Eyes on Jesus

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

There is something about returning our focus on Jesus that shifts our perspective. When we look at the problems we face, they seem to grow bigger. The longer we look at them the more insurmountable they can seem. Then, as our problems and conflicts seem to grow, our tendency to feel sorry for ourselves kicks in. The demonic spirit of self-pity comes to whisper believable lies into our ears.

Maybe you have experienced this downward cycle.

Yet, when we return our gaze to Jesus, everything begins to look different. When we look to Jesus we are reminded of His goodness and compassion. We are reminded of His love and power. We get away from self-pity and self-focus and remember that this life is about Him and not us. We consider Him instead of considering all of the obstacles and problems. We remember all that He endured and we stop feeling like a victim of our circumstances.

When my brother was in the hospital because of the tragic car accident that eventually took his life, I kept hearing the Lord tell me, “Eyes on Jesus, eyes on Jesus!” I imagine this is the same kind of thing a parent would say to their young child who was about to go into surgery. While the little boy would want to look at what the doctors were doing, the parent would be telling their son, “Look at me! Keep your eyes on me!”

When we keep our eyes on Jesus, our problems shrink down, our anxiety dissipates, our fears subside. Jesus is captivating, and even more so the longer we fix our eyes on Him. In Him is so much love and grace and kindness. We suddenly are able to love people and show grace in a way we previously couldn’t.

When we look at people, their imperfections and flaws start to grow big. We get irritated with every little thing they do. We want to address every little flaw and offense. But with our eyes on Jesus, we are able to overlook little flaws and offenses and focus on the issues the matter.

A person’s wisdom yields patience;
    it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.

Proverbs 19:11

The writer of Hebrews tells us that if we “consider Him” instead of just considering ourselves and our situation then we will actually be able to run our race with perseverance. We’ll be able to “not grow weary and lose heart.” When we keep our motivation and purpose fixed on Jesus, it gives us a kind of enduring strength that won’t quit. Paul said it this way:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

Galatians 6:9

We sometimes think we need to focus on the problem to reap a harvest. But the counterintuitive truth of the Kingdom is that focusing our energy and affection on Jesus is what allows us to reap a harvest in due time. This is especially true in the church. Christians often spend a ton of time focusing on the church, sometimes to the point of losing our focus on Jesus.

If our focus is the church, we will find more and more reasons to get frustrated with the church. We will find every little flaw in the people of the church. We will be easily offended and irritated. We’ll discover that we become hyper-critical of the church. This will lead us to either leave the church or go on a performance-driven improvement plan for the church. Our focus is off.

When we keep our eyes on Jesus, we can love the church as the Bride of Christ. Jesus loves the church as a husband loves his bride. All change motivated by Jesus comes from a place of love, not performance-driven frustrations. When we focus on Jesus, we remember that the church is more than an organization or a business. We are a family on mission in the world. We are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. With eyes on Jesus, we remember that we are an imperfect community that serves at the pleasure of the King.

So, where is your focus? Who or what are you fixing your eyes on?

Consider Him.

Temple Tax

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

Matthew 17:24-27

We learn some things when Jesus was approached about giving the temple tax. This wasn’t a tax given to the Romans to fund the empire. This was an annual tax worth about two days wages that was meant for the upkeep of the temple. Every Jewish male twenty years of age and older was required to pay this tax. The religious establishment in Jerusalem was in charge of collecting it. The Pharisees and Sadducees were behind this tax.

Jesus, the Son of God, peppers Peter with questions about kings taxing their own sons. Jesus’s point here is that this tax was mean for the house of God, and if they had known that Jesus was the Son of God, they would have never required Him to pay this tax. Kings don’t tax their own sons.

Yet, Jesus says that He’ll pay the tax anyway. His reasoning for doing so was so that they wouldn’t “cause offense.” This is so interesting because, in other places in the Gospels, Jesus couldn’t care less about offending the Pharisees. We see one such scenario in Matthew 15:

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

Matthew 15:10-14

When it comes to speaking and teaching the truth, Jesus doesn’t mind offending the Pharisees. He even increases the offense by calling them “blind guides.” Yet, when it comes to something like paying a tax, it’s as if Jesus wants to avoid being offensive. There is a sense here that Jesus is more than willing to offend for the sake of God’s truth but isn’t interested in offending just for the sake of being spiteful. He’s not into offending for the sake of offending. There needs to be more purpose in it.

The church would do well to learn this lesson. Some churches are deathly afraid of offending anyone. Other churches think that it is a sign of spiritual maturity to perpetually offend everyone. Neither approach is healthy.

Finally, notice how God resources Jesus so that He could pay the tax for Himself and Peter. Peter didn’t go to the marketplace and sell something. Jesus chose a very peculiar and supernatural way of getting the resources of heaven. We are reminded, as we picture Peter pulling a valuable coin out of a fish’s mouth, that God often provides in unexpected and unusual ways.

God is not bound by our rules of supply and demand. God is not limited by our economic principles. All the resources of heaven are at God’s fingertips and He can release them however He chooses. The Kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules. The Kingdom is not interested in our limitations. God, as a loving Father, hears about our rationalism and empiricism and laughs, as if to say, “Aw, isn’t that cute.”

When we ask God to be our Provider, we need to be ready for Him to surprise us with unexpected and supernatural sources of provision. It is important to crunch the numbers and try to be responsible, but we also need to remember that God is never limited by our spreadsheets and budgets. He is not limited by our cautious imaginations. God, the Creator, loves to provide for us, and He loves to do it in creative and interesting ways that we’d never expect.

Offensive Miracles

When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.

But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”

And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

Matthew 13:53-58

When there is a lack of faith, people are easily offended. We see this in our own culture. People seem to be offended by everything. People in our culture wear their offense like a badge of honor. So many people, even Christians, live their lives perpetually offended.

The people of Nazareth were offended that Jesus, someone they knew, had incredible wisdom and operated in the miraculous. They couldn’t understand how someone from such a common family could be a prophet. They couldn’t understand how a carpenter’s son could become such a wise Rabbi. It didn’t make sense to them that God would do miracles through such a lowly man. They saw Jesus grow up, after all. How could God use Him? And because it didn’t line up with their understanding and expectations, they took offense. People today do the same thing.

In particular, people get offended by healing for a variety of reasons. They get offended that some people get miraculously healed and others don’t. They especially get offended at the mention of the need for healing. To say a person needs healing means that something is broken. But there is so much fear and insecurity around admitting that something is broken.

We live in a culture where everyone wants to be told that nothing in them is broken. No one wants to admit that their spirit is broken and they need a Savior. No one wants to admit that their heart is broken and they need inner healing and deliverance. No one wants to admit that their body or brain or sexuality is not functioning the way God intended, and that it needs healing. We’re afraid that if we say this about our loved ones they won’t feel “normal.”

But instead of admitting that none of us is “normal,” we’ve decided to call everything normal. We wrongly assume that if we call everything normative then everyone will feel included and loved. But the people who live with brokenness know deep down that something is wrong. I know because we all have brokenness.

So we walk around knowing deep down that something is wrong, and yet we have everyone telling us that everything is fine. We’re told that the disfunction in our body, mind, or spirit is “normal.” Sometimes we’re even told the it’s good! But the deepest parts of us knows better. This creates a cognitive dissonance that is damaging.

We’d do better to communicate the biblical message that we’re all broken, we all need healing, and we all need a savior. The admission of the need for spiritual, emotional, and physical healing should be what is “normative.” For a person to assume that they don’t need healing should not be a mark of superiority but a sign of prideful ignorance. What should be offensive is the person who says they don’t need healing, not the person who suggests the need for healing.

Yes, we love everyone just as they are. We communicate that God loves them unconditionally even if their situation never changes. We help them encounter the absolutely overwhelming love of the Father for them. But His unending love for us–just as we are–does not change our need for healing. God is the one who wants us healed more than anyone else!

Jesus healed every person who came to Him for healing. He never turned anyone away. He never decided that someone should just stay in their condition so that they can know they are loved just the way they are. He healed every single person that came to Him.

Does that means Jesus didn’t love them until after they were healed? Absolutely not! Jesus loved them unconditionally before they were healed. Then, as a demonstration of His unconditional love, Jesus healed them. And He loved them unconditionally after they were healed. Their need for healing didn’t impact Jesus’s love for them in any way. Healing was simply a tangible demonstration of His love.

As followers of Jesus, we can decide to be offended by healing and miracles (like the people of Jesus’s hometown) or we can decide to embrace healing. We all need healing. And as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, we’ve been sent as His ambassadors to release physical healing to people. We’ve been sent to release inner healing and freedom to people. We’ve been sent to proclaim the gospel, the only thing that brings our dead spirit to life.

Are you offended by healing? Are you offended by the need for healing?

Jesus Offends Again

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:9-13

Matthew would have been in a booth collecting taxes for the Roman road that people traveled on or for the fish that were caught in the Sea of Galilee. Either way, these taxes would have been a difficult burden to bear for the people of the area.

Tax collectors were Jewish men employed by the Roman government. They were hated and seen as traitors to their own people. They were known to charge more than was required as a means to line their own pockets. Since they had the power of the Roman government behind them, they could extort their own people without consequence. There is a lot of talk of “white privilege” and “male privilege” in our own culture. Tax collectors would have been the epitome of privilege within the Jewish community.

What the crowds expected Jesus to do as He passed by Matthew’s tax collector booth is unload one of His famous rebukes, like the ones we see Him speak to the Pharisees. Instead, Jesus does something wholly unexpected. Jesus calls Matthew to be one of His own disciples. Not only that, but then Jesus goes and has dinner at Matthew’s house bringing along His disciples and other “sinners.”

Jesus isn’t afraid to hang out with sinners, be welcomed into their home, and fellowship with them over meals. And while hanging out with sinners, He isn’t afraid to tell them that they are sick and in need of healing. In this way Jesus is a total offense both to liberals and conservatives in our own culture!

Can you imagine what progressives would have said if they witnessed Jesus choose someone who is full of greed and privilege–someone who regularly socially and economically exploited the marginalized–and call that guy to be one of His exclusive and chosen disciples? I can just hear progressive Christians saying, “Jesus clearly doesn’t understand what the gospel is all about. Someone should give Him a lesson in diversity, inclusion and privilege.”

Can you imagine what conservatives would have said if they witnessed Jesus partying at a house full of sinners–people who were morally compromised, whose lives were riddled with licentiousness and perversion? I can just hear conservative Christians saying, “Jesus clearly has gone over to the dark side of compromising the gospel. Associating with those people does not promote the gospel of truth.”

Can you imagine what progressives would have said when Jesus responds to the question of why He eats with tax collectors and sinners and His response is essentially that they are sick and need of healing? Can you imagine how offended they would be? “How dare you call them sick. Who are you to judge them? How dare you say they need healing!”

Can you not see how far we have fallen from the standard that is Jesus?

Can you not see how easily offended we all are?

Can you not see how the progressives and conservatives both do not understand nor represent who Jesus really was?

Jesus may You help us to become much more offensive than we currently are…in all the best ways. May the way we lean into mercy instead of sacrifice offend and provoke in all the ways that You did, Jesus. I pray that my life would be a total offense to religious folks who are both progressive and conservative.

Offensive Jesus

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48

Jesus was always saying offensive things like this. The culture of His day, not unlike our own, operated on an “in-group” and “out-group” mentality. You were to be loyal and loving to “your” people. But you had no obligation to care about the out-group, your enemies that didn’t earn their way into the in-group.

It is in the midst of this cultural climate that Jesus blows it all up. He says just about the most offensive thing one could say. He tells the crowds to not only love their in-group but to love their enemy. This was scandalous! It still is!

Sometimes we don’t understand how offensive Jesus really is until we put it in the context of our own culture.

To the progressives: Jesus isn’t speaking to the crowd and saying, “See, this is why we shouldn’t go to war. We should love our enemy.” No. Jesus was speaking to a crowd of oppressed Jewish people and He was telling them to love the Romans–their violent oppressors. In other words, Jesus was speaking to a crowd full of undocumented immigrants at the border and He was saying, “You need to love Trump! If you don’t love him, you’re no better than he is.”

To the conservatives: Jesus isn’t speaking to a crowd and saying, “You should learn to love the Chinese even though they are communists.” No. Jesus was speaking to the pro-life rally and saying, “You need to love the feminist who flaunts her many abortions as badges of honor. If you don’t love her, you’re no better than she is.”

Whether you are a progressive or a conservative or somewhere in-between, can you feel how offensive this feels? This is Jesus. He was not always easy to be around. His words were not always comforting. He offended. He hurt feelings. He wasn’t always trying to liberate the oppressed from their external oppression, but instead was often trying to free people from sin. He was trying to liberate people from the internal oppression of hatred and bitterness. He wasn’t always trying to enforce external morality, but instead was often inviting people into internal transformation.

Who do you hate? Who can’t you stand? That’s the very person Jesus is commanding you to love. Loving our “in-group” isn’t enough if we are followers of Jesus. We’re called to love our enemy. We’re called to love our enemy until we can see them, not as an enemy, but as a person created in the image of God…a person for whom Jesus died.

Signs, Wonders and Plagues

This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

Hebrews 2:3-4

The gospel was first announced by Jesus and confirmed by the early apostles. Then God testified to the truth of the gospel by demonstrating signs, wonders and miracles through the Church. God also testified to the truth of the gospel by distributing gifts of the Holy Spirit for the Church to use.

We still have the announcement of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. We still have the confirmation of the early apostles in the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, Peter, John and others. But if we reject signs, wonders, miracles and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we miss out on half of the ways that God testifies to the truth of the gospel. Paul talks about how vital signs and wonders were in his ministry of delivering the gospel to the Gentiles:

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 15:18-19

Signs and wonders have always been a primary way God reveals Himself to humanity. When God was creating for Himself a people by setting the Hebrews free from slavery in Egypt, God performed signs and wonders. Speaking about Pharaoh as God laid out His plan to Moses, God said:

…though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites.

Exodus 7:3-4

Before entering the Promised Land, God reminds the people of all that He did for them and gives them this instruction:

 In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors. The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the Lord our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today.

Deuteronomy 6:20-24

My co-pastor reminded me in one of his sermons a few weeks ago that we often call what God did in Egypt “plagues.” But God did not call them that, nor did Israel. To God and His people they were not plagues but “signs and wonders.” Only to Egypt and Pharaoh were these miraculous events “plagues.”

And I have found the same dynamic to be true today. When God heals someone, performs a miracle, or delivers someone from a demon, there will be those who see these things as wonders–signs of God’s imminent Presence, love, compassion and power. Yet, there will also be some who will see the same miracle and react against it as if it was a plague.

The same thing happened with Jesus. Some, usually the downtrodden and poor, celebrated as Jesus healed people and cast out demons. Yet others, usually the religious elite, did not see the miracles as wonders but instead as plagues–moments where Jesus broke the law, moments that threatened their established system of power, moments of offense.

Every time we hear a testimony of a miracle, a healing, or a deliverance, we have that same choice. Are we going to side with Egypt and Pharaoh or God and His people? Are these stories of miracles plagues or wonders? I believe this is essentially the question Jesus was asking the Syro-Phoenician woman who asked Jesus to get rid of the demon who was tormenting her daughter.

(Jesus) answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Matthew 15:24-27

I believe Jesus was seeing if the woman would get offended at God’s decision to heal and deliver the Israelites first before the Gentiles. He even uses somewhat offensive language, referring to Gentiles as dogs, as a way to see if she would react with offended entitlement or humility.

And we also face this kind of test with each testimony of healing and deliverance. Will we get offended at what God is doing, as He heals someone else first? Will entitlement get the best of us? Will offense get the best of us? Will stories of healing become plagues to our hearts? Or, will we respond in hope and humility as this woman did? Will we celebrate miracles as signs and wonders of God’s goodness?

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Matthew 15:28

Deceiving spirits

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 

1 Timothy 4:1

One of the primary roles of demons is not just to tempt but also to deceive. The goal is to first lead people away from orthodoxy and then away from faith in Jesus altogether.

But how does it happen?

Just as we can “hear” the Holy Spirit whisper to us in our own thought-life, so too do demons inject their thoughts into our own. If we don’t know the truth of scripture and if we have little spiritual discernment, we can’t tell the difference between the whispers of demonic deception and our own thoughts. Sometimes demons over-play their hand and the thoughts are so jarring that we wonder, “Where did that thought come from?” Many times, that thought didn’t come from us at all but from a deceiver.

But the goal for a spirit of deception is not to get noticed. So the lies have to be just subtle enough–just believable enough–to make us think they are our own thoughts. Once we get led down this road, full-scale strongholds of deception start to get built. Even when people speak truth to us, the words bounce right off the walls of the stronghold–walls meant to protect the deception within.

Another tactic of the enemy is to spread a spirit of offense. Have you noticed how easily people are offended at each other these days? Ever wonder why the politically correct police get more and more oppressive with their ever growing list of things that can be considered offensive? All of this is a strategy of the enemy.

Demons pluck nerves. If you have a hurt or wound in a particular area of your life, and someone says something anywhere in the general vicinity of that wound, demons then pluck that nerve. It doesn’t matter that the person didn’t say anything offensive. It only matters that what was said could be misconstrued to be offensive. That’s enough for the demon to get a foothold, misconstrue what was said, and whisper lies of offense.

Have you ever had someone get offended at something you never said? Instead, the offense was at what they thought you said or what they thought you implied? Again, this is part of the strategy of the enemy. Satan has created a playground for himself out of our culture that is constantly living in offense and perpetually in a victim mentality. In a culture where the most offended person wins the argument, which is pretty much the case today, the enemy has full reign to plant seeds of offense, self-righteousness, pride and self-pity.

The purpose of a spirit of offense is the same as a spirit of deception. If I am offended by the truth, I certainly don’t have to listen to it. Truth is inherently life-giving and has the capacity to bring freedom to all who embrace it. But if the truth offends me, I now have an emotional barrier that keeps me from having to face it. If I live with the constant truth-repellent of “offense” then I will never be free.

We see this most clearly with the Pharisees. Jesus would do the most incredible miracles, but they would get offended that He broke a sabbath law in order to do it (Luke 6:6-11; Matthew 15:12). They couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Rather than celebrate the incredible miracle, they got offended and angry at Jesus. That’s what a spirit of offense does. It distracts people with a minor offense so that they can’t see the major work of God right in front of them.