A Framework for Nurturing Faithfulness

In each of our lives there come moments we wish we had more faith. In such moments, it would be encouraging to know where and how faith may be found. For such an edifying process, I hope to offer the following framework.

In Matthew 8:5-13, Jesus encounters a Roman centurion whose display of faith amazes him, and, I believe, offers faith-forming wisdom for us to imitate. For sequential purposes, I will examine this passage backwards, beginning in vv8b-9.

The centurion had come to a certain realization about Jesus. In vv8b-9, he says “…only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 

The spreading news of Jesus’ powerful teachings and healings was forcing everyone to reconsider their concepts of reality. The centurion’s own contemplations led him to conclude Jesus was lord over reality. This is the foundation of the centurion’s faith-formation, and the impetus of everything that happened from there.

So, firstly, Faith is formed in the acknowledgment and appreciation of Jesus’ authority.

If faith is the “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”, then the beholding, hearing, and believing of Jesus’ words and actions provides the sight that establishes such blessed assurance and erects confidence for continual hope. Acknowledging Jesus’ lordship over all reality brings our perceptions out from the shadows of our anxieties and ushers them into glorious dimensions made vibrant in the supremacy of Christ. But just as steel in a forge needs to be hammered and quenched, freshly formed faith needs regulating and stabilizing.

In v8a, the centurion’s initial objection to Jesus coming to his house was Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof”.

Having realized Jesus’ lordship, the centurion realized Jesus’ worth and value surpassed his own. While his own position commanded respect from his fellow soldiers and his words could issue military orders, he knew he had no ability to restore hope to the haggard soul or power to command healing over a body. In the presence of Jesus, he could only be in awe.

Secondly, therefore, Faith is tempered by humility and wonder.

If acknowledging Jesus’ lordship is what seats him upon the throne of our minds and hearts, wonder and humility is what both keeps him enthroned there and prevents us from trying to usurp him as sovereign over our lives. Wonder is the bliss that enables joy at Christ’s supremacy. Humility is the channel by which we receive the peace of his rule. With this posture both mind and heart can remain in a serenity that, as we shall see, overflows into bodily expression. 

So, for what purpose is faith formed and tempered? As a representative of Rome, the centurion had seen power leveraged for every self-aggrandizing agenda under the sun. He knew his small local band of occupying soldiers was, but a fraction of the empire determined to rule the world by any means necessary. If they didn’t, other kings and armies would. Power, they felt, existed to exalt those who held it, often through suppression. But whatever regard he may have still held for Caesar and for his own duty, the person and words of Jesus now held a regard of a far greater kind. This Jesus who wielded and weaved a power over and throughout reality used it to bring hope and healing to the people not even the greatest world superpower would bother to aid. This simple, but most powerful man in the world served the weakest among him. This completely transformed the centurion’s perception of the purpose of power, inspiring his own newly formed faith to serve.

Upon seeing his servants’ sickness, the centurion thus responds according to the character of Jesus, asking him in v6 Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” 

Faith is implemented by compassion.

There are times I find myself in existential queries, wonder what to do with my life. But if someone asks for my help, I know right what to do. Compassion gives definition to duty. It cuts away at all the banalities to let what is important emerge.  Compassion infuses the theoretical with opportunity. Compassion is the form allegiance to Christ takes. It is the quickening of obedience. Compassion tests out faith that has been forged to determine whether it is real or fake.

Just as compassion characterized Jesus’ ministry (Mt 9:35-38, 14:13-21), and directed the centurion’s faith, it will instruct us where, to whom, and how to apply this faith God has shaped in us.

To put this process into play in our own lives, I would advise a patient and prayerful reading and contemplation of Scripture, with attention paid to passages that explore the supremacy of Jesus Christ. Let the words transform your perception and weave wonderful worshipfulness into your rhythms. From there, look around and about you for those in need, consider how you might respond, and then go do so.

Faith is God’s gift to us. As with any precious valuable, faithfulness requires conservation. I hope this framework helps nurture in you a faithfulness that keeps your life allegiant to the King.

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Entering and Embodying God’s Kingdom | Matthew 7:21-29

The Sermon on the Mount is not a series of unrelated teaching clips randomly jumping from one topic to another. There is thematic rhythm flowing through every bit of it. Topically, the sermon pieces together various aspects of the ethical demands for living within Jesus’ kingdom community; as a whole, the sermon is designed to set Jesus’ followers apart to embody a way of living whose root and fruit is his holy character. The Sermon on the Mount is very much a curriculum for creating kingdom culture “on earth as it is in heaven”; to give specific shape to a citizenry whose lives and the way they do life glorifies the Father by reflecting his goodness. As Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to a close, he puts a final touch on the uniqueness that is to characterize his kingdom community.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.”

Jesus’ comment that the Father is in heaven and those who do his will will enter the kingdom of heaven suggests the reality of the kingdom is not exclusive only to the Father’s heavenly location. That is, the kingdom of heaven is also setting up shop on earth where those who do the Father’s will may enter. The expansion of the kingdom’s earthly presence can be further seen in Jesus’ comments in Luke 11:20 and 17:20-21.

As God’s heavenly rule is implemented on earth, there will be those who will name-drop to get in on it. There is always something about knowing a name or identity that somehow makes us feel like we get it or are “in the know”. Jesus makes it clear that knowing his name or using it will not benefit us. The kingdom of heaven is for those who have received the King’s grace and whose lives are committed to reflecting the King’s character.

Clarifying what he means with an example, Jesus says Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’”

Normally we view these actions as quite exemplary. Books are written, ministries launched, and guest speakers fawned over because of activities like these. But are these activities the actual problem? Jesus continues “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

Jesus’ declaration hangs on two words or phrases.

“I never knew you”: In the Greek, the word knew implies a deep level of intimacy; in some cases that level could be sexual. In this case it appears Jesus is speaking to those who use his name or title, engage in religious adventures and wear spiritual façades, but whose lives are not actually intimately acquainted with and characteristically distinguished by the righteousness he embodies and calls his followers to. 

“You who practice lawlessness”: The psalm Jesus quotes is one in which the writer, finding graceful relief from his dismay, discards the iniquitous influences from his life, or, as Jesus puts it here, those who “practice lawlessness”. Just as the integrity of an Israelite’s righteousness depended on their abiding by the Law, the Christian disciple’s righteousness depends on their abiding in Christ. We can’t call Jesus ‘Lord’ if we’re not abiding in him and by his righteous way of living.

This is the uniqueness that is to characterize the followers of Christ, setting us apart from not only a world wanting nothing to do with Christ, but those content to merely mimic Christian habits. Called to be a people whose lives are to be salt and light, we are to embody a righteousness surpassing “that of the scribes and Pharisees, [lest we] will not enter the kingdom of heaven”.

Just as God’s kingdom reality was initially manifested in the person of Christ, it is currently expressed in the lives of Christ’s body, the Church. Kingdom reality requires cultivating; a nurturing of habits that emulate Christ’s holiness. This is not done quickly or assertively, but often quite carefully, as one builds a durable home.

Thus Jesus concludes Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”

Both the beginning (5:20) and ending (7:21) of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contains a theme of entering the kingdom of heaven. Now Jesus concludes his message with imagery conveying how those who have entered may sustain their commitment to the kingdom. It’s not just about hearing Jesus’ words, and then thinking that somehow entitles us to something, but acting upon them. Letting Jesus’ entire message mold our habits and direct our steps. That as his words shapes our ways, the reality being emitted from our lives will imbue the lives around us with sacred seeds that could grow into a kingdom culture rooted in Christ’s rule.

“When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Reality is always made compellingly clearer when conveyed by its author. As Jesus’ words and actions author a new reality in which we are being redemptively restored to God’s good reign, we gladly receive and embody that which is worth seeking first above all things throughout our lives, the good news of the kingdom of heaven.

“You will know them by their fruits” | Matthew 7:15-20

Much of Jesus’ message in Matthew 5-7 is the establishing of God’s Kingdom ethics to guide how his disciples live. Within this “Sermon on the Mount” are designs for a form of discipleship that can easily be characterized as unique. This is important to consider for at least two reasons. One, if we are following a one-of-a-kind King, it stands to reason that our following be done in a one-of-a-kind way. But secondly, if our way of living begins to blend undistinguishably into the milieu of other ways of living, it may indicate a departure from that one-of-a-kind way has occurred.

Such a departure does not happen suddenly, but gradually. Sometimes it just happens due to a series of seasons and reasons. But other times, such departures can be induced or prompted by some form of influence.

Jesus had seen this happen amongst his own people. By his time, hypocrisy had grown prevalent amongst the teachers of the Jewish law; there was a tendency to teach one thing while doing another. This tendency essentially resulted in a culture that ran contrary to what God had already established in Scripture. Concerned this tendency also would occur within the community he was teaching his disciples to cultivate, Jesus issues them an alert: “Beware of the false prophets”.

A prophet’s role is to clarify the way of God and to embody that life in a manner that calls people to it. The false prophet completely undermines this effort. How so?

Jesus’s full statement in Matthew 7:15 is “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

The imagery here seems to be a bit of dark humor. Humorous because the image of a wolf adorning himself in sheep’s wool in order to get close to the flock seems quite cartoonish; yet dark, considering that beneath this cartoonish façade, deceitfulness, theft, and devouring are playing out. These are figures who intend to creep in amongst Christ’s followers, assume authority of Christ’s message for their own agenda, and modify it into an alternative version than what Jesus revealed. Thus Jesus characterizes the future false prophets who will attempt to infiltrate his kingdom community.

In our day of parachurch positions combined with self-promotion, the role of prophet sometimes takes on a somewhat official capacity. While we would not expect to see anyone wearing a name tag saying false prophet, it seems in such a day such a person would appear more obvious. But that’s Jesus’ point: such people will not be so easily recognizable. Therefore, adapting to a new metaphor, Jesus continues “You will know them by their fruits.”

To clarify, Jesus illustratively says Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.”

Everyone in this agrarian culture knew sweet and energizing fruit doesn’t come from dry prickly bushes. Nature only begets its own. What is produced is determined by its nature. Nature cannot mismatch or misproduce. Nature can produce nothing besides its own. Though Jesus’ disciples would identify false prophets by recognizing their fruit’s “bad” nature, doing so required they know what “good” fruit looks like.

Throughout his sermon, Jesus’ usage of good usually refers to the Father’s goodness as framed in his teachings. By keeping to and living out the sermon’s teachings, disciples embody and project the Father’s goodness. The Father’s goodness is the nature of which the disciples are now apart through their following of Jesus. To live a life that reflects a nature different from that of the Father, as framed in the sermon’s teachings, is to disassociate oneself from his nature and his goodness, disabling oneself from producing “good fruit”.

Being able to identify possible distorting hypocrisy and predatory deceitfulness at play amongst our congregations is necessary. Ultimately, however, it’s not about an incessant haphazard heresy hunt, but taking Jesus’ warning seriously by recognizing the reality it portends. That he has called us to a type of living whose root is the Father’s unique goodness and whose fruit is the way of his Son. Since it would not be love on Jesus’ part to validate types of living that would contradict the type of living he is establishing, his words call us to be transplanted out from every alternative type of living, however preferential they might be, and implanted into the Father’s uniqueness facilitated through the Son so what is cultivated will yield a nature sweetened with God’s goodness.

Walking upon the narrow way | Matthew 7:13-14

As Jesus begins moving towards a conclusion to his sermon on the mount, he paints another word picture for his disciples—“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The context does not precisely clarify what imagery Jesus is drawing on.  Perhaps he’s referring to an officer’s door in a city wall in contrast with the main gate for the local population.  Maybe he’s referring to the narrow alleyway one would take leading up to the small door of their home versus the broader main street up and down which crowds would walk and vendors haul their carts.  Whatever specifics Jesus had in mind, the text is sufficient.  Two ways.  Wide and broad; small and narrow.  Within Jesus’ words, three sets of differences distinguish these ways from each other.

The first difference between these two ways is freedom.  A wider, broader way allows more freedom for moving around and about for comfortable maneuvering and exploring.  The smaller, narrower way, however, offers less freedom; the edges are tight and walking space is restricted.  The path has to be taken as it is or not at all.

The second difference concerns the travelers who frequent these ways.  While many enter and walk the wider way, few will find and follow the narrow way.

The boundaries of these respective paths are no doubt a factor for their travelers.  The wide way allows spaciousness for strolling, side stops for meandering, features for customization.  The traveler chooses the pace; it allows them to turn to the left or to the right.  The path is about the traveler’s individual story or experience.  The broader way is for tourists.

The narrow path, however, forces focus.  Care must be taken for each step, how the leg is extended and the foot is planted.  Lest you lose sight of the leader or hold up those behind you, the mind must be melded with every disciplined movement.  The trek is about the path itself and how it works its essence into the travelers who belong to it.

Ultimately, however, the freedom each path seems to offer is ironically inconsistent with where each leads.  The third difference, therefore, is the destinations towards which these paths are moving.  The way that was so wide and broad, scenic and spacious eventually comes down to an undoing of everything it seemed to promise, a dead end with nowhere to go.  The narrow path, as small and limited as it seemed, eventually opens up into a spaciousness that offers elation and beauty with an abundance of life.

As helpful each of these differences are in parsing the picture Jesus paints here, it still remains a bit abstract.  The narrow way Jesus emphasizes and directs disciples toward can be generalized to mean anything, turning it into some existential road less traveled.  If viewed through the context of what Jesus has been saying throughout his sermon on the mount, however, the constrictions of the narrow way become more defined and emancipating.

Rather than allowing murder to remain the epitome of evil and dysfunctionality, Jesus singles out the anger we broadly tolerate as the darkness to avoid.  Instead of measuring our martial fidelity in terms of affairs or incidents of cheating, Jesus characterizes it by the purity of our hearts.  Rather than reinforcing the “eye for an eye” sense of justice, Jesus distinguishes peace as our balancing contribution.  Instead of reserving love for those who will repay it, Jesus stipulates a sacrificial love for all, enemies included.  In each of these examples, Jesus moves the standards of righteousness from the broadly held to the narrowly pursued.  It is the narrow way because it is framed by ways of living that are characteristic of Christ alone.

When the LORD gave Moses the commands, He said “So you shall observe to do just as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right or to the left.  You shall walk in all the way which the LORD your God has commanded you.”

Now centuries later, Jesus here moves his listeners away from broad generalizations about moral goodness by painting this “all the way” visualization of discipleship.  It has been said “we make the way by walking it”.  The narrow way has been formed in the unique footsteps of the Messiah; each of his words and actions has been a step that leaves his way before us to follow, and by following it, we brought into a community who embodies a way of life that reveals the Lord who can always be found along its route.

Oh, be careful little eyes how you see | Matthew 6:22-23

Much of Jesus’ comments in Matthew 6 have concentrated on internal cultivation of the disciple’s piety. Continuing in v22, Jesus employs a metaphor to further clarify this conditioning, saying “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

HerodLampLitRtThe common lamps of Jesus’ day were clay containers with an outlet from which protruded a burning wick. If these lamps contained little or no oil, the flame would sporadically flicker before eventually going out.  If the oil was old, contained impurities, or the wick improperly made, the flame might give off a burning odor or possibly smoke up the room.  The lamp had to be clean, the oil had to be plentiful and pure, and the wick properly fashioned in order for a proper flame to burn and light up a room.  Ultimately the clarity of the room depended on the condition of the lamp and its contents.  This is the imagery Jesus is referencing.  The metaphor he illustrates is that our eyes are the lamps and our bodies the room.

The message of this metaphor is basically that the condition of our personhood depends on the clarity of our perception. The emphasis Jesus places on specifying how the cleanliness of the eye/lamp affects the condition of the person/room suggests the internal condition and cultivation of a disciple’s piety depends greatly on how they are perceiving or processing everything entering their awareness, whether it’s world culture or kingdom culture.  In a sense, it’s like Jesus is saying “How you see shapes what you will be.”

How, then, should we as salt and light disciples see or perceive?

The following are a few patterns I have found helpful.

Think and process with humility, trying to understand and respond to current events or everyday moments in a way that “leaves room” for how God is sovereignly at work in all those vast matters.

Think and process with empathy, utilizing a patience and magnanimity as we attempt to gain a sense of a situation from a perspective besides our own.

Think and process with scrutiny, learning to see beyond the way things seem or are sold by fact checking and examining constructs and conventional thought.

Think and process with a Scriptural mindset, being deeply rooted in God’s textually framed righteousness so your decisions and character yield fruitfulness reflecting Christ’s character.

Think and process prayerfully, allowing constant conversation with God to visualize and cultivate Christlikeness richly into your character.

Think and process decisively, letting everything you have carefully and prayerfully taken into consideration move you to live and act in accordance with the convictions that have developed.

The affairs of this world force us to face an overwhelming barrage of conflict, whether it’s in politics, business, relationships, marketing, or culture. If we are perceiving and reacting to everything around us with the same anxiety, defensiveness, tribalism, and competitiveness the world does, it will only be the same great smoky darkness characterizing the world we are hoping to illumine.  We cannot be “light of the world” if we’re only blowing smoke.

Jesus’ illustration thus aids the imagination in reminding those committed to being “light of the world” to pursue and possess a disciplined insightfulness that enlightens the shadows of ambiguity and shines light both inside ourselves and outward toward the world around.

Journeying Jesus’ way to pray | Matthew 6:9-13

Jesus has been talking about using prayer hypocritically for show, impressing people to gain respect or influence.  He tells his followers, however, to conduct their prayers in secret.  He continues in Matthew 6:9 “Pray, then, in this way…”

In this way.  Everything Jesus has said in this sermon on the mount constitutes a way of living, a kingdom way; a journey in which we are made his disciples.  The way we love, the way we give, the way we talk, the way we overlook an offense, the way we interact—these are all ways we are formed into his followers.  Thus Jesus’ words here provide another way that is formatively foundational for following.  This “Lord’s prayer” is a framework for all prayer; it espouses a substance on which all prayer is nurtured.  All our prayers should mature and grow into the redemptive reality in which Jesus’ prayer is rooted.  Praying the substance of his prayer shapes in us the mindset of Jesus which, to begin with, is centered in the Father.

“Our Father who is in heaven…”  Jesus is the perfect image of the Father; in John 14:9 he says if we’ve seen him, we’ve seen the Father.  Following Jesus is ultimately about abiding in the Father.  Jesus casts our prayerful imaginations beyond our selves and surroundings to perceive the Father whose mighty and majestic sovereign presence permeates the heavens, consequently permeating our minds with his magnificence, captivating our attention.  In this way, prayer humbles our hearts by lifting our minds. 

“Hallowed be Your name…”  Once our minds have been elevated and stretched to perceive the Father reigning over us, we are now able to find satisfaction in his sovereignty and delight in his magnificence by letting our minds ponder the vastness of his splendor, awed in his mystery.  Holy, set apart, unique, hallowed; his is a name regarded with reverence, treasured and cherished above any other.  A name that holds all the hope for the present and the future.  With our minds lifted heavenward, perceiving this heavenly holy one, Jesus opens our mouths to pray…

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The Father might abide a ways beyond us, but he refuses to abide away from us.  He is not content to remain isolated from us but must make his dwelling with us.  His salvation work consists of taking his kingdom, that redemptive reality being shaped in his celestial realm, and establishing it amongst our earthly existence so we in this world may participate in the work of heaven.  In Jesus, the Father chooses to abide in our neighborhoods of flesh and blood, working his will within us.  Seeing salvation at work through incarnation, we see we are not alone, not abandoned; that this is all according to plan.  What was a promised redemption is becoming a redeemed reality, full of a restfulness in which we can now pray…

“Give us this day our daily bread…”  The Father’s sovereignty and salvation work show us we need not fear the future.  We can hope in him here and now and know we are being provided for, protected; we now have the blessed rest-filled assurance to ask for daily bread.  Bread—it’s a very physical, earthy request; moments before, we’re thinking lofty, heavenly, spiritual thoughts about a Father who is hallowed, sacred, above us, beyond us, but now we’re talking about physical, crummy bread.

Asking for bread in a conversation with God connects the physical with the spiritual, a critical aspect for understanding Christian spirituality.  It shows us the Father is as much concerned with physical realities as with spiritual realities.  Christian spirituality is not merely about mystical niceties or pious idealizations, but how these wonderful spiritual realities are lived and worked out within our fleshly limitations and physical boundaries, the preservation and perseverance of which requires bread.  The Father knows we need physical provision, and in providing it, the truth of his salvation is unfolded and revealed, reverberating redemptive reality through our spirits, enabling us to respond to his mercy.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…”  Forgiveness is God’s grace-filled act of balance.  It is a blessed dynamic that brings us into holy harmony with God, each other, and ourselves.  Whereas daily bread preserves the flesh, forgiveness perseveres our spirit, and not just for ourselves.  Forgiveness is not exclusively static, but inclusively vibrant.  It reverberates through the disciple’s relationships, echoing grace all over the place.  The forgiveness graced upon us by the Father flows out from us onto those around us.  Its cyclical nature shows forgiveness is the impetus of kingdom community.  As prayer forms in us a forgiveness-nature, we are cultivated into a God-aware community whose physical and spiritual needs are given provision and preservation from a Father whose salvation work encompasses the whole of our being.

“And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”  The way in which we follow Jesus to the Father will always involve trials, but he teaches us to pray discerningly here that those trials never give way to temptations, potentially corrupting the holy character he is forming in us through prayer.  It’s a request that the Father keep us in this way he started, not turning to the left or the right of this salvation way being paved and furthered in the footsteps of Jesus.

Jesus’ prayer frames the path of our own prayers.  It’s a formational journey for the soul, beginning with a wondrous visual of the sovereign Father, finding satisfaction in his infinite holiness, submitting to the redemptive reality he is establishing amongst us, trusting in his daily provision, resting in his graceful preservation, responding mercifully to others, and persevering in this walk upon his holy way.  As we pray our Lord’s words, they immerse our character into his, forming and navigating life upon his way.