Paradise Regained: Life With Jesus!
Imagine Once Again
Imagine walking with God. Literally…
It’s evening in Palestine. The warmth of the afternoon still shimmers over the rocky hills in front of you, but behind you a cool, clean breeze stirs over the deep blue waters of Lake Galilee. The sun, riding low in the sky, bathes the landscape in gold. Soon it will paint a masterpiece over the western heights. Your senses take in the beauty. Though the lake has provided the backdrop for every scene your whole life, you never take its beauty for granted. Yet the loveliness of this summer evening cannot explain the joyful expectancy that wells up like a song inside you. There is another reason for it.
He is coming. Jesus!
He has promised that He will take you and the rest of His closest followers away for a few days. He has dismissed the crowd, that cross-section of humanity—the orthodox rule-keepers and the notorious sinners, the fanatical zealots and the traitorous tax collectors, the influential leaders and the impoverished widows. They have gone on their way, at least for a few days. Jesus is joining you now. You and your friends will hike with Him a few miles and then camp for the night. Tomorrow morning you will leave for the south, traveling down the dusty roads towards Judea and Jerusalem.
As you walk along the way, He will show you many things—birds in the sky, flowers in the field, a city set on a hill—all the while opening your mind to the wonders of God’s Kingdom. You’ve seen birds and flowers and cities before, but never through Jesus’ eyes. Each moment with your Friend is tinged with discovery and wonder. But the greatest joy of all is simply to be with Him. You call Him Teacher, but He calls you His friend. That simple fact thrills your heart!
In very many ways, Jesus seems like “one of the guys,” like you. Yet at the same time, to your constant amazement, He is also very different. His words are simple, but penetrating. He avoids the complex arguments and theological hairsplitting of the rabbis. Even children love to hear Him. And when He speaks, things happen. The blind see. The sick are healed. The demons shriek and flee. Sometimes the dead are even raised. Those who love God walk away refreshed with joy and hope. The religious pretenders may leave feeling frustrated or angry or remorseful, but they never walk away unchanged.
It isn’t just Jesus’ words that impress you—it’s Him. What a blend of simplicity and depth, compassion and courage, gentleness and power. And love…don’t forget love! It isn’t that He’s gushy with emotion, though He’s certainly not afraid to laugh or cry. It’s that His eyes seem always focused on others rather than Himself. He genuinely cares about who they are and does what He can to give something real to them.
When you first met Jesus, you felt guilty about your sin and honestly a little frightened of Him. You would have been ashamed to admit it, but until then you had always found religious matters a bit dull and boring. Yet the life that was in this man—it is doubtful that anyone could have explained it to you, even if they had tried. When you first experienced it for yourself, it was frankly intimidating. Oh, you knew how to be religious. You could “say a prayer” or sing a Psalm in the synagogue. But Jesus seemed to chase away the comfortable familiarity and safety of religion with a single glance. It was as if He had pulled a veil away and forced you to confront God face to face. Now, that was terrifying at first! Once you decided to deal honestly with God about your sin, though, that feeling of being with God right here, right now was absolutely exhilarating!
Since then you have been quite literally walking with Jesus seven days a week along with a group of people that has grown closer to you than…you were about to say “family” until you suddenly remembered some of them are a part of your biological family. But I guess that proves your point!
Does that picture of life sound good to you? It should.
You were created for it.
God with Us
Mankind had failed utterly. They had failed at being their own gods; they had failed at following a perfect religion. Maybe at least some of them were ready now—ready to go all the way back to their proper place, the place they had rejected in the Garden. Maybe at least a few were ready to spit out the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Maybe they were ready to walk with God again. Maybe they were even ready to eat from the Tree of Life.
The moment had come for God to sign the human race up for a new agreement. Mankind needed to know the terms of it. This time, God didn’t just send word through a messenger. He didn’t even just bring the word Himself. This time He was the Word. He invaded planet earth, took on human flesh, and lived out the Word in front of us all.
Man had tried to become a god and so had lost Eden. Now God became man and offered Eden back again. For the first time in millennia, man could walk with God literally.
As one of Jesus’ first followers said: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:22-23).
And as another put it:
We proclaim to you the One who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw Him with our own eyes and touched Him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This One who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen Him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that He is the One who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then He was revealed to us. We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard. (1 John 1:1-3)
Immanuel, “God with us,” had walked on our planet for thirty quiet years. He was now ready to step out in the public view for three years more.
Religion was in for a big shock.
An Inner Kingdom
Jesus was many things—very many things—but a rebel was not one of them. He was, of course, born a Jew, a member of God’s chosen people and a follower of God’s perfect religion. Actually, He was the only one who ever followed the perfect religion perfectly. For that reason He grew up making pilgrimages to the temple on holy days and listening to the designated teachers (Luke 2:41-52).
When the time came for Him to start the work God had sent Him to earth to accomplish, Jesus naturally kept visiting the local synagogues and the Jerusalem temple. After all, He had been sent first and foremost to “the lost sheep of Israel,” and that’s where those sheep habitually gathered to hear about the things of God.
But it didn’t take long before Jesus began getting Himself in trouble just about every time He set His foot in one of Israel’s “holy places.” It started when He went back home to Nazareth and was invited to speak in their synagogue. The scripture reading, from the book of Isaiah, seemed to go well. But His comments afterwards were highly offensive. Jesus only managed a few sentences before the whole assembly actually attempted to murder Him!
Angry rejection—and worse—were also on the minds of some very “good, moral people” who heard Jesus speak in other synagogues (Mark 3:1-6) and in the temple itself (John 7:24-44; John 8). Before long the authorities decided to take a stand against Him: anyone who acknowledged a faith in Jesus was to be turned away at the door of the synagogue (John 9:22).
Surely this was a major blow to Jesus—to be shut out of Israel’s “special places,” the foundation of her religion!
The fascinating answer is no. It became increasingly clear: what Jesus came to accomplish had nothing to do with designated “special places” at all!
Life for Jesus and His followers took place everywhere. Some of His most powerful teachings occurred in the most “non-religious” settings: sitting in a fishing boat (Mark 4:1); walking through a grain field (Mark 2:23-28); relaxing at a dinner table (Luke 7:36-50); resting on a mountainside (Matthew 5:1); waiting at a well (John 4).
That’s because Jesus’ training of His followers was relationship-oriented, not attendance-oriented. When He met His first two followers, they asked Him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” In response, Jesus offered friendship, not information: “Come and see!” We are told that “they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him” (John 1:35-39).
With all of His disciples, Jesus emphasized relationship. The truths of Jesus were more caught than taught. “He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with Him” first. Only after that would He send them out to proclaim God’s new agreement and perform miracles to back up the message (Mark 3:14). What God had encouraged the Israelites to do with their children, He now did with His. He talked with them about God’s commands when He sat at home, when He walked along the road, when He lay down, and when He got up (Deuteronomy 6:6).
Jesus had a strikingly different approach to the things of God, including “holy places,” and it left Him vulnerable to attack. At His trial, Jesus’ accusers claimed they had heard Him say, “I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man” (Mark 14:58, 15:29). But they missed His point, of course. Jesus had said something like that, but He was predicting His resurrection. He really wasn’t interested in destroying real estate. But Jesus certainly did intend to change the whole concept of “temples” and “holy places” forever.
Jesus announced those intentions to the Samaritan woman. She had asked Him to solve a religious argument: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem”—at the temple. In reply, Jesus offered this stunner: “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:20-23).
In other words, Jesus was saying that from that point on, a worshiper’s geographical location wasn’t important. What mattered was the spiritual location of the worship. Was it in spirit and in truth? Implied in Jesus’ statement is that the holy place for His disciples—the Garden where they could fellowship with God—was in some sense inside people rather than inside a building.
Jesus spelled out His intentions even more clearly when He was speaking to some of Israel’s religious leaders: “Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is within you’” (Luke 17:20-21).
The Kingdom that Jesus came to establish simply cannot be located geographically at all. When it is authentic, no one will even be able to point to a certain “holy place” and say that the Kingdom of God is located there. His Kingdom is found within a holy people. God’s temple, Jesus is saying, is no longer to be built from gold, silver, and stones. God’s presence is to dwell inside a temple built from human beings.
In that light, two of Jesus’ promises take on new meaning: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20), and “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus really is Immanuel, “God with us”!
A Daily Cross
We repeat: Jesus was anything but a rebel. But He was also anything but a slave to demands, expectations, or bullying. He followed His Fathers’ agenda—period. Jesus’ freedom to obey the Father was nowhere more obvious than in His attitude towards time.
That didn’t stop people from trying to control Jesus’ schedule. Twice, Jesus responded to pressure with a gentle but firm, “My time has not yet come.” And twice more, Jesus avoided capture or arrest, causing the gospel writer to comment, “His time had not yet come” (John 2:4, 7:6, 7:30, 8:20). It was clear: Jesus was going to proceed with a steady pace towards a definite goal, and no amount of manipulation would get Him off track.
Intimidation certainly wasn’t going to work on Jesus, either. “Some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.’ He replied, ‘Go tell that fox, “I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal”’” (Luke 13:31-32).
The pressure of expectations also wasn’t going to move Him. When Jesus heard of His friend Lazarus’ critical illness and his sisters’ urgent pleas for Him to come quickly, He waited. It was a decision that would earn Him sharp criticism (John 11:37). But since Jesus’ priorities required him to delay, that’s exactly what He did: “When Jesus heard about it He said, ‘Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.’ So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, He stayed where He was for the next two days” (John 11:4-7). It was only after Lazarus died that Jesus went to him.
It’s not that Jesus was selfish with His time—far from it. On more than one occasion He became so busy helping people that He didn’t even have time to eat (Mark 3:20, 6:31). Even when He desperately needed rest, He kept on giving (Mark 6:32-44). Jesus was simply living His life the way He taught us to live ours—with clear priorities, with a calm heart, and with an intense focus on the current moment (Matthew 6:25-34).
That attitude towards time brought Jesus into sharp conflict with many of the “good, moral” people of His day, especially with their oh-so-religious view of the Sabbath. Jesus failed to show proper respect, in their opinion, for the holy-day habits, especially when He thought those traditions conflicted with God’s priorities for the current moment. It infuriated them.
We read of two such episodes that happened back to back:
At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Going on from that place, He went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus (Matthew 12:1-14).
Jesus’ freedom from being controlled by the religious “special day” mentality was so shocking and revolutionary that it just about got Him killed. In fact, it was one of the reasons that He was killed.
In the same way Jesus lived His life, He also expected His disciples to live theirs. And this is a crucial point: In all of Jesus’ teachings recorded in the four gospels, not once did He ever command His disciples to observe the Sabbath as a special day. Not once did He command them to observe any day of the week as more holy than the rest. In all of His teaching, there was only one day that Jesus commanded His disciples to set aside as holy. The name of that day?
Jesus’ followers were to look on the calendar, and if it said “today,” then they were to celebrate it as special, and they were to mark that celebration with a few simple “observances.”
They were to commemorate every “today” by a simple, childlike dependence and trust on their Father: “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).
They were to observe every “today” by a quiet, peaceful focus on the priorities of the current moment: “I tell you not to worry about everyday life…Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and He will give you everything you need. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:25, 33-34).
They were to celebrate every “today” by a decision to live for Jesus’ satisfaction rather than their own: “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).
For the followers of Jesus, every day was a celebration of life under God’s loving care. Each day was a “special day”!
A Band of Brothers and Sisters
First “special places” had taken a hit, then “special times.” What, then, of “special people”? Jesus wouldn’t tamper with that aspect of religion, would He?
Would He ever!
It took many lessons and even more “hard knocks” to get His point across, but if Jesus insisted on anything, it was this: none of His followers was to be looked upon as occupying a position of power. None was to try to elevate Himself above His brothers.
To begin with, Jesus challenged their entire concept of religious authority.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
Virtually everything His followers thought they knew about authority was wrong! All they had learned about leadership in the business world—or in the religious world—was turned upside down. Leadership had always been viewed as exerted from above; it needed to be viewed as offered from below. For the disciples, service was to equal greatness, and slavery to others was to equal leadership. Jesus had lived that lesson. Now it was their turn to learn it.
That’s why Jesus took the radical step of forbidding His followers from using any and all religious titles. If that statement doesn’t shock you, you probably need to think about it a little more deeply! How often have you, personally, used a religious title with someone’s name to indicate that they occupied a position as a “special person” in your religion? Have you ever called a man “Father Bob,” “Pastor Jim,” “Elder Jones,” “Deacon Smith,” “Reverend Johnson,” or the like?
But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and He is in heaven. Nor are you to be called “teacher” [in the New American Standard, “leader”], for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:8-12)
Jesus encouraged leadership, but He insisted that it be the leadership of one who was among his brothers and sisters as one who served (Luke 22:27). And He forbade any “caste distinctions” marking certain people out as “special,” including religious titles. The truth was that all authority belonged to Jesus. While some might have a gift of leadership, they were still “all brothers.” Anything beyond that, Jesus warned, was self-exaltation.
The “Religion” of Jesus
After three very public years, Jesus’ physical life was drawing to a close. Soon, He would face humiliation, torture, and death. He had to. It was the Father’s will. In a very real sense, Jesus had come to offer mankind a way back to the Garden, a fresh opportunity for friendship with the Living God. It required His blood to “reverse the curse” of man’s rebellion. It took His death to remove the sin that had so tragically separated the entire species—including every member of it—from their Creator.
But Jesus hadn’t gone straight from the carpenter shop to the cross. Those three intervening years had accomplished something vital. Without a hint of rebellion, Jesus had succeeded in turning the religious world upside down. His life was proof: being close to God didn’t require being “religious” in the traditional sense. If you hung out with Jesus and really paid attention to what He said and did, you soon realized that He was redefining religion at its very core.
For Jesus, and therefore His followers, the “holy place” wasn’t to be sought in a geographical location, but within a people belonging to God. The “special times” weren’t to be regulated by a calendar. Instead, each day was to be infused with holiness through a radically fresh approach to life. And the “special people” weren’t identified by positions or titles. Rather, every believer was uniquely treasured, a miraculous new creation. Each disciple could offer his or her love to the other believers through humble deeds of service, and each person was needed for the healthy functioning of the whole group.
Since the day that Adam and Eve left Eden, mankind had tried to appease God and satisfy their own consciences through religion. The gift of life Jesus offered to those who would receive it ran counter to every instinct of fallen humanity, including every religious tradition that they held so dear.
Some found the whole thing incomprehensible, frightening, infuriating, and downright dangerous. They wound up shouting “crucify Him” in the end.
But others—ah, others encountered Jesus and felt the breeze of Eden blow through their hair, beckoning them to a new life with God. And they entered in, without even a backward glance at what they left behind.