that may help modern readers apply it in their lives.

What should we understand about yokes in the bible?

In the largely-agricultural society of Jesus’s time, this statement would have been much better understood.  I grew up on a farm, but it’s not like we were yoking oxen together to get work done.  And in today’s world, I think we may even have an instinctive negative reaction to the idea of a yoke…as though we’re coming into bondage somehow, driven and overworked, with no personal agency.

So what should we know about yokes?  A yoke was used to bind two animals together and spread out the weight and effort of a hard task.  By evenly distributing the weight and helping them pull together, it ultimately made the job easier on both.

The animals yoked together need to be well-matched, of equal strength, size, temperaments…getting along and pulling together.  Other places say you’d put an older experienced ox and a younger, untrained one, to teach it.  Both are likely true, depending on the farmer’s need.  And you can easily see spiritual parallels in either scenario.

Yokes actually come up a lot in the bible.  They’re mentioned over 50 times, and most of the uses are figurative…denoting slavery, servitude, or the general influence of (or submission to) an authority—for instance, there’s a lot about breaking “yokes of bondage”, particularly in the Prophets.  The bible also sometimes metaphorically uses a yoke to describe the weight of a task or obligation.

What did Jesus mean about His yoke being easy to bear?

At face value His statement makes sense, particularly when contrasting His teachings with the centuries of exile and oppression that the Israelites had faced, as well as the hundreds of exacting physical rules and rituals the Jews had created for themselves out of fear of inadvertently breaking God’s commands and incurring His wrath.

Beyond that, though, there are some interesting angles concerning yokes that can deepen our understanding of this verse and how we can submit to Jesus’s “yoke” in our lives…let’s briefly explore these.

A yoke is created for work, not rest

I think that sometimes Christians key into Jesus’s focus on freeing us from the bondage of slavery, the truth making us free, and similar verses, and assume that we’re “in the clear”…that Jesus took care of everything and we can just coast through life.

But make no mistake—we are called to do God’s work.  Jesus spoke frequently of doing His Father’s work while on the earth, and that didn’t end with His resurrection.

He said, “My food [what sustains and keeps Him alive] is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work…Lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!  And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” (John 4:34-28).

This was a common theme He spoke about.  Right before giving His disciples power and sending them out to preach, heal, cast out demons, and proclaim the gospel, Jesus saw how much need there was and exclaimed:  “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:37-28).

Who are those laborers?  Matthew 20 directly connects this to God’s people who are called throughout the millennia, right up until His second coming.  Then in Mark 13, Jesus brings this home with the parable of a man going to a far country, who gave authority to his servants “and to each his work”, which the man expected to see diligently completed when he returned.

Maintaining a “Sober” Mind In A Spiritually Intoxicated World

“But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and the cares of this life…” (Luke 21:34)

“Go home, world, you’re drunk…”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to say that (or at least have thought it) in the past few years.  Maybe you have too, but yours had less snark:  “The world has gone crazy”…“It seems like everyone has lost their damn minds.”

Now let’s be real—this world has always been crazy, and God’s people through every generation and permutation of society have thought that things can’t get crazier.

But in looking at how both individual people and society-at-large have responded to things over the past three to four years, it does feel like there is an elevated level of frenzied, “drunken” reactiveness within humanity…to what they read in the media or online, to “social justice” cries, to everything around COVID, politics, and even recently to the news from the Middle East.

I’m not talking about physical alcoholic drunkenness, but rather an emotional, mental, and spiritual intoxication spoken of throughout the bible, particularly in the New Testament.

What does the bible say about spiritual drunkenness or intoxication?

We’ll start with the study’s anchor verse from Luke 21, including a different translation that helps deepen our understanding.  Jesus tells His disciples:

“But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all the earth” (Luke 21:34, NKJV)

“But keep watch on yourselves, or your hearts will become dulled by carousing, drunkenness and the worries of everyday living, and that Day will be sprung upon you suddenly like a trap!” (Luke 21:34, CJB)

Most of the other translations I often look at (NLT, ESV, NIV, etc.) are pretty similar to the CJB.  There’s the “watch yourself!” component and then an admonition about the impact of carousing, drunkenness, and everyday worries on our vulnerable hearts.

The “cares of this life” seem pretty straightforward, but it’s helpful to take a closer look at a few of the other words in this verse since they’re important components of teasing out aspects of mental and spiritual intoxication.  (Interestingly, this verse is the only time many of these Greek words are used in the New Testament.)

This word translated “weighed down” or “dulled” is baruno (G925), which means to be burdened or overloaded.  An almost literal translation is “to be made heavy”, which makes sense when you think about how you feel when you’ve eaten or drank too much.  When we’re in this condition we’re in a stupor of sorts, sluggish, slow to respond.

Next we’ll take “carousing”.  When I hear that word it’s easy for me to think, “Nope, I’m old and boring, no carousing here!” and move on.  The word (kraipale, G2897) implies the results from indulging your appetites excessively, leading to ruin or straying.  I thought this explanation from The Berean newsletter explained it nicely:

“It could be food or drink or many other things. This world, especially in its advertising, is pushing the overuse [and indulgence] of our appetites all the time. We cannot turn on the television without them pushing automobiles, foods, toys, jewelry, drugs, insurance, appliances, travel, housewares, clothing, tools, movies, and other television programs. Advertisers are constantly and repetitiously urging us, “Do this.” “Try this.” “Use your time this way.” We can feel pressured, “under the gun”, stressed from resisting their products, their way of life, and their attitudes.”

Well…if that’s “carousing”, that sure sounds a bit more familiar and relevant to me in our consumption-mindset world.

And now we look at “drunkenness”, where I want to spend some extra time.  The word used is methe (G3178; also used in Rom. 13:13 and Gal. 5:21), and a related version is methuo (G3184).  It means an intoxicant, to drink to intoxication or get drunk.

But it has a broader meaning than just actual alcohol drunkenness.  It means to be filled or saturated with an intoxicant—literally or figuratively.

Read next:  FOMO:  How to Derail Your Relationship With God

What does mental & spiritual intoxication look like in God’s people?

First, it’s probably helpful to define intoxication.  According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “the condition of having physical or mental control markedly diminished by the effects of alcohol or drugs”, as well “a high excitement of mind; an elation which rises to enthusiasm, frenzy, or madness”.

What does alcohol do to us if not carefully moderated?  (And this is not a knock on alcohol, which I quite enjoy.)

  • It heightens our emotions, lowers our inhibitions. We’re easier to manipulate, lacking control and prone to out-of-proportion emotional reactions.
  • It removes our presence of mind and skews our judgment, distorting our perception of reality (think about how it feels wearing beer goggles).
  • It gives us a false sense of security and confidence. People do silly and senseless things or make dumb decisions, then regret them, along with the hangover.
  • It slows our reactions. It makes us sleepy, fuzzy, off-balance, and unfocused.  We’re not alert and are unprepared to respond.

It’s very easy to see the spiritual parallels here.  When we allow ourselves to be weighed down and our senses dulled by intoxicants, worries, and overindulging our physical cravings, it has a MASSIVE impact on our ability to maintain a Godly perspective and see ourselves clearly.

Finding Balance & Boldness in Our Walk of Faith (Part 4 in Surveying the Gospels: The “Big Picture” Themes of Jesus’ Words & Actions)

This is the fourth and final post in an in-depth study of overarching themes and lessons in the gospel accounts.  For ease of reading, we’ve split this long study into several shorter individual posts, so I recommend starting with the intro/first post, then reading this and the other posts (linked at the end).

If you’re anything like me, you may have sometimes struggled to emotionally connect with the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), or found some of the teachings to be contradictory.  There are many reasons for this (cultural context, writing style, etc.), and I talk about this more in the first post in the series…I won’t belabor the point here.

So this series is focused on how we can “see the forest for the trees” and survey the gospel accounts together in order to find the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s direct words and actions.

As a reminder, I’m giving some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got too repetitive). I encourage you to look up and read each passage referenced as well, and to have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.

So far we’ve examined Jesus’s life and teachings on a few major themes (each with several related sub-topics):

  • That God’s calling in this life isn’t easy—and isn’t for everyone—but if we answer His call it DOES come with expectations
  • That God is concerned with the state of our “heart” (mind, emotions, motivations)
  • That the way we treat and engage with our brethren (and other people) matters
  • That we must have our priorities right—we can’t allow our relationship with worldly things to take precedence over our relationship with God
  • And that God expects both faith AND action—“you will know them by their fruits”

So now let’s move on to our final few themes…

Theme #6:  It’s important to take care of ourselves as well as looking out for others

In today’s world we have this idea of “self-care”, which has gotten a bit out of hand and is often used as a justification for selfishness and indulgence.

But the underlying principle is sound—namely that it is easier to have your spiritual “house” in order when you are properly caring for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Figuratively it’s like the airplane rule of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else get theirs on—the point being, you’re of no help to others if you become incapacitated.

Let’s look at a couple areas where Jesus showcased this in His own life.

It is critical to regularly get rest, solitude (for meditation), and one-on-one time with God.

Jesus shows us that we need to take care of ourselves, stay close to God, and not get too worn out while ministering to others.  He fed the crowds when they were hungry and tired.  He knew when the disciples were too amped up and needed to chill out.  One of the biggest ways that He modeled this was to frequently set aside time to get away from the crowds and noise, and to be alone with God.

  • After a full day of healing the sick and casting out demons, He went the next morning to a “solitary place” and prayed (Mark 1:32-35)
  • Similarly, when the disciples came back from their journeys and were telling Jesus all that they did, He took them to an isolated spot where they could eat and rest (Mark 6:31)
  • We’re told the He “often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16)
  • After a crazy day feeding the 5,000, He sent the disciples on ahead and went up on a mountain to pray (Mark. 6:46)

These are just a few examples of many.  Jesus knew that we must learn to turn down and tune out the noise of the world—the distractions and busyness that our daily lives provide.  We have to purposefully set aside time to spend in prayer, study, and meditation with our Father.

You might also like:  A Guide to Biblical Meditation

We must make time to nurture close friendships with our brethren.

Jesus also knew that He needed His friends.  He didn’t hold people at arm’s length or try to bear everything on His own.

Instead, He loved and mourned His friends (John 11).  He asked His closest friends to be with Him, pray for Him, and help comfort Him when He was struggling (Matt. 26:36-41).

He shared more teachings and open conversations privately with His disciples than He did with the crowds (Luke 10:23).  He was vulnerable and relational, telling the disciples that he was “exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:32-35).

God and Jesus Christ want their brethren to build strong and lasting friendships.  These are important for mental and emotional health, certainly (as well as physical, Eccl. 4:9-10), but also important for spiritual well-being.

When we develop these intimate relationships, we can have that “iron sharpening iron” effect (Prov. 27:17), where we encourage and exhort each other, and when needed we tell the hard truths.  There has to be a level of love and trust established for any of those things to be effective.

Perspective and balance are important in maintaining our well-being.

We all lose perspective sometimes, or find ourselves off-balance.  Spiritually, this can lead us to ending up in a “ditch” (such as self-righteousness or going off on a doctrinal tangent), or to drifting away from God as we’re pulled in by the cares of this world.

These additional quick points help round out this larger theme of the need to take good care of ourselves:

  • The story of Martha and Mary shows how we can become so focused on physically serving others that we neglect pursuing our spiritual growth (Luke 10:38-42)
  • When it comes to our spiritual development and continued conversion, we shouldn’t be *only* focused on getting the “bad” OUT, but also with putting the good IN (Luke 11:24-26)
  • Having an attitude of thankfulness toward God for His many blessings can help us maintain an appropriate perspective (Matt. 11:25, John 6:11, John 11:41 & more)

You might also like:  Is Unthankfulness the Root of Most Sins?

Theme #7:  God does not intend for us to be shrinking violets or passive doormats

This theme may be a bit unexpected.  I certainly was a bit surprised as the threads emerged while reading through the gospel accounts.  But there’s no question that it’s there, and is one of those seeming-contradictions that we talked about at the outset of this study.

People tend to focus on Jesus’s teachings to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile when compelled, and forgive your brother as many times as is needed.  And those are absolutely commands from our Savior.  But they also depend on the situation and context.

Jesus also taught and modeled that His followers should be zealous for His way, should not compromise with the truth, and should speak out when we see something that is wrong.  He did not intend for us to allow others to walk all over us, or be taken advantage of as “easy marks”.

And He expects us to study His word and use His holy spirit to develop discernment and character.  Both are required to determine in any given situation what is most loving and appropriate towards the people involved—whether it’s a “telling hard truths in love” sort of moment or a “turn the other cheek”.

So let’s look at some places where we’re showing the bolder side of following Christ.

“There Your Heart Shall Be” (Part 3 in Surveying the Gospels: The “Big Picture” Themes of Jesus’ Words & Actions)

This is the third part in an in-depth study of key themes in the gospel accounts.  For ease of reading, we’ve split this long study into several shorter individual posts, so I recommend starting with the intro and theme #1, then reading this and the other posts (linked at the end).

I’ll dive right in this time, since the introduction (linked above) gives context on what led me to write this series on how to understand the gospels.  We’re really focusing on the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s words and actions, more of a “30,000-foot view”.

As a reminder, I’m giving some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got too repetitive). I encourage you to look up and read each passage referenced as well, and to have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.

So far we’ve examined Jesus’s life and teachings on a few major themes (each with several related sub-topics):

  • That God’s calling in this life isn’t easy—and isn’t for everyone—but if we answer His call it DOES come with expectations.
  • That God is concerned with the state of our “heart” (mind, emotions, motivations—our inner being)
  • That the way we treat and engage with our brethren (and with other people) matters

So now let’s move on to themes #4 and 5…

Theme #4:  Priorities!  We can’t allow our relationship with worldly things to take precedence over our relationship with God

A huge focus of Jesus’s teachings was on how we use our resources—time, thoughts, energy, money, and more—during our physical lives.  He frequently cautioned His followers to adopt a healthy attitude toward material possessions and worldly relationships, and wasn’t shy about calling out when someone’s priorities were in the wrong place.

So let’s examine some of the topics He spoke on.  Get ready, this one is a doozy!

Money isn’t *inherently* evil, but the LOVE of it is…we need to develop a healthy relationship with (the pursuit of) wealth.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus had quite a lot to say about what our relationship should be with money, the pursuit of wealth or influence, and other material possessions.

In one of the more well-known passages of the gospels, Jesus says:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

Jesus goes on to explain that you can’t have two masters—in other words, it is not possible to wholeheartedly serve God, and yet allow money (or the pursuit of it, career ambition, a desire for security, etc.) to control you (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13).

We see this illustrated in the “rich young ruler”, where the man asked Jesus what he needed to do to for eternal life.  Jesus could see inside his heart and told him to sell all he had and give the money to the poor.

The man went away sorrowful because he was very rich, and Jesus remarked, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:18-27, Matt. 19:16-26, Mark 10:17-27).

Again, this is not because wealth is inherently bad, but rather because it tends to warp our perspectives and priorities, and tether us to this world.  In the parable of the sower, Jesus calls this “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches”, which choke out the faith that was trying to take root, just like weeds choke out good produce (Matt. 13:22).

The State of Our Hearts (Part 2 in Surveying the Gospels: The “Big Picture” Themes of Jesus’ Words & Actions)

This is the second part in an in-depth study of key themes in the gospel accounts.  For ease of reading, we’ve split this long study into several shorter individual posts, so I recommend starting with the intro and theme #1, then reading this and the other posts (linked at the end).

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series on how to understand the gospels, I’ve always struggled to emotionally connect with the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in their entirety.  I get lost sometimes in the cultural context, the somewhat sterile ancient writing style, and can overly focus on seeming-contradictions.

So this series is focused on how we can “see the forest for the trees” and survey the gospel accounts together to find the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s direct words and actions. 

As a reminder, I’m giving some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got too repetitive). I encourage you to look up and read each passage in the bible yourself as well and have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.

The first theme we looked at (in the previous post), was that God’s calling in this life isn’t easy—and isn’t for everyone—but if we answer His call it DOES come with expectations.  And now we’ll dive right into the second theme…

Theme #2:  God is concerned with the state of our “heart” (mind, emotions, motivations)

Jesus was constantly probing the underlying thoughts, motivations, and intentions of the people He encountered, and always called out hypocrisy, legalism, and self-righteousness—especially when it came at the expense of showing love and honor to God or other people.

Here are some of the principles He taught and modeled along those lines.

We can think we are doing all the right things and that we’re “right with God”, but be completely off-base.  

MANY of Jesus’s teachings expanded on this theme with slight variations.  And while His words clearly had implications for the Jews of that day—they saw themselves as God’s only chosen people and their rules for HOW to follow Him as elevated above God’s own instructions—Jesus’s warning should ring just as clearly for God’s elect today.

Jesus cautions that just calling upon His name (“I’m a Christian!”) or doing lots of works (“I tithe, I volunteer, I go to church every sabbath!”) does not “qualify” us for eternal life (Matt. 7:21-23).  The meaning of Matthew 7:21 is that we can’t EARN it.

Here are some other aspects of this topic we should take away from His teaching:

  • We should not be comparing ourselves to other people, but rather to God’s standards. God despises self-righteousness and loves a humble heart (the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, Luke 18:9-14).
  • “Unless your righteousness [justification] exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). His audience would have understood this as a way of saying that it was impossible to “out-righteous” the Pharisees at their own game of legalistic rule adherence (which went far beyond God’s actual commands).  Perfect law-following alone cannot gain us access to the kingdom.
  • We don’t get credit for just showing up unprepared (the guest without a wedding garment, Matt 22). The “garment” God expects His people to be clothed with is made of righteous character and actions resulting from following His way (Rev. 19:8).
  • In a similar vein, “checking the box” (a.k.a. doing only the bare minimum or “what was our duty to do”) makes us an unprofitable servant (Luke 17:10).
  • We cannot be complacent—we must be vigilant. Multiple times Jesus spoke of seeing the signs that the time is near (Matt 24).  These are spoken to God’s chosen people, and the implication is clearly that if we are not prepared and watching, we can miss out—our victory is not assured.
  • The parable of the ten virgins (picturing God’s people) gets quite specific here. We’re told that ALL fell asleep, but only half of them had enough oil (God’s spirit) left when Christ returned…and the others didn’t get another chance to rectify their lack of vigilance (Matt. 25:1-13).
  • The parable of the tares makes it clear that God allows the good and the bad to hang out together within the body of Christ for a while, until it’s time for the harvest (Matt. 13:24-30). So we can’t assume that just because we’re showing up, going to church, and doing all the things that outwardly look right, that we’re “good” with God.

Our actions definitely matter, but not if they’re coming from the wrong motivations or thoughts.  

Building on the previous point, let’s go back to that part in Matthew where Jesus had just told them that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” or does great works will enter the kingdom.

He sums up that teaching by saying, “Then I will declare to them, ‘Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness [workers of iniquity]’” (Matt. 7:23).

What’s interesting is that He doesn’t deny that they had been obeying God’s commands or doing great works.  This indicates that something else was going on here.  We don’t know exactly what it was, but I submit that the root cause was that their hearts were not right with God.  That they were not in a state of repentance…thus their sins separated them from God despite carrying out the correct actions.

And how often do we fall into the same trap??

Surveying the Gospels: Looking at the “Big Picture” Themes of Jesus’ Words & Actions (Part 1)

It’s often been said that even if we only focused on reading and doing the “red letter” parts of the bible (Jesus’s words), we’d all be much better people…and certainly better Christians.

But I have a confession:  I’ve always struggled to emotionally connect with the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Of course I read them, I think about them, I hone in on specific verses that feel really meaningful.  But even though it’s full of direct words from my Savior, I haven’t always gravitated toward them holistically.

And I could be wrong, but I suspect I may not be alone in that…

For some people, the seeming-inconsistencies across the three narratives are frustrating.  For others (myself included), the sparse writing style feels a bit clinical and I know that I’m missing cultural nuances that would make the words come to life better.  It kind of makes me feel like a failure at times.

While the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life are not quite as convoluted as some of Paul’s writings (which even Peter called hard to understand, II Pet. 3:16), they still can be somewhat challenging to really grasp onto and internalize.  And there are a number of reasons for that.

Why are the gospels confusing at times?

Some of the difficulty in reading the gospels is unavoidable, and common to any historical text.  The actual way it was written down—from the words used, to the dialogue style—feels stilted and foreign to a modern reader’s brain.

The things Jesus (and other biblical writers) said often included a massive amount of cultural context, using phrases and examples that contemporary listeners would have immediately connected the dots on, but seem super random to us today.

Then some of the confusion was, I believe, purposeful on Jesus’s part.  His words can be interpreted in different ways because He wasn’t always crystal-clear, and His sayings often had double meanings.  He even stated outright that He was intentionally making the parables hard to understand because those people weren’t being called at that time (Matt. 13:11-17).

Another reason is that many of His teachings showcased how we follow God in a situational context rather than black-and-white “rules”, so we run into paradoxes with how the same principle was applied differently at different times—creating what feels like contradictions.

And honestly, some of it is SO specific, that to our modern ears we hear something like “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” and we’re like, ”Neat…sooo what do we do with this??”  As a result, we tend to cherry-pick very specific verses, often pulled out of context, and ignore other ones that might contradict.

A different approach for how to read the gospels

After years of reading through the gospels but struggling to truly feel connected to and inspired by the entirety of the writings, I recently decided to try a different approach.  Rather than getting bogged down in the verse-by-verse details, my goal was to pull back to more of a 30,000-foot view to see what we can and should glean in broader strokes.

This way of reading the gospels still is focusing on specific and actionable takeaways for my life, but it helped me be able to filter through some of the super granular and seemingly-contradictory statements to find the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s direct words or His actions.

Rather than parsing every word (including things that feel contradictory), my goal is to glean some of the key things we should take away as Jesus’s focus, His actions, His commands—and thereby what things we need to be concentrating on in our own lives.

A few notes to orient you before we dive in:

  • The topics below are focused more on the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), solely because Jesus’s teachings in John’s gospel are more directed toward Himself and His relationship with the Father. I’ve also included a couple references to the red-letter parts of Revelation where relevant.
  • As I studied through the books, I found that the various topics grouped themselves into a handful of very broad buckets, but acknowledge that there’s definitely some overlap between them.
  • I’ll give some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got repetitive, especially across the three books). I encourage you to look up and read each passage in the bible yourself as well and have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.

And lastly, this study is a LOT.  There is so much content here, that I’ve split it into multiple posts.  This is part one of what will likely be between three and five posts.

While you *could* read through it all in one sitting, you could also take a topic or two each day as your daily bible study and spend time meditating and studying, to really get the most out of it.  Think of this as more of a reference book or study companion.

You might also like:  Jesus As The “Author & Finisher” of Our Faith: What Does This Mean?

Principles, truths, and key commands in the Gospels

Theme #1:  God’s calling in this life isn’t easy, and isn’t for everyone.  But if we answer the call, it DOES come with expectations.

Anyone who subscribes to the “just as I am” belief, thinking that God doesn’t set standards by which we must live, should go back and read Jesus’s words throughout the gospels.

One of the biggest themes that Jesus emphasizes is what it looks like to follow Him.  He focuses on action, not simply “believing” as an abstract emotional idea…and He’s also clear that following God’s way is not the easy path.

Now don’t get me wrong…God calls us just as we are.  He just expects that we won’t stay that way.  Let’s look at some examples.

What Does “Casting Down Arguments & Pretensions” Mean in II Cor. 10:5? (Part 3 of II Cor. 10 Series)

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:3-6)

We’ve been sharing a series of studies taking a deeper look at these verses in II Corinthians (you can read Part 1 & Part 2 here).  They provide important insight into how we should view our inner selves, and our responsibilities in actively guarding, defending, and tending to our hearts and minds.

In particular, these studies focus on interpreting Paul’s somewhat literary or metaphorical language into something that feels tangible and actionable to us today.

One of the ideas that was brought out in the earlier studies on pulling down strongholds was this:

“When we allow our beliefs and our expectations of God to become bigger than God Himself, we limit God.  We have made our God smaller.  And we create an idol out of our own beliefs or ways of thinking.”

That idea segues us nicely into this study, where we’ll dig into the second big element of that keystone verse—casting down arguments, and every “high thing” that exalts itself against the knowledge of God.

What does II Cor. 10:5 mean?

It’s kind of a weird phrase in our modern vernacular, so first let’s define more clearly what it really means.  The translation of “casting down” in the NKJV might come across to us in a softer way than its true meaning—which is to demolish, destroy, or utterly obliterate (most other translations beyond the KJV and NKJV use these words instead).

What exactly are we supposed to be demolishing??  Those “arguments” (G3053, logismos…where we get the word ”logic”) encompass our self-directed human reasoning, opinions, convictions, conceit, philosophy, imagination, and thought.

Some translations of the verse also include “high” or “lofty” things (also translated “pretensions” or “opinions”), which indicate something proud, arrogant, human-centered, and self-confident or self-sufficient.

Basically, this verse tells us that (sometimes unintentionally) we elevate our own thoughts or convictions above what God says—which creates a competing and adversarial relationship that can destroy us if we don’t recognize it and work to defeat it instead.

We are in a war for our minds

Those different translations really give us a much better idea of what we’re dealing with here.  We are commanded to be using the spiritual weapons and protection at our disposal (Eph. 6:10-18, armor of God) to recognize and root out human thinking that sets itself up contrary to God’s word.

Sound familiar in today’s world?  I loved this quote so much I had to include it verbatim, as a jumping-off point:

“There is the fortress of human reasoning, reinforced with many subtle arguments and the pretense of logic. There is the castle of passion, with flaming battlements defended by lust, pleasure, and greed. And there is the pinnacle of pride, in which the human heart sits enthroned and revels in thoughts of its own excellence and sufficiency” (from this article).

Human reasoning is a mighty fortress (one of those strongholds we talked about).  But the thing is, God CREATED US with the capacity for human reasoning, and He did that with a purpose.  He wants us to have free will, to use our brains.

The key phrase in unlocking our hero passage is “raises itself up against the knowledge of God” (CJB).  When our (or someone else’s) opinions, logic, convictions, beliefs, or political correctness sit in opposition to what God tells us, we are in deep trouble.

One of the subtleties with human reasoning that contradicts the bible is that it’s not always coming from a place of outright malice and rebellion—just as often, it’s fueled by theoretically good intentions, the appearance of logic, or our emotional reactions on a topic (we see an example of this in the conversation of Jesus and Peter in Matt. 16:23).

In the rest of this study we’ll break down and examine—through a few different angles or lenses—these “arguments” and “lofty things” that we are to demolish, and how they can manifest in our lives:

  1. In our hearts and minds…reasoning with ourselves (justification, self-righteousness, putting our logic onto God, etc.)
  2. In our dealings with our brethren…how we treat our brethren, biblical disputes and pet doctrines that divide and distract, etc.
  3. In our interaction with society around us…being swayed by or caught up in worldly human reason at the cost of the spiritual truths (news, social media, politics, etc.); letting the social and cultural thinking of our time shape our own views and how we interpret the bible

Why & How Does God Use the Number 40 in the Bible? 

The lens of periods of 40 in the bible & what God is accomplishing on our wilderness journey

We recently explored the theme of wilderness in the bible, and how—for God’s people—the wilderness symbolizes the spiritual challenges we face as we do our best to navigate life in this carnal world.

Specifically, we talked about how people often associate the idea of a spiritual wilderness only with harsh, debilitating times of trial—but instead we should view our entire journey through this life as a journey through the wilderness.  Sometimes it’s lush pasture, other times barren desert, but always a place where God is guiding us with a purpose.

In fact, the only way to reach the Promised Land lies through the wilderness.  It’s where God calls His people to begin their journey, out of this present carnal world (represented by Egypt) to a place of preparation for the world to come.  It’s also where He reveals more of Himself and His ways, and teaches us how to fully rely on Him to provide.

And while our focus is on reaching the Promised Land of God’s eternal kingdom, we must remember that the experiences we have on the way are critical to our spiritual growth, key to reaching the destination itself.  Even the Hebrew word for wilderness (midbar) implies momentum, driving forward, and a journey with a purpose.

God is accomplishing something in us as we journey through the wilderness, and we have to surrender to Him fully, and trust that He is leading us in the right direction.  And this brings us to one really interesting thematic connection to the wilderness that I couldn’t dig into in the other study, but did want to explore further—how God uses the number 40 in the bible.

This isn’t getting into mystical numerology or anything like that, but God does use certain numbers symbolically throughout His word, and we’d be wise to pause and consider what lessons we can glean.  This study may seem quite long, but each of the examples can be read on their own, a little at a time.

What is the significance of the number 40 in the bible?

The number “40” in the bible appears to be connected to many of the same themes as we saw with the idea of wilderness, and the more I dig into the nuances, I really see the wilderness and the number 40 as two sides of the same coin.  We often see wilderness experiences (literal or symbolic) timebound by periods of 40…days, years, etc.

These shared themes include periods of significant trial or testing, or sometimes punishment for rebelling against God.  Some examples focus on the teaching and preparation of God’s chosen leaders.  And in many examples the number 40 shows how God is redeeming His people from the world, bringing a time of restoration and renewal.

In other words, these are all facets of how God is bringing His people out of (spiritual) bondage, through the wilderness (of this physical life), and eventually into the (eternal) Promised Land.  They showcase examples of God’s intent and direction in His people’s lives.

The number 40 in the bible appears to symbolize completion and accomplishment of God’s purpose, but in more of a physical sense (whereas the number 7 is more about Godly perfection and completion).  It is sometimes 40 years, though often a period of 40 days and nights—a person’s or nation’s success in completing the 40 days/years requires humility, trust in God’s promises, and reliance on Him to sustain.

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