Chapter 2: It Looks Backwards

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. Isaiah 55:8
Opening Prayer: Heavenly Father, Your ways seem pretty mysterious, but I'm willing to learn more. Help me understand Your plan and what I should do about it, I pray. Amen.

Am I Upright or Upside Down?

The joyful people assured me that God's plan calls for us to walk uprightly and be like Him. They said His way can be taught to any child (and some adults), as King David wrote in Psalm 25:

8 Good and upright is the LORD: therefore will He teach sinners in the way. 9 The meek will He guide in judgment: and the meek will He teach His way.

God Himself has promised to teach us His ways. So He sent His Son, Jesus, to be our Teacher and our Lord. Jesus told people about God's plan, but He spoke in parables. Some people recognized that Jesus spoke with power and authority and followed Him. Others were too invested in their religion to recognize Him as their Messiah.

Jesus did not come to establish a religion. He wants a relationship with you, as we see in the 11th chapter of Matthew's gospel:

28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Jesus doesn't care whether you're rich or poor, religious or not. He calls you to give up your self-centered or denomination-centered belief system and follow Him:

29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls; 30 for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Jesus promised supernatural joy and rest to those who follow Him. But His program looked really backwards to my logical mind. Especially challenging was this quote from the sixteenth chapter of John's gospel:

33 These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

Jesus made an amazing two-part prediction in the verse above. He predicted that we will have great difficulties in life, but that He can give us inner peace despite these difficulties.

Obviously the first part is true: life is really hard. Some days it's unbelievably painful. But Jesus claimed He could give us genuine peace, not just pain-management skills.

So?

I could not leave such outrageous claims unchallenged, and neither can you. You must test His crazy promise for yourself, in your own life. You must investigate what the Bible says about Jesus' plan for your life and make an informed decision.

Even though God's way is simple, the "how-to" aspects seem very peculiar at first glance. Jesus gave us a difficult lesson in the Beatitudes, explaining what types of people receive joy and blessings. In the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, we read:

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 11 Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in Heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (NKJV)

Human logic and emotion tell you to shrink away from all of these "blessed" conditions. Nobody wants to be poor or to mourn. Nobody wants to be reviled and persecuted. But Jesus tells us that those who suffer for His sake will receive blessings.

It gets worse. Not only are the greatest blessings received from the worst circumstances, but most people will think you're crazy. Most people are trying desperately to find an easy road to happiness - and aren't finding it. Their only consolation is that everybody else they know is doing the same stuff.

Good Company

Jesus removed even that slim consolation in Matthew chapter 7:

13 Go in through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many there are who go in through it. 14 Because narrow is the gate and constricted is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (MKJV)

Does this statement shock you? It should.

Jesus declares that most people will not get into Heaven. Most of the people you know are choosing the easy road to destruction. They will not approve if you choose to break ranks with them.

Harsh as it sounds, your former (worldly) support system will not support you through the narrow gate. They liked you better when you were clueless and comfortable on the broad road to Hell. A few friends may follow your example to follow Jesus, but don't be surprised at the widening gap between you and the others.

Jesus declares that the road to Hell is wide, comfortable and well traveled. Many of your friends and family are blindly following the enemy down that road. The enemy has disguised that road by making it appear like a thousand different spiritual paths, many of them pretending to be Christian.

Jesus declares that the road to Heaven is narrow, and that you can only make it by following Him. There is no third road. Just two. The narrow one goes to Heaven, and the other goes to Hell. You must pick one. God will honor your choice, even if your friends do not.

Success

The third difficult lesson concerned the road to "success." Jesus made it clear that joy does not depend on our political or financial accomplishments, as we read in Matthew 18:

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who then is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?" 2 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of Heaven. 4 "Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven." (NKJV)

This lesson caused me some personal discomfort because of my previous involvement with the "positive attitude" and religious science movements. For years, I had believed that my own words had creative power and that I was evolving toward becoming a higher life form in my next incarnation. Why should I be humble if I was in the process of becoming a god? I thought I was tapping into the "Christ principle" within myself, and I thought Jesus would approve.

Instead, Jesus spoke of a process whereby grown persons are converted (the Greek word is strepho meaning "turned around") and changed. As a healthy child has a healthy respect of adults, a healthy Christian walks in humility in view of the awesome power and perfection of almighty God. God is so high above us that we can't even worry if people around us are "higher" or "lower" than us.

In the same vein, I had previously believed that material riches were proof of God's approval. This notion was dispelled in Matthew 19:

23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, "Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. 24 "And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." 25 When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" 26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (NKJV)

The narrow gate is just wide enough for one person at a time. Any of us can pass through it, one person at a time. The narrow gate is not wide enough to accommodate people carrying baggage. If you value any person or thing higher than Jesus, then that person or thing has become an idol. Leave him/her/it in God's hands and follow Jesus through the gate.

The principle is easy to understand, but hard to accept. Our human nature wants rewards now. God's plan is to reward us later. Our human nature wants to achieve and be recognized as Number One in our chosen field. God's plan is to elevate the humble and to humble those who have been prominent and successful in this life.

One or the Other

What's even crazier is that Jesus views salvation as an all-or-nothing proposition. Either we receive salvation as a free gift or we choose eternity in Hell. There is nothing in between - except this life. According to the Bible, there is no Limbo or Purgatory or Hell-Lite.

Jesus illustrated the all-or-nothing nature of salvation with the parable of the landowner hiring laborers for his vineyard. At the beginning of the day, he contracted to pay each a day's wage (a denarius). Later in the day, he found other job seekers and hired them - including one group of workers recruited just an hour before quitting time. These latter workers received a denarius, so the initial hires complained about not receiving more, as we see in Matthew 20:

12 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.' 13 "But he answered one of them and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 "'Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 "'Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?' 16 "So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen." (NKJV)

Remember that we're talking about salvation here. God does promise to give us certain rewards based upon our faith in times of trial, but salvation is "yes" or "no," all or nothing.

Don't imagine that famous religious leaders will necessarily get greater rewards than you - or that they'll even be in Heaven. Some of them are merely famous and religious, caught up in the external trappings of prestige and power. To be sure that you and I don't miss the point, Jesus returns to this subject in Matthew 23:

11 But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (NKJV)

Actually, this verse should speak comfort to our hearts. We have all suffered at the hands of bullies and proud enemies. Take heart: their talk irritates God, too.

So Where Do I Start?

Jesus made it clear that the Christian walk requires major changes in a person's life. His first words of warning - in fact His first recorded words of public ministry - are found in Matthew 4:

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, "Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand." 18 And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. 19 And He said unto them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." (NKJV)

From the very beginning, Jesus made it clear that we all need to repent as a first step. Repent is a simple word. It translates the Greek word metanoeo meaning to think differently enough to begin acting differently.

But repenting is more than stopping the harmful stuff, or just turning away from our former belief systems. Jesus immediately added the command, "Follow Me!"

Repentance causes us to turn from one thing and turn toward another. Repentance was a difficult assignment for me. I felt like I had previously done a pretty good job of following Jesus. I had attended church, put money in the offering basket, cut down on my bad language, and had been a law-abiding citizen. I didn't feel like a "bad" person.

But I had not received that supernatural implant of new life that Jesus called being "born again." I had not submitted my heart to the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. My heart had not been transformed and conformed to His image. I did not have the durable joy of the joyful people.

Without that implant of new life, I was not a "bad" person; I was a "dead" person.

I wanted that new life, but had trouble believing the joyful people at first. I had wasted several years following religious phonies. How could I be sure the narrow path was the right path and that the joyful people were telling the truth?

Fortunately, my doubts led me to do the right thing. I decided to read the Scriptures for myself and see if the joyful people were right. It took several months of study, because I was too proud to accept their explanation. It was too simple. It was hidden in plain sight.

The next three chapters explain what I discovered about salvation. If you fully grasp the next few chapters, you can be sure of your salvation and receive the durable joy that God promises you.

Let me encourage you to keep reading.

Closing prayer: Father, I can't understand the Gospel message with my human understanding, and I know I can't live up to the Beatitudes. But I'm willing to change. Please help me understand Your plan of salvation and Your plan to transform my heart, I pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
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