Friday, March 29, 2013

The Sign of Jonah

Today is Good Friday - and the final day of week twelve, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are Deuteronomy 23-26 and Luke 11.

Luke tells us:

29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

Matthew gives us a parallel story in chapter 13.  In verse 40, Jesus explains what He means by "the sign of Jonah." 

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Some Bible scholars will argue for a Thursday crucifixion, rather than the traditional Good Friday crucifixion, based on this passage, where Jesus says that as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so He would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.  Personally, I don't even want to get into that debate--and i'm not sure that it would be productive, anyway.  I do, however, want to suggest a creative reading of Jonah that includes that prophet's prefiguring of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Many people ask me, "Do you believe that Jonah was really swallowed by a big fish, and that he survived it, to preach another day?"  When they ask me this, they usually mean, "Do you believe that the miracles in the Bible really happened, or were they allegories?"

For the record--I believe all the miracles in the Bible.

But I'm not 100% sure that the miracle that took place in the book of Jonah was a miracle of survival.  It may have been a greater miracle--with Jonah not surviving the fish's jaws, but with Jonah getting a second chance by being returned to life.

Jonah and the Great Fish
Take a look at chapter two of the book of Jonah:

 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

Verse 2 says that Jonah cried to God out of the belly of Sheol--which was the Hebrew name for the place of the dead.  Verse 6 says that God brought Jonah's life up from the pit.  To me, this points not to Jonah surviving his trip to the bottom of the earth, but to Jonah's resuscitation and return to the land of the living.  

If this is true, then when Jesus says that the people will see the sign of Jonah, He was being more truthful than anyone realized.  Not only did Jonah remain in the belly of the fish for three days and nights, but (according to this interpretation) he was dead, and returned to life.  Jesus said that He would show them the same thing that Jonah showed the Ninevites.  

Please note:  Jonah only prefigured the miracle that Jesus would ultimately show us.  According to this interpretation, Jonah was only resuscitated (meaning that one day he would die again, for good).  Jesus was resurrected, having ultimately defeated death once and for all!  Whereas some who died in the Bible were brought back to life (add to the list the a widow's son, Lazarus, and Jairus' daughter), Jesus is the firstborn of the resurrection.  He is the down-payment of God's promise that all who believe in Him will also be resurrected to eternal life.  

Jesus said that the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah.  (You'd repent, too...if someone returned from the dead and told you all about it, insisting that if you didn't repent, you'd be destroyed.)  But Jesus also said that something greater than Jonah is here.  The question is--will those who hear His word repent and receive the salvation He offers?  Will you?

Today is Good Friday.  We call it "good," not because it was pleasant for Jesus.  We call it "good" because of His good gift of salvation.  I pray that you will know Jesus' salvation--and that today will be a good day for you!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Cursed is He Who Hangs on a Tree

Today is the fourth day of our twelfth week, reading the Bible together.  Our scripture today is Deuteronomy 19-22; Luke 10; Psalm 6.

It is Maundy Thursday.  I hope you will seek out a house of worship this evening, and remember the Last Supper of the Lord, and His command to love one another.  Tomorrow is Good Friday--a day which was horrible for our Lord, but good for us because of the gift of life which He gave when He hung on the tree for our sins.

The Hebrew Law had a specific curse for anyone who was killed by hanging on a tree:  Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says, "And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance."

On the evening that Jesus and the thieves that were crucified with him died, there was a rush to get the men down from the crossesThe reason for the rush because of the Deuteronomy law about not leaving a body on a tree overnight.  In addition, they would not be permitted to remove the body, once the (Friday night to Saturday night) Sabbath had begun.  The legs of the thieves were broken, because they were not yet dead.  Because they could no longer push themselves up to get air, they quickly suffocated.  But Jesus was already dead, so His legs did not need to be broken--thus fulfilling the prophecy that none of his bones would be broken.  

Praise God for our Savior who was willing to go to the tree on our behalf--to suffer the pain and disgrace of crucifixion so that He could bear the full weight of our sin upon Himself.  In the exchange that took place on that tree, His holiness was imparted to us, and our sin imputed to Him.  What a Savior!  What a God!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Take Up Your Cross

Today is day three of our twelfth week, reading the Bible together.  Our scriptures today are:  Deuteronomy 15-18; Luke 9; Psalm 115.

In Luke 9, Jesus sets His face toward Jerusalem, determined to face the cross.  The Samaritans refuse to show Him hospitality because His face is set toward Jerusalem--meaning that because of His ministry to them, they don't want to see Him go to His destruction, so they refuse to be party to His journey to that painful place.  Twice in this chapter, Jesus predicts His death, but the disciples refuse to understand.  Jesus wants to underscore to his friends that following God has a cost.  He Himself will die, and they must give up everything for Him.

The Lord knows that their mission will be difficult.  Their burden will be hard to bear.  That's why in verse 62, Jesus said, No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  He wanted believers to know that once they make a commitment to Him, it will be a tough road.

In verses 23-25, Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.  For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?"

Christ calls us to abandon ourselves to His give up our own agendas, our comfort, our self-determination.  So often we're so focused on "laying our burdens down at the foot of the cross" that we forget--Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow Him.  That's not to say that the Lord doesn't ease our load.  "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light," He said (Matthew 11:30).  But today's Christians have taken verses like this and re-shaped our faith into an easy-going religion in which we expect to experience no pain, no suffering, no heartache.  In essence, we want God to trim down our crosses so they'll be easier to carry--not so heavy, not so hard.  Take a look at this video to see what I mean...

When I see this video, I don't interpret this as the "salvation bridge" that you see in so many gospel tracts, where Jesus bridges the gap between humanity and God, and where we cross to God through Him.  That may be a good illustration of salvation, but this isn't that.  If this were an example of the "salvation bridge," then you could watch this video and say, "My effort has saved me...without all my hard work carrying the cross, I couldn't get to God."  No, salvation is by grace, and not by our works.  Here, the chasm simply represents the obstacles in life--those hard-to-cross moments.  When you abbreviate your gospel, when you trim down your cross, when you take the painless path, then you have a religion that's insufficient to see you through the tough times.  It's only through suffering that we gain the strength to overcome.

The "Salvation Bridge" of Jesus and the Cross
In Matthew's version of this story (Matthew 16:21-28), Jesus talks about taking up your cross just after Peter tells Jesus that He should avoid death.  But the Master said there was no other way.  And for us it is the same.  We should embrace the death of our old selves and take on the new life of Christ.  We should die to our own imaginations, our own desires, our own sins.  As our egos are replaced by the mind of Christ within us, a new person is born.  This is the resurrection that Jesus brings to our hearts, after we have allowed ourselves to die.  Only through being crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20) can we be reborn to live our true lives in the Spirit.

*All scriptures are taken from the ESV.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Take a Vacation - It's the Law!

Today is day two of our twelfth week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:   Deuteronomy 10-14; Luke 8; Psalm 5.

Every now and then you come across a passage of scripture that you know you've read before, but you can't remember ever coming across it.  In other words, the last time you read it, it didn't really sink into your memory.  This is one of those scriptures for me.  In Deuteronomy 14, God talks about dietary laws and tithes--very boring stuff.  But tucked into the discussion of the tithe is this precious little gem:

22 “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. 23 And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, 25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27 And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.

This is wonderful--the idea that God encouraged His people to take vacation, to enjoy themselves, to take time off and spend it with their family--feasting, celebrating, and relaxing.  Holy recreation is what God intended here--and he even allowed a part of Israel's tithes to pay for it, because He thought it was so important.  But while they were in Jerusalem on pilgrimage, they were to do charitable works and give charitable gifts to the priests and to the poor.  The sole purpose of this pilgrimage wasn't just to have fun--it was also to take care of the servants in God's house, and to provide for widows, orphans, and sojourners.  

Matthew Henry says this:

They must bring it up, either in kind or in the full value of it, to the place of the sanctuary, and there must spend it in holy feasting before the Lord. If they could do it with any convenience, they must bring it in kind (Deut. 14:23); but, if not, they might turn it into money (Deut. 14:2425), and that money must be laid out in something to feast upon before the Lord. The comfortable cheerful using of what God has given us, with temperance and sobriety, is really the honouring of God with it. Contentment, holy joy, and thankfulness, make every meal a religious feast. The end of this law we have (Deut. 14:23): That thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always; it was to keep them right and firm to their religion, (1.) By acquainting them with the sanctuary, the holy things, and the solemn services that were there performed. What they read the appointment of their Bibles, it would do them good to see the observance of in the tabernacle; it would make a deeper impression upon them, which would keep them out of the snares of the idolatrous customs. Note, It will have a good influence upon our constancy in religion never to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, Heb. 10:25. By the comfort of the communion of saints, we may be kept to our communion with God. (2.) By using them to the most pleasant and delightful services of religion. Let them rejoice before the Lord, that they may learn to fear him always. The more pleasure we find in the ways of religion the more likely we shall be to persevere in those ways. One thing they must remember in their pious entertainments—to bid their Levites welcome to them. Thou shalt not forsake the Levites (Deut. 14:27): “Let him never be a stranger to thy table, especially when thou eatest before the Lord.” 

When you're reading your Bible, even if you've read it cover to cover many times, every so often you'll come across a passage that you'd swear you never read before.  Usually these are pretty interesting discoveries.  What it means is that God is pointing it out to you TODAY for some special reason.  For me, I'm probably noticing this because I'm in the middle of Holy Week--a notoriously busy time for pastors.  I could use some R&R.  (And I'm going to take some well-deserved time off after Easter, thank you very much.)  This scripture shows that it's okay, and even expected, to take vacations, pilgrimages, and times of rest.  It's so important, in fact, that God wrote it into the Law.
How have you been doing at making sure that you're well rested lately?  Have you been burning the candle at both ends?  God may be directing you to take a break.  Take a spiritual retreat, a vacation, a pilgrimage.  Seek Him in a new setting.  Jesus may be saying to you the same thing that He said to His disciples...

Monday, March 25, 2013

"What Does the Lord Require"

          This past Sunday, churches around the world celebrated the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  People shouted his name, welcoming Him as their King.  But I imagine as Jesus received their adulation He silently whispered, “Yes, but do you love me?”  We are good at celebrating religious occasions and enjoying festivities like Easter, but do we really show Jesus that we love Him in these things?  Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15 ESV).”[i]  So, today I want to look at those things that Jesus commanded, asked for, or wanted in the Gospel of Luke, between the Trimphal Entry and Maundy Thursday.

Jesus Rides into Jerusalem on a Donkey
            First, Jesus wanted a donkey.  In Luke 19:31, Jesus told the disciples, “If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’”  Jesus wanted the donkey to fulfill prophecy (Matt 21:5; Zech 9:9) but He also wanted to test the disciples to see if they’d trust Him for the completion of a task that didn’t make any sense.  Without asking questions, Jesus wanted them to simply say “yes” to His commands, whether they encountered difficulty on the way or not.  Today, Jesus wants the same thing from His followers.   

            Then, Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace (Luke 19:42)!”  How ironic, that the name Jerusalem has the word “peace” in it, and yet it is far from being a city of peace.  Jesus wanted Jerusalem to be filled with people of peace.  He wants the same from all believers today—but peace is hidden from our eyes.

            The next thing Jesus required was that believers “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's (Luke 20:215).”  God expects us to be good citizens of the earth, and also good citizens of heaven.  Romans 13:7 says, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”  This includes honor and respect due to our government, but it also includes worship and service due to God.

            In Luke 21, Jesus talked about trials and persecution.  Jesus tells believers, “Stand firm, and you will win life (21:19 NIV).”  Just as He wanted early believers to stand firm in times of difficulty, the Lord wants today’s Christians to stand the test.  In verse 36, Jesus says, “Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  What does the Lord require?  Steadfastness of faith in the midst of struggle.

            Finally, in Luke 22, Jesus tells the disciples to find a man carrying a water pot and follow him to the house that he enters.  Then they should say to the master of the house, “The Teacher says to you, ‘Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples (22:11)?’”   Again, Jesus asked the disciples to follow a divine command that made no sense to them.  Why would some random person respond favorably to such a request?  But Jesus was teaching them to trust Him.  And He was asking the master of the house (with whom he had probably prearranged the meeting space unbeknownst to the disciples) to make room for Jesus on this most important night.

            What does the Lord require?  That you trust Him.  That you obey Him.  That you become people of peace, practicing good citizenship on earth and in heaven.  The Lord requires that you stand firm and stay awake during troubling times.  He asks you to make room in your home and in your heart for Him.  In other words…

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

[i] Unless otherwise specified, all scripture is taken from the ESV.

A Question of Worthiness

Today is the first day of week 12, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:

  • Deuteronomy 6-9; Luke 7
  • Deut 10-14; Luke 8; Psalm 5
  • Deut 15-18; Luke 9; Psalm 115
  • Deut 19-22; Luke 10; Psalm 6
  • Deut 23-26; Luke 11
In the Luke passage, the Jewish elders approach Jesus, asking Him to heal the servant of a Roman centurion.  This is very unexpected, as good Jews didn't associate with gentiles--especially not their Roman occupiers.  But they say that this centurion is a special case.  He is worthy, they say, for Jesus to heal his servant, for he loves the Jewish nation and he personally funded the building of their synagogue. 

And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.

Did Jesus heal the servant because the centurion was worthy of it?  Because his contributions had purchased for him the right to divine intervention?  No--in fact, the centurion said himself that he wasn't worthy even for Jesus to enter his home.  So, if it wasn't because the centurion was worthy, why did Jesus do it?

Jesus responded to his faith.  And that's it.  Not because the man did anything to deserve it--but because he believed.

In Deuteronomy 9, God addresses the issue of worthiness:

“Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak?’ Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the Lord has promised you. “Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
“Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.

Again, God didn't act on Israel's behalf because they were better than the nations around them.  They were God's agent of wrath on nations that God needed to bring judgment upon.  Later, of course, God would use other nations to judge wayward Israel, proving that God doesn't show favoritism.  

If not because they were better or more worthy or more upright or righteous, then why did God act on Israel's behalf?  It was so that God could confirm the promise He made to Abraham.  And Abraham didn't receive God's promise because he deserved it more than others.  He simply received it out of faith.

Does God show favoritism?  Acts 10:34-35 says:  "34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."  God neither blessed the Israelites nor the Roman centurion because they were worthy or deserved it.  God blessed them because they were willing to receive His gift of grace.  They received God's grace through faith--and that's how we're saved, as well.

Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."  Praise God for His gift of grace!  May He increase our faith to receive it!


*All scriptures are taken from the ESV. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pics of My Grandson

The other day, Beth asked me, "You did put some photos of Elijah on your blog, didn't you?"  I had to hang my head in shame.  A birth announcements with no could I?

So here are a couple pictures of my new grandson, who was born a week ago today.

Blessings on you, little man!

Elijah Alexander Drayer

My beautiful wife, Lily Beth Ingram Smith (AKA Gigi)   

Me with my grandbaby.  (How does "Papa" sound?)


Proud mother and father--Emily and Joe Drayer, with baby Elijah

Friday, March 22, 2013

Love Your Frienemies?

Good morning!  Today is the final day of week eleven, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are Deuteronomy 4-5 and Luke 6.

In our (NIV) Luke passage, Jesus talks about loving our enemies:

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Sometimes, those "enemies" that Jesus is talking about may be people in our own families.  Nobody said that living together would be easy.  Members of our household, or our extended families, can be both our friends and our enemies at the same time.  Also, our churches are good opportunities for this kind of relationship.  We say, "Bless her heart, I love her--in Christ."  But that doesn't mean you expect for them to love you back.  In fact, the only kind of love you can give to some people is the agape love of God, that unconditional love that says, "Whether you're nice to mean or mean to me, I choose to give you Jesus' love anyway." One moment these people are worshiping with you or barbecuing with you, and the next moment they're plotting against you.  Urban Dictionary defines these people as "frienemies," and describes them as:

"...squash players i.e a person who you travel the pro squash circuits, hang around with each other, share life stories and rooms but all the time are looking for weaknesses with you to have the edge over you in competition such as spotting your illness/injury are. You run out of sports drink , your frienemy will not give you a tiny bit of theirs until they have finished their competition, even though they have more than they need."

We all have family members like that--you love them, and they love you, but you'd better not turn your back or they'll stab it.  How does Jesus suggest we deal with these people?  Love them.  Continue loving them.  Do good to them, and bless them.  But don't trust them.

Did I just say not to trust them?  Yep.  That's what I said.  Notice that when Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, he didn't say to turn our backs.  When you turn the other cheek, you're offering up a certain amount of vulnerability, but you're not exposing yourself wholeheartedly either.  John 2 (NLT) says:

23 Because of the miraculous signs Jesus did in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many began to trust in him. 24 But Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew human nature. 25 No one needed to tell him what mankind is really like.

Some people become predictable frienemies.  Don't trust them.  Jesus never said you had to trust these folks.  He only said to love them, bless them, pray for them, and do good to them.  But He never said to trust them.  

Jesus said that we should "lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."  Today, I want to extend this concept of lending beyond mere money.  This principle applies to money, to be sure, but I believe it involves more than just that.  Sometimes our frienemies will ask for our time, our moral support, our cooperation in a worthy cause, our sympathy, or our emotional investment in their lives.  Jesus said that we should give these things without expecting them to respond in kind.  That's a tough thing to do--because when I invest in someone, I generally want them to give a rip about me, too.  When I cooperate with someone on their projects, it'd be nice if they'd work with me on mine.  When I'm there to comfort someone in their time of crisis, it sure would be great if they'd be there for me when I'm struggling.  But they won't be.  I can guarantee that they won't be.  So naturally, I want to withhold my support, cooperation, time, and sympathy from them.  But Jesus tells me to give it to them anyway.  Without expecting anything back.  Do it, even if you don't want to--not because they deserve it (which, likely, they don't).  Do it as an act of mercy.

God has been so merciful to you--even though you don't deserve it.  When you think about it, we're God's frienemies, too.  He created us, provides for us, heals, comforts, and saves us.  He speaks wisdom to our hearts, cares about our problems, and even promises us a place in heaven.  And yet we are unreliable, untrustworthy, and ungrateful for what He does.  It is our hands that slap Him in the face, yet He turns his cheek again and again.  

Everyone has at least one frienemy--whether that's a member of your household, your extended family, your church family, your classmates at school, or your associates at work.  Jesus asks us to be generous with our love.  Romans 5:10 (ESV) says, "For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life."  Jesus calls us to reconciliation by His grace--and He calls us to share that reconciliation just as freely as He gives it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Deeper in Discipleship

Today is day four of our eleventh week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Deuteronomy 1-3; Luke 5; Psalm 36.

Lately, a lot of people who have been following this Bible reading plan have been talking about the difficulty they've been having with the violence in the Old Testament.  Many are also watching the current History Channel's miniseries on the Bible and commenting on its violence.  Keep in mind that the Bible isn't Rated G.  It deals with the sinful and often brutal human condition, and as such it is full of sexual misconduct, bloodshed, and every other kind of sin imaginable.  I don't apologize for the Bible--I simply want to repeat what I said in a recent post, that all of this underscores our need for a Savior.

I have to admit that I have difficulty when I read about Israel's conquest of Canaan.  Rather than elaborating on that difficulty, I'll just refer you to a website that discusses the invasion: Click here for an excellent article entitled "The Invasion of Canaan"

In an obvious act of avoidance, I prefer to talk about the New Testament passage of Jesus calling His first disciples.  From Luke 5 (ESV):

Fishermen on the lake of Gennesaret
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon's, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

Through this story, Jesus teaches us something about discipleship.  Many Christians want to bring in a big catch for the Lord.  We want to be effective evangelists, powerful prayer warriors, and willing workers for God.  All these things are good.  But we need to put first things first.  When Jesus first called His disciples, He didn't give them a lot of missions to accomplish.  He simply asked them to do what they usually did--but now He asked them to do it according to His instructions.

These fishermen knew what they were doing.  They were fishermen and Jesus was a carpenter.  Yet they were willing to obey Jesus' word and do their business in His way.  So too the Lord wants you to grow in discipleship by continuing to do your business--in His way.  

Before the disciples were able to bring in a big catch for Jesus, they had to go deeper with Him.  Similarly, Christians need to learn how to go deeper in the spirit before they will be able to do great or powerful works.  Many Christians rush after a big project, get excited about something new, or commit themselves to some great task--all without being willing to go deeper with Jesus beforehand.  But discipleship is about going deeper.  The result of a deepening faith and relationship with God is that you will naturally haul in a big catch.  But if you go after tons of fish without first letting down your nets into the deep waters of God's spirit, you'll never land anything.  

Most folks don't want to go deeper with Jesus because in the process, He will point out your sins and failures.  He does this not to condemn you, but to help you turn away from these things and toward His redeeming grace.  Peter responded, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”  So too we would often rather keep things light and surface-level with Jesus, because we don't want to face our own sin.  Or, if we do encounter our own sin, we avoid facing it as Peter did.

Going deeper in discipleship means saying "yes" to Jesus when He asks you to do your business in His way.  It involves facing your fears and failures, and finding His will to be better than your own.  Jesus tells us the same thing that He told Simon:  “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Then He calls us to do as the first disciples did--to leave everything and follow Him.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Believer's Job Description

Today is day 4 of our 11th week, reading the Bible through in a year together.  Our scriptures today are Numbers 34-36 and Luke 4.

In our Luke passage, Jesus tries to do some ministry in his hometown of Nazareth.

16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
 20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This is another example of Jesus' constant message, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."  God's Kingdom comes, not because Jesus is the one and only who has emerged to proclaim good news to the poor, but because His followers also take that job description for themselves.  God's Kingdom comes when each of us understands our anointing to proclaim liberty to the captives.  God's Kingdom arrives on this earth as we follow the Lord's command to restore the sight of the blind and set at liberty those who are oppressed.  We participate in the advent of Christ's Kingdom when we proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

Yes, Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy.  But we continue to fulfill it today when we take up our cross and follow Him.  Sometimes you'll be loved and appreciated because of this, as Jesus was:

22 And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph's son?”

Other times, you may be rejected by those same people, even as Jesus was:

29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away.

But either way, whether you're well thought of, or whether you're rejected, you're in God's hands.  Your job description as a believer isn't to make sure that everyone likes you.  It's to preach the Kingdom and usher it in by participating in Christ's ministry.  This is what we mean when we pray, "Thy Kingdom come."  We mean that we want God's Kingdom to come through us as we do His will, even as the angels do it in heaven. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

Good morning!  Today is the second day of week eleven, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are Numbers 30-33; Psalm 35, Luke 3.

When I'm very honest with myself, sometimes I'm disturbed by some of the things I read in the Old Testament accounts of the conquest of Canaan.  I understand that at times God will use one nation to bring judgment against another nation, but sometimes what I read seems like overkill.  Today's passage is like that.  Here's a sample, from chapter 31:

Armies of Israel
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” So Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the Lord's vengeance on Midian. You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war.” So there were provided, out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand from each tribe, together with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword. And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. 10 All their cities in the places where they lived, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, 11 and took all the spoil and all the plunder, both of man and of beast. 12 Then they brought the captives and the plunder and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.
13 Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the chiefs of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. 14 And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? 16 Behold, these, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.

How can I understand something like this?  Does God command such brutality and injustice?  Even the Geneva Convention, which is a human creation and doesn't claim divine origin, would forbid practices like this!  

Don't get me wrong--it's not my job to challenge the Word of God (and that's not what I'm doing).  I simply admit that I have difficulty with it from time to time.  So, to help matters, I want to point out two things:

Slaughtering the Canaanites
The first thing is that verses one and two have God telling Moses to go to war.  That's it.  God never says how, and God never says how many to kill.  Sometimes God's purposes may involve war--but we have a tendency to take matters into our own hands.  The rest of the military instructions here came from Moses, and not from God.  The Lord never instructed them to kill women and children--Moses decided that on his own.  God never told them to take the virgin girls as their slaves--Moses made that declaration himself.  This goes to show that like King David (a murderer and also a "man after God's own heart,") Moses could be both a spiritual man and a man of wrath.  

How very much like ourselves Moses was--how very flawed and how very much in need of a Savior!

The second thing I want to point out is that we have to read the whole Bible in its own context.  What I mean is that when you read scriptures like this passage in Numbers, you can walk away feeling disgusted and embittered.  But you have to read the rest of the story.  All this is part of the depravity of the human condition, a result of sin and an example of the fallen nature of lost people.  It gives evidence that even the "chosen people" weren't good enough to claim righteousness as a badge.  It shows our need for Jesus, and for a change of heart.

Jesus stepped into a brutal world and taught peace.  He entered a sick world and brought healing.  He sees our fear and gives us courage.  He exchanges our sin for His salvation.  Through Him, we can have a change of heart.  

Declaring the coming Messiah in a world of darkness, Luke 3 says:

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,[a]
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

 [a] Luke 3:4 Or crying, Prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord

John the Baptist
Preparing the way for Jesus, John called those who thought they were the "chosen ones" to be a "brood of vipers."  He said that genealogy didn't make them the true Israel--but that repentant people were the real Elect.  His message was one of benevolence and peace.  He told people not to take by force, but to give the shirt off their backs.  Rather than a bloodbath, John proclaimed a baptism by the Holy Spirit.  The result of this baptism would be a change of heart.  It's this change of heart that makes our reading of the Old Testament unpalatable sometimes.  When your heart has been changed, of course you'll recoil at stories like we find in Numbers today.  You're reading accounts of unregenerate people who don't have the Spirit of Christ.  It makes you glad for the salvation of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we have today.

Passages like our Old Testament words of warfare need to be read in light of the New Testament promise of peace.  You've got to take the Bible as a whole, and understand its scope from beginning to end.  Otherwise, you'll get turned off by many things in the Old Testament that are hard to swallow.  A balanced approach to reading the Bible, or "rightly dividing the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15)" means letting the whole Bible speak.  It means knowing the Spirit of God so well that (for example) you can tell the Word of God from the word of Moses.  

If you're having difficulty with some of the problem passages in the Bible, I encourage you to press on.  If you find something that doesn't make sense to you in the Old Testament, turn to the New Testament for understanding.  In Acts 20:27, the apostle Paul said that he did not shrink back from declaring the "whole counsel of God."  This means understanding the Bible in its entirety, and preaching its overall message without getting bogged down by things that distract from the centrality of Christ.  In his blog, Between Two Worlds, Justin Taylor writes an article entitled "Preaching 'The Whole Counsel of God.'"  Taylor says:

D. A. Carson, in his essay on “Challenges for the Twenty-first-century Pulpit” in the new book, Preach the Word, answers the question of what Paul meant when he said said that he had not shrunk back from declaring “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27):

...What he must mean is that he taught the burden of the whole of God’s revelation, the balance of things, leaving nothing out that was of primary importance, never ducking the hard bits, helping believers to grasp the whole counsel of God that they themselves would become better equipped to read their Bibles intelligently, comprehensively. It embraced
  • God’s purposes in the history of redemption (truths to be believed and a God to be worshiped),
  • an unpacking of human origin, fall, redemption, and destiny (a worldview that shapes all human understanding and a Savior without whom there is no hope),
  • the conduct expected of God’s people (commandments to be obeyed and wisdom to be pursued, both in our individual existence and in the community of the people of God), and
  • the pledges of transforming power both in this life and in the life to come (promises to be trusted and hope to be anticipated).
(pp. 177-178; bullets and italics added)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Women in Biblical Times

Good morning!  Today is the first day of our eleventh week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures for this week are:
  • Numbers 26-29; Luke 2
  • Num 30-33; Luke 3; Psalm 35
  • Num 34-36; Luke 4
  • Deuteronomy 1-3; Luke 5; Psalm 36
  • Deut 4-5; Luke 6
Today, I want to emphasize one thing that the Old Testament and the New Testament passages have in common: the role of women.

In Numbers 27, we read about the daughters of Zelophehad:

Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of Manasseh the son of Joseph. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the chiefs and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, saying, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin. And he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father's brothers.”
Daughters of Zelophehad Appeal to Moses
Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father's brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them. And you shall speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. And if he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 And if he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father's brothers. 11 And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. And it shall be for the people of Israel a statute and rule, as the Lord commanded Moses.’”

Then, in Luke 2, we read about Anna:
36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Anna the Prophetess
Many people have said to me, "I'd hate to be a woman in biblical times," and, for the most part, I agree with them.  Women were often mistreated and looked down on by men.  But in these two readings we see not what the culture thought of women, but what God Himself thinks of women.  When the daughters of Zelophehad appealed to the Lord for property rights, He granted their request--and why wouldn't He?  It was only right!  When Anna sought the Lord by abiding in the temple night and day, God answered her by revealing Himself to her.  He gave her prophetic ability, and allowed her to speak on His behalf.  He permitted her to live long enough to see the Messiah as a baby, and then used her to declare His redemption to the people.

When we read the Bible and see how poorly women were treated in that culture, it's easy to get discouraged.  So I want to take today's scriptures as an opportunity to show how highly God thinks of women.  He elevates them above the lowly status that some cultures want to give them.

Galatians 3 says:  26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

Some would say that, to be gender-inclusive, the ESV should have translated verse 26 as saying "children of God, through faith."   But to me, this is a very important distinction.  Since generally property and inheritance rights went only to sons, Paul says in Galatians that male and female are all "sons" of God.  We are all inheritors, and heirs according to promise.  Therefore, there is no longer a racial distinction, a gender distinction, or socioeconomic distinction between people.  In Christ, all are equal.  Equally saved, equally called, and equally gifted to do God's work.