Ten Commandments: Lesson 3, Keep Yourself from Idols

From my new book, The Way of the Lord: A Study of the Ten Commandments. Click here to buy the book and Bible study so you can use it devotionally or work through it with a small group of Christian brothers and sisters… or to even give away to someone who desires to learn more about the way of the Lord.


IDOLATRY — the worship of something created as opposed to the worship of the Creator Himself. Scores of references to idolatry appear in the Old Testament. This shows that idolatry probably was the greatest temptation our spiritual forefathers faced. While we find bowing down to a statue no temptation, they apparently slipped into idolatry constantly. So serious was this sin that the prohibition against the making and worshiping of images was included near the beginning of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:4–6). (Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary)

While the first commandment prohibits worshiping gods other than the one true God, this commandment prohibits worshiping the one true God in a way that makes us think of him as having a physical form like something in his creation. To think of God’s very being as having a physical form is to diminish him, to dishonor him, to ignore the immense difference between the Creator and the creature. (Wayne Grudem)

After the first commandment rejects all other gods, so that only Yahweh remains, the second commandment rejects every wrong form whereby people desire to worship Yahweh. The first commandment opposes foreign gods, the second opposes self-willed worship of Yahweh. If you stand with your back to idols, then you must still learn to kneel properly before the God of Israel. You can get rid of all your religious idols, but in their place you must not erect an image of Yahweh. You may serve no other gods; but the Lord in turn wants to be served in no other way than He has commanded. (J. Douma)

Introduction

We often think of idolatry as worshiping a false god. We even understand idolatry as placing any person or priority in our lives before our commitment to God. And it is proper for us to think of idolatry in both of those ways. And yet, the second commandment also helps us understand that God requires us to worship him rightly. That means, among other things, we must be careful about too closely associating images with God himself. Religious images in our places of worship or prayer closets, or jewelry we wear around our necks, need to point beyond themselves, and not become the objects of our worship and devotion. Thus, even holy icons such as a sanctuary cross or stained glass window, if they garner our adoration, can become idols, or graven images, as the second commandment puts it.

Moreover, in some Christian traditions, to worship God in any other way than what he has explicitly commanded in Scripture, is to violate the second commandment. What does that mean? There has been no consensus in Christian history, but that does not mean Christians should not seek to be faithful to God regarding what he has said about our worship of him. We never want to be careless or too casual when it comes to our worship of God. The Old Testament is filled with examples of those who were not necessarily worshiping false gods, but they were guilty of worshiping the one true God in a way he did not prescribe. This lesson will help us think more thoroughly and carefully about what it means to focus too closely on images in our spiritual lives, as well as doing our best to worship God in the ways he has commanded, and by which he is most glorified.


Bible Study (Each chapter in the book is followed by an in-depth Bible study)

Ten Commandments: Lesson 2, One God Only

From my new book, The Way of the Lord: A Study of the Ten Commandments. Click here to buy the book and Bible study so you can use it devotionally or work through it with a small group of Christian brothers and sisters… or to even give away to someone who desires to learn more about the way of the Lord.


There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (The Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church)

That for the sake of my very salvation I avoid and flee all idolatry, witchcraft, superstition, and prayer to saints or to other creatures. Further, that I rightly come to know the only true God, trust in Him alone, submit to Him with all humility and patience, expect all good from Him only, and love, fear, and honour Him with all my heart. In short, that I forsake all creatures rather than do the least thing against His will. (The Heidelberg Catechism)

The first commandment embraces faith, hope, and charity. When we say ‘God’ we confess a constant, unchangeable being, always the same, faithful and just, without any evil. It follows that we must necessarily accept his words and have complete faith in him and acknowledge his authority. He is almighty, merciful, and infinitely beneficent… Who could not place all hope in him? Who could not love him when contemplating the treasure of goodness and love he has poured out on us? Hence the formula God employs in the Scripture at the beginning and end of his commandments: ‘I am the LORD.’ (The Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Introduction

God begins his commands to Israel with a reminder of who he is and what he has done for them. He is not just a god who exists. He is the covenant God of Israel. He is the one who created them, called them as his people through Abraham, and promised them he would be their God and they would be his people. This covenant relationship is the defining mark of who Israel was as God’s people and it continues today for those who are in Christ Jesus. God has once again rescued us, this time from sin, death, and despair. Our covenant God has given us the supreme gift of his Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. When we trust in Christ alone, we enter a covenant in which God says he will never leave us nor forsake us but instead, will be with us forever.

God’s covenant people have been rescued, redeemed, and reconciled by God’s grace. God continues his work of reshaping us in his image as we obey the commands he has provided for our good. Thus, we must not divide our loyalty, for there is only one God worthy to be believed in, worshipped, and obeyed. This lesson will help us better understand what that means and its ramifications for our lives.


Bible Study (Each chapter in the book is followed by an in-depth Bible study)

Lesson 1: The Law of God

From my new book, The Way of the Lord: A Study of the Ten Commandments. Click here to buy the book and Bible study so you can use it devotionally or work through it with a small group of Christian brothers and sisters… or to even give away to someone who desires to learn more about the way of the Lord.


God’s moral law is abundantly set forth in Scripture, the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments), other Mosaic statutes, sermons by the prophets, the teaching of Jesus, and the New Testament letters. It reflects his holy character and his purposes for created human beings. God commands the behavior that he loves to see and forbids that which offends him. (J.I. Packer)

…the Ten Commandments represent the pathway out of our own self-orientation and into a whole new orientation that puts God, ourselves, and others in their rightful places. (Timothy Tennent)

I should understand the Ten Commandments as God’s righteous rules for life in his kingdom: basic standards for loving God and my neighbor. In upholding them, I bear witness with the Church to God’s righteousness and his will for a just society. (To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism)

Introduction

Jesus commands us to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This, he declares, summarizes the law and the prophets. The Apostle Paul, too, taught that obeying God’s commandments was an expression of love for God and others. In other words, Christian love has a shape to it. It is not a mere feeling. That shape is a way or pattern of life that reflects the very character of God because it comes from him and is commanded by him. Not only does the Law of God reveal God’s character to us but it is also for our good and the good of society.

In this lesson you will discover and meditate upon what the Law of God is and why we have it. God’s Law is not a list of arbitrary rules and regulations designed to oppress our freedom. Instead, these commands are life-giving because they are given by One who loves us and desires the best for us.


Bible Study (Each chapter in the book is followed by an in-depth Bible study)

The Ten Commandments: Introduction

The Shape of Love

Love is love. This unhelpful tautology has seemingly won the day with Christians and non-Christians alike. It works well as a slogan but offers little substance for how God calls us to live a life of love. Instead, the Bible teaches us there is a shape to love. The love God calls us to looks like something. It has content to it. It is first and foremost received from God, then directed back to God, and then, lived out toward neighbor. It’s sacrificial, others-centered, joyful, and obedient. This life of love is the Way of the Lord, and the reason for the title of this study.

The Ten Commandments are an expression of the love Jesus commands in his summary of the Law. The great commandment is to love God with our whole being and the second commandment is like it, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But even that word from our Lord Jesus is general, and even vague. Yet he could speak in such a way because he knew he was summarizing something more detailed and specific, something his first-century audience would have understood.

In speaking of the two great commandments, Jesus was really summarizing the moral Law of God, the Ten Commandments. The first table of the law, for example, which contains the first four commandments, focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on our love for God. The second table addresses the nature of neighbor-love, which as we learn throughout Scripture, is also an expression of our love for God.

In other words, the way of loving God and neighbor looks like something specific. The commandments are not platitudes. They are concretely helpful. And the rest of Scripture is a commentary on what this love for God and neighbor looks like. The prophets, Jesus, and the apostles all shed light on the height, width, and depth of what it means to love God and others in the way God has prescribed in the Ten Commandments.

More Than Meets the Eye

By the time of the first century, many in the Jewish religious community had reduced the Ten Commandments to external rules and regulations that could be manipulated. But Jesus came along and reminded them that obedience to the Law had always involved the motives of one’s heart. It was not merely about behaving in the right way. It had always been about doing the right things, in the right way, for the right reason, with the right attitude.

Of course, a standard like that immediately leads one to self-discovery, or at least it ought to. When you come to understand, for example, that “not murdering” another person is more than not taking the life of another person, but includes not hating them or being unrighteously angry toward them, you begin to realize how far you fall short.

Furthermore, when you consider that each commandment carries with it a positive side, such as desiring that same person’s best interest and doing what you can to help them, then a legalistic framework really begins to crumble. Such a realization ought to cause us to run to the grace of God found in the work of Christ, for he was the only one who faithfully lived out a perfect life of righteousness. His sacrificial love on the Cross paid for our inability to live a life of perfect obedience to God’s Law.

Morality Revealed by God

What we learn as we study the Ten Commandments is that morality is fundamentally theological. That does not mean irreligious people cannot live moral lives, but it does mean when they do so, they are borrowing from a theistic framework. For their worldview cannot justify their way of living. There are secular forms of ethics. But those systems are usually forms of utilitarianism. They base their view of what is right and wrong on whether something works (whatever “works” means) for the common good (whatever “common good” means).

secular ethic is not grounded in that which is immutable, transcendent, and objective. It is not a revealed ethic. It is dependent on king or crowd. What is considered normal, or even good, is determined, so to speak, in the voting booth of public agreement and alignment. Absent from such a worldview and ethic is an objective standard, revealed by an immutable and transcendent Creator, who not only created the universe, but also each and every person, in God’s own image.

Christians believe that having such an ethical standard is good, not only for individuals, but for families, communities, workplaces, societies, and ultimately, the world. A commitment to such an ethic does not mean every moral decision is clearly understood or that every command is easily interpreted and applied in every situation. But it does mean we have a firm foundation from which to start as we seek to faithfully live in this world.

Real Freedom

Contrary to popular notions, freedom does not mean being untethered to any moral restrictions in one’s life. Nor is desiring to obey God a form of legalism. Instead, we should understand that obedience to God is true love. And this kind of love produces real freedom, which is the ability to live the life for which we were created.

That is not a life of legalism or bondage. The Law of God provides freedom to become all that God created and redeemed us to be, as well as delivering us from a path of self-destruction and potentially hurting others along the way. We don’t live this way in order to earn points with God, but such a life is evidence that God is doing a great work in us. God is molding and shaping us into something we cannot possibly imagine – his grand masterpiece – the very likeness of his Son. How could such knowledge lead us to anything but joyful and grateful obedience?

The Heart

The heart is the heart of the matter. God gave us his moral law to reveal to us his character and will for our lives. God’s Law does provide structure and rails to keep us safe. God revealed this way of life for us because he has our best interest at heart. He really does want what is best for us and thus has revealed the way for us to live.

But more than that, in and through Christ, God has recreated us once again in his image. His very Spirit indwells us. God not only wants us to live this way because it is best for us. God wants our hearts. He wants us to desire to live this way because we love him, want to please and glorify him, and because we love others. He wants us to love what he loves.

It is God’s sanctifying process for helping us become like him… in what we desire, the way think, how we speak, and in the manner in which we conduct ourselves in this world. And not only is this what is best for us here and now, but God is also training us for eternity. Thanks be to God.

A Word About Each Lesson

It will not take you long to see that some of the study questions have many Bible verses to look up. You might even say an obnoxious amount of Bible verses. And that’s true. But they are there for a few important reasons.

First, they are included to show you how widely the Bible speaks on the particular commandment of each lesson. These Ten Commandments are not isolated only to Exodus and Deuteronomy. They are repeated, interpreted, and applied throughout the rest of Scripture.

Second, the verses are there to reveal that God’s commands are not to be understood and applied in a simplistic fashion. The Ten Commandments are not only prohibitions. That is, they are not only forbidding us to behave in certain ways, but they also point us to the birthplace of those behaviors. Our desire for sin festers in the human heart and sometimes finds its ways into our thought-life, as well as the words we speak and the actions we take.

Third, the variety of Scripture is there to remind you that there are positive, godly ways to live out the commands. The Ten Commandments are not merely a list of things not to do. They also guide us in a God-honoring, life-affirming, Christlike way of living in this world.

The Last Reason for All the Scripture

And that brings us to the last reason for all the verses, which is also why we have the Law in the first place. The first time I read the Sermon on the Mount, with a level of maturity and understanding, I immediately understood how far short I fell of living according to this standard that Jesus had set before me. And frankly, I was distraught. What hope did I have of faithfully and consistently living in this way, even if I tried my best every single day? And who among us does that?

But that was also a key moment in my life for understanding grace. It’s the point of the Law, at least a part of the point. We cannot perfectly live this prescribed way of the Lord. Yet it is still the standard. So, what do we do? We turn to Christ, who did perfectly live it out. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Savior of the world, Lord of all creation, and Light of life did perfectly fulfill all righteousness in his life, death, and resurrection.

His sacrificial and substitutionary life, death, and resurrection is what we trust in. We trust in him, not only to forgive us for our sins, but to impute his righteousness to our account. We died with Christ in his death and were raised to new life with Christ in his resurrection. And now, not only are we forgiven; not only are we new creatures in Christ; but the very Spirit who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead lives in each person who trusts in him. Therefore, Christ can live his life in and through ours.

And When We Stumble

We are not called to live the way of the Lord in our own strength. But Christ guides and empowers us through his gracious Spirit. The reason God has revealed this way to us is for us to become like Christ. It’s the path by which we are progressively molded and shaped into his likeness by the Spirit of love.

We will stumble along the way. But even the grief and conviction we experience when we fail is the gift of a loving Father disciplining those he loves. His discipline is gracious correction to get us moving along the right path once again.

My Advice for Each Lesson

Thus, my advice is to answer each question however you see fit. You can write down your reflections for each verse of Scripture. Or, you can read all the verses and write down your summary statement of what they all mean. Or, you can read half of them, a third of them, or even a fourth of them. It’s up to you. My goal is not to provide you with a legalistic framework in a study which hopes to show you why legalism is neither godly nor livable.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t at least encourage you to go the extra mile and try to read as many verses as you can in each lesson, and to think deeply about this way of the Lord prescribed for us. If you think about the character of God and the ways he has worked throughout redemptive history, then you recognize that even though we may not understand all the things God has included in his Word, we should realize that there are no “throw away” verses. They are all there for a reason, especially when they relate to who he his is, his way of salvation, and his path to holiness.

My Prayer

Ultimately, we are here to glorify God. We want to please our loving God so that when others see our good works, they will give praise to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). My prayer is that this study will enlighten, encourage, and equip you to know God’s will, the way of the Lord, and that by it, God’s Spirit will carry on to completion the great work he has already begun in you until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).


You can order the study, The Way of the Lord: A Study of the Ten Commandments, by clicking here.

Conclusion: The Supremacy of Jesus

Superheroes

Let me admit right at the beginning of this conclusion, that I’m a superhero movie nerd of the highest order. I try to see every new superhero movie when it comes out at the theatre. And when it finally gets to the small screen, well I watch it then too, more times than I care to say in public.

One of the themes often explored in these movies is the connection between power and authority. These superheroes have supernatural powers after all, but the question has continued to be asked: Should they use them?

Other versions of that question are: By what right or authority are they using them? Are they authorized to do so? Who are they answerable to when things go wrong? And what standard of right and wrong is being applied in their decision-making processes.

Capernaum

The Scripture we will look at in these concluding remarks about Jesus focuses on this interrelationship between power and authority as well. This “showdown in Capernaum” we find in Mark 1:21-28, will reveal to us that Jesus has both, power and authority.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Earlier in Mark 1, Jesus had called his first disciples to follow him. Jesus had left Nazareth and was now using Capernaum as his homebase. Capernaum was a fairly large town. It was a thriving, even wealthy area because it was near a popular trade route. In fact, it was the headquarters for many Roman troops.

And while it was primarily occupied by Jews, because of its location and success as a thriving town, there were many pagan influences there as well.

The Visiting Teacher

As verse 21 indicates, Jesus was visiting the local synagogue to teach. This would not have been unusual. The Temple in Jerusalem would have been too far away for most Jews to travel to, so synagogues popped up all over the Roman Empire, as places of learning and worship.

And because no synagogue had only one particular teacher, the leading elder often invited visiting teachers to come and teach the community. This was normal.

In this case it was Jesus who was invited to teach. We don’t know exactly how long Jesus had been in Capernaum, but presumably it had been long enough for folks to get to know him well enough to extend this invitation.

Unlike Matthew’s Gospel, we don’t know what Jesus had been teaching here. But I think an educated guess would be that he was teaching about the good news of the Kingdom of God. Earlier in Mark 1, we read these words,

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)

Jesus’ Authority

Whatever Jesus had been teaching, verse 22 tells us he amazed his listeners “because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” What does that mean? Well, it was very common for the scribes, who were the learned Jewish scholars of that day, to cite their tradition and the great Jewish teachers of former days.

However, Jesus did not do that. He spoke as one who had his own authority. He never said, “Rabbi Hillel said this…” “Or Rabbi Shammai said that…” He taught as one whose words were self-authenticating. He did not need to appeal to other human teachers because, we know, he was sent by God himself.

Indeed, Jesus was more than a prophet sent by God, he was God in the flesh – the very Son of God. There was (and is) no higher authority.

Impure Spirit

Oddly enough there was a demon-possessed member of the synagogue who had been in attendance while Jesus was teaching. In verses 23-24, we read…

Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Isn’t it interesting that the demons Jesus dealt with always seemed to recognize his true identity, just as we find here?

The demon asked Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us?” “Us” – plural. That may have meant there was more than one impure spirit, or demon, inside the man. Or it may have meant, “Have you come to vanquish all demons?”

The answer was ultimately “Yes,” to both. Jesus did come to defeat the devil, and all his junior minions.  

The Showdown

I do not know if you believe in the devil and demons, but Jesus certainly did, and we find him encountering one here in our Scripture. The demon knew who Jesus the man was – “Jesus of Nazareth.” But he also knew the deeper identity of Jesus. That Jesus was no mere man, he was, “the Holy One of God.”

There was an ancient idea in that day that believed that speaking the name of a spiritual enemy would give one mastery over it. Thus, this was not merely a case of the demon rightly identifying Jesus, and certainly not paying Jesus a compliment.

No, this was a very scared demon trying to gain the upper hand over Jesus. It didn’t work. Jesus quickly responded in verse 25 – “Be quiet!”

“Be quiet” was really, “be muzzled” or “shut up.” Jesus knew what the demon was up to. He also knew if the people realized too early who he was, they may try to make him a political or military leader, and as we’ve learned throughout this study, that was not why Jesus came.

And so, Jesus said with great force, “Come out of him!” The demon had no choice but to leave the man. He didn’t have the power or authority to resist Jesus’ command. Yet he let his displeasure be known with a shriek and scream that shook the man violently as he left him.

The Why Behind the What

Jesus performed miracles to teach spiritual truths, not for entertainment. He often did miracles to authenticate his teachings, which were usually about himself – who he was and why he came. That helps us understand why Jesus delivered people from impure spirits.

Do you remember when Jesus healed the paralyzed man who had been lowered from the roof by his friends to where Jesus was? Jesus told the man his sins were forgiven. The religious leaders were furious because only God can forgive sins.

Therefore, Jesus said to them, “so that you may know I can forgive sins, I’m going to heal this man.” The miracle was performed to point to something greater, in this case, his true identity.

In a similar way, Jesus cast out this demon to let the people know they needed to really pay attention to what he had to say. Because if he had the power and authority to cast out demons, then he was someone to be reckoned with.

The People Understood

The people understood this. They asked things like, “Who is this teacher from Nazareth?” “What is he saying about himself and why he has come?” He wasn’t like any teacher they had ever heard. Why, he could even cast out demons. He was different from the rest. How did they respond?

Verse 28 says,

News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

As one person put it, “the proclaimer became the proclaimed.” Word about Jesus spread quickly.

So What?

So, what does all this mean for us 2,000 years later? As I poured over Scripture and other resources for this study, I was continually amazed. At the end of one of my study sessions I wrote down these words,

“There is no one else like Jesus! You have never met, nor will you ever meet, anyone like Jesus!”

I was in awe. Truly.

Jesus has the ability to vanquish powers and principalities, temptation and sin, bondage and alienation, and to set the captives free. He created and sustains the very existence of the universe with his word. He has complete power and authority over life and death. I know we crave application in our books and Bible studies. We want to know how to put into practice the biblical principles we read about. It is good and right for us to want that.

But sometimes the application is simply this: To be in awe of this Jesus. To bow in worship before him because of who he is and what he’s graciously done on our behalf. He is the Holy One of God. He delivers people from their sin and bondage. He makes people whole and holy. He saves to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25).

And he can do that for you too because he, as God in the flesh, has both the authority and power to do so.

All Authority

As we saw several times throughout our study, Jesus tells us in Matthew 28:18 that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. That means he is the Lord over the supernatural and the natural. He has power and authority over every sphere of life.

This ought to make every follower of Jesus Christ breathe a sigh of comfort. This ought to compel every person who knows, loves, and follows Jesus to cry out in joyful thanksgiving: “This is our Savior! This is our Lord! He is the Holy One of God!”

Therefore, give Jesus every fear, worry, sin, temptation, decision, desire – and everything else. He is the Holy One of God who became one of us because he loves us. And he therefore calls us to learn more about who he is, why he came, and what he taught. He calls us to love him more – with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And he calls us to live for him by following him in every sphere of our lives.

And when people see the difference Jesus has made in your life, word will spread quickly about him, and others will want to know this Jesus too.

Deo Gratias. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

(Click here to buy my book & Bible Study, Lord of All.)

Lesson 9: Only One Way

From my new book, Lord of AllClick here to buy the book and Bible study so you can use it devotionally or work through it with a small group of Christian brothers and sisters… or to even give away to someone who desires to learn more about Jesus.


It’s A Small World

In our study on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, our last lesson is perhaps the most controversial. It has been an issue from virtually the beginning of the church. However, we may experience it more keenly today as we feel the world getting smaller and smaller.

Two or three generations ago it may have been unlikely that a Christian family knew another family who practiced a different religion from theirs. Today, a neighborhood street may be filled with those who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or even no religion at all. Add to that the increasing prevalence of the Internet as an online community, via social media, and the world feels even smaller. At any given time of the day, you can communicate with someone who lives on the other side of the world. 24-hour news sources give us up-to-the-second news reports of what’s happening in every corner of the globe.

It is not a surprise then that our multicultural world has given rise to religious pluralism. And this can be a good thing. We have much to learn from people with different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. Tolerance in these relationships is a good thing and essential for individuals and communities to continue growing.

The Early Church

However, what marked Christianity as distinct in its earliest days continues to do so today: its exclusivity regarding its truth-claims about the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Such a view brought on persecution of Christians in first-century Rome and things haven’t changed much today. The Romans allowed different religions to be practiced, as long as proper religious homage was made to Caesar. This was untenable for Christians who said Christ alone was Lord. Today a Christian who professes that the Christian worldview alone is true, and that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ, might be accused of being intolerant, narrow-minded, bigoted, and today, even hateful. Christianity isn’t the only religion that makes exclusive truth-claims, but in our country, at least, it is the one that takes the most heat for doing so.

And yet, the truth is, our day is no more pluralistic than Christians who lived in biblical times. The Christian proclamation has always taken place in a pluralist world, in competition with rival religious and intellectual convictions. In fact, many books in both the Old and New Testaments were written as arguments against the competing religions that Israel and the early Christian community faced daily. Alister McGrath writes,

“Ancient Israel was acutely aware that its faith was not shared by its neighbors. The existence of other religions was simply a fact of life for the Israelites. It caused them no great difficulties, in that they believed that theirs happened to be right, whereas others were wrong. The same pattern emerges in the New Testament. From the first days of its existence, Christianity has recognized the existence of other religions and the challenge they posed. …Christianity was born amid religious pluralism.”

Similarly, Michael Green comments,

“I find it ironic that people object to the proclamation of the Christian gospel these days because so many other faiths jostle on the doorstep of our global village. What’s new? The variety of faiths in antiquity was even greater than it is today. And the early Christians, making as they did ultimate claims for Jesus, met the problem of other faiths head-on from the very outset. Their approach was interesting… They did not denounce other faiths. They simply proclaimed Jesus with all the power and persuasiveness as their disposal.”

The early church faced lions, became burning torches in Nero’s garden, and experienced other such persecution, because they believed what they were proclaiming was actually true. But ours is not a day when we seem to be overly concerned about objective, transcendent, and immutable truth. People today may still use the word “truth,” but it has become a synonym for “preference” when it is couched in phrases such as, “live your truth,” “that’s true for you, but not for me,” and so on. By many today, the notion of truth is filtered purely through a subjective and personal lens of feeling and personal preference, instead of being understood as objectively revealed by a transcendent source. Some latitude may be given to “facts” in the realm of the hard sciences, but certainly not in religion or philosophy.

Therefore, it is important to remember that Christianity was born in the midst a similar cultural climate of a plurality of religious beliefs and philosophies. And it was proclaimed passionately because it was believed to actually be true, and not merely a personal preference. Christians today recognize that we experience similar diversity in our culture as the early church did in theirs, and we must also remember we have the very same truth to tell in our day.

That’s Arrogant

But isn’t it arrogant to claim that Jesus Christ is the only way to God? The only path to salvation? Perhaps my answer will surprise you, but I would say “yes,” it is arrogant. One is justified in accusing Christians of arrogance… if. If what we believe and what we proclaim as the truth are merely our own opinions and ideas, then we are arrogant indeed.

If Christianity is nothing more than a man-made religion, or a political power-play, then we would rightly be accused of arrogance and worse. However, the Christian claim has always been that Christianity is not true because Christians say it is, but because the Bible teaches it. Christians who believe the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, therefore, believe Christian truth is God’s revelation, not human opinion.

I can heartily relate with one theologian who said that he did not come to Christianity because he was looking to find the most intolerant, bigoted, and closed-minded religion on the block. He said that he, like millions of other Christians, opened the Bible, checked out its claims, and was transformed as God moved in and through his Word. That was, and continues to be, my experience as well.

So far throughout this study we have learned about the bold claims made by Christ as well as about him by others. We have come to understand that he was no mere man, but truly God in the flesh. He was not just a good teacher or political revolutionary, but the Son of God, sent to save his people from their sin. As Lord of heaven and earth Jesus had the power and authority to heal the sick and raise the dead. As Lord over every sphere of life, he could rightfully expect that his teachings – about his identity, his purpose, how we ought to live in this world, and how we can gain eternal life – should be believed, embraced, and lived out. This portrait of Jesus Christ should lead us to the conclusion that he has no equals.

The Bible Says

Generally speaking, Scripture teaches such a view of Jesus throughout its pages but makes specific statements about him as well. Here are a few examples of texts that help us appreciate that Jesus is not simply a way, but the way. As God incarnate and Lord of all, how could he be otherwise?

Acts 4:12 – Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

1 Timothy 2:5 – For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,

John 3:16-18 – For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

Matthew 7:13-14 – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

These texts, and others that could be cited, drive home with specificity, what all the lessons we have learned throughout this study have been teaching us more broadly; that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and there is no other way to the Father but through the Person and Work of Jesus. In fact, that is exactly what Jesus says about himself. Let’s take a deeper look at a particular text in which we find this truth-claim being made by our Lord.

Jesus says in John 14:1-7,

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

We might find it easy to read these words and move past them if we are very familiar with them. Yet, we need to look carefully at what we find in these verses.

Comfort for Troubled Hearts

Jesus begins in verse 1 by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” We might assume these are just words of encouragement that are meant for any person in any circumstance. Perhaps we think that Jesus is talking about the ordinary trials of life, and this is a mere pep-talk to his disciples. But upon a closer inspection we discover, as we read these words in context, that Jesus is speaking to some very confused people. We must remember this little band of disciples had left everything to follow Jesus – their homes, families, jobs… everything. They were invested. They were committed.

In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus had just told them that he was going to be leaving them. Furthermore, he added that they were not going to be able to follow him where he was going. What did this mean? Well, Jesus knew significant, even severe, trouble was coming his way, and soon. It was in that context that he told them to not let their hearts be troubled. By “heart” he was addressing their whole being – their thoughts and feelings, their wills and emotions.

Why would he say that? Didn’t they have good reason to worry? Wasn’t their beloved master, teacher and friend going to leave them? Who wouldn’t worry in such circumstances, especially one who had been so committed and given up so much? And now he’s leaving them? Yet Jesus tells them to not let their hearts be troubled. He then follows up those words by saying, “You believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1b).

It’s Who You Know

Have you ever known more about a situation than the person you were talking to? Maybe it was a scary situation, and you needed your friend or family member to know it was going to be okay, because you had knowledge that would help them see the bigger picture of how things were going to work out in a positive way. Thus, you might encourage them by saying, “trust me.” A fuller version of those words might include, “You can’t understand why this happening right now, but if you would just trust me, you would be able to put your mind at ease.”

Jesus was telling his disciples that they were going to have to trust God, and him, in this situation. This trust would have the power to sustain them during this difficult time because the object of their trust – God – was worthy of their trust. In a manner of speaking, Jesus was telling them that God was larger than the uncertain situation they faced and that nothing had caught him off guard. He also told them they should have the same trust in him that they had in God, which is not an unimportant point.

Though the disciples did not understand his words, throughout his ministry Jesus often told them his mission would one day come to an end and he would have to leave them. In verse 2, Jesus let them know where he was going. He was going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. That must have blown their minds. Did they even have a category for such a statement? Probably not, yet they knew, loved, and trusted the One from whom such a statement came. We know from the rest of Scripture that “my Father’s house” refers to being in the unveiled presence of God, what we call “heaven.” Jesus was saying that in heaven there is room for all; there are many rooms or places to dwell.

He even elaborates by saying that he would not have told them all this if it were not true. In other words, they had no reason to worry about God’s provision for his people. This is all part of God’s providential plan. Jesus meant these words to bring comfort and assurance to his disciples. Once again, he is letting them know they have good reason to trust in God, as well as him.

The Place He Is Going

In verse 3, Jesus said,

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

As students of Scripture, some two thousand years later, we have the advantage of knowing the ministry of Jesus was coming to an end. Within hours of this conversation, Jesus was going to be arrested and crucified. More than that, we know that three days later he would rise from the dead and would not resume the same kind of life with his disciples that they had grown accustomed to. We also know that the place he was going to prepare for them does not refer to any sort of earthly dwelling. Yet, like the disciples then, we today must also trust Jesus and take his word for it. Never having been to heaven ourselves, we must trust the arrangements he has made on our behalf.

The larger point Jesus is making here is that although he is going away, he will not forget them while he’s gone. He has their best interest at heart and is concerned about their welfare. That is the kind of friend we have in Jesus.

The Way to Get There

Jesus not only assures his disciples that he will not forget them, and that he is going to prepare a place for them, but he also tells them he is going to come back and take them to be with him. He then adds these puzzling words in verse 4,

You know the way to the place where I am going.

It is God’s plan that Jesus will come back in due course so that he and his followers will be together in heaven, in the very presence of God. Jesus does not spend time telling his disciples what that experience will be like, but he does seem to make this point: whatever heaven will be like, the most wonderful part of it is that we will be with our Lord forever. And Jesus assures his disciples that they know the way to this unimaginably glorious and beautiful place where they will be going.

It is at this point that “honest Thomas” asks in verse 5,

“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

It is at this point Jesus shares the words that have convicted and encouraged the hearts and minds of Christians for two thousand years. He answered Thomas with these words in verse 6,

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

It is at this point in the conversation that Jesus moves from talking about the eternal destination of his followers to the path of that destination. In fact, he tells them they already know the way. In other words, Jesus is telling them that what he is saying now is no different from what he had been teaching them all along.  

Jesus Is the Way

To put it plainly, Jesus declares to them that he is the way. Unlike other religious founders and leaders, he is not teaching them a way to go, but that he himself is the way to the Father. That kind of emphatic, self-referential statement may sound odd, or even offensive, to our ears. We are used to people telling us they are pointing us in the right direction, but not claiming to be the way themselves. Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, and others claimed to be “pointers” of a way to enlightenment or to God, but Jesus is saying something different. For Jesus did not only teach people a way of life, but he died on the cross as an atonement for their sins and thus, made the only way possible for people to come to God. In fact, he did more than make a way, he was the way. Many people died on Roman crosses, but only one of those people was God incarnate, who lived a perfectly holy and righteous life, thereby becoming the only acceptable sacrifice for the sin of the world.

Jesus removes all ambiguity from his statement by adding in the second part of verse 6, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” In other words, the Father is the destination and Jesus is the way. The phrase “No one” in this verse is a universal negative. In other words, “how many people can get to the Father by other means?” According to Jesus, “none.” How do we get to the Father? According to Jesus, only through him.

The Only Way

It is vital to understand that Christians did not invent their belief that Jesus is the only way to God. We believe Jesus taught it. We also believe that because he taught that truth, he also commanded us to respond to this great commission,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:18b-20a)

If you are a Christian and have become persuaded that Jesus is who he claimed to be, that he is the only path to the Father, and that he commanded his followers to make disciples of all the nations by teaching them everything he taught, then we cannot remain silent. In fact, it would be arrogant to believe these things about Jesus and not tell others. Can you image thinking, “I know better than God. Yes, God has graciously provided a way for me and others to enjoy his extravagant riches in his glorious presence for all eternity. Yet, it might offend others if I share this truth with them, therefore, I will remain silent.”

No faithful Christian, with a clear conscience, could think such a thing. Instead, God calls us to bear witness to Christ in every sphere of life as the ambassadors, stewards, and servants of his truth, with our words and our actions. What a privilege we have been given to lead others to Christ, the only way to the Father. I once heard a Christian speaker ask this humbling question: “My question,” he asked, “is not, why has God provided only one way to him, but why has he provided any way at all?” Entitled thinking leads us to believe we are owed something by God. A person with a biblical worldview, however, understands that even the smallest kindness we experience in this life is the result of God’s bountiful grace. How much more, then, eternity in his unveiled presence? That’s good news we cannot possibly keep to ourselves. Thanks be to God.


Bible Study (Each chapter in the book is followed by an in-depth Bible study)

Lesson 8: The Bread of Life

In All The Wrong Places

In North Africa, around 354 A.D., a baby boy was born to a Christian mother and a pagan father. As the boy grew into a young man he found trouble and mischief at every turn. When he turned 16 years old, he traveled to Carthage, which was a Roman territory. There he studied rhetoric and debate. While studying in Carthage, this young man sought fulfillment in his life. We might say he was looking for love in all the wrong places.

The young man met a young woman and moved in with her and they had a child together. His mother, who never ceased to pray for her son, was not happy about his new living arrangements and continued to intercede for him.

As he got older he became quite accomplished in the area of rhetoric and was a much sought-after teacher. Students from all over the Empire came to study under him. He enjoyed all the privileges and things the world had to offer. However, every time he went home to visit his family, his mother asked him when he was going to become a Christian.

A Restless Heart

And though he would never admit it to his mother, his soul was restless. He still desired meaning and purpose for his life; something deeper and more meaningful than he was experiencing. Everything he had sought after and trusted in, up to this point in his life, was fleeting. The things of the world just didn’t last. So, he began studying the different philosophies and religions of his day, everything except Christianity.

He had nothing but contempt for Christianity. He believed Christianity had nothing to offer, because becoming a Christian, he thought, meant having to stop thinking altogether. Not only that, he believed becoming a Christian meant he would have to change the way he lived. He didn’t want any part of that.

A Mother’s Love

However, his mother continued to pray for him. In fact she would occasionally pester the local priests, asking them to “save her son.” Well, because she loved her son, she decided to find him in Carthage and beg him to become a Christian. However, after several weeks of his mother’s “persistence,” he decided to sneak out of Carthage and head to Rome, without telling her. So he left, and wouldn’t you know it, his mother followed him there as well.

While in Rome, the young man began to have doubts about his beliefs. Nothing seemed to satisfy the restlessness of his soul. In an effort to ease his restless conscience, he visited a church and listened to a preacher there. He never went all the way in the church, but stood at the back, just to listen. And, as time went on, his perspectives about life began to change. He began to learn more about Christianity.

Intellectually, he was fighting becoming a Christian, but his heart (via the Holy Spirit) was convicting him about the way he was living his life. This led to a spiritual crisis for him.

Epiphany

One day, he and a friend were sitting in a garden, when suddenly, he cried out to his friend, “What is wrong with us?”

He then said,

“as I was saying this and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house. The voice repeated over and over again, ‘pick up and read, pick up and read.’ At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant is used, But I could not remember having heard of one. I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me – to open the book and read the first chapter I might find. I picked up the book of the apostle, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit: It said, ‘Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.’”

After he read these verses from Romans he testified,

“I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of the sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.”

After this experience, the young man searched for his mother to tell her all that happened. After sharing his joy with her, they moved back to Carthage together. Two days later his mother died. It was as though she didn’t need to live anymore, for her son was now a Christian – he had tasted the Bread of Life.

Taste and See

This man who had lived a sinful and idolatrous life, whose daily life was filled with sexual immorality and drunkenness, who bowed before the altars of false gods and philosophies; this very man who tried everything the world had to offer, finally found the one thing the world couldn’t offer. He found the bread of life – Jesus Christ.

You may know this man of whom I am speaking. And those of you who don’t have probably heard of the city and beach that bears his name. His name is St. Augustine, and he became one of the greatest saints in the 2000-year history of the Christian church. Protestants and Catholics alike claim Augustine as a patron saint. God used this man with such a wretched past, to bring honor and glory to Christ’s name.

Augustine found the very bread Jesus was speaking about in John 6. The crowds were following Jesus because of the miracles he did. They wanted him to provide more bread for them to eat. But Jesus told them not to put all their hope in bread that would spoil, but instead, to seek that bread which would give them eternal life. The crowd, however, didn’t understand Jesus’ words. They said to him, “then give us this bread that you are speaking of.”

Jesus responded to them in verse 35,

“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Then in verse 40, Jesus described what God’s will for them was on this matter. He said,

“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

A Treasure Found

This is the treasure St. Augustine found. This is the bread he tasted. This is the single most important truth he knew he would ever find in his life. Augustine responded to Jesus, the bread of life, the way Jesus told the disciples they should.

In Jesus’ parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price, two men found treasures beyond their wildest dreams. Both men sold all they had to secure their discoveries. They recognized the value of what they had found, and they determined to have it. They sold all they had so they could buy it, and that’s exactly what they did.

Jesus told his disciples that this was the reasonable thing for them to do. It would have been foolish of them to find the great treasure and do nothing about it. Augustine saw the great treasure. His mother had been telling him about it for many years, and yet he did not have eyes to see it. And then suddenly, the veil was lifted and he saw it – and he sold all he had to purchase it. He sold the pleasures of all his sin. He sold the prestige he had as a famous teacher. He sold his friendships he had with those who would no longer be his friends. This was no light decision, free of consequence.

A New Life

And yet, what Augustine got in return was infinitely more valuable than what he gave up. What he received in exchange for those earthly things filled him with eternal satisfaction and joy. Augustine gave up much, but got even more in return. He knew the value of the bread of life – Jesus Christ his Lord. Jesus’ words, “I am the bread of life,” are words that express the glorious truth that he alone can give the gift of eternal life.

The crowd Jesus was addressing did not realize he was teaching them about a spiritual experience. What is this spiritual life like? Jesus said the person who has this life will never be hungry or thirsty. Perhaps you, like Augustine, know what it is like to thirst and hunger for significance, dignity, and love. Maybe you don’t know what it’s like to have peace or stability in your life. Augustine knew what it was like to go day after day without stability. He knew what it was like to have a restless heart, knowing there was more in life than what he had, but not knowing how to get it.

Jesus says the one who comes to him will never hunger because the bread he offers is completely satisfying. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher, is often attributed to have said we all have a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts – and they can only be filled by God. Putting your family, friends, careers, money, school, drugs and alcohol, prestige, power or anything else before God, will leave you hungry and unsatisfied.

The Fate of Sisyphus

If those things are your life’s pursuits, you will find that you are much like the character of Greek mythology, Sisyphus. He was the poor guy who was condemned by the gods for betraying them. So, for his punishment, he was sentenced to roll a giant boulder to the top of a huge hill. That would be hard enough. However, each time he worked and worked to get the boulder to the top of the hill, it would always roll down the other side. He was condemned to eternally repeat this meaningless task of rolling the stone to the top of the hill – over and over again, never finding rest or satisfaction.

Jesus taught that pursuing anything else but him, the bread of life, is like pushing a rock up a hill, over and over again. It will be futile and have no end. Instead, when you turn to Jesus and trust in him, you will discover the abundant, meaningful, and eternal life God has promised you.

Jesus preaches the same message today through his Word and Spirit,

“I am the bread of life. If you come to me you will never go hungry, and if you believe in me you will never be thirsty.”

The men in Jesus’ parables found out this was true. St. Augustine found out this was true. In fact, people for 2,000 years have discovered this same truth. An evangelist once said that evangelism is merely one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread. It’s my privilege to tell you that we are all beggars and Jesus is the only bread we will ever need.

Have You Tasted the Bread of Life?

Have you tasted the bread of life? Have you come to Jesus? Or are you trying to cram other things into your life, instead of the only thing that can give you meaning, satisfaction, and rest?

What do you have to do to receive this great treasure – this pearl of great price – this living bread? Jesus taught you must sell all you have – your agenda and desire to go your own way instead of God’s way. You must hunger for the bread God supplies and not for praise, power, and popularity. You must put everything and everyone else behind God and seek God and his righteousness first and foremost, and all else will be given to you. This is never easy, and it will cost you a great deal. But what you get in return will be more than worth the price. So, seize this opportunity. Taste the bread that Jesus offers. St. Augustine did, and he never regretted it. In fact, he wrote a prayer to express his gratitude to God, and I would like to share it with you.

You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised; great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable. Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being bearing mortality with him, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. Amen.