Echoes From the Upper Room

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1)

As Easter approaches, I find myself being drawn once again to John’s account of the Upper Room Discourse where Jesus shares his most intimate thoughts with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. As John chronicled the events of that night, he had very little to add to the words of our Lord. How they must have echoed in his heart for years before he sat down to preserve them for all eternity.

Like John, I find anything I have to offer in the way of commentary completely unnecessary. As we remember and reflect this Easter weekend, may this sampling of our Lord’s words from the Upper Room echo in our hearts as well and, more importantly, may they reverberate through our lives.

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (13:14)

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (13:34-35)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (14:1-3)

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” … Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. … The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (14:6,9,10)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (14:27)

“I am the vine: you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (15:5)

“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” (15:26-27)

“You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. … Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (16:20,22)

*”I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (16:33)

Indeed he has overcome. Happy Easter, everyone. He is risen!

Jesus gave us a model for the work of the church at the Last Supper. While his disciples kept proposing more organization – Hey, let’s elect officers, establish hierarchy, set standards of professionalism – Jesus quietly picked up a towel and basin of water and began to wash their feet.” – Philip Yancey, Church: Why Bother?

*Note: All Scripture from the New International Version (NIV) of the Gospel of John.



The Theory of Everything

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20 NIV)

The renowned physicist, cosmologist, and author, Stephen Hawking died last week at the age of 76, living more than fifty years longer than expected after being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, at the age of 21. When I heard the news, this verse from Romans immediately came to mind.

Just a few months ago I wrote about my first conscious awareness of an awesome Creator in a post titled Stargazing. (Click here to read)  As I gazed into that clear, starry night sky from the field behind my house so many years ago, I sensed a creation that is seemingly infinite and complex beyond my ability to understand.

“Pillars of Creation” (NASA Hubble Image)

When Stephen Hawking gazed into the heavens, he resolved to discover the scientific explanation for the creation of a universe which I find incomprehensible without acknowledging the divine Creator whose fingerprints I sensed that night in the scene above me.

Through the years, Hawking also seemed at times to be drawn to the likelihood of intelligent design. In his best-selling 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, he wrote of his goal to develop a “theory of everything” that would fully explain all physical aspects of the universe from its point of creation through today and on into the future.

Speaking of this theory of everything, Hawking closed the book with this statement:

“However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.”

That last sentence teased many into thinking that Hawking was suggesting a divine Creator, undoubtedly increasing the popularity of his book. In a later work, Black Holes and Baby Universes, Hawking revealed that he almost removed that last statement during proofing and acknowledged, “Had I done so, the sales might have been halved.”

Whatever hope he may have generated that he would eventually conclude the existence of a divine Creator was crushed in a book he co-wrote with Leonard Mlodinow in 2010, The Grand Design. It declares that “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”

In a 2014 interview, Hawking further added:

“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is that we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”

Stephen Hawking was a brilliant scientist. His knowledge of the cosmos certainly far exceeded my own. I thoroughly enjoyed the 2014 movie about his life, appropriately titled The Theory of Everything. Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Hawking was masterful.

With great interest I have read A Brief History of Time, The Grand Design, as well as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest book, Astrophysics For People In a Hurry, which I found more readable, compelling, and understandable for “ordinary people” such as myself than any of Hawking’s works.

But rather than cause me to question the existence of God, those books just increase my sense of awe and wonder over the universe that we inhabit. While they offer some interesting theories, I disagree with Hawking that science offers a more convincing explanation for the creation of the universe than the book  that begins with this clear declaration – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

Why do I believe that statement in place of any theories Hawking or Tyson offer concerning the creation of the universe? First of all, it just makes more sense than Hawking’s theory of “spontaneous creation”. Paul’s observation in Romans 1:20 that creation has God’s fingerprints all over it is much more plausible, indeed leaving us without excuse.

More importantly, I believe the book I trust was written under the inspiration and guidance of the Creator himself. That’s why we commonly refer to it as God’s Word.

And lastly, I live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7) – a concept that, in spite of all his brilliance and imagination, Hawking seemed unwilling to consider.

“The fact that the universe had a beginning is a very striking thing. How do you explain that unique event without God?” – Charles Townes, 1964 Nobel Prize winner, Physics

Trusting in Advance

By Julian Wells

“But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:19-20)

What is faith? I have encountered numerous answers to that question through the years. Here are just a few:

  • Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” 
  • Webster’s defines faith as “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.”
  • “It is the heart which experiences God and not reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by reason.” – Blaise Pascal
  • “Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God’s grace; it is so certain that someone would die a thousand times for it.” – Martin Luther

One of my favorite definitions of faith comes from Philip Yancey, who once wrote, “I have learned that faith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” The older I get and the more I reflect on my own faith journey, the more I appreciate Yancey’s definition.

That was the definition that came to mind recently as I came to the end of the Book of Genesis with Joseph speaking those memorable, forgiving, and convicting words to his brothers, who were fearing Joseph’s retribution after the death of their father, Jacob. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…” (Gen. 50: 20)

Perhaps you are familiar with Joseph’s story, as told in chapters 37-50 of Genesis. Out of jealousy his brothers had sold him to some Midianite merchants and told Jacob he had been killed by animals. After those merchants then sold him to Potiphar, an Egyptian official, Joseph was falsely accused of molesting Potiphar’s wife and thrown into prison.

At that point, if anyone was ever justified in declaring that life is unfair, it certainly might have been Joseph. But at no time does he ever appear to entertain those thoughts. Instead, Genesis 39:23 says, “the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”

Even from a prison cell, Joseph earned Pharaoh’s trust in the face of a coming famine and was given great authority to prepare for it. With that authority, Joseph was eventually able to save his entire family, including those brothers who had once intended him great harm.

Joseph’s story is a fascinating picture of faithful obedience to God, the power of forgiveness, and trust in the sovereign control of God in the affairs of men.

Life is full of detours, disappointments, and difficulties. Sometimes these are the result of poor choices on our part. Sometimes we get caught in the blowback of other’s actions. Sometimes we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And sometimes God is doing a greater work that will only make sense when, like Joseph, we look at our lives in reverse.

Whatever the source, it is always tempting to wallow in our misfortune, blame others for our circumstances, or make excuses for our own bad choices. A better response is to remember the story of Joseph. Instead of excusing or fixing blame on others, regard your circumstances through eyes of faith as coming from God.

He just might be up to something good.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Note: All Scripture references from the New International Version (NIV)


A Life of Impact

“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5 NIV)

Upon hearing the news last week that Billy Graham had died, my mind immediately took me back to my childhood when I first heard his clear prophetic voice declaring the good news that God loves me, desires a relationship with me, and sent his Son to die that I might live eternally with him.

In those days, there was only one black and white television in our house and only three channels to choose from. When the family gathered in the living room after supper, our viewing choices were very limited. The child sitting closest to the television served as the remote control, but the decision as to which program we watched was usually made by my father.

But when a Billy Graham crusade was on, Mama controlled the dial!

Much has been written since Graham’s passing about the estimated 215 million people who attended his crusades during his many years of public ministry. My wife and I were among the crowd when he preached in Tallahassee, Florida in 1986.

He has long been loved by people around the world, named to Gallup’s Top Ten Most Admired List last December for a record 61st time.

But his greatest personal impact on me occurred over fifty years ago, gathered with my family around that black and white television.

Billy Graham possessed exceptional oratorical skills and personal charisma, presenting the gospel with unsurpassed simplicity, clarity, and conviction. Like the Apostle Paul asserts in the verse that heads this post, he understood that his effectiveness as a preacher depended on the power of God working through a faithful servant.

In my lifetime, I don’t believe there has been a more faithful servant of God or anyone who made a greater impact for Christ. I can still picture the lines of people moving toward the stage at the end of each service as the choir sang “Just As I Am” and as he encouraged the crowd with two simple words, “You come.”

Mama never pressed us afterward about responding to that call at the end of each telecast. I think she trusted that in God’s perfect time and when our hearts were ready, each of us would eventually take that step of faith.

Years later, as he lay on his deathbed, Daddy placed his trust in Christ. Three years after that, I made my own public profession and was baptized at Florence Baptist Church in Forest City, North Carolina, not far from where I live now.

While God surely used many people and circumstances to bring us both to those fateful decisions, I’m convinced that none of them influenced us more than Billy Graham, whose messages had continued to resonate in our hearts.

Over the last week, I have been rereading my copy of his 2006 book, The Journey: How to Live by Faith in an Uncertain World, which includes a chapter titled Making an Impact. Recognizing how closely my teaching and writing over the past twelve years has so often echoed his own words from that book, it is clear that his impact on me continues to this day.

I invite you to share your own memories of Billy Graham and any impact he might have had on your faith journey.

As for me, I will be eternally grateful that whenever his crusades were being telecast in the days of my youth, Mama controlled our television dial.

“One of the Bible’s greatest truths is that we were not meant for this world alone. Death is not the end of life; it is only the gateway to eternity. … Some day this life will be over. I look forward to that day, because I know that beyond it is heaven.” – Billy Graham, The Journey