“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Acts 11:26

Have you ever considered what it means to be called a Christian? What place does being a Christian hold in a person’s life?

Recently while driving I noticed in the lane next to me a vehicle with several bumperstickers that caught my attention. The first was a picture of a cross, with a person next to the cross holding a heart. Less than two feet away on the same vehicle was a cartoon figure peeing on the name Hillary. Is this a snapshot of what Christianity has come to mean for many in America? Does Christianity occupy a space right next to or in many instances below our political affiliation and personal opinions? Is “Christian” a title we claim or a title that lays a claim on us?

Many people believe that they were simply born Christian although the clear testimony of Scripture demonstrates that this is impossible (John 3:3-8, Romans 3:22-24). Some believe that they are Christian because they regularly attend church. Some believe they are Christian because they live in a certain part of the country. Some believe that they are Christian because they hold conservative values and vote Republican. The understanding of what it means to be a Christian makes a significant impact on the value, priority and place Christianity holds in a person’s life.

To fully understand what it means to be a Christian, we must travel back to where the term was first introduced at Antioch. New Testament scholar Craig Keener offers that “The title seems a political nickname (resembling Pompeiians - members of Pompey’s party - and other titles of political parties). Those who believed that Christ was king could be accused of treason, and the title “Christians” became a legal charge (1 Peter 4:16), though it was soon embraced by Jesus’ followers as a welcome title. Here it was probably merely ridicule; Antiochans developed a reputation for mocking people.” It is significant that the title “Christian” was not originally put forth by believers, but neither was it rejected. It was embraced.

The early use of the title “Christian” feels reminiscent of the sign that hung over the crucified Messiah. "Above his head they placed the written charge against him: this is Jesus, the king of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). This nature of the charge against Jesus is very similar to the indictment leveled against his followers. Fittingly, Jesus called anyone who would come after him to "deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). These early Christ followers were being accused of treason. They were claiming allegiance to a different Kingdom and thereby a different King. They embraced the title and with it the suffering and discomfort it brought. They were walking in the footsteps of their Master.

The original disciples and the early church were not silent about their allegiance to an otherworldly Kingdom. It was not a secret coup. They openly and boldly preached the Gospel of the Kingdom, while honoring and submitting to the appointed authorities. The Gospel of the Kingdom is the original message entrusted to the disciples by Jesus and the message we are called to take to the ends of the earth before Jesus returns in clouds of glory. "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). The Gospel of the Kingdom includes the message of salvation, but does not stop at the forgiveness of sins. The early church eagerly looked forward to the return of the King, the consummation of His Kingdom, and our active present and future participation in it. They lived their lives in light of this event and as citizens and ambassadors of the coming Kingdom.

Christianity is more than a system of beliefs. It is also a way of life that causes followers of Jesus to become salt and light. When this way of life is lost and the values of the Kingdom are not present in the hearts of believers, Christianity loses its saltiness (distinct qualities) and gets trampled underfoot. In other words, it is rendered useless. True Christianity is anything but useless. Christianity is the answer for a lost and dying world.

In order for the world to take this claim seriously, we must reclaim what it means to be a Christian and be wary of becoming so diluted by the world that we lose our potency. By asserting that we are followers of Jesus, we are not claiming to be superior people. In fact, Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom” (Matthew 5:3). We recognize that we are helpless sinners completely dependent on the mercy and grace of God. We have nothing within ourselves to boast about. By embracing what it means to be a Christian, we fully identify ourselves with Christ. We identify with his suffering. We identify with his resurrection (this has happened spiritually the moment we were born again and if we have not been born again, we do not belong to him! But we also eagerly wait for a bodily resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus). We identify with his Spirit at work within us (we participate with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit towards sanctification or being made to look like Jesus). We identify with His corporate Body in the earth (we are members of His church). We identify with his mission in the earth (we actively proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom). We identify with His coming Kingdom (we understand that we are living in a great tension, an age of groaning between now and not yet). We recognize Jesus’ rightful place in our lives as King. He is preeminent. He is first in all things. He is before family. He is before any dream or ambition. He is before any opinion. He is before any political party. He is before any nation. He is above all and before all.

Let us be sure to embrace more than just the title. Let us fully embrace Christ our King.

I believe that Joseph, the husband of Mary and Jesus’ earthly father, is a Biblical hero and his story is a narrative that deserves more attention. Matthew 1, the first chapter of the New Testament, traces the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham to David (each of which had received an eternal promise about the Messiah coming from their offspring) to Joesph. This is a genealogy of adoption. Joseph, biologically speaking was not the father of Jesus. In order for Jesus to be the rightful heir to David’s throne (the Messiah or the Christ), his paternal genealogy must trace back to King David. One problem exists humanly speaking, Jesus is the eternal Son of God. How can one who always existed descend from a human lineage? The significance of the patriarchs rests not only in the fact that Jesus is through them, but also that he is before them. Jesus is both the root of David and the heir to David’s throne. Of Abraham he said, “before Abraham was, I am“ (John 8:58). While this represents a difficulty in our minds, it presents God with an opportunity to display his brilliance with ever increasing glory. God would have his own Son seated upon the throne, while remaining true to his covenantal promises to the patriarchs, but he would do it through adoption. Joseph became the sovereignly selected means of that adoption. Such a man is worthy of our attention. What caliber of man would God select for such a task as this? And what can we stand to learn from him?

Joseph was a deeply righteous man 

There is a righteousness that catches the eyes of God and reaches much deeper than outward observances. I believe that men like Enoch, Noah, and Abraham possessed this type of righteousness long before the law was given at Sinai. I believe that Joseph possessed this type of righteousness. Matthew 1:19 says, “Because Joesph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” At this point in the story, Joseph has every right to believe that his fiancé has been unfaithful. He would not only be permitted to divorce her according to the law, he would also be encouraged to do so. But Joseph had a righteousness that reached deeper than that. He was prepared to obey the law, but to do it in a way that would not bring public disgrace or shame upon Mary. What a picture of someone understanding the true character of the Father even before it would be more vividly expressed in the account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Joseph understood what it meant to show mercy. 

Joseph immediately responded to the Word of the Lord

Before Joseph divorces Mary, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and reveals the nature of Mary’s pregnancy. He is given further instruction to not be afraid of taking Mary home as his wife and is told that the child Mary is carrying is going to be the Savior of the World. Verse 22 tells us that “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” This is not the only instance of Joseph readily obeying the Word of the Lord. Three different times in Matthew 2 Joseph receives prophetic direction from the Lord in dreams. In the first dream, Joseph is told to take Mary and the child and head to Egypt. “So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt…” (Matthew 2:14). Joseph didn’t even wait until he woke up and had his morning cup of coffee to act on the Word of the Lord. He left in the middle of the night. Imagine packing up all of your belongings and leaving for another country for an indefinite amount of time with your new wife and baby boy before the sun even comes up. That is radical obedience. The next dream Joseph receives instructs him to go back to Israel because those who wanted to take Jesus’ life were now dead. “So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel” (Matthew 2:21). Once again, Joseph just gets up and immediately does what he is instructed to do. In a third dream Joseph is warned about where he is to settle and raise his family, so “Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene” Matthew 2:22-23). Joseph lived a consecrated lifestyle that allowed him to hear from the Lord with great sensitivity and almost play-by-play detailed instruction. If Joseph had failed to obey the Word of the Lord, at least one of two major things may have gone wrong: Jesus’ life would have been in jeopardy prematurely and certain prophetic promises might have been aborted. But God found a man to work with and through. God had Joseph’s ear and his heart. 

Joseph accepted responsibility

Technically speaking, Joseph could have looked at Mary and the child in her womb and said, “not my kid, not my responsibility.” Instead he decided to stay and raise Jesus as his son. I can only imagine how unfit a lowly carpenter felt knowing he was being given the responsibility of bringing up the Messiah under his roof. This was also Joseph’s first child. He didn’t get a practice run to perfect his parenting skills. Joseph was thrust into a situation where he would be forced to rely heavily on the Lord’s leadership and recognize his own insufficiency for the task. Joseph could only fully accept responsibility after he came into contact with his own inability and his extreme dependency on the Lord. There is a huge lesson in this for both men and women. Our largest assignments from the Lord will be things we are radically unqualified for and things that require our total commitment. Joseph could break his engagement before the wedding, but once he took her as his wife, he would be bound by covenant. He was entering into a deep and lifelong commitment. Our greatest assignments from the Lord require deep and lasting commitment. We must get to a place where we leave ourselves no plan B. Joseph knew that if he walked away after saying “yes", he would be walking away from the Lord. He stayed. He committed. He took responsibility. He became a hero in the process. 

Joseph was humble 

We have no record of Joseph reveling in the dreams or angelic visitations he received. He just acted on them. He was a carpenter. He worked with his hands and apprenticed his son, the creator of the universe, in this trade until it was time for Jesus to enter his earthly ministry. Joseph is almost always in the shadow. Even throughout history he has received very little attention. He was content to be a great dad and a great husband. He was content to practice his righteousness in secret and live close to the Lord in the process. 

I believe that Joseph is a hero that deserves more attention. I believe that this narrative needs to be shared in our generation. He was not a random man, chosen at a random time in history. He was hand selected by God for a most important task that came in the fullness of time. Men and women of faith I encourage you to learn what lessons you can from his life. Be righteous. Be sensitive to the Lord’s voice. Live a life of simple obedience. Take responsibility. Commit. Be humble. Men, I exhort you to hear the Word of the Lord for your family, follow his leadership, and be good dads and husbands. Women, I encourage you to look for Josephs who will cover your shame and make room for what you carry. Children, I encourage you to follow the example of Jesus and honor whoever God has chosen to be your father or mother. Show them love and respect, but in light of all their imperfections, never forget who your true Father is in heaven. He loves you deeply and he is able to fulfill every good promise and bring you into the fullness of all his plans and purposes. 

A family friend of Ravi Zacharias recently asked if I heard the most recent update on Ravi’s battle against cancer. I have been following along and praying from the first time I heard that Ravi was in a fight for his life. Yesterday the news hit me differently and I began to tear up throughout the day, even having to find something to dry my eyes before walking into my niece's birthday party. Even now, as I sit to write this, my eyes are filling with tears. Ravi, I want to express a heartfelt thank you for a life well-lived. I never met you or had the opportunity to shake your hand, but on many occasions when my mind groped for answers to life’s most pressing and challenging questions, your voice not only comforted me but came across the radio with a prophetic sharpness and clarity that can only be possessed by those whose hearts and minds have been deeply touched by the truths they profess. Many times I have found myself thinking, “I am so glad we (Christians) have a Ravi!” I’m sure this sentiment is shared by as many genuine seekers of truth, who have sat in university forums, public debates, or even found themselves searching late at night for answers on the internet. Thank you for ensuring that the minds of believers were not left undeveloped or untrained over the last few decades of your faithful minsitry. Thank you for not forsaking the Ivy Leagues and the University Campuses. Thank you for not allowing physical discomfort to keep you from traveling thousands of miles to carry the Gospel to far off lands. Thank you for taking the time to sit with skeptics and wrestle with their questions. Thank you for your countless thousands of hours of study, research, and preparation. 

As I began to ponder your life, I felt like Elisha standing on the banks of the Jordan for the sake of my own generation. My hear’s cry became, “Lord, don’t allow another general enter into glory before our generation has apprehended what was on his life.” In the last three years we have seen the likes of Billy Graham and Rheihardt Bonnke join the great cloud of witnesses. When I consider men like Billy Graham, Rheinhardt Bonnke and Ravi Zacharias, I am gripped by the integrity they walked in, their uncompromising witness for the Lord, and their all-consuming passion to see His Name glorified in the nations of the earth. I am equally gripped by a strong desire for such uncompromising, unwavering and anointed voices to be raised up in my own generation. It is for this purpose that I want to direct our attention for the next few moments to a handful of lessons we can glean from the life and example of Ravi.

  1. Study wide and deep 

Without pursuing deep understanding, we will never be able to demonstrate an appropriate appreciation for hard questions, make difficult answers simple enough to grasp, or possess the clarity that causes the world to pay attention. If we want to be good Bible preachers, we must be good Bible readers. If we want to be gifted teachers, we must be good students. The hammer that strikes the nail must have behind it’s force the strength that comes from much study, deep contemplation and wrestling for understanding. We are not meddling in the realm of pop music jingles. We are stewarding the mysteries of God and eternal realities. Every time we open our mouth to speak about the Gospel, we are reaching into humanity’s deepest needs and touching the source of their ultimate fulfillment. An approved worker of the Gospel ought to spend much time brooding over his subject matter. His study and discipline must match the seriousness of his calling. We are not called to complicate already difficult matters. We are called to take high and lofty realities and make them palatable for the kindergartner. Such a man must possess greater understanding then the man who would make a great mess and tangle of beautiful truths that are to be announced as good news to the poor, the uneducated and the childlike. Ravi’s ability to speak in so many venues, across so many generations and with such pointed clarity to diverse audiences speaks not only to his wide grasp of many subjects, but also his deep understanding of the Gospel and the Truth he professed. Let us study wide, but especially learn to study deep, so that the truth we profess is constantly brought to the surface with ever increasing brilliance and beauty. 

  1. Be personally impacted by the truth 

Anyone who is familiar with the life and ministry of Ravi, has probably heard his own testimony of meeting Jesus while on his suicide bed. It is evident in the way that Ravi communicates Truth that his own heart has been profoundly impacted by the Gospel. He does not communicate about God in vague or abstract terms. He speaks of God as a man who has met Him in the face of Jesus Christ. Ravi has a heart that is bigger than his head. He loves God and he loves people, so the truth he communicates does not come off as purely abstract, academic or cold. It is warm, friendly and full of countless personal stories that can only be gained over many years spent loving God and loving people. We must always seek to love God more than we love communicating about God. We must learn to allow the prescriptions we offer others to become our own personal convictions. We must learn to apply the Gospel in the laboratory of our own lives. We must be able to communicate the Gospel in personal conversation, the way a man talks about his favorite restaurants or sports team, and not just in pulpit discourses. The truth of the Gospel must saturate the speaker’s life, or he is merely peddling a product he does not believe in. 

  1. In all things, seek to make Christ known 

Everyone has a worldview, but not every world-view is coherent with reality. Ravi said it this way, "We have a right to believe whatever we want, but not everything we believe is right.” In an age of ever-increasing relativism, Ravi faithfully challenged the predominant world-views and made a clear case for the Biblical worldview with Jesus at the center of it. He demonstrated how the Biblical worldview satisfied the most important questions related to our existence: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. He refused to make Christianity less offensive to skeptics and cynics by placing it on the a la carte menu. Ravi used apologetics to make Jesus known and to preach the Gospel. We must recover the ability to preach the Gospel and make Christ known where Christ has not been preached or has been propped up as a caricature. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Any worldview that does not include Jesus will never satisfy humanity’s deepest longings. We must preach Jesus and make him known to a lost and dying world. 

Ravi, I want to thank you for the example you have left us. I want to thank you like we thank soldiers, who have fought the good fight and laid their lives down for a worthy cause. You taught us to fight for and defend the Truth. I want to thank you like we thank good professors, who have by their own genius and passion taught us to throw our lives into our studies as a worthy pursuit. I want to thank you like one who is worthy of honor, because you are. Anyone who has influenced the world for the cause of Christ is worthy of the highest honor and you have done that marvelously, as my life and many others can bear witness. Thank you, Ravi.

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