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When Jesus burst on the scene in the early days of his ministry, it was like a honey moon for him and his followers. He could do no wrong. They hung on his every word and the mood was constantly upbeat. These were the days of the Sermon on the Mount that included the oft-quoted beatitudes about blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are the meek. Jesus was hailed as a great prophet and champion of the underdog, the long-awaited leader of his people. Everyone loved him and wanted to be near him, and his reputation as a healer drew thousands wherever he went.
But as the months turned into years, the promised kingdom materialized not as a geopolitical realm but as a spiritual one, and the followers started to drift away. This happened slowly at first and then more quickly as the doctrines grew less feel-good and more demanding. At the same time, Jesus expected more of his followers. He grew increasingly impatient and occasionally angry with them. He even openly voiced his desire to be finished his work so he could get back to Heaven and not have to deal with them anymore. This was a different Jesus than the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” who’d fed thousands from a few loaves and fishes. This was a Jesus who was whittling his followers down to a core group of believers, down to those who truly wanted to buy what he was selling and were willing to pay whatever it cost.
In the final days before his execution, Jesus again changed. He became distant but magnanimous towards his followers. He was preparing for his transition to Heaven and also steeling himself to endure his final agonizing hours on Earth. It was then that the first fruit of his Messiahship fully ripened from the flowers that had bloomed earlier in his ministry. While the kingdom had already come (as was witnessed in his casting out of demons by the power of God’s Holy Spirit), it was only in his last days on Earth that Jesus ascended the spiritual throne as King. No more Mr. Nice Guy – in his place was the Great Messiah who was to rule over the prophesied Kingdom that would have no end. He had truly become King of the Jews, just as the sign over his crucifix proclaimed.
The lives of all true believers follow a similar trajectory. Their early days of spiritual rebirth are full of joy and wonder and miracles, and they are a blessing to be around. This phase is followed by a long trek of ups and downs, mistakes and repentance, reaffirmations of promises made and a steady deepening of the commitment to God and his Messiah. How long this second stage lasts is entirely up to God. Sadly, many fall away during this time, even those who were once fervent believers.
But those who remain faithful to God finally enter a transition phase that is glorious to behold: They grow more powerful in their witness, more assured of their salvation, and more formidable in their presence. This is Stephen before being stoned to death and Paul in his final letters in Rome. This third phase may last either a few days or a few decades, again depending on God’s judgement, but God’s Spirit is strong with these tried and trued believers and they are an immovable force for good on Earth.
This is what we’re aiming for – to endure to the end, as Jesus said we must, so that we may stand strong and immovable and with a full measure of God’s Spirit, witnessing the Kingdom to all who want to hear: No more Mr. Nice Guy, but instead a powerful prophet of God, moving mountains and people with God’s Word.
When you’re born again, you leave the human race.
You are no longer quite human.
Your focus is no longer human-focused endeavors, but God-focused endeavors.
You live somewhere between Earth and Heaven, not completely in either place.
This is God’s Kingdom on Earth.
The closer I grow to God, the farther I grow from humans. This is the natural progression of born-again believers. Jesus also grew farther and farther away from humans. We can see this in how he distanced himself from his family and village, and then from his religion and culture. During his ministry, he engaged with the world not as a fellow human but as God’s suffering servant. Ultimately, he distanced himself even from the so-called normal human response of self-defense. At his crucifixion, he willingly permitted others to abuse and debase him as if it meant nothing to him, because it actually did mean nothing to him.
At that point, Jesus was no longer human.
This is what we are all aiming for – to be no longer human, to get to the point where what people do or say to us no longer matters because we’ve moved beyond being human and responding as a human.
Stephen got there. He was stoned to death for preaching the Word. Just before he died, he saw a vision of God and Jesus. The ecstasy of God’s presence sustained him as his enraged executioners buried him alive under a hail of stones. It’s an excruciating way to die, being stoned to death, and yet like Jesus at his crucifixion, Stephen simply let it be done to him. He didn’t try to flee, he put up no fight, and he even prayed for those who were killing him.
Jesus did the same.
And we’ll be expected to do likewise.
Paul called this process of dehumanization as “dying to the world”. In dying to the world, our focus shifts from desiring the values of the world (buying houses, getting married, building a career, making money, having children, accumulating possessions, protecting our possessions, protecting our loved ones, etc.) to desiring the values of Heaven (mercy, compassion, truth, honor, self-sacrifice, etc.).
Ironically, the farther away we grow from humans, the more merciful and compassionate we become towards them.
This is a great mystery.
We are not hard-wired to understand this mystery, but we are able, with God’s help, to become part of it – to extend mercy to the unmerciful, compassion to the uncompassionate, truth to liars. This is the opposite of what we are hard-wired to do. Being born-again rewires us spiritually and enables us to do what we couldn’t do before.
This, too, is a great mystery but one that we born-agains can understand because we live the reality of our spiritual rewiring every day.
I do not pretend to know how it is, but I do know that it is.
If it were not so, I, a former atheist, would not be writing this to you.
If you are truly born again, you know what I mean.
You, too, are no longer quite human and are aiming to become no longer human at all, like Jesus.
When you get there, nothing will be able to touch you – neither stick nor stone – because you’ll finally see as God sees and you’ll love everyone unconditionally.
And then you’ll get to go home.