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Friday, December 15, 2017

Facing Hard Days With Hope

My reading contained a phrase that caught my eye. 

1 Timothy 6:12 says (ESV) Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

The phrase is: “take hold of the eternal life”

My experience is that there are phrases like this in the Bible that we have not given practical thought as to how to do what the phrase says to do. That would be like me reading about how to build a house. I have some understanding of the skills, materials, and the tools involved to build a house. But I have no experience in doing it and I have not thought much about how to do it. I'm grateful for those who did learn how to frame, hang sheetrock and run wiring in the house I’m sitting in. I’m grateful that they did not leave such tasks in the hypothetical category but they learned a trade which resulted in a comfortable warm house on a cold morning. 

In a similar way, I don't want to leave the phrase “take hold of the eternal life” hypothetical. What does it mean to do that? It can’t mean to strive for it as if it's a goal for which if you work hard you will achieve. That is perhaps the most common view about what following Jesus is about, for those outside of the faith, even if they don't accept that's a real thing we're pursuing. But it's also a misunderstanding of many who are in the faith. I've heard many over the years, in strong Bible believing churches, with clear teaching on this matter, still express that they “hope” they will get into heaven as if they're trying to be good enough for that to be so. That can't be what this means. 

Rather, take hold of the eternal life means to grasp onto a reality that is already yours as a person who is in Christ. Recognize that you possess eternal life in the present and take hold of that reality as you continuously struggle to fight the good fight of the faith and as you pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness and gentleness. (see v. 11) We don't pursue these things for the sake of achieving or earning eternal life. As has been said before, “Faith is not opposed to effort, it's opposed to earning.” We make vigorous effort as a believer. That vigorous effort is not in the service of trying to earn or to obtain something that we don’t have. Rather, it's in the service of being who you already are. Take hold of the eternal life then means to live today with an eternal perspective that you already possess God’s good gift of eternal life. This perspective is the only one that can enable us to consistently face both good days and bad with hope. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Resisting Lies

Yesterday, I wrote about the need to be strong in the Lord, so that we might stand against the devil’s schemes from the first part of Ephesians 6:10-20. You can read that here  What follows are a few thoughts on v. 14-17 on what is known as the defensive part of the armor of God.
Ephesians 6:14–17 (ESV) 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,
One of the primary schemes Satan uses against us is accusation. For instance, early this morning I listened to a podcast from a pastor and leader I respect on handling criticism. From a text of scripture, he explained that criticism often comes when we're already down, when we don't deserve it, and from those who are unqualified to give it. But what I found myself zeroing in on was that second one; that criticism is often undeserved. As I thought back over my life and the times that I've received criticism, it seemed to me that many of those times the criticism was justified. It came because of my own immaturity or lack of courage. Was that true? Partially. Sometimes I've received criticism and I've deserved it, at least to some extent. It's important to listen to criticism and learn from it when we can. But it would not have been right for me to then conclude that I am worthless, that I have nothing to offer, and that I should just give up and hide. And I could sense those thoughts coming on as well. Satan can work his schemes even while listening to a sermon. The text says, to put on the belt of truth. What is true about me is that through no benefit of my own, and in spite of my sin, I am clothed in the righteousness of Christ. I have put on the breastplate of righteousness. This knowledge does not make me want to them disobey, but moves me to want to follow. 

The next part of the armor is, “and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” The truth that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ encourages us not to want to disobey, but creates in us a “readiness” to do God’s will. Internalizing the good news of the gospel gives new grace to move back into the world. Shoes for your feet implies being ready to walk back out into the world and to take risks in spite of potential criticism and past mistakes. 

“In all circumstances we are to take up the shield of faith with which we can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.” To  know the truth that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ makes us ready to obey, but we will need to repeatedly counter Satan’s lies by remembering these truths. We use the shield of faith by trusting what God says rather than believing Satan accusations. We should expect to need this shield often, “in all circumstances.”

Finally, there is the helmet of salvation. That is that we are secure in the knowledge as we enter this battle, that our security comes not from our ability to hold onto God, but on his ability to hold onto us. This also does not encourage a life of running from God’s will. Rather, it grants the confidence to move into the world, knowing that we cannot ultimately be harmed. He will never leave us or forsake us.

In the next couple of days, I hope to share a couple of thoughts about the part of the armor used for offense rather than defense, that is the word of God itself and prayer.

Friday, December 8, 2017

This is Not Hypothetical

Today’s reading contains a familiar passage often taught. I’ll risk putting my toe in the water to share reflections on the text both today and tomorrow.

Ephesians 6:10 begins the passage:  “Finally be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” There would be no reason for Paul to say this if this were not going to be a serious challenge. Strength is a necessity. Discouragements, challenges, difficult decisions and temptations are not hypothetical. But he doesn't just leave the need to “be strong” as a theoretical idea. He doesn't just say, “be strong in the Lord,” and leave us to figure out how. He lays out how. There follows a series of clear instructions. 

So he says, “Put on the whole armor of God.” That means this is armor that comes from God. We do not generate the armor in our own strength. God is all powerful. Nothing is too difficult for him. He does not sleep. He does not need to study. He does not need to spend time reflecting on the best course of action. God possesses all wisdom and all strength. By contrast we are limited and temporary. We need God’s armor so that we may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. I don’t sense that we think enough about the reality that these schemes are real. We don't always expect them in a way that would be healthy. This is not looking for a demon under every bush; the instruction is right here in black and white. Here is how he describes it, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood.” We do wrestle. There will be struggle. There will be criticism and discouragement and temptations, and they will be hard. And that wrestling is not against flesh and blood. We are not just struggling with critics or temptations that come from people or circumstances or commercials. Ultimately, we wrestle against spiritual forces. Specifically against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. I don't remember this enough. I don't keep the truth of this passage specifically in mind to the extent that I need to remember it.

Tomorrow I plan to walk through the specific armor he lists here and give some practical instruction as to how to apply it. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Anything That is Profitable

A few days ago I read an article about theologian Vern Poythress written by his son. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time. His son grew up observing his dad’s quiet pursuit of memorizing God’s word. Later he managed to extract from his father how much of the Bible he had actually memorized. The answer was staggering. It was all of the New Testament and the Psalms, all of the minor prophets, the song of Solomon, the second half of Isaiah and scattered narratives. Perhaps Poythress has a once in a generation mind, but with no guilt, the story stirred up my spirit, not for the first time, to add memorization to my daily reading and prayer. So for the last couple of days I have sought to memorize a few verses in the daily reading. Today, I spent some time with the beginning of Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders recorded in Acts 20. Now I’m further stirred after reading about Poythress, regarding the way that Paul characterized his own ministry. 

The description begins in verse 19, he served “ with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to him through the plots of the Jews." 

It’s hard to directly pursue humility. No one can sensibly say, “I’m going to go out and act humbly” Contrived tears are the worst. And no one should seek out trials. There is a sense in which these things happened to him as a byproduct of his walk with God.

But verse 20 describes activities he could choose. This too though would flow from his walk with God. His ministry was characterized by teaching. He did not shrink from declaring to them anything that would have been profitable to them. For him to say that meant it was a temptation for him to do just that. How he speaks of teaching shows he did not see such opportunities as a burden for which he had to prepare. Rather, because of his walk with the Lord and his immersion in the knowledge of God through his word, he taught them in public and from house to house. His teaching was not relegated to formal teaching times. Rather, it seems that he couldn't turn it off.

This then is another motivation behind why we pursue God in his word regularly. Some of us have a responsibility to overtly teach publicly. But it appears from Colossians 3:16 and other passages that each of us are called to teach and admonish one another. We can’t manipulate humility or tears and we shouldn’t invite trials, nor can we snap our fingers and cause the word of God to naturally flow from us. But we can plead with God to give us an increasing hunger to know him and to encounter him in his word, allowing the word of Christ to dwell in us richly, so that the teaching that each of us is called to do is not seen as a burden but that we would be willing to declare anything profitable to those within our sphere of influence.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Prayer Reflection on Romans 5:9

I spent my prayer time this morning reflecting on one verse contained in my reading for today, Romans 5:9. If my writing is ever polished, this is less so. But I wanted it to share it with you. I did reduce it and edit it some for clarity. 

Since therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall will be saved by him from the wrath of God. My Lord and my God, I plead with you that the shape of your word will transform the shape of my mind. I plead with you to press upon my heart and my soul so that I might think these things, so that I may faithfully memorize them and recall them, but even more than memorizing that these would be the thoughts that would forcefully shape my mind. What I need is more than memorizing. Memorizing could well be a step to this, but Father, I want my mind to be transformed so that this is the pattern of the way that I think, that this be the controlling narrative of my life. Since, therefore we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. Father, please press this into my soul. You are our Father O God. You are just in all your ways. Your justice has been met, has been satisfied within or through the blood of Jesus. Since therefore we your children, those who are able to call on you as our Father, we have now been justified by his blood. So then much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 

The wrath of God is a real danger. This morning I had a twinge of worry after glancing at an article titled Business Is Booming for America’s Survival Food King  It speaks of a doomsday scenario of the need for disaster food; that is pouches of food that could be eaten by simply adding water. Such pouches have a shelf life of years. We may or may not ever have a need for such things. But it of course is possible. Such packets of barely edible food in good times, could taste like a steak dinner in the moment. 

Even if something like that did happen, how would you ever know that you had enough of the survival food to make it. How much would it take to make you feel secure? 

(Don’t stop halfway through the next paragraph) 

But here is a disaster that is certain. We will all encounter the wrath of God for our sin. Period. There are no exceptions. This wrath is far worse than any doomsday scenario that we can possibly imagine or far worse than your worst nightmare. And it is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Unless! Unless we have been justified by the blood of Jesus, and thus much more would be saved by Jesus from the wrath of God. I need to not just be able to recall the facts of this in case someone asks me. I need to know far more than where this text is in the Bible, I even need more than to have this text memorized, I need for the reality of this text to so control my heart and my mind that it is the way that I think, that it controls what goes on in my heart and in my mind. 

Father, I worship you because we have been justified by the blood of Jesus and so because of this we will be much more saved by you from the wrath of God. Jesus, I worship you because we have now been justified by your blood that you painfully shed on the cross. Hallelujah! 

Father, in accomplishing this your glory, your holiness, your justice was in no way diminished. You were wholly true to who you are, because you can do no other, and our salvation is secure. The accomplishment of Jesus death is far more powerful than we can possibly imagine. 

Referring back to the article, we think it would really be something to do be the guy on the other end of the phone for whom the government is asking for 2 million orders. That would make you feel set for life. That is something on the order of Roger Goodell asking for a lifetime salary of $50 million, use of a private plane, and lifetime health insurance for his family. That’s a man trying to buttress his way of life against what ever hazard may come. But it wouldn’t be enough to make him feel secure. What Romans 6:9 refers to is exponentially greater than the deal Goodell asked for or the owner the company that makes disaster food received. 

O God, may the reality of justification be the controlling narrative in our minds. May your kingdom come in the way we think. May your word control the way that we see the world.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Two Simple Reasons I'm Grateful Today (there are many others)

As I do most mornings, after my Bible reading, I choose some portion of that days reading to prompt prayer. When I do this I’m not studying the text carefully to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying through it, rather, I’m allowing what the text talks about to guide my praying. These tasks are not so different but the result is that sometimes my praying will take off in a direction that is only hinted at in the text rather than being its main point. My reading began with 1 Corinthians 16 so today being Thanksgiving, 1 Corinthians 16 prompted prayer in two directions: gratitude for the faithfulness of God’s people in giving and gratitude for insight into how Paul planned and made ministry decisions.

Verses 1-4 describe Paul’s effort to instruct the Corinthians on providing an offering to the believers in Jerusalem. As I wrote and prayed through  these lines I was reminded of the the faithfulness of believers in the various churches that I’ve served for the past 35 years who gave in response to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Because of that I could give my time to the ministry of the word and of prayer. I am deeply grateful to God for their faithfulness and generosity. 

Then in verses 5-9 he relates to them his intentions for visiting them in the near future. This led me to pray and think about how Paul made ministry decisions. He states clearly, “I will visit” and “I intend to pass through Macedonia” Then in v. 8-9 “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost” and then offers clues about why he made this decision “for a wide door for effective work has opened to me and there are many adversaries.” This obviously is not clear let alone comprehensive instruction about planning. But it did prompt me to pray about how I plan and make decisions. These tasks happen daily and it’s not always clear to me how to proceed. For this prompt then and for the goodness of God to me in leading me to pray this today from this text, I am grateful. For though I don’t walk away from the time of prayer with a full proof strategy for planning, I have a sense that I have talked with God about it and because of that I have a new sense of peace and confidence and fresh awareness of the presence of God. And that is truly cause for great gratitude.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Richer Understanding

In my reading today, I was reminded of the importance of using scripture to refresh what it is in my mind when I think about the gospel message. I’m concerned that we condense the gospel in our minds in unhealthy ways that diminish our grasp of the gospel and our wonder in it. I’ve memorized and used a number of gospel presentations over the years and these can be helpful summaries. But it is critical for anyone who wants to grasp he gospel to examine how the apostles themselves preached it. Peter’s message to Cornelius is one of the most complete instances we have a what Peter said when he preached.

If you have not I urge you to read from the beginning of Acts 10 to catch the full story of Cornelius, and of the men he sent to Peter, and of the vision Peter had while waiting on lunch. You don’t want to miss these “delicious” details. Peter traveled to Caesarea to preach Cornelius and his family. This story also reveals the only reason we have hope that people will come to faith in Christ when we share the gospel. That is that God is already at work, drawing people to himself. That is made very clear through the words of Cornelius recorded in Acts 10:30-33.

Acts 10:34-43 records Peter sharing the gospel. What elements would you say that he lists here? I see eight.
  1. God shows no partiality
  2. Jesus lived as a man doing good and healing those oppressed by the devil.
  3. We apostles are eyewitnesses to these realities
  4. Jesus was put to death by being hung on a tree
  5. God raised him from the dead on the third day
  6. He appeared to us who ate and drank with him after the resurrection.
  7. He commanded us to preach that Jesus is the Judge of the Living and the dead.
  8. The prophets bear witness that everyone who believes receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

This is not the only way the gospel is shared in the N.T. Later in Acts 17 is an example of how Paul shared the gospel with a pagan audience that had far less background than Cornelius had. We often will need to start further back as Paul did then with many who we talk to now. But in our hearts and minds, we need this much richer version of the gospel that Peter uses here embedded within us. When asked what is the gospel in a nutshell it is not wrong to say that, “Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins.” But that is a dangerous shortening of the message if it is not richly grounded in the fuller message of the gospel the way the apostles preached it.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Unhealthy Speculation

Near the end of John's Gospel is a fascinating interaction between Jesus and Peter. The conversation recorded in John 21:15-19 is more well-known and well loved, but what happens after that incident is curious and left here for a reason that's not unimportant. After Jesus reinstates Peter poignantly to the ministry; that's what's recorded in verses 15-17; Jesus then predicts what looks like a difficult assignment for Peter and shows him how he would die. Immediately following that, John records this taking place:

John 21:20-23 (ESV)
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

We aren’t told how Peter feels about this, but it doesn't seem like good news. But as Jesus and Peter continue to walk (we know they are walking because of verse 20) Peter looks back and sees the apostle John, the one who's writing this material, following them. So right after Peter hears what's going to happen to him in the future, he asks, “Lord, what about this man?” I understand that question to be loaded so that in reality he was asking something like this,  “Jesus, what about John? What does his future hold? How does his assignment for the future compare to mine?” 

Jesus says to him, “if it is my will that he remained until I come what is that to you, you follow me.  Or again to elaborate further Jesus says to Peter, “I’ve been very clear with you about what I'm calling you to do. I’ve given you more information than most get about their future. You know what I'm calling you to do. What I'm asking John to do and calling him to do is not really your concern.” 

It then appears that Peter took what Jesus said and distorted it. Somehow the rumor began that John was going to remain alive until Jesus returned. John, here in the letter that bears his name, is clearing up that that is obviously not what Jesus said. 

That’s what happens in v. 23.

23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

We face a temptation to compare the difficulties that we face to those of other believers. That comparison can be related to our relative level of busyness, or what appears to be the relative difficulty or ease of a person’s ministry or family life. We might even feel, if not dare express, a bit of jealousy. But we can't know all that another person faces and all than of God is doing in one person's life compared to ours. Of course, this doesn't mean that we are not to be concerned about other peoples lives. But comparing the relative ease or difficulty of our lives to other people is a kind of speculation that Jesus warns us against. God’s call on our life is to follow him in our bodies with our unique set of opportunities and challenges without comparison to others.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Neither Panicked Nor Lazy

I often wonder in all the things that I could be doing in the course of a day, what is best to do? How do I set priorities? There are responsibilities to cover. God has blessed me with a voracious appetite of activities that I’m interested in and things that I want to accomplish in ministry, tasks I want to do at home, and things I want to do with my family, There are gobs of books I want to read, far more than I’ll ever be able to get to. There are neighbors, church members, and people in the community in whom I want to invest. How do we prioritize amongst all the things that we could do? I don’t think there is a simple answer to this question, but today’s reading provides a Biblical answer that would certainly help put things in perspective. Matthew 24:36-44 addresses the problem about a lack awareness that the coming of the Son of Man could happen at any moment. Comparing the coming of the Son of Man to the days of Noah the problem was life just going on as normal and people were “unaware” until it was too late. The salutation to being unaware was to “stay awake” for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. That phrase “your Lord” is important. It’s not in this case meant to be fear based, like a group of unruly students keeping an eye on the door for when the teacher will return to the room. Rather, the right sense is to cultivate a joyful anticipation that we could see our Lord today and that reality will be the right medicine to make us neither panicked nor lazy as we live following Jesus.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Super Dangerous Thought

This morning I prayed through this text:
Luke 18:9–14 (ESV)  He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
As I prayed, I was challenged by the reality that self-righteousness is a danger for me and for anyone deeply immersed in ministry or church life. This is a super dangerous thought: “I am not like other men.”

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Beyond Our Comprehension

John 11 is a well known text but examination often yields new insight into the heart of God and his ways of drawing us to himself. 
As I read this morning the word “so” caught my eye. Look at v. 5-6:
John 11:5–6 (ESV) Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 
Jesus stayed two days longer because he loved them. He had something even better in mind for this family by delaying than if he had shown up immediately and healed Lazarus.

Jesus was acting, not only for the good of Lazarus, Mary and Martha but also for the good of the disciples. After Jesus explains to the disciples that Lazarus is already dead he says this:
John 11:14–15 (ESV) Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 
Jesus’ purpose in not being there sooner was, “so that you may believe.” Their faith was a greater good than Jesus’ showing up “on time” to heal Lazarus before he died. 

Obviously, Mary and Martha don't get what is happening. They couldn’t, nor could the disciples. They could only put together facts as they saw them. The facts as the disciples saw them were this:
John 11:7–8 (ESV)  Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 
Let me paraphrase, “Jesus, we can't go back there, that is crazy talk. Usually you seem really smart, but this is not wise. Reconsider.” Then, when it’s clearly decided that they are going in spite of their “wise advice,” Thomas nobly says, “let us also go, that we may die with him.” Those were the facts according to the disciples. 

The facts as Mary and Martha would see them would likely be, “Jesus, Lazarus is dying. I know you've healed other people. We've seen you do it and we've heard the stories, so please this is really bad. If you don't get here soon it will be too late.”

Once Jesus arrives and encounters Martha, we can see her wrestling for perspective:
John 11:21–23 (ESV) Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Let’s use our imagination a bit to think more about what is going on in Martha’s mind, “Jesus, yes, I know he will rise again. I know that's supposed to give me hope for the future. And I'm looking forward to that. But what about now?” What she didn't need to say because this was well known then, was  that without a man to care for them they would have a very difficult time providing for themselves. “Don't you care that we are now going to be destitute? Are we to become beggars in the street? Of course, we are sad and we will miss him, but it's way, way worse than that.

Jesus answer to Martha is not so different from God’s answer to Job. Job's question, Martha's question, and often our question is, "why? Why God did you not intervene and do something about this soul crushing pain that is ravaging me right now? And just like with Job, and with Martha, and with us, he doesn't answer the why question. Rather, we can summarize what God said to Job, and what Jesus says to Martha, and what through them God says to us like this, "I am enough. You are looking for a temporary fix to your current pain. And I understand that. But what I am showing you is that because you have me, that supersedes everything else. I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Soon Jesus we will weep for complicated reasons, but part of it is his pain. He grieves with us. But he is saying to her and to us. “I'm making death irrelevant.” The key to making it through an average difficult day or the worst of heartbreaks is actively, not just saying so, but to actively with tenacious faith hang on to Jesus. You will not know why things are happening. But you will know the one who does know why and that will be enough. Perhaps part of the reason that God doesn't tell us why what is happening is happening is that we couldn’t possibly understand it. For God is always doing a thousand different things in any one incident and all that he is doing is so intricately conceived that we could not possibly fathom it. If he were to start explaining it to us, it would not help us, it would be beyond our comprehension. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Needing Both the Words and the Image

Mark 9:33-37 records a simple incident where Jesus and his disciples were traveling to Capernaum and upon arriving he asked them about what they had been discussing along the way. Whether he supernaturally knew what they were saying or simply heard them is not clear, but they were “busted” as we might say. They didn’t respond to Jesus’ question. To tell the truth was too embarrassing, because they were arguing with one another about who was the greatest. They clearly knew this was not a good thing for them to be arguing about. They knew this was contrary to who Jesus was and what he was modeling and teaching. But in this heightened emotional state, their embarrassment, Jesus rather gently teaches them. He sat down and gathered them around. This was no longer casually hanging out this was Jesus saying, “Get over here guys, sit down and let’s think this through. I want you to hear me well.” And then he simply said, “if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” It’s almost like he was saying, “your ambition to be the greatest in and of itself is not really the problem. The problem is you don’t understand what it means to be great. You think it greatness means that people do what you say and serve you. The opposite is true. Greatness means you put yourself last and you choose to serve all.” 
Then he took a child and put the child right in front of them. You have to visualize the scene. They were already sitting around talking and before Jesus says more, he brings in the child and prominently places the child in the middle of the room as it to say, “pay attention here. Look at this child. This is a big part of what you need to understand.” Then with everyone watching. Jesus takes up the child in his arms. The disciples were clear on the reality that Jesus was the greatest, and here he is, doing what apparently all of them were hoping to avoid. In their thinking, caring for children was something lesser people did, but not greater people. Then with all looking Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives not me but him who sent me.” The work of God is to serve those who can’t do anything for us. The work of trying to be great or trying to advance ourselves in the traditional way of thinking is to try to network with those who might be able to help our career. The work of the kingdom is to quietly serve those who like children can’t help our career or advance our image.
We likely can’t quite grasp what this image of seeing Jesus care for children did for them. It would be an image they couldn’t forget, probably a lot like their image of seeing him wash their feet as recorded in John 13. We need the same image to stun us that we too might not forget. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” We need both the words and the image to get this message that is so contrary to what comes naturally to us.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"Lord, To Whom Shall We Go"

A few weeks ago, our nine year old and I were eating breakfast before church on a Sunday morning when the subject of the Lord’s Supper came up. She said to me, “Dad, I know that we are supposed to eat the body of the Lord Jesus and I’m ok with that, but I don’t want to eat the intestines.” We had recently read John 6 with her and what it said messed with her, which is precisely what Jesus intended. Maybe you find her response inappropriate, or feel that it’s not right for me to relate the story. But I like her response, far more than my initial response as I started reading this morning, because I missed it entirely. In spite of the fact, that this chapter contains one my favorite scenes in all of the Bible, I literally read over the shocking words of the text and I didn’t see them. 

To get the full impact of the incident, you need to start reading beginning at John 6:22. But the trouble, if you will, starts in verse 51 where Jesus says:

John 6:51 (ESV) I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Some listening to him took issue with that last phrase. But rather than relieve the tension, Jesus ratcheted it up big time:

John 6:53–58 (ESV) So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Jesus shared all this publicly without much further explanation. What happened next is fascinating. When many of his “disciples" heard it, they said, “this is a hard saying; who can listen to it? Jesus explained his words a little but not enough to their liking. They were offended because Jesus didn't talk in a way that fit their grid of how the world worked. They wanted him to fit in to their way of thinking. They were not yet willing to give him control to the extent that they would allow him to set the direction of their lives. And so in v. 66 “many of his "disciples" turned back and no longer walked with hm.” 

Careful reading and interpretation are important here. It’s easy to conclude that when the text speaks of “disciples” in both v. 61 and v. 66 that Jesus was talking about the 12 disciples, Peter, James, and John and the others. But that's not accurate. Both of these instances refer to a larger group of people following Jesus around and listening to him teach. If we miss this, we miss a distinction in the reaction to Jesus that I think is the real treasure in this text. In v. 67 the text says that Jesus asked to the twelve, “do you want to go away as well?"" Here, Jesus spoke specifically addressed those twelve guys, distinguished from the larger group of disciples, many of whom turned back after they didn’t like what they were hearing from Jesus. 

Verses 68-69 are two of my favorite verses in the Bible, but to get them, you have to have followed carefully what's happening up until this point. 

John 6:68–69 (ESV) Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

In contrast to those who were offended and walked away, Peter answered for the group and essentially says something like this to Jesus, “I don’t get what you said. That sounds like crazy talk. I have no idea where you are taking us. But where else are we going to go? If you aren’t the answer, then we don’t know where else to turn. It is obvious to us that you have the words of eternal life and we will trust you even though we don’t understand you.” The difference is stark, though it may look similar from the outside. But those who walked away insisted on Jesus towing the line on their preconceived ideas of what it means to follow God. When he diverted from that direction, they bailed. The twelve said to Jesus, "we are in, no matter what. Though no go with me, still I will follow.”

Friday, October 6, 2017

From an Honest and Good Heart

The parable of the sower never fails to challenge me when I slow down and study it and ponder it. The application of the parable of the sower, especially when you consider what comes immediately before and after it, is about how we hear God's word. 

At the end of the parable in Luke’s version Jesus says in Luke 8:8, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In beginning to explain the parable he says, that it had been given to the disciples to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others he would speak in parables so that “seeing that may not see, and hearing that may not understand.” 

In each of the four kinds of soils, the initial act is their hearing of the word. In he first, the devil snatches it away immediately. In the second, when persecution comes because of the word they fall away. In the third, the cares and riches and pleasures of life choke the word in them and their fruit, though there is a beginning, does not mature. But then there is good soil which represents those who hearing the word, please read this slowly, "hold it fast in an honest and good heart." What does that mean? What is our role in seeing this happen? 

It's not a simple task to determine interpretively what each of these soils represent. Do these describe people who are ultimately believers or unbelievers? Does only the first soil represent unbelievers, the first and second, or the the first three? Please note this, only if there is an actual crop is there any benefit to the farmer. It’s not a simple thing to make a determination here. We certainly don't earn salvation by the way that we hear.

My thinking is that a person that has not been converted will be more like the person who may hear this parable and not think much about it beyond the moment. They are those whom Jesus describes as seeing but not seeing and hearing but not understanding. On the other hand, if the parable haunts you. If you when you stop and think about it and you are troubled by it and you are convicted about how you hear and take in the word of God, then I think that's a really good sign because God disciplines those he loves. Looking at it from that standpoint, it would seem that all four of these stages can happen to genuine believers. There are times we pick up the word of God to read or hear a sermon and it simply bounces off. We don't take it in at all and though we heard it, it does us no good. There are other times that we take in a passage of scripture and are excited about it at the moment, but then when we seek to actually live according to the scripture, we give up when it gets hard. Furthermore, our fruit bearing can be blocked by distractions; by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life and our spiritual fruit does not mature. 

So here is my proposal: May we learn to pray before we read scripture or study scripture or listen to a sermon: "Father, please grant that our hearts may be good soil. Help us to hear your word well. Help us to hold your word fast in an honest and good heart. May we increasingly grow in our understanding of what that means. And then Father, may we then, because of your word growing in us, patiently bear fruit, which we know can only happen as we remain connected to you.

Friday, September 29, 2017

From Worship to Fury

Reading slowly can cause phrases to jump out at us that we otherwise miss. Luke 4:16-30 provides a vivid image of Jesus that can prompt our worship if we read slowly enough to capture what’s really happening here. Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. We are right to try to imagine what that was like for him and for those who’d known him as a boy. Many of us know what it feels like to go home and the rush of thoughts and feelings that can bring. More importantly this image can immediately break through our well worn image of Jesus that is not all that tangible to us. Jesus can seem like an idea more than a real person. Putting ourselves in the scene can help to get us past the idea-stage to the person-stage.

By God’s grace, as I read very slowly today I was more tangibly able to see Jesus as he stood up to read in the synagogue and as he unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written. These mundane details help us see that Jesus was a real man. He had thigh muscles to help him stand. He had the tactile experience of unrolling that scroll and finding the place in the scroll. When we see these and ponder them, it grounds the person of Jesus more in tangible reality for us and our faith in him grows. Furthermore, this simple incident means that Jesus learned to read just like any other boy or girl in that time. There’s no reason to think the ability to read was just dumped into his brain as a fully formed ability. This was part of the limitation he willingly chose in taking on human flesh. He had to learn just like anyone else how to walk, how to talk, and how to read. When we see this, our amazement at him grows.

This is a rich passage. The implications of v.18-19, quoted from Isaiah are massive for both his ministry and ours but we can’t focus on that here. Let me direct your attention to what happens after.

The atmosphere was pregnant with anticipation. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Perhaps they could not say why, but the impression was that everyone present could sense something momentous was going on. Someone reading from a scroll and sitting down to talk would have been a routine occurrence in the synagogue. But everyone present could sense something different was happening that day.

Now notice the reaction beginning in v. 22. 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?” One moment all spoke well of him. All of them marveled, there was a sense of wonder and aliveness to everything he said, they marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. We don't fully appreciate the wonder of that. But, may we also be stunned because he was so perfectly faithful to be exactly who he was, that one moment they were praising him for his gracious words and then, within a few moments, “all in the synagogue were filled with wrath 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. But passing through their midst, he went away.”

May we be stunned by this image and may our confidence in Jesus grow. This would not be the last time in Jesus’ life a crowd of people would move from worship to fury in the space of a very short time.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Bible Jesus Read

Today I finished my reading of the Old Testament in the chronological path through the Bible I'm following this year. Perhaps, if you have been reading along with me, you are breathing a sigh of relief. That’s understandable. Much of the prophets in particular are obscure to us because they are often more difficult to understand. Yet today in this final day of reading i’m reminded of Philip Yancey’s description of the O.T. He called it, “The Bible Jesus Read.” It was also the Bible the apostles read as well. Peter knew the reading from today so well that he quoted from it freely in his message on the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. 

But perhaps most American believers could not, off the top of their heads, say much about what is in the book of Joel. If we remember anything, we might remember that it talks about locusts, but why is likely a mystery. 

The first line of the book says, this is “the word of the Lord.” This is “the word of the Lord” just as much as the gospel of John, Romans, or the epistle of James. The book is an instance of how God lovingly warned and passionately pursued the wayward world. As Hebrews 1:1 says, 

Hebrews 1:1–2 (ESV)
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .  

The book is one of those many ways that God pursues us with passion and creativity. it does in fact use locusts as an image of the judgment of God. It is an urgent word to alarm us into paying attention. 

The stern words that seem harsh and negative in the O.T. prophets are always an act of passionate love. These words are never an instance of God just telling people off because he is angry. Jesus is the final version of this “word of the Lord” and he is no less passionate or fierce at times in his tone. Look at how John the Baptist spoke of him. 

Matthew 3:11–12 (ESV)
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Before closing, I don’t want you to be deprived of knowing about a tender call to repentance in the book. Here is more evidence that God’s most fierce warnings aim at wooing wayward people to himself. But if we don’t first hear the warnings, like those that precede the verses below, we will not be able to taste the sweetness of this wonderful news of grace. It is the good news of the gospel, right here in this little known book. 

Joel 2:12–14 (ESV)
12  “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, 
“return to me with all your heart, 
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
13  and rend your hearts and not your garments.” 
Return to the Lord your God, 
for he is gracious and merciful, 
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; 
and he relents over disaster. 
14  Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, 
and leave a blessing behind him, 
a grain offering and a drink offering 
for the Lord your God?

Archive of Reflections on the Chronological Bible Reading Plan

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