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Ebola survivors and the Kingdom of God

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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We live in a “celebrity culture.”  Movie stars and athletes dominate the news daily.  But not every celebrity is what you thought they were.

Christopher Walken was a circus lion tamer when he was a teenager.  Steve Buscemi was once a New York City firefighter.  Dolph Lundgren, famous for no-brainer roles in action flicks, has a master’s degree in chemical engineering and won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at MIT.  Natalie Portman has been published in two scientific journals.

Woody Harrelson’s father was an assassin and the killer of federal judge John H. Wood, Jr.  Geena Davis made it to the semifinal qualification rounds of the 2000 Olympics as an archer.  Denzel Washington broke his right little finger as a child; it still juts out 45 degrees.  Oprah Winfrey had a sixth toe removed a few years ago.  Megan Fox has “clubbed thumbs.”  Jennifer Garner has “brachymetatarsa,” a shortened toe.  And Tom Hanks is a third cousin, four generations removed, of Abraham Lincoln.

Our culture measures success by celebrity and fame, but let me ask you: who won the Academy Award for best actor two years ago?  It was Daniel Day-Lewis—I had to look it up.  Best actress?  Jennifer Lawrence.  The year before?  I have no idea.  Napoleon stated, “Fame is fleeting.  Obscurity is forever.  I’ll take obscurity.”

Fame and celebrity are indeed fleeting.  If you’re looking for life’s greatest significance, don’t look there.

Now consider this fact: the Centers for Disease Control announced Wednesday that 1.4 million people could be infected with the Ebola virus by early next year if interventions don’t start working soon.  The CDC director arrived in Africa this past Monday to assess the crisis, and is calling it “absolutely unprecedented.”

But there’s good news on this tragic front from an unlikely source: Ebola survivors.  Many doctors believe that those who are infected but survive this strain of Ebola become immune to it.  As a result, they are being enlisted to counsel those who may be infected.  They are helping bury the dead, since bodies of Ebola victims are even more contagious than when the person was alive.

Survivors such as Mohamed and Zena are now Ebola Ambassadors in Guinea, working with community groups to show that the disease can be prevented if people take certain precautions.  And survivors such as William Pooley, the first British person to contract Ebola, are donating blood plasma to treat victims.

If you are a Christian, you are such a survivor spiritually.  You were infected with spiritual and eternal death, but Jesus has cleansed you from this virus and given you eternal life.  Now you are immune to death.  The moment you die, you live.  When you close your eyes here, you open them there.  When you take your last breath here, you take your first breath there.  Jesus said that whoever lives and believes in him “shall never die” (John 11:26).  You are immune.

Fame is fleeting, but Christians have the cure for eternal death.  As we continue our series on life’s ultimate questions, let’s see how these facts are relevant to us today.

The question I’ve been asked most often

I was a pastor for 25 years and have been preaching for 38 years.  In all these years, here’s the question I’ve been asked most often: how can I know that I’m doing what God wants me to do?  How can I be sure that my life is significant, that I’m accomplishing my purpose?  Every person I know wants to know, How can I live a life that matters?

It’s my question as well.  Last November 22, Dallas and the world remembered the 50th anniversary of the death of JFK.  My brother calculated another significance for the day: that was the day I became precisely the same age my father was when he died.

Dad had his first heart attack when I was two years old, and died from a second attack when I was in college.  He lived 19 years on borrowed time.  Mom told us later that she woke up every morning and looked over to see if Dad was alive or dead.  I remember ambulances coming to our house, paddles shocking my father back to life, and all the health issues he faced.

As a result, I grew up not trusting the future.  In many ways, I still don’t.  I’m still afraid that I will die before I accomplish what my life was intended to do.  Over the years, I’ve learned that others—especially men—feel the same way.

So, what are we here for?  What gives your life its greatest significance today?

What matters most in life?

John 15 is part of Jesus’ “farewell discourse,” delivered to his disciples on Maundy Thursday before his crucifixion the next day.  The disciples have finished their Last Supper in the Upper Room, and are on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane.  Along the way, they likely passed by the Temple and its magnificent gates.  Above the gate of the Temple and over the Holy of Holies were golden vines and grape-clusters as large as a man, according to Josephus.  The vine was one of the most frequent Old Testament symbols for the nation of Israel.

Commenting on that image, Jesus says, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1).  Israel’s “vine” is decaying and dying, but Jesus’ vine is “true,” genuine, real.  Then he explains that his followers are “branches” connected with him.  If we do not bear fruit, we are “thrown away” and “thrown into the fire and burned” (v. 6).  This does not refer to a Christian who loses his salvation, but to someone who was never saved, someone who claimed to follow Jesus but was never his.  We can know them as God knows them—they do not “bear fruit.”  By contrast, those branches that do bear fruit are “pruned” and disciplined so they can grow to bear even more fruit.

So we would think that bearing fruit is what matters most in life, and in a sense we would be right.  The “fruit” Jesus has in mind is first our character, our reflection of Christ in our lives.  As apple trees make apples, so being connected with Jesus makes us more like him.  The “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22)—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—are a perfect description of him.

Second, the “fruit” he has in mind is the reproduction of Christ in other people.  As an apple tree reproduces through the fruit that bear its seeds, so we are to reproduce Christ by helping people become Christians.  All through the New Testament our mandate is clear: we are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

How do we abide in Jesus?

But being like Jesus and leading others to Jesus is not to be our focus.  My point is not to tell you to try harder to do better.  It is not to make yourself more like Jesus as best you can and win someone to Jesus today as best you can.  The key to the text is the little word “abide.”  It means to “remain,” to be connected to, to be engaged with.  That’s the imperative in the text, the command of Jesus.  He does not command us to bear fruit—he commands us to stay connected to him.  Then he will bear fruit in and through us.  Then he will make us more like himself, and lead others to himself.

Human words cannot change human hearts.  You and I cannot convict a single sinner of a single sin, or save a single soul.  Only the Holy Spirit can do this through us.  But he must have a vessel to use, a conduit through which to flow.  The more we abide in Jesus, the more we are “conformed” to his image (Romans 8:29).  And the more he uses us to bring others to himself.

Abiding in Jesus is what gives life its greatest significance and joy.  So, how do we do this?

Now we’ll connect our earlier observations that fame is fleeting, but Christians have the cure for eternal death. 

First, we choose to make abiding in Jesus is our highest priority.  Not fame and celebrity, for they are fleeting.  Not money, for it is temporary.  Did you ever see a U-Haul attached to a hearse?  There’s an old Spanish proverb: a burial shroud has no pockets.  John Ortberg notes that life is like Monopoly—when the game is over, everything goes back into the box.  We decide that staying connected to Jesus all day every day is our highest measure of success.

Second, we pay the price to abide in him.  We begin the day with prayer and Bible study, so we can reconnect with our vine.  When we are tempted, we ask him for the strength to refuse, knowing that sin cuts us from the vine.  If we fall, we ask him to forgive us and reconnect us as soon as possible.  When we face a decision, we pray about it; when we are blessed, we thank him; when we are challenged, we ask for his strength.  We go through the day with him, practicing the presence of Jesus.  And as we do, we become more like him.

Last, we choose to give what he gives to us.  We are Ebola survivors helping others everywhere we find them.  We are fruit, reproducing the tree to which we are connected.  All that God does for us, he intends to do through us.  We must breathe out to breathe in.  We must give in order to have empty hands to receive.  The Sea of Galilee receives water from the Upper Jordan river, then gives it out through the Lower Jordan.  The Dead Sea receives from the Jordan, but does not give out.  That’s why it’s the “Dead” Sea.

For whom are you praying today to know Jesus?  When last did you share your faith?  When last did you influence someone toward your Lord?  When last did you give more than you could spare to Kingdom causes?


Fame is fleeting, but Christians have the cure for eternal death.  If we abide in Jesus all day every day, we will manifest his presence in the world and we can attack the gates of hell with the good news of his love.  But only then.

As I prepared this message at home, Janet was watching a movie about the life of John F. Kennedy, Jr.  If anyone should have had a long, charmed life, it would have been this son of an American president.  Everyone remembers the iconic picture of “John John” playing beneath his father’s desk in the Oval Office.  Many people, including his uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, thought John would be president one day.

He was considered the front-runner for the New York Senate seat in 2000, which would have served as a stepping-stone to the White House.  However, on July 16, 1999, the small plane he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing John, his wife, and his wife’s sister.

In a very real way, you and every person you know is on that plane.  Unless Jesus returns first, we will all die.  None of us is guaranteed tomorrow.  Would Jesus say you are abiding in him?  Would those who know you say they see his character in you?  Would the lost people you know say that you are sharing his love with them?

You may be seeking success.  Are you significant?