Ambassadors for Christ.

You may recall the controversy that erupted several years ago when an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) leaked extensive details about an intrusive government surveillance program that spied on Americans. Considerable debate centered on whether the leaker acted responsibly in releasing such specifics.

One segment of the country believed his actions amounted to treason and argued he compromised America’s interests; and therefore violated his obligations as a citizen of the United States. Another segment contended his actions exposed an illegal program that violated the privacy rights of millions of Americans and viewed him as a heroic whistleblower. Regardless of perspective, though, both sides agreed on one point: individuals have an obligation as citizens.

The same principle holds for Christians. The apostle Paul tells us “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). We belong to the kingdom of God and our heavenly citizenship ought to inform and influence our priorities, interests, and decisions.

In a similar vein the apostle Peter refers to believers as “sojourners and pilgrims” (2 Peter 2:11, NKJV). This world represents a temporary destination – a nanosecond relative to eternity. Consequently, we ought to avoid establishing a lifestyle commensurate with the citizens of this world – who chase after the temporal to the detriment of the spiritual.

Paul’s words are instructive on this point, informing us, “we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NKJV). Webster’s dictionary defines an ambassador as an ‘official envoy’ who acts as a ‘resident representative of his sovereign state.’

Jesus appoints each of us to represent Him in this world. As His official emissaries we speak on His behalf – in our speech and with our actions. The world understands the character, attributes, and priorities of the Lord as they interact with and observe us. Rather than read the Bible to ascertain who Jesus is, they simply watch His followers.

So what does the world learn about Jesus when they examine your life? Do they learn He is merciful and forgiving; that He comforts the downtrodden? Do they discover He is holy and righteous, and focuses on the heart and not on outward appearances? Do they learn that He cares deeply for people, not things? As God’s ambassador do your actions reveal unbridled excitement about a future heavenly home or a passion for securing the approval, treasures, and success of this world?

Spend some time reflecting on these questions and evaluating whether your life accurately represents the one you serve as ambassador. Then identify one lifestyle change you can make that will more effectively point people to Christ.

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Jesus Offers Eternal Life – Not Condemnation.

Ask ten Americans to describe Jesus and you’re likely to get ten different answers. Teacher. Healer. Prophet. Good. Wise. Redeemer. The list goes on. Some have a favorable view of Him, others not so much. Some hold an accurate depiction, others a flawed one. And that’s unfortunate because an erroneous understanding of Christ represents one of the biggest barriers to people placing their hope and trust in Him.

One common misunderstanding about Jesus is particularly treacherous: the belief that He came into the world to condemn mankind. This distorted view paints Jesus as a stern authoritarian who scrutinizes the world for sinners and castigates them for the slightest misstep or infraction. He gleefully administers judgment against those who fail to meet God’s standards and secretly roots against them. It is an austere and inaccurate portrait of Jesus. Fortunately, none of it is true.

Scripture tells us this: “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17, NKJV). Jesus didn’t come to condemn mankind; He came to provide salvation. That’s glorious news, but it gets better. The eternal life Christ offers is available to every person and only requires belief. It cannot be earned.

That truth confounds the world. How can a holy God allow people into heaven without working for it? The staggering simplicity of grace seems too easy, too risky, and too good to be true. But God’s word does not equivocate. John 3:15 says, “Everyone who believes in Jesus will have eternal life.” Perhaps anticipating the world’s skepticism the next verse reiterates the point. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”

That’s not to say that a steep price isn’t paid for salvation. It is. But Jesus paid that price on the cross. He offered His perfect life as a sacrifice for sin. All sin. Yours, and mine. Peter’s first epistle tells us that Jesus bore our sins in His body while on the cross and that by His wounds we are healed. His physical death gives spiritual life to all who believe.

Are you working feverishly to earn God’s favor, hoping to merit a place in heaven? Do you feel trapped in a religion that demands you work your way into paradise? Have your efforts to find God left you unfulfilled and racked with despair?

Then stop relying on yourself. No amount of good deeds will secure you a place in heaven. God’s grace, through faith in Christ, is the only path to salvation. For there is no other name under heaven, by which we are saved, than the name of Jesus.

It’s Time to Embrace God’s Message on Stewardship

In 520 B.C. the house of the Lord lay in ruin. Though exiled Jews had returned to Jerusalem decades earlier the Temple languished in a state of disrepair. Its condition represented a stark contrast with the lavish homes the Jewish people lived in. Against this backdrop the prophet Haggai voices God’s displeasure over the disparity, proclaiming:

This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: The people are saying, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord’” (Haggai 1:2, NLT). The Lord then challenges His people with a rhetorical question: “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in luxurious homes while my house lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:4, NKJV). God later advises them to: “Consider your ways” and links their greed with the sustained economic malaise they’re suffering. Their selfishness, He explains, always produces poverty, hunger, and discontentment.

God’s people used the financial windfall He sent them to indulge themselves in luxury and enjoy a lifestyle of extravagance, while leaving the work of the Temple undone. It was an egregious example of poor stewardship. The Jews misperceived God’s purpose. They mistakenly believed His material blessings were primarily for their benefit, and not intended to advance His kingdom or glorify Him.

Sadly, we make the same mistake – often on a much larger scale. As American wealth skyrockets the average Christian gives less and less of his income. Think about that for minute. God blesses us with greater prosperity and we respond with less generosity. My friends, something is seriously wrong with that trend.

Christians now give, on average, less than 2% of their income to the church. That’s one-fifth of what the Israelites were required to give under the law. Grace may liberate us from the law’s obligations, but apparently it doesn’t free us from the clutches of greed and selfishness.

Of course, God doesn’t expect us to redirect the resources he lavishes on us to fund bigger more opulent churches to worship in. Rather, He expects us to tithe ten percent to the church and donate another generous portion of our income to fund ministries that advance His kingdom, fulfill the Great Commission, and relieve human suffering. Not because the law demands it but because grace compels us. Gratitude for God’s mercy and relief from sin’s stain should inspire joyful generosity far beyond what the law stipulated.

If, however, we resist and continue down the path of financial idolatry – choosing selfishness over stewardship – we face a fiscal future as grim as the one confronted by those Jerusalem Jews twenty-five hundred years ago.

Examine your spending history from the past year and ask yourself: Does it reflect biblical principles of generous financial stewardship or mirror the greed and materialism that plagued the people of Haggai’s day? If it’s more like the latter you may want to take God’s advice and “Consider your ways!

Radical Christianity Does Not Exist

In recent years an increasing number of prominent voices have challenged Christians to pursue their faith more earnestly, leaving behind the casual Christianity that mars the landscape of faith to practice a more radical approach instead. They encourage the church to embrace Jesus’ most difficult teachings not just His palatable promises, and to adopt a holistic approach to faith not just one based on convenience, comfort, or ease.

And while much of what has been said and written on the topic of radical Christianity is biblically sound, well articulated, and urgently needed, a fundamental truth of Scripture frequently gets lost. Too often audiences are lead to believe that two legitimate forms of Christianity exist: casual and radical. The frail faith that loves the world, serves self-interests, ignores the Word, and relishes God’s promises but not His presence is just as authentic as the fervent faith that consumes hearts, transforms lives, dictates decisions, spurs sacrifice, and passionately pursues the Lord. The faith that lacks any proof of its presence is no less genuine than the faith with overwhelming evidence of its existence.

But nothing in Scripture validates that assessment. Not a single account of Jesus’ ministry captures Him affirming casual Christianity as a legitimate option for His followers. In fact, whenever Jesus distinguishes between the dedicated disciple and the casual fan He always emphasizes the insufficiency of the latter.

Simply put, casual Christianity does not exist. It is false faith. And radical Christianity only exists as a synonym for authentic Christianity, which always appears radical to the world.

So what differentiates the two? In a nutshell: the heart.

  • Authentic faith flows from and transforms the heart. Faux faith flows from the head and transforms outward appearance.
  • Authentic faith loves the Lord passionately. Faux faith loves lip service.
  • Authentic faith pursues the presence of Christ. Faux faith pursues the desires of self.
  • Authentic faith says, ‘Here I am Lord, send me.’ Faux faith says ‘Some other time, Lord.’
  • Authentic faith revels at the opportunity to serve the Lord sacrificially. Faux faith says ‘Sacrifice is legalism.’
  • Authentic faith stores up treasure in heaven. Faux faith pursues earthly treasure.
  • Authentic faith crucifies the flesh and dies to self. Faux faith seeks common ground for faith and flesh to co-exist.
  • Authentic faith declares, ‘Thy will be done, Lord.’ Faux faith proclaims, ‘Only when it doesn’t inconvenience or discomfort me.’
  • Authentic faith counts the cost and surrenders all. Faux faith counts the benefits and carves out exceptions.
  • Authentic faith rejoices when God places a claim on the calendar or wallet. Faux faith grudgingly groans, ‘Not again.’
  • Authentic faith celebrates grace’s freedom by cheerfully obeying God. Faux faith insists freedom from the law is freedom from unreasonable obedience.

Jesus emphasized the fact that not all who claim Him as Lord will enjoy eternal life (see Matthew 7:21-23). Those who embrace cultural, casual Christianity will instead find themselves cast into outer darkness. Don’t let that be you, my friend.

Profile in Courage

Few have done more to further the gospel and build the church than the apostle Paul. He authored most of the New Testament, traveled throughout Europe and Asia to share the good news, and invested his entire post-conversion life to nurturing believers, persuading unbelievers, and teaching the truth. He suffered stonings, beatings, and floggings; endured hunger, weariness, and nakedness; escaped violent mobs, sailed turbulent seas, traveled foreign lands, and withstood false brethren. He preached, encouraged, rebuked, refreshed, and debated.

His legacy of faith, however, does not exist without the remarkable courage of a man named Ananias. Before he encountered Jesus, Paul ruthlessly persecuted the church and did everything in his power to destroy the fledgling faith. His desire to annihilate the church before his conversion, was as passionate as his effort to cultivate the church post conversion. It is that cruel man, known then as Saul, who Christ confronts outside Damascus, afflicts with blindness, and then sends into the city for further instructions.

Three days later the Lord appears to Ananias in a dream and tells him where to locate Paul, so he can restore his sight and baptize him in the Holy Spirit. Ananias resists. He informs God of Paul’s brutality against the church and argues that it’s not safe to meet with him, let alone baptize him. Jesus understands Ananias’ anxiety; so He explains that He has chosen Paul and has a plan for him.

Despite the overwhelming risk to life and limb, Ananias obeys. He ignores those voices that tell him that Paul is beyond redemption; that men so hostile to the gospel, so hateful to Christ, and so harmful to the church cannot be salvaged; that they are doomed to darkness. Instead he locates Paul, introduces himself as a brother in Christ, heals his blindness, and baptizes him.

The rest is history. Paul becomes the most influential individual in church history. Without Ananias, however, Paul the church pillar remains Saul the church killer.

How many of us avoid sharing the gospel with people antagonistic to Christianity; who denigrate the Lord or mock His people? How many of us calculate an individual’s likelihood of conversion before we discuss Jesus’ sacrifice? How many potential Pauls never hear the gospel because we assume their inflammatory rhetoric and brash hostility towards Christianity disqualify them from joining our ranks?

Take time this week to identify someone in your life unlikely to embrace Christ – someone who defiantly shakes his or her fist at God, condemns the church, and views Christians with contempt. Ask God to soften the person’s heart and provide you with an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus. Who knows, perhaps that person who appeared so opposed to God becomes an effective advocate for Him.

Creation Proclaims God

Imagine a group of scientists trekking through the jungles of South America. They come to a clearing and suddenly see dozens of ancient buildings carved from stone. Though weathered by the elements, these impressive structures still retain a degree of architectural splendor and their structurally sound and aesthetic design suggest the work of an advanced society.

As the researchers stand in awe, they express an interest in identifying the people who erected the buildings, and learning more about their culture, character and civilization. The opportunity to study and understand this creative community excites the group beyond comprehension.

Except for one. One scientist voices skepticism, insisting that a combination of ice, wind and rain sculpted the stone formations over time. Despite overwhelming evidence the structures were created – as testified by their beauty and intricacy – the cynic refuses to consider that possibility.

Such a scenario sounds ridiculous, right? How could anyone with a lick of sense come to that conclusion after seeing firsthand the remnants of an advanced civilization? Yet scientists, academics, and intellectuals arrive at an equally absurd conclusion all the time – albeit on a much grander scale – when they attribute the design and creation of our bodies, the planet, and our solar system to a mix of time and happenstance.

They cling to such preposterous reasoning despite the fact that an infinite number of clues point to the presence of a Creator. From the micro to the macro, from DNA to galaxies, the world contains such incredible precision, inspired artistry, and tremendous complexity that only an all-powerful and creative God could produce it.

The Psalmist declares this truth in eloquent terms, saying: “The heavens proclaim the glory of the Lord. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world” (Psalm 19:1-4, NLT).

It is for this reason the apostle Paul says we have no excuse for coming to and knowing God. “For ever since the world was created,” he notes, “people have seen the earth and sky through everything God made (so) they can clearly see his invisible attributes – eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20, NLT).

Why, then, do so many people reject the obvious and cling to the ridiculous? It’s probably a combination of intellectual pride and hostility towards God. If only they’d open their eyes and hearts to the Lord’s handiwork around them skeptics would see God’s fingerprints all over creation.

Do you deny God’s existence because you’re just too smart? Do you reject the possibility of a Creator because no irrevocable proof exists? Or maybe your faith has wavered recently or a tragedy has ignited questions about God’s presence.

Whatever the reason, let me encourage you to take a look around and allow the heavens to declare God’s glory, the earth’s complexity to testify of His handiwork, and the jaw-dropping beauty around you to proclaim His presence. Then take time to investigate and pursue this Almighty God who created the world.

Dangers of Feigned Obedience.

Remember the story of Balaam and Balak? Balak is the Moabite king alarmed by the arrival of the Israelites, who settle on the plains of Moab after they escape from Egypt and defeat the Amorites. Their numbers arouse fear in the king and his people. He is certain these foreigners represent a threat to the safety and prosperity of his kingdom.

So he sends messengers to Balaam, a diviner for hire, and asks him to come and place a curse on these interlopers. Balaam receives the messengers graciously and invites them to stay the night while he inquires of the Lord. Balaam then engages God in a dialogue and explains that the Moabite king wants the Israelites cursed so he can overpower them and force them from his land.

In response God tells Balaam, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12, NKJV). Balaam reluctantly obeys God’s command and informs the king’s servants that he cannot go back with them; the Lord has not given him permission. So the messengers return home and notify the king of Balaam’s refusal.

On hearing the news Balak decides to send a larger and more prestigious delegation to solicit Balaam’s assistance. They locate Balaam and deliver an attractive proposition. ‘The king will pay you handsomely for your work and will do whatever you request. Just come and curse these wretched people.’

Balaam knows God’s will on the matter. But the allure of wealth and power spur him to petition the Lord a second time, hopeful God will change His mind. Those selfish and impure motivations anger God but He nevertheless allows Balaam to accompany the envoys back to Balak.

During their journey the angel of the Lord blocks Balaam’s path three times. Balaam cannot see the angel but his donkey does. Each time, the beast takes evasive action to avoid the angel, which infuriates Balaam. So he beats the animal. After the third encounter the angel reveals himself and explains that he would have killed Balaam had the donkey not acted as it did. God used the donkey to spare Balaam’s life, despite his greed.

I wonder how many of us are like Balaam? We know what God wants us to do but we resist. We pray over and over, hopeful that God will change His mind and give us what we want. Our delayed obedience doesn’t reflect a genuine desire to get God’s plan right, it simply reveals a craving for our own agendas.

And how many of us respond like Balaam when God uses circumstances and events, sometimes difficult or tragic ones, to steer us away from the path that leads to destruction? We kick and scream at God, perhaps even shake our fist in defiance, because He refuses to allow us to pursue an agenda we are certain is best, but in fact is catastrophic.

Does the story of Balaam resonate with you? Has disobedience and rebellion left you in a place of ruin or misery?

Well, take heart. God desires a restored relationship with you. He will never abandon you. Instead, He patiently beckons you back to Him, calling you by name. Come home.

Commentary: Faith, Politics, Culture, and Bible Prophecy.