The Kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed. Luke 17:20b
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were looking for physical, tangible evidence of God’s Kingdom. They wanted proof. They wanted signs. They wanted a kingdom led by a king who would free them from Roman oppression and lead them into a palpable reality. They thought they wanted more, but in truth they wanted less – much less than what Jesus had to offer.
Jesus knew differently. God’s plans were so much more than that. It was better than they could have ever imagined. He wanted something more – more than what people could just touch or see, more than merely a physical reality. His kingdom was one that would touch both heaven and earth. It was a future kingdom that touched the here and now.
Yet, today, we still fall into the very same trap as the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. We want God’s Kingdom to be tangible. We look for ways that God will prove Himself to us. I know because I’ve been there.
As if God needs to prove Himself to us! The very idea sounds ridiculous, but this is what we do. I know I’ve done it. There’s times I still do it.. My faith is weak at times, so I look for proof. Only that’s the opposite of what faith is.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.
Yet God is patient. He continues to draw you and I to a place of greater trust. – the reality of the unseen. It’s a place where I must listen to Him above the noise of the world. It’s a space where I have to press in to know Him deeper and trust that He knows best. A place that is often uncomfortable and stretches me beyond what I think I can bear at times. It’s a space where I must rest in Him, despite the outcome, despite the stillness. It’s a vast meadow with a beautiful spring where He draws me to deeper waters.
Than again, it’s not a place I can see with my eyes. It’s a place that’s felt more than seen and yet it’s so very real. It’s a reality God endears me to as I am captivated by His love and His grace. It’s a reality outside myself where His spirit connects with mine, moving me deeper still.
And this is only the beginning.
This is the intangible kingdom.
For we live by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7)
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)
This time of year, you hear a lot about goals, self-improvement plans and similar objectives and resolutions to get the new year started off right. No matter how you fared last year, or what things that were in your list of achievements that never got accomplished, we view the new year as a clean slate, a chance to start over and try again (or trying something different or new.)
As I’ve tried different programs and reflected on some things that have worked in my life and didn’t work (including some real doozies of failure), I have to wonder, “Is this what Jesus has in mind for us?” To continually try to improve ourselves? Or is there something else that He wants from us? Is there a different way to go about this whole “following Jesus” thing?
Having not only done the planner/calendar approach, the goal-setting program (I even came up with my own goal-setting challenge a couple of years ago I sheepishly admit), and others, I can say that seldom does this approach work when you’re talking about spiritual growth. There are things like spiritual disciplines that can be helpful, but only as you approach it from a relational perspective.
There are no spiritual principles that will be 100% effective. There isn’t a 4 step plan that will help you become a better Christian. I don’t believe these things even work very well when we’re talking about day-to-day self-improvement. The industries that are “built” to help you succeed (all the self-improvement programs, the goal setting workshops, diet and exercise programs) are really banking on your failure. Very few of the people who start programs like these end up with their desired results, even of the few who finish.
So does that mean Jesus wants you to step it up? Does he want you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and try harder, learn more, and (as one of my friends say), “suck it up, buttercup?”
Hardly. Jesus doesn’t offer just another self-improvement program. What he offers is new life. The two couldn’t be more opposite. Whereas a self-improvement program depends on, well, you and your self-discipline to make things different. What Jesus offers is really more of a self-crucifixion program. There needs to be less of you so that there can be more of Him.
More of His life.
More of His Spirit.
More of Him. In. You.
A number of years ago, this verse hit me smack in my spirit:
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. (Romans 8:11)
Do you see what’s going on? I read that verse for two or three decades before it really sank in. I finally understood what was going on here.
First, think about the power that is required to raise someone from the dead. That is no natural power. If they are close to life, then CPR or a jolt of electricity (“Clear!”) might do it. But, for those (like Lazarus) who are beyond hope physically, think about the kind of power that it must take to raise someone from the dead. Jesus was like Lazarus in that it wasn’t just a near-death experience. They were both in the grave for 3 days.
Meditate on this for a few minutes: the supernatural power of God that dwells in the Spirit.
Now, what else does this verse say? “…is living in you…” So, this same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead; this same Spirit who brought Lazarus back to life; this same Spirit who caused the lame to walk and the blind to see; He lives in you! Isn’t that amazing?
All of the power.
All of the wisdom.
“…is living in You…”
The Spirit who “hovered over the waters” at the beginning of creation. The Spirit who breathed life into Adam. The Spirit who was there at Pentecost that fell on thousands of people and made them speak in other languages.
That’s the Spirit we’re talking about. This Spirit resides within every believer. And He is there to comfort, to guide, and to help.
Are you beginning to see the difference in what we think our spiritual life should be versus what God offers us? And that’s not even scratching the surface of all the gloriousness (did I just make up a word?) that Father wants for us.
When I visit with others about this – even when I just ponder and think about it – or write about it, there is something that wells up within me that wants to shout this from the rooftops.
This isn’t something that any man taught me. It’s something that God revealed to me as I read the Scriptures. It’s another reason this truth is so special to me – Father Himself was my teacher.
I know you want to do better, to be better, to have the abundant life that He offers. The trick is, you can’t earn your way or work your way into it. It’s something that comes as a result of the Life that lives in you by the Spirit. It’s part of the self-crucifixion program that Jesus beckons you to. It’s not something that comes by effort. It’s something that comes by rest, believe it or not.
So the next time your tempted to buy that self-improvement program, ask Father what He wants of you and where He wants you to invest your time, energy, and resources. Chances are, it isn’t to plan out your next 5 or even next year.
Chance are, He will invite you to a one-step-at-a-time plan that Has you trusting in Him and leaning into Him each step of the way.
Tonight, my 10-year old son wanted to go for a walk but didn’t think he could keep up with my wife and I as we were walking the dog, so I told him I would go with him later. He spent the day at home with a headache and wanted to get some fresh air.
I know that these invitations from him to spend time together will eventually fade, but I hope that’s many years away. All the same, I want to take advantage of these opportunities as they come along and as I am able.
As I’ve been on a journey to find community outside normal, traditional religious structures, I’ve come to see the life we live in Christ as a continual invitation. He invites us to spend time with Him, to listen to Him, and to follow Him.
“Come, follow me,” is a continual invitation, not a one-time decision to escape eternal fire and damnation. We tend to replace this ever-present beckoning with a safe and secure structure where we don’t have to depend on God on a daily basis. Jesus never asked anyone to resurrect a monument in his honor or construct a building with his name on it. (In fact, he encouraged the disciples not to at the transfiguration.)
“Dad, will you go for a walk with me?” What if the language that my 10-year old used to ask me to spend time together is exactly what we should ask of our heavenly Father? What if it were that relaxed? That easy?
I can tell you that as I’ve walked this journey over the last couple of years, I tend to make it way too difficult. I knew God could speak anywhere, but I also felt that I had to be in a certain place or do certain things to get Him to do what I wanted – or even just to pay attention to me. A certain time, the right Scripture, the right atmosphere, or even humbling myself by kneeling at the altar or raising my hands in worship.
The truth is (and was) that God loved me despite those things, not because of them. The invitation is always open. God is continually saying, “Come, child, walk with me.”
“I’ll set up my residence in your neighborhood; I won’t avoid or shun you; I’ll stroll through your streets. I’ll be your God; you’ll be my people. I am God, your personal God who rescued you from Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians. I ripped off the harness of your slavery so that you can move about freely. [Leviticus 26:11-13, The Message]
The God that rescued the Egyptians out of captivity wants to walk with you through your neighborhood. He’s already there.
All you have to do is ask.
“Dad, want to go for a walk?”
Have you ever tried to live by spiritual principles? Someone tells you,
“This is the way you should be praying.” Here are the 7 steps to an effective prayer life.
“Read your Bible like this.” Here are the 4 steps to being a better husband, father, Christian, etc..
“You need to be more involved in church meetings and programs if you really want to grow.” Follow these 5 things to become a better Jesus follower.
I know I have done those things. Shoot, I’ve even said those kinds of things before. The problem is that if you want to follow Jesus, He doesn’t work through principles. He works through relationship.
Living by spiritual principle is so tempting. It’s fairly easy and straightforward. I usually know what I have to do and where I have to be at what time to follow the Lord this way.
Only it seldom works the way we think. And, I believe the Lord does that on purpose. Why? Because He wants to be our shepherd. He wants to be the one whispering in our ear, “This is the way. Walk in it.”
When we follow the nudges of the Lord, it opens a vast array of possibilities. Sometimes frustratingly so. When the Lord asked me to step down from a ministry position at a megachurch, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I trusted that God knew the way – even though I did not.
That has led my family and I down a number of unforeseen roads – not all of which would have been ones I would have chosen and in the middle of them I’ve asked the Lord, “Really? This?” “Why not that over there?” Usually when I ask those questions he’s pretty quiet. I know the answer will be, “Trust me.”
And I do. I have to. It’s what I’ve hinged my life on. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s always simple. I seem to have spiritual ADD at times – flitting about and chasing things like a hyped up kitten freaking out on catnip.
I miss things, and I have totally gone in the wrong direction at times. What I love about this journey is that there is no condemnation for getting it wrong – just a loving Father smiling and guiding me back to where He wants me.
The Lord is also teaching me to ask “What now, Lord? What do you have me for today?” Instead of me asking, “What’s next?”
I believe God wants me to focus on the here and now and not necessarily what’s down the road. He’s patiently steering me in the direction I need to be (which isn’t always that easy – I tend to have a stubborn side.)
I will say, I’m getting used to it. I used to pride myself on seeing the “big picture” and the “end result”, only I don’t know that those things need to be my concern. God’s territory is the big picture. He may give me a glimpse of it if He chooses, or He may not.
His true desire is that I lean on Him and into Him to really hear what he’s saying. If we are His sheep, we will know His voice. It rarely is an audible voice, but usually it’s a gentle whisper or a loving little nudge in a certain direction. “Here is where I’m working.”
“Go, help those people for a bit.”
“Call this friend.”
“Serve here for a little while.”
“Love this person right where they are.”
God gives us desires and hints at what He is doing if we are willing to listen. I’ve prided myself in hearing God for a long time for big decisions. Now, He and I are focused on listening to Him in the day-to-day. And it’s exciting and frustrating at the same time.
Right now, I’m loving it. There’s no pressure, and He’s so patient and merciful. It’s a bit scary sometimes, and I get nervous I’m not doing it right. But that’s not the point, as I am reminded by some fellow journeyers moving in a similar direction.
It’s also frustrating when He seems so quiet, and I don’t get it. There are moments I think I do, and many moments lately when I’m sure I don’t. But, it’s okay. I’m learning to enjoy the process and this new part of my journey. Every day is different, and I’m embracing the unknown bit by bit as I hear from God and He says, “Here I am. This is the way. Let’s walk over here for a moment.”
What is God teaching you about following Him? Where have you heard or felt a nudge from God and where did it lead you?
Photo by Biegun Wschodni on Unsplash
In recent days, the pope made a historic visit to the United States. One of his stops was Philadelphia, where a Catholic priest had built a replica of the Vatican out of Legos. If I took you to Philadelphia and showed you the Lego Vatican and said, “Look! It’s the Vatican.” You might reply by saying, “Well, it’s a model of the Vatican.”
“No, no, no! This is THE Vatican. See the courtyard and the columns? The dome, the piazza, and all the people? The nuns? And look – the Pope is here and he’s even waving to the people.” If I said that you would know that I was either delusional, lying, or maybe a bit of both.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a deep-dive of Colossians. I’ve taken a slow and Spirit-led (and also very non-linear) approach to studying this book. It has long been one of my favorite parts of the New Testament, and I am finding a vast richness and untold treasures as I have dug in and allowed the Holy Spirit to reveal things to me.
One of the more significant passages in Colossians 2 has struck me recently:
16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
With the things of God, there is shadow and there is substance. These themes run throughout Scripture:
- The temple was a shadow of the reality of heaven and eternal life (the presence of God in and around humanity).
- The Old Testament high priests were a shadow of our great high priest, Jesus Christ.
- The Sabbath is a shadow of our eternal rest found in the work that Jesus did on the cross.
There are many more, but I think you get the idea. Now, if this is unfamiliar to you, please bear with me and hopefully it will become more clear.
The Shadow Points to the Reality
The things of God which are a shadow point to the reality. The shadows themselves are not the true things; however, they are often mistaken for things which have true substance. This was the problem with the Pharisees. They took the things of God which were shadows and built a religion out of them. Their understanding was limited and much of what they saw was not the true reality.
Take healing on the Sabbath, for instance. It was forbidden by the Pharisees. Why? Because it was considered work, and God had told them that the Sabbath was a day of rest. There was to be no work. When Jesus came, he healed people on the Sabbath. Again, why? Because he understood the reality of the Sabbath (that it was a shadow of things to come). God is for His people and He is working to restore all things back to Himself (See Colossians 1:20). This is just one way that Jesus demonstrated that truth.
As impressive as the Lego Vatican is (it does have a waving pope, by the way), it is not the real thing – it’s merely a representation of a greater reality. That’s what the shadows are as they relate to the things of God. The shadows are a representation of a much grander reality, and we must come to know the reality, or we will be left (like the Pharisees) holding up the obscure things as those with substance.
The Substance Belongs to Christ
These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:17).
Because Christ dwells within us, we have a vast wealth of resources at our disposal. I have said before that although we have an inheritance of princes and princesses, we often live like spiritual paupers. That’s because we live by shadows and forget about the true substance. (The reality is that many Christians have been taught more about shadows than substance. It likely isn’t even your fault.)
The things which have substance are Christ’s alone. Colossians tells us that the great mystery of the ages is not just found in Christ, but it is Christ Himself. If that’s not enough, the mystery is also referred to as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Can there be a greater mystery? How Christ could dwell in us? It is almost unthinkable. But that is the greatest reality. Christ dwelling in His believers.
One of the most challenge things for me in my spiritual journey has been to sift through the shadows to find the true substance. It is a journey that God is hammering into me at this very moment, and it is one of my favorite times in all my years of following Christ.
Leave the shadows behind and follow what’s real. You will not regret it.
What other things can you think of that are mere “shadows” of things to come? What are you holding on to that’s merely a shadow of the truth? (Feel free to share in the comments below.)