God is the true source for all we have and are. Jesus is not pointing the way to life and joy, he is—himself—life and joy. In his Message version of the Bible, Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 14:6-7 this way:
Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!”
The “provision” and “blessing” Jesus offers us, in the end, the invitation he extends in John 6:51:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.”
When GROUP Magazine asked thousands of Christian teenagers “How is God ‘real’ to you?” these were their top three responses:
- He’s there for me when I need him, and I see him “there for” others around me.
- I see God all around me (in people, nature, and circumstances).
- He’s given me blessings in life.
Because circumstances often change and blessings may seem to come and go, teenagers need to hear that Jesus is trustworthy, and his very presence can “feed” us. During “desert” situations, he’ll provide the “manna” to sustain their bodies and souls.
Humans need food, water, clothing, and shelter, yet God blesses us with much more than the basics. Families, friends, educational opportunities, talents, recreation, love, and laughter all come from our Creator. Mostly importantly, he blesses us with faith, grace, forgiveness, and his only Son, Jesus, who died to offer us life now on earth, and eternal life in heaven. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus promises:
Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33).
Fill ’Er Up
In a fascinating encounter in John 4, Jesus assures an outcast that he alone is everything she needs. As the Living Water, only Jesus can meet the needs of today’s young people, as well.
The encounter features a broken woman from Samaria who’d chased after life but always wound up empty. Samaria was between Judea and Galilee and was the fastest way to get from the one place to the other. But if you were Jewish during Bible times, you’d never think about going that way. Jews hated Samaritans. They thought they were dirty and dangerous. The fact that Jesus went through Samaria to get to Galilee means he’s fearless, and no one is too dirty or dangerous for him.
Because Jesus was fully human, he got hungry, thirsty, and tired. He wasn’t too proud to ask this woman for a drink, or to ask his disciples to get him food. It may not seem shocking to us, but back then, it was taboo for a man to be caught talking to a woman in public like this. And it was the sixth hour (noon). Folks usually got their water in the evening when it was cooler; this woman likely went to the well at noon because she was some kind of an outcast.
In John 4:13, Jesus says: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again.” But as he continues, we learn he isn’t really talking about water. He’s talking about life—that as long as we keep trying to get filled by “earthly wells” we’ll never be satisfied.
Like a Styrofoam cup, we’re made to be filled with life. But over time, either by the things we’ve done or the things done to us, we wind up broken and empty. The Samaritan woman tried to get filled through relationships. She’d been married and divorced five times. We all want desperately to be filled. Some of the ways teenagers try to accomplish that include popularity; excelling in school, sports, music, or the arts; boyfriends, girlfriends, and friendships; being good or well liked; and being bad, wild, or cynical. No wonder they can feel empty.
When your “cup” is full of holes, it won’t hold water anymore. An outside solution is required, and that’s where Jesus comes in. When Jesus says he gives living water (John 4:14), he’s really giving himself. When young people give their lives to Jesus, he covers their broken places so they can be filled.
Jesus offers himself to each one of us. All we must do is place ourselves in his hands.
By this time in his ministry, Jesus has become incredibly popular. He’s performing miracles, healing sick people, and teaching folks things about God that they’d never heard before. In fact, Jesus is attracting so much attention that he has no time to eat! On top of that, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, has just been brutally murdered. Because of all the demands on him, Jesus hasn’t had time to grieve. So he gathers his buddies and tries to get some rest.
When Jesus’ plans to get away from the crowd don’t pan out, his reaction reveals his character:
Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. (Mark 6:34)
The Greek word for “compassion” is splagchnizomai (splag-shnits-oh-my). It literally means “wrenching of the gut” (see a pastor give a short explanation of splagchinizomai here). When Jesus was “moved with compassion,” it means he actually experienced a gripping pain inside himself. Jesus loves us so much that he literally feels our pain. His stomach wrenches. That’s how much he cares.
When the crowds needs became apparent, Jesus tells his disciples to do something he knows they can’t do on their own. Obviously, he wanted them to play a role in the upcoming miracle. The disciples gave what they had to give—a little bit of food. They also passed it out and collected it. When Jesus asks us to do the impossible, he’s inviting us to play a part in his miracle-working mission.
Jesus cares about all our needs, even “small” ones like basic physical needs. He cares about our entire being: heart, soul, mind, and body. Jesus’ supply is unlimited. We never need to worry about him running out of what we need. In fact, there will always be plenty of “leftovers” that we can share with others. When we give Jesus what we have, he uses it, then returns to us something greater.
When we take credit for our possessions and abilities, we forget that every good thing in our lives comes from God, the ultimate Giver. And when we cling too tightly to what God has blessed us with, we neglect to give back to him and to other people.
Young Christians need both inlets and outlets. Otherwise, it’s tempting to just go through the motions of youth group for their own self-centered purposes. Our crucial task is to help them make the seismic attitude shift from “What’s in it for me?” to “What’s Jesus calling me to?”
A critical key is mobilizing teenagers for a purpose larger than themselves and challenging them to step up to the plate and do something. (When Alex and Brett Harris wrote the book Do Hard Things they tapped into a latent hunger in students to make a big difference in the world, and started a movement). It’s indisputable: Being “doers of the Word and not hearers only” (James 1:22) accelerates the learning and maturity processes. Like the Chinese proverb says:
Focused, missional action changes kids’ spiritual DNA like nothing else.
To what mission has Jesus called your teenagers? Consider his words in John 20:21:
As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”
And in Acts 1:8, Jesus says:
You will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere.”
Every single day, your kids are called into a mission to share Jesus’ love, hope, and grace in their spheres of influence. Unleashing teenagers for day-in-and-day-out missional action brings purpose, focus, and spiritual growth. Perhaps you’ve heard this illustration: The Dead Sea is dead because it has an inlet but no outlet. The Sea of Galilee is teeming with life because it has both.
Similarly, when teenagers have an inlet—learning from God’s Word—but no outlet for action, service, and evangelism, they become stagnant. They can easily turn into little Pharisees who know Christian-ese but miss the whole point: knowing God and making him known. With a continuous flow of truth into their souls and a constant river of action out from their lives, however, they’ll thrive with spiritual life.
This river will flow most freely if you include an immediate call to action in every lesson you teach, then hold kids accountable to it. The next week, have them share stories about what they did. And remember, you need to model this missional, faith-in-action lifestyle by doing the same thing.
Flipping the switch from “me” to “Thee” is a process, but you can jump-start it by providing consistent, concrete calls to action every week. Give kids the mission and purpose they need to be blessings to other people.