Jesus Defines A Christian

One night, when all was quiet and darkness had blanketed the earth, a man named Nicodemus quietly came to visit Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and did not want to be seen talking with Jesus. However, the Savior had gotten his attention.

Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are summarized in our text today. Even though Nicodemus was a teacher of the Law, he did not understand what Jesus meant by saying, “You must be born again,” He was confused and asked, “How can it be? Certainly a man cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born.”

Jesus explains more and ends with the words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Think of all the ways we define a Christian in our society. We would say he is a good man, a fine father, a loving husband, a faithful worker, an excellent person in the church. All these qualities are good, and a Christian should possess these characteristics. However, this is not what makes him a Christian. According to Jesus’ definition, a Christian is one who claims Him as Savior and Lord, one who believes He died for him and will one day take him to his heavenly home.

I believe Nicodemus left feeling confused but was not able to get Jesus out of his mind. I can’t help but think that in their Sanhedrin meetings sometimes, when Jesus’ name came up, Nicodemus may have tried to get them to understand Jesus. His words may have gone like this: “You sit there and condemn him. How can you try a person unless you have something against him? How can you condemn him and crucify him if you find nothing bad in his character? Jesus has caught my heart, and he can capture yours, too.”

One day Jesus said, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the spirit.” This is a very important verse regarding baptism. Tom Wright, a noted theologian and Bishop of Durham in England, has helped me a great deal with this. He concluded that there are two parts to baptism. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, preached the repentance of sins. Then he would baptize the people in the Jordan River. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one (Jesus) who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

That is the picture Jesus gives: be baptized with water, then begin to learn from Jesus so you may be baptized the Spirit and his words become faith.

Often we will hear people say, “I am a Christian for I have been baptized.” Water baptism is necessary, for it leads us to learn of Jesus’ words, biblical preaching and teaching, and a daily devotion. However, water baptism by itself is not enough, for it needs to be accompanied by the Holy Spirit in order to create faith in our hearts.

We do not know if Nicodemus came to faith in Jesus Christ or not. But I believe he did. Looking at his life, we see him standing at the cross of Jesus and hearing Jesus say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And when the soldiers took Jesus’ body down and gave it to Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus came with ointment and anointed it as it was laid in the tomb. He may have still been confused about Jesus, but he was also thoroughly convinced that those who trust in Him will have the forgiveness of their sins, the promise of everlasting life, and will one day enter into the kingdom of heaven.

When we hear people talking about being a Christian, but showing little evidence of their faith, let us allow the Holy Spirit, working through us, to help them learn who really is a Christian. That is what God’s Word teaches us today.

How many people that you talk to on Sunday morning do you suppose are Christians? How many who kneel at the baptism font or at the communion table have invited Jesus Christ into their heart? That question is not for us to answer. It is only for God to know the answer. However, it is our concern that they understand Jesus’ words found in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Lethal Language

We’ve all heard that children’s adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Well, it’s not really true is it? Words really can hurt a person, not physically but deep inside they can leave scars that stick with us. They can be lethal to us and to our souls.

Perhaps you have been at the receiving end of lethal words from a spouse or someone in authority. You know from personal experience, that the children’s saying about sticks and stones is not true.

Solomon in the book of Proverbs, made an astute observation of the power of words. Eugene Peterson, in his version of The Message takes this proverb and writes it out this way in modern English, “Rash language cut and maim but there is healing in the words of the wise.”

I have been doing a short sermon series entitled “Soul Detox.” Last week I talked about each one of us having a soul. Jesus told us to be careful with those souls. He said, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?” The soul is something to be taken care of, not to be taken lightly. So we are doing some soul searching, soul maintenance, and, perhaps, some soul restoration, by looking at some of the toxins, poisons, and pollutants that can damage our souls when they find their way inside of us.

One of those poisons that can ruin a soul is lethal language or toxic words. Here are a few samples of toxic words that can hurt.

“You’re a loser.”

“You’ll never add up to anything.”

“I’m sorry I ever married you.”

“You’re no good.”

“Can’t you do anything right?”

“You’re chubby.”

“You’re stupid.”

“I never loved you.”

“You’ll never change.”

“You are such a disappointment to me.”

“You are a real pain in the rear end.”

“Why can’t you be more like your brother?”

“You were a mistake, I wish I’d never had you.”

Ouch! And oftentimes, when these words get tossed in our direction, they do pierce, cut and maim. They are internalized inside of us, and, just as Proverbs says, we get wounded. These words eventually can, as they reside within us, fill us with bitterness, resentment, poor self-esteem, make us distant in our relationships, negative, critical. They might even cause us to use the same words on others. It can be deadly for these words to make their home inside of us.

Gordon McDonald, a wonderful Christian author, writes in his book, “Order in Your Private World” about a couple coming into his office for marriage counseling. The wife was asking her husband to leave home. When I asked her why, she said it was the only possible way there would be any peace or normal life for the rest of the family. There was no infidelity, no single issue, she simply wasn’t prepared to live with him the rest of his life given his temperament and value system. Of course, he did not want to leave and was shocked she came to this conclusion. He said, “I’ve been a faithful provider. The kids have everything they want, so do you. Besides aren’t we Christians? Pastor, can’t you help me solve this problem?”

The story slowly emerged as we talked. It became clear that I was visiting with a driven man and his wife. His driven-ness was costing a marriage, a family, and his physical health. That marriage was virtually dead. The family was in ruin. His health was in jeopardy as he told me of ulcers, migraine headaches, and occasional chest pains. He was the successful owner of a business, but he admitted giving in to explosive anger in times of conflict. He could be abrasive and intimidating in relationships. In social situations he was usually bored and tended to withdraw and drink too much. However, he was materially successful. He had great tickets to Red Sox games and a good job that was providing for his family.

After several conversations, I began to gain new insights into the energy source that was driving this man in a way of life that was destroying everything around him. In the midst of one of our talks, I asked him about his father. Suddenly his mood became dramatically altered. Anyone could have sensed that I had abruptly uncovered a deeply sensitive matter. What slowly unfolded was a story of deep pain. His father, I learned, was a man given to extreme sarcasm and ridicule. He had regularly told his son, “You’re a bum. You’ll always be a bum and nothing better.” Those words had become emblazoned like a neon sign in the center of this man’s private world. Now here he was in his early forties unconsciously trying to disprove the label given to him by his father. Words, words destroy.

A Christian woman named Christin Ditchfield, in her book called “A Way with Words,” tells of going to visit her grandmother for the weekend. When her mom and dad dropped her off at the front door, she walked in to grandma’s house only to find her with a group of friends praying around her, laying hands on her, and hugging her. Grandma was sobbing violently. After the friends had left, she came to Christin and explained to her that she was letting go of a hurt from the past. God had put His finger on a wound in her heart that needed to be healed. It was a burden from which she needed to be set free.

Still teary, she went on to say how she realized that morning that she had been holding on to a hurt ever since she was a little girl. It had haunted her all of her life. Once, in a fit of anger, her mother told her that she was a mistake and should never have been born. Her mother had not been a very sentimental woman, kind of a stiff upper lip. And this happened long before she knew Jesus.

Ditchfield wrote, “I doubt it would have ever occurred to her, the anguish that her careless words could cause, but more than sixty years later, the pain was still so fresh that her daughter could hardly breathe. For decades her mother’s words had hounded her. They robbed her of any sense of joy or satisfaction in her accomplishments. She’d become a national champion swimmer in her teens, an ambulance driver during World War II, and a beloved wife, mother and grandmother. She was active, reaching younger women in the church to mentor them. Yet at times when my grandmother was vulnerable, the devil used her mother’s words to convince her that she was utterly worthless. She had been wounded by those words.”

The world is full of people who have had their hopes shattered, their dreams dashed, their self-image left in shambles. They’ve been crippled or stifled or silenced by hurtful words. Toxic words drove both of these individuals into very unhappy lives.

So how does we get healed if someone has dumped that kind of poison into your life? Solomon said that while reckless words can wound like a sword, words of the wise have power to heal. We need wisdom. Who wiser would we turn to than the God who made us and knows what makes our lives work and who loves us? This God has a word for us in His holy Word. He is much wiser that any wisdom of the world. In fact, according to St. Paul, His foolishness is even wiser than human wisdom. So, we should listen to God’s Word if we are looking to be healed.

I invite you to let God’s Word minister to you if you’ve had toxic words thrown in your direction. Listen to them, claim them, and believe them. In the book of Genesis, it says you were created in the image of God. That means that you were the crown of His creation. You are loved and made for a personal relationship with God. You are of more value than many sparrows, as Jesus said. You were also died for, according to Scripture. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Put your own name in there, like I’ll put in mine. God so loved “Steve” that He gave His own Son. That Son died for me Ð and for you Ð at the cross. God loves you that much! That’s how valuable you are to Him.

The apostle Paul says that when we trust in Him, we are a new creation, called to be His ambassador Ð we have a high purpose placed upon us in Christ. You, who are a representative of Jesus Christ in this world, have no higher calling in life than that.

The apostle Paul also says that you are a masterpiece, created for good works that God has prepared for you. In John’s first letter he says, “. . . and so we are children of God” (I John 3:1). Children of God. Precious to Him!

If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, and I certainly hope you are, then I appeal to you this day, claim these precious truths for yourself. Let go of that old junk and claim these things. Tape these words on your bathroom mirror or on your refrigerator door, and tell them to yourself over and over and over again in your self-talk:

I am created in God’s image. I am died for.

I am a new creation in Christ. I am a masterpiece.

Let these words from your wise God who loves you become your truth.

How do we learn to guard our hearts against toxic words that get thrown at us? How do we guard our hearts so that words don’t imprison us and destroy us within? Well, the truth is, we can’t control what others say about us, but we can control what we choose to believe. Countless times a day, when it comes to what you hear, you have choices to make. Do I believe this or not? Do I accept it or do I reject it?

I invite you to try this little exercise. It’s called “Truth or Trash.” When someone has said something to you or about you, take time to analyze the message and the source before swallowing and digesting it. Ask these questions of yourself: Are their words true? Are they based on Scripture? Are they supported by data over time? Does this person sincerely love me?

If there is some truth in their words, whether they be some critiques or encouragement, then embrace them and act upon them. But if the words are untrue, mean-spirited, non-scriptural, and critical without being constructive, then call them for what they are TOXIC WASTE! Reject them. Don’t let those words in. Take out the trash and leave it by the curb. Hit the delete button and walk away from it.

Also, remember that you don’t have to deal with these words alone. God has given us each other, the Christian community to remind us of God’s truths. We are to be encouragers with one another and to reflect God’s love to one another. I encourage you, when someone throws something in your direction, to turn to a mature, reliable brother or sister in Christ, someone you respect, and ask this question of them: “You know me. Is this true of me?”

So how is your soul these days? Are there lethal words sticking inside of you and inside your soul? How are you taking care of your soul? I encourage you this day to take out the trash and leave it out. Take it out to the curb and choose instead to feed your soul the wise, life-giving Word of God. After all, He is the true lover of your soul.

How’s Your Soul These Days?

One day Jesus was teaching His disciples, and He said to them a very important statement that we have in our text and need to keep in mind. Jesus is concerned about the soul of the individual. In this statement He is saying that it is more valuable than all the world put together.

Jesus is concerned about our souls. Again and again in Scripture He refers to it. For instance, with the crowd that was listening one day, He said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble and you will find rest for your souls.”

Before Jesus sent the disciples out two by two to do some evangelizing, He said these words, “Don’t be afraid those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Jesus was concerned about the soul.

Jesus’ concern for the soul probably goes back to Genesis chapter 2 where it tells us we were all created with a soul. God formed Adam from a lump of clay, and then breathed into it, and it became a living soul.

When we’re talking about soul, we’re talking about our inner person. It is the hidden spiritual side of an individual, which includes our thoughts and our feelings along with our heart and will. It makes me who I am. Our soul sets us apart from every other living creature and makes us unique. It is eternal and not to be ignored, but instead worthy of great care, according to Jesus.

Back in the 1700s there was a new movement in the Christian faith started by John Wesley called Methodism. He was very big on small groups. Those in small groups would always ask each other the question: How is it with your soul? That’s a very good question to ask, isn’t it? When was the last time someone asked you, “How is it with your soul?” Well, why do you suppose Jesus, His Heavenly Father, and John Wesley all pay such attention to our souls and ask us to be careful with them?

Well, the truth is, our souls are exposed daily to contaminants and toxins in this world that can do it damage. There is a roaring lion that prowls around our world seeking to destroy our souls. He can use the toxins in this world to ruin us in ways we are not even aware of.

Craig Groeschel, in his book, “Soul Detox,” tells of growing up in a household where his parents both smoked two packs a day. He said, “When I was a kid, I never noticed the smell that was on my clothes or in my hair. I just figured that’s the way people lived, until I went off to college and lived in a nonsmoking environment. When I came back home that first Christmas break, I couldn’t believe the smell in my home. The walls that I thought were white were actually kind of yellowy. And the air was filled with a haze from all the smoke. When I got back to college after break, my roommate didn’t even want to let me into the room. That was a real eye-opener for me. I was living in that smoke, not even realizing how it was impacting me.

“Then later on, they began to do studies on what damage second-hand smoke can do to my lungs. Here I had been breathing in all these toxins that could be doing damage to my health.

“Likewise, we live unaware of the forces around us that can stunt our spiritual growth and impact our faith, such things as toxic relationships, media that we watch and listen to, and behaviors in our culture that have become the norm. It’s easy to get desensitized to what’s wrong and displeasing to our holy God.”

Have you ever thought to ask yourself a question as you watch a television show or a movie, I wonder if Jesus would enjoy this? Have you ever stopped to consider that what we’re laughing at in a comedy, for instance, is actually breaking the heart of God as He worries about our souls? Perhaps you’ve heard the old analogy about the frog in a boiling kettle. If you were to put a frog in a pan of water and turn on the stove, he would not even notice the water as it became hotter, eventually boiling the life right out of him.

Every now and then we hear about a Christian celebrity who has a moral failing with finances or in their sexual life. Behind those stories, however, is a story of pollution gradually taking over in a person’s inner life. That person becomes so full of himself and is unable to see the difference between what’s good and what’s harmful, what’s pleasing and what’s not pleasing to God. Everything we allow into our hearts and our minds has an impact on how we grow or don’t grow spiritually. Our souls can be in danger of absorbing more and more lethal poison if we don’t monitor what’s coming in and adjust our intake. It’s like the old computer adage: Garbage in Ð Garbage out.

The most important danger of all is that this garbage can ruin our relationship with God and drive us away from the source of life, our heavenly Father. We could become like the prodigal son who decided he didn’t want to live with his father any longer.

This garbage can also ruin our testimony as people of God. King Solomon, in the book of Proverbs, talks about the person who falls and gives way to the wicked. He describes him as a polluted fountain or a muddied stream, and then what good is he to anybody? He has ruined his testimony to Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if your saltiness gets lost, what good is it?” It’s good for nothing except to be thrown on a path and trampled into the ground.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a muddied stream or a ruined fountain. I love Jesus and I want to make a difference for Him. If you ask Him into your heart, rivers of living water will flow out of it. I want to be a fresh water person who refreshes and is useful to God and others around me. I want to be the salt of the earth, helping to keep the world from deteriorating, bringing it life, and keeping it alive.

For the next few weeks, we’re going to do a little soul care Ð soul detox. We’ll talk about how to care for our souls. Just like some people go to the health spa to get a body detox now and then, so our souls need detoxification. God, through His holy Word, will restore us and renew us. Consider it a spiritual intervention of sorts, something to challenge us out of complacency into a new and pure-focused kind of living. You can consider it a jump start to renew your soul and energize your growth in your relationship with God. If you are tired of going two steps forward and sliding three steps back, this can help.

How is it with your soul these days? Are you growing closer to God? Are you making a difference, shining like a light and being salt to those around you? It’s time to come clean Ð if you are tired of the stain of sinful habits discoloring your life and you long to breathe fresh air of the Spirit again, to live in the holiness of God, if you would love to detoxify your soul of the guilt, fear, and regrets that get in the way of your relationship with God, I encourage you to get some soul care. Join me in doing an honest inventory and looking at the pollutants that can corrupt our spiritual lives. It’s time for us to open our eyes, our hearts, and our minds to the cleansing power of God’s truth. Our tool for this is going to be God’s holy Word, sharper than any two-edged sword Ð like a surgical instrument, piercing, dividing the soul from the spirit, joint from marrow, judging thoughts and intentions of the heart. If you desire to detoxify your soul and renew your faith, I ask you to do one thing for me today: participate in a special prayer asking for God’s help, because God is the only one who can fix our souls.

This prayer was written by King David who really messed up his life. He had an adulterous affair with a married woman who became pregnant. Then, to protect his own reputation, he had her husband killed in the front line of battle. David thought it was all taken care of, until one day a spokesperson for God said to him, “David, God knows exactly what you’ve been up to. And He is so disappointed. After all He’s done for you, now you break His Word like this. How could you?” David came clean, and he wrote this prayer, which I invite you to pray with me:

Dear God,

Create in me a pure heart and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Amen.

If you prayed that prayer from your heart, now think about the image of the cross. God desires to clean us up. He loves us so much that He gave His Son to die so our sin-sick souls could be healed and cleansed. God specializes in cleansing hearts and souls and breathing fresh air into toxic lives. He will answer our prayer to create in us a clean heart as we take His holy Word for the next few weeks to look at how we might take care of our souls.

Live Better Connected

I am absolutely convinced that we live better connected, for it is how we were hardwired.

We were created, first of all, to be connected to the God who made us. Without that relationship, something is lacking. In the Old Testament we read, “as a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul thirsts for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1). In the days of the early church, St. Augustine wrote, “God placed a vacuum in every person that only He can fill.” Many, perhaps, can identify with these statements when they have gone their own way and find themselves feeling spiritually empty, for we were created for a connection with God.

We were also created to live connected to one another. In the book of Genesis, after God created Adam, He said it is not good for man to be alone, so He created Eve to be Adam’s companion. God knew we live better connected.

King Solomon wrote, “Two are better than one. Two can withstand the onslaught of any attack. Two can keep each other warm.” Being connected has many advantages.

God has given us a vital connection to better enjoy these first two connections. Jesus speaks about that connection in our text. Jesus is telling us that we live better connected to Him Ð the Son of God. I am the true vine that gives us a life with God. I am the true vine that gives us a life filled with wonder, adventure and beyond comparison. Jesus is the true vine. We can connect our lives to many other vines, but Jesus is the true vine.

This is our core conviction at Christian Crusaders. Jesus is the life-giving connection for each and every person. He can change an individual’s life, for instance, as He wipes away our guilt and helps us let go of the past. As we ponder the burdens of our soul, Jesus points us to the cross and tells us, “I have taken away all your sins. I have paid for them. It’s all been taken care of. You are forgiven. You are a child of God.”

Jesus takes away our fears that can overcome us and make us people of hopeful confidence as we look to the future. He reminds us when it comes to our mortality, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, I would I have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3).

Not only does Jesus, this life-giving Connection, give us a new outlook on the past and on the future, He also has the power to bring about change in our character and in our personality. “You will bear fruit! Much fruit.”

If you were to ask someone close to you about your quirks, they would probably be able to list a number of things. In fact, if you were to ask your spouse that question, you might need some marital counseling. I remember a wife saying to her husband, “The problem with you is you’re so temperamental Ð 90% temper and 10% mental!”

Well, Jesus came into this world to do something about that issue. He tells us that if we stay connected to Him, we will bear fruit. He is talking about the fruit of the Spirit Ð love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. How enriching our relationships would be if we had all those qualities! The Holy Spirit works those qualities within us, little by little, to conform us to His image. Slowly our behavior, our attitudes, and our thinking become more like Jesus.

Rick Warren, in his book, The Purpose-Driving Life wrote, “God’s number one purpose in your life is to make you like Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to make the child of God more like the Son of God.” I heard someone else say, “God loves you just as you are, but He loves you too much to leave you that way.” God has better ideas for your life, and if we want those kinds of changes in our life, Jesus tells us we need to abide in Him, for apart from Him, we can do nothing.

Jesus calls us to cling to Him. A statement out of Christianity Today says, “For too long, we have called on unbelievers to invite Jesus into your life. Jesus doesn’t want to be in your life. Your life’s a wreck! Jesus calls you into His life. And His life isn’t boring or purposeless or static. It’s wild and exhilarating and unpredictable.”

Abiding in Jesus Christ means we absorb Him into our lives by dwelling in His Word and recognizing that He’s with us. It means to call upon Him and enjoy the pleasure of His company. In God’s Word we find Jesus’ words of correcting and forgiveness, teaching and strengthening. He enlightens us to live the life God intended for us in the first place. We live better connected to the true vine, Jesus Christ.

Now what I’ve also discovered is that, as Christ’s followers, we live better connected to each other. The best way to keep the life-changing connection with Christ flowing is to gather around the Word of God, perhaps in a small group. Take time to read Scripture together and discuss it. Go to a Christian bookstore and buy a Bible study book, then invite someone to take that pilgrimage with you and meet regularly around the Word of God. Discuss its effect as you apply it in your daily life. You’ll be amazed what a difference it can make in your life and in your growth in Christ Jesus!

Hundreds of people in my congregation have taken a step to join a small group. I hear all the time about the blessings they receive through these groups. One fellow told me that when his wife asked him to join a small group Bible study, he went with the intention of trying it out, but never going back. “I thought I’d let her kick and scream to try to get me back, but she never had to. Ten years later, my Bible study friends are truly some of my closest friends. It’s been fun, life-changing, and eye-opening.”

Another friend of mine writes, “My faith has grown tremendously through my small group. I’ve learned how much God loves me. He forgives my imperfections and wants me to reach out to others. As a result, recently I took a risk and shared my faith with a good friend who doesn’t know Jesus.”

Another person said, “Through my small group, I have learned that God doesn’t want us to go it alone in life. He wants to bless us with supportive friends who can keep us accountable and enhance our journey toward eternity with Him.”

Maybe you are traveling down the highway with Jesus toward your destination of heaven. I encourage you to try the car pool lane with a small group. In the car pool lane you find friends to watch for bad weather and redirect you on the right road if you get lost along the way. They make the journey so much more exciting and meaningful. Again and again, people have been discovering life is lived better connected.

Do you have someone in your life with whom you could sit down with the Word of God, hold each other accountable, read through the Gospels, meet and pray for one another? It can be a life-giving connection in your life with Jesus Christ.

Jesus says, “Abide in me and you will bear much fruit.” My appeal this day to you is to choose to live better connected. For some of you, it might be the first time you surrender your life to Christ’s care. I encourage you to do it right now.

For others who are already made clean by His Word, Jesus is calling you to remain committed to His holy Word. Find a fellow traveler or two and start a discussion group on God’s Word. Go to church and hear God’s Word proclaimed. Be a person who is connected to Christ, and you will discover for yourself, life is better connected.