Tuesday, November 22, 2011


I have a Facebook page.  On my profile page I’m told I have 226 friends.  Some are relatives; some are people to whom I have or have had a ministry; some are present or past acquaintances; some I’m not even sure I know or at least where I know them from.  I’ve lost a few:  I “defriended” them or they “defriended” me.

Do I really have 226 friends?  As I said, there are a few I’m not sure I know.  And there are many people in my life with whom I am much closer, but who are not listed on my page.

Checking my Webster’s, I find that the word friend is a bit of a “soft” term.  It can be used of a mere acquaintance or of one “attached … by affection or esteem” or of “a favored companion.”  Perhaps we could say that the persons we call friends can be placed on a continuum from mere acquaintances to those with whom we share our innermost selves.

A brief article appeared in The Week magazine of November 25, 2011, entitled:  “True friends are getting rarer” (page 25).  It tells of a survey by Cornell University sociologists that found that of the 2,000 surveyed, “on average they had only two friends with whom they could discuss important matters – down from three in 1985.”  It went on to say that “Nearly half … listed only one friend and four percent said they had none”!  I’d have to admit, from my own personal experience and that of others I’ve dealt with, that I’d agree with those general figures.

Personally I have many “friends” if by the word I mean “acquaintances” (I’d probably have an innumerable host of friends if I could only remember names).  I also have a large number of closer acquaintances, those with whom I share some common interest and/or affection.

And then there are those to whom I have attempted to be a friend; to listen to their problems; to share some of their needs; to pray with and for.  I have found in the ministry that this is a necessity and, I suppose, a gift.  I believe that God calls us all to “be a friend” to others to some extent.  And I’ve found that it’s easier to be a friend than to find one – one whom I can trust with my soul and my secrets, with whom I can “spill my guts,” with whom I can “bare my soul” – one who knows me intimately and still wants to be my friend.

In my life there’s only one person like that – my wife for 55 years and friend for 58 years, Uni.

Did Jesus have friends?  Well, yes He did.  He is called “a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners” (Matthew 11:19 = Luke 7:34).  He calls His disciples His friends a number of times (Luke 12:4; John 15:13-15).  He refers to Lazarus as “our friend” (John 11:11).  The Greek word used in all these passages is philos, which is related to phileo, the word for the love of deep affection.

There is another word translated “friend” in the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus uses it to address His betrayer Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.  “And Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you’ve come here for” (Matthew 26:50).  The Greek word is hetairos.  The BAG Greek lexicon says that this word is used “As a general address to someone whose name one does not know.”  Jesus uses it in the parable of the Vineyard in Matthew 20, where the landowner addresses a disgruntled employee “Friend, I’m not doing you wrong … (verse 13).  He also uses it in the parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22, where the king addresses a man who has come to the Feast improperly attired, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” (verse 12).  So when Jesus uses it in addressing Judas, He is expressing that same disappointment or even something even stronger.

Jesus could be a friend to many – sinners and disciples.  I consider Him my Friend.  We sing, “What a Friend we Have in Jesus.”  However, I can’t help but wonder how much of a friend I am to Him.  After all, John tells us, “… many believed in His name … but Jesus, on His part would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all men” (John 2:23, 24).

But then I realize that Jesus – God Himself -- has chosen to pour out His heart to me in His Word and has given me His Spirit to open my understanding of His heart.  I only hope that that friendship will continue to grow.

Monday, November 14, 2011


There are many passages in the Bible that make me uncomfortable.  Some of the most discomforting are Jesus’ parables.  And sadly, I tend to avoid the troubling ones, often until I’m in some way pushed into dealing with them.  A while back, a young man in a Bible study brought up the following one, which I hemmed and hawed my way around, to no one’s satisfaction:

“And which of you who has a slave who’s plowing or tending sheep will say to him when he comes in from the field, ‘Come quickly, sit down at the table’?  Won’t he rather say to him, ‘Get me something for dinner, get yourself ready and serve me till I’m done eating and drinking, and after that, you can eat and drink’?

He doesn’t thank the slave because he did what he was told to do, does he?

In the same way you, whenever you’ve done all the things you were told to do, should say, ‘We’re worthless slaves, we’ve only done what we were supposed to do?’”
Luke 17:7-10 

I suspect this parable bothers others as much as it does me.  I can only recall hearing one sermon on it and that was so long ago I can’t remember anything about it.

The first problem I have with it is that it seems to be in contradiction with what Jesus says in Luke 12:37 (using many of the same words):

“Blessed are those slaves whom the master (or Lord) will find awake when he comes.  Amen, I’m telling you that he will get himself ready, and sit them down and come and serve them.”  And then Jesus Himself, in a sense, acts this out in His washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13.

And it seems to go against all those other parables and sayings where the master commends his “good and faithful servant(s).”

I can also see how cruel slaveholders might have used this parable to justify mistreatment of slaves (even in our own history).

And how does this fit in with our modern teachings about self-esteem?  We certainly shouldn’t tell our employees or those under us that they’re worthless – should we?  We wouldn’t like that said of us, would we?  Doesn’t the Golden Rule apply here?

A few thoughts are in order here, on the parable and its interpretation.

The context (17:5) is a teaching time with the apostles – Jesus’ 12 closest disciples.  These are our examples of followers or imitators of Christ.  We’d like to find Jesus telling this to the Scribes and Pharisees.  We’d like Him to be telling them they are “worthless,” but He’s not.  Through the apostles, He’s telling this to us.

A parable is usually either an extended metaphor, or, as in this one, an extended simile – a comparison between two (usually) unlike things.  The words “In the same way,” show us this.  In this parable, the apostles are compared to slaves.

Jesus usually uses stories drawn from real life in the culture around Him and His hearers.  He is not advocating slavery or even speaking to labor practices; He is simply telling a story about matters as they are.

The word translated “worthless” (Greek, achreios) is a difficult word to translate.  It has been translated by “unworthy,” “good-for-nothing,” “unprofitable” and numerous other words.  I believe that in this context it doesn’t mean that the slave is of no use or value; obviously he is.  He farms, shepherds, cooks for and serves his master; but he brings no further benefit to his master.  So with the apostles.

Perhaps this is what the apostle Paul had in mind years later when he said (1 Corinthians 9:16, 17):  “For if I preach the gospel, it’s nothing for me to brag about; for there’s a necessity laid on me; for woe to me if I don’t preach the gospel.  For if I do so willingly I have a reward, but if unwillingly, I (still) have a stewardship entrusted to me.”  Paul seems to be repeating the “worthless slave” idea in different words.

The hypothetical person in the parable apparently owned one slave, who did all the work – shepherding, farming, cooking.  We might imagine that one or more of the 12 had at one time owned a slave.  James and John were involved in their father’s fishing business, which was large enough to have hired men (Mark 1:19, 20).  Matthew (or Levi) was a tax-collector in the service of the Roman government and was wealthy enough to throw “a great feast in his house,” which must have been quite large (Luke 5:27-19).

While in our “enlightened” day we might be repulsed by the idea of owning another human being, this was a common enough practice in Jesus’ day.  We might suppose that even those who did not own slaves dreamed of the day they could afford one, just as we today desire the latest gadget, appliance or tool to make our life a bit easier.

So how does this parable apply to us?  To me in particular?

I believe it’s a reality check.  Just as the 12, we who are involved in the work of the ministry can become convinced of our own importance, or at least we struggle with that tendency.  I do!

We constantly evaluate our own performance.  I am troubled when I see little positive response to my teaching, or when an intense counseling session seems to go nowhere, or when a new believer fails to grow, or even when only a few show up for a Bible study.  I believe that there’s nothing wrong with being troubled over these things.  I believe evaluation is necessary.

But the danger of self-evaluation is when I appear to be doing well – when I see positive results in my ministry.  My hat seems to fit a bit tighter.  I may feel that I’m going beyond what is required, that God needs me, that the results I see are all to my credit.

And then there are all those nice people who give my inflated ego “positive reinforcement.”

Whether I am up or down, whether I feel that I’m “succeeding” or failing, I need this parable.  I need to be reminded that I’m only doing what is required of me.  I am doing no more.

In a sense this can be a great relief.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


There are relatively few books written or sermons preached on the topic of the imitation of Jesus.  Why is this?  Isn’t this what the spiritual or Christian life is all about?  It would almost seem that the imitation of Christ is a topic we ignore, or even avoid, perhaps because we are uncomfortable with it.  And I must confess that for years I did little if any thinking on the topic.

Over the years as I have studied and taught the Gospels and the life of Christ, as well as courses in theology, I believe I’ve become aware of a possible theological reason behind this avoidance.  Many – perhaps most – Christians have a very unclear understanding of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the closely related doctrine of the Trinity.  Now I recognize that none of us have a complete understanding of these doctrines, but I’m talking about basic knowledge, “working knowledge.”

I hope I don’t sound offensive or judgmental when I say this, but I believe that one of the main reasons we don’t seek to imitate Jesus is that we’re not quite clear on how really human He is.  We perceive Him as a sort of theophany, a divine appearance of God in human form as God sometimes appeared in the Old Testament.  And some of us aren’t quite clear on Jesus’ uniqueness as the Son, the Third Person of the Trinity, but instead perceive Him as all Three Persons rolled into One.  Who could imitate that?

I say this because this seems to be the reaction I’ve received in some degree or another form many of my students – at least from some of the more vocal ones-- when I tell them the following.

Jesus lived His life on the earth as a man, totally committed to God the Father, and led by the Holy Spirit.  The great difference between His humanness and ours is that He did not have a fallen human nature.  If I may say this, He was sinless in the same way that Adam was sinless before the fall.

Please understand me.  He did not cease to be God at His incarnation, but He “emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7), apparently (as theologians say) of the independent use of His divine attributes.  Or as one student (who got it) said, “He didn’t take advantage of the perks of divinity.”

Yes, there were times when His divinity “shone through,” such as at His transfiguration, described in Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36.  This is undoubtedly what John was referring to in his Gospel when he said, “…we beheld His glory…” (John 1:14b) and what Peter meant when he said, “…we were eyewitnesses of His majesty…” (2 Peter 1:16).

But most of His time on earth, He lived His life as we do, or are expected to do.  We don’t find Him acting independently of the Spirit of God, but find that the Spirit is the One at work in and through Him.  He did not rely on His own divinity, but on the Holy Spirit.

If I were teaching this publicly, I would at this point have a few students getting ready to pick up stones and cast them at me, or to report me to the church or school authorities, or at least to question my orthodoxy.  But I find at least 15 references in the Gospels and Acts, to the work of the Spirit in Jesus’ life.

In all four Gospels we read that, at Jesus’ baptism, “He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on Him,” or something similar (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32, 33).  John uses the words “remaining on Him.”  Nowhere do we read of the Spirit’s presence in Jesus’ life prior to His baptism.  Nor do we read of any miracles or teaching ministry prior to this, other than the events of His precocious childhood at the age of 12 in the temple (Luke 2:41-52).  In fact, John tells us that His turning water into wine at a wedding was His “beginning of signs” (John 2:11) – His first miracle.

It is immediately after His baptism and the descent of the Spirit that, “the Spirit led Him into the desert to be tempted” (Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1).  Luke tells us that Jesus was at this time “full of the Spirit” and Mark tells us not simply that Jesus was “led” but that “the Spirit drove Him out.”  The Greek word Mark uses is Ekballo – literally “throw out.”  It has the connotation of force.

Luke tells us that after this “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (4:14).  And he goes on to tell us that Jesus on the Sabbath went into the synagogue at Nazareth and as the one selected to read the Scripture, chose a passage in the scroll of Isaiah and read, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me…” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).  A bit later He tells the congregation, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your ears!” (Luke 4:21).

Matthew also says that Jesus’ ministry was a fulfillment of prophecy, “…that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘Here is My Servant whom I have chosen, My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased.  I will put My Spirit on Him…’” (Isaiah 42:1, 2; Matthew 12:18).

Peter in his sermon in the home of Cornelius, speaks of “…Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and power…” (Acts10:38).

Elsewhere we read that Jesus Himself claimed, “I cast out demons by the Spirit of God…” (Matthew 12:28).  We also read that Jesus “…rejoiced in the Holy Spirit…” (Luke 10:20).

I believe we can conclude from the above passages that Jesus, as completely human (though still completely God) did not possess, was not indwelt by the Spirit of God until His baptism.  It was at that time that the Spirit came on Him.  This was His “anointing” for service.  It was only after this that He performed miracles and He did these as He was empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit.

It seems clear then that when Jesus performed miracles, He performed them, not in His own power as God, but in the power of the Holy Spirit.  So could we not conclude then that His entire ministry, that which was miraculous and that which was not, was conducted in that same power?

If these conclusions are correct, then there are some tremendous implications for our spiritual life.

First of all we understand that the imitation of Christ is not some alternative method of living the Christian life, somehow in discord with the Christian life as spelled out in the Epistles.  Paul said, “Walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16).  John said, “…walk as He walked” (1 John 2:6).  These are not two different “walks” or methodologies; to walk as He walked is to walk in the Spirit.

The imitation of Christ involves not just the “what” but also the “how.”  We are not only to pattern our ethics and our character after His; we are to develop those ethical and character traits by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We are not just to seek to do deeds similar to His; we are to do those deeds in the power of the Spirit.

If then we are believers in Christ, we have both the example and the power to live the life He desires in us.

See also: