John Fuller: 2,000 years ago, Jesus walked the dusty streets of Nazareth and Jerusalem, and He journeyed through deserts in the region. But why did He come to us? What really was His plan? You’ll hear more about that on the special Good Friday broadcast with Focus president Jim Daly. Uh, I’m John Fuller and Jim and I had the privilege of visiting with historian Ray Vander Laan in Michigan where he teaches Bible classes. Now, Ray is the host of our very popular DVD series That The World May Know.
Jim Daly: Here we are at Holland Christian School in Holland, Michigan, uh, where Ray Vander Laan teaches. And it is a pleasure to be here today with you, Ray. Thanks for being here on Focus on the Family.
Ray Vander Laan: Thank you, and thanks for joining us here at Holland Christian.
Jim: You got some nice digs here. I must say.
Ray: Yeah. We’re really blessed. It’s a fantastic place and, um, real Kingdom vision here, so I’m excited-
Jim: It absolutely is.
Ray: … I’m excited about teaching here every day.
Jim: Ray, so often people, when we talk about a Middle East experience, it tends to be described as a Holy Land tour. That is not what you’ve done with That The World May Know or what you’ve done at Holland Christian School here and what you’ve done with your tours. Distinguish for us the difference. Uh, what is it that you do that’s so unique when you take a group to the Holy Land?
Ray: There’s some crossover obviously, but a typical tour, well worth your time and money, is to go to the- the land where Jesus was, to read Bible passages there so you get pictures, the reality. It sinks in. Wow, Jesus walked here, Abraham really was here. So, in a sense it’s a pilgrimage experience, uh, feeling closer to God, closer to His story. And I support that 100%. Our approach is to say let’s get back into, as much as we can, the culture and the geography and ask the question, how would the original audience have read this story or have heard this story? What would have been like? Are there insights we can get actually seeing it through their eyes? Uh, a classic example would be in the Egyptian world the metaphor for heaven was a sea of reeds. And so, when the Egyptian army drowns in what’s called the Reed Sea, in a sense the Hebrews caught that God was drowning that army in the very metaphor they had of heaven. And those are insights that, yeah, you can find those in the Bible, but looking at the Bible in that original context brings those things to life. And that’s what I try and do here in the high school education, but especially what I do on trips to Israel, w- is to take people there and ask, “Now what was this like when it happened originally?”
Jim: One that captivated me was from, uh, volume four, The Lamb of God. And you brought some things out in that particular episode that has really captivated my heart; things that you don’t normally hear. If you can, maybe reshape this: when Jesus comes at Passover to the Mount of Olives and the reason for Him weeping over the people of Jerusalem.
Ray: Mm-hmm. The bigger picture is that in a Hebrew approach, an earlier event in God’s great story becomes a paradigm for later events. Uh, for example, the Israelites left Egypt on Passover. Took them about 40 days to get to Mount Sinai. Moses climbed the mountain to meet with God, a few days later the Ten Commandments come down near Pentecost. Jesus dies on Passover. 40 days later He goes up on a mountain, He ascends up to God, and 10 days later on Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes and appears and makes His dwelling with people. And you can see there’s almost like a blueprint for how those events will unfold. Well, the question you asked about the triumphal entry, we call it, or Palm Sunday… In Exodus 12 God said, “On the 10th day of the month I want you to select an appropriate lamb that you then slaughter when Passover comes on the 14th day of the month.” So, all the Hebrew people who were seeking to be faithful to God’s command to come to Jerusalem for Passover would’ve been flocking into that city on that Palm Sunday, because that was lamb selection time. And it was an exciting family time. The kids, everybody came to pick out this lamb that was going to be their sacrificial animal. So, when Jesus makes His descent into the city on that day, becomes really profound. As if Jesus was saying, “Pick me.” Now, in Jesus’s world there was a profound belief that the Kingdom of Heaven was about to appear at any moment. But the Hebrew people of Jesus’s day were convinced that it would appear the way it always had. God had used or blessed the efforts of His people in military ways to bring about their victories over the pagan cultures around. And no day in the calendar year was that thought more central than the time of Passover, because that’s the time we got out of Egypt, God destroyed the Egyptians. Maybe this year God will come and with great power will do something about these pagan enemies who oppress us. And their natural reaction was to wave palm branches and to shout, “Hosanna!” Now, I don’t know what was in every heart that day, but it strikes me, from the point of view from a first century Jewish audience, they would’ve heard a cry for revolt. They were looking for a power figure. They were looking for someone who would kill. And Jesus said, “No. That’s- I came to die. I didn’t come to kill.” And He pleaded with them. Not- It’s not in that kind of power. If you live by the sword, you die by the sword. So in a sense, He’s weeping for the very crowd who believe He is Messiah but want a Messiah who comes in a way that He didn’t choose to do.
Jim: Mm. I- In today’s context, uh, as we bring that forward, how do we apply that to our walk today? Uh, you talk about what the first century Jewish people would have seen in that.
Jim: What does the 21st Christian community see in that? Are we-
Ray: And that’s- that’s a fantastic question, Jim. And that’s one of the main reasons that I continue to love to teach high school seniors, is because their question always is, “So what for me for the 21st century?” It seems to me… I would answer that with two thoughts. One, the safe way is to go to the Book of Acts and say, “How did the early Christians do it?” And we discover that basically the early Christians were a group of powerless… In fact, when I take our groups to Turkey, one of our- our, uh, video series, it’s, uh, number six and seven actually, uh, cover this. They had no political power. They had no economic power. They had no social or cultural power. They were the outsiders. Either because that’s who was attracted to the message of Jesus, or because when you came to Jesus that immediately puts you outside. We- I like to take people to the council room in one of those Greek cities and discover you could only be a council member if you affirmed your allegiance to the pagan god. Which means if somebody came to be a Christian, the next council meeting they would’ve been off the council. But those people understood that the message of the gospel was at its heart Jesus came to die for us. But that it was more than that. Because Jesus died, we’re going to give ourselves in service to the people of our communities who have needs. And so, we’re gonna feed the hungry, we’re gonna care for the lonely, we’re gonna invite the homeless and the community-less in. And it absolutely blew the Roman world with its tremendous emphasis on class and social status away, because here were these people who really cared about hurting, broken people. And that, it seems to me, gave the gospel a frame.
Ray: I mean, every person the gospel went to believed they were going to heaven. That’s what all the gods promised. But what made Christianity different is they were living out a caring, loving, um… being willing to bring, here’s the words in use in class, shalom to chaos. And that’s how the Kingdom extends as in that context the gospel goes out.
John: This is Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and our guest today is Ray Vander Laan. And Ray, as you’re speaking, there’s something that, thinking about the Lamb of God who had come and the people’s expectations, what are common expectations in our culture that prevent us from seeing Christ as He is?
Ray: Great question. I- I think on the one hand there are those who see Him simply as a wise prophet or a passionate teacher whose ethical love of enemy and love of neighbor are things to be imitated. Where He simply becomes someone who we seek to imitate like we would imitate any great person. On the other hand there are people for whom I think Jesus represents what He will be when He comes a second time as Lord of Heaven and earth and almost seek to bring that reign somehow in a political, uh, system that would forcibly move culture into a Christian mindset. It seems to me that Jesus is in between those two and that in our culture what many of us do is to turn Jesus into a personal savior. And He came to die so that I would be saved and know where I’m going when I die. And I bless God for that. I believe that with all my heart and I’m absolutely sure where I’m going. But actually God’s story is God is in the process of reclaiming all things and replacing all chaos with shalom. That the central focus of that is Jesus’s death for my sins, but also Jesus’s death so that He transforms who I am so that I now become someone who brings shalom to the chaos in the world around me. And the gospel then is framed in a real context where people actually see at least a taste of the shalom He came to bring. I’ve said it this way: if you ask a Christian why did Jesus die, most of them can tell you. I mean, if you’ve been a Christian even a short time, He died to save us from the guilt of our sins. Pay the penalty. Praise God. Amen. Good theology. My question to my students is, why did Jesus live? Did He live just to get us to His death? To tell us who he was and how He was going to die? How come He talks about it so seldom? Did He live just to explain why they would kill Him? I don’t think so. I think He lived to say, “When you figure out why I died, here’s how to live.” I think those two have to fit together. And I think if you ask me what’s the biggest weakness in contemporary view of Jesus, we all want the benefits of His death. I’m not sure we’ve fully bought into what it means to live as Jesus lived. 1 John 2:6 is my class theme every year. “Whoever claims to be in Him must walk as Jesus walked.” And that’s to me what gives the gospel its punch, is people see it being lived out in practical ways.
Jim: Uh, with that, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. And what I mean by that is it is difficult to follow a servant orientation. Because especially here in America. We’re about winning. We’re about the Super Bowl, we’re about the World Series, we’re about the company or the organization or the guy on the way up.
Jim: We love to be around success. And it seemed like, uh, Jesus was about something maybe mushy, maybe touchy-feely.
Jim: He was about, uh, meeting people’s needs. That’s a little less comfortable for us in America, don’t you think?
Ray: Oh, without question. One of my favorite passages is the disciples in a discussion of who’s going to be the greatest. And Jesus came back with the greatest is the one who’s the servant of all. Whoever will be least for the sake of the others is great in the Kingdom of Heaven. And then He chides them by saying, “You’re thinking like the gentiles.” Almost like you’re thinking like 21st century Western culture. It seems to me there’s nothing wrong with trying to be absolutely the best we can be. But it seems to me that the goal in every situation is being the best we can be in order to bring God’s shalom to a broken world. It’s not to be the best for my sake, or to put on display so that everybody admires how good we are, whether we means our school or our church or our country. But rather to say, “We are going to be absolutely the best we can be, because we have a mission to bring wholeness wherever we can to a broken world.” And that starts of course with the gospel, because the greatest brokenness of all is the break in the relationship with God Himself which only comes through the death of Jesus. But our message is so much bigger than that. That what God wants of us, is to become shade. You know, if you read in the Hebrew Bible, it starts out in the desert and God is shade. But it doesn’t take long before God says, “I brought Israel out of Egypt like a vine. She will become shade to the nations.” Isaiah says, “When a king will reign in righteousness,” which they thought to be Messiah, I think correctly so, “Each one will become the shade of a great rock in a dry and weary land.” So God’s mission is, “All right, I’ve been your shade. Now you become the shade to others in this brutal desert we call life.” And if we will always move from knowing why Jesus died, my own personal commitment to His death, being saved we say in Christianity; to now imitating how Jesus lived, then I think the gospel is so much bigger than just a proposition to which I give assent. It becomes a way to live.
Jim: Ray, can I ask you a question here? Because some people won’t know what we’re talking about in terms of a relationship with Jesus.
Jim: Jesus’s death… Everybody dies.
Jim: It’s His resurrection that makes Him distinct from all others-
Jim: … is it not?
Ray: Certainly that is the distinctive element of it. It seems to me the Bible says sin, that is living contrary to God’s will and purpose, results in death. Every human being, as the Bible teaches, was born a sinner and lives to one degree or another a sinful life, unfortunately. Jesus, the sinless one, came to die so that His death would be the price paid so that my sin is forgiven. But it seems to me that His death would have only been a death were it not for the fact that His great triumph was that death could not conquer Him but He was resurrected to life and continues to live. And it’s that resurrection, it seems to me, that validates and authenticates the power of His death. Now in a sense that’s not unlike what we believe. We will all die if Jesus doesn’t come again. But if our faith is based on the truth, and I believe the Bible is God’s truth, then we die but we really are not conquered by death because we too will live. And in Jesus our death doesn’t become our defeat but becomes the step to His victory in our resurrection.
Jim: We’re sitting here at Holland Christian school, Ray. When I was 15 I accepted the Lord, but I wobbled along. I didn’t have a lot of structure in my life. But at 22 I was sitting in a philosophy class at a state university out in California and I was really challenged by this philosophy teacher as he was telling us about the words of Aristotle and Homer and all the ancient Greek philosophers. I simply put my hand up. I wouldn’t say I was walking a- a totally committed life at that moment, but I put my hand up and I said, “What about the words of Jesus?” And this professor just became unglued. Only, uh, an idiot would believe those things. That’s a myth. Jesus never lived. Um, when you look at it, the thing that it taught me, one was to actually study what it is I believe. And I remember the overwhelming sense that I had is I better at least read the Bible. Um, I may not understand it all or agree with it, but I better read it.
Jim: And that’s when my life blossomed in my Christian walk.
Ray: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Jim: When I actually committed to reading every day.
Jim: Um, in your studies I would imagine you ask people to do just that.
Jim: That is what you’re asking.
Jim: Become knowledgeable of who God is.
Ray: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Jim: And in that there’s a transformation that occurs in one’s life, right?
Ray: Amen. I learned it this way: um, I saw among the Jewish people that I was mingling with in my educational time a fire and passion for God that I didn’t feel in my heart. And it troubled me, because they didn’t necessarily recognize Jesus as Messiah. But I still saw a passion for God, and so I felt like I was missing something and began to pray for it. And God didn’t answer my prayer. And for a number of years I felt my faith was sound, the knowledge that it was based on was true, but I didn’t feel the passion. I mentioned it to a Jewish friend and he said, “You’ve got it backwards.” In fact, he called me a nudnik, which basically means a foolish… a nudnik. A foolish person.
Jim: (laughs) There’s a new word for us, John.
Ray: Yeah, a nudnik.
John: Gonna write that down.
Ray: Um, he said, “The fire is in the Bible.”
Ray: You don’t bring the fire to the Bible. “Is not My word a fire?” He quoted Jeremiah. “If I say I will not mention Him again or speak in His name, His word becomes a fire.” If you will immerse yourself in the Bible… It won’t happen overnight. It’s a journey. But if you will immerse yourself in regular immersion in the Bible over a period of time, the fire will come. The other thing in what you commented on is I think Christians sometimes struggle with how do we know this book is true.
Ray: And there’s a thousand archeological discoveries that have confirmed all kinds of details in the Bible to the point very few scholars that most of it has a historical base at least. Even non-Christian or non-Jewish scholars. But it seems to me there’s another side to that whole equation. God says in the book of Isaiah, “As the rain and the dew fall from heaven and do not return without watering the earth, causing it to bud and blossom, so it is with the word of My mouth. It will never return to Me empty or fail to accomplish the purpose for which I sent it.” If you believe that’s true and you will immerse yourself in the Bible, the power of God in that book will confirm to your spirit over time that that is the Word of God. That is His promise.
Jim: And that really is the promise that people need to hear right now, is that if you do that, the promise of God is that He’s not gonna leave you-
Jim: … out on a limb.
Jim: He’s gonna bring peace to your heart-
Jim: … and to your life. Uh, Ray, let’s talk about the hope in the desert. You mentioned a moment ago the desert experience. There’s one of the lessons that, uh, talk about that. Speak to that person that’s in the desert right now. What does God’s Word say to them?
Ray: Mm-hmm. It’s amazing to me how powerful the desert metaphor is for us when we’re in pain. It’s very easy to transfer the total thirst, the pounding heat, the difficult terrain into the circumstances of my life. When I take people to Israel and we walk in the desert and I say, “What were the deserts of your life?” they know instantly what that means.
It’s intriguing to me that as often as not God either leads or meets His people in the desert. I think sometimes there’s this mindset that the desert is not what God wants and when we’re there He may rescue us. Well, there are a couple of examples of that, but more often God brings His people to the painful times. And that became very personal to me when I went through some difficulties, ended up having heart bypass, to realize that I was there; not that God caused it, but that God wanted me there. And so, I began to pursue the Bible’s teaching about desert and it dawned on me that in the desert I can’t make it myself. There’s no water, there’s no bread, there’s no shade. I’m gonna die. And so, I turn to the only possible solution and that’s God. The only thing can be manna from heaven. The only thing can be water out of the rock. The only thing can be He is my shade. And what I would say to people who struggle in pain is, realize that what God did that’s magnificent in the Hebrew Bible is when His people were in the painful times, they discovered He was there with them.
Ray: And as they turned to Him, often in pain or even in anger, and He became their only hope, they ended up in His arms. Didn’t come quickly, didn’t come… I don’t ever wanna go back to my heart problems. Uh, doing great now. But I’ll tell you what, for those few months when I was recovering, I never felt closer to God in my life. Because I knew without His gift, I wasn’t gonna go on.
Jim: That was after you had a heart attack.
Ray: That was after I had a heart attack and the heart bypass. I just… It dawned on me really for the first time in my life of how dependent on Him I was. And that’s what desert does. It drives people into the arms of God.
Jim: Oftentimes I’m seeing the world in this way: it feels like everything is tilted toward finding God.
Jim: That this life is set up for that experience.
Ray: And you know what? That’s brilliant, because that is absolutely true. And so, rather than asking the question why in the world would God allow this, which is a legitimate question when you’re in the desert-
Jim: And the pain is real.
Ray: Exactly. God’s people screamed out in pain. But when we’ve passed through it the question becomes, what was God teaching me? And let me show you where this goes. For example, one of the more profound metaphors in the Hebrew Bible about desert is that in the desert, God is living water. That shows up Mount Sinai. The water comes out of the mountain of God. It shows up in Jeremiah 2, Jeremiah 17. God is living water. And if you’ve been in the desert and suddenly come across one of those oases, you know the power of I’m so hot, I don’t know if I’m gonna make it, and all of a sudden here’s almost like a little heaven on earth. And just enough water that I can go another day, another mile, another hill. But it doesn’t stop there, because Isaiah picks up with that in that same passage I quoted earlier. In Isaiah chapter 32 he says, “A king will reign in righteousness,” when the Messiah comes, “And each one will become a spring of living water.” So when I’ve been in the desert and discovered the only hope I have is God my living water, now God says, “Okay, you’re in My arms. You’ve experienced I gave you just enough to go another day. Now you become My living water to someone else.” And what’s profound is, when Jesus is in the temple on Sukkot in John, the day they prayed for rain, because it was right before the rainy season began, as they were worshiping, Jesus stood up and said, “Whoever is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. And rivers of living water will flow.” And then in a stunning, unexpected twist I think, He says, “Rivers of living water will flow from within you.” You’d expect Him to say, “Rivers of living water flow from within Me,” but He doesn’t. He says, “Drink from Me and you become living water to others.” And now we’re back to that same theme we talked about. If I’ve experienced the salvation in Jesus, if I’ve been drinking the living water from Him, salvation itself as well as the daily blessings, now God says, “You become a river of living water, My water, to the broken world around you.” So, desert always has the purpose of shaping us into more dependent people on our Heavenly Father, but then pushing us to say, “And by His grace we wanna become this to the broken world we live in.”
Jim: And the question asked at that point, which I think we need to ask right now, how do I find that living water?
Ray: Mm-hmm. We’re back to, I think, the good news that God’s Son came to live to show me how to live, to die that my sins would be paid for, so that He can restore my broken relationship with God. And I think the living water starts with a decision to say Jesus is my Lord and is experienced as one then lives out that decision. As He said, “Not everyone who says Lord, Lord, but only those who do the will of My Father.” As I live out that decision to make Him my Lord, I drink living water on a daily basis.
Jim: That is so good. So good.
Ray: And if… You know, just a thought here. It seems to me that’s the genius of Focus on the Family’s ministry, is it’s a community of people, and I know many of you, who have had the living water of Jesus and your whole mission is to become a river of living water to a broken culture.
Ray: And that’s exactly where it has to go.
Jim: Well, I appreciate that. That is what we’re trying to do. And we’re so thankful that we have partnered with you over these many years to bring That The World May Know, a wonderful DVD series, to, uh, those that have an interest. And I would say this: if you haven’t seen it, get it!
Jim: Because it is so good. It’ll make the scripture come alive for each and every one of you and your families. So, Ray Vander Laan, thank you for hosting us here at Holland Christian School. Being on your turf today, seeing the kids that you’re teaching right here, uh, the wonderful, Biblical truths that you teach each and every day. Thank you for being with us.
Ray: And thank you. Thank you so much for partnering with us in this production, and that we share a desire to bring the shalom of the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s an honor.
John: Ray Vander Laan is such a gifted communicator and I’m so glad we could have this conversation for you on today’s episode of Focus on the Family. I trust you’ve been inspired by what Ray has said about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, a very appropriate message for this Good Friday. Let me encourage you to stop by and see details about this series that we’ve talked about, That The World May Know. We’ll direct you to episode 11 in the series, called The Path To The Cross. And we also have a free download of today’s audio presentation for you with some extra content about putting your faith into action so you can bring that shalom of the Kingdom to your part of the world. You’ll find these resources and more at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. We hope you have a rich, meaningful Easter weekend and that you can join us again on Monday as we’ll hear from Phil and Kay Robertson of A&E’s Duck Dynasty sharing their personal story.
Phil Robertson: The change that took place back there all those years ago, 43 years ago, the change that took place is literally stunning.
John: On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening today to Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller hoping you have a rich, meaningful Easter weekend and that you can join us on Monday as we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.