My favorite men's group, the Wednesday Brothers of Thunder, is a leaderless core group which meets weekly for an hour of Bible study and an hour of prayer. We stay leaderless because we expect the Lord Jesus Christ to come and take charge of things, and the fact that He does so has been our experience year after year. God always shows up and surprises us with His insights and the spiritual refreshment of our lives.
The responsibility for coordinating the weekly meeting rotates around the room. So it was recently that my friend Mike found himself opening to us the eleventh chapter of Luke. Mike, and two other brothers in the group, had grown up in the Roman Catholic Church so they knew the Lord's Prayer (the "Our Father") backwards and forwards. Mike admitted his discomfort in stopping to think through this prayer--he told us (in jest) that the text printed in red was "evidently optional and could be omitted because it made the whole chapter much easier to accept."
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." And he said to them, "When you pray, say: "Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation." (Luke 11:1-4) (Longer version in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:6-15)
When we stopped to go through this great "template" prayer, the discussion became very lively. This model prayer suggested by Jesus begins by showing us that we should address our prayers to "Our Father"--who is a Spirit, a living Person. He dwells not on earth but in the invisible spiritual realm which surrounds us on all sides and is also within our human spirits. The "Disciples' Prayer" does not begin "My Father" or even "Dear God"--it is a community prayer to guide the members of a unique family of brothers and sisters when we address our heavenly Father. God is described here as the Holy One. He is lofty, transcendent, just, and perfect in wholeness. He lives outside of time in eternity.
This prayer would have us stop and think Who it is we are really praying to before we launch off on a long speech and dump on this God our personal want list of daily self-centered requests. We are invited to pray directly to the greatest Power in the universe, we are welcome to enter the presence of the Creator and Lord of all things. This is the greatest privilege in the universe, made possible because Jesus the Son of God has removed the barrier of sin between us and a holy God at the cost of His own blood.
To pray "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," is--as Ray Stedman once pointed out--to pray the the most often prayed prayer in the entire Bible, yet this is a prayer which has never yet been answered! Jesus Christ now reigns over the entire universe but paradoxically He does not yet rule on earth. Prior to His departure into the heavenly places after His resurrection Jesus said,
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." (Matthew 28:18)
When I asked my fellow Wednesday Brothers if they really wanted the rule of God to come to our planet, they all said "yes, of course." Suspecting we ought to look a bit deeper, I took another approach, "Well what do you think would happen if Jesus and His army were to arrive in (nearby) San Francisco this very evening? There was an awkward silence as we all realized that Jesus is the most hated man in the universe and we could expect rioting, unbridled violence, and all-out war if He showed up here in person. It would be mighty disruptive indeed.
Next we talked about the fact that a ruling Kingdom of a real and legitimate High King here on earth was a very real threat to our own private and selfish kingdom-goals for our lives. If we Christians were honest with ourselves what most of us really wanted was to live out our own plans for a career, a family, travel and happiness following the American dream. That is, each of us lives as if we can become in life just about anyone we want to be. Therefore, if honest, we probably ought to pray, "Thy Kingdom Come, Lord, but not just yet please."
If God's will is done in heaven, which apparently is the case, and it is not done on earth most of the time by most people, then what would it be like if Jesus were to actually show up and begin to rule the nations from Jerusalem here and now? It is quite one thing for Jesus to help us when we are down and out, but do we really want Him interfering with our daily lives as His return will surely do?
"I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself. He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses. From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords." (Revelation 19:11-16)
Another factor that came up for core-group discussion had to do with the fact that we all have friends and relatives we love and care for. Many do not yet know the Lord. We are embedded in a pagan culture and all around us are likable people who are our friends and fellow-workers and next-door neighbors. Do we really want the judgment of God to fall on them here and now--excluding them forever from God's Presence? (as in 2 Thessalonians Chapter 1). Wouldn't it better for me if this "coming in of the kingdom of God on earth" happened after I had safely lived out my insignificant life? The status quo may not be ideal, but isn't it better than a violent invasion from outer space which will nearly destroy the planet and most of its inhabitants--as the book of the Revelation describes?
Our discussion next moved to the subject of "our daily bread." Was it really sufficient for us to ask God for enough to eat one day at a time? What about our 401k's and plans for early retirement, or at least a new car? Surely this item in the Lord's prayer was much too lean and skimpy? "Daily bread" seems like a very limited term does it not? It might cover my "needs" but it certainly does not cover my "wants."
Then there was also the issue in the Lord's Prayer asking that we be kept from temptation and delivered from the devices of the Evil One. That raised problems for some of us when we got a bit more honest with one another. Perhaps there were some sins we could part with, but did we not all love all our "favorite" small sensual pleasures--a few moments of indulging in the lust of the eyes, a little light covetousness, the pleasure of an occasional outburst of anger at someone we did not like. As for the devil, could we not handle him ourselves? What threat was he to us or we to him? What would the devil like to do with us if he had the chance? We mean him no harm.
Finally the thought that the Kingdom was "Thine" and not "mine" was the final insult to our pride. It just could not be reconciled with the dream of the great American way of life we all grew up with.
Our core group session ended with some sober reflection and prayer--about being careful what we pray for because we might get more than we bargained for. For sure we all wanted Jesus to return and set things right. Stopping to think about what the Lord's prayer actually said had brought about a fairly serious probing indictment of our hearts and motives. At least we closed on the note that our Father who art in heaven is a loving, caring compassionate and personal God, an intimate and caring Friend.
For Whom was the Universe Created?
Ever since I became a Christian, nearly forty years ago I have loved a certain passage in Colossians:
Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:15-18)
I have read this passage a hundred times yet only recently did one phrase strike me close to home. The universe (both the visible and the invisible realms) was created through the Son of God--but everything was ALSO created FOR Him. Jesus is the designated Heir of all things.
At this point I began rethink human history, human endeavor in a different light. Most people I know seem bent on building their own kingdoms, and monuments to themselves and to their achievements. What chance do we have if we ignore the purpose for which we were created--namely to honor God with our lives, our substance, our interpersonal relationships--Soli Deo Gloria sort of thing? Most people I know want to leave a legacy to be remembered after they are gone. Yet I know of a lot of "important" people who have already died and been quickly forgotten. Unless God remembers them for good, it will be as if they never lived at all.
Landlord and Tenants
With the above insights in mind, several of the Parables of our Lord now became clearer to me with greater brightness and relevancy. One of these is the parable of the landlord and his tenants:
"Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, `They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, `This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons." (Matthew 21:33-41, also in Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19)
James Montgomery Boice has the following to say about this Parable and its relevance for us in America today:
The parable of the wicked trustees tells how men who had been selected to manage a vineyard for its owner mistreated the owner's servants and eventually killed his son. The father is God; the son is Jesus; the servants are the prophets. So the story shows that sinful men are so virulent in their hatred of all others, including God, that they murder God's servants and Son and would naturally murder God Himself if He stooped to put Himself in their grasp What are the two great commandments? The first is: "Love the Lord your God with an your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." The second is like it. "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:37, 39; cf Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18) But on the basis of this story it is correct to say that man in his sinful state does precisely the opposite. He hates the Lord his God with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his mind, and he hates his neighbor as he hates himself.
When Jesus began His story by telling how a landowner planted a vineyard, put a wall around it, dug a winepress, and built a watchtower, He was pressing the parable home upon His Jewish audience. Israel was the "vine' of God, and everything Jesus said in that opening picture was known to have been applied to Israel in the Old Testament. Isaiah had written, "My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well" (Isa. 5:1, 2) Jeremiah had recorded, "I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock (Jer. 2:21). Ezekiel declared, "Your mother was like a vine in your vineyard planted by the water; It was fruitful and full of branches because of abundant water," (Ezek. 19.10 ) The psalmist had written beautifully "You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. (Ps. 8:8-10)
That imagery was well known to Christ's hearers. So when He told the story of the landowner's vineyard there could be no doubt in their minds that He was speaking of them and of those who had responsibility for their spiritual development.
That fact tempts us to dismiss the parable as applying only to them and therefore not to ourselves. But let us say at the start that if that is the way we are interpreting Christ's remarks, we are misreading Him utterly. Jesus told the story in that way because He was speaking to Jews. But would He not have made it equally pointed if He was telling it to us? He may have used another image--we do not know what it might have been. Or He might simply have said that we, too, may be compared to vines, as Israel was. Has He not planted Americans in our land? Has He not fenced us in? Has He not watered and cared for us? Has He not built a watchtower? Has He not sent tenants to care for us and present our choice fruits to Him when He returns for them? Of course He has. Yet we have not been faithful, any more than Israel was faithful.
In speaking to His Jewish audience, Jesus focused on the way God's servants had been and would be treated. In that we have both history and prophecy. In the days of Elijah, Jezebel murdered the Lord's prophets in large numbers. In the reign of Joash the people stoned Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada. Isaiah, the greatest of all the prophets, was sawn asunder by order of Manasseh, according to Jewish tradition. The tombs of many of those men were in the valley of Kidron, within a short walk of where our Lord was speaking, so anyone could easily have verified that the treatment of the prophets was as the Lord said.
The author of Hebrews wrote, "Others [of the prophets] were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground" (Heb. 11:35-38) Who is it who did those things to the prophets? It was the Jews, the very people to whom Jesus was speaking
Christ's parable was also prophecy. It not only recounted what had happened. It foretold what those very people, the descendants of those who had killed the prophets, would do to Him. We speak of Jesus as being meek and mild. We refer to Him as the embodiment of love. We refer to His many works of healing the sick, raising the dead, curing the lepers. And those are true descriptions. He was all those things. But was He loved for it? On the contrary, He was hated because, at the same time that He was doing those good things, He was also the representative of God and the people hated Him for His Godlike characteristics. --James Montgomery Boice, The Parables of Jesus, (Moody Press, Chicago, 1983)
When the Landlord Returns
Jesus is indeed the Owner and Heir of all things. We are therefore only His temporary house guests, His tenants. The planet is not ours to do with as we please. Neither are our bodies for our own selfish pleasures--God created them to be temples for His Holy Spirit, not as shrines dedicated to pagan idols.
Everything in history is moving rapidly to a grand climax in which this man Jesus will come to receive His kingdom, His inheritance. The return of the Landlord means that every last human being on earth will give account of themselves to Him, and every knee will bow, whether willingly and in gratitude--or by force. There are no other options.
"[Christ Jesus]...who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain." (Philippians 2:5-16)
"Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment." (John 5:25-29)
Ready or not, all signs point to the soon-return of the King.
September 5, 2001