Last month I turned thirty-five. Aging and all that it brings with it is a surreal experience and I find it hard to figure out how I got here. Yet this birthday has caused me to think much more about the next ten years of life than the previous decade. I wonder what they will bring. What will change? What things will remain? What can I expect to lie on the horizon for me and my precious family? These are where my thoughts drift as I stand here in the center of my thirties.
Yet what happens if I steer those drifting thoughts to another Man who was once in His thirties? How does that shape my expectations? The result is somewhat jarring. Even a few moments of real reflection lead me to the conclusion that I often ask the wrong questions about my days on this earth.
When taken with the general socio-historical information about the time in which He chose to be born, the way the Bible describes Jesus’ life leaves no doubt that I eat more food on any given day than Jesus did. This makes me uncomfortable. My possessions exceed His so dramatically that there can be no comparison between the two. Between what I own in a modest, quasi-suburban existence in 21st century America and what Jesus owned in His 1st century Jewish existence lies a chasm so wide that it simply overwhelms me. In the last twelve months I have traveled far more than Jesus ever did prior to His ascension into the heights of the heavens. Apart from His journey to Egypt as an infant, there is no reason to believe Jesus ever left the immediate vicinity of Israel before His death. During this very local life, He was the object of many more insults and cruel words than I ever been. Harsh, scathing mistreatment fell upon Him even long before the hour of His Passion had come. I have known nothing of this, and unlike Him I am more than deserving of it. Mistreatment is, indeed, somewhat of a misnomer when it comes to the fallen sons of Adam.
The mention of His suffering leads to the most piercing level of comparison. John the Baptist, the slightly elder relative of Jesus, died in his early thirties. Jesus followed shortly after. As I celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday I have already outlived the greatest man born of a woman and the only Man conceived by the Holy Spirit through the mystery of the incarnation. Yahweh in the flesh died a young man…younger than me.
For most of church history the apex of sanctification as defined by Scripture remained unquestioned. We are to be like Jesus. His example is what we are called to imitate and His character is what we are conformed to by the working of grace within us. Only in an era when humanism has flourished so wildly that it grew into outright narcissism could this actually come under assault from those who claim to follow Him. And yet here we are. It is astonishingly common for the cross of Christ to be presented as a means of alleviating any form of human adversity rather than something that we are to embrace and choose for the sake of His name (Luke 9:22-24, 1 Cor 15:31). Instead of being called to imitate Jesus, millions are being told from pulpits that they are to free to sit idly by and simply reap the many benefits of Jesus’ unthinkable poverty. God did not become a man and die in His thirty-third year so those who were called by His name could live indulgent, opulent lives devoid of any sacrifice until they die at ninety. The lives of all of the prominent figures in the New Testament and everything they said militate against this.
Is a servant greater than His master? This is the question that echoes through my soul as I think about what to expect in the decades to come (cf. Jn 13:16). How could a longer life-expectancy, greater comfort, and kinder treatment than Jesus possibly be something that I view as normal? How could I actually expect that to such a degree that I would be surprised if it didn’t turn out to be true? I am called to walk as Jesus walked and relate to the world in same manner He did (John 17:18, 1 John 2:6). I am to put on Christ and I am to have Him formed in me (Rom 13:14, Gal 4:9). I am to follow the example of His suffering (1 Pet 2:21). Not only did Jesus command discipleship to be based on the imitation of His suffering, He guaranteed that it would happen to those who belonged to Him:
“If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. “But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.” (Jn 15:19–21)
Paul said that all who desired to live a godly life in Christ Jesus would suffer persecution, and that we would be fellow heirs of the glory of Christ only if we partook of the fellowship of His suffering (2 Tim 3:12, Rom 8:16-17, Phil 3: 10-11). If we were to hear of a young man in his early thirties dying a horrendous death on foreign soil because He preached the Lord Jesus Christ, immediately we think of words like “senseless” and “extreme”. We would wonder what incompetent missions agency would possibly send someone in the prime of their life into such blatant risk. We never think “normal“. We never think “Christian”.
When loss happens, when affliction comes, we wonder what went wrong. The great challenge is that when we stare at Jesus and the apostles the question is almost entirely reversed! It is when no one is persecuting us or mistreating us, it is when comfort and ease have become our constant companions, that we should start to ask “what am I doing wrong?” Prosperity and popularity are what should strike our souls with a deep disquiet because those things were so utterly foreign to our God and Savior when His feet trod the earth. Scripture doesn’t ask us to seek persecution. Paul was lowered in a basket from the walls of Damascus to avoid it. The Bible calls us to seek to be like Jesus, which will (inevitably) result in persecution if truly carried through. It is in this relationship where the problems come. The widespread lack of persecution in the West should not cause us to extol the virtues of democracy, but rather to examine our lives to see if the life of Jesus truly finds expression (Gal 2:19-20).
I don’t what the next decade might hold. Jesus didn’t have a family, and I do. God loves families, and families need houses. Jesus didn’t live in America, and I do. I know the specifics will be different. We are called to be transformed into the likeness of a real Person, not just plug our lives into a formula. Yet I’m pleading with God to help me glorify His Son and love Him well – to love Him in truth. I’m crying out for Jesus to help me be a Christian.