Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What is “a Personal Relationship with Jesus”?

    It is very common in evangelical circles to talk about having "a personal relationship with Jesus." This is often meant to counter such notions that religion is largely a matter of dry dogma and empty ritual. True Christianity brings you into a real relationship with a living Person, the risen Christ.
    But Jesus lived here 2,000 years ago and is no longer here on earth. How, then, is it possible to have a "personal relationship" with Him? Interestingly Jesus Himself had a long discussion on this very topic. In chapters 13 through 16 of his gospel the apostle John recounts a long discussion Jesus had with His disciples shortly before His death. John introduces the "Upper Room Discourse," as it has come to be known, by saying that Jesus, "having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end" (John 13:1; NKJV). Jesus was keenly aware that His departure was at hand, and that He would leave His disciples in a radically altered set of circumstances. How would they manage in His absence? In short, how is it possible to have a personal relationship with Someone Who is no longer physically present?
    A major part of the answer is that after His ascension into heaven Jesus would send the Holy Spirit to take His place, as it were, on earth. "And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever . . ." The Greek word translated "Helper" ("parakletos," or "Paraclete") carries the basic meaning of someone who is called to someone else's aid. By extension it has a variety of meanings including "advocate," "helper," and "comforter." In this passage Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as "another Helper," suggesting that the Holy Spirit would fill the same role that Jesus Himself had filled while He was here on earth.
Van Gogh: Man Reading the Bible
What exactly then does the Holy Spirit do? First of all, He fills Jesus' role as a teacher. "The Spirit will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you" (14:26). He "will guide you into all truth" and "will tell you things to come" (16:13). Some of this may have been directed to Jesus' immediate disciples. We cannot claim special revelation today. But we have the New Testament, the written testimony of Jesus' life and ministry, and the Holy Spirit helps us today to understand and internalize the message. In this sense Jesus still communicates with us through His Spirit.

    The Holy Spirit will also assist in the church's work of spreading the gospel. He is said to convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment (16:8-11). Without this vital work of the Spirit the mission of the church cannot succeed.
    Prayer obviously plays an important an important role in a personal relationship with Jesus. "And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it" (14:13,14). Thus Jesus communicates to us through His Word, and we communicate to Him in prayer.
    It is important to emphasize, however, that a "personal" relationship, a relationship between two personal beings, is not static by dynamic. It fluctuates in intensity over time. This means that it must be nurtured. Our relationship with Jesus is no different. And so He tells us "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me" (15:4). But how do we "abide in Christ"? "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love . . ." (15:10). "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him" (14:21). The question is this: do we truly love Christ? Are we obeying Him?
    There is a sobering aspect to all of this, however. A personal relationship with Jesus will cost us something. It will cost us the friendship of the world. It must be remembered that this whole discussion in the Upper Room took place just as Jesus was about to be arrested, condemned and crucified. It is the supreme irony of human history that God would send His own Son into the world, and the world would reject Him. One might well ask how such a thing could possibly happen. On an earlier occasion Jesus had explained why: "The world . . . hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil" (John 7:7). It was His message that the world found so offensive – the implication that its deeds were evil. And so now Jesus tells His disciples that "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you" (John 15:18). He then went on to state a basic fact about the church and its relationship with the world: "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (v. 19). Before we were saved we were very much a part of the world – we readily absorbed its values, its mores, its lifestyle. But now that God has saved us things are different. We cannot simply go back and live the way we used to. And to the extent that this implies a rejection of the world's values, the world is bound to resent us. Our way of life is a tacit rebuke to theirs, and for this reason they cannot tolerate us. If anyone would be a follower of Jesus, he must first deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him (Matt. 16:24).
    How many people today are really willing to pursue a personal relationship with Jesus?

Other blog posts you may find interesting:
Religion or Christ?
What is the Church Supposed to be Like? 
The Promise of Prayer 

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