So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.
Genesis 1:27-28 NIV
Let’s imagine that you’ve started a new job, and your boss says to you, “We are so glad that you are here. Our organizational goal is to work you really hard to get the most out of you for the company’s benefit.” Now, how much better would that first day of the job be for you if you heard this instead: “We’re so glad that you’re here, and our personal goal is to make sure that we give you everything that you need to grow and succeed, and we hope that you are happy here for many years.”
In chapter one of Genesis, God creates Adam and Eve in a special way. Beyond creating Adam and Eve in His image, the first thing that He does is bless them. Before He tells them to be fruitful and increase and subdue and rule, He blesses them.
The importance of this blessing cannot be overlooked. This blessing remains a common thread throughout the first five books of the Bible. When the people of Israel are standing before huge armies, they know that they will be victorious because they have received the blessing of God, who says He will never leave them or forsake them.
It is important for us to understand that God’s motive is to bless Adam and Eve before releasing them into the earth without the divine covering a blessing from God provides. The very first thing God does when He welcomes us as His children, is bless us. And, before he expects anything of us, He blesses us, and, it is this divine blessing that gives us the capacity to carry out His commands.
We may believe that in order to experience God, we must somehow first be called to experience Him. But, experiencing God doesn’t start with a calling. It doesn’t start with an assignment or expression of divine expectation. God doesn’t start His relationship with us by first commanding us to do something that will somehow benefit Him. God starts His relationship with us with a precious gift.
No matter our situation, history, or upbringing, as children of God, we carry His blessing, and it is a blessing that no one, not even Satan, can take away from us.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:13-14 (NIV)
Paul writes this epistle from a jail cell in Rome. He is taking time to prepare the saints in Philippi to put up a fierce defense of the Gospel. Paul knows that the Gospel is under attack. Paul is clear in his message and warning: If we want to be devout followers of Jesus Christ, we need to focus on three things:
- Worship God in and by the spirit, and not as a prisoner of weighty, abusive tradition.
- Rest or anchor all of our faith in Christ alone, whose living witness, dying sacrifice, glorious resurrection, and promised return are all a guarantee of God’s forgiveness and redemption of the human soul.
- Put absolutely no confidence in the flesh. At the end of the day, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.
For Paul, making these goals his highest and chief aim helped him to ignore all of his critics around him, and allowed him to be unaffected by the chatter from others about his life, walk, and ministry. Paul stopped chasing human acceptance and focused on his relationship with Jesus Christ.
Paul describes his life as a footrace, which requires that he forget those things that are behind him. Paul couldn’t waste the time paying attention to those who considered him less than the other apostles. Paul focused on the maturing spiritual plateaus that God set before him.
Forgetting the things behind him doesn’t mean that Paul had erased his past from his memory. He often recounts events and thoughts from his past. However, he makes a choice to stop his past from impeding his progress. He doesn’t let his past as a persecutor of Christians stop him or make him feel unworthy.
He has been shown the prize, and the Spirit has given him a lane assignment for his life. Paul is determined to take his lane assignment, hit the track, and run the race with patience. He isn’t going to let his past stop his race. Instead, he looks unto Jesus, the author and finisher of his faith.
Paul says to the Philippians: stop worrying about tradition, stop worrying about critics, don’t concentrate on the person running in the next lane, and stop paying attention to their shoes or their uniform.
We need to worship by the spirit, determine not to let traditions block us from letting God’s creativity work in our lives, rest all of our hopes in Christ alone, and don’t ever trust our flesh! Look towards the author and finisher of our faith.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, …
We can often discern when the Lord is moving in our lives, and we can discern how He intends to move by paying strict attention to the strange arrangements that He configures around us.
God intends to challenge all competing presences in our lives. God doesn’t intend to skirt around His unapologetic want for total supremacy in our lives. We never have to guess God’s motives. God wants lordship.
Nothing else gets to compete over lordship for our lives because no other connection in our lives has paid the same sacrifice that God has. We acknowledge that we love our life, but we belong to the Lord. We were bought with a price. Therefore, it is expected that we glorify God.
This is why we do not allow those who know the mess of our yesterdays to talk us out of chasing the brightness of our tomorrow. Between the mess of our yesterdays and the brightness of our tomorrow is the grace of our God. God’s grace has already paid the price for our sins. Thus, He now gets to make decisions about our eternal destination, which is going to be, as Paul said, “… in a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens.”
God has a right to make decisions about our daily path because He is the one who feeds us our daily bread. He makes decisions about our path because He has ordered our steps according to His Word. Matthew comes along and adds this advent narrative to teach us how to discern when God is making these kinds of decisions in our lives.
We need to understand this because we don’t want to miss what God has created for our lives because we don’t pray, worship, or meditate on His presence or His word.
Here Matthew shows one of the ways that God shapes decisions for us. God gives confirmation by showing us how He works in a particular place: “Jesus, Born in Bethlehem of Judea.”
This is important because it is in Bethlehem: where Jacob was buried, where Rachael’s remains rest, where Ruth found her Boaz, and where David was born and raised. Today, we add that Bethlehem is where we Christians can say that Jesus was born.
When God is growing us and shaping us, we must learn to pay attention to how God is moving. When normalcy is stirred by a move of God in our lives, we must pay attention because whenever God is moving differently at any time throughout our journey, our journey becomes pregnant with possibility.
When what we think or feel about the place we are in suddenly changes, God is giving us a sign that He is about to birth something in us.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry
James 1:19 (NIV)
James focuses on the how, not the why of our trials in the verse above. God allows us to experience trials, because he is proving our faith. He is addressing our defects and doesn’t want us to lack anything. So, we can’t get angry about what is happening to us or about what others are saying to, around, or in spite of us. Whatever they are saying is much more spiritual than they understand.
Out of reverence for God, we should listen to Him and let His Word shape our speech, so that our speech can reflect our faith. God is doing more to shape and perfect us with difficult exchanges with others than we realize.
This is the how.
The why is because God wants to prove our faith, but to prove our faith, we need to be a good steward of our words. If we don’t want to experience the same trials over and over again, James makes it clear that we should let our ears lead us, our mouth follow, and let anger straggle along (James 1:19 MSG). That way, when we are faced with someone who is using reckless words, we can learn to see this as God’s work in our life and a maturing of our faith.
When James wrote this, James was standing in a world of infant Christianity. Words caused Christians to be locked up, killed, and publicly beaten. Violent rhetoric was inciting violent and senseless killings. Words were making family members enemies. Instead of people listening to what God was saying, they were acting on their own words and letting anger lead them.
Today, we often let anger take us to a place that we regret once our anger has subsided. But James reminds us that Jesus wants us to respond differently. We follow Christ, and He helps us to control our emotions. By the Grace of God and the work of the Spirit, we can be transformed until we can bring our emotions in check and line up our emotions with God’s Word and will.
If the Holy Spirit leads and emotions follow, we can make decisions that will expand the Kingdom of God.
When he finished that talk, a Pharisee asked him to dinner. He entered his house and sat right down at the table. The Pharisee was shocked and somewhat offended when he saw that Jesus didn’t wash up before the meal. But the Master said to him, “I know you Pharisees burnish the surface of your cups and plates so they sparkle in the sun, but I also know your insides are maggoty with greed and secret evil. Stupid Pharisees! Didn’t the One who made the outside also make the inside? Turn both your pockets and your hearts inside out and give generously to the poor; then your lives will be clean, not just your dishes and your hands.
Luke 11:37-41 (MSG)
The Pharisee, as soon as Jesus is at his house, begins a malicious inspection, trying to find something that can justify killing Jesus, and the Pharisee found his opportunity when Jesus did not ceremonially wash his hands before the meal.
This hand washing, a man-made rule by the Pharisees, served to help the Pharisees separate themselves from the common person. The Pharisees had developed detailed rules and regulations, concerning everything from the exact amount of water to be used, what vessels the water would be poured from, how they were to pour the water from the vessels, and more. However, they were not commanded by Levitical law to follow such practices.
The Pharisee noticed that Jesus did not wash His hands, and while the Pharisee did not express anything verbally, Jesus sees his heart. This explains why Jesus accepted the invitation in the first place. It was not because He thought that the Pharisee wanted to make a conversion. Jesus knew that it was an invitation to be on display. Jesus wanted to be there to say more about how twisted the Pharisees were.
In a moment of spiritual clairvoyance, Jesus speaks to the heart of the Pharisee. Here, Jesus puts emphasis on the inside of our spiritual lives. Following Jesus is not for the shaping of our outside devotion to God. Following Jesus is for washing and cleansing the inside of our hearts.
Spirituality is not about having a sparkling and perfect outside. Spirituality is about making sure that the inner content of our lives is clean and purified by a devoted engagement with the one who can transform our minds. Just as Jesus later taught, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man. Matthew 15:11 (NASB).” Jesus is clearly focusing on the value of inside, spiritual transformation.
We see this because everyone around us is forced to live an exterior-focused life; meanwhile, they are being eaten by the maggots in their hearts. We all know the temptation of focusing on the external, while we neglect what is important on the inside. However, Jesus teaches us that power doesn’t come from the outside.
We can’t find meaning, happiness, or fulfillment from the outside. They are the result of a heart and will that has been conditioned by a relationship with Jesus Christ. We can have a strong soul when we have strong devotion to the God of our salvation.
Whatever you want to do, whatever you want to be, whatever you want to experience, you will only find true meaning if you are cleaned inside by the life-changing work of Jesus Christ, which means we have to make our spiritual life an inside project.