From Good To Great

From Good to Great

Acts 9:1-6

Dr. Jim Denison

On April 17, AD 29, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. On Easter Sunday he rose from the grave, and the rest is history. History we continue today. But so much has changed since then.

I read this week about a car remote now available. It will start your car from a quarter-mile away so the air conditioner will cool the car before you have to drive in the Texas heat. My first car didn’t have an air conditioner. My second car’s air conditioner worked great until it got hot outside. Much has changed.

The movie Phone Booth is popular these days. I’ve neither seen it nor recommend it. But it’s ironic that phone booths in real life are disappearing quickly, as the newspaper recently reported. Said the article: “It’s as if the movie Speed was about a runaway stagecoach.”

So much has changed since that first Easter Sunday. But so much has not.

We’re still afraid of death, even more so with terror alerts. Lincoln Continental has produced a $140,000 Town Car which can stop an AK-47 and block a grenade. BMW has a car which can be hermetically sealed in a gas attack. Full-metal jackets can be put on Cadillac Escalades and Hummer H2s, for $30,000 to $350,000. Breathing masks are common in Hong Kong and Toronto.

Much has not changed. We still want our lives to have meaning, significance, and purpose. But where do we look for them?

Refuse the seduction of secondary success

Let’s consider the wrong answer first. Woodrow Wilson said, “Many men are seduced by secondary success.” Words worth pondering.

My sermon’s title comes from a recent business bestseller: Good to Great. Says the author: “Good is the enemy of great.” Good schools prevent great schools; good government prevents great government; good lives prevent great lives. The seduction of secondary success.

I fear that God feels the same way about our society today. There was a time when we needed religion to give life meaning and significance. But in the last century, Darwinism taught Americans that we don’t need religion to explain our natural lives and world. Freud taught us that we don’t need religion to explain our emotional and psychological lives. Science and medicine have all the answers, or soon will. So what’s left for church?

Today we use religion to serve us. We use the spiritual to make us feel better about our secular lives, to give us peace, to help us get ahead. To meet our needs, to serve our agenda, to help us find success.

We’re not the first: “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (v. 1).

“Breathing out” means that “murderous threats” were the air he was breathing, the atmosphere in which he was living. Why?

Because “Lord’s disciples,” to his mind was a malignant tumor which must be removed from the soul of Judaism. He would be the surgeon who would save his people and their faith from this malice.

So he went to Damascus, 150 miles to the north, walking from here to Waco. He held in his hand “letters,” extradition warrants to bring any Christians he might find in Damascus back to Jerusalem for trial and execution. And he was on his way.

This man desperately wanted a life of significance. He could see the high priest personally; can you get an appointment with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? He was a Pharisee, the elite corps of Judaism; a scholar trained by Gamaliel, their finest theologian.

But it wasn’t enough. Now he would be known as the man who saved Israel from these malicious Christians. He would do this for God. He would achieve greatness in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. He was seduced by secondary success, but didn’t know it.

He’s not the last.

Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has written a fascinating exploration titled The Secular Mind. In it he quotes the poet William Carlos Williams, who knew a woman born in Italy who raised her family in America. She “told me a few weeks ago that it’s become different going to church here than it was when she was in Italy and when she first came here. She used to sit there and talk to God, and try to figure out what he wanted, and try to please him. Now, she says, she mostly thinks about what’s going on in her life, in her kids’ lives, and she asks God to make it better.

“She said to me, ‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave…but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours! It used to be, when I prayed to God, I was talking to him; now… I’m only asking him to help out with things'” (103).

And so our society comes to church on Easter and other Sundays to keep religious tradition, to be spiritual, to get God’s blessing, to ask God to “help out with things.” Why did you come this morning? Why am I preaching this sermon?

Experience the Easter encounter

Now comes the most famous conversion in Christian history.

It was “about noon,” Paul would later say (Ac 26.13).

He saw “a light from heaven.” Later he would describe it as “above the brightness of the sun” (Acts 26:13). In other words, a miracle, not a natural phenomenon.

It “flashed around him.” The Greek is clear: this happened specifically to Paul. God had his spotlight on him, as he has it on each of us today.

Then Paul “heard a voice”—the Greek means that he heard with understanding.

The others heard the sound but did not understand it or see anyone (v. 7). This call was specifically and personally for Paul, as is God’s call for each one of us. No one else can hear God’s will for you. God speaks a “language of the heart” which you alone can understand.

He knew it was God: “Who are you, Lord?” “Lord,” kurios, God and King. Then came the shock that would change his life forever: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” “I am Jesus”—he is alive. His church is his body “whom you are persecuting.”

And this “Lord” had a purpose for him: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (v. 6).

Here is the moment of decision, the crisis of life and soul.

Commentator William Barclay: “There is all of Christianity in what the Risen Christ said to Paul…Up to this moment Paul had been doing what he liked, what he thought best, what his will dictated. From this time forward he would be told what to do. The Christian is a man who has ceased to do what he wants to do and who has begun to do what Christ wants him to do” (71, emphasis his).

Remember what the Italian grandmother said: “‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave…but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours!'”

Paul would do what God wanted him to do. God would no longer be a means to his end, but his life a means to God’s. And you know the results.

This morning you and I face the same decision. What will you do with the risen Christ?

Religion as a means to your end? Easter worship as a tradition to make you feel good or spiritual? Christianity to help you with your problems, to help your life succeed?

Or will you “go into the city” and do as you are told? Will you make the risen Lord the Lord of your every day? Will you meet him every morning in Bible study and prayer, to get your directions for the day? Will you serve him in witness and ministry? Will you worship him each Sunday and each day?

Will it be God for you, or you for God?

Meet him today

We know what we should do, that the risen Lord should be our Lord every day. But someone is saying this morning, I have plenty of time. I can do this later.

My friend and fellow church member Robert Riggs was a reporter in Iraq during the war. He was embedded with a Patriot missile battery. One day, two fighter pilots on a bombing run to Baghdad picked up the Patriots as Iraqi surface-to-air missiles, and launched two missiles at them. But a technician inadvertently pushed a switch which caused the Patriot battery to project its radar signature 75 yards to the north, so that’s where the missiles landed. That’s why Robert is still alive.

The Bible says, “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). No one is promised another day.

Someone else says, It’s too late. I’ve done too much wrong—God can’t use my life.

Robert gave me the story of James Kiehl, one of the soldiers baptized in the desert of Kuwait on March 12, before the war began. He told Robert his life had been anything but spiritual, that he had made many wrong choices. Before he left, his stepmother told him he was facing a crossroads, and he needed to make the right decision. There in the desert, a fellow soldier led him to Christ. Robert told me the change in James’ life was immediate and joyous. His baptism in that hole dug in the desert and filled with bottled water was a true celebration. James was a member of the 507th Maintenance Company which was ambushed—the same unit Jessica Lynch and the five POWs who were found and released were members. James fought, but was killed. He’s in heaven today. And God is using his life and story this morning.

If God could use Paul, the murderer of Christians, it’s not too late for you.

Someone else says, I cannot serve Jesus. I don’t know how. I don’t have opportunities. It’s too hard.

My friend and fellow church member Abraham Sarker came to the United States as a Muslim, seeking to convert others to Islam. Through a series of miracles, he came to faith in Christ. His father disowned him back home in Bangladesh, and put out a warrant for his arrest should he ever return. A few months ago Abraham and his wife Aimee went back anyway. And Abraham led his father to Christ.

The same Lord who commissioned us to “make disciples of all nations” also promised, “I will be with you always” (Matthew 28:20).

And someone else says, I don’t need God’s help. I’m doing just fine. You have all the Jesus you want. Christianity is a part of your life, like a Rotary Club. Are you saying that even though the Almighty Lord of the universe has a plan for your life, you don’t need to follow it? That you can do better with your life than your Creator, the God whose Son died to pay for your sins and rose on Easter to give you eternity in paradise?

Paul aspired to be the man who helped first-century Judaism remain pure. God aspired to make him the man who would change the world. Whose plan was better?


Now the risen Christ has come to Dallas, and to you. His spotlight is on you. His Spirit is calling your name. Will it be God for you, or you for God? Your life may be good this morning. Will it be great?

As you know, NBC reporter David Bloom died in Iraq on April 6 from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 39. Last Wednesday his colleagues paid tribute to his professional success. But there’s more to the story.

Two years ago, Bloom came to a personal relationship with the risen Christ, and started a very real faith journey. In Iraq, he had been listening each day to Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost For His Highest. That day he heard the reading from April 5, which closes, “Every human being can get through into the presence of God now because of what the Son of Man went through.”

Moments later he climbed out of his tank, took a few steps, and collapsed. His last words were this e-mail he had just composed to his wife Melanie: “Here I am, supposedly at the peak of professional success, but I could, frankly, care less. It’s nothing compared to my relationship with you and the girls and Jesus. I’ll tell you Mel, I am at peace.”

He went from good to great. So can you.

How to Handle Doubts

How to Handle Doubts

John 20:24-31

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: Jesus will give every doubter who asks the miraculous gift of his presence

One of my favorite stories concerns a Baptist young man who went away to college and made himself obnoxious to his friends by bragging constantly about his Baptist heritage. According to him, everything about Baptists was right, and everyone else was wrong. That might have been tolerated at a Baptist college, but this wasn’t and most of his friends weren’t. They finally devised a plan to get even.

One Friday night they slipped some sleeping powder into their Baptist friend’s coffee. When he passed out, they loaded him into a car and drove him out of the city to a remote graveyard. They’d already done their work well. They had a large coffin there, with its lid open. They put their friend in the coffin and hid behind a nearby tombstone to see what would happen when he woke up.

For a long while, nothing happened. Night passed; dawn came. The sun began to rise and its long rays cast shadows through the mist collecting on the ground. And they were hiding and chuckling, “It won’t be long now.”

A moment later they heard a noise in the casket. Then they saw an arm come up and stretch itself. Then another arm. And then their Baptist friend sat up and looked around. And they were saying, “This is it. He’s going to look around, see where he is, scream and jump up and run out of the graveyard, and we’re going to laugh about it for the rest of our lives.”

Instead, the young Baptist looked around at the other grave plots and shouted, “Hallelujah! It’s the resurrection morning, and the Baptists are the first ones up!”

Easter is the highest and greatest day of the entire year. But a lot of people miss the celebration. In a recent survey, 46% of non-Christians said they didn’t even know why Christians observe Easter. This study will help.

On this Sunday after Easter, let’s meet a man for whom the resurrection occurred a week late. Thomas proves that it’s not too late for anyone to meet the risen Christ, no matter their doubts or fears. We know people who are struggling with their faith. And we know how doubts feel. What Jesus did for Thomas, he’s waiting this week to do for us.

Expect doubts (v. 24a)

Jesus made five appearances on the first Easter Sunday: to Mary Magdalene, to the other women, to the two on the road to Emmaus, to Peter, and then to the other Ten. He would make five other post-resurrection appearances over the next 40 days. But none was more significant than the event we’ll study this week.

Our story begins with the fact of spiritual doubt. The disciples had met on the first Easter “with the doors locked for fear of the Jews” (John 20.19). Now , a week later, their doors were still locked (v. 26). Their fear of the authorities was still very real. The same people who executed Jesus might be looking for them. The most dangerous place in Jerusalem was with these followers of the convicted and crucified carpenter. But Thomas joined them anyway. If a man of such courage could experience doubt, so will we.

Here is a person so committed to Jesus that he exhorted the other disciples to join him in following their Lord to Jerusalem, that they might die with him (John 11.16). He was the one disciple willing to admit his questions so that he might follow Jesus more fully (John 14.5). He was still “one of the Twelve” (v. 24), the term used for Jesus’ closest followers even after Judas’s death (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.5, Revelatiom 21.14). Doubts are not just for the weak.

In fact, they affect everyone. The Bible is filled with Doubting Thomases. Think of Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden, doubting God’s commandment regarding the forbidden fruit; Cain doubting God and slaying Abel; Abraham doubting God, and Sarah laughing at her Lord; Jacob wrestling with him all night; Moses doubting him at the burning bush; the children of Israel doubting him and wandering for a generation in the wilderness; Peter doubting Jesus and denying him three times.

Thomas was not the first to have spiritual doubts, or the last. Even after they met the risen Lord, “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28.16-17). Every one of us has been a Doubting Thomas at some point in our spiritual lives. Some of us are standing at his side today.

Frederick Buechner is right: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” We all have doubts. To doubt that statement is to have a doubt about doubts. Such questions are part of every human experience.

Questions about the faith are not confined to those who claim such faith. According to George Hunter, the most important issue keeping secular people from Christian faith is doubt. Secular people doubt the claims of God’s word, partly because of the plural truth claims confronting people today. They also doubt the intelligence, relevance, and credibility of the church and its leaders.

Historian Will Durant speaks for millions: “God, who was once the consolation of our brief life and our refuge in bereavement and suffering, has apparently vanished from the scene; no telescope, no microscope discovers Him. Nothing is certain in life except defeat and death, a sleep from which there is no awakening. Faith and hope disappear. Doubt and despair are the order of the day.”

F. W. Robertson was widely hailed as one of England’s greatest preachers. One of his church members said, “I cannot describe the strange sensation during his sermon of union with him and communion with one another which filled us as he spoke. Nor can I describe the sense we had of a higher Presence with us as he spoke—the sacred awe which filled our hearts—the hushed stillness in which the smallest sound was startling—the calm eagerness of men who listened as if waiting for a word of revelation to resolve the doubt or to heal the sorrow of a life.”

But that young preacher saw his life and work very differently. He once wrote, “I wish I did not hate preaching so much, but the degradation of being a preacher is almost intolerable. The pulpit has lost its place.”

To be sure, there are those whose faith never seems to waiver. I still remember my awe at reading about an episode in the life of George Muller, the famous preacher and orphanage founder. On one occasion Muller was crossing the Atlantic by ship, when the vessel ran into a fog. Mr. Muller informed the captain that he was required in Quebec on Saturday afternoon.

“Impossible,” said the captain. “Very well,” replied Muller, “if your ship cannot take me, God will find some other means. I have never broken an engagement in fifty-seven years.” “I would willingly help you,” said the captain, “but there’s nothing anyone can do.”

“Let us go to the chartroom and pray,” said Muller. “Do you know how dense the fog is?” asked the captain. “No,” was Muller’s answer. “My eye is not on the density of the fog but on the living God who controls every circumstance of my life.”

Together they went to the chartroom and Muller prayed, “O God, if it is consistent with Thy will, please remove the fog in five minutes. You know the engagement you made for me in Quebec on Saturday. I believe it is Your will that I make that appointment.” The captain was about to pray next, but Muller touched him on the shoulder and asked that he not. “First,” he said, “you do not believe He will; and second, I believe He has, so there is no need for you to pray about it.”

The captain looked amazed, so Muller continued, “Captain, I have known my Lord for fifty-seven years, and there has never been a single day that I have failed to gain an audience with Him. Get up and open the door. You will find the fog gone.” The captain opened the door. The fog had disappeared.

Some believers have faith which never seems to waiver. But most of us agree with Steve Brown: “If you’ve never had a question about your faith, then you probably don’t have much faith.”

Tennyson was right:

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Why are doubts so common to Christian faith? Because Christianity is relationship, and no relationship can be proven. Jesus said we are to love the Lord our God, and our neighbor as ourselves. It’s all relationship. And every relationship is founded on trust, on faith, never on sight. Seeing is never believing.

Prove that your wife or husband loves you. Prove that your friends care about you, that they’re not just using you. Prove that your parents loved you. All relationship, whether with God or anyone else, stands on trust. Seeing is not believing.

Tennyson was again perceptive on our subject:

Nothing worthy proving can be proven,

Nor yet disproven; wherefore be thou wise,

Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt.

So what do we do when we doubt our relationship with God? Not if, but when?

Get with God’s people (v. 24b)

Thomas wasn’t with the rest of the Twelve when the risen Lord first appeared to them. He missed the first Easter evening. My home church pastor once used that fact to point out the peril of missing church—you never know when Jesus will show up.

But to his credit, Thomas rejoined them soon after. And he was still with them the next Sunday evening when the resurrected Christ appeared to them again. To meet Jesus, he had to get with his people. We still do.

The church is quite literally the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12.12), his physical presence on earth today. We are his hands, his feet. But to be healthy, each part of the body must function well. The foot needs the hand, and the eyes the ears (1 Corinthians 12.14-20). Every image for the church in the New Testament is a collective metaphor—a body with many parts, a vine with many branches (John 15.1-8). Christianity was never meant to be sung as a solo. We cannot play football alone. Nor can we follow Jesus by ourselves. We need each other.

And so the first step to dealing with doubts about the Lord is to get with his people. When we forsake the family, we forsake the Father. But when we get with his family, we draw closer to him. It was with the other disciples that Thomas met his Lord. It is the same for us.

I once read of a church member who dropped out of worship attendance. After several weeks, his pastor paid him a visit. The evening was cold. The pastor found the man at home, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his pastor’s visit, the man welcomed him inside, led him to a big chair near the fireplace, and waited.

The pastor sat down but said nothing. In silence he contemplated the play of the flames around the burning logs. After many minutes had passed, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning coal, and placed it to one side of the fireplace all alone. He sat back in his chair, still silent.

His host watched all this in quiet fascination. As the one lone coal’s flame diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more. Soon it was cold and dead.

Not a word had been spoken since their initial greeting. Just before the pastor got ready to leave, he picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire, where it immediately burst to life with the fire of the burning coals around it. As the pastor reached the door, the man said, “Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday.”

A coal goes out alone; it stays aflame together with the other coals. So do we all.

The huge redwood trees of California are the largest living things on earth. Some are 300 feet tall and more than 2,500 years old. We would think such gigantic trees have a tremendous root system reaching hundreds of feet into the ground, but it’s not so. Their roots are very shallow. When our family visited the redwood forests two summers ago, I was amazed at how many of the roots run even along the ground surface.

Their secret is simple: redwood trees intertwine their roots with each other. They are locked together. Then when storms come, winds blow and lightning flashes, they stand together. They support and protect one another. One cannot fall, for the others hold it up. In the church it must be the same. We must hold each other up. Then when one struggles with faith, the others support and encourage. And we stand together.

Note that the disciples were as willing to stay with Thomas as he was willing to stay with them. They did not judge him for his doubts and skepticism. They did not reject him in his faith struggle. Nor does our Lord. In fact, he invites us: “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1.18). “Reason together” translates the Hebrew for “argue it out.” God wants us to be honest about our doubts, to admit them to the family and our Father. He welcomes our genuine issues, always.

It’s been said that the church is the only army which buries its wounded. It ought not be so. Most of those who are public skeptics today were initially private doubters. But they felt rejected by the faithful, their questions unwelcome, their issues unwanted.

When we have doubts about our Lord, we must go to his people. We will find his help in theirs, his love in their compassion. When members of our class or congregation struggle spiritually, we must go to them. We must initiate compassion and acceptance. They will wonder if we care about them. We must prove that we do, lest their coal go out and our fire diminish.

So expect to have doubts. Get with the family of faith as you seek the Father.

Be honest about your questions (v. 25)

It has been well said: “Most of us believe our doubts and doubt our beliefs. It is better to doubt our doubts and believe our beliefs.” But we must first know what our doubts are. We must get them out, express them in words, and be honest about them.

Verse 25 begins, “The other disciples told him.…” The Greek literally says, “The other disciples kept telling him” (Tenney 195). They repeated their experience for their doubting friend: “We have seen the Lord!” Note that they used the very language in the plural which Mary Magdalene had earlier used in the singular: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20.18). But these men had refused to believe her then (Robertson 315), just as Thomas didn’t believe them now.

He was blunt: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hands into his side, I will not believe it” (v. 25b). Thomas knew the details of our Lord’s death. Perhaps he witnessed the crucifixion itself, or heard the details from John or another eyewitness. But it is as likely that he heard the other disciples’ report of their earlier encounter with the risen Christ (20.20), or was simply familiar with the process of crucifixion.

And so Thomas wanted nothing more than that which the other disciples had already witnessed: : “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (John 20.19-20). He was no more a “doubting Thomas” than they were when they heard Mary’s witness. And she in turn doubted Jesus at first, thinking him to be the gardener (20.15). We all have our doubts.

This man wanted only to have first-hand experience with the risen Christ, the same encounter which had changed the lives of his friends. He was right—we must never accept second-hand faith. Because faith is relationship, it must be personal. Belief without experience is shallow and inadequate. We must each seek what Thomas wanted for himself.

Paul upbraided the immature Corinthian believers on this score. The apostle could only give them “milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it” (1 Corinthians 3.2). What is milk but digested food? The cow eats and digests what she eats so her calf can take the results. So many believers are living on digested spiritual food—God’s word through the pastor, the Sunday school teacher, or a commentary such as this one. Our souls need the food itself, the word of God from its Author. We need what Thomas wanted—first-hand experience and encounter with the risen Christ.

The believers in Berea are my favorite church in the book of Acts: “the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17.11). With this result: “Many of the Jews believed, as did a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (v. 12).

James Sullivan is right: “We must admire Thomas for his honesty. He would not claim that he believed so long as there were lingering doubts” (Sullivan 132). Neither should we. Our Lord wants us to be honest with him about our doubts and issues. The only wrong doubt is the one we don’t admit.

One side note: Thomas’s incredulity is proof that the resurrection was no illusion created by wish-fulfillment (Tenney 195). Skeptics have often suggested that the disciples wanted Jesus to rise from the dead so much that they imagined it so. Thomas’ doubts lay their doubts to rest.

Encounter Jesus personally (vs. 26-29)

“A week later the disciples were in the house again” (v. 26a). The Greek says, “after eight days,” a Jewish idiom meaning Sunday to Sunday inclusive (Hovey 406), specifically the next Sunday evening (Robertson 315). The disciples had waited a week with Thomas. Remember that Jesus had instructed them to leave Jerusalem after his resurrection as soon as possible to meet him in Galilee (Matthew 28.7, 10; Mark 16.7). Why their wait? Perhaps so Thomas could come to faith as they had come to faith (Hovey 407). They would leave no person behind. Neither should we.

Now they were in the same house, behind the same locked doors as on Easter evening. But no man-made door can bar the One who is the way, truth, and life (John 14.6). The only lock which can prevent his entrance is on the human heart. And theirs were unlocked.

So “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!'” (v. 26b). He had promised them such peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14.27). He gave such peace the week earlier to those gathered together (John 20.19, 20). Now he came again, specifically to bring his peace to a single doubt-torn heart.

Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (v. 27a). Think how it must have startled Thomas to hear his very words repeated to him (Tenney 195). But Jesus knew his doubts, as he knows ours. Milne is right: “The ‘other world’ of the Spirit is not beyond earshot” (303), a fact which should give us pause with every word we speak.

Several years ago, Janet and I spent part of a vacation in Hawaii snorkeling. I was astounded by the dazzling beauty of the world just below the surface of the water. Fish of spectacular color and coral reefs forming all manner of unique shapes lived in a world of water only two feet from my world of air. The fish had no idea that our world even exists, much less that we can see theirs from ours. But we can.

Thomas needed physical evidence for the resurrection, so Jesus offered it: “Put your finger here.” His post-resurrection body was very real. The King James Version mistranslates John 20.17 to quote Jesus, “Touch me not.” The NIV is correct: “Do not hold onto me.” Jesus could walk through locked doors, a miracle impossible for normal physical bodies. And yet he could meet physical needs with his physical presence when necessary.

We must not criticize Thomas for needing such evidence, for the other disciples required it earlier: “‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he said to them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence” (Luke 24.38-43).

Such physical reality sustained the faith of Jesus’ first followers, and became part of their enduring witness: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1.1-2). Twenty centuries of faith has stood on the physical fact of Jesus’ resurrection, an event without which there is no faith to hold. In fact, without Easter “we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15.19).

On the factual basis of his resurrection our Lord could now say to his struggling disciple, “Stop doubting and believe.” The Greek is much more informative than the English: “stop becoming an unbeliever and become a believer” (Tenney 195; cf. Robertson 316). There is a word play in Jesus’ statement: stop “apistos” (“one without faith”) and “pistos” (“be one who believes”). This is the only time “apistos” and “pistos” appear in John’s Gospel (Carson 657), but not the only time they have lived in the same soul.

This man had been willing to die with Jesus before (John 11.16). He had been a believer. But Jesus’ death had started him on the road to unbelief. Most who walk away from God do so in stages. Pentecost had not yet come; the Spirit had not yet made any human into the permanent child of God (cf. Romans 8.9). So “Jesus halted Thomas on the road to a despairing unbelief and offered him the positive evidence he could build an enduring faith on” (Tenney 195).

With this result: “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!'” (v. 28). “Said” shows that these words were not the vocative, so that the NIV is wrong with its exclamation mark. Rather, they were a simple and profound statement of faith: “You are my Lord and my God” (Beasley-Murray 385).

Note the personal commitment. Thomas did not call Jesus “the” Lord and God or even “our” Lord and God, but “my” Lord and “my” God. His words are literally, “The Lord of me and the God of me.” Martin Luther taught that the most important word of the 23rd Psalm is the little word, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Thomas’s faith declaration was blasphemy for a Jew. He made Jesus not just the Messiah, or even the Son of God, but God himself (Tenney 195). In uttering these words, the doubting disciple made “the most powerful and complete confession of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel” (O’Day 850). The eminent Johannine scholar Raymond Brown calls this statement “the supreme christological pronouncement of the Fourth Gospel” (1047).

This is the only time in the Bible that we find this exact statement of faith; the closest is Psalm 35.23, “My God and my Lord” (Brown 1047). What is more, Thomas is the only person in all the gospel of John to call Jesus by the title “God” (Hobbs, Study Guide 93). As we will see, most scholars believe that John originally intended to end his gospel with the 20th chapter, so that Thomas’s words would have been the last words spoken by a disciple to Jesus in this gospel, and the highest faith statement in the entire book.

The great English preacher F. B. Meyer gave Thomas his due: “Ah, Thomas, in that glad outburst of thine, thou reached a higher level than all the rest; and thou art not the last man, who has seemed a hopeless and helpless wreck, unable to exercise the faith that seemed so natural to others; but who, after a time, under the teaching of Jesus, has been enabled to assume a position to which none of his associates could aspire!” (391).

Thomas’s declaration became basic to the first Christians’ faith commitment. Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of the province of Bithynia for two or three years around A.D. 110, wrote several letters reporting his decisions to the emperor Trajan in Rome. In one of these letters he described what he had learned about the “Christians”:

“They were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a fixed day, when they would recite in turn a hymn to Christ as to a god, and would bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal act but rather that they would not commit any theft, robbery or adultery, nor betray any trust nor refuse to restore a deposit on demand. This done, they would disperse, and then they would meet again later to eat together (but the food was quite ordinary and harmless).”

Thomas was not the last to call Jesus his “God.” But he may have been the first.

When the inevitable doubts come, we must expect and admit them. We take them to our fellow believers, seeking the Father in his family. We pray, search the Scriptures, and search for the Lord. And he finds us.

What Jesus did for Thomas, he now waits to do for us: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed'” (v. 29). “You have believed” is in the perfect tense, showing an action which has begun and now continues (Hovey 408). Thomas now has the same present-tense faith we all need.

And the same faith we can each have. Those who “have not seen” can still believe. We can stand on the witness of those who saw and touched the Lord, and know that he will see and touch us. John wrote these words to include an entire generation which came to life after Jesus’ return to glory, including them in its promise.

Now we say with Paul, “We live by faith, not sight” (2 Corinthians 5.6-7). Peter could encourage his readers: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1.8-9).

When we trust Christ by faith we are “blessed.” This promise is the last beatitude to be found in the gospels (Howard 799), and one of only two in John’s gospel (cf. John 13.16-17; Carson 659). It promises joy which transcends all circumstances, for all who make Thomas’s “Lord and God” their own.

This man who sought the same first-hand experience we all need would spend the rest of his life giving it to us. He was with the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 1.13). After the Spirit filled his life and soul he became a missionary for his Lord. Reliable tradition teaches that Thomas eventually made his way to India, where he is still considered that church’s patron saint. St. Thomas Mount is named for him there. Legend suggests that Thomas worked as a carpenter for King Gundaphorus, where he built a “palace” for the king, not with wood but words. When the king wanted to see his mansion, Thomas assured him he would see it when he departed this life (Barclay 278).

One day “Doubting Thomas” would see his own: “The walls of the city had twelve foundations, and on them twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Revelation 21.14). Of these Thomas was one. His name is on the foundation of the City of God today.

As it was for him, so it can be for any of us. Robert Robinson was an English clergyman of two centuries ago. In addition to his gifts as pastor and preacher, he was a wonderful poet and hymn writer. But after many years in the ministry, his faith and life began to drift. He left the ministry and traveled to France, where he sank further into sin and lost his assurance.

One night he was riding in a carriage with a Parisian socialite who had recently become a believer. She was reading some poetry to him and asked, “And what do you think of this one?” Then she read,

Come thou Fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing thy grace.

Streams of mercy never ceasing

Call for hymns of loudest praise.

When she looked at him, she saw that he was crying. “What do I think of it?” he asked in a broken voice. “I wrote it; but now I’ve drifted away from him and can’t find my way back.” “But don’t you see?” said the woman, “the way back is written right here in the third line of your poem: ‘Streams of mercy never ceasing.’ Those streams are flowing even here in Paris tonight.”

Robinson recommitted his life to Christ and regained his assurance of faith. Those streams of mercy now flow to you and to your class, this very week.

Share what you find (vs. 30-31)

The epilogue to our story is also epilogue to our study of miracles. It seems likely that John at first intended to close his gospel with these words, but then added the 21st chapter. We know John 21 to be written in the same style as the previous 20 chapters; no manuscript of John’s gospel exists without it (Bruce 867; Robertson 317). But John 21 builds on John 20, which ends with the apostle’s own enduring statement of faith and purpose.

John documented that “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book” (v. 30). Later he added, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21.25). But these “miraculous signs” were recorded for a purpose: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (v. 31).

“You may believe” is best translated “you may keep on believing” (Robertson 317). John’s readers were most likely already believers living in Asia Minor, so that this book was written to encourage and spread their faith (Hovey 409; Carson admits that most scholars agree, though he argues that the book was more intentionally evangelistic, 661).

When John’s readers continue to believe, they “continue to have life” (Robertson 317). We have our eternal life “in his name,” drawing on his account, claiming his merit and mercy. And all who ask, receive.

John’s purpose statement applies to each of the miracles we have studied across this series.

•Our Lord turned water into wine, proving that he always meets the needs we trust to his care.

•He healed a nobleman’s son, as he heals our hurts today.

•He cured the paralytic, as he cures our bodies and souls.

•He calmed the seas and the souls of his followers, as he still does.

•He opened a blind man’s eyes, as he opens our hearts.

•He raised Lazarus to life, as his Easter resurrection gives life to us all.

Each miracle was documented by John, Jesus’ best friend, to encourage us to be his friends and followers as well. None fulfills its purpose until we meet the One who works miracles still.

Now you and I stand before people in need of a miracle. They need to be healed physically, emotionally, or spiritually. They need to be loved and to love. They need to know that God cares when the world does not. In the hardest places of life, they need the miraculous presence only Jesus can give. He walked through locked doors to say to his frightened followers, “Peace be with you.” Now he waits to walk through the door of your heart to your class, to speak his peace to and through you this week.

This is the promise, and the miracle, of God.

How To Pray For Your Kids

How to Pray for Your Kids

Matthew 6:9-15

Dr. Jim Denison

Today we celebrate with our graduates and their families as they near a most significant achievement and milestone in their lives. In light of the occasion, I thought an exit exam might be helpful for us all. Let’s see if we are as educated as those we celebrate this weekend.

How long did the Hundred Years War last? 116 years.

Which country makes Panama hats? Ecuador.

In which month do Russians celebrate the October Revolution? November.

What is a camel’s hair brush made of? Squirrel fur.

What was King George VI’s first name? Albert.

Where are Chinese gooseberries from? New Zealand.

How long did the Thirty Years War last? 30 years.

Perhaps more education is in order for us all.

This weekend we celebrate academic growth, but also spiritual. While our schools help our children to grow intellectually, we are responsible for helping them grow spiritually. So how can we pray for our kids?

As we return to the Sermon on the Mount, we find today the most famous prayer in human history. Let’s ask Jesus to teach us to pray for our children, whatever their age; for anyone we love; and for ourselves as well.

Praying through the week

Sunday: pray for their salvation.

“Our Father”—not “the” or even “my,” but “our.” The prayer begins with the promise of a personal relationship with the family of God. Note that Jesus was the first Jewish rabbi in history to address God as his personal abba or father. Now he invites us to do the same. And so our first prayer for our children is that they enter the family of God, that they become the children of God. We pray first for their salvation.

Pray for them to know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, early in life: “from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).

Parents often ask me how we know when our children are old enough to trust in Christ. Here’s the short answer I give: when they know they need to become a Christian. Not just when they want to be “saved,” or to join the church or be baptized. When you sense that the Holy Spirit has convicted them of their sins, that they need to be forgiven and saved. The Father loves them even more than you do; he’ll help you know when the time has come. In the meanwhile, pray every day for their salvation.

If your children are Christians, thank God for their salvation and pray for them to live this week in a way which pleases their Father in heaven.

Monday: pray for their spiritual growth

“Hallowed be thy name.” Pray that they would hallow or honor God in all they do. This is to pray not just for their spiritual salvation, but for their spiritual growth. As they begin another week at school, pray for them to enroll in Jesus’ school of spiritual discipleship and growth again this week as well.

Pray that they would want to know the Lord personally: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:17).

Pray for them to grow closer to God each day: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Ephesians 3:16).

Teach them to pray and to study Scripture. Model spiritual growth for them with your Bible study and prayer life. Pray with your kids. Read Bible stories to them. Share God’s word together. As you feed them physically, feed them spiritually.

Tuesday: pray for them to live in God’s will

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” His Kingdom comes wherever his will is done.

Pray for them to be yielded to the Spirit of God: “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). This is a daily command and need for our souls.

Ask God to reveal his will to them: “We have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9); “That you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10).

Pray for them to be yielded to all the ways God reveals his will: to those in authority over them (Romans 13.1), to parents (Ephesians 6:1-2), to Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16).

Pray for them to seek God’s will first: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Pray that this becomes a reflex for their spiritual lives.

Wednesday: pray for their practical needs

Give us this day our daily bread

Pray for their needs this day and week—physical, emotional, relational, spiritual: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Be specific. Keep a prayer list for them, and teach them to keep one as well.

Thursday: pray for their moral purity

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

That they will hate sin: “Let those who love the Lord hate evil” (Psalm 97:10).

That they will be caught when guilty: “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71).

That they will live in repentance and purity: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

That they will stay pure until marriage: “Flee from sexual immorality…You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18, 19-20).

Friday: pray for their future guidance

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

That they will be protected from Satan in each area of their lives: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15; “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith”; “Submit yourselves, then to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

That they desire the right kind of friends, be protected from the wrong kind: “My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them” (Proverbs 1:10); “I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way” (Hosea 2:6).

That they marry the person God has for them: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14).

Saturday: pray for their service to God

Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”

That they will be single-hearted in devotion to Jesus: “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2).

That their lives will lead others to Christ: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 6).

That they would fulfill God’s purpose for their lives: “We constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12).


Of course, we cannot lead others further than we are willing to go. So on this Sunday after Easter, would you make a fresh commitment to the risen Christ as Lord of your personal life? Do it for your family, your Father, and your own soul as well.

And begin to pray in this way, each week. Make these prayer commitments the habit of your life and soul.

You may have read that the nations of the world are working together to construct a new lid on Chernobyl, the Russian nuclear reactor which went ballistic in 1986 and released more radioactive material into the atmosphere than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. It was the worst nuclear disaster in history. The “sarcophagus” constructed to contain the damage is now cracking and will fail. $768 million will be spent to build a new cover for the reactor, one which will protect the world from its radiation for another 100 years.

You and I live in a fallen world. Our children need our prayer cover as much as the world needs Chernobyl’s. Start building it, today.

Setting Captives Free

Setting Captives Free

Matthew 21:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

This week has brought great victory to our coalition forces in Iraq. You’ll always remember the Saddam statue’s fall in Baghdad on Wednesday. Now we begin the process of rebuilding that nation. In that light, this story may be of interest to you.

When in England at a conference, Colin Powell was asked by the former Archbishop of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were an example of empire-building by President Bush and America.

The Secretary of State replied, “We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years, as recently as the last year in Afghanistan, and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in.”

For instance, 65,000 young Americans were killed liberating France from Hitler, and lie buried in French soil. It is the same around the world.

With such courage, Americans and others have set captives free again this week in Iraq. You have watched the Iraqi people on television, as I have. So many are responding in joy, welcoming our troops with gratitude. Some reject our presence, and some are apathetic. These either don’t want to be free, or don’t know that they are.

Hold that thought, and join the crowds with me at the first Palm Sunday.

Join the crowd

The Israel of Jesus’ day was an occupied country, under the heel of their Roman oppressors. Caesar could be as despotic as Saddam Hussein, his troops as cruel. So when Jesus of Nazareth came to Jerusalem on Sunday, April 12, in the year A.D. 29, the crowds went wild with joy. They believed their Messiah had come—the one sent from God to liberate them from the evil Romans and set them free.

Had there been no joy that day, it would have been for one of two reasons. Either they didn’t want to be freed from Rome—thus the religious authorities’ rejection of Jesus. Or they didn’t believe they were—thus the apathy of those who watched this parade but refused its joy.

They missed the only One who could fulfill God’s plan for their freedom.

Matthew shows us that Palm Sunday “took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet” (v. 4), Zechariah’s prediction, made 567 years earlier.

Jesus made preparations for this event before it occurred, sending his disciples ahead to find the donkey he would ride into the Holy City. Jesus prepared on that day, but he began before the first day was created—he is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).

This fact proves that he is “the Lord” (v. 3), the only time in Matthew’s gospel where this title is applied to Jesus. Those who missed the joy of Palm Sunday missed the only One who could fulfill God’s plan for their freedom.

They missed the only One who would die for that freedom.

A Roman conqueror rode into a city in a chariot drawn by four horses, with a slave holding his crown above his head.—on white horses.

Jesus came on a donkey. He chose to. He had just walked the 15 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, up an elevation of some 3,000 feet, through some of the most difficult landscape to be found anywhere in the world. He could have walked into the city. But he rode a donkey, a beast of suffering, a symbol of peace. He came as one “gentle” (v. 5)—the word means strength under submission. He came humbled before the Lord, and those he had been sent to save.

These crowds wanted a military ruler. If Jesus had been the Messiah they wanted, he would have set them free from Rome. But they would still have been slaves. Slaves to sin, to Satan, to death. So would we be.

So he died for them, and for each of us. Christ “died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).

He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

He “laid down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

He “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

He “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).

He “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4).

He “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own” (Titus 2:14).

He has “freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5).

He “purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

He “died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

The word of God is true: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Some were overjoyed at his coming. Some were apathetic. Some rejected him. It is still the same today. We are each one in one of those crowds, this moment.

Choose your crowd

Which is yours? Let’s find out.

How did you feel about coming to worship today? As you got up this morning, what if your Sunday school teacher or a staff member had called your house to say that worship was cancelled. A water main broke, flooding the Sanctuary, and the service was impossible. How would you have felt—one less thing to do? Or a joyous opportunity missed?

How do you feel about the Christian faith in general this morning?

Many in the Arab world interpret America’s war in Iraq as another Christian crusade against Muslims.

Last Sunday’s “High Profile” in the Dallas Morning News profiled a lawyer who built a successful AIDS housing program. The column always asks among other questions, “If I could change one thing about myself, I’d ….” The man being profiled answered, “I’d rid myself of the Judeo-Christian and Western hang-ups that stunted my growth as a human being.”

How do you feel about the faith? About prayer, Bible study, ministry? Is yours routine, habitual, even boring? Or filled with excitement and joy?

How do you feel about the cross, the subject of this week in church life?

An ornament? Jewelry? Church architecture?

Perhaps this will help. I’m holding a crown of thorns from Israel. These are the thorns which grow in that region of the world. As you can see, some are four inches long, and all are razor sharp. This is the way we crowned the King of Kings and Lord of Lords when he came to Jerusalem for us.

A medical doctor described crucifixion in physical terms. This is not for the faint of heart: “The cross is placed on the ground and the victim is thrown backwards with his shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square wrought-iron nail through the wrist deep into the wood. Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action. The left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees flexed. The victim is now crucified.

“As he sags with his weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms as the nails press on the median nerves. He pushes upward to avoid this stretching torment, placing full weight on the nail through his feet. Again he feels the searing agony of the nail.

“As the arms fatigue, cramps sweep through his muscles, filling them with deep and throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push himself upward to breathe. Finally carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream, and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically he is able to push himself upward to exhale and bring in life-giving oxygen. This goes on for hours.

“Then another pain begins: a deep, rushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart. It is now almost over. The loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level. The compressed heart struggles to pump heavy, sluggish blood through the tissues. The tortured lungs make frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. Finally the victim dies.

How do you feel about the hell from which that cross saves you?

Only 60% of Americans even believe that hell exists, and only 2% are afraid they might go there. Most see hell in cartoon terms, with Satan in red tights and a pitchfork.

The Bible doesn’t: “Each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:13-15).

That’s where you and I would spend eternity, except that Jesus died in our place, paid for our sins, purchased our salvation, freed us from hell for heaven.

If you’re a bit apathetic on this Palm Sunday, or even worse, opposed to the message of this day, it’s for one of two reasons. Either you have not been saved from hell by the Lord Jesus, or you’ve forgotten that you have been.

This week I needed a brief diversion, so I went to see the movie The Core. A long story made short: the earth’s core has become dysfunctional, and all life on the planet will die. A brave group of “terranauts” travels to the core and restarts it. Most lose their lives to save ours. If this were really true, how grateful we would be for them today?

Someone did just that for us. How will you respond to him this morning?


Will you accept his gift, with joy? If the Iraqis would greet our soldiers this week with celebration, pulling down Saddam’s statues and welcoming our liberation, how will you welcome the Savior of your soul? Do you remember the time you asked him to forgive your sins and be your Lord? Have you met him personally? When? Will you today?

Will you tell his story? The crowds paved the path to Jerusalem with their palm branches—we pave it with our witness and ministry. Are you using your Impact card to pray for lost friends? Are you willing to find your spiritual gifts and discover your ministry? When we find joy we want to share it—it’s just that simple.

Do you have the joy of your faith this morning?

If you traveled to Hong Kong, contracted Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome, but have been cured, you’ll be the most joyous person in the room. If you’ve heard this week the words, “Your cancer is in remission,” or even better, “The tests were wrong—there was no tumor at all,” your joy knows no bounds.

If you’ve been spared from death for life, you’re grateful to the one who saved you. If you’re not, it’s because you haven’t been saved, or have forgotten that you are. There is no third option.

C. S. Lewis was clear about our choices, in the most famous words he ever wrote: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

On this Palm Sunday morning we must each give Jesus either a crown of thorns or a crown of joy. Which will he receive from you?

Weapons Of Mass Construction

Weapons of Mass Construction

John 21:15-19

Dr. Jim Denison

Last Sunday morning, Dr. John Plotts announced this weekend’s events in a way which I have borrowed today. He referenced the war in Iraq, then showed that we are in a spiritual war in Dallas. In Iraq we are fighting to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction. In Dallas, he said, we are fighting to use “weapons of mass construction.”

Let’s learn the truth of those words today.

The big question

The point of our story is simple: if we love Jesus, we will serve him.

Peter had denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest. Now Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. To each question Peter replies honestly: “Lord, you know all things—you know that I love you.”

Jesus didn’t ask if Peter was sorry, or if he would promise not to fail again. He asked not for vows or conduct but for his heart, because he knows that when he has the heart he has everything. And Peter gave it to him.

Then Jesus called him in response to “feed my sheep.” He called him to service. He ordained him to ministry. And Peter would fulfill this service for the rest of his life. Because Peter loved Jesus, he served him. And the rest is history.

Now the same Lord asks us the same question: do we love him? Do we love Jesus today? If we do, we will serve him. We will find and use our spiritual gifts. We will become weapons of mass construction.

If we do not, it will be for one of two reasons.

Exposing words-righteousness

Our “ministry discovery” weekend has two enemies. One I call “words-righteousness,” the other “works-righteousness.” “Words-righteousness” is the spiritual malady, all too common for evangelicals, which assumes that our words of faith are enough for God. So long as we pray a salvation prayer, say the right words, know the right language, we’ve done all that God expects of us.

I prayed such a prayer on September 9, 1973, in the living room of the Holmes’ house, down Beechnut Street from College Park Baptist Church in southwest Houston. I asked Jesus Christ to forgive my sins and come into my life as my Lord. When I prayed that prayer I was “saved,” or “born again.” I “became a Christian.” Most of you have had a similar experience; I hope you will all trust Christ as your Savior in this way.

There is nothing else I must do to earn my salvation, and no way I can lose it. I am the child of God, and will be with in him heaven forever.

So why is ministry discovery vital to my life? Why must I find my spiritual gifts and use them as “weapons of mass construction”?

Such a lifestyle is wonderful for those who choose it, of course. They will have great reward in heaven for their commitment.

But unless ministry discovery is vital to my existence now, central to my life today, it remains an option to consider, an “extra” to add to my already-busy life, going the second mile when the first mile is hard enough.

I have “words-righteousness,” and that’s enough for now. Maybe I’ll get more involved in ministry later, when I have more time. But not today.

Exposing works-righteousness

The other opponent of our “ministry discovery” weekend is works-righteousness. Working as hard as we possibly can so we will be people of worth and value. Words-righteousness makes ministry discovery unnecessary, since we’re already going to heaven; works-righteousness keeps us so busy it is impossible.

Works-righteousness especially appeals to high performance people—those of us who measure our worth by our works, our accomplishments and grades and salaries and possessions. We are what we do. And nothing is ever enough—there is always the next business deal to close, the next semester’s dean’s list to make, the next season’s victories to win, the next person to impress. The next sermon to preach, or devotional to write.

We are busy, but for the wrong reasons. We serve so we will be people of worth, instead of serving because we already are. We work to be righteous, instead of working because we already are. We even become involved in ministry so that God will accept us, instead of serving because he already has.

And so we are so committed and busy that we cannot imagine doing anything else. There isn’t enough time for the work we have already.

Discovering our ministry

To both of us, those caught by words-righteousness and by works-righteousness, Jesus has a word today. To the first, he asks with Peter, “Do you love me?”

We say, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” If words-righteousness were enough, the text would end. Peter has prayed his salvation prayer, he is “saved,” he has spoken the right words.

But no. Jesus continues: “Then feed my sheep.” Serve my kingdom. Do your job. Use your gifts. Fulfill your calling. In essence he says, If you truly love me, you will serve me. Not because you must, but because you will. Not because works save, but because the saved work.

We owned a peach tree in Midland. We knew, because it produced peaches. It couldn’t help it—bearing such fruit was simply its nature. If it had not borne peaches, no matter how much it looked like a peach tree it would not have been one. A fruit tree bears fruit.

It is the same with our love for any person. I can say that I love our boys, but if I did nothing to serve them you would say that my love was not real. If I would not care for them, work hard for their future, provide for their needs, spend time with them, enjoy them, my words would be empty and false. My works do not prove my love, they express it. They are not love, but its fruit. They are the natural, inevitable result of a heart which loves.

You are not required to discover your ministry to have Christian faith, but to express it. Ministry is the natural, inevitable result of a heart which loves. If we truly love him, we will serve him. Service is how we show him that we love him. Ministry discovery shows God that our love is real. It is just that simple.

To those committed to works-righteousness Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” In other words, do my will, my work. I have a call for you, and it is exactly right for you. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

There are always enough hours in the days we give to God. If you are too busy, too burdened and stressed, you can know that you are not doing God’s will. You are busy, but for the wrong reasons.

He wants us to serve him because we love him, not to prove that we do. Because he loves us, not so he will. He has a ministry which is exactly suited for your gifts, your personality, your life experience. It will bring you joy, peace, and purpose, today. It is the purpose for which your Creator made you. It alone will bring the fulfillment he alone can give.


Now our Lord awaits our response. We are going to break our norms today, because this is not a normal Sunday morning.

If you would like to meet Jesus personally and experience his salvation and love, or if you would like to join with our church family, please meet with me and our ministry staff in the narthex chapel behind the sanctuary when our service concludes. We would be delighted to talk and pray with you.

But for this moment, we have constructed altars at the front and the back of this sanctuary. In the Old Testament, an altar was just a pile of rocks until someone put their heart on it. We will come to these altars with our hearts in our hands.

The commitment card you began earlier today will be your offering to your Savior and Lord now. Please make your decision and record it on this card. Then we will come to the altar and place this card there. And with it, the commitment of our lives.

I will lead in prayer, then begin our commitment process by placing my card on this altar. I will invite you to join me. As our choir sings, I Surrender All, we will do what the words require of us.

This is a high and holy moment. We will leave in commitment, silence, and reverence. Our response to Jesus’ love will be our benediction.

Now he asks you: Do you love me? Please stand with me as we answer him with our prayer, and then with our lives.