Did Jesus really say to “make disciples”?

The last few verses of Matthew 28 have become known as the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations!” While I understand what I am about to state will be considered sacrilege by some, perhaps many, yet I feel compelled to ask the question, “Can anyone ‘make’ a disciple?”

My perusal of that passage causes me to conclude that not only can we not make disciples, but more importantly, Jesus never charged His disciples to do so! Consider the usual rendering of this passage…

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”—Matthew 20:19-20 (Berean Study Bible)

Now consider the literal rendering of verse 19 is…

“Having gone therefore disciple all the nations baptizing them in the of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”(Interlinear Bible)

Obviously, the word “make” is not present in the latter. Further, “having gone” is curious phraseology. Who is the subject of this action? I am in no way a Greek scholar, but I can read. In English, “having” is a word describing possession, “gone” is the past tense of go. The phrase presents in the past tense. Either the translation is difficult such that “having gone” describes the actions of those Jesus was addressing after they had gone or it describes an action that has already taken place, which would refer to something accomplished by Jesus. Namely, that Jesus “having gone” before them, having led the way, having defeated evil and now having “all authority in heaven and on earth”(verse 18), they could now go and successfully “disciple all the nations”.

Either way, He did not say “make disciples”, rather “disciple”. You may be thinking that is a classic case of a difference without a distinction. I submit, it is not. In the phrase “make disciples” the word disciple is a noun. It describes a person with certain characteristics. In the literal rendering the Greek word in verse 19 for “disciple” is a verb, meaning to instruct, teach, impart. I submit that whereas one can teach, instruct, even impart, one cannot “make” a disciple. The hearer must choose to obey and thus become a disciple. Jesus does not overwhelm an individual’s free will when it comes to the issue of believing and receiving. He is, as a friend of mine used to say, “pro-choice”. That is to say, we always have a choice. Jesus presented the kingdom of God, each and everyone of us who has heard must choose what to do with that presentation. The Lord has so limited Himself so as to preserve love, which must always be a product of choice. Discipleship is no different. Again, I can teach, impart, model, even mentor, but I cannot “make” anyone anything. Consider, can I “make” someone a Christian? No. I can testify of Jesus. I can evangelize. I can witness. But, I cannot “make” someone believe. If I cannot “make” a Christian, how can I be expected to “make” a disciple?

Further, the balance of that first sentence sheds light on what Jesus meant when he charged His followers to “disciple all the nations”… “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” So there it is. Baptize them and teach them to obey all that Jesus taught them. One can baptize and one can teach, but no one can make someone else obey. Is one who has been baptized and has been taught all that Jesus commanded, but who fails to obey a disciple?

Why all the fuss over being charged to “make disciples”? Because in my experience, discipleship programs are rife with the danger of cultivating a religious spirit and can even create an environment wherein spiritual abuse may follow. It is almost a truism that once a normal, natural relationship is “converted” to a formal discipler/disciple relationship the elements of expectation, agenda and compulsion enter in under the guise of “accountability”. I have been on both sides of the equation. Too many times I have observed a normal relationship being converted into a formal relationship, such as teacher/pupil or master/student or discipler/disciple, only to lead to an artificial layering of “spirituality” that can be almost cult-like. In short, this artificial relationship can easily become marked by a works orientation that results in a performance driven engagement which is not healthy for either party. The apostle Paul specifically pointed out that there should be no allegiance to a particular leader. No one should describe themselves in the mode of “I am a disciple of Paul or Apollos or Cephas”, for we only have allegiance to Jesus. (1 Corinthians 3:22)

Consider, arguably the most natural “discipleship” relationship exists between parent and child. But, I would never label the relationship and say to my child, “You are my disciple.” How weird would that be? But, I did my best to disciple them, that is to teach, instruct, model, impart, etc. in hopes that they would obey Jesus. Hopefully, I have provided my children with a healthy example, but I don’t want them to follow me, I want them to follow Jesus. One of the great promises that I hold on to is found in Isaiah 54:13, “All your children will be taught of the LORD; and the well-being(the shalom) of your children will be great.” I claim that promise because I recognize that there is a great distinction between the results of being taught of me as over against taught of the Lord. Does Jesus want us to teach others to follow us or to follow Him?

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the literal and accurate charge, or commission, is to baptize, teach, instruct, impart. Period. That I can do. I actually long for such opportunities, but the results are not up to me. I can only present what God has given me, the hearer must decide what to do with the information. I am free from any sense of ownership, no matter the character of the fruit. I am not in charge of, or responsible for, the soil of the hearer’s heart. I am simply a conduit. I believe Jesus was here charging the eleven to be a conduit of everything they had heard and seen and experienced with Jesus. Give it away to all who will hear. We are expected to obey the charge, we are not responsible for the results.

There is another form of the Great Commission found in Acts 1:6-8…

“So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (NASB)

These then are the last words of Jesus to His followers, consequently they should be given some weight. Is there a charge? Before you respond in the affirmative consider His words carefully. Jesus did not say go and witness to the whole world. Rather, He said, “you shall be My witnesses”, but only after “you will receive power”. This is more promise than dictate. The component of power is missing in the Matthew 28 passage. Here that power is promised as a prerequisite to being a witness. Why would they need power? They heard, they saw, why couldn’t they just tell others what they personally heard and saw? We can speculate, but the point is Jesus said they would need and would receive supernatural power from on high via the Holy Spirit in order to “be” His witnesses. There was nothing for them to do, but wait. Once the Holy Spirit came upon them it was more a matter of who they were, as opposed to what they did. And it was all conditioned upon them receiving some form of supernatural empowerment. Paul described it beautifully… “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith would not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power… .” (I Corinthians 2:3-5)

In conclusion, it seems to me that it is grossly unfair to charge someone with a responsibility for which they have no power within themselves to accomplish. Simply stated, we cannot make anybody anything, much less a disciple of Jesus. Jesus would never hang such an impossible burden upon His people. He said His yoke is easy and His burden is light. If we choose to continue to charge ourselves and others pursuant to what I would consider to be a poor translation of the last verses in the Gospel of Matthew, we fall dangerously close to the practice of religion. Religion always involves a sense of compulsion. Where the element of compulsion enters performance, works, expectations, agendas are sure to follow which in turn give rise either to pride, if we perceive ourselves as successful, or discouragement, if we perceive ourselves as less than successful. As been said many times, the devil pushes, Jesus pulls.

I believe, as has been stated by many before me, that we are about to witness a great harvest. I believe we are seeing the birth of another Great Awakening. We must not spoil the harvest by placing old yokes, based upon incorrect translations and traditions, on those coming into the kingdom. Baptize, teach, instruct, impart… yes. Attempt to “make disciples”… no. “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galations 5:1) “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. Instead, new wine is poured into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22) Old, tired religious models will not suffice for the era for which we are about to enter. I pray that the Holy Spirit will once again fall upon Jesus’ followers such that we will become Holy Spirit empowered witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the only hope for a dying world. Amen.

“Be kind… “

I think I am probably not alone is assuming much about the twelve. I mean when one reads the Gospels isn’t there a common notion or sense that these men walked with Jesus day and night for the better part of three years, weren’t they, at least in several instances, slow on the uptake? How many sermons have we heard about poor, stupid, slow Peter? Oh Peter, always messing up. Isn’t there at least a flavor of condescension, maybe even bordering on mockery, inherent in these commentaries?

Just recently as I read how James and John, via their mother, which is a commentary in and of itself, tried to secure a place on either side of Jesus when He was to come in His kingdom. [Matthew 20:20-24] Not surprisingly the other ten we’re “indignant”. Let’s be plain, they were p.o.’d. And one can understand why. So much for team unity right before the big game. Jesus and the boys are on their way to Jerusalem for the last time. He just told them in no uncertain terms what was going to happen to Him. So the sons of Zebedee take the opportunity to secure a position for themselves in the coming kingdom. Nice touch. I became indignant just reading about this transaction.

However, as I was writing out my own commentary I was struck by a thought. Were these men regenerate? Were they born anew? It is simple question. Have you ever asked the question, “When were the twelve converted, born again?” It is actually an important question. For our answer dictates how we perceive them , how we understand them, how we choose to treat them.

In the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus describes in some detail the concept of being “born again”. [John 3:1-21] A concept for which this “teacher of Israel” had not clue. Jesus states in verses 6-8…

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

I can understand why Nicodemus had trouble following Jesus. Where else in Scripture can one find this concept prior to this occasion? My point, however, is that Jesus uses the phrase “born of the Spirit” twice in this passage in defining what it is to be born again. Of course, later the Book of Acts and Paul’s epistles give us more clarity as to what it is to be “born of the Spirit”. The question is when were the disciples “born of the Spirit”?

Walking, talking, watching, following Jesus night and day for three years must have been remarkable and carried with it some obvious advantages. We all wish we could have done the same. However, that experience was no substitute for being “born of the Spirit”. There are references in the Gospels to the Holy Spirit becoming active in the lives of the disciples and each and every reference includes the teaching that Jesus would have to leave before the Holy Spirit came to them. Further, power to give effect to the charge they had been entrusted with would only be supplied by the Holy Spirit. Jesus ordered them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit had come upon them. In short, the twelve were not born again until after the death and resurrection of Jesus. How could they be, Jesus had yet to pay the price for their sin. One of them, Judas, would never be born again.

So while we may look askance at some of their slowness to understand and their vulnerability to selfish endeavor, they were mere men of the flesh. They had no more power to carry out the directives of Jesus, from the standpoint of personal holiness, than anyone else in the world. Would we, before we came to know Jesus as Lord and Savior, before we were born anew, have done better? Even after being born again, do we stack up well against these men who left everything to follow Jesus, even before they were “born of the Spirit”?

It is with a new sense of grace and mercy that I hold these twelve men. I look forward to seeing them again tomorrow as I break open the Gospels once again. However, this time I will come with a different heart. I will be kind. I invite you to come with me…

“Come to Me… ”

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”—Matthew 11:28-30

This passage is very familiar to most Believers, even to those who have but a spare knowledge of the Gospels. The passage is replete with “comfort words”, like comfort food for the soul. Words like rest, gentle and humble in heart, rest for your souls, easy, light… provide a sense of relief just in the reading. At one time or another, and perhaps especially during this season, we all find ourselves wanting to take Jesus up on His simple, compassionate invitation.

However, like many of the words and phrases employed by the Messiah which we tend to echo to one another with an air of presumption, I wonder, do we really know what He meant? Are we presently experiencing rest for our souls or are wearied by the incessant current of unrest we face in the world each day. Is our daily yoke easy? The load light? The phrasing is poetic. The feel is divine. But, do we really understand how to apply these words to actually effect rest for our souls in our broken, confusing, wearying world? If we are feeling “weary and heavy-laden” perhaps we do not really understand what He was offering or how to take Him up on His offer.

How does one come to Jesus? Was Jesus literally telling that massive crowd of people to come to Him in a physical sense? Certainly if they were in need of healing then they would want to come near, but I believe Jesus had a bigger picture in mind. Jesus would not make an illusory promise. He was not a Sunday preacher with a nice flowery message designed to make us feel better about ourselves and life. No, Jesus intended a specific, measurable effect for anyone who would “Come to Me”. So let’s take a deeper look…

First, and perhaps foremost, one must understand the historical and cultural context. Who was the audience? How would they receive these words? We cannot hope to understand Jesus’ words if we simply take them at face value based upon our 21st century understanding of an English translation of this Gospel. Who was the audience? For one, it was a very large audience.

Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus fed 5,000 men, not included in the count were women and children, so perhaps 15,000 people or more. While that was not this specific “multitude”, the descriptors earlier in this Gospel would indicate that this was a similar gathering in terms of size and composition. Some of these folks had come from as far away as Jerusalem and its environs, 100 miles away! They had walked to see this Jesus. No hotels. No restaurants. No showers. No water fountains. Many were sick or disabled. Further, they had been living under a yoke of Roman oppression and a Pharisaical religious spirit for their entire lifetime. These people were beat up. Jesus often described them as “the lost sheep of Israel”, “sheep without a shepherd” living among wolves. The truth is these “lost sheep” had been, were then, and still are the primary target of the evil one. He hates God’s chosen people. He had been trying to wipe them out all the way back to Egypt. He has never stopped, witness Hitler. These people were beat up and Jesus knew it wasn’t going to get better for them from a political or religious standpoint. Those were, and still are, false hopes.

Jesus just got done telling them that “all things have been handed over to Me”, that is to say He had divine authority. He had the power to give effect to His words. He had already proved it by healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead. The first words after making that statement are… “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Good hook, as Jesus spoke right to their felt-need. The word rendered “weary” in the Greek meant to labor until worn-out, depleted, exhausted. Frankly, “weary” may be too weak a word to describe many of those in the audience. These people had little or nothing left in the tank, physically, emotionally or spiritually. To be “heavy-laden” actually meant to be overloaded, one who was literally “weighted-down.” We have all felt the weight of the world. I have often felt that physical challenges are much easier than those that are emotional, psychological or spiritual. Physical challenges, typically, do not break one’s spirit. One can almost always manage a physical challenge, as it is external to us. But, it is exceedingly difficult to press on when one’s spirit has been broken or seriously denigrated. When we are internally handicapped or broken we are truly vulnerable. There is nowhere to run from my own head. These people were starving, both literally and in every other way. This was a very needy multitude. Where does one start? Jesus started with their essential need… food for their soul. They had need to come under the watchful, protective eye of the Great Shepherd who alone could lead them to green pastures and still waters. (Psalm 23) So far so good, but then Jesus throws a bit of a curve…

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.”

Yes, of course, the first thing that comes to mind when one is exhausted is to take up an implement of hard labor! Yokes were for oxen, beasts of burden who were the John Deere tractors of the day. A yoke was a heavy, sturdy piece of lumber strapped to the neck and shoulders of the ox. There were typically two oxen yoked together to make a team. Figuratively speaking, a yoke would unite or join two people to move or work together as one. A secondary definition of the word yoke had to do with the cross beam on a balance scale, wherein two pans hung on either side, weights placed in one pan, goods on the other. This yoke was common in the marketplaces of the time. Why would Jesus employ this metaphor in this context? We’ll get there.

Why would these Jews want to replace one yoke for another? They were already operating under a yoke of political and religious oppression. First, Jesus assures them that He, unlike the Romans and the scribes and the Pharisees, would be under the yoke with them. It was His yoke. The invitation was to be yoked with Him. He would not ask them to do anything He wouldn’t be doing with them. And, His intention was not just to give them a break, but also to teach them. The word translated “learn” carries with it not just an intellectual aspect, but also an experiential one. This may seem trite, it is not. In my opinion, one of the greatest weaknesses in American culture, including the church, is the assumption that if one intellectually knows and gives assent to information then they “know”. Do you want your heart surgeon to be someone who has collected all the information he/she can about a heart through “book learning” or do you want one who has conducted hundreds of heart surgeries before performing yours? The old adage holds true, “There is no substitute for experience.” Jesus was inviting them to be yoked with Him as they “plowed” through life together, and as they did so He would teach them, demonstrate to them, guide them in the way that they should go. He would teach them to “fish so that they would eat for a lifetime.”

Further, he was not harsh and or self-serving like the Romans and/or the Pharisees, rather He was “gentle and humble in heart”. The word rendered “gentle” is insufficient. A better translation would be the word “meek”. Unfortunately, in English the word “meek” sounds, and is too often associated with, “weak”. Biblical meekness is not weakness but rather refers to exercising God’s power, yet with restraint. The English term “meek” often lacks this blend of gentleness and strength. In truth “meekness” is a great word, a wonderful attribute. It is difficult to think of someone in the public eye who demonstrates true meekness. The reason for that is that one who operates in meekness has no need to be known or celebrated by others. This was Jesus. It is characteristic of one who has power, but chooses not to use it for selfish gain or for self-aggrandizement, which marries up perfectly with the notion of being “humble”. One who is humble operates without an ulterior motive or selfish ambition. This powerful combination of “meekness and humility” in heart would serve to ease the trepidations of any in this mass of humanity who might be skeptical due to past hurts or abuses at the hands of their so-called “spiritual” leaders. In short, Jesus could be trusted.

Jesus was not asking these folk to do anything He wouldn’t do. He was offering to be yoked to each of them. That was, and frequently still is, an unheard of or seldom employed form of leadership. He was willing to be yoked, that is to come into very close proximity with this dirty, smelly, ill and even demonized bunch. (Jesus touched a leper to effect healing when all He had to do was speak a word.) The scribes and Pharisees wanted nothing to do with this rabble, except to control them. While Jesus was saying “come to Me” and “be yoked to Me”, the religious leaders were saying “keep your distance, but pay homage and, of course, be sure to tithe.” Sound familiar? Some things never change. Jesus’ offer was, and still is, radical.

“For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Where would one go to find a yoke that was easy? There was no such thing. The two words “easy” and “yoke” are simply incongruent. No one would describe a yoke as easy. Sturdy, durable, well-fitting sure, but “easy” is simply a non sequitur. I can imagine the multitude was curious to know more about this “magic” yoke. The word translated easy is “xrēstós”, pronounced “khrase-tos’”. The word means useful, serviceable, productive, well-fitted, beneficial, benevolent. Interestingly enough, a very similar sounding word, “Xrestus” was a common slave-name in the Greco-Roman world. It “appears as a spelling variant for the familiar Christus (Xristos). (In Greek the two words were pronounced alike.)” (F. F. Bruce, The Books of Acts, 368). Perhaps Jesus was here employing a double-entendre or a play on words. He had come as the Xristos, literally the “anointed one”. No Jew would expect that their Xristos, their Messiah, would come as Xrestus, a suffering servant. But He did, a stumbling block for many. He would take on a yoke that no one could imagine, that no one else could carry. A yoke, a cross-beam, that He would literally carry to His own crucifixion. (Criminals were forced to carry the cross-beam to their own crucifixion, not the entire to cross.) This yoke, also served as a cross-beam of another sort, the cross-beam on the balance-scales of God’s justice. On one side of the scales would be placed the entire weight of the world’s sin and brokenness, on the other the sinless, broken body of Jesus. God’s justice would be served. It was only because of the yoke that Jesus would shoulder in the not so distant future that would enable Him to make good on the invitation to this needy multitude. An invitation to be yoked with Him that would result in “rest for their weary souls”.

When Jesus stated, “My burden is light” He was obviously not referring to His own burden, rather the burden He was offering to everyone in the audience, from that day down to ours. He promised that if they would choose to take on His yoke, His cross-beam, that their “burden” would be “light”, especially in comparison to His. Again, the Greek is instructive. By definition, this “burden” must be carried by the individual, i.e. as something personal and hence was not transferable. This definition fits perfectly into the theology of the cross. Jesus takes on the sin of the world, but we each have an obligation, a personal responsibility, as well. We must choose to come under His yoke. We must attach ourselves to Him. We must learn from Him. We must walk where He walks. We must carry burdens that He tells us to carry. This burden cannot “be shifted” to someone else. However, when yoked with Jesus this “burden” becomes “light”. The reason that the burden Jesus would have us carry becomes “light” is because He is the one doing all the heavy lifting and He supplies the grace necessary for us to do our part.

All in all this passage, taken as a whole, is the Gospel. It must have sounded like Good News to the masses that day, and it still does. How about you? Are you weary, completely depleted, exhausted of mind, body or soul? Are you in need of refreshing? Are you in need of food for your depleted soul? Are the burdens of this world overwhelming? Is there a heaviness about your life that you just can’t shake, that is sucking the life right out of you?

If your response to any of those questions is in the affirmative then may I suggest that the yoke you are operating under may not be His. If the yoke is rubbing us the wrong way we are either wearing it incorrectly or it is not His yoke. If the burden is heavy we must ask ourselves if we are shouldering that burden in obedience to Jesus? Is the burden anchored in guilt or shame or condemnation? If so, it ain’t Jesus. We need to dump that load. Jesus does not employ guilt and shame. Rather, His tool of choice is grace. Grace is more than another nice Bible word, it is a form of divine empowerment that is attendant to all that God asks of us. When we are walking in grace we are empowered and the burden is all of a sudden very doable.

You may ask, how can it be? “I am not a lost sheep I am a Christian, a Christ-follower.” Be that as it may, Jesus always said that one can tell the tree only by the fruit. If the fruit of our life is not consistent with what He promised… peace, joy, love; then our connection to the Tree has been broken or at least denigrated. To employ a different metaphor, perhaps there is a disconnect, an electrical short if you will. The circuitry may be there, but the power connection has been corrupted or interrupted.

Jesus had the Holy Spirit without measure. All things had been given unto His hand. He was absolutely sure of His identity and His call. Yet, He frequently went off by himself to spend time with the Father. Perhaps He was going to the Father because He was “weary” and in need of rest for His soul. Perhaps He was lightening His load by unloading it on the Father. Perhaps He was “learning” from the Father from the standpoint of gathering direction and insight for the coming day, as we must always remember He was fully human having laid aside His divinity in order to accomplish His Messianic mission. Everyday Jesus was yoked with the Father. Just as it was with Jesus, being a Christ-follower is not a one-time decision, it is a daily choice. Jesus said we would have to take up His cross, His yoke, daily. We do so by saying yes to Him each and every day. We live on enemy ground. From time-to-time we may lose a battle, but we will win the war if we stay yoked to Jesus. Jesus stayed yoked to the Father by spending time alone with Him. Solomon said it a little differently, “Come away with me my beloved.” When I am weary and heavy-laden I must take Jesus at His word and do that which is counter-intuitive, stop and spend time with Him. This is not a religious practice or formula. It may be a walk. It may be listening or playing music. It may be writing. It may be taking a nap. It may be sitting and listening. It may be reading. You get the idea, we are all different and He will meet us in the way which works for us. But, we must take the time, in so doing we will take Jesus up on His offer to “Come to Me” and He will not disappoint.

Crazy Times

[Written December 18, 2020]

If you think times are crazy just wait…

On January 21, 2021 our country will embark on a new era. It won’t be anything like what I have known for the near 70 years of my existence. So hold on to your hats… I have been waiting for a very long time for what is about to crash upon us.

Dr. King pleaded for the justice of God to roll down like waters, His righteousness like a mighty ever-flowing stream. It’s coming. Historically, God never shows up like we think, never. This will be no different. And, as always, some will see Him and receive, some will not be persuaded, and some will vehemently deny and even suggest it is a manifestation of evil.

It’s coming. What exactly is “it”? I don’t know, but it’s coming. I am writing so that perhaps you will not be surprised. The likelihood is no one will see these words, but if only one sees, receives and recognizes that the chaos to come is of God then it will be worthwhile.

Religion, as we know it, will not survive in its present form without compromise. Politics, as we know it, will not survive in its present form. Corruption will be revealed like never before. We will enjoy a period of accountability that will provide us an opportunity for a “reset” few have foreseen, and many will not welcome. What we do with the opportunity will determine the future of this country for our posterity.

God is good. God is always good. He is coming. It will be good. It may not look like what we would consider good. It will require faith, it always does. Hold on. Look up. Don’t quit. Don’t be swept away by those who cry “conspiracy”.

Solomon, as a teenage boy about to assume the throne, asked for a “hearing heart”. Not a supernatural injection of wisdom. Rather, the ability to hear in his heart of hearts. We all need a hearing heart such that we can hear His voice in the midst of the tidal wave that is about to break. A tidal wave of His justice. He is about to vindicate His name and His people. We might all be surprised to learn who “His people” are. Probably not the elite. For He has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.

The Twelve Stones

“Now when all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying, “Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from each tribe, and command them, saying, ‘Take up for yourselves twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet are standing firm, and carry them over with you and lay them down in the lodging place where you will lodge tonight.’” So Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the sons of Israel, one man from each tribe; and Joshua said to them, “Cross again to the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel. “Let this be a sign among you, so that when your children ask later, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall say to them, ‘Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.’ So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.”—Joshua 4:1-7

This is not just the story of Israel crossing over into the Promised Land, it is our story, too. Consider…

The record begins with the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant out into the middle of the Jordan River at flood stage. There they stood until all of Israel, a group of millions, crossed through the river to the other side. A miracle of Biblical proportion! The the Lord tells Joshua to select a man from each tribe, twelve men, to go back into the Jordan and select stones, large stones that they would carry back to dry land on their shoulders.

Just as Israel crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land is a prophetic picture of a Believer’s journey into God’s promises through the Messiah, so are the twelve men and the twelve stones a prophetic picture. Nothing in the Kingdom is random or without purpose.

Joshua chose twelve men. Jesus, whose name is Joshua in Hebrew, chose twelve men.

The men Joshua chose where probably not “book worms”. He knew the purpose for which they were called and no doubt selected the biggest, strongest man in each tribe to pick up the largest stone he could carry on his shoulder. Knowing how men operate, one can only imagine that once they got out into the middle of the river bed there had to be a bit of “one-upmanship” going on. They no doubt picked up the largest rock they could carry. In addition, the Hebrew word used here for “stone” carries with it the notion of using it to build, as in a “cornerstone”. These were twelve large stones, rocks, boulders which must have built a substantial memorial. It was built to last, the Lord said it was to be a reminder to Israel “forever”.

The men Jesus chose, likewise, were not of the elite, dainty set either. They were mostly fishermen. Men who plied the waters of the Sea of Galilee since they were kids. In season and out of season. Hard work in blazing sun. Hand-numbing work in the winter frost. Rain or sun they had to fish, it was their livelihood and most likely the largest part of their diet. These were tough people. In addition, they had been living under Roman tyranny and a Pharisaic religious spirit their entire lives. Jesus knew that whoever He chose would have to be tough to endure what was to come; persecution, trials(literal and figurative), and even martyrdom. How easy it is for we pampered Americans to look down our spiritual noses at this crew, in particular Peter, and describe them in almost mocking tones. Let me suggest that the average American Christian couldn’t “hold Peter’s jock”, to employ an old athletic metaphor. Upon this rock, these twelve stones, Jesus would build the edifice that in the end would be the foundation for His covenant to be realized on Earth. Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build My ecclesia.” Joshua might have said, “Upon these rocks we will build the foundation, the recollection of the promises and miracle provision of God, for our future journey into, and conquest of, the Promised Land.”

Why a “memorial”? The twelve stones were placed one upon another to create a “memorial”, a sign of God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Israel. The word “memorial” is found 14 times in the Pentateuch. It is an important word. The feasts, or convocations, were commanded as a “memorial”. These stones, this “memorial”, actually two; one in the river and one where they “lodged”, provided the foundation for Israel going forward, or at least not going backward. (Apparently Joshua was so taken with the idea that it appears that he ordered up the second “memorial”, in the middle of the Jordan, on his own.) So long as they remembered God’s miraculous provision there would never be a doubt that it was God’s will for them to have crossed the Jordan, no matter what hardships they may endure, because it took a miracle to make it happen.

In a sense the crossing of the Jordan may have been a big “do-over”. The crossing of the Red Sea was the first such miracle, but those people were gone, having died off in the desert because they had forgotten God’s miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea. And God was very specific in His instruction to Joshua. Part of His purpose in ordering Joshua to build this memorial was so that when their children asked them what this huge pile of rocks was about they were to tell, and retell, them of God’s miraculous provision. How important it must be for God to so instruct. We must never forget what God has done for us, both individually and collectively? If we do so, we do so at our own peril. I submit that each time we find ourselves in emotional turmoil, swimming in doubt and confusion it is because we have forgotten, we have lost sight of and, consequently, lost hold of God and His promises kept.

How quickly Adam and Eve seem to forget, or perhaps take for granted, the Lord’s provision. How quickly the children of Israel forgot the miracles God performed in Egypt and their deliverance via the Red Sea. The balance of the Old Testament is filled with the record of God’s provision and Israel’s forgetful nature. Are we any different?

Might I suggest that each of us who are Christ-followers might want to build a memorial of our own that we can look back on and remind ourselves of how God has provided for us, individually. Select twelve solid memories, twelve stones, of experiences wherein God broke-in on your behalf. Write them down. Place them somewhere where you can revisit them from time to time, frequently, like every new moon. Be creative. I love rocks. I intend to build my own stone memorial and place it in my back yard where I will see it every time I walk out there. Each with a name, a date, a word to remind me of God’s power manifest on my behalf. If you don’t have twelve such memories just start building with what you do have and ask the Lord to provide the rest. Those stones may well represent the very foundation of our faith, a foundation that will be a necessity in the coming flood. The house built upon the rock withstood the wind and the rain and the deluge. Just sayin’…

True Reformation

“Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.”—Matthew 10:1

During, and now in the aftermath, of the 2020 election many of the voices in the church in America are speaking of the need for reformation. The charge for the church to “wake up” is resounding across social media, that is on those sites that haven’t banned Christians voices as yet. There has been a lot of talk of the “seven mountains” of influence and how the church has lost influence in each of the following: government, finance, the arts (sports and entertainment), education, the media, family and even religion. It is true. The church at large has been for the most part ineffective in molding minds and hearts in each of the subcultures noted. So now what?

First of all, I’m not at all sure that the voices calling for reformation have the same kind of reformation in mind. To those who would seek to go back to the “good ol’ days” I would suggest they get off the “yellow brick road”. Those “good ol’ days”, say hearkening back to the 50’s, before “free love” and rampant abortion etc. etc., were not very “good” if you were a person of color or were a woman. So it should be made very clear that the call for reformation is not a call to return to what would surely be considered an era marked by misogyny and overt racism.

Any true reformation must be the product of changed hearts and minds, not the application of external influences such as laws and political power. Any reformation created through the use of power is simply unbiblical and wrong-headed. Fighting fire with fire is not the way. Yet, when I hear some of those who are leaders in the church at large I become wary. Talk of getting involved, becoming engaged in the political process, calling your congressman, running for city council or the school board, etc. Clearly, those can all be good things, but not if one is doing so to wield influence. That would be a form of manipulation. The idea of flooding each of the seven mountains with Christian influence by sheer numbers is simply an adaptation of “might makes right”. Not to mention that such an approach has its roots in works, as opposed to faith. When one listens to those voices you can’t help but feel the obligation, the duty, inherent in the charge to get involved. It has been said, “Jesus pulls, the devil pushes.” I am feeling pushed.

Permit me to bring back a phrase in vogue not so long ago, “What would Jesus do?”

Back to Matthew 10:1. One might wonder what this verse has to do with the notion of societal or cultural reformation. The key word in the cited verse is authority, “exousia”. “Exousia” is a powerful word. It means power to act. In the New Testament this “delegated power” refers to the authority God gives to His saints to accomplish that which He charges them to do and would be impossible to accomplish without it. This was true authority, real power to accomplish the delegated tasks. The proof is in the pudding, this motley crew went out and did cast out demons and did heal every disease and every kind of sickness. However, to understand the import of the verse one must go back to the last few verses in Matthew 9.

“Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.’”

Jesus was deeply moved by the overwhelming needs of this multitude some of who had walked a 100 miles just to see Him. (That is the distance from Jerusalem to Capernaum on foot.) Note, Jesus didn’t come up with a new public welfare strategy. He didn’t suggest running for public office, in those days getting involved in the hierarchy of the Jewish religious structure, or taking on the Romans. He didn’t recruit people to sign up as volunteer “workers” in an effort to feed, clothe and or educate the masses.

What He did do is immediately call the twelve aside and charge them. But, not only did He charge them, he empowered them by imparting to them the same “authority” that He operated in. Which, by the way, is a perfect model of true delegation, responsibility delegated combined with the power to be responsible.

Ultimately, those twelve, actually eleven plus a replacement for Judas, turned the known world upside down. Not by virtue of forming a new political party, not by initiating a new populous movement, not by preaching a message of “get involved”, “get engaged”, “run for office”. No. The movement that changed the world forever, the greatest reformation yet, was accomplished as a result of focusing on a one-at-a-time, inside out transformation of the individual. We call it revival, which I find to be a curious term. To revive is to bring back to life something that was dead. Is that we want? Jesus did not preach revival, neither did the apostles. Jesus said you can’t put new wine into old wineskins. What we need has to be new. New life, new hope, new dreams, new vision, new power. “Old things passed away, new things have come.”

In order for real reformation to occur there is one absolute necessity… true authority, true power, only available through the Holy Spirit. He is our greatest need. So much of church growth can be explained without any reference to the power of the Holy Spirit. There are massive secular organizations, heavily financed and wielding political power like never before, all accomplished in the flesh. Statistics show that church growth is not a good metric for measuring cultural influence. Paul’s words to Timothy come to mind, “holding to a form of godliness although they have denied its power; avoid such people as these.”(2 Timothy 3:5) This same Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “the Kingdom of God does not consist of words, but of power(dunamis-“dynamite”)”. (1 Corinthians 4:20) As the old ad said. “Where’s the beef?” Unless and until the church is imbued with power from on high and begins to work the works of Jesus, yes miracles, true reformation will remain a pipe dream.

I am in no way suggesting that Christ-followers should not be good citizens. Getting involved in our communities at whatever level is a good thing. Voting is a good thing. However, these are givens they are not a means to an end, they are not part of an overall agenda. We stand in good stead when we become “involved”, in whatever, in obedience to the call and the specific direction of the Holy Spirit. As opposed to responding to a general call to duty in an effort to change our culture, which is a recipe for failure, or worse.

I can only speak for myself. My life lacks the kind of power and authority that Jesus imparted to the twelve that day in Capernaum. I have had what some call God-encounters. I have known His Presence and even His power on occasion, but I don’t walk in it. I do not personally know one Christ-follower who walks in that authority. Not one. I know of them, but I don’t have a personal relationship with them. I have been following Jesus for nearly 50 years, so that is a sad commentary. Until that changes. Until the Lord of the harvest sends out workers into “His” harvest, not our but His. Until we walk in true authority, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and cast out demons and heal the sick and raise the dead we are the one’s in need reformation. Truth.

Having said all that, I do believe that reformation is coming. I do believe reformation is at hand. I do believe more than at any time in my lifetime that the Holy Spirit is about to be poured out on America. I, also, believe it will be messy, very messy. Judgment begins with the household of God. Release that tidal wave of justice and righteousness that the prophet Isaiah spoke of O God. Reform us as only You can. Amen.

Shalom Shalom

“You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, Because he trusts in You.” —Isaiah 26:3

To suggest that we are living in tumultuous times is an understatement. In my 69 years I have never experienced, sensed, felt deeply the deluge of hate and divide now poisoning our land, our world. The 60’s were crazy and we have experienced rioting and violence in the streets, but with the advent of the internet we are immersed in a constant 24/7 stream of toxic vitriol. There are no reasonable discussions to be had. I have yet to witness a single conversation where upon a Trump supporter was apprised of information that made him or her question their position. Likewise, I cannot remember a time when any one of my friends of the liberal persuasion demonstrated a willingness to consider that they may be wrong. It would seem there are no honest conversations wherein one might actually admit their position might be faulty. Positions that are almost purely based upon political bias and hearsay. Perhaps it has always been this way. But, I would suggest this social malady is nowadays on steroids.

I frequently find my mind, especially in the unguarded moment like between sleep and awakening, chasing down rabbit trails that lead to nothing but frustration and, of course, a loss of sleep. I think there is a sense that my personal perspective of justice is being violated. I, also, think that there is a part of me , like those I described above, that enjoys being “right” and/or proved right. This angst is troubling, to say the least. It erodes one’s trust in humankind. It causes me to hunker down and become very deliberate about what I say and to whom I say it. In short, it effects my relationships. One has to take the political temperature in the room before venturing out. It is a bit like walking on egg shells, which is how I grew up and I refuse to live that way as an adult.

So as I was sitting in my spa in the chill of a 3:30 a.m. frost, because that’s where I go to talk with God about these weighty issues that steal my sleep, Isaiah 26:3 popped into my head. I know this verse well, I have studied it previously. However, on this occasion another layer unfolded before me.

An amplified version of the verse might read as follows…

“You(God) will keep him in perfect(shalom) peace(shalom), Whose mind(where thoughts and imaginations are framed) is stayed(laid, resting, leaning) on You, Because he trusts(having a bold confidence that borders on carelessness) in You.”

The first new thought I had when I reread the passage has to do with context. The prophet was speaking of a future time when the nation of Judah would survive a tumultuous season and come into a place of peace and prosperity. The timing of this unfolding layer of understanding, in combination with our current national context, served to underscore the significance of this passage for me in such a time as this.

The first observation of note in verse three is the double shalom rendered as “perfect peace”, it is literally “shalom shalom”. Shalom actually means much more than simply peace. Like most Hebrew words, it does not translate into a single English word or notion. Shalom carries a sense of completeness, soundness, welfare, peace, safety, health, prosperity. It is a word pregnant with meaning. And, in this verse the prophet doubles up which perhaps to the Jewish mind was akin to a double portion, the prized inheritance of the eldest son. I would suggest that this is very much like the peace that the Apostle Paul wrote about in his letter to the Philippians, it is a “peace that surpasses understanding”. How does one obtain such “shalom”, especially in the midst of turmoil?

It is the reward for those who keep their minds (the seat of all thoughts, imaginations, speculations) “stayed” on God. Once again the Hebrew word eludes a direct correlation to a single English word. The idea is that one must cause their mind to focus, lean on, find rest in God. It sounds simple. It is simple in concept, it can be very difficult in practice. Why? Because our minds are constantly at work, whether we want them to be or not. Some of us cannot sleep because we cannot stop thinking about what happened yesterday or today, or what might happen tomorrow. We speculate, we worry. We know we cannot control our world, though many of us will die trying. We know that the world can be hurtful, painful, even deadly. And, not just for ourselves, but for our loved ones. The Apostle Paul spoke to that one too, “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” But, here’s the kicker, the layer that unfolded before me this morning in the hot tub…

The last phrase is actually the key, “because he trusts in You.” Trust is the issue. True trust in God produces a sense of boldness and confidence such that one can afford to be “careless”, that is without a care. That is child-like trust. That is why Jesus said it is necessary to become like a child. If my wife and I did our job each day our young children could go to bed each night without a worry in the world. Oh, that I could get back to that place! It is “because” of that trust that one’s mind is freed to rest in God in the midst of mess. Mental discipline may keep one focused for a moment or a minute or an hour, but in the end our level of trust in our Father will be determinative. Worry, angst, sleeplessness cannot be coexistent with this trust and are a sure sign that I have allowed fear to enter in. I plead Paul once again…

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”

Further

“But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”—Romans 8:31-35, 37-39

So now I can go back to bed and sleep having flooded my mind with a good word. I can trust God to keep me through the night. Tomorrow night I may have to reread my own words… life is a battle.

2021

“But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The prophet Amos lived some 2700 years ago, yet his words still wax prophetic. Most of us might well remember Dr. King adopting this timeless phrase as a theme in his fight for civil rights in the 60s. While Dr. King is no longer with us the hope, the prayer, the intention of these words prevail.

But” is a large three letter word that should not be ignored. It signifies a contrast. In contrast to the status quo of that time in the northern ten tribes of Israel; wherein social injustice, corruption in the marketplace, and a formal, yet dead, religious practice marked the day. Sound familiar?

Amos, a herdsman from Judea, employs a surprising literary device, given his station in life, a simile. He warns Israel that there still is a God in Israel. He still sees, He has taken note. He sent droughts, floods, plagues in an effort to get their attention, to no avail. Now He is coming. He is coming as the God whose notions of justice and righteousness are “like” waters. They are not simply concepts, not just ideas or ideals. Rather, they flow. They are dynamic, they have life, bring life, preserve life. They are the embodiment, the fabric of life rightly lived.

Are we not ancient Israel? Is modern America not plagued by injustice, corruption, excess, graft, and now a plague of sorts? As has been stated by those wiser than I, if God does not judge America He will owe some folks an apology.

I submit God’s justice is coming, it is about to “roll down like waters.” How does water “roll down”? The only place I can think of where water actually “rolls” is at the ocean. Waves roll. They roll until they reach the breaking point, the tipping point, and when they break they unleash tremendous power. This justice is not going to stroll into town. It is not going to be ushered in slowly, neatly, incrementally. No, it is going to break like a tidal wave across this land.

And what of God’s righteousness? First, the modern English definition of righteousness is “acting in accord with divine or moral law : free from guilt or sin.” It has become, almost exclusively, a religious term. That is not what the Hebrew word meant. In Hebrew, righteousness describes a wider concept that includes notions of being accurate, fair, rightness in the sense of just weights and measures in the marketplace and in the courts. It would be accurately portrayed by Lady Justice. She is blindfolded, such that she is no respecter of persons. She holds a perfectly balanced scale in her left hand, because she owns no bias or prejudice. She wields a sword in her right hand, the sword of truth. She represents a wonderful ideal, one rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Our land has never fully lived up to that ideal. Some would say, not even close. Be that as it may, we have now all but jettisoned that tradition. The marketplace is corrupt; insiders lie, cheat and steal. Government is often dispensed by those who have forgotten what it is to be a “public servant”. Too often they use their position to feather their own nest such that when they leave public service they are far wealthier than a government salary would suggest possible. The courts too often render inconsistent judgments based upon regional bias and prejudice. The higher courts of the land are employed to not only interpret the laws through the lens of our Constitution, but now generate law by virtue of their decisions, and as such are used to circumvent the legislative process. Too often, the rich receive one form of justice, the poor another.

Amos rightly conjoins God’s justice and righteousness. They cannot be separated. Justice will roll down like a mighty waters. Righteousness like an “ever-flowing stream”, which is actually a poor translation. The Hebrew word translated “ever-flowing” does hold a sense of being perpetual, but it also contains a sense of power, that of rushing water, even a torrent. Taken together, I am suggesting that God is about to send a tidal wave that will change the lay of the land. He is going to upset the status quo. There will be ruin and destruction. It will be messy. It will be a deep cleaning. It will be a massive correction that will impact both the secular and the religious. It’s coming. May we suffer a lesser fate than that of the ten tribes, Lord have mercy…

“Antidote to the Coronavirus Panic of 2020…”

“You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you: because he trusts in you.” – Isaiah 26:3

In this time of turmoil, mental anguish, confusion, truth simplified is at its best. When beset by conflict, anguish, fear we have little energy or inclination for complex theological computation. This verse epitomizes simplicity, yet in no way compromises the powerful promise of God.

In the end we all seek just one thing… peace. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Jesus is a priest according to the Order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek means King of Righteousness, but he was, also, the King of Salem(shalom), that is peace.

In our world peace means harmony, the absence of hostility, the absence of violence or conflict, or the fear thereof. The Biblical view of peace is more.

The Hebrew word translated peace in the cited verse is “shalom”. You may recognize this as a common Jewish expression, salutation or greeting, but it is so much more. The Hebrew concept of “shalom” meant wholeness, completeness, soundness, health, safety, prosperity, and had staying power, the implication of permanence because it was rooted in God.

Compare and contrast the two terms: peace as over against shalom. The one is fragile, the other enduring; one exists primarily as an antithesis to the negative(fear, violence, conflict); the other is a stand alone, it exists only and always as a positive; one is primarily one dimensional, a state of mind; the other encompasses the whole man, the whole body, the whole human experience.

Interestingly enough, the phrase translated “perfect peace” in Isaiah 26:3 is literally “shalom shalom”, a double portion of peace. Peace upon peace. Perhaps a peace so great that it defies description.

I believe a well known Biblical personage may have paraphrased this concept in his letter to the Philippians: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:7)

Who would not want to experience this peace? How do we obtain this peace? Jesus is the Prince of Peace, His atonement alone is the source of such peace. In the New Testament we are admonished to “keep our eyes upon Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith”. I submit that the same concept is embodied in Isaiah 26:3.

The assurance stated at the beginning of the verse is that God will keep “him”, or “the one”, in perfect peace. Who is “him” or “the one”? The one is “whose mind is stayed on you”. The New Living Translation captures the concept beautifully, “all whose thoughts are fixed on you!”

Lastly, there is causation. What causes God to keep such a one in perfect peace? It’s not just that they have set their mind on God, it’s “because he trusts in You.” It all starts, and ends, there.

The Hebrew word here translated “trust” means to be bold, confident, secure, sure, be a careless one, to put confidence in. I love the thought of carelessness in this context. I am so confident that God has my back that I am without a care, I am “careless”. Not stupid, so cared for that I am care-less.

So in the midst of the covid-19 storm, a very real storm, where the winds of media coverage threaten to undo us, where waves of fear of the unknown threaten to shipwreck our faith, there is an antidote. Shalom, shalom. Peace, peace. Perfect peace. It is yours for the asking…

“Rejoice always… “

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” Philippians 4:4

“Rejoice always;” 1 Thessalonians 5:16

Always, really?? In the original language of the New Testament, Greek, “always” means at all times. Yes, always. As in, I have always struggled with these verses so I just put them on the back burner and moved on. Today I bring them to the front burner…

The modern English definition of “rejoice”: to be glad; take delight. Synonyms: revel, exult, glory.

So let’s work this definition into Paul’s admonition to do so at all times. “My dog just died.” Be glad, delight, be pleased, revel, exult, glory. Worse, “My child just died.” Be glad, exult, glory. That’s just stupid. Beyond stupid, cruel. This interpretation and application is nonsensical and is simply not consistent with the law of love. So, it cannot be the proper interpretation and application. Perhaps something is lost in the transliteration…

Transliteration, the process of transforming, in this case, a Greek word into an English word. The Greek word used in both verses, cited above, is χαίρω. Got that? In English, the transliteration, is “chairó”. According to one lexicon, the root of the word means “to be favorably disposed, leaning towards”. Properly, to delight in God’s grace. Literally, to experience God’s grace, to be conscious of and glad for His grace. Further, it is closely related, a cognate (that is to share the same root or birth), to “charis”, which means grace and/or favor. Another lexicon suggests, “chairó” means “glad for grace” and it has a “direct etymological connection with charis (grace)”. Yet another commentator suggests that the Greek word for “chará”(joy) and “cháris”(grace) are cognate with “chaírō”(to rejoice), “they all share the same root and therefore the same core, fundamental meaning”.

First and foremost, what strikes me is what rejoicing is NOT in the original language. There is no sense of revelry, of doing a “happy dance” or sensual delight or sense of gaiety. There is no sense of smiling, laughing, or the lightheartedness that is suggested by the English definition of “rejoice”. It is not some shallow temporal emotional state. Rather, “chairó”, and its cognates, strike me as a deeper, more considered, even contemplative condition of mind and spirit that is more consistent with the concept of contentment, as over against happiness.

In the context of a relationship with God this Greek concept of rejoicing is eye opening. To delight in God’s grace. To lean into God. To be favorably disposed toward Him. These are notions consistent with a Father-child relationship. These are notions consistent with the law of love.

Lastly, we must consider the context in which Paul wrote these verses in order to understand his objective in so doing.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Phil. 4:5-8 (NASB)

This passage is found near the end of his letter, he is wrapping up his thoughts, these are his last words of instruction, therefore, they carry considerable weight. The theme, the emphasis, of these final words is on their state of mind and heart. Rejoicing is not a stand alone.

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” 1 Thess. 5:16-22 (NASB)

Once again, these represent Paul’s last words of instruction, this time to the Thessalonians. Do you see a theme? Compare the two passages and we see that rejoicing, giving thanks, guarding one’s mind, examining, dwelling on that which is good… are referenced in both. Again, rejoicing is not a stand alone. Rejoicing is inextricably linked to prayer, being thankful, meditating upon God’s grace, and paying attention to our thought-life. To rejoice is not to gin up an emotional state. Nor is it something that can be expected to sovereignly overwhelm us, lest Paul would not have given responsibility to the readers to invoke it. Given the etymology and the context how then might we apply the admonition to rejoice always?

When I am in a funk I find it very difficult to even think about rejoicing. However, I find that if I choose to pray, starting by simply finding things to be thankful for and continuing in that vein, mining the nuggets lodged in my memory of the manifest grace of God in my life, the darkness begins to lift. If I choose to begin to praise Him for all that He has done in my life, and especially if I choose to incorporate music, the light begins to dawn. As I choose to “lean toward” Jesus, as I choose to “delight in God’s grace”, as I choose to remain in a posture of listening to, and speaking with, Jesus (“prayer without ceasing”) I will find myself “rejoicing”, in the New Testament meaning of that word. It’s a place of experiencing the “shalom” of God, the peace of God that defies definition such that Paul refers to it as that which “surpasses all comprehension”.

When I perceive Paul’s admonition in this light I begin to see that his words are not so much a command, rather words of a loving father to his children. Why? Perhaps because he knew that it is impossible to rejoice and be depressed at the same time. It is impossible for evil to overshadow us when we are rejoicing in what God has done, and will do in us and for us. It is not some kind of litmus test to Christian maturity. It is not an end in and of itself. Rejoicing is a weapon that when properly wielded fends off all the fiery darts of the evil one. It is also a shelter, a place of rest in the midst of the storms of life. It’s a place of refreshment. Who wouldn’t want to dwell there at all times?

It has been said by those wiser than I, that giving thanks promotes mental health, and rejoicing promotes emotional/psychological health. Here’s to our health…