I grew up hearing a lot about God and the Bible. I heard stories about Moses crossing the Red Sea, Jonah and the whale, and Jesus dying on the cross. I also heard certain “Bible truths” like God is good or love your neighbor. And then there was the bit about sin, that is, that we are all sinners. In fact, I heard that we are all sinners so many times I’d have to say it just became a plain, old vanilla fact with little to stir me up. In some ways that’s understandable. If you feel embarrassed because you lost your hair due to chemo, but then find that everyone around you is in the same boat, it doesn’t seem like all that big a deal even if it's evidence you’ve got a deadly cancer growing inside you.
Recently I led a discussion with a group of men. We were talking about the question, “Who’s in?” or in other words, if there is a God and a heaven who gets to go there? Most people feel pretty good about their own chances. And they think that they’re good to go because on the balance they’ve done more good than bad and have never done anything too heinous.
The opening pages of the Bible seem to suggest something different. They tell the story of Adam and Eve. God puts them in a perfect garden, and says, “Have fun, just do one thing for me: don’t eat from this one tree.” I don’t know how long Adam and Eve held out, but it doesn’t seem like that long until they just couldn’t stand it any longer--they had to taste the forbidden fruit. Now, think about it. Up until that fateful moment, Adam and Eve had a perfect record. They had been interacting with God and each other and the animals with a 1.000 batting average, and then they ate just one piece of fruit. That’s it. They didn’t murder someone. They didn’t get in some big marital spat. They ate a single piece of fruit. I don’t even think they finished it.
But guess what God’s response was to this infraction. Without hesitation he said, “You’re out! You are banished from the garden for the rest of your lives and cursed with hard work and strife until you die.” Seriously. That’s what the story says. One forbidden piece of fruit and Adam and Eve were no longer in with God.
So back to the group of men. After sharing this Adam and Eve story, I asked, “So given what this story is saying, what might that say about whether we are in with God given our own track record?” Without hesitation, one man blurted out, “We are all screwed!” I don’t think I could have said it better myself. It’s not just that we are all sinners. If the Bible is right when it comes to God’s stance on the sin in our lives, my friend hit the nail on the head—we are all screwed!
You might say, “But that’s rather depressing, John.” And you’re right, it is. If nothing else, it adds a little necessary spice to my plain vanilla, childhood concept of the universality of sin. If God’s reaction to even the smallest blemish in our lives is, “You’re out!” maybe we are in a lot bigger mess than we ever imagined. And maybe it makes sense of all the fuss about Jesus. But that’s a conversation for another day.
I see it all the time now: stickers, signs, wall art all implore us to "BELIEVE." I'm not sure the meaning behind all of it, but it seems it has something to do with having an optimistic outlook on life. I don't have any problem with well-placed optimism, but since the word believe can mean so many things we probably have to define what we mean when we use it. For example, believe can mean wishful thinking, like I believe the Texans are going to win the Super Bowl next year. But belief can also be a confident agreement with the facts, like I believe the sun is in the middle of the solar system. Sometimes belief can mean a deep personal trust, like I believe my wife will not betray me no matter how many other men come along.
Calling people to believe, however, is not a modern fad. Christians have been calling people to believe for two millennia. And in particular they tell people they should believe in Jesus. But just what kind of belief are they calling us to? Are we just to be optimistic about life because Jesus was looking to a brighter future and we can too? Are we supposed to believe that Jesus was a real person who lived too thousand years ago and not some made-up myth, and then we are good to go? Or does the word believe for the Christian mean something more than that?
Perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16. There Jesus states: “For God so loved the world that whoever believes in him will not die but have eternal life.” The question becomes what kind of belief was Jesus speaking about? Fortunately, Jesus gives us a very strong indication in the preceding two verses. He says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Of course, to understand what Jesus is getting at here we need to know a little bit about his snake in the desert illustration.
In the Old Testament, when the Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land, they complained to God incessantly. To teach them a lesson, God sent a bunch of poisonous snakes into their midst. Seeing the gravity of the situation, the people repented and cried out to God. At that point God told Moses to fashion a bronze snake on a pole and to instruct the people to look at the snake on the pole if they were bitten. If they did so, their lives would be spared. Suppose you were in a tent at the time and a snake came and bit you. You could have sat in your tent and tried to squeeze the venom out. You could have believed the stories about how others were saved when they looked at the pole and even enjoyed their stories. But if you didn’t get out of the tent yourself and look at the snake on the pole, you would have died. God simply did not provide any other means by which you could live.
When we consider Jesus’ illustration, we get a good understanding of the kind of belief he is calling people to in order to receive eternal life. He is not looking for someone to simply know some facts about him or even like the Jesus stories. And he is certainly not looking for someone who is trying to heal himself from the dings and failures of life. Rather, he is looking for you or I to realize that there is no way to be saved apart from him. Just as the people in the desert desperately looked to the snake on the pole for life, so Jesus says we must look desperately to him for life.
Another way to illustrate the kind of faith to which the Bible calls people is to consider wedding vows. Let’s suppose a man and a woman stand before a pastor to be married. The pastor asks the man, “Will you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?” The proper answer, of course, is to say, “I do.” But let’s suppose that instead the man says, “I really think she is pretty, don’t you?” The pastor may repeat his question, and the man might say the second time, “I really like the way she cooks, and I think it’s super that we both like to ride bicycles.” At this point, everyone would recognize the man is not really willing to be wedded to the woman. He may know all kinds of things about her and even like many of them. But knowing lots of things about a person and even liking them doesn’t mean you believe in them enough to put your life into their hands. When the Bible calls you to believe in Christ, it is not asking you to declare that you like him; it is asking you to put your life into his hands.
One of the great hurdles to biblical belief is the absence of absolute certainty. Some argue, “Since I can’t be absolutely certain that eternal life is only found in Christ, I can’t really believe in him.” But this type of thinking creates a bar for belief that is not realistic. Let’s suppose angels came down from heaven and handed you a personal note from God. Or suppose that God himself shows up and says, “Believe in me!” Would that be enough to be absolutely certain? Probably not, since there is always the chance you were hallucinating! Every day we place our trust in people and in things we are not absolutely certain about. I am not certain my car’s brakes will not fail today, but I trust them enough to drive my car anyways. I can’t prove that my wife will never leave me, but that does not keep me from trusting that she won’t. Even biblical greats like John the Baptist had doubts, but in the end the evidence was enough for them to say, “I am pushing all my chips into the middle of the table.” This is what God is asking us to do. He is asking us to believe that only in Christ can we find eternal life. So if that's what all those "BELIEVE" signs are about, I'd be good with that.
If you’re my age, you probably know what Precious Moments figurines are—pudgy, little, pastel-colored people dripping with sap and crafted out of ceramic to make a certain class of person exclaim, “Isn’t that so cute?!” Perhaps the most precious of the Precious Moments is the one depicting the nativity scene. It takes precious—or puke--to a whole new level!
But whether you like Precious Moments or not, it seems to me that their creators are not alone in making Christmas precious. Hey, Christmas, has a lot going for it in the precious department. There’s a young mom who gives birth on the road. There’s a loyal husband (well almost) who is scrambling to find a place to see it happen. There are cows mooing and sheep baaing, or so we are told. There are even angels who show up, in fact a whole sky full, and their message is about peace on earth. Then add to that a touch of royalty. The Magi probably didn’t have any royal blood, but, come on, taking a little license with the story to make it a bit more precious is okay, isn’t it?
You might have guessed it, I am not much for this rendition of Christmas. I am sure for Mary and Joseph there were a precious moment or two, but don’t all parents have similar moments when they have their first child? In fact, if you ask me, I don’t think Christmas was about precious at all. It was a line-in-the-sand kind of moment if I’ve ever seen one.
Weeks after Jesus was born, when Mary and Joseph were still near Jerusalem, they headed up to the temple to clear themselves to head back home. While there, an old man named Simeon (who apparently had God on his mind a lot) got a peek of the baby Jesus. His reaction was rather startling. He grabbed the child into his arms said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that is spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed.” Now wait a second, that’s not the kind of thing you’re supposed to say to new parents! What’s precious about that?! Nothing, and that’s just the point.
Today, actually for a long time now, it’s been fashionable to make Jesus precious—to make him the nice guy who smiles at everyone, gives a bit of good advice now and then, and is glad to help you out of a jam. But that’s hardly the sum total of Jesus in the Bible. If it was, I don’t think we’d be talking about his crucifixion. No, Jesus, didn’t come to be precious, he came to draw a line in the sand. Just take a look at how he called a spade a spade whether you were friend or foe. It’s as if he didn’t care whether you liked him or not.
There is one part of the Christmas story I don’t remember ever being taught in church. It comes right after the Magi make their gift-bearing visit. King Herod didn’t like the scuttlebutt about the precious little Jesus, so he sent his death squad to kill every baby boy in Bethlehem hoping Jesus would be among the mix. I’d like to see Precious Moments try and depict that! Ask the mothers of those little boys what they thought of Jesus’ birth and I doubt ‘precious’ is the adjective they’d use.
Later when Jesus had grown into a man and had hit the teaching circuit he said in his usual blunt style, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and I wish it was already kindled!...Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” If you think of Christmas as precious, you might find this all rather disturbing. Not so, if you think of Christmas less like a Hallmark movie and more like a search and rescue mission. Imagine the latter for a second. Think of a special ops unit parachuting into enemy-occupied territory. What are the people on the ground thinking? If you’re looking to be rescued, you can’t contain your excitement. But if you’re set on power and control, you’ll do your best to take the special ops down. Either way, what you are not saying is, “Oh, look at that, a nice man is parachuting down to us. How precious!”
Now, of course, all this about Jesus puts us in a rather awkward position. It means we’ve got to decide where we stand with respect to Jesus. Are we going to gag him, shoot him, and pretend he never landed in the first place or are we going to follow his lead out of enemy territory? That’s the line in the sand. That’s the line in the sand Simeon recognized at Jesus' birth. That’s the line in the sand Jesus said he came to draw. That’s why the gospels are replete with blunt assessments like this: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” You can call that precious if you want, but I am thinking there’s a better word for Christmas. You decide.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.