Coming Out Of His Cave:

Bear’s Blog

No Sloppy Agape

Jesus didn’t save us so that we could sit in a pew the rest of our lives, sing songs, get our heads crammed full of Bible verses and doctrines, and then just hang on until he returns.
 
When Jesus first appeared to Paul, he said to him these words: “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness…I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles.  I am sending you to them” (Acts 26:16-17).  Do you notice this?  “I have appeared to you to appoint you…”  “I will rescue you…to send you.”
 
That goes for us too.  Jesus appeared to us to then appoint us to a high calling. He rescued us to send us out to do good in his name. We are saved to serve. We are blessed to be a blessing.
 
Christianity gave this unique idea to the world: that every life matters, because every life has been shaped and gifted by God to make a difference in this world.
 
1 Peter 4:8-11 is a remarkable paragraph which functions as a sort of tutorial for Christian service. It answers at least 4 questions about serving Christ:
 
What’s the right motivation for serving?
Why should we serve?
Whom should we serve?
And who should do the serving?

Take the first question: what’s the right motivation for serving? Peter answers this question in the first phrase of verse 8: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly.”
 
The Greek word used here for “love” is yet another idea that Christians gave the world: the word is “agape” (a-gop-ey), which refers to an unconditional love which sacrifices itself for another, regardless of whether its deserved or not. Agape is a word the Greeks and Romans didn’t use a lot, because this sort of love wasn’t practiced a lot.
 
Christianity gave this unique idea to the world: that every life matters, because every life has been shaped and gifted by God to make a difference in this world.

The world’s way of loving is a “because” sort of love. I love you because I feel love for you. I love you because of what I get out of it. I love you because you’re so loveable and beautiful, not to mention you’re nice to me.
 
But that’s not how God loves us. The apostle John said, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). God loved us first, even when that love wasn’t being returned. God’s love is not a “because” sort of love, but a “just because” sort of love. It’s who God is. “God is agape” John said (1 John 4:16). It’s the essence of his being.
 
Because of this, “agape” is self-giving, not self-serving. It doesn’t come with conditions attached to it. And it’s sacrificial in nature, because the one offering it gives, just because. Whether they get anything in return from it or not.
 
For this reason, Christ’s death on the cross for us is the highest expression of “agape” love that we can conceive of. It’s our model. John said, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the [sacrifice] for our sins.” (1 John 4:10).
 
Most Christians though understandably struggle with this. Most of us are guilty of what I might call sloppy agape.
 
There’s a reason for this. To love someone as God loves us requires the Lord’s helps. It’s not in us by nature. “For the love of Christ controls/compels us,” Paul wrote (2 Cor.5:14), “because we have concluded this: that one has died for all.”
 
And this is how we practice agape love. By asking the Lord to help control us with this love, and by reminding ourselves again and again, or how Jesus showed this same love for me by dying for me on the Cross.
 
The idea being: if my Lord did this for me – when I deserved something much worse – than how dare I not give this away to others.

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A Bible That’s Falling Apart Usually Belongs To Somebody That Isn’t

“Spiritual growth” is one of those fuzzy, nebulous things that many wish they could experience, but few are sure how it happens.
 
But it’s not really all that mysterious. Paul tells his young friend and apprentice Timothy, “Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of” (2 Tim.3:14), and in that one sentence are three stepping stones to spiritual growth: First, you have learn spiritual truths, then you have to become convinced of their durability and solidity (i.e. that they are worth trusting), and finally you continue living them out.
 
When Paul refers to Timothy’s learning, the context of the verse makes it clear that what Timothy has learned is the Word of God. He was taught the “sacred writings” as a child (vs.15; cf. 1:5), then Paul reminds Timothy of the great value of “all scripture” (vs.16).
So the first stepping stone in growing up spiritually: You have to learn the Word of God.
 
The Book just won’t do any good sitting on your shelf.  It’s got to get in your head and in your heart.
 
It used to be, not all that long ago really, that the Bible was a prominent part of life in America. It was taught in all our schools. And everyone who went to church on Sunday also attended Sunday School classes before church to go deeper into learning about the Bible. Even those who didn’t go to church knew its stories and main teachings. The average child could have paired David with Goliath, and Jonah with the great fish, and Noah with the flood. Today they can’t.
Honestly, I don’t quite understand biblical illiteracy. People are strange. If someone claims they saw Mary appear on a mountainside in France, people by the thousands will flock there to get close to God. If someone sees Jesus in the clouds, like they did in Argentina recently, near revival breaks out. If someone sees Jesus in a piece of toast, the world will go nuts for awhile, thinking that God has spoken.
 
But  when God thought to give the world a gift to reveal himself to us and to show his great love for us, he didn’t leave us with a monument, or etch his face on a mountain (or a piece of toast), or shout at us from the heavens. It’s actually brilliant what he did. Because what he did is lasting, and is accessible to everyone, and can be understood by everyone who makes half an effort.
 
God put his words, his thoughts, and his ideas in a book, that anyone can hold in their hands. He wrote us a love-letter. But hardly anyone knows it, or cares to know it.
 
What’s interesting is that even secular observers have noticed this and many are alarmed by it. A few years ago, TIME magazine had a cover story which read: “Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public School (But Very, Very Carefully).” The article quoted a Boston University Religious Department chair who said: “Knowledge of the Bible is essential to being a full-fledged, well-rounded citizen…An entire generation of Americans is growing up almost entirely ignorant of the most influential book in world history, unable to understand the 1,300 biblical allusions in Shakespeare, the scriptural oratory of President Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. or even the prominence of the Bible in popular films such as “Pulp Fiction” and “The Matrix”.”
 
He’s right. How can schools ignore at least talking about this book – that remains the world’s #1 bestseller year after year – with its students? The Bible has had such a profound impact on our culture, and on the world, that to be ignorant of its contents, its stories, and its teaching automatically makes you a poorer, weaker human being.
 
If I were a teacher I’d want my students to know of Abraham and Sarah going in faith to a strange land, so my kids can learn that there is so much more to life than just being comfortable and secure. That good things happen when you stretch yourself and take leaps of faith.
 
If I were a teacher I’d want my students to hear the story of the Good Samaritan. If you want to put a dent in bullying, then put that story into kids’ heads.
 
I’d want them to hear the story of David and Goliath. Talk about your self-esteem booster. Here’s David, the runt of the litter, the smallest of his brothers, overlooked by everyone, who ends up showing courage that no one else will.
 
I’d want my kids to know the Ten Commandments, for them to become aware that they are not a law unto themselves, that they are accountable for how they live. To be ignorant of this information leaves you without a moral vocabulary that can help guide and protect your life.
 
“Either this book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this book.” ~ John Bunyan
 
Sadly, this ignorance doesn’t stop at the church doors though. Study after study of evangelical churches (the so-called “Bible-believing” ones) demonstrates an appalling lack of knowledge of what the Bible actually says.
 
Spiritual growth starts right here. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” Paul wrote to the Colossians. The Puritan author John Bunyan who wrote “Pilgrim’s Progress” said, “Either this book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this book.”
 
So what are you waiting for, my friend?. Get reading. And keep reading. You gotta walk before you can run. So learn, learn, and learn some more. The great British preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to a person that isn’t.” May that be said of your Bible one day.
 
 
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. He’s just released his latest book, “Living Under The Cross: A 40-Day Devotional Journey”. His blogs and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, and “A Sparrow Could Fall”, all available through Amazon.

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Leaders Are Readers

It’s the first of the fundamentals that we learned in school.  (Reading, writing, texting…)
 
George Washington did not have access to a military academy growing up.  So he read the best military books available in his time and taught himself how to think with a strategic military mind.  Theodore Roosevelt, one of our greatest presidents, died in his sleep and was found with a book under his pillow.  Dr. Suess maybe said it best: “The more that you read, the more things you’ll know; the more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
 
For a Christian in particular, the discipline of reading is one of the most soul-enriching practices to develop. By spending time with Christian authors from across the centuries, you will immeasurably deepen your faith, gain new perspectives, sharpen your thinking, learn new skills, be lifted out of ruts, and mobilized for serving your Lord more fruitfully.
 
I recommend that you read across several types of writing:
 
Read biographies. Get up close and personal with men and women of faith. Read biographies of great missionaries – like Hudson Taylor or William Carey. Or great men of faith like Martin Luther or John Wesley. From the 20th century, read “Just As I Am” by Billy Graham, and “The Shadow Of The Almighty”, the story of Jim Elliot written by his wife Elizabeth. A newer biography on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas will inspire you to stay close to Christ.
 
Read theology. Christianity is so broad and deep. Tell yourself, “This month, I’m going to read a book on prayer.” (I recommend any book by E.M. Bounds, or Philip Yancey’s best-seller, “Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference.”) Or “I want to read a book on Jesus’ death.” (“The Cross of Christ” by John Stott.) Every Christian should have a volume of ‘systematic theology’ in their library which they ought to read from. I recommend Wayne Gruden’s massive “Systematic Theology”, perhaps the most readable, most thorough explanation of what classical Christians believe. Speaking of classics…
 
Read classics. You haven’t lived until you’ve journeyed with Christian in “Pilgrim’s Progress”. Or had tea with C.S. Lewis as he discusses “Mere Christianity”. Or take in Augustine’s “Confessions”. Or Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship”. Or Richard Fosters, “Celebration of Discipline.” Clifton’s “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey” is a real page-turner. 🙂
 
Read ‘saw-sharpening’ books. We’re reading “The Unstuck Church” this summer as a church. I believe that God will speak to our congregation through this book, and put us on a path of growth. If you want to overcome your doubts, read any of Lee Strobel’s “Case For _____” books. If you want to know why Jesus is better than anything this culture has to offer, read books by Chuck Colson, or Francis Schaeffer.
 
The point is, life’s too short and following Jesus too amazing to pass on this incredible ‘habit of the heart’. Don’t say, “Well, I’m not a reader.” If you’re reading this, you’re a reader. Get a move-on.
 

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Oh Just Grow Up! Are You A Spiritual Baby?

Reach, teach and unleash is my pastoral motto, and teaching is a critical link in the chain.
 
Why do we need to be taught? And why does a healthy church insist on providing learning opportunities?
           
One answer the Bible is clear about: Because we all enter the kingdom of God as spiritual babies.
 
Scripture insists that anyone who enters God’s kingdom is, spiritually speaking, a baby. 1 Peter 2:2 says, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up onto salvation.”  
 
There was a group of American tourists vacationing in England, who were walking through a village one day. They passed an old man sitting on a park bench, and one of the tourists, being a wise guy, called out in a fake English accident, “Old chap, were any great men born in this village?” The old man replied, “Nope, only babies.”
  
Sometimes we look in our Bibles and we see Moses parting the Red Sea, David slaying Goliath, Elijah taking on the prophets of Baal, Mary and the great courage she showed in being the mother of Jesus, and rather than be inspired by them, we’re intimidated. They’re so far above us, we think. But that’s not true. Each one of them started off as babies.
 
And you my brother, my sister, have that same opportunity in front of you. The opportunity of growing. Of growing in faith. Of growing in love. Of growing in purity. Of growing in fruitfulness. What will release this growth in your life? One thing – will you or will you not commit to learning, then living out the Lord’s teaching? That’s it. It’s no mystery.
 
How do you know if you’re a spiritual baby or not? Is a person who has been a Christian for ten years more spiritual and mature than one who has been a Christian for five years? Many think that’s how it works. Musicians are always asking each other: How long have you been playing? I can impress people by saying, “I’ve been playing guitar for 40 years. Aren’t you impressed?” But I stopped taking lessons 30 years ago. And since then, the only times I have improved as a guitar is whenever I have dedicated myself to learning.
 
In the kingdom of God, you could be a Christian for 20 or 30 years and still be a baby. Because there are two things that mark out spiritual infancy:
 
First, a lack of biblical knowledge.
 
The author of Hebrews said this to a group of Christians who had stopped growing. “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again…You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness since he is a child.” (Hebrews 5:12-13).
  
If you don’t know a lot about the Bible yet, or you still haven’t mastered the habit of seeking God every day through Bible reading and prayer, or if you don’t know and understand the core doctrines of the faith, then you’re still a spiritual baby, no matter how long you’ve been a Christian.
 
But knowledge alone doesn’t prove maturity.  You could win every Bible sword drill, and score a 100 on any Bible quiz that gets thrown at you, you still might be a spiritual infant.
 
Because secondly, spiritual infancy is shown by lack of biblical behavior.
 
Paul said to the Corinthians, “If I have all knowledge and understand all mysteries but have not love I am nothing.” (1 Cor.13:2).
 
We find out in reading Corinthians that the folks in this church were bickering amongst themselves who their favorite preacher was. One group said, “We like Paul!” Another group said, “But we like Apollos!” Paul had to tell them to grow up. He had to give them a timeout, and send them to their naughty chair.
 
He tells them in 1 Corinthians 3:1,4, “But I could not address you as spiritual…but as infants in Christ,” he said.
 
A lack of holiness, a lack of showing the love and grace of Christ in your life is proof positive that you’re still in spiritual diapers and need to grow up.
 
Pastor Bear

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How Easter Changed The World

It’s no exaggeration to say that the resurrection of Jesus Christ changed the world. And like with the largest fires, as we saw with Notre Dame, it began with the smallest spark.
 
It changed the world by first changing the lives of Jesus’ disciples. One of the most convincing proofs for the truthfulness of the resurrection is what happened to these men. Think of their mental state on Friday. One of them betrayed him. One of them denied him. All but one of them fled for their lives when he was arrested. Yet 50 days later, these simpletons and cowards took to the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming that Jesus Christ had risen from the grave. And each one of these men except for John would in time be violently put to death for continuing to make that claim. They would not take it back. No one reneged. Only one thing explains this. Jesus rose. And they knew it.
 
From there the wildfire spread. By the end of the first century, Christians were found in every major metropolitan center of the Roman empire. By the end of the second century, it was found in Africa and India. By the third century it reached England. “We are but of yesterday!” a famous Christian named Tertullian wrote to the Roman authorities. “And we have filled every place among you. Cities, islands, fortresses, towns, palace, senate, forum – we have left you only your temples, and you can have them.”
 
But here’s the important question. Why did Christianity spread so far, so fast? It didn’t spread the way Islam would spread six centuries later – at swordpoint with people being forced into conversion. The Christians carried no swords, and they were the ones being hunted down. The only explanation that makes sense is that Jesus had risen from the grave. The power of the risen Christ with them.
 
The Bible comes right out and says that it’s the resurrection that proves the truthfulness of Christianity. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:14 – “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”
 
This isn’t to say there’s no evidence for Christ outside of the resurrection. Jesus’ life gives plenty of reason to follow him and worship him. The way he fulfilled ancient prophecies. I can show you more than 60 specific prophecies in the Old Testament, written centuries before he was born, which he fulfilled with dramatic precision. Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 describe specific details about Jesus’ crucifixion – that he would have his hands and feet pierced, that he would die alongside criminals, that his clothing would be gambled for. It’s as if the writers of these prophecies – Isaiah and David – were eyewitnesses to the crucifixion. But you should know that Isaiah wrote his prophecy 700 years before Christ was born, and David 900 years.
 
There’s plenty of other evidence though than this. The way Jesus completed and fulfilled so many Old Testament pictures of salvation, like the priesthood, and sacrifices and the festivals and the Passover lamb.
 
No one spoke like Jesus – his teaching was beyond compare.
 
No one lived like Jesus. Find a sin in him, I dare you. You can find sin in Moses, in Buddha, in Mohammed, you can find sin in all the Greek and Roman gods, but not Jesus.
 
No one loved like Jesus – the care he showed for children at a time when children were treated scarcely better than dogs. The dignity with which he regarded women, who at that time were nothing but second-class citizens. The compassion with which he treated foreigners, Gentiles.
 
He was not a man of his time. It was as if he had parachuted in from outside of time, which is what would be the case if God came to earth as a human.
 
The evidence for Christianity is overwhelming even without the resurrection.But for Christians, the resurrection clinches the deal. The resurrection proves that Jesus’ death worked. That it accomplished what it was meant to accomplish. It proves that our sins are forgiven. That we really do have eternal life in Christ. The resurrection is heaven’s confirmation number that the Father accepted the transaction that Jesus paid for with his life. Without it, we would have reason to wonder.
 
Now we have every motivation to follow hard after Jesus.

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