The first prayer most of us learned as children if we were fortunate enough to be born into a family of faith, with praying parents, was a bedtime prayer. Yes, that’s the one: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I ask Thee, Lord, my soul to take.”
There are some child psychologists today who have suggested that this prayer for security before going to sleep might actually frighten children, causing them to be afraid of dying during the night, afraid of not waking up in the morning. I do not believe praying that prayer as a child, as it was originally written and prayed for generations, ever caused me any emotional problems or made me afraid to fall asleep. It actually gave me a sense of God’s presence during the night, the belief that I belonged to God, that I was His child and that God was watching over me. Nevertheless, it has been suggested by some, who may or may not pray at all, that a more helpful and healthier prayer would be, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray Thee, Lord, your child to keep. Watch over me in all the night, and wake me in the morning light. Amen.”
Regardless of which prayer you might prefer, there is something much worse than the fear of dying during the night, and that is the tragedy of dying without having ever really experienced life (i.e life with a capital “L,” the abundant life Jesus spoke of. He said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly”). A fulfilled life, a life that is filled-full or overflowing with joy. The best definition of joy I have ever heard is this: the “J” in joy stands for Jesus and the “Y” in joy stands for you with “O” in-between (i.e. nothing). When there is nothing between Jesus and us, our life is filled with a sense of purpose, peace, serenity and security – and perhaps of greater importance, a sense of worth, knowing you are a child of God, someone created in the image of God, one into whom God has breathed a part of Himself, someone with divine possibilities and potentialities, someone for whom Jesus died on the cross. In fact, you discover that something strange is happening: you are falling in love with yourself!
No, not becoming self-centered, but rather Christ-centered, which includes remembering how Jesus commanded his disciples to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. For the love we have for ourselves reflects wanting the best for ourselves, wanting to make the most of our lives, wanting to live a life that is worthy of someone created as a spiritual being, to know and serve God, wanting to become the person God had in mind when He first thought of us, and therefore wanting the same for others. Here is the bottom line: the love we have for ourselves will be the measure of our love for others. Once we truly love ourselves, once we have experienced the love of Christ for us and are able to see ourselves through His eyes, we are able to see others through His eyes. We are able to see beyond their faults to their needs, seeing their potential (i.e. as potential “saints,” which in the New Testament sense means “believers,” those who belong to Jesus), loving them as Jesus loves, wanting them to experience the joy of His presence and power in their lives, wanting them to “become children of God” by believing in Him and receiving Him (John 1:12-13), and wanting the best for them. And the best is a relationship with Jesus, for He is the One through whom others can experience God’s love, forgiveness, acceptance, and really begin to live as God wills – a life that is satisfying, fulfilling, joy-full and peace-full (i.e. the “abundant life” Jesus offers us and wants us to experience). When Jesus makes our hearts His home, our life becomes His life (Revelation 3:20). This has been called “the exchanged life” (i.e. exchanging the “self-life” for the “Christ-life”), which the Apostle Paul described after his dramatic encounter with the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul expresses it accurately and beautifully: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live (i.e. the old “Saul of Tarsus” who had been in his old life the most feared persecutor of the followers of Jesus), but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body (i.e. in this body of flesh), I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Paul wanted his readers to know that the old life, the sin-life, had been nailed to the cross with Jesus: “I have been crucified with Christ” (i.e. Christ had not only died for him, but he had also died with Christ)! That is the great change, the great “exchange,” the great transaction, the great transformation that takes place when anyone has a life-transforming encounter with Jesus Christ, who died for all of us that we might live for Him. Paul’s own experience was unique, and our experience with Christ has been (or will be) unique, for God deals with each of us in an original way. We should not expect to have an experience just like Paul or expect anyone else to have an experience just like our own spiritual experience. Let me sound a warning at this point: an “experiential faith” can be dangerous, when our experience becomes the object of our faith, when we are bearing witness to our own Christian experience. For others may hear us saying, “don’t you wish you had my experience” rather than “don’t you want to know more about the Lord Jesus Christ, who has made such a wonderful change in my life, who has the power to also meet your deepest needs?” The spotlight should never be on us, but always on Jesus! He said, “I tell you the truth…The Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite title for Himself) must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son (i.e. his unique and solitary Son), that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:14-18).
Think how Saul of Tarsus must have felt after he met the resurrected Lord on the road to Damascus when he was going to arrest and imprison the “followers of the way” (what early Christians were called, for Jesus had called himself “the way” – John 14:6) in that city where a great revival had taken place. When Jesus revealed himself to Saul by striking him to the ground with a blinding flash of light. When he heard a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” and he responded, “Who are you, Lord?” and the Risen Christ told him, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Think how condemned Saul must have felt, for he knew he had actually been persecuting the Messiah (Philippians 3:7-11). However, Christ told Saul what he must do. Luke, the faithful historian of the Early Church, and a faithful companion and beloved friend to Paul, gives us the great apostle’s own account of his Damascus road experience (Acts 26:12-16), including these words of Christ: “Now arise and stand on your own feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me, and what I will show you” (vs. 16).
Paul had fallen to the ground, temporarily blinded by the light that must have seemed brighter than the noonday sun, but was then commanded to get up and stand upon his feet. It has been suggested that these two figures of speech, rising and standing, might well be used to symbolize a profound meaning that lies at the heart of Christianity: faith and works are inseparably joined. Paul’s faith experience was to be a launching pad for his ministry. It was not an end in itself, but really a new beginning for Paul (the new name Christ gave him), who was to become the first missionary of Christ’s Church, not only a witness to his own people but an ambassador of Christ to the Gentiles. It is one thing to prostrate ourselves before Jesus Christ (or to be brought to our knees by some unexpected event), and another thing to arise and stand up for Jesus! It is altogether natural for any person who is suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of the glory of God, the majesty of the Lord, to bow down in worship, to bend the knee, to humble himself or herself (see Isaiah 6:1-8, and take note of Isaiah’s response to his vision of God’s glory, especially his words, “Here am I, send me” ). Saul fell to the ground in astonishment and then arose in apprehension and obedience, standing on his own feet. Although he had to be led into the city by members of his caravan, it was there that he received further instructions, becoming Paul the Apostle, and as he himself says, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19), testifying to what had happened to change the direction of his life, “…first in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and also to the Gentiles, preaching that they should repent, turning to God, and then proving their repentance by their deeds” (vs. 19-20). Yes, we must follow through on our prayers and prove our faith by our deeds (see James 2:14-19, especially vs. 18: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do”).
From the hour of his conversion to the day of his martyrdom, Paul was wholly Christ’s. In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul takes a backward look, remembering who he had been before Christ. Then he took an inward look at the person he had become in Christ and compares B.C. and A.D. (i.e. his life before Christ/before conversion and his life after his decision to be obedient to his “heavenly vision,” obedient to Christ in response to His call and command, to trust and obey). He was a new man with not only a new name but with a new nature, a new person with a new purpose. He realized that he had never really lived before his life-changing encounter with Christ (Philippians 3:7-21). Everything he had previously considered important and of great value, like his credentials as a devout Jew and a Pharisee zealous for the Law, he now regarded as “rubbish” compared to “..the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” When he met the Master, that is when his life really began!
The “upright stance” is a pretty good way to describe the life and ministry of Paul. Some Christians seem to be in a perpetual “sitting position” as far as their Christian witness is concerned. When it comes to “standing up” for Jesus in the public arena, speaking a good word for Jesus at every opportunity, sharing and showing their faith by both word and deed, too many who bear the name of Jesus have settled for “fellowship” (i.e. worshiping occasionally, even regularly, with other believers). But what about “followship”? That is what Christian discipleship is all about, “following Jesus” in lowly paths of service, following His example of selfless service, compassionate caring, unconditional love, and sacrificial giving. Jesus even gave Himself on the cross, as the Passover Lamb, the one sufficient sacrifice for the sins of all people for all time, that we might be able to experience life as God originally intended, in intimate fellowship with Himself, knowing Him, loving Him, serving Him, and enjoying Him forever. THAT’S LIFE!
One of the Apostle Paul’s favorite expressions in his letters to the young churches in the first century was “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). “If anyone is in Christ, he (or she) is a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). That’s what I’m talking about and am suggesting that we would do well as we begin this new year: to follow the example of Paul. Let us take a backward look, but let us not be fixated on the past. Let us learn from the past and take a serious inward look, examining ourselves, if we consider ourselves Christians, in the light of Christ’s own example and His call to follow Him. Then let us take a forward look, not just making a few “New Year’s Resolutions” we will probably soon forget, but making a serious commitment to actually “arise and stand up“ for Jesus by serving as He served, loving as He loved, denying ourselves in order to be of greater service to others, and remembering how Jesus “came not to be served, but to serve.” Christian discipleship also involves “standing against all the powers and authorities of this dark world,” “against the devil’s evil schemes,” and “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” To “stand firm” against corruption in high places, against the lust for power and the abuse of power, against dishonesty, against fraud, against evil in all of its forms (Ephesians 6:10-18). In his Letter to the Romans, Paul gives this exhortation: “Be not conformed to this world (i.e. to the values, standards, and priorities of this secular world, with so many powers arrayed against the will of God, against Christ and His Church), but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (i.e. filling your mind with the right thoughts, with the thoughts of God). Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is (i.e. God’s will for you and for all His children, His chosen ones) — his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
Of course, it is to Jesus Christ that we are called to conform! He was not only the true image of God in his incarnation, the visible manifestation of the invisible God, but also the true image of man (i.e. of humankind, what it means to be truly human, in the biblical sense, in the highest sense, living as God intended for His human family to live). Jesus demonstrated how to live the good life, the best life, the abundant life, in all of our relationships — first our relationship with God, then our relationship with ourselves, and third our relationship with others (loving others as we love ourselves). This means standing for the opposite of what this world stands for and standing against all that is contrary to the will of God. Could any words be more relevant for our time, for the situation we find ourselves in today as a nation, and in the world of nations? Let us make this very personal. What does all this mean for us? What does this mean for you and for me? I submit that it means we must give more serious consideration to what we are living for. Paul said, “For me, to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). What are you living for?
Yes, life’s greatest tragedy is to live without knowing Jesus, for He IS our life, He IS our joy, He IS our peace, He IS our hope, in life and also in death. To live and die without Him is to live without having ever really lived at all, and to die without any real hope of “everlasting life” (i.e. the life Jesus has promised, life in our “Father’s House” or the kingdom of heaven, where Jesus is, where He sits on the throne as the object of heaven’s worship — see John 14:1-10 and Revelation 1:12-19, 4:1-2, 7:9-17, 21:1-8). As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, and we look forward to the time when we will reign with Him in the glory of His kingdom and join all the redeemed in singing the great Te Deum of Heaven, “Worthy is the Lamb slain for us.” Jesus is worthy of our love and service here-and-now, and worthy of our praise here-after and forever!