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.
Okay, so I am not really going to tell you how to spend your year-end bonus, but I do want to get you thinking about how you should spend your money in general and that would include any extra income that comes in at year’s end. If you’re a Christian, you may have learned that all your financial resources are a gift from God and that you are to act as a steward of those resources. That sounds spiritual enough, but just what does it mean? It means we ought to spend our money as God would want.
When I look at Scripture, I see God wanting us to spend our money in three ways:
That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? Use your money to care for your family, help the poor, and build the kingdom. None of this is meant to undermine the wisdom associated with saving for a later need or being careful that our giving doesn’t create an undue dependency; it simply gives a basic framework of how we are to act as stewards of the money that God has entrusted to us.
Through the years, my wife and I have given to many. More often than not we give on a regular basis as this helps those we support with cash flow and also keeps us reminded of those to whom we give. We also, however, tend to give extra at year’s end. You probably do too. Maybe thinking through the grid above will make that year-end process a little less confusing and little more purposeful, and even help you know what to do with that year-end bonus.
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.