Unveiling Islam and Muhammad

For nearly 95 percent of the world’s population, conversion to Christianity often means disowning, disinheritance, expulsion, arrest, and even death. At this moment, for the sake of the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:16-20), men and women are being whipped into submission, tortured, imprisoned, beaten, and banned from their families. Homes are being torched, entire families executed, so-called apostates stoned to death. This, of course, is nothing new. Christians have been persecuted and tortured since the first century because of their belief in Jesus. If you believe that these events are rare, or in the past, then you are sadly misinformed.

Despite the horrors of such persecution, Christianity cannot be snuffed out. Why? Because it is more than a religion. It is not merely a set of beliefs; a certain “sect” or denomination; it is not merely one of the many ways of “getting to God.” In this case, all roads do not lead to Rome! Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior. He is the only means by which mankind can be saved and restored to a relationship with God the Father. Biblical Christianity assumes the very essence of truth. Truth implies the existence of error, and mutually exclusive claims of truth cannot both be correct.

Such is the case with Islam and Christianity. They cannot both be correct.

THE BASIS OF A RELATIONSHIP WITH ALLAH

A Muslim’s devotion is not an act of love, but of fear. I’ve learned this from talking to those who have come out from the darkness of Islam into the light of Christianity, as well as a missionary stationed in Northern Africa. I see this in biographies of men and women who were once Muslims but are now Christians. Every Muslim fears the scales of justice, which weigh his or her good deeds against their bad deeds. There is no grace; no forgiveness; no unconditional love. Moreover, there is no freedom to reject Allah. According to Hadith 9.57, those who leave the faith are to be killed.

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To the devout Muslim, “God loves you” is the brash claim of Christianity. No such statement can be found in the Qur’an. Whereas the Bible teaches that God hates sin but loves the sinner, Islamic scripture affirms that Allah hates sinners. Allah thinks even less of apostates—those who have abandoned their faith. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV). The Qur’an says, “For Allah loves not transgressors” (Surah 2:190). Even if we take Islam at face value—as a religion that speaks of God—there is a major difference in the personal quality of Allah and God.

Islam teaches that Allah sent prophets and messengers to proclaim the truth. In Christianity, God the Father sent His Son to be Truth. Jesus came to teach the Good News, to die for our sins, and to reconcile men and women to God. In Islam, it is hoped that salvation is earned through one’s good works (Surah 3:31). One must love Allah in order for Allah to love that person in return. In Christianity, God loved us first (Romans 5:8).

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There is no security for the believer of Islam. The follower of Allah is left wondering if it’s Allah’s will that they make it to Paradise. Good works can only give the hope of heaven, but never the guarantee. The question will not be answered until the Day of Judgment. For the Christian, judgment was satisfied at the cross. Of course, this is an event rejected by Muhammad and Allah. In fact, Surah 14:4 paints quite a dismal picture: “We sent not a messenger except [to teach] in the language of his people, that he may enlighten them. Then Allah leads astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills. He is Almighty, All-Wise.” I’m shocked at the predetermination of this verse. Allah will decide who will enter Paradise. Faith has nothing to do with it.

In Islam, salvation is “awarded” by Allah arbitrarily to those he deems worthy. In fact, Muhammad questioned his own salvation, even though he was the greatest of prophets, supposedly appointed by Allah to “set the record straight.” According to Hadith 5.266, “Muhammad said: ‘By Allah, though I am the Apostle of Allah, yet I do not know what Allah will do to me.'” Allah will send to heaven whomever he pleases, and send to hell whomever he pleases.

Christian sects often argue over the validity and meaning of Romans 8:29-30: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (NIV). We’re told in Ephesians 1:4-5, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (NIV). In stark contrast to Allah, God had a plan for man’s salvation before He spoke the universe into existence. There are no works, special skills, incantations, indulgences, absolution, or actions to be undertaken in order to earn God’s love or to be forgiven and redeemed from our sins.

ISLAM AND POLITICS

Any religion built upon a foundation of salvation by personal righteousness—i.e., by works alone—is based on the individual loving and pleasing God before God will love them. Allah must be coaxed into loving the individual. In Chapter 4: The Daily Life of a Muslim Woman, it is stated, “Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) was called on to furnish an example through following which mankind’s love for their Maker could find full expression and its highest fulfillment by enabling them to win the love of Allah” [Italics mine]. This is quite the opposite of unconditional love. It is, in fact, nothing resembling God’s agape love.

Here is the curious “other side of the coin” in this exchange of affection and devotion for Muslims. In return for showing love to Allah, Muslims expect reciprocity. Their obedience earns prosperity. Surah 24:54-56 says, “Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them, and that He will surely establish for them [therein] their religion which He has preferred for them and that He will surely substitute for them, after their fear, security, [for] they worship Me, not associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that—then those are the defiantly disobedient.”

To the Muslim, the key is that prosperity is understood as integrating politics and religion. The Islamic theology of “prosperity for devotion to Allah” shows that religion and politics are inextricably connected. This is true solely for the purpose of hijrah. Islam intends to conquer and dominate all of mankind, thus forming a worldwide caliphate. How does this differ from the Great Commission of spreading the Gospel to all corners of the world? The most vital difference is Christianity does not intend to infiltrate politics in the same manner as Islam. Christianity is a religion that focuses on mankind’s relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. Islam is a theocracy that intends to force everyone, everywhere, to believe and act in exactly the same manner. It’s akin to fascism; the individual does not matter. Only the state matters.

MUHAMMAD’S MILITARY CAMPAIGN

Muhammad intended to conquer all of Northern Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe. He is known to have wiped out entire caravans of his own people in order to steal their gold, cash, and other property to fund his campaign. His prosperity depended upon the extent to which he and his fellow Muslims showed hatred toward the enemies of Allah. Interestingly, Muslims may not secretly or inwardly love the enemies of Allah even if they seemingly shun them or hate them outwardly. Surah 14:38 says, “Oh our Sustainer! Thou truly knowest all that we may hide [in our hearts] as well as all that we bring into the open: for nothing whatever, be it on earth or in heaven, remains hidden from God.”

Islam has insurmountable objections to Western civilization in general, and the United States in particular. This seems to be a fusion of their views of liberalism as the ultimate evil with medieval Islamic theories that divided the world into two hostile factions: the House of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the House of War (dar al-harb). The House of Islam included all territory under the rule of Islam, while the House of War was the rest of the world that refused to recognize the authority of Islam. The House of War is open to warfare or jihad. Thankfully, most Muslims today do not hold this view.

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This is why it upsets me to hear someone completely disparage and dismiss all Muslims in reaction to 9/11, the U.S.S. Cole, and many other violent and cowardly attacks of militant extremists. To do so is to decide to hate those we should instead want to reach with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. It amounts to choosing resentment of an entire culture of God’s children for the heinous acts of some. Remember, no one will go out of their way to help or witness to those they despise. It is only jihadis  who accept this dichotomous view of the world. They have a hatred (directed by Muhammad as outlined in the Qur’an) of anyone who is not Muslim. This hatred is the very cornerstone of their foreign policies.

For some jihadis it is not enough to assert that the conflict is a natural part of God’s order. To satisfy their reading of Islamic law, they must find some way to show that the current enemies of Islam are the aggressors. In fact, these jihadis claim it is the enemies of Islam—the infidels, specifically America and Israel—that started this war. They believe Christians and Jews are entirely responsible for the struggle between Islam and the unbelievers. In addition, these Islamic extremists identify leaders of the “liberal” West—men like George W. Bush, Tony Blair, or Donald Trump—as tyrants. The jihadis claim these men share the characteristics of the tyrants mentioned in the Qur’an. In an ironic twist, they accuse such leaders of wanting to take over the world.

Islamic extremists argue that the first representatives of unbelief were, of course, the Jews and the early Christians. They note that the Byzantine Empire took to the battlefield to destroy the Muslims, but they don’t admit that the Byzantines were merely attempting to stop Muhammad’s conquests. The Byzantine Army was not lying in wait, nor did they pursue the Arab Muslims.  Muhammad received intelligence that a Byzantine army was in North Saudi Arabia, so he called a jihad against the Byzantines. This was the first battle of Mu’tah in 629 A.D. The Islamic military then pushed in to Byzantine Syria and eventually destroyed the Empire. The Crusades were actually a plea for help from the Byzantine Emperor. Of course, the Islamic extremists see the Crusades as an attempt to wipe Islam off the face of the earth. In fact, they believe the Crusades never really ended. All interactions between European governments and America and the Muslim nations today are seen as a continuation of the “crusading spirit” of the Middle Ages.

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A CLOSER LOOK AT MUHAMMAD

Let’s take a close look at the life of Muhammad as recounted in Islamic tradition and as reflected in the Qur’an, with a focus on peace versus violence. Although there are many intractable problems that arise when studying Muhammad’s life, including questions about the historical reliability of the sources, discrepancies in archaeological findings, the reliability of the Qur’anic manuscripts, inconsistencies in geographic reports, foreign accounts of early Islam, and problematic merchant records, none of these detract from the aim to understand Muhammad according to Muslim tradition.

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Muhammad was born in 571 A.D. and experienced a very difficult childhood. His father died before he was born, and his grandfather passed away when he was young. In his young adulthood he became a merchant and was known for his integrity, wisdom, and skill. At the age of forty, Muhammad alleges to have received his call to become the prophet of Islam while meditating in a cave near Mecca. He said the angle Gabriel appeared to him in a revelation. Islam claims Allah sent his chief messenger, Muhammad, to guide people as the perfect exemplar. Unparalleled in wisdom, character, and spiritual devotion, Muhammad led the new Muslim community from ignorance, through oppression, and into glorious victory for the sake of Allah. These revelations resulted in the Qur’an. Muhammad claimed that he was not preaching a new religion, but simply the culmination of what God had revealed in the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus, whom Muhammad considered to be a great prophet, but not divine.

Although some traditional Muslims claim Islam has always existed, and was the first true religion—claiming as some of its prophets Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus—Muhammad introduced Islam in 610 A.D. His first thirteen years as the prophet of Islam were spent proclaiming these Qur’anic revelations to the polytheists of Mecca. The Islamic teachings proclaimed, “There is no god but God [Allah], and Muhammad is his Prophet.” The mercantile economy of Mecca was bolstered by a steady pilgrimage of polytheists to their city, which was home to 360 idols. These businessmen opposed the preaching of Muhammad, which insisted there was only one God. Muhammad essentially founded the first Muslim community, in which worship, as well as civil and political life, followed the guidelines set out by him. Muslims considered him to be flawless despite being human. Islamic theology has accorded him the title al-Insan al-Kamil, “the man who has attained perfection.”

Far from perfection, Ibn Hisham states in the introduction of his translation of Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad, Sirat Rasul Allah, that he altered the story of Muhammad’s life. “Things which it is disgraceful to discuss, matters which would distress certain people, and such reports as [my teacher] told me he could not accept as trustworthy—all these things I have omitted.” You can read the biography at archive.org, but it is a tedious process given the site has photographed the book two pages at a time and posted it for our purview. Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, writes, “I do not doubt that Ibn Hisham had noble intentions, but it does not change the fact that he altered Muhammad’s story to make it more palatable…”

MUHAMMAD’S MILITARY AND POLITICAL CAMPAIGN

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Muhammad and his followers set out on a military and political campaign that eventually gave them control over Mecca. Part of his campaign included the destruction of all idols. Muhammad escaped Mecca on the night of an assassination attempt. Historians refer to these early years of Muhammad’s ministry as his Meccan years, and they are the only years Muhammad didn’t engage in raids or battles.

The next ten years were the last of Muhammad’s life. These were his emblematic years, often called the maghazi years by classical Muslim commentators. Maghazi means “raids,” which is an appropriate description. At the end of his first year in Medina, Muhammad started launching raids.  From the time Muhammad first obtained a following, he launched raids and battles every year until he died. 

The first successful raid that Muhammad ordered, the Nakhla raid, was controversial and remains so 1,400 years later. On Muhammad’s orders, raiders were sent to intercept a Meccan caravan quite some distance from the Muslim base of Medina. Whether by Muhammad’s intention or not, the interception occurred during the holy month of Ramadan, a time of truce between all Arabs. The Muslim raiders shaved their heads, making it appear that they were on a pilgrimage. Upon seeing that the Muslims were observing the holy month, the Meccans let down their guard and began setting up camp. That is when Muhammad’s men attacked, killing and capturing undefended Meccans during a sacred time of truce, a great sin in the eyes of most Arabs.

When news of this treacherous act reached Medina, even many Muslims were understandably indignant. But then came a rather “convenient” revelation from the Qur’an, defending Muhammad’s raiders against the inquiries of the dismayed: “They ask you about fighting in the holy months. Tell them, ‘Fighting in the holy months is a great sin, but a greater sin is to prevent mankind from following the way of Allah, to disbelieve in him’… [O]pression is worse than slaughter” (Surah 2:217). According to the Qur’an, the Meccan oppression of keeping people from Islam was worse than slaughtering them during a time of truce. This attack by the Muslims during Ramadan, not at all defensive but entirely offensive, was vindicated by the Qur’an.

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While the primary source of Islamic doctrine is the Qur’an, the Qur’an is not biographical in nature, and it tells us practically nothing about Muhammad. Much of his life and sayings are contained in the Hadith. Muslims tend to focus solely on the good characteristics of their prophet, and to completely ignore less admirable qualities. We have already seen that Muhammad began robbing caravans after leaving Mecca. As a result, greed soon became one of the primary factors in people’s rapid conversion to Islam. Indeed, Muhammad deliberately used the spoils of war to lure people to Islam. When he was criticized for the way he distributed his newfound wealth, he replied, “Are you disturbed in mind because of the good things of this life by which I win over a people that they may become Muslims while I entrust you to your Islam?”

Although Muhammad patiently endured persecution in Mecca, his attitude quickly changed when his numbers grew in Medina. Soon he would tolerate no criticism whatsoever. According to our earliest biographical source, a man named Abu Afak—who was more than a hundred years old—wrote a poem criticizing people for converting to Islam. Muhammad demanded he be killed, and Abu Afak was murdered in his sleep.

Muhammad’s violence was directed toward groups as well. Muhammad once said to his followers, “I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslims.” The Jews of Qurayza resisted Muhammad and attempted to form an alliance against him. When the alliance faltered, Muhammad acted quickly. His armies surrounded them and besieged them for twenty-five nights until they were sore pressed and God cast terror into their hearts. Then they surrendered, and the apostle confined them in Medina. Muhammad had trenches dug near the market in Medina, then sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900. Every male who had reached puberty was killed. Muhammad divided the women, children, and property among his men, taking a fifth of the spoils for himself.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Muslims believe that Muhammad was morally perfect, and that an examination of his life proves he was a prophet. The evidence, however, shows that Muhammad was far from morally perfect, and that there’s no good reason to believe that he was sent by God. There is a world of difference between the Muhammad of history and the Muhammad of faith. In contrast, Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, who performed miracles, died on the cross, and rose from the dead. A careful historical investigation confirms all of these beliefs. Apologetics has done a fine job of linking incontrovertible evidence from theological and secular sources to the truth of Jesus. Thus, while Christians have absolutely nothing to fear from an examination of early historical sources, history is a huge problem for Islam.

We Are God’s Co-Workers

For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. —1 Corinthians 3:9 (NIV).

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WE ARE ALL CALLED to serve the Lord in one manner or another. We are His co-workers; part of the ultimate synergy—working as partners with God in the quest to spread the Gospel.

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Ours is a five-fold Gospel. Ephesians 4:11-13 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (NIV). This Scripture passage highlights five distinct areas or roles of ministry which God has given to the church so that the Body of Christ can operate effectively and reach maturity. Essentially, the five-fold orientation to ministry places church leaders in groups specific to their gift in order to serve the church. The purpose of five-fold ministry is simply to serve. The end-goal is not merely training ministers within the church; it is to equip the church to become Christ. This is how we are able to participate with Jesus in restoration that comes after redemption.

Old Testament Leadership

There are six different forms of leadership throughout the Old Testament:

  1. Covenant bearers–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  2. Divinely directed or appointed–Moses, Joshua.
  3. Priests–Aaron, Levites.
  4. Judges–Deborah, Gideon, Samson.
  5. Kings–Saul, David.
  6. Prophets–Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel.

The three offices having the greatest effect on leadership during the Old Testament were the offices of priest, prophet and king. Remarkably, Jesus truly fulfilled each of the five offices in New Testament leadership: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher. He is the King of kings; our High Priest and Intercessor standing at the right hand of God; He was a prophet; He taught his disciples; He was pastor (a shepherd).

New Testament Leadership

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The New Testament leadership model operates quite differently to any we’ve seen in the Old Testament. Although prophets are mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, their ministries are slightly different. The greatest reasons for the different leadership model in the New Testament are important to consider. First, because God’s people now have direct access to the Father through Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we’re not in need of an earthly intercessor, such as a priest. Second, the Holy Spirit—who is the constant presence, power and witness of God—resides in each of us from the moment we claim Christ as our Lord and Savior. Because of these two significant factors, God created a new leadership model for the church following the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Some maintain that the five-fold ministry was only meant for the “Apostolic Age” (30 to 90 A.D.), and was limited to growing the church throughout the early Christian era. Others object on the basis that it creates an unnecessary elite hierarchy in church leadership. When properly understood, the five-fold ministry takes the emphasis away from a hierarchical leadership and distributes leadership across the Body of Christ in accordance with the call or gift given each of us by God. These leadership roles are not merely “titles” but ministry functions. The focus is not on the individual, but rather on the task being performed. The purpose is purely to prepare God’s people for works of service “…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13, NIV).

BOUND TOGETHER WITH GOD

We are bound together with God as His co-workers. This requires sacrifice on our part. We have to lose something of ourselves to Him. Interestingly, it is easier to be a servant than a co-worker. Many today who call themselves servants of the Lord simply lack the capacity to suffer together with the Lord. What the church needs is not a group of able workers but those who are bound together with God through thick and thin, no matter the consequences. This is what is meant by Take up your cross and follow me. When God works, you work. When God rests, you rest. When God withdraws, you withdraw. When God moves forward, you move forward. Bound together. No matter what.

Paul notes the following signs and activities that typically accompany working in the ministry: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything (see 2 Corinthians 6:4-10).

THROUGH GOOD REPORTS AND BAD

As a co-worker of God, we can expect people to talk about us, judge, us, and try to take the wind of of our testimony. I’m sure you’ve had people speak poorly of you over the years. Sometimes we deserve it, yet we need to be mindful of our public behavior as believers so that we do not detract from the Gospel. Not surprisingly, when we become effective partners with Jesus in His ministry, people begin to look closely at everything we say and do. Usually, Satan leaves us alone when we’re bouncing along, doing what we please, living in the flesh, not doing the Lord’s work. We’re no threat to the devil when we’re not bringing non-believers to the Lord. When we are faithful to God and set out to present ourselves appropriately in society, evil reports may abound concerning us in an attempt to take the efficacy out of our testimony. This is just a part of the spiritual warfare we’re engaged in on a daily basis (see Ephesians 6:12).

Witnessing for Christ

Jesus warned His disciples about attempts to destroy their witness. In Matthew 5:11, He said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (NIV). Good reports come from other believers and those who have been able to grasp the truth of the Gospel. We need to be faithful co-workers with God; to learn to suffer and to accept all reports and proofs that we are bound together with Him.

BE FOUND STILL LABORING

Paul told the believers at Corinth that they were co-laborers together with God. He instructed them, “Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1, RSV). It is a great privilege to be regarded as laborers together with the Lord, and to be counted as His servants. Despite all the evil we’ve done while unbelievers—even the sins we’ve committed as Christians—God chooses to use us anyway. For me, that was sweet music to my ears. Paul said God’s grace should motivate us to be found still laboring when Jesus returns. The last thing we should want is God to consider it a waste that He entrusted us to labor with Him. Instead, we want to hear, “Well done My good and faithful servant.”

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We have received the Lord’s great commission (see Matthew 28:18-20), charging us with working toward fulfilling God’s divine objective—spreading the Gospel to the four corners of the world. In addition, we are to work together with Jesus in reconciling mankind to Him and to the Father. Paul wrote, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:1-6, NIV).

We are merely to plant a seed. Share Christ. Share our newness in Him. Paul said, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18, NIV). We achieve this freedom only through knowing the truth (see John 8:32). Every man is the servant of the master to whose commands he yields himself; whether it be the sinful dispositions of his heart, in actions which lead to death, or the new and spiritual obedience implanted by regeneration. Paul was so pleased to see the new believers at Rome obeying the Gospel from their hearts. Paul wanted to express the great difference in the liberty of the mind and spirit—a complete opposite to the state of slavery to the body and to sin. When we’re willing to remain slaves to sin, we remain in bondage, struggling in our own power to deny the flesh and walk in the Spirit. The Greek word for “slave” in this passage is doulos, meaning “bondsman, man of servile condition.” More specifically, “…devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interests.”

Paul never gave himself credit for all he did in preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles. Instead, he said, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7) [Italics mine]. It is God who gives the increase.

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Paul noted, “Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:17-19). Paul went even further, stating he chose to preach the Gospel where others had not gone before him “…so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (v. 20b). I’m amazed at the humility Paul expresses in this simple statement.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

We should be proud to serve the Lord successfully, but only when we can (with deference to Him) recognize that we are mere instruments in His hands; instruments of His work and not ultimately the workers ourselves. Because we are God’s instruments—indeed, His co-workers—our goal is to be faithful. He produces fruit through us; we do not give the growth. That would be beyond our capacity. We plant. He waters. He gives the increase. We live faithfully by working hard unto the Lord and by trusting Him to accomplish His purpose. We must never trust in our own efforts. After all, what can we give to God that we have not first received from His hand?

What greater work could there be and what great Co-Worker could we have?

“Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it” (Mark 16:20, NIV).

Jesus: Portrait of a Messiah

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I’VE BEEN THINKING A LOT lately about who Jesus truly is, and how He conducted Himself during his ministry. Just think about how much love He has for us and for the Father. Jesus lived to be the Good News we all need. He was committed to doing the will of the Father. In fact, He was the embodiment of God’s love for us. Jesus was forgiving and accepting of everyone He encountered.

A LOOK AT THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

I was reading in Matthew recently and found it rich with information. The synoptic Gospel of Matthew is one of the most quoted books of the Bible. It contains the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. It is in Matthew that Jesus explains the Golden Rule. It famously concludes with the Great Commission: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, the worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'” (Matthew 28:16-20, NIV).

The Gospel of Matthew is especially important, for it is one of the two Gospels originally written by an apostle—John being the other one. It is likely Matthew wrote his gospel in Antioch, which was perhaps an early home of Christianity (85 A.D.). The Book of Acts (essentially a chronicle and exposition on the activities of the early Christian church after Jesus ascended into heaven following His crucifixion) recorded that the followers of Jesus there first called Christians in Antioch (see Acts 11:26).

MY TAKE ON JESUS

I find Jesus to be fascinating, enigmatic, powerful, consistent, straightforward. He was not a diplomat or politician. His agenda was devoid of trying to please everyone. He saw the potential, the good—the redeeming qualities if you will—in everyone He met. He literally oozed unconditional love. He was not tolerating of hypocrites—especially the Pharisees who practiced what I like to call  “conspicuous religious consumption.” They were most concerned with their own public image, and considered themselves to be the only group that understood God. They felt they were holier than others—the word Pharisee is from an Aramaic word meaning “separated.” Jesus saw the heart, not the attire. He clearly saw everyone on the same, equal footing.

Certainly, there were individuals with whom Jesus got angry—like the money changers and the men at the Temple selling animals for sacrifice at an exorbitant profit. I identify quite easily with the types of people Jesus loved, reached out to, ministered to, and healed. Basically, the broken. When moving in the physical realm, God has always had a soft spot for people who are far from perfect. Our weakness is God’s power. He uses the flawed and the troubled to implement His will. He does not look for the perfect; even the not-so-imperfect. God does not call the qualified; rather, He qualifies the called. This is great news! None are perfect. None are without sin.

That was music to my ears. I have often felt I am one of those whom Christ could not save. I have been downtrodden, depressed, resentful, suicidal, mentally ill, and an addict. I am a convicted felon. I’m twice divorced, have had cars repossessed, been evicted, had my children refuse to speak to me. I have a long-standing history of lying, cheating, and stealing. There are so many “failures” in my life that I simply stopped counting. But in the eyes of the Father, I have been made in His image. Jesus loves me and wants me to have an abundant, successful, God-sharing life. Jesus accepts me for who I am, with absolutely no strings attached. He does not play favorites at all, which is miraculous in itself. That fact alone—His undying, unconditional love—may be one of the most supernatural things Jesus did. He didn’t show partiality at all, and neither should we.

BECAUSE HE FIRST LOVED ME

For me, I will love God because He first loved me. I will do my best to obey God because I love God. But if I were unable to accept God’s love, I would be unable to love Him in return, and unlikely to be obedient. The ability to accept God’s unconditional love and unmerited favor is all the fuel we need to obey Him in return. This is what’s at the crux of getting God out of your head and into your heart. Accepting God’s grace and love is something the devil does not want us to do. If we hear, in our “inner ear,” a voice saying we are failures, we are losers, we will never amount to anything. This is the voice of Satan trying to distract us from God’s love. This is not the voice of God. God woos us with kindness and grace and acceptance. We become saints. We partake of sonship through Jesus. Through this, God changes our character with the passion of His love.

Sometimes I wonder if I am doing everything God expects of me. Certainly, I miss the mark. When we look at Matthew 28:16-20, we realize none of us truly measure up. Jesus said to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick. John 14:12 tells us, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (NIV). He said to love those that persecute me. This involves putting our ego in check. Regardless of who He truly was, Jesus did not let this impact His ego or derail his ministry.

Jesus did not mix His ministry (indeed, his theology) with politics. I grew up doing that, which got in the way of the central message of the Gospel. I know that was wrong, and I know that there are a log of people who will not listen to the message of Christ because of believers carrying their own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across.

THE MEASURE OF OUR FAITH

Love is the measure of our faith, the inspiration for our obedience, and the true altitude of our discipleship. By altitude, I mean how high we can go in God. How deep our relationship can be. Love is a distinguishing mark of Christians and something the Lord commanded us to do. John 13:34-35 tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (NIV). This is what we mean by a God kind of love. It is impossible to have this kind of love without accepting Christ. Love and the cross are indivisible.

Jesus said we should love others as God loves us—selflessly, sacrificially, with understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness. Jesus did not come to our world to condemn, and neither should we. But how can we love others if we’re unsure of His love for us personally? When we refer to God’s love, we’re talking about unselfish giving of Himself to us, which brings about blessings in our lives—no matter how unlovable we might be. I don’t know about you, but that makes me extremely happy. I always felt unlovable growing up. I felt I was too bad, too evil, to be loved. God’s love is not just an emotion, decision, or action. Well, in one sense love is a verb. It is something we do, not something we say. Love, of course, is who God is. It says in 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (NIV).

GOD CHOSE US

John 17:24 says, “Jesus prayed, ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (NIV). Let’s compare this verse to Ephesians 1:4-5, which states, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” God loved us and foresaw our adoption into His holy family before He created the earth.

We know Jesus died for us. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV). His death was the ultimate gift to us. What more can a man do than lay down his life for those he loves? On the cross, Jesus emptied Himself for our sake, pouring out His love so that we might be saved. He loved us, then, and He still loves us today—regardless of all our sins, mistakes, or struggles. In fact, He will love us and aid us during all our struggles.

God cares for us. God continually watches over us, providing our needs. He protects and guides us, and answers our prayers. The Lord may not always act within the time frame we expect, but if we’re faithful to wait on Him, He will always come through for us according to His will. The best way to learn about God’s deep concern for His children is to spend time reading the Scriptures and meditating on His Word. If we devote ourselves to the Lord, we will discover that He is always caring for us. What’s unfathomable, God promises to love us unconditionally. No matter what. He will never leave us or forsake us.

Hebrews 13:5b reminds us “…Neither will I leave you, never will I forsake you” (NIV). In verse 6, we’re told, “So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?'” If God loved us only sometimes, but not all the time, that would indicate His character, feelings, and attitude are changeable. But the Lord never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Thankfully, neither is His love contingent upon what we do. Whether or not we go to church, witness, pray enough, and never sin—which we know is impossible—will not impact God’s love for us as His children. God’s affection is always the same. You can’t do anything to deserve God’s love, and you can’t do anything to keep Him from loving you. There is no sin too great. No person too depraved. God loves us all and sent His Son to be our ultimate sacrifice.

Remember, the Apostle John tells us that God is love. This may be a difficult truth for the human mind to comprehend. But love is the Lord’s very essence. He is the source from which all true love flows. There are no limitations, no restrictions, and no exceptions. God’s care for us is absolute and genuine, and through creation He has unmistakably declared that love. But in His most powerful proclamation of all, He sent His Son to die for us, so that we could enjoy His loving presence for all of eternity.

THE GOD KIND OF LOVE

What are the attributes of this agape kind of love? Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13. Starting at verse 4, “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (NIV). How important is love? Peterson puts it this way in The Message: If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (vv. 1-7).

The love God has for you and me is far beyond human comprehension. Jesus told us that God loves us as much as He loves Jesus. Think of it! What a staggering and overwhelming truth to comprehend. We need have no fear of someone who loves us unconditionally. We never need to be reluctant to trust God with our entire lives, whatever situation we find ourselves in. God does truly love us. And the most unbelievable part is that He loves us even when we’re being disobedient. He disciplines or corrects us because He loves us. We’re told in the Bible not to be angry when the Lord punishes us. We should not be discouraged when He has to show us where we have gone off the rails. For when He punishes us, it proves that He loves us. We need to let God train us.

We are commanded to love. Jesus said we are to love the Lord our God with our our heart, soul, and mind. That means we have to love Him unconditionally. Even when our lives are falling apart and He seems to be ignoring us. Jesus said loving God was the first or greatest commandment of the new covenant. He said the second-most important thing is to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. If we keep these two commandments we will find it easier to fulfill the other commandments given to us through Moses.

I’ve learned I cannot love in my own strength. Scripture tells us that just as surely as those who are in the flesh (the worldly, carnal person) cannot please God, so in our own strength was cannot love as we should. We can’t demonstrate agape love, God’s unconditional love, through our own efforts. How many times have you resolved to love someone? How often have you tried to manufacture some kind of positive loving emotion to another person for whom you felt nothing? Such as trying to “love” your neighbor who gives you nothing but grief and heartache. It’s impossible, isn’t it? In your own strength, it is not possible to love as God loves.

Jesus lived out the agape kind of love by being a sacrifice for us. He laid down His life willingly. No man took the life of Jesus. And He did this out of a perfect, undying, unconditional love for us. But one way we can show God we love Him is by keeping His commandments. Jesus said, “The one who loves Me will be loved by the Father.” Of course, the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself and love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and soul.

And we have the example of Jesus to follow.

 

 

 

 

The Billy Graham of Generation Z?

Jordan Whitmer Screen Shot CBN

Jordan Whitmer’s zeal for evangelism and vision for a movement have some comparing his ministry to that of Billy Graham. And he’s only 19.

Hannah Stephens was 17 and in trouble with her parents. She had gotten caught stealing their tablet computer in order to chat with strangers online and subsequently grounded. “The only places I was allowed to go were home, school, and church,” Hannah said. To this brooding teenager in the small Ozark town of Mountain Home, Ark., life seemed painfully limited. Yet she was about to discover a whole new world.

In January 2016, Hannah’s partner in chemistry class at Mountain Home High School Career Academies invited her to join the planning team for an upcoming event for teenagers called HowToLife. The planning process would require her to attend several meetings leading up to a night of worship, testimonies, and prayer. Hannah knew little about the event—only that it had something to do with Christianity. “This counted as a church activity that could get me out of the house and away from my parents,” she said. That was all the incentive she needed. She was in.

“The second I entered that meeting at the First Baptist Church of Mountain Home youth room, my life was completely changed,” Hannah says, recalling that the students she met seemed to be genuinely in love with God and weren’t merely serving Him out of habit. “I went home that night in tears, telling my mom I wanted what they had, the hope they had.” That may sound unusual considering Hannah is the daughter of an itinerant church planter, raised in the church and reared in a Christian home. She could recite Bible stories and prayed to accept Christ as the Messiah as a little girl. “I did it because I knew that’s what I was supposed to do,” Hannah remembers. But that was as deep as her relationship with God had gone. She had grown up in a Christian culture but wasn’t yet a follower of Christ.

Christ Carrying His Cross

We might “inherit” our faith from our parents, but we cannot inherit their salvation. In fact, we are told to work out our individual salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). The faith of my parents is my faith. My mother and father brought the family to church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night Bible study, and Thursday night prayer and worship. Although I tried numerous times in my adolescence and young adulthood to rebel against it, as we all have, it is clear to me that my faith is truly grounded in the example shown by my parents. I don’t necessarily agree with everything my parents have believed over the years relative to Christian doctrine, but my faith is what it is in part because of their influence.

howtolife pic.jpg

For a month leading up to the HowToLife event, however, Hannah felt the Lord working on her heart. She was beginning to really see who was at the heart of the hope she noticed in her peers. Because her family never settled down in one place, she hadn’t ever connected deeply with Christian young people. Now she felt a dynamic closeness with her new friends. She could see the joy of intimately knowing Christ coloring virtually everything about them. Though deep down inside she still felt spiritually unprepared, she served as a counselor on the night of the event. “I saw so many hearts changed that night, including my own,” Hannah says. “I had friends who started crying and confessing their sins to God, opening up for the first time since I’d known them. It reaffirmed that my generation is utterly heartbroken and needs Jesus.”

A BROKEN GENERATION

Demographers, social scientists and journalists commonly refer to Hannah’s generation, starting approximately with people born in the mid- to late-1990s, as Generation Z. Though there seems to be no clear agreement on hard and fast boundary lines, it’s safe to say that anyone who’s a teenager today is part of Generation Z. This generation has grown up in the digital age, giving it some advantages over prior generations. News outlets have broadly described members of Generation Z as more inherently comfortable with technology and better skilled at multi-tasking than their predecessors.

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But there’s a dark side too. The numbers show Generation Z socializes (at least in person) far less than Generation X or the Baby Boomers. Today’s teens spend large chunks of time checking social media. A sense of isolation often sets in for Gen Zers, psychologist Jean Twenge wrote in a recent article for The Atlantic, because of factors like cyberbullying and the nagging sense of missing out on the fun everyone else seems to be having. As a result, Gen Zers’ rates of suicide and depression are so high, Twenge fears today’s teens are “on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

That fact hasn’t been lost on Jordan Whitmer. ‘[Generation Z is] more ready than any generation to date to experience Jesus, to have that hope,” says Whitmer. “So who better than teenagers who do have that hope—who do have Jesus—to be able to step up, to share the Gospel and to reach Generation Z for Jesus?” Whitmer is the founder and CEO of the HowToLife Movement, the organization responsible for the event that changed Hannah Stephens’ life. It began as an idea in Whitmer’s dining room in December 2014. Back then, Whitmer was in his junior year at Harrison High School in Harrison, Ark., just across the border from Branson, Mo. He felt a burden for his classmates, so many of whom were spiritually lost. How could he reach them with the Gospel?

Christian Teens

The vision that began to take shape in Whitmer’s mind was a student-led youth rally for his whole community. He invited three friends over to brainstorm. There, around the dining room table, they hashed out the details. It would be a night of drama, testimonies, prayer, and worship music, all led by students. Though security guards and a few adult chaperones would be in attendance, Whitmer and his fellow organizers decided no one older than 18 would be allowed to take the stage.

The four friends also came up with the unusual name “HowToLife.” Whitmer notes, “We were thinking along the lines of how to live your life or talking about how to do life, and the ultimate answer to that is Jesus… so that’s kind of how the name emerged.” Students and adult leaders at schools and churches across Harrison got involved in spreading the word. When the rally became reality, in March 2015 at a local junior college, 750 students attended—and 75 of them reported placing their trust in Christ for eternal life. Whitmer was blown away by what God did that night, and he sensed it couldn’t just end there.

A MOVEMENT IS BORN

Word of what happened in Harrison rippled across the Ozarks. Students in other communities wanted to know how they could invite similar work from God where they lived. Whitmer’s instincts were right: HowToLife had become more than just a one-night event in his hometown. It was an emerging movement. During Whitmer’s senior year, he helped organize HowToLife rallies in Missouri and other parts of Arkansas. HowToLife became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in August 2016. Then, during the 2016-17 school year, communities in Illinois, Tennessee, and Texas hosted events. All told, Whitmer says, there have been 19 HowToLife events in seven states so far. That number is on pace to expand to 15 states by summer vacation, and 20 by the end of 2018. About 600 teens have become Christians at HowToLife rallies so far and gotten connected to local churches.

A FAMILIAR MODEL

For the moment, Whitmer is HowToLife’s only paid employee, working out of his parents’ home in Harrison. The ministry has 5,000 followers on Instagram, and over the past six months, Whitmer says, hundreds of students have messaged him on social media platforms asking how they can hold HowToLife events in their communities. He responds by assuring them there’s a tried-and-true template to follow. “It’s in essence like a mini-Billy Graham Crusade event that is done by local high school students to reach their friends and their community for Jesus,” says Whitmer.

Billy Graham Pic

Indeed, HowToLife’s event planning model bears many similarities to that to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. A regional team of students must provide each event’s core leadership. Weeks of detailed preparation (including meetings for prayer worshiping, and reciting testimonies) follow. All the while, publicity is spread as students wear #HowToLife t-shirts to school (the social media-friendly hashtag is ever-present in HowToLife’s marketing efforts) and church youth pastors are invited to get involved. The prayerful preparation pays off the night of each event. To date, more than 6,000 teenagers have attended HowToLife rallies.

Whitmer readily admits the Graham crusades of the latter half of the 1900s have served as his model. That makes sense given that his grandfather, radio broadcaster and teacher Ron Hutchcraft, has a long history with Billy Graham, who passed away on February 21, 2018 at the age of 99: Hutchcraft chaired a crusade in New Jersey in the 1990s and has spoken extensively for the organization over the last 30 years. “I would so love to see a generation of teenagers around the U.S. and around the world that emerge,” Whitmer says. “People that step up, that have a passion for evangelism, a passion for the Great Commission.”

Great Commission Banner

Does all of this potentially make Whitmer his generation’s Billy Graham? Yes and no, he says. Unlike Graham, he doesn’t feel evangelistic preaching is his gift (though he did speak at several HowToLife rallies before he “aged out”). In his desire to build an organization that has global impact, however, Whitmer definitely senses a kinship with the 20th century’s most famous preacher. “My dream is that ultimately there may be some aspects of true global awakening to Jesus that could come through something like this,” he says.

THE NEXT PHASE

From his earliest days, Whitmer has had a sense of where he’s going, and seen no reason to wait in getting there. He led Bible clubs in elementary, middle, and high school. After graduating from Harrison High School in 2016 (he was valedictorian), Whitmer sprinted on and completed his bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies online through Liberty University just a year and a half later. Now Whitmer is taking on his most exciting, and perhaps daunting, task: Moving HowToLife to the next level. “I would love to see that we have significantly more paid staff and a headquarters in the next two years, by 2019 or 2020,” Whitmer explains. Getting there, he estimates, will take $500,000. That’s why, in addition to helping regional student leaders organize rallies, he spends much of his time crisscrossing the country on a fundraising blitz.

christianworldview

A survey from the Barna Group released last October revealed that only 4 percent of Generation Z holds a biblical worldview. About 35 percent claim to be atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated with a religion, a figure 5 percent higher than for Generation X, and 9 percent more than that of Baby Boomers. Such findings led Barna Group to consider Gen Zers as the first “post-Christian” generation. Post-Christianity is characterized by loss of the primacy of the Christian worldview in political affairs, especially in the Northern Hemisphere where Christianity flourished, in favor of alternative worldviews such as secularism or animism.  It includes personal worldviews, ideologies, religious movements, or societies that are no longer rooted in the language and assumptions of Christianity. A post-Christian world is one in which Christianity is no longer the dominant civil religion, but has gradually assumed values, cultures, and worldviews that are not necessarily Christian.

Whitmer notes, “People are excited to come out to events that are completely led by their friends because teenagers listen to teenagers more than anyone else,” adding that the teen-to-teen dynamic is “the biggest strength of this movement.” HowToLife board member Ralf Stores, 63, agrees. “That idea of youth leading youth to Christ has a very powerful component to it,” he says. “I have found over the years there’s almost a universal culture among youth—clothes and talk and music and those sorts of things. It transcends languages and it transcends the different countries and cultures around the world.” That’s why, going forward, Whitmer says HowToLife will keep the teenagers-reaching-teenagers, no-one-over-18-on-stage component. He believes that inspired idea conceived at his dining room table is timeless.

But he also wants to continue impacting Generation Z as its members enter their 20s and 30s. He’s open to HowToLife becoming a multi-generational, international ministry. “I believe that God can and will continue to do incredible things through this movement on a teenager level, on an adult level and [through] more and more elements as things continue to grow,” he says.

CLOSING REMARKS

Whitmer expects to continue leading the HowToLife Movement for the long haul. Under his leadership, he says not to expect the Movement to get sidetracked by political debates or to delve deeply into secondary (though still important) moral issues. His plan is to borrow another page from Billy Graham’s playbook and keep the primary focus on the Gospel. “My firm belief is that the lack of understanding of the Gospel is the root [of Generation Z’s problems]. Everything else stems from that,” he says. “Focusing on Jesus and the Gospel at the center of everything is what I continue to commit to doing.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION To learn more information about the HowToLife Movement visit: http://howtolifemovement.com

 

It’s a Thing Most Wonderful

Jesus Crucifixion

Newsweek Special Issues recently published “100 People Who Shaped Our World,” featuring individuals who changed our world, for better or worse, through their actions, inventions, and (at times) their mistakes. With insight from historians in the fields of science, religion and pop culture, the 100-page issue explores the impact of the world’s most iconic leaders—from Jesus Christ to Mark Zuckerberg, Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln to Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, the article did not show Jesus Christ in a good light. Interestingly, we are expected to be respectful in what we say about any other religion or revered religious leader—except Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, people feel free to malign, disfigure, and re-imagine Him as they choose.

The impact of Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant preacher whose teachings became the basis of one of the world’s most practiced religions, is irrefutable. Today there are approximately 2.2 billion Christians in the world—this is nearly 31% of the total population. The nature of Christ has been debated time and time again as we view Him through the lenses of scholars. From a Christian perspective, the central contention set forth is that the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith. The Christian faith goes beyond simply declaring God exists—it claims that God became man in Christ Jesus, lived among us, and ultimately sacrificed His life in order to atone for our sins. Three days after His death, He would rise again, proving that He was the Son of God, the promised Messiah, and the Savior of the world.

jesus preaching sermon

Christianity is the only religion that places the entire weight of its credibility on a singular event, the resurrection. If Christ had not been raised, then Christianity would be completely discredited and unworthy of even a moment’s consideration. As the apostle Paul stated, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17, NIV). Conviction about the reality of the resurrection is the only foundation that can withstand the onslaught of skepticism and unbelief. It is this fact that points to other critical truths, such as the authority of Scripture and the unique role of Jesus as Messiah and Savior.

No one’s life or death in the history of the world has been studied, analyzed, debated, and heralded to the world as much as Jesus. It’s definitely a daunting task to respond to all the theories and claims made by critics. During my research and writing, I felt a great sense of drama and significance regarding what’s at stake when studying whether the story of Jesus is true—or, as skeptics assert, merely a collection of tales attempting to propagate the Christian faith.

Answering the Great Question

The collective task of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ has been called the Great Commission, a term coined by Christian theologians to describe the charge that Jesus gave His disciples to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). In addition, the Great Commandment describes the premier commandment Jesus gave us to love one another (John 13:35). Jesus asked His disciples the Great Question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)—without a doubt, history’s greatest question, the answer to which affects everything. If we focus so heavily on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, shouldn’t we be giving equal attention to the Great Question?

defending the faith

Preparing believers to give the reasons for their faith—this is the very essence of apologetics—should be the highest priority of all the efforts of those engaged in Christian ministry (1 Peter 3:15). If the truth of the message is in doubt, the whole doctrine of Christianity is in jeopardy. Of all the human rights we should be fighting for, foremost should be the right of every living person to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to know Jesus. While there is amazing work being done around the world by people of faith to help the needy and heal the hurting, we are falling dramatically short in preparing people to have faith that thrives in the media-saturated, anti-faith twenty-first century. People are flooded with messages suggesting faith in God is at best irrelevant.

The end result is a large number of Christians being dazed and confused about how crazy the world has become, and how their values and beliefs are not just out of touch with mainstream society but to some are framed as bigoted and ignorant. This helps explain why only 3 percent of churches in America are growing through evangelism.

Faith or History?

When it comes to Jesus Christ, there has definitely been a higher standard, unreasonably high at times, for establishing the facts surrounding His life, works, and words. The specific criteria used by many of today’s leading scholars to verify the authenticity of Jesus have been so demanding that if applied to ancient history most of what is currently accepted would dissolve into oblivion. Imagine asserting, as skeptics do for the biblical records, that we could only know about ancient Rome from what we learn from non-Roman sources. In contrast, scholars who use trusted approaches fairly and consistently recognize that Christian beliefs about Jesus are solidly grounded in historical fact.

Historians use reliable criteria to establish the probability that an event happened in the past. For instance, claims are more likely true if they are reported by multiple, independent sources. By this standard, our knowledge about Jesus is superior to that of virtually every other ancient historical figure. Scholars have discovered more literary sources for the historical Jesus within the first hundred years after His life than all of the primary literary sources for Socrates, which, incidentally, are in far less agreement with each other than the Gospels.

When the historical process is arbitrary and inconsistent, the past becomes something people with a hidden agenda or bias can manipulate. This type of mindset leads to disregarding the miraculous accounts given by Jesus’ followers in the Gospels. Those accounts are replaced with historical profiles of what someone living at the time of Jesus would have probably been like. Others go so far as claiming that the followers of Jesus merely borrowed from the mythology of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians. As for the miracles? Scoffers simply say they didn’t happen because everyone knows there’s no such thing as miracles.

The roots of this culture of skepticism can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This period—known as the “Enlightenment”—could better be described as the age of skepticism. The mindset of this era is best summed up by René Descartes. He said, “In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life, to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” For Descartes, the foundation of reality is our own thoughts (albeit doubts) about the fact of our existence. The seeds that Descartes planted grew over the next century into the Enlightenment era, which promoted the concept that “reason replaced revelation” in terms of the source of the culture’s epistemology.

The Resurrection Changes Everything

The claim that Jesus was resurrected three days after His death is not just an article of faith, but a statement that can be examined historically. Of course, if Jesus was not really raised from the dead, then the resurrection of Jesus has no meaning. Christianity is based on this central claim and is thus open to critical historical inquiry. In the same way that Charles Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection sought to establish the past history of living things through what he called inference to the best explanation, we can look at this event using the same process. In fact, the apostle Paul wrote that if Christ was not raised from the dead then the Christian faith would be false (1 Corinthians 15:14). Critics have long maintained that religious claims are simply statements of faith that have no basis in fact. Claims of science, they say, are more credible because they can be proven false. Yet this is exactly what Christianity declares. No other religion bases the entire weight of its credibility on a single event or miracle.

It was the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead that prompted the dedication and sacrifice of His followers. At the top of the list was Jesus’ command to love our enemies. It is highly unlikely that His followers would have remained faithful had Jesus’ life ended permanently at the cross with no resurrection. In fact, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out that none of the many self-proclaimed messiahs of the ancient world continued to have a following or influence once they died. It begs the question, What happened to make Jesus’ followers, from the very start, articulate such a claim and work out its implications? For us today, the desperate need is to recover the same conviction of the truth of the resurrection that the early disciples possessed.

Concluding Remarks

When it comes to the central issues of the Christian faith, the biggest dispute is not with the facts of history but with the presuppositions and worldviews of those who interpret those facts. As you hear and weigh the evidence, you will be able to know with confidence that He is the Son of God. There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus was truly a man of history, who was crucified, died, and was buried, and then rose from the dead. The Gospels are reliable historical accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching.

Up until the last few years, the verdict of historians has been virtually unanimous that Jesus was a person of history. The rise of atheism in the last decade has seen the upsurge of prominent skeptics who simply assert their “doubts” that Jesus really existed without providing any credible evidence. For example, Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist and author of The God Delusion, is noted for saying, “Jesus, if He even existed…” It’s important to note that these men are not historians and simply assert this contention in apparent hopes that no one will challenge them because they are scientists. Dawkins, for example, is an evolutionary biologist. Incidentally, Dawkins has recanted and admits Jesus existed.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ gives authenticity to the Christian faith. Jesus remains the only figure in history who died and rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a revolutionary event in human history. It is what sets humanity free from sin; it is what gives humanity daily victory over Satan to live above struggles of life and achieve their destinies and goals; it is what will finally usher humanity into heaven to live forever with Jesus in that glorious kingdom awaiting those who believe, despite “critics” of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen, then is our preaching in vain, and your faith is also in vain. And if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain, ye are yet in your sins. If in this life only, we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” 1 Cor. 15:13-19.

 

 

Today’s Media: Content & Constraint

MEDIA IN THE 21st CENTURY

Media today more than ever, in its various forms, has become the determiner of the thoughts and intents of our hearts and minds. This is a scary concept! The definition of the word media is the means of communicating information or ideas through publishing, radio, television, computers, smart phones, videos/DVDs, movies, the Internet, and computer games. Media influence has a profound effect on our thinking and lives. It can be a very useful, positive tool in many ways, but if misused it can bring devastating and destructive consequences to us and to the lives of those we love. Because of wrong choices in this area many young people have been drawn down the path of spiritual bankruptcy and sinful disobedience to God.

More importantly, the advent of the personal computer has transformed how we communicate, promote ideas, perform research, plan vacations, and conduct our personal finances. Of critical concern is the extent to which we—especially our youth—text, post and chat rather than sit down face-to-face and have a conversation. Among family and friends, among colleagues and lovers, we turn to our smart phones instead of each other. It is not unusual, for example, for couples to break up via text message or by changing their relationship status on Facebook to single. This new mediated life has gotten us into trouble. Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do. When fully present to one another, we learn to listen. Frankly, this is the only way we learn the capacity of empathy. Experts worry that social media and texting have become so integral to teenage life that they are causing increased anxiety and low self-esteem. Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are leading to feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness.

Lately we seem to be finding ways around conversation. We hide from each other even as we’re constantly connected to each other. From behind our mini screens, we are tempted to present ourselves as we want to be seen. On line and at our leisure, it is easy to compose, edit and improvise as we revise. We put our best foot forward, even if we’re lying or exaggerating. The word phubbing has been coined to describe the habit of snubbing someone in a face-to-face conversation in favor of texting. Unfortunately, this has become such a normal part of life that we might not even notice we’re doing it.

JUST HOW WIRED ARE WE?

According to the Pew Research Center, U.S. Census figures from 2015 indicate that 84% of U.S. households own a computer, and 73% of U.S. households have a computer with a broadband connection to the Internet. (Census: Computer Ownership, Internet Connection Varies Widely Across U.S., Sept. 19, 2014). The Internet, and specifically social media, has had a major impact on the Christian church. While some pastors and elder church leaders see this as troubling, worrying that Christ can only be properly shared face-to-face, and that online churches will eventually replace the local church, others see it as aiding the church in spreading the Good News worldwide. Regardless, it is important to see computer technology from a biblical worldview. 

GOOD OR EVIL?

My great-grandmother had a very jaded and suspect view of computers, and felt they were the makings of the Beast. To her, computers would be integral to establishing a one-world government, and would help the government establish complete domination.  I used to see computer technology as one of those tools that were “of the world,” with the potential to do more harm than good. By the time I reached college in 1982, I no longer held that negative opinion. My biblical worldview regarding computer technology has been given a positive boost as a result of personal experience and research.     

The notion of being able to connect to millions of people worldwide with a personal computer or smart phone is irresistible to someone with a story to tell. I found an online article on the Society page at www.christianitytoday.com that fits completely with my biblical worldview of computer technology and social media. According to Tim Kenny, vice president of Media Services and Internet Evangelism for BGEA, “We happen to think we’re called to tell the greatest story in human history, so it’s a no-brainer that we need to be active in social media.”

Christian-Social-Media

Richard Helsby of CBN’s Digital Media department, said, “As [Christians], we now have unprecedented opportunity to reach people we could never reach before.” CBN Social Media manager Juana Lopez said the response toward evangelism has been so great that in just one month they received over 7,000 salvation responses through social media. (Christian Ministries Using Social Media to Connect to Millions All Over the World, April 11, 2016).

CONTENT OF MEDIA

Two important areas in the use of media today must be carefully considered to help guard our minds and hearts. The first area is content. Many of the programs on television are an increasing source of crudeness which lead us to accept warped social standards and immorality. Bold, blatant sexual content, profane language and graphic violence are entering our homes on a regular basis through television. The videos and DVDs that have made their way into our living rooms have served to desensitize us even further to what the world’s view is and what is acceptable to watch.

Christian parents, teens and children watch movies that the world has rated PG, PG-13 and R. According to one Barna survey, 30% of born-again Christians watched an R-rated movie in the past week. At the college level, many students don’t even realize there are sexual scenes or profane language in some of the DVD movies they watch. Ephesians 5:3-4 says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be any obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking…” (NIV).

The computer with its Internet and gaming capabilities has not only had a negative effect on many people, but has destroyed their lives and families. The readily available “private” pornography on the Internet, the graphic sexual violence on many video games, and cyber gambling have the devastating consequences of control and addiction. As much as 60% of all websites typically visited are sexual in nature and the term “sex” in the word search is used more than the next eight most popular terms combined. More than 50% of men with Internet access admit to spending significant amounts of time viewing explicit material.

There are an alarming 15-plus million Internet users that visit gambling sites, wagering a combined amount of money in the billions. Also, smart phone capabilities have compounded the problem with easy downloading of pornography and gambling sites. Christians, young and old, have been drawn in and hooked. Content choice in these types of media, unfortunately, is very destructive to our spiritual well-being and ultimately to those around us.

CONSTRAINT OF MEDIA

The second area that needs to be very carefully considered is constraint in media usage. Not only is pornography/gambling controlling and addictive, gaming has become a worldwide obsession. Young adults enjoy many of the fast-paced computer games, which are very entertaining. But it’s hard to stop at a game or two. Because of the time spent playing these games late into the night, high school and college students are failing their courses and dropping out. My research shows that sitting for long periods of time—as occurs often in all-night gaming sessions or regional gaming marathons—may increase a person’s risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT) regardless of age. Chris Staniforth, 20 years old, died after spending twelve hours at a time playing video games. He suffered a blockage—pulmonary embolism—to his lungs when he developed DVT. The coroner confirmed DVT as the cause of death despite Chris having no medical history of ill health or underlying medical conditions.

Chris Stanisforth

BUT IT’S NOT ALL BAD NEWS

A mind-blowing number of people are able to become members of a global community today as a result of the Internet and social media that would otherwise be severely limited in their exposure to other cultures, geographic images, writings, publications, news and religion. I believe God, in His infinite wisdom and omniscience, knew future population growth on our planet would reach the billions. He knew the Body of Christ would need extraordinary help in reaching the four corners of the globe. Inasmuch as God created man in His image, and given the fact that He created all raw materials available, I also think the computer is an indirect creation of God.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

The rise of social media has provided for the church both challenges and opportunities. Social media opens doors and opportunities to engage with people who rarely, if ever, step foot in a congregation. Numerous pastors have started blogging. Pastor Mike Miller, of my home church Sunbury Bible Church, writes a weekly blog. Our church also has a Facebook page and an official website. These media outlets allow for spreading information about our church, including worship times, community and Sunday school groups, special events, and the opportunity to watch sermons and worship services online. In addition, we are able to provide links to websites relative to special Sunday school groups, such as our current class in Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.

Through social media, Christians can share their faith with people they might not otherwise have the opportunity to witness to. The Internet allows for posting of testimonies, spiritual or inspiring quotes, photographs and other images relating to missions, teaching Bible study, inviting people to events, reaching out to individuals mired in sin or in bondage to addiction, create prayer groups or bulletin boards, share contemporary Christian songs, hymns, and gospel music, and seek to create unity in the Body of Christ.

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15, NIV).

The Cost of (Non) Discipleship

JESUS SAID, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) But He also said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) So, which is it? Is a life of discipleship a comfort or a crucifixion? C.S. Lewis points out the seeming paradox. On the one hand, Jesus proclaims the delights of discipleship; on the other, the seemingly crushing cost. Faced with the high cost of discipleship, many Christians compromise by attempting to ensure their self-interests while still trying to be good. But a halfway approach to discipleship is impossible:

Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work; I want YOU. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and there. I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself.” (Lewis, 1952)

Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24) There will ultimately be a conflict of interest between self-will and God’s will. A choice will have to be made between surrender and self-rule. With this tension in mind, it is vital to re-examine the emphasis of the Great Commission. Jesus tells us to make disciples who learn to do all that He commanded. (See Matthew 28:19-20) However, what it means to be a Christian has taken on a different definition in many Western church traditions. It has unfortunately come to mean someone who has agreed to a set of beliefs about Jesus, or has become a member of a church. What is omitted is the necessity of actually following Jesus. We are to become His apprentice.

The result is that churches are full of members who have affirmed the tenets of faith in order to get to heaven, but have no intention of obeying Jesus on earth. Ironically, these converts feel prepared to die, but they are not equipped to live. Many church members would be shocked if confronted with the necessity of a life of continual obedience to Jesus, since that is what Jesus meant when He described masses of self-professed Christians coming to the end of their lives only to stand before God and be told, “I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:23) I don’t know how you feel, but I don’t want that to happen to me when I stand before God.

The heart of true discipleship is a settled intent to become like Jesus. A disciple is like the man who in his joy went and sold all he had in order to buy the field with the great treasure. (See Matthew 13:44) Disciples gladly rearrange everything in their lives around Jesus because of a firm persuasion that He is everything they want.

So, is it hard to follow Jesus? That is, to be more than just a fan or an admirer? Yes, because He demands total allegiance. Only those who give all to Christ find all. This is the paradox of Christianity. I am personally aware of a parallel in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Recovering alcoholics are told that half measures avail nothing. In fact, the beginning of “How It Works” – which is read at the start of virtually every meeting in the world – says, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.”

Disciples of Jesus obey Him because they believe He is the way to eternal life. Their confidence in Jesus and the joy of life with Him greatly outweigh the price. Consider for a moment the alternative – the life of non-discipleship. If Jesus is right, then failing to follow Him will cost the very things that He alone can bring: peace, love, hope, power to do good, health, and life with God, now and forever. It turns out that the life of non-discipleship is the costliest life of all.

References

Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics anonymous, 4th edition. New York, NY: AA World Services

Lewis, C. S. (1952). Mere Christianity. New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Co.