Monthly Archives: January 2014

1.26.14 Weekly Small Groups GPS Guide

(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at in Sermon Archives)

The Meaning of Christ’s Death

A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.


Mark 8:31-37

In Jesus’ day, people hated the cross as a symbol of Roman cruelty, coercion and death. Scholar Craig Evans wrote, “In that time there was no sentimentality attached to Jesus’ death, and certainly not to the cross, a horrifying symbol in Roman antiquity.” Yet Jesus saw a cross ahead for himself, a prospect Peter found appalling. Jesus himself seems to have used the cross as a positive (though hugely challenging) symbol of the cost of following him.



Mark 15:20-39

Mark, followed by Matthew (cf. Matthew 27:46) said Jesus rather stunningly quoted the desolate opening verse of Psalm 22:1 on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you left me?” Crucifixion was physically painful, yet Jesus’ deeper anguish on the cross was spiritual. Mark summed up his gospel, “the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son” (Mark 1:1) with a Roman centurion declaring, “This man was certainly God’s Son.”



John 19:16-30

The gospel of John sought to cast light on the inner implications of Jesus’ life and teachings. John wrote that Jesus said no one took his life from him; he chose to give it (John 10:17-18). So verse 17’s words that Jesus was “carrying his cross by himself” weren’t denying the story of Simon of Cyrene, but stressing that Jesus bore the spiritual burden alone. John wanted us to clearly see Jesus as victor, not victim, on the cross, so he wrote that “he gave up his life.”



1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Paul declared a message he himself acknowledged was “foolish” to some and “scandal” to others. He preached Christ crucified as a life-changing physical and spiritual fact, though he knew no PR person or mythmaker would try to impress Greeks, Romans or Hebrews with a crucified savior. He relied on God’s power to change people’s lives and thinking. He trusted that God’s wisdom and strength were greater than this world’s—and they were!



1 Peter 2:21-25

1 Peter showed some of the key ideas the early Christians used to express the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. (Again, these are first century documents, not creeds negotiated centuries later.) Peter said Jesus was our example in endurance and trust in God when suffering comes. But he also alluded to Isaiah 53:5 as he declared that Jesus “carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed”—that he in some vital sense bore our guilt.



Galatians 6:12-16

The Roman writer Cicero wrote, “The idea of the cross should never come near the bodies of Roman citizens; it should never pass through their thoughts, eyes or ears.” In the Roman world, no one “boasted” about anything having to do with a cross. But Paul (a Roman citizen—cf. Acts 22:25-27) wrote, amazingly, “God forbid that I should boast about anything except for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus’ cross (and his resurrection—hence Paul’s reference to “new creation”) had changed his life.


To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from



Lord God, you took a brutal instrument of cruelty and death, and from it you brought forgiveness and a new creation. Thank you for giving us the privilege of being a part of that creation. Fill our hearts with your healing, peace and freedom from guilt. Energize us for living by helping us follow Christ’s example. Grant us strength and wisdom to trust and depend upon you in everything. Amen.

CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)

Some people grumble about the ever-changing weather in our community. Do you grumble, or do you welcome even the more unpleasant changes as breaks from the seeming monotony of winter?



 Read Mark 8:31-37. What did Jesus mean when he said, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me”? Did his words apply only to his disciples, or do they apply to us as well? How can we say “no” to ourselves? How do we take up our cross? What kind of Messiah were the Jews of that time expecting? Why did Jesus tell his disciples about his impending death? How would you have reacted if you had been one of his disciples and only knew what they knew?

 Read Mark 15:20-39. What meaning do you see in verse 38, which reads, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom”? What did the centurion see or sense that caused him to say, “Surely this man was the Son of God”? When Jesus claimed his kingship, how did the Jews interpret this? How did the Romans interpret it? What has proved to be more enduring: Rome’s belief that it takes unyielding violence to change the world for the better, or Christ’s message that self-sacrificing love and forgiveness is more powerful than violence?

 Read John 19:16-30. The Common English Version translates verse 30 by saying that Jesus “gave up his life.” Why didn’t John simply say that Jesus died? Do you see Jesus as the king you need to serve? What might prevent us from seeing him in this way and from serving him? What did Jesus mean when, as he died he said, “It is completed”—what was completed? Has Jesus in any way(s) “completed” you?

 Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Doesn’t the statement that Jesus is the world’s Lord and Savior seem foolish, given the fact that the Romans crucified him? Does the statement make any sense at all? The apostle Paul said in verses 18 and 19, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’” Do you find this Pauline statement to be true, at least for many people? In what unexpected, unimaginable ways has God worked in your life? In what part(s) of your life today do you need to trust that God’s strength and wisdom is greater than yours?

 Read 1 Peter 2:21-25. In interpreting verse 21, is Peter calling us to suffer just as Christ suffered, or saying that Christ wants us to spread his gospel and share his “good news” of salvation? Can any of us ever suffer as Christ did? How can we follow the example of Christ in the way we live our lives? Are there aspects of Jesus’ example that feel beyond your reach? Have you learned to tap into Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit to give you power to live differently? What guilt, wounds and hurts haunt you and continue to disrupt your peace? In what ways have you found the healing Jesus offers?

 Read Galatians 6:12-16. What do you think is the central message of these verses? How might it apply to all of us today? The cross was a horror in the Roman world and yet Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, boasted in the cross. Why—what had the cross meant to him? Has the power of the cross made any difference in your life? Do you know people who you wish understood and accepted the power of the cross? How might their lives be better? What can you do on their behalf?


From last week: Did you prayerfully consider how you can help to overcome prejudice and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Did you do at least one thing to honor his memory by injecting peace and mutual respect into your week and into the week of others? Please share with the group any interesting or unexpected experiences you had.



From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, January 26, 2014:

I came to understand three insights several years ago that helped me in making sense of the death of Christ. The first I’ve already mentioned: there is not one theory of the atonement, but multiple ways of understanding the meaning of Christ death. The second, I think, is hugely important: Jesus’ death was a dramatic act that is more like poetry than like economic or judicial theory. Poetry or art is not a logical argument, but something that stirs your soul and speaks to your heart. Finally, Jesus’ death was not about changing God, satisfying God, or placating or appeasing God and God’s justice. It is about changing us. God did not need Jesus death to forgive, nor to show mercy. We needed Jesus death, to understand our need for forgiveness, and the costliness of mercy….

Let’s start with the most common view of the atonement among evangelical Christians today: PENAL SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT. The idea is that sin requires punishment, that if God is just he cannot leave sin unpunished. God cannot forgive sin without some kind of punishment, but being merciful, he sends Jesus, his Son, to suffer and die as a substitute for humans. The punishment we deserved is placed upon Jesus. By accepting his death, trusting in it, and asking for his mercy, our sins are placed upon him on the cross, and his righteousness is credited to us….In many ways, the picture of God this idea of atonement paints seems inconsistent with the portrait of God Jesus paints in the gospels. Jesus tells parables like the Prodigal Son in which God is merciful despite the stupid sins we commit. He offers forgiveness even before we ask. Jesus eats with sinners and forgives their sins before he ever died for them. His portrait of God is one who seeks to save the lost, who has compassion upon lost sheep. God can forgive whomever God wishes to forgive—it is his divine prerogative.

Yet there are things I value in the penal substitutionary atonement theory, and truths it holds. Jesus clearly understood his death to be about forgiveness. Seen as a metaphor or divine message, not as a judicial theory, this view of atonement is critical for us at times. I regularly speak with people whose sins have landed them in situations where they are overwhelmed with shame and guilt, where they’ve made such a mess of things there seems no way out. In those moments we may feel the wrath of God—the displeasure of God and the weight of the horrible thing we’ve done. Often I’ve brought people into the sanctuary to look at the cross, to kneel before it, or to wrap your arms around it, and to recognize that Christ bore your sins on the cross. This is part of the message of the cross—forgiveness, redemption, healing, a new beginning. Listen to Paul’s words: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” We sin, we fall short of God’s glory, and in this dramatic act, Christ offers himself for our atonement and redemption. We have forgiveness and a new beginning through him….

Another approach we might call the COVENANTAL THEORY OF ATONEMENT. At the Last Supper Jesus offers a different picture of his death. He takes bread and wine, part of the Jewish Passover Seder meal, and he says, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20) Jesus transforms the Passover Seder meal from the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, an event that was accompanied by the sacrifice of lambs, to a meal to remember his own death….

In addition, at the Last Supper, Jesus links his impending death to the idea of the New Covenant that Jeremiah the prophet foretells when he writes on behalf of God, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” In the ancient Near East covenants or binding agreements were made with an animal sacrifice, and sometime with each party cutting their hand, grasping one another’s hands and co-mingling their blood. This was a blood promise. At the Last Supper, on the night before he is crucified, Jesus speaks of his impending death as the rite initiating a new binding agreement between God and humanity. So the cross is seen as the sacrifice that initiated a new covenant between God and humanity, one that supersedes the Old Testament covenant, and now, not by obeying the Law of Moses, but by trusting in Christ and living according to the Spirit, we are the children of God.

Another theory of atonement is called the MORAL THEORY OF ATONEMENT. This has various permutations, but the idea is that Christ’s death is about changing our hearts and influencing us by showing us the depth of God’s love and a picture of what we’re meant to be. It is meant to heal us. This ties in with something else Jesus said about his death in John 15:13, also at the Last Supper: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Here Jesus’ death will be an expression of his love for the disciples, and for the world. We see the same meaning of Jesus’ love in Paul when he writes in Romans 5:6-8: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

So the death of Jesus tells me that I am loved. I think of how I have tried to communicate to my children how much I love them by saying, “I love you so much I would die for you.” I feel the same way about my wife. And when someone actually does die for you, how would this affect to you?…

One theory of the atonement said to have been held by many in the early church is the CHRISTUS VICTOR THEORY OF ATONEMENT. This notes that Jesus, in his death and resurrection, triumphed over the forces of evil, sin and death. There are variations on this theory, but I find this one compelling and have often shared it with you: that Jesus’ death on the cross, and his resurrection, reminds us that evil, sin, hate and even death will never have the final word.

Ultimately, no one of these theories is the “right” theory of the atonement. It is not mechanistic, or literalistic, “here’s how the atonement works.” I don’t think the atonement was about changing God’s heart or turning away his wrath, or satisfying his justice. It was about changing us, freeing us, loving us, persuading us, influencing us, leading us, convicting us, and forgiving us.

And that’s why I need it, and I think about it every day. It is the picture I have of God who loves, and gives himself, and offers us forgiveness, and makes a new way of salvation for us, and he himself suffers for our sin, and demonstrates the costliness of grace, and ultimately triumphs over evil and sin and hate, and even death, so that the worst thing is not the last thing.


About the Crucifix and the Empty Cross—

Q. I’m a Protestant Christian and have worn a crucifix for a while now. I just found out that a crucifix (with Jesus on the cross) is normally considered to be Catholic. Protestants just wear empty crosses. Are Protestants so different from Catholics that it would matter whether or not I wear it?

A. I’m also a Protestant Christian and I love the crucifix, too. Seeing Christ on the cross inspires me because I think of God’s sacrificial love. Does it matter that the crucifix is normally considered Catholic? Nope. I think it’s great when Protestants wear a crucifix or Catholics wear an empty cross because both symbolize God’s unfailing love for us. The crucifix is a vivid reminder of the sacrificial love of God, and the empty cross is a reminder that he rose from the dead.

The central idea behind both crosses is the same: Jesus. And that’s what connects Protestants and Catholics. Both groups agree on two essentials: 1) Jesus is the Son of God; 2) he died for our sins and rose from the dead….

Protestants and Catholics both claim that Christ died on the cross for their sins. For both groups of Christians, the crucifix can be a powerful reminder of what Jesus went through in order to bring us back to God.


A United Methodist point of view:

While both United Methodists and Catholics agree that the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ are important, we talk about them in ways that put emphasis in different places. It is like an orchestra that plays the same music, but different parts of the orchestra emphasize different notes in the score. Catholics tend to emphasize the healing, redeeming power of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Protestants, including United Methodists, tend to emphasize the power of the resurrection as assurance of life beyond the power of death. So Catholics use a depiction of the cross (called a crucifix) with an image of the suffering Jesus upon it to visualize their way of talking about the event. United Methodists, who emphasize the resurrection, use a bare cross to say that Jesus overcame his suffering and death and is risen.

As far as I know, there is nothing to forbid the use of a crucifix in a United Methodist Church. However, it is seldom done. United Methodists tend to display statues of Jesus’ life or an image of the resurrected Lord.



Final application:

This week prayerfully consider how you can help others receive the peace of Christ’s saving grace. Do something like praying for them, doing a kind deed for them. Be careful not to be intrusive or off-putting. Next week share any experiences you had.


1.19.14 Weekly Small Groups GPS Guide

(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at in Sermon Archives)

Did Jesus Really Say That?

A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.


Mark 4:1-9

This week we will study some of Jesus’ statements that seem hard to understand to many people. Sometimes Jesus did not mean to be understood easily. In Mark 4, he told a parable, one his followers asked him to explain (cf. verse 10). At its end, he used a common Hebrew expression: “Whoever has ears to listen should pay attention!” It was a way of saying the story’s meaning wasn’t obvious, that understanding its message took attention and thought.



Matthew 5:27-30

Jesus used various types of parables and imagery to communicate his message. One of them was “prophetic hyperbole”—dramatic exaggeration to show that a subject is serious. Adultery was (and is) a serious issue, and Jesus used hyperbole to stress that the call to follow him is not always easy. At times entering God’s Kingdom takes hard choices, “tearing out” or “chopping off” some things so that we can live the life God calls us to live.



Mark 10:17-27

First, Jesus told the man who asked about eternal life, “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” The man went away—he didn’t want eternal life THAT much. Then Jesus said, “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” That shocked his disciples—no rich people in heaven? No, said Jesus, that’s not the point: “All things are possible for God.” His hyperbolic statements were a solemn warning about the spiritual danger of worshipping wealth.



Luke 14:25-33

In yesterday’s reading, Jesus challenged those who made their “stuff” more important than his kingdom. In today’s passage, he challenged anyone who made family ties more important than following him. He was not against family love—he cared about his mother even on the cross (cf. John 19:25-27). But in his day, and ours, following Jesus sometimes strained or even broke culturally valued patterns of family obedience and loyalty.



Mark 1:14-20

Some of Jesus’ sayings were hard to understand—a few may even have been misreported. But what Mark reported as Jesus’ central point came through clearly. “Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives,” he said. “Come, follow me!” Sometimes a focus on Jesus’ “hard sayings” is a cover for what Mark Twain reportedly said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”



Matthew 9:9-13, 35-36

For many self-righteous religious leaders in Jesus’ day, the hardest thing to understand about Jesus was not some obscure statement, but his crystal clear message that God loves and has compassion for all people—including those they called “sinners.” Jesus lived that message out, and voiced it in stories like the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:25-37) and in the greatest commandments (cf. Matthew 22:34-40). Some things about Jesus we may not fully understand—but the central “good news” of his kingdom is clear. And for all of us who are willing to recognize our standing as “sinners,” it’s incredibly good news.


To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from



Lord God, we pray that we may always be as ready to respond as Matthew was when you break into our daily routine. We pray that we will respond “right away,” as did your disciples when you called. Help us to break out of the constraining norms of this world and value the treasure of heaven more than earthly “things.” Give us ears to listen and a heart to respond. Amen.

CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)

The holiday season is behind us and we are about one-third of the way into winter. What are you looking forward to now and why?



• Read Mark 4:1-9. What did Jesus mean when he said, “Whoever has ears to hear”? What is a parable? Why did Jesus so often speak in parables rather than speaking more directly? How do you interpret this parable? What can we do to make sure that our hearts and minds are “good soil” for the word of God? If we have “good soil,” what kind of good crop and harvest might we be able to expect?

• Read Matthew 5:27-30. Also read the paragraph under “Tuesday” above. What should be more important to us, momentary pleasure or eternal life with God? Is that issue always obvious to us in the moment? Can you think of one way you’ve found greater satisfaction by choosing to live in God’s way versus a way of momentary pleasure? In what ways have you found following the teaching of Jesus to be difficult? Can you think of examples of how we might be able to “tear out” or “chop off” things in our life that get in the way of our ability to follow Jesus faithfully?

• Read Mark 10:17-27. What was Jesus meaning when he said, “Why do you call me good?…No one is good—except God alone”? Did he mean that he was not good? Think about what Jesus said about how hard it is for rich people (and even everyone else) to enter the kingdom of heaven, then re-read the concluding verse in this selection (verse 27). What message does Jesus want to convey here? There were lots of wealthy people in the Bible that God did not tell to sell all that they had (Abraham and Zacchaeus, for example). How does that fact affect your understanding of these verses? How can our attitudes about “stuff” get in the way of our desire to follow God?

• Read Luke 14:25-33. Jesus is again using hyperbole to make a point. In the context of the New Testament, how would you define a “disciple”? Do you or do you not want to be a disciple? For many, this becomes a question of what personal cost they are willing to pay to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Has someone you know well ever had to choose between pleasing family members and doing what God was calling them to do? How can we care about people as Jesus did, and yet be faithful to our convictions about what God is asking of us? In what ways have you found new “family relationships” within God’s larger family?

• Read Mark 1:14-20. The Common English Bible renders the Greek word metanoia, often translated as “repent,” with the phrase “change your hearts and lives.” The Greek literally meant “to change directions, turn around.” What are some of the most significant ways you have changed your heart and life in response to Jesus? One of the more striking parts of Mark’s report is verse 18: “RIGHT AWAY, they left their nets and followed him.” Why do you think they responded so quickly and readily? Have you ever finally responded to God, and then thought, “I wish I’d done this long ago”?

• Read Matthew 9:9-13, 35-36. Is it sometimes hard for you to accept the fact that, despite all your efforts to be “a good person,” you are still a sinner who needs a Savior? Does God love sinners? What makes you think so? Is that a part of the “good news” of Christ’s message? For all of us who are willing to recognize our standing as “sinners,” it’s incredibly good news, isn’t it? Matthew was a tax collector and was considered a sinner of the first order. Did he change lives for the better? Can we?

From last week: Did you prayerfully consider to what extent you believe Jesus’ humanity affected his attitude toward us, how God’s attitude toward us might have been different if he had not lived in human flesh? Share with the group whatever you learned.



From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, January 19, 2014:

The scholars of the Jesus Seminar developed a set of rules and assumptions about the kinds of things Jesus actually said. Then they measured each recorded saying of Jesus in the gospels in the light of their rules and assumptions. Here’s the question: on what basis did you develop the assumptions? For instance, among the 2% of the words of Jesus the Jesus Seminar said was undoubtedly authentic was the saying, “Love your enemies.” But we learned two weeks ago that Reza Aslan in the bestseller Zealot about Jesus, came to the exact opposite conclusion—Jesus most certainly did not say, “Love your enemies.” Both the Jesus Seminar and Aslan made assumptions about Jesus, then discounted the things he said that did not fit their assumptions.

It is important to recognize, however, that the sayings of Jesus in the gospels were not verbatim accounts of what Jesus said. There were no court reporters taking down his words. This is what people remembered, and how they remembered them and how the gospel writers interpreted these things. I’ll give you a side-by-side example of how the gospels sometimes differ:


In Luke we read that Jesus said to his disciples:

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.”

“Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.”


But now consider how Matthew records the same saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for

righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Many scholars think Matthew was writing to a more affluent congregation, Luke writing with a particular concern for the poor, and each adapted Jesus’ words. But generally, Matthew, Mark and Luke sound very much alike. When we compare these three gospels, usually called the “synoptics” from the Greek “to see together,” with John, you’ll see that there is a huge gap. In Matthew, Mark and Luke (the Synoptics) Jesus speaks in parables, but in John he rarely speaks in parables—he uses metaphors instead. In Matthew, Mark and Luke he refers to the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven 84 times; in John, only twice. John’s Jesus uses the personal pronoun “I” twice as much as the Synoptics. The Synoptic Jesus is focused on ethical living and he calls people to follow him. In John the focus is on an internal spiritual faith, and Jesus calls people to believe in him….

Here’s the point I want you to see—we need both John and the Synoptics to have a balanced and complete Christian life. We need a relationship with Christ that transforms us and gives us life, and we need to hear the ethical call of the Kingdom of God….

Jesus often speaks in a way that clearly he does not intend us to take literally, but he does intend we take seriously. LaVon and I fight over the thermostat….The other night she was going to bed and said, “If you don’t turn that thermostat down, I’m going to die.” Was she really going to die, or was she exaggerating to make a point? Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which you make a clearly over-the-top statement to dramatically make your point. You can think of others: “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Or, “I’ve got a million things to do today.” This is how Jesus often speaks in Matthew, Mark and Luke. He uses hyperbole to make a point. He also speaks in prophetic absolutes, not trying to consider all of the possible exceptions to the rule.

So when Jesus says “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,” he means, “Lust can be deadly. It can make you a slave.” Jesus also said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Since most of us are wealthy relative to the developing world, we’d better hope Jesus meant to be taken seriously but not literally. He was saying that wealth, our fixation on it, our tendency to hoard it can destroy our souls and keep us from God’s kingdom.

I want us to end by focusing on the crux of Jesus’ message. In John that message is largely an inner spiritual message. John is best known for one verse that captures in many ways what Jesus, in John’s gospel, demands. You know the words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” Jesus never says anything quite like that in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But it captures the personal, spiritual life. In John, Jesus uses agricultural metaphors to describe the relationship of the believer to him—he is the vine, we are the branches, and we’re to bear fruit. That fruit, he repeatedly says, is love. So Jesus says things like this on several occasions: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The crux of Jesus’ message in Matthew, Mark and Luke is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Heaven. It appears 84 times on Jesus’ lips in the gospels, only twice in John, but 82 times in Matthew, Mark and Luke. What did Jesus mean by the “kingdom of God”? It is, in an ultimate sense, the truth that God is the rightful king and ruler over the entire cosmos. Yet the world we live in seems in so many ways to be in rebellion against God….

When Jesus preached his very first sermon, it was a simple one, “The kingdom of God has come near! Repent and believe the good news!” The word repent in Greek is METANOIA = A CHANGE OF MIND RESULTING IN A CHANGE OF HEART AND ACTIONS. This is what Jesus announced in his first sermon.

Jesus called people to acknowledge God as their king, to turn to God, and to live their lives daily focused on being his servants, his people, setting the world aright in so far as they were able. In their marriages, with their children, in their jobs, in the way they treat their neighbors, in how they respond to their enemies, in how they respond to the poor, the broken, the stranger or alien….

This weekend we celebrate the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King. His vision, he freely acknowledged, was drawn from the vision of Jesus and the kingdom of God. The strategy and powerful instrument Jesus announced both in John and the Synoptics, which had the power to change the world, was love. When Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize he quoted Arnold Toynbee, “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.” King then ended his speech with these words of hope, “In a dark, confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.”


What others have said about “righteousness”

– This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified. ― Martin Luther

– If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see. Let them see. ― Henry David Thoreau

– Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. ― Martin Luther King Jr.

– More evil gets done in the name of righteousness than any other way. ― Glen Cook, Dreams of Steel

– Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and a cry for help? ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

– For the believer, humility is honesty about one’s greatest flaws to a degree in which he is fearless about truly appearing less righteous than another. ― Criss Jami, Salomé: In Every Inch In Every Mile

– If you don’t have a righteous objective, eventually you will suffer. When you do the right thing for the right reason, the right result awaits.” ― Chin-Ning Chu

– My righteousness is just as good as Jesus’ righteousness, because it IS Jesus’ righteousness! ― E.W. Kenyon

– Righteousness acts never in its own interest, but in the interest of fellow men.” ― Thaddeus of Vitovnica

– You know what is right and what is wrong, and no disguise, however appealing, can change that. Be the one to make a stand for right, even if you stand alone. Have the moral courage to be a light for others to follow. ― Thomas S. Monson

– A righteous man does not conceive of himself as righteous; he is “only doing what anyone else would do,” except, of course, that no one else does it. ― Martin Berman-Gorvine

– Experiences are the gifts from God, but we never seek those directly. You and I are to be seeking. You and I are to be hungering and thirsting after righteousness and then the experiences are the gifts. ― Brian Richardson

– The abundant life begins from within and then moves outward to other individuals. If there is richness and righteousness in us, then we can make a difference in the lives of others, just as key individuals have influenced the lives of each of us for good and made us richer than we otherwise would have been. ― Spencer W. Kimball


Final application:

This week prayerfully consider how you can help to overcome prejudice and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Do at least one thing to honor his memory by injecting peace and mutual respect into your week and the week of others. Next week share with the group any experiences you had.


1.12.14 Weekly Small Groups GPS Guide

(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at in Sermon Archives)

The Humanity of Jesus

A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.


Luke 1:1-4, 26-38

This week we’ll read several of the Bible’s key stories about Jesus’ birth. We just read them during Advent, so we’ll focus on their historical, theological meanings, not what we might call their “Christmas card” images. Remembering Luke’s careful research with eyewitnesses, we realize that the only eyewitness to Gabriel’s private meeting with Mary would have been Mary. Luke must have learned the story from her, or someone who knew her.



Matthew 1:18-25

Matthew told the story of Jesus’ conception and birth from Joseph’s point of view rather than Mary’s. Despite that, his account and Luke’s emphasized certain key theological points. Both reported that the prospective parents at first reacted to the news of what God was doing with shock, and struggled to believe it. In both accounts, the baby was given a name that pointed to his saving mission. This was no ordinary child—this was a Savior sent by God.



Luke 2:1-20

Luke was a physician and companion of the Apostle Paul. He was also a careful historian, who knew exactly what he wanted to share with his readers. It was no accident that he began this story by mentioning Caesar. When Rome crowned an emperor, they gave him the title “Savior” (among others) and choirs sang. People even worshipped the emperor as divine. Luke said Jesus, not Caesar, was the true Savior, King and God.



Matthew 2:1-12

The Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus both wrote that in the period when Jesus was born, an ancient prophecy led many, especially in the East, to believe a world ruler would rise in Judea. For Matthew, the story did make a theological point about Jesus’ worldwide significance, but that doesn’t mean he invented it. (Surely priests and Herod’s former officials would have denied it if it were fiction.)



Luke 2:39-52

Luke’s research found and recorded the most detailed story of Jesus’ birth and the events before it. He also preserved the only story from Jesus’ childhood, when he went at age 12 with his parents to Jerusalem for Passover. A day into their journey home, Mary and Joseph realized Jesus was missing. The wealth of human detail points to the story’s authenticity. But for Luke it also showed that very early Jesus sensed his identity as God’s son, and had a deep inner sense of mission out of that identity.



Luke 19:1-10

Those who knew Jesus and wrote his story in the first century saw him as focused and driven by his saving mission. They had heard Jesus talk about the mission often, in a variety of ways. In his hometown synagogue, he quoted Isaiah 61 to define his liberating, freedom-giving mission (cf. Luke 4:16-21). In Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28 he said he came “to give his life to liberate many people.” And, after calling the short, curious tax collector Zacchaeus out of the tree he had climbed, he told townspeople who grumbled about his welcome of such a clear-cut sinner that he had come “to seek and save the lost.”


To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from



Lord Jesus, when we wander, you continue to seek and save us. Through you, we wish to be different, better people—your people. You embraced your mission here on Earth early—help us to see and fulfill our own mission. Help us to make our lives and actions demonstrate our commitment to you. Amen.

CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)

What brought you here today? What made it important to you to be here? What almost prevented you from coming and how did you overcome that obstacle?



 Read Luke 1:1-4, 26-38. Luke was not an eyewitness to the events described here. So how do you think Luke went about getting this story? Mary was an unknown, unwed, teenage girl from a poor family in a tiny, backwater town. Is this the kind of background you would have selected if this story of a coming Messiah had been made up? Do you think God was involved in the writing of the Bible? If so, how? How does your view of how the Bible was written affect your view of the Bible’s credibility? Does it strengthen or weaken your faith?

 Read Matthew 1:18-25. These verses describe the conception of Christ from Joseph’s point of view rather than Mary’s. Christ was referred to in two ways: as Jesus, meaning “God saves” and Immanuel meaning “God with us.” Why do you think both these names were used? Does it provide you with clarity or any sense of certainty regarding who Matthew believed Jesus was? Which description is most meaningful to you right now and why? Our faith’s central claim is that Jesus was not just a great teacher. He was Emmanuel—God with us. How does this claim shape your faith and your life?

 Read Luke 2:1-20. The fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem fulfilled Old Testament prophesies (cf. Micah 5:2, 4) that the Messiah would be born there. Who caused this to happen? Does God bring about his plan even through despotic rulers like Caesar? Do you believe that God works through you to bring about his plan? When and how have you seen this happen? Why would God have chosen, of all people, a group of poor shepherds as an audience to hear about the birth of the Christ? Why did Luke choose to mention this? Is it possible that Luke interviewed these shepherds? Do you believe that Jesus is God, Lord and Savior, or do you find this difficult to believe?

 Read Matthew 2:1-12. Does the text say how many wise men came in search of the Christ child? Scholars believe that they spent 18-24 months following the star, which would indicate that Jesus was a toddler, not a newborn, when they arrived. What possible inaccuracies might there be in many manger scenes you’ve seen? Does this really matter? Has your vision of the story of Christ’s birth changed over the years? The Magi bowed and worshipped this child of a poor, young, peasant girl. Do you think they might have hesitated to worship a toddler?

 Read Luke 2:39-52. What does this story tell you about the kind of person Jesus was, even at the age of 12? Who would you think might have been Luke’s source for these stories? Do you consider yourself one of God’s children? What might prevent some people from fully embracing that concept? Once that concept is accepted, how might it affect the way we live our lives? Mary cherished all her memories of Jesus’ upbringing. Do you have memories of the growth of your faith that you will never forget?

 Read Luke 19:1-10. Jesus said he came to “seek and save the lost”. Who are “the lost”? You are gathered here to learn more about and grow in the faith. You’re not lost, are you? Why would you need a Christ, a Messiah? The Pharisees were well-versed in the scriptures. They wouldn’t have needed a Messiah, would they? What has helped you recognize your need for a Savior? What do you think made Zacchaeus so quick to accept Jesus as a Savior?

From last week: Did you prayerfully consider to what extent you believe that Jesus lived, died, was resurrected bodily and is God? Did you make a list of how these beliefs have shaped your life? Did you also ask yourself how your belief has affected others? Please share with the group whatever you discovered.



From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, January 12, 2014:

When someone tells me they struggle with believing in the Virgin Birth my answer is, “Joseph did too!” When Mary told him the story that the messenger of God had said she was to have a child, though she had not been with a man, how did Joseph respond? He was going to break off the engagement. If Joseph struggled to believe Mary when she told him this story, of course many of us will struggle when we read the story in Matthew and Luke. As our understanding of biology and genetics increased, the story became increasingly problematic for some people….How was Jesus conceived apart from the supply of a sperm cell?

I don’t get too hung up on this. To me, what is it for the God who wrote the masterful piece of code that is human DNA to provide a piece of DNA so small the eye cannot see it in order to form the human flesh of Jesus? I’m not too terribly troubled by the idea that Jesus was born of a Virgin.

But the Virgin Birth was not primarily about explaining biology, genetics and conception. It was a way of asserting something far more profound….The Virgin Birth is about God becoming like us, walking among us in the mess we make of things, being near us, with us, in order to help, comfort and save us. It is meant to tell us that when we look at Jesus we’re seeing the heart and character of God. You may not need the Virgin Birth to get this—to understand that in Jesus God came near to us, to save and redeem us and reveal himself to us. But I think that is what the Virgin Birth is meant to help us see. It is why the story was told….If I never heard about the Virgin Birth, I would still be a follower of Jesus. But personally, I love the story of the Virgin Birth….

Was Jesus really married; a marriage the gospel writers chose to keep a secret? No one has done more to popularize this idea than Dan Brown in his multi-million best selling work of fiction, The DaVinci Code. The book was a fun read, and what made it so believable was that Brown drew upon bits and pieces of historical documents and told the story in actual places.

Girls married around the time that they had their first period, but no younger than 12 (according to the Talmud). Boys were no younger than 13 but typically between 14 and 18. The key for the boy was his ability to support a wife and children by his work. Brown and others suggest that it would have been inappropriate for Jesus not to have married. But not all Jewish men married. The Essene sect, for instance, a sect of Jews with whom Jesus shared a great deal in common, did not marry. They were very religious Jews who believed that marriage would inhibit their pursuit of God. They were admired by others, according to the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, for their choice of celibacy.

Nothing in the gospels from the first century suggests Jesus was married. Had he been, there would have been no reason for the first century writers to hide it. It was normal, expected, and it was a bit odd if you didn’t marry.

The gospels do mention Mary Magdalene four or five times. She clearly was an important person in Jesus’ life. She was said to have been delivered from demons by Jesus. She and a group of other women provided funds for Jesus and the disciples in their ministry. She stood by as Jesus was crucified, was there when he was buried, wept at his tomb, and was the first to see the resurrected Christ. While the gospels don’t mention any romantic interest, it is easy imagine that Mary Magdalene was in love with Jesus. I love that song from Jesus Christ Superstar, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” that captures so well what we imagine Mary’s feelings for Jesus might have been. What we don’t find in the gospels is even a hint that he returned this love.

In the second through fourth centuries there was a sect of Christians (using philosophical ideas that spread beyond Christianity) called Gnostics. Hundreds of their writings have been found in Egypt. This group gave Mary Magdalene a larger role. They suggested that Jesus passed on secret teachings to her, and attributed some of their own beliefs to this secret knowledge. In one of these Gnostic gospels, dated 150 to 200 years after the time of Jesus, there is a suggestion that Mary and Jesus were romantically involved. Several years ago a fragment of another document was translated by a Harvard professor. It too was one of these Gnostic gospels, and in it Jesus refers to Mary as his wife.

I’ve tried to think whether Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene would change my faith, the gospel or the message of Jesus in any way. I don’t think so. And I rather believe that Jesus, as a man, would have longed for this kind of companionship and no doubt knew the struggles we have with temptation in the area of sexuality. If he were a man, he would know the hunger we feel, and the confused relationships, and how things in this area of our lives sometimes lead to sin.

But having said that, the gospel picture of Jesus choosing not to marry, being single-mindedly focused on the Kingdom of God and his mission, knowing he would die, is not only compelling. It also reflects the traditions of the first century, which I value much more highly than those found among esoteric sects of the second, third and fourth century. So while the story of Jesus’ marriage helped Dan Brown sell a lot of books, I don’t think it likely has much validity to it….

I want to say a word about what Jesus looked like. The gospels don’t describe him. People began to draw, paint and describe him in the second and third century. I thought this was interesting in the light of a bit of a stir made by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly who noted in a kind of offhand remark that Jesus was white. Was Jesus white? I suppose it depends on what you mean by white. My friend Wassim was our guide on my most recent trip to the Holy Land. In skin color I imagine he looks something like Jesus did. But I am grateful we don’t have a description of Jesus from the time, because we’re each meant to see him as one of us.…

The point is that Jesus was not white or black or brown—he was human. There’s a term that Jesus uses for himself more often than any other in the gospels. He doesn’t call himself the Son of God—others do that. He doesn’t call himself Savior that I recall. He’s hesitant to let people announce that he is the Messiah—that is, the King—a revolutionary title one would be arrested and killed for claiming. But over 60 times he refers to himself in the gospels as the “Son of Man.” There’s been a lot of debate about what that title meant. The Contemporary English Version of the Bible translates it as “the Human One.” He came to represent humanity, to experience humanity, to save humanity. He’s white and brown and black and yellow and red. He’s God with us.

That leads me to one last thing you should know about Jesus in his humanity. He had a heart for people, particularly people who had been pushed down, pushed around, made to feel small. Jesus got angry only a very few times in the gospels. He had compassion for most sinners. But the sin that really got him mad was religious hypocrisy. It was the way the most religious people tended to judge, and by their judgment pushed people away from God rather than drawing people to God….

Jesus was always stopping to help people. His life was one continuous interruption. Every time he turned around he was demonstrating compassion. He sought to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to forgive the sinner all in the name of God. That’s what he’s looking for from us today. Churches are meant to be the physical incarnation—the presence of Christ in the world today. Paul says that we are the “Body of Christ.” Each of us individually, all of us together. Jesus came to be the presence of God for us, and as his followers we seek to do that for others.

“The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)


What and who were the Magi?

From the dictionary:

Ma•gi [mey-jahy]

1. the wise men who paid homage to the infant Jesus.

2. the class of Zoroastrian priests in ancient Media and Persia, reputed to possess supernatural powers.

3. astrologers.


From the Holman Bible Dictionary:

These were Eastern wise men, priests, and astrologers expert in interpreting dreams and other “magic arts.”

They were men whose interpretation of the stars led them to Palestine to find and honor Jesus, the newborn King (Matthew 2:1 ). The term has a Persian background. The earliest Greek translation of Daniel 2:2 ,Daniel 2:2,2:10 uses “magi” to translate the Hebrew term for astrologer (compare Daniel 4:7 ; Daniel 5:7 ). The magi who greeted Jesus’ birth may have been from Babylon, Persia, or the Arabian desert. Matthew gives no number, names, or royal positions to the magi. Before A.D. 225 Tertullian called them kings. From the three gifts, the deduction was made that they were three in number. Shortly before A.D. 600 the Armenian Infancy Gospel named them: Melkon (later Melchior), Balthasar, and Gaspar. The visit of the magi affirms international recognition by leaders of other religions of Jesus’ place as the expected King.



Final application:

This week prayerfully consider to what extent you believe that Jesus’s humanity affected his attitude toward us. How might God’s attitude toward us have been different if he had not made himself incarnate? Next week, share with the group whatever you discovered.


1.5.14 Weekly Small Groups GPS Guide

(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at in Sermon Archives)

Searching for the “Historical” Jesus

A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.


1 John 1:1-5

Sometimes we think the New Testament is just a set of inspiring devotional works, detached from history or “reality.” In fact, these 27 books are first-century documents from people who knew Jesus of Nazareth personally or had talked to the apostles and others who knew him. Real people knew Jesus, bore witness to him, and worshipped him—all within a few decades (at most) of his death. As the writer of 1 John insisted, they were sharing what they had seen, heard and touched.



Luke 1:1-4

First-century readers attached great importance to the testimony of eyewitnesses to battles, political events and the like. When Luke, who entered the New Testament story midway through the book of Acts, set out to write the story of Jesus, he did not falsely inflate his own knowledge of events. He honestly reported that his role was that of investigator and reporter. His story, he said, relied on what he learned from those who WERE eyewitnesses.



Acts 2:22-33

Today’s reading is a part of the sermon Peter preached in Jerusalem less than two months after Jesus’ death. Luke published Acts sometime between 60 and 80 C.E. If Peter’s claim that “we are all witnesses” had been false (or if Luke’s account of the sermon had been an invention), there would have been many people still alive who could have easily discredited his words. Yet Luke confidently recorded Peter’s bold sermon.



Acts 10:34-43

The apostle Peter was invited to tell a Roman centurion and his staff about his faith in Jesus. These people, due to their military rank and access, could easily confirm (or contradict) any factual claims Peter made. Luke recorded that Peter made one verifiable claim after another: “You know… you know…we are witnesses.” The early Christians would be startled and dismayed if they knew that some later scholars would routinely assume that they were “mythmaking,” or just plain lying.



1 Corinthians 15:1-11

As the apostle Paul moved farther and farther into the Greco-Roman world, he spoke with Greek philosophers who found the idea of resurrection from the dead absurd (cf. Acts 17:32). He knew his converts in Corinth would face that skepticism. In support of their faith, he referred them, not to vague “spiritual” claims, but to living witnesses who’d met Jesus after his death. In effect, he was saying, “You can check this story out—it’s really true.”



Hebrews 1:1-3

In everything from popular novels to scholarly articles and books today, you can read claims that no one thought Jesus was divine until centuries after his death. Yet that’s plainly not the case. No responsible scholar dates the letters of Paul, and other first-century writings like Hebrews, that late. These documents clearly show that people spoke of Jesus as God within (at the very most) a few decades. (For deeper study of this subject, consider books like Larry Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.)

To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from



Lord Jesus, help us discern the reality of you amid all of the claims and confusion that surround your story. Thank you for moving your people to record their confident testimony, and thank you for keeping the belief of those witnesses alive in us. Help us to live as confidently in our faith as those who experienced your story first hand, over 2,000 years ago. Amen.

CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)

When people ask, “How were your holidays?” how do you answer? Why do you answer the way you did? Are you honest, or do you just answer positively no matter what actually happened?



 Read 1 John 1:1-5. Who is this letter referring to? Most scholars believe that either the apostle John or a close associate of his wrote the letter. Knowing this, how much credibility would you give this writer and his letter? From your perspective, what is the main message of these verses? Are the verses trying to persuade us that a man, Jesus, existed, or that he was more than a mere man? How do these verses affect your faith? These are only 5 verses in a very large Bible. To you, how significant are these 5 verses and why?

 Read Luke 1:1-4. Who was the author of this Gospel? What was his purpose in writing? Based on these opening verses, how would you describe Luke’s intent for the book—as factual and historical, or embellished and spiritualized? What kind of research would you think Luke must have done before writing this Gospel? Who might some of the witnesses have been? What would have made them credible to Luke? Would he have reported their testimony accurately? Why? Do you believe the historical soundness of our faith still matters today?

 Read Acts 2:22-33. Read the paragraph under “Wednesday”, above. Peter was saying, in effect, “You all know what happened to Jesus because you were there and were eyewitnesses.” When he said this and later when it was written down, if that hadn’t been verifiable, what would have happened to this book? What would have happened to the Christian movement in the Roman Empire? Do you believe Peter when he said that Jesus’ death and resurrection was no tragic accident, that it happened with “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge”?

 Read Acts 10:34-43. In this presentation, Peter used words like “You know…you know…we are witnesses…by witnesses.” How would early Christians react if they knew that present day scholars would routinely assume that they were “mythmaking,” or just plain lying? Peter proclaimed Jesus as “Lord of all.” What other “lords” existed in the Roman world at that time? What other “lords” exist in the world for people today? What “lords” has Jesus challenged and dethroned in your life? Peter was calling others to become Christ followers. What leads you to believe that God wants us, too, to reach out to non-religious and nominally religious people?

 Read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. The apostle Paul spoke and wrote about Christ coming back to life after his death. He referred to hundreds of people who witnessed this miracle. He challenged his readers to verify the story. How do you think these facts affected the spread of Christianity? Why didn’t the Hebrew and Roman powers simply display Christ’s body to put an end to the movement? Do you think of the resurrection as the appearance of Christ’s “apparition,” or as his living, breathing, speaking, eating and drinking human body? How important is Jesus’ resurrection as evidence that Jesus is God? How important to your faith are these eyewitnessed biblical stories of Christ, his life, death and resurrection?

 Read Hebrews 1:1-3. What do these verses say about who Jesus was? How would the author, if asked directly whether Jesus was God, have answered? How do you answer that question? Today, some people question whether Jesus was God, saying that that concept wasn’t developed until centuries later. In reading these verses, would you agree?

From a couple of weeks ago: Did you identify as many things as possible that have made your life wonderful? Did you share the list with family and friends as part of your Christmas celebration? Share your lists with the group.



From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, January 5, 2014:

Let’s begin with an easy question, as there is great consensus even among secular scholars, agnostics and atheists that Jesus actually lived. He was a real, historical person. Dr. Louise Antony, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts and a noted atheist stated, “I don’t personally know a single atheist who would deny that Jesus existed.” Bart Ehrman, a popular agnostic writer and professor at the University of North Carolina recently wrote a book called, Did Jesus Exist? in which he offers an emphatic yes….

The question for many skeptics, and even for many Christians, is not whether Jesus existed, but to what degree the gospels and other New Testament writers accurately describe the Jesus who existed. That’s the question I’d like to focus our attention on in the rest of this message.

Let’s consider what precipitates the question. In the gospels we find that Jesus is born of a virgin, he walks on water, he opens the eyes of the blind, he raises the dead, he feeds thousands with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. In the end, following his crucifixion and burial on Friday, he is resurrected on Sunday. The idea of Jesus the preacher and teacher who was crucified is not hard to believe. But Jesus the healer, the man who calms the storms, who walks on water, who casts out demons and who himself was raised from the dead, who was the divine son of God—this Jesus is harder to believe in….

Numerous theologians and biblical scholars have accepted two propositions: First, the miraculous or supernatural cannot happen. Second, early Christians, in their devotion to Jesus, described him and his impact upon their lives by telling stories of miracles he had supposedly worked that illustrated his impact upon their lives….

There have been hundreds of books written under some variation of the title, “The Life of Jesus” that promised to reveal the real Jesus. The latest of these is Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which spent three weeks at #1 on the NY Times Bestseller List this fall.

I finished reading Zealot last week. Aslan lays out the premise of the book, writing: “In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine…the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.” We can rely only upon these two facts because the gospels are unreliable sources of information about Jesus. They were written 40 to 60 years after Jesus’ death and reflect the faith of the early church, says Aslan….I watched an interview with Aslan recently, and he declared that Jesus never said things like, “Love your enemy.” Presumably he never said to pray for those who wrong you, or turn the other cheek, or the truly great among you will be your servant, or forgive others. I agree with a number of insights Aslan offers that I think are important, but in the picture of Jesus he paints, which is nearly the antithesis of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels, I think he widely misses the mark….

Are the gospels reasonably reliable sources of information about the historical or real Jesus? It is true that the gospels were likely written from 40 to 60 years after the death of Jesus. For some that makes them immediately suspect. So let me start by questioning the assumption that something written 40 years after an event would be unreliable….

My Aunt Celia Belle was over for Thanksgiving. We call her Aunt Ce Ce. She’s 98 years old, but she is amazing. She is the living repository of our family history….She handed me these papers on Thanksgiving—the story of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, her parents. She titled it “Memories of Henry Leonard and Bertha Belmear Richardson, which have been lovingly recorded so their descendents will have a better appreciation of their long and useful lives.” I love this. She tells their stories, going back to the research she’d done on their childhoods and the stories they told about their childhoods. Then the years she knew them as her parents. My Aunt is describing events beginning with the late 1800’s and throughout the 1900’s. Both of her parents died more than 40 years ago.

Here’s the question: Do you think these accounts are reasonably reliable and trustworthy accounts of what my great grandparents were like, what they said and did? Or do I need to set aside all but the bare outlines she’s provided and begin my quest for the historical Henry and Bertha as opposed to this history so lovingly prepared?…

At the start of his gospel, Luke says that he has carefully investigated everything, that his sources include material from those who were eyewitnesses, the earliest disciples. He notes that others before him had written accounts of Jesus. These gospel accounts, particularly Matthew, Mark and Luke, seem to be written to convey the actual identity of the historical Jesus, and what these early Christians believed about him. Are they to be set aside as unreliable in favor of something written last year? Or are they reasonably reliable accounts that help us see who Jesus really was and is? In the end, we each make a choice and answer the question for ourselves….

Albert Schweitzer is one of my heroes. He was a liberal theologian and scholar, a Lutheran pastor, a doctor and a medical missionary. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. He gave much of his life to developing a hospital and treating the sick in Africa. Many of my conservative friends would say he wasn’t “saved” because he did not believe all the right things about Jesus. But he loved Jesus, and sought to follow him. He closed his book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, with these words: “He speaks to us the same word [he spoke to his disciples long ago]: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship…and they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

You may not know what to do with all the things Christians believe, and the gospels proclaim, about Jesus, but if you would follow him, that’s enough here at Resurrection. As you begin following him you’ll come to see him, I think, in ever deeper ways. His call to you is, “Come, follow me.”


What others have said about who Jesus was

Perhaps the best of the bunch:

– “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


– “We can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. ….. In recent years, ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’ or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.” (Michael Grant – historian at Cambridge University)

– “Our tendency in the midst of suffering is to turn on God. To get angry and bitter and shake our fist at the sky and say, “God, you don’t know what it’s like! You don’t understand! You have no idea what I’m going through. You don’t have a clue how much this hurts.” The cross is God’s way of taking away all of our accusations, excuses, and arguments. The cross is God taking on flesh and blood and saying, “Me too.” ― Rob Bell

– “Turn around and believe that the good news that we are loved is better than we ever dared hope, and that to believe in that good news, to live out of it and toward it, to be in love with that good news, is of all glad things in this world the gladdest thing of all. Amen, and come Lord Jesus.” ― Frederick Buechner

– “Power, no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvary, God renounced the one for the sake of the other.” ― Philip Yancey

– “When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves–that insight produces, again and again, a sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience.” ― N.T. Wright

– “Feed your faith and starve your doubts.” — Kenneth E. Hagin Sr.


Final application:

This week prayerfully consider to what extent you believe that Jesus lived, died, was resurrected bodily and is God. Make a list of how these beliefs have shaped your life. Also ask yourself how your belief has affected others. Next week, share with the group whatever you discovered.