I don’t believe you can have an encounter with Jesus and not be fundamentally changed—without becoming more loving, gracious, patient, kind, self-giving, understanding, faithful…. On the other hand, when people tell me they know Christ but remain ungracious, hateful, unforgiving, vindictive, factious…I know they’re lying (to themselves, probably).
Here’s how John succinctly put it:
20-21 If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both. (1 John 4:20-21 MSG)
These people may have had a religious experience: elation over having their sins given, escaping judgment, who knows. The problem is you can have these kinds of experiences without actually encountering the Person. And if forgiveness and escaping is all you’re looking for, then encountering Jesus won’t be a top priority.
Consider that pre-Christian Paul was a terrorist zealot against Jesus’ Church until his encounter with Him. There’s no other way to explain his total about-face than to understand what happens when our perception collides with Jesus’ reality. Everything dramatically and fundamentally changes.
13 By now you have heard stories of how severely I harassed and persecuted Christians and did my best to systematically destroy God’s church, all because of my radical devotion to the Jewish religion. 14 My zeal and passion for the doctrines of Judaism distinguished me among my people, for I was far more advanced in my religious instruction than others my age.
15 But then God called me by his grace; and in love, he chose me from my birth to be his. 16 God’s grace unveiled his Son in me so that I would proclaim him to the non-Jewish people of the world. (Gal.1:13-16 TPT*)
Without encountering Christ, we tend to project our personal issues onto God and Scripture. I once counseled a married couple where the wife was telling me about her fear of her husband because of his outbursts of anger when they got into arguments. She said that when she would express this fear to her husband, his answer would be, “Well, Jesus got angry!”
Yeah, Jesus got angry…at religious hypocrites, at the ungracious and judgmental, those who claimed to represent God but turned people away from Him. Jesus never once got angry at those who were the victims of their religious condemnations.
This is the danger of interpreting Scripture without having an ongoing, intimate relationship with Christ. We risk turning the Living Word into something ugly, something that produces nothing but death. Paul’s competence came from God’s “empowering presence,” not from being able to thump sinners with self-righteous indignation.
4 We carry this confidence in our hearts because of our union with Christ before God. 5 Yet we don’t see ourselves as capable enough to do anything in our own strength, for our true competence flows from God’s empowering presence.6 He alone makes us adequate ministers who are focused on an entirely new covenant. Our ministry is not based on the letter of the law but through the power of the Spirit. The letter of the law kills, but the Spirit pours out life. (2 Cor.3:4-6 TPT*)
When we read the Bible without encountering the Word of Life Himself, we run the danger of becoming a religious zealot rather a follower of Jesus.
Furthermore, Jesus said we can know a person’s true progress by the fruit they produce in their lives. Let’s look at the two kinds of fruit for a moment.
Flesh (the self-centered life):
19 The wrong things the sinful self does are clear: committing sexual sin, being morally bad, doing all kinds of shameful things, 20 worshiping false gods, taking part in witchcraft, hating people, causing trouble, being jealous, angry or selfish, causing people to argue and divide into separate groups, 21 being filled with envy, getting drunk, having wild parties, and doing other things like this. (Gal.5:19-21 ERV)
Spirit (the other-centered life in Christ):
22 But the fruit that the Spirit produces in a person’s life is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these kinds of things. (Gal.5:22-23 ERV)
I want you to notice what’s not on this list.
Certitude is the enemy of faith
I believe there’s a reason why so many things in Scripture can have more than one interpretation and are hard to understand (especially, Jesus’ teachings). It’s because they require relationship—they require us engaging with Christ, undergoing the text and wrestling with them until we take on His nature.
They are made to humble us in our inability comprehend them fully and to be satisfied with living in the mystery. They make us more gracious with others and reliant on God as we hold them in the divine tension they create.
Certitudes and cut-and-dried doctrinal positions, on the other hand, don’t require a relationship with Christ at all. You can just be told what to believe instead of how to believe. Of course, the danger here is that you can be talked out of anything you were talked into.
So, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking we’re following Christ when we’re actually following religion and/or traditions we’ve been taught. While knowing the Bible and having sound doctrines are good things, the greater question remains: do we know Christ. Can we honestly answer this by looking at the fruit of our experience?
Beloved, I want to encourage you. The invitation is always open on His end. When we encounter the living Christ, every cell in our being resonates to His voice and we’re never the same again. Empty religion will never satisfy us again. As the two on the Road to Emmaus testified, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32b NIV)