Filmed at Converge 2024, John presents a fresh perspective on the New Year’s resolutions many have, reminding us of the deep change that only comes from Jesus.View Transcript
– Alliance family, 2024 is here, and as we open this new year together, some of the words of Jesus have been resonating in my own heart, and I hope they’ll be an encouragement to you as well. I am here at Converge 2024. This is an annual event for missions mobilizers from our local churches. This event gathers around the question, “How do we better mobilize the Alliance family for fulfillment of the Great Commission?” What a great question to be asking. There’s lots of learning, networking going on. Our theme this year is “Innovate.”
Maybe like many of your families, our family sat around the holiday table having a New Year’s resolution conversation. Some of our family members don’t really like resolutions, but as the conversation went on, what occurred to me is, underlying every New Year’s resolution is really the question, “Do I like who I’m becoming? And if I don’t, what do I do differently?” And so, exercise and diets and daily devotions would lead the list for some of us and what a resolution might be. I think that a deeper question still though is “Can I truly change anything about me?” And the answer is yes. Our daily decisions determine our destinies. So, if I’m five pounds heavier or lighter a year from now, it’s based on the decisions I make between now and then. And if I know God’s Word more a year from now than I do today, that’s based on decisions I make each day. But deeper still is the question, “Are the changes I can make significant enough to be truly satisfying?”
See, deep change, I believe, requires the movement of the Spirit of God in my life, the shaping of the Holy Spirit that yes, I can participate with, I can cooperate, I can yield to, I can join Him in the change that He is making. But I don’t believe that my resolution to eat better is going to be the deepest level of change that I really want to see in my soul day after day, decade after decade. And so, that calls something out from within me that says, “Yes, Lord, I want to do what I can do to live a healthy life and make good decisions. But really what I want is to participate with You in what You are doing to shape me into the man that You’re calling me to be.”
Deep change requires the work of the Spirit deeply within my heart, and I want to participate in that. That leads me to the words of Jesus, interestingly enough, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are thee,” and then we have this most interesting list of the poor and the merciful and the persecuted and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness and those who mourn—an unexpected list that we would have of who the blessed are. And then, as you remember, He goes on and calls us to be the “light of the world.” “A city that is set on a hill can’t be hidden, and you don’t put your light under a bushel, but you put your light on a lamp stand, and in the same way, let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” And He goes on to explain what that good deed, good life, would look like in very practical terms of, “You’ve heard it said, ‘You shall not murder . . .’ But I say to you . . . ”
And He goes to a deeper level of our hearts, and “You’ve heard it said, ‘Don’t commit adultery.'” And then He goes to a deeper level of how we view other people and the posture we take in our own spirit towards another person. And on He goes, taking the Law to a deeper level of not just an external performance but an internal transformation. As the Sermon on the Mount goes on, and as we lean into it, we keep seeing more of these kinds of deeper teachings that call something out of us that my first reaction is, “I don’t know if a New Year’s resolution can handle that one.” And then you get to 5:43 in Matthew: “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven. He causes his sun to shine on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Love your enemies. Wow, that’s a tough one.
In one of my travels as president of The Alliance, I had the privilege of being in the Middle East and got to hear the testimony of a Muslim-background believer who told me that he had become very disenfranchised with Islam but didn’t have any faith to turn to when Jesus appeared to him in three dreams over a short period of time. In the first dream, Jesus said to him, “Read My book.” Well, he knew what that meant. He got ahold of an Injil, a New Testament, at great risk. He acquired it and then began to read it, opening up to the very section that we’ve been looking at today, opening up Matthew and getting into the Sermon of the Mount. But when he came to that verse on “love your enemies,” it was just too much. And his response was, “Love your enemies—you got to be kidding. Nobody can do that. That’s just ridiculous.” And he closed it, threw it back into his secret drawer, and walked away. A few nights later, Jesus appeared to him a second time and said, “I said, read My whole book.” And so, he gets it back out, and over the course of a few days reads the entirety of the New Testament, is so profoundly moved by the life and sacrifice of Christ, the teaching of the gospel, that he gives his heart in the privacy of his own room to Jesus and becomes a changed man. He tries to keep it a secret for awhile, but the secret gets out. And he’s attacked by his brothers-in-law who threatened to take away his wife and physically beat him up severely. And then he has the third dream, and Jesus says, “What you could not do without Me, you can now do with Me.” And that Muslim-background believer testified to me that what he once thought was impossible and ridiculous actually became his living reality as the life of Jesus was lived out in his life, as the heart and character of Jesus was lived out through him, that he was actually able to love those who persecuted him, loving his enemies.
Friends, I believe that that Muslim-background believer actually understood this passage better than most Christians that I’ve met. Many of us are still trying to do Matthew 5 as if it were a to-do list, a resolution list, a “be better” list. I don’t think that His first hearers ever heard it that way, and I don’t think Jesus intended it that way. Let me explain a little bit more. You can go through and pull through all kinds of statements out of the Sermon on the Mount that are “hard to change in ourselves” kind of statements.
And then you get to what, for me, is kind of the pin moment of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5, the very last verse, 48, “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Really? That’s the standard? That’s what I’m supposed to measure up to? The perfection of God Himself? I feel pinned at that moment. I have an, “I can’t do that,” at that moment. Interestingly, as Jesus closes the Sermon on the Mount, you remember what He closes with—this wonderful story of the man who builds his house on the rock, and the waters rose as the rains came down, and the winds blew, and that house stood firm because it was on the rock. Jesus says, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is that wise man. But whoever hears these words and does not put them into practice is like the man who built his house on the sand. And the rain came down, and the streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” Mic drop. End of sermon. Jaw drop.
The very next verse is, “The crowd was amazed at his teaching because it was teaching that had authority, not like their Pharisees and teachers of the law.” Do you hear how strong Jesus was? “I’ve told you what it is to live for Me in My new Kingdom that I’m introducing to you. You are to be this way, and if you don’t, your house is going to crash. Your life’s going to be built on sand.” Maybe, maybe somebody in the crowd walked away saying, “Okay, now I know what I got to do. Here’s my list. I’m going to go be more .” But I think that for most people, they respond in one of two ways. “I’m out. I can’t do this. That’s ridiculous.” Like our Muslim-background believer friend after his first dream. “That’s crazy, I’m done.” Walk away. Or second, they left saying, “Wow, I want that, and I’m going to really need that Guy’s help if I’m ever going to live that kind of life.”
And as the rest of the New Testament plays out, I think that is the continual theme of “You’re really going to need Him if you’re really going to live this life.” “It’s not the healthy, not those who think they’re healthy are going to need a doctor, but if you realize you’re sick, I’m here for you.” Thank you, Jesus. “If you know you’re thirsty, ah, I’m here for you. Streams of living water will flow from you,” He says of His Spirit. So, there’s an invitation from our Christ to come to Him for the deep change—in the words of Paul, “Until Christ is formed in you.”
Don’t you long for the character of Jesus to be lived out in your character, for the personality of Jesus to be lived out through my personality? Isn’t that what we long for? For the presence of Christ to be so full and real and rich, that He’s living His life through us as we abide in Him, remain in Him, yield to His prompting, say yes to His leading, rather than responding in the moment with my reaction to “Lord, what do You have instead? What is Your word for this moment? What is Your response to this email? What is the tone that You would take?” “I don’t want to just speak the words of Jesus,” some have said, “I want to speak in His tone as well.” So, actually, what I’m hoping that this brief message would do would be to spare us of some “try harder Christianity,” where some of us have become weary in trying to do all of this, resolve more. And yes, our decisions matter. Yes, we participate. But ultimately, what we long for is the yielding of our experience and our journey to the fullness of His power and His grace, that His fruit would be truly born in our lives. Our resolutions might help, but what we ultimately long for is His character lived out through us.