The Ones Jesus Didn’t “Save”

“For God so loved the World, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.”

John 3:16 (KJV)
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This is probably the most well-known verse in the Christian Bible. It has given hope to millions, as it explains that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ allows anyone to find forgiveness, faith, and new/eternal life. But what about those who don’t believe; those loved ones (and others) who die without the hope of salvation? Doesn’t God care about them? Why does he let them die without hope? Why do they go to eternal suffering, instead of being forgiven?

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I can’t give a complete answer to those questions…I don’t comprehend the entirety of God’s plan or His mind. But I do know this– God understands our heartbreak and our grief over our unsaved loved ones. After all, Jesus spent three years preaching and announcing the Gospel, yet He was betrayed by one of His closest friends. Jesus– God in the Flesh; Emmanuel; the Perfect Son of God–didn’t “save” everyone He knew. We have the wonderful story of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus– what about others who didn’t “see the light?” There may have been hundreds, even thousands who heard Jesus preach; who watched Him hanging on the Cross; who heard the rumors that He had risen, only to reject His message–what about them? Jesus had met them. Maybe He had healed them, or eaten at their house, or studied with them at the Temple when they were younger. Some may have been His brothers, or cousins, or mentors and teachers.

On the night before He was crucified, Jesus was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in anguish about what He would have to face, but some of His anguish and grief had to be in knowing that, while His death and resurrection would save so many, there were still others who would choose to turn away and reject the Life and Hope and Peace that He suffered to bring.

Even during His ministry, Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was diseased or lame or blind. He even made reference at one point to the kinds of disasters that often leave us questioning God’s mercy:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

Jesus could have “saved” those Galileans from having their sacrifices desecrated; He could have provided a miracle to save those who were killed by the tower that fell in Siloam. And just as we grieve today for the senseless loss of life in places like Afghanistan and Haiti, or New York City on 9/11/2001, Jesus felt the loss of innocent strangers. Just as we plead with friends and loved ones to repent and seek God’s face, Jesus preached the need for all people to confess and seek forgiveness.

Jesus could have forced Judas to turn from his plan to betray the Master. He had the authority to cast out demons and demand that angels come to honor, protect, or comfort Him. He has the authority to make every knee bow down and every tongue confess that He is the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. And someday, He will! But Jesus won’t save people against their will– even those close to him. He doesn’t compel grudging obedience, or demand abject servitude. There are some who choose to serve Him in that way, but that is not His desire. Instead, He compels us with His mercy. We choose to love Him because He first Loved us– sacrificially, unreservedly, without limits or conditions. (See 1 John 4:19)

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Jesus patiently spoke to Nicodemus in the dead of night. He chased Saul down on the road to Damascus and gave him three days of blindness to reconsider the direction of his life. He called His disciples and asked them to Follow Him– even Judas. He invited Himself to the house of Zacchaeus. He spoke with compassion to those who were broken, and outcast, and lost. And just like Judas, they had to make choices– some of His friends and followers abandoned Him when He needed them most. Some of them stumbled. But they HAD followed Jesus. They had learned from Him, and they came back and persevered.

Being loved by God comes without conditions and without reservations. Being “saved” by Christ’s atoning blood comes with a price–not just the price He paid on the cross, but the price of our repentance and acceptance of His Lordship, and yes, even the mysteries of His Grace.

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As Jesus hung on the Cross, He was positioned between two convicts who were justly condemned. Both were sinners; both were paying the penalty for their crimes. One cried out to a dying Savior, and was saved. The other mocked and cursed. Jesus had the power to save him. He did not desire that the other man should suffer. But the other man chose to reject who Jesus was, and so rejected all the mercy and power He could have shown.

Jesus died to save “whosoever” would believe. He did not die to save “howsoever.” We may not fully understand why He chose to offer Salvation in this way, but we believe it to our everlasting joy, or reject it to our everlasting anguish.

We Didn’t Know Who You Were…

Jesus was born in obscurity– yet he was also born during a Census year…

 And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Luke 2:1-7 (NKJV via biblegateway.com)
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This is a Census year in the U.S. (something that has largely been forgotten in the wake of the COVID pandemic.) I actually worked for the Census Bureau for a few weeks this year, doing follow-up interviews for addresses which had not responded for various reasons. Census taking is much different now than it was in Jesus’ day. I had a script, and a smart phone, and several different forms to fill out or hand out to explain what we were doing–one form contained information in at least 14 different languages, and all of them had phone numbers and web addresses where people could “respond” electronically without ever leaving the comfort of their living room, let alone traveling over dangerous hills and trying to find room at crowded inns. I was the one who had to travel– mostly around my small town and within a 20-mile radius. One interview required me to travel 100 miles; another required me to utilize my ability to speak and understand Spanish. Otherwise, the interviews were simple and straightforward. Except when they weren’t.

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“Everyone Counts,” the Census Bureau told us, and I did my best to get names and ages for everyone at every address I visited. But many of the addresses were abandoned buildings– even demolished. Others were summer homes or vacation rentals–I had to be careful not to count the same people twice! Often, I could tell that people were living at the residence, but either they weren’t home at that time or they would not come to the door. Some houses required several attempts before I got any response, and it wasn’t always positive or cooperative.

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I imagine the scene in Bethlehem, though lacking the technology and ease of travel of our modern age, wasn’t so very different. There were people who wanted to do their civic duty; those who were annoyed at the inconvenience and general bureaucratic chaos; those who hated the Roman Government and everything it represented; and some who just wanted to get it all over with and go back to “normal life.”

We know that Joseph was called up to go to Bethlehem because is was his ancestral home. And we know that Joseph would have been counted as the head of the household. But is it possible that Jesus was counted in that census? That he was numbered among his people and with his family? That the God of all creation became a simple hash mark among thousands of others that year? “Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.” “Infant son.” “Male child.” Jesus was counted. But He was also lost in the shuffle; discounted and ignored.

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10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

John 1:10-11 (KJV via biblegateway.com)

This season, it’s easy to feel left out, discounted, passed over. This year, especially, it can be lonely and discouraging as we look out on the world from lockdown, or look at faces covered by masks, unknown or unrecognizable. It’s easy to feel that no one sees us. Rest assured, Jesus knows what it is like to get lost in the numbers. He knows what it is to be discounted and misunderstood, rejected, and scorned.

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And He knows exactly who you are and who I am– better than we know ourselves! We count! Not because of who we are, but because He is the creator and author of all life. No matter where you are, no matter who has rejected you in the past, no matter how dark and grim things look– God sees you; God loves you; God has taken you into His count. He doesn’t need a census count to find you, and you can’t get “lost” or hide in the crowd.

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He knows you– Do you know Him?

The Door Will Be Opened…

Ask, Seek, Knock

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

(Matthew 7:7-12 NIV via biblegateway.com)

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Recently, I took on a part-time, temporary job in which I had to make visits to various households and ask to conduct an interview. I knocked on a lot of doors. Few of them were ever opened. Many of the houses were unoccupied– either the family wasn’t at home, or the home was vacant or even abandoned. At others, there were clearly people at home, but they wouldn’t come to the door. At still others, a person would come to the door, or respond via intercom or speaker, but they would not open up or consent to do the interview. Even though I was wearing a mask and promised to practice social distancing; even though the interview was less than 10 minutes, and would help their community and country, they would not speak to me or let me step up to or across the threshold. *(For the record, I was not required to enter anyone’s home to conduct an interview; most took place across a threshold or through a screen door or even out on the front steps.) A select few, however, were gracious and welcoming. They opened the door, invited me in, offered me a seat, and refreshed my spirit. I knocked on the doors of the wealthy, and those in extreme poverty. I knocked on fancy doors with cyber-security, and doors that were hanging off their hinges. I knocked on the doors of large families, and lonely widows. I knocked on the doors of the dying, and the doors of families with newborns. I knocked on the doors of mobile homes, and lake cottages, and apartments, and old farm houses. Some of the kindest people I found were in so-called “bad” neighborhoods. Some of the people who were the most gracious were those who were in the most pain, and had the least to gain by being kind. Those who were threatening and rude were quick to point out that their time was more valuable than mine– that they were too important, or too comfortable, or too busy to answer a few simple questions.

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When we “knock” at the door of heaven with our prayers, God promises that “the door will be opened.” God is not “too busy”, and our questions, requests, and praises are not “too small” to get His attention. God is gracious. God is available. God is accessible. And God’s opened door is so much more than an entry to someone’s hallway or front room or kitchen. God opens the doors to His very throne room! He invites us to “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise”! (Psalm 100) He invites us to the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelations), and to everlasting life (John 3:16).

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Jesus also “knocks” at the door of our hearts, asking to “come in.” What does He find? Are we “away from home”– so busy chasing after foolish things that we don’t even inhabit our own hearts? Are we ignoring Him, hoping He’ll go away? Are we telling Him to come back another time, or coming up with excuses why we don’t need to speak with Him? Or do we open the door, invite Him in, and offer Him a seat?

Jesus urged His listeners on the Mount to Ask, Seek, and Knock. And then, He challenged them to “do to others what you would have them do to you.” How are we treating those who “knock” at our door? Those who need a friend, or a listening ear? Those who need to hear the truth, and the hope that is in us? Trust me– how we answer that “knock” at our door will leave an impression. It will testify to our true nature.

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God doesn’t just hear us knocking, He opens the door and gives us all we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). What are we giving to those who knock on our door?

How Can You?!

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14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

1 Peter 3:14-16 (ESV) via biblegateway.com
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I was approached years ago by an angry non-believer, who asked me in disdainful tones how I could possibly believe in God, Jesus Christ, heaven and hell, and other Biblical tenets. At the time, I was taken aback by the vehemence and anger. I stammered an answer, heart-felt and, I hoped, theologically “correct”–I think I quoted scripture and gave a short version of my personal testimony. The other person was not impressed or convinced. I felt like I had failed. The other person sneered at my belief–and at God!

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I spent weeks going over in my mind what else I might have said. I came up with clever arguments, gripping counter-questions, self-deprecating “homey” zingers, I read books on apologetics, and studied the words of great thinkers…I would be ready next time. I would not be left looking or sounding naive and unprepared. I would have the tools to “win” the argument, and God would be proud of me.

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But in the years since, I have done more thinking (and reading, and praying!) And this past month, as I’ve been reading through the Old Testament prophets, I have found a new perspective. Prophets like Isaiah, Habakkuk, Amos, and Malachi spoke the very words of God to people around them. They spoke to ordinary people, and to the religious and political leaders of their day. And almost none of them listened! In fact, the prophets were hated, sneered at, smeared, imprisoned– some of them were even killed.

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These prophets were prepared. They were not being ambushed with “gotcha” questions, because they were the ones presenting and challenging people with the truth. The truths they spoke were often harsh and offensive. They were truths about coming judgment and destruction, followed by restoration and revival. There was nothing “welcoming” or attractive about their message. But the people remained stubborn, sinful, and unimpressed.

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We live in the post-Resurrection age. Our message contains warnings about judgment and destruction– but unlike the prophets of old, we have a message of immediate and eternal Hope and Salvation. We have centuries of prophecies that have been fulfilled; of testimonies to the power of a risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. Yet even Jesus warned us that “..in the world (you) will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b ESV)

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We often feel that if we cannot “win over” those who challenge us–if we cannot prove to their satisfaction that we are “right” in our beliefs–that we have failed. Yet we have so many examples of faithful witnesses who suffered and died without seeing the results of their faithfulness. God does not ask us to “win” every battle in convincing and decisive fashion. That’s HIS job! What He does ask is that we should be prepared to give an answer– and that we do it with gentleness and respect.

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I don’t have to silence the critics. I don’t have to have “mic-drop” moments. I don’t have to “win” every debate. God calls me to be faithful, honest, and humble. My words may not change someone else’s mind. But my changed life and God-honoring attitude may plant a seed that someone else’s words and life, and the power of the Holy Spirit will cause to grow into faith– even if I never live to see it!

In answer to the question, “How can you believe?” The answer often lies, not only in what we say about our belief, but how we live it out!

Three Words

Essential

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about people who are “essential.” In times of crisis, certain skills and services are necessary to preserve or protect life. In times of war, soldiers, medics, makers of tanks and arms, helmets, planes, boots, and armor become essential. In times of famine, farmers, and anyone with reserves of food or water become essential. In times like these, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and those who make or distribute medicines, PPE (personal protective equipment), ventilators, etc., are essential.

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Being “essential” may sound wonderful, but it comes with a heavy price. Doctors and nurses are stretched and stressed, working ridiculously long shifts and scrambling to find ways to arrest the progress of COVID-19 among their patients who test positive. Meanwhile, their neighbors are complaining about being told to stay home and do nothing because their skills, their businesses, and their contributions are considered “non-essential.” Grocers and the cashiers, restaurant owners, farmers, and truckers are risking their lives to keep people supplied with food, only to have people complain about prices and temporary shortages. And any one of their customers could be spreading the virus– not just to them, but to their other customers. Police officers, already putting their lives on the line, are now asked to interact with those who may be carrying and spreading this virus, as well as dealing with an angry and frustrated population chafing under orders to stay home and stay inactive. And those who are “essential” are also vulnerable– tired and frightened and inadequate to meet every need–they are not infallible or indefatigable.

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There are really only a few things in life that are actually essential–breathing (which is one of the reasons COVID-19 is so scary, because it attacks the lungs), water, food, and basic shelter (protection from excessive heat or cold). And, while many around the world are facing more extreme shortages than others, most of the chafing and complaining has less to do with not having the essentials than with being (or not being) labeled “essential” with very little notice or guidance, and asked to bear the brunt of a crisis they cannot predict or control.

Redundant (non-essential)

For every person who is feeling the pressure of being “essential” in a time like this, there are others who have been labeled “non-essential”– redundant, expendable, “in the way.” “Stay home!” “Stay away!” “Don’t!” Don’t shake hands, or hug, or visit friends or loved ones (unless you can do so via phone or internet). Don’t touch– don’t touch door knobs or counters or surfaces– don’t even touch your own face!

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The intent of these messages is a positive one–“help stop the spread of this virus”–but the message often gets lost in the tone of fear and panic that accompanies it. “If you don’t (go away, stay away, stop touching, stop asking questions, stop being in the way…) other people, especially ‘essential’ people, will get sick and die.” “If you could just go away, disappear, be quiet, etc., until this crisis dies down…” Feeding your family, keeping your business open, earning a living, using or developing your skills, offering your services or products– none of that is “essential” right now. You have nothing to offer in a time of crisis– you are expendable. Perhaps not forever, but just now– just for a few more days, weeks, months?…

Jesus offers us a shocking view of what is/who is “essential” or “redundant.” In his encounter with the “rich young ruler,” (see https://pursuingprayer.blog/2020/02/07/a-miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile/) Jesus listens as the young man seeks to justify himself. He has done everything he deems “essential” to inherit eternal life. But Jesus challenges him with one “essential”–sell what he has in order to serve the poor and “redundant.”

Jesus had frequent encounters with lepers– the most “redundant” and expendable people of his day. They were contagious, “unclean,” unwanted. And Jesus also encountered those with great power and prestige–priests and rulers, centurions and tax collectors. Many of them were also considered “unclean,” and unwanted! Those for whom Jesus had the sternest warnings were those who refused to accept, respect, or help those they preferred to judge.

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Whosoever-

Jesus, the only One who actually has the right to judge, didn’t come to further the division of people into categories and labels. While he didn’t turn a blind eye to sinful activities, neither did he point fingers. And while he celebrated faith and service when he found it, he didn’t flatter or fawn over those whose service was more “essential” than others’. Instead, Jesus invited “whosoever” to believe in him (John 3:16), to follow him, and to become part of the Kingdom of God. (Revelation 22:17). Someday, He will judge us, and we will be separated. But the one “essential” will be whether or not we have chosen to depend on Him and trust Him for the wisdom and strength to do His will in service to “whosoever” we encounter.

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There is no one so “essential” that God is required to accept her/him into the Kingdom. This may be a strange notion to some of us, who have fallen into thinking that we earn our salvation through good works or memorizing doctrinal statements. But NO person is essential in Heaven. And that’s not bad news or meant to condemn–it is simply a reminder that God’s standard is level and fair. We don’t have to strive and stress; we don’t have to have all the right answers, or do all the “right” things– in fact, we can’t.

And there is no one so “redundant” that God cannot accept him/her into the Kingdom. Again, this may be a strange notion, that we cannot “out-sin” God’s salvation. We can’t mess up, wash out, face-plant, or fail such that God cannot redeem, rescue, or revive us. God will never tell us to “stay away,” “wait,” “don’t get too close.” Instead he says, over and over again, “Come!”

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Whosoever is struggling with exhaustion, or impossible expectations, panic, fear, sickness, anger, depression, loneliness, hunger, rejection, injustice, confusion, or emptiness– let them come!

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