God's First Priority
Updated: Mar 18
As I recall, it was pastor and leadership guru John Maxwell who said, “It's impossible to overestimate the relative unimportance of almost everything.”
And though he was speaking primarily in the context of business and leadership, the statement is most profoundly true in the context of being a disciple of Jesus. And misunderstanding of this reality – and I’ll go so far as to say, a misdirection away from this truth – is the spring from which so much error and damage flow in the religio-political culture of our time.
The net result is that a large percentage of self-identifying Christians expend lots of energy and focus on issues and agendas that are, at best, far wide of God’s clear priorities for his people and, at worst, veer into the realm of old-fashioned idolatry. And between those bookends live many damaging dynamics, both to the disciple and to those outside faith in Christ, who we are called to love and minister to as ambassadors of his Kingdom (II Cor 5:20).
The focus of this blog series, as evidenced by the title, is to discuss the things I’ve changed my mind about as I’ve navigated my Journey and intensely studied the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament. My perspective has changed on many "hot topics" and go-to points of contention and outrage among self-identifying Christians.
But I would like to start with one very important thing (and there are many) that my mind has not changed about. In fact, my conviction has only gotten stronger and deeper as I’ve navigated my own deconstruction process and continually searched the scriptures.
And that is God’s priority and purpose for us as disciples of Jesus.
When I was a youth pastor there was a very popular youth evangelism tool called First Priority, which focused solely on helping students share their faith with friends. In most of my “Christian learnin’,” I was taught that God’s highest priority for his people was for us to get others to "believe" in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. In mission conferences and university chapels, I continually heard that the Great Commission was THE thing that God was concerned about and that should be elevated above everything else in a Christian’s life; that evangelism - that is, folks giving mental ascent to the facts of Jesus' death for their sin so they could go to heaven when they die - was God’s First Priority for us.
And the second most popular purpose I was taught was that we were to be “salt and light” in the culture. That, like salt used to preserve meat, our “righteousness and goodness” was intended to help slow the “rot” of society.
The one glaring problem, however, is that neither one of those things - nor a million others - are God’s First Priority for us.
None of them.
Go ahead. Take a moment.
I understand. Some of you will need to argue with me in your mind—Fume and “yeah, but…” as long as you need to. When you’re done, read on.
I promise, what I’m about to say is not only biblically solid, it’s of utmost importance and foundational to everything else that touches our lives as disciples. And incidentally, the deepening realization of this truth has served as the catalyst for so many of my changes in perspective.
God’s First Priority for us as disciples of Jesus is repeated in multiple ways and through various layers of teaching throughout the New Testament, but nowhere is it so concisely encapsulated than in Romans 8. Most Christians are overly familiar with Romans 8:28. So familiar that much that by isolating it, we grossly misapply it to all sorts of things.
But rarely do we read on and put it in the greater context of what Paul is trying to communicate.
Romans 8:28-29 reads
28 And we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified.
So, what’s God’s First Priority? What is his predetermined agenda for us?
It is our transformation.
A fundamental change from who we naturally are as human beings, dominated and controlled by the Fallen Self, into a being whose heart, thoughts, emotions, character, and overall orientation to life reflect that of Jesus.
Stop. Please don’t do it.
Resist the knee-jerk reaction of “Oh. Be like Jesus. THAT’S your big answer?”
A pastor friend of mine often talks about the Goldilocks Effect. This dynamic tends to cloud our ability to see the truth in a passage of scripture due to overexposure and familiarity.
And nowhere is that more powerful than in this idea of us becoming “like Jesus.” Combined with the gross misunderstandings of what it means to be like Jesus in the here and now, this foundational concept is stripped of its power to inform our lives as God intended.
And, once we miss God’s First Priority, we’re entirely off-script and building upon a false foundation.
You see, God’s intent for us as disciples of Jesus is to be a continuation of his influence in the world (Rom 8:29.) So that the focus on the Kingdom and the love for God and for people Jesus taught and embodied would not be something we talk about abstractly but would be a beautiful, natural, outward manifestation of who we are because we are being transformed on the inside.
And when this awareness and our transformation aren’t our First Priority as disciples, we naturally and unavoidably fall prey to the Fallen Self and its natural tendency to don religious robes and develop lists of moral behaviors that we adhere to in an effort to “act like a Christian.”
Dwell on that thought and admonition, "act like a Christian," for just a moment. Act?
Even though it's a subject that is rarely talked about or taught in the average church, this internal transformation and disentangling of the Fallen Self's influence within the life of a disciple is - simply put - THE admonition of the New Testament.
Lest I be accused of overstating, I recommend meditatively reading the following passages of Scripture with this subject in mind. There are more, but this is a deeply compelling sampling:
· Mark 8:34-35
· Luke 6:39-40
· Romans 8:1-28
· Romans 12:1-2
· Galatians 5
· Philippians 2
· Colossians 3
As these scriptures and many others make clear, our transformation stands as God’s First Priority and is, in fact, the end goal and purpose of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Modern evangelical theology has narrowed the scope and purpose of the cross down to how God “rescues us from hell," which is a great and powerful thing.
But very few make the connection that's made clear in Romans 5-6 that it took nothing less than the cross and resurrection of Jesus to us as humans from the bondage to the Fallen Self.
And rarely, if ever, do we recognize that the assumption of our ongoing pursuit of transformation into the image of Christ is the foundation upon which so many NT promises rest and rely.
It alone provides the context of validation for Jesus' message of hope and forgiveness. It also provides the context, catalyst, and power for executing the Great Commission. Contrarily, the lack of transformation and tangible Christlikeness on the part of disciples commonly results in repudiation and rejection of the gospel itself.
Put succinctly, our transformation is the starting point and the “given” that’s assumed in many of the admonishments and promises in the New Testament.
And yet, it is rarely, if ever, taught or seriously considered in modern “Christianity,”, especially within the religious context of America in the 21st Century.
An unfortunate yet common outcome when our transformation ceases to be our First Priority is that many other priorities rush in and vie for our focus. And tragically, those things most often focus on others, how “they” sin, and how it's our job to "stand up for righteousness" by criticizing, judging and condemning them and their actions. This, of course, is systemic and epidemic in our current religious culture. And it's destroying our ability to be a credible voice for the Kingdom of God.
So, indeed, it is impossible to overestimate the relative unimportance of almost everything.
And in contrast, it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of understanding and pursuing God’s stated purpose in our lives as disciples, our transformation into the image and character of Jesus.
To miss this is to miss the centrality of what being a disciple of Jesus is. But, when deep, authentic transformation becomes our First Priority, it changes everything; how we see God, ourselves, and the world around us,
At least, it has for me.
(For more on this subject, please check out our video titled “What’s a Disciple?”)