[July 31]--Dead and Sick

Matt. 9:18-26

Someone once asked Ghandi what he thought about Christianity. He confessed that the Jesus of the Bible was very attractive, but Jesus' modern-day followers did a terrible job of representing him, and this was why he (Ghandi) wasn’t a Christian. This is actually quite common: People reject the church all the time but they find themselves drawn to the Jesus presented in the Gospels.

One of the reasons why people find him attractive is his power mixed in the right amount with compassion, which we see in today’s passage. A ruler came to Jesus and pled with him to come and heal his sick little girl. Every father reading this can certainly relate, for this would be every parents’ worst nightmare: watching your little girl slowly dying right in front of you as you stand by helplessly.

But on the way to the sick girl, Jesus had a little diversion from the agenda. A woman who'd been bleeding constantly for the last twelve years was ready to make one last desperate attempt to get healing. Mark’s version adds the detail that she'd spent all she had on doctors, and her situation had only worsened. Couple this with the physical pain which she undoubtedly experienced, and this was a horrible life for her. And worst of all was the isolation. She was ritualistically unclean 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Everyone who touched her was made unclean. She was forbidden to enter the temple and worship God there, which would only add to her isolation and misery.

To me the most touching thing about this woman is her faith. She didn’t have the faith to come up to Jesus and ask for healing. She didn’t even want to make her presence known. But this teaches us an important lesson about faith. It’s not so important how strong your faith is as much as the object of your faith. Imagine me crossing a rope bridge across a chasm. I might have a lot of faith in the bridge and walk across without a moment’s hesitation. Or I might have a wavering faith and take each step gingerly until I reach safety. But the determining factor is the object of my faith. If the bridge is sound, I’m fine. If it isn’t, then I’ll find out as. . .well, you get the idea.

Maybe you don’t have the faith of Abraham, willing to pack up and move everything you own and leave everyone you know behind, just because “God told me to.” Maybe you don’t have the faith to reach out and grab hold of Christ’s hand. But if you have the faith to just touch the edge of his garment, that one little tiny step of faith will make all the difference both now and in eternity.

And in the rest of the story we see an illustration why. People thought it was too late. The Master had enough power to heal a sick person, but a dead one? To take a lifeless corpse and breathe life back into it, to recall the soul from the afterlife and bind it once again with its body? Surely this Healer wasn’t that powerful, was he? Uh, yes he was. In fact, it just took a word from him to bring this girl back to life and give her back to her joyful parents. Like I said yesterday, now that's authority! And he has just as much power and authority now as he did then.

So, are you trusting him? Are you willing to place everything in his hands? My friend, trust and obedience are two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without the other.

Lord Jesus, I do believe in you, I do. But my faith is so wavering at times, and I want to trust you so much more. Only you can change me and give me more faith. Please.

[July 30]--Out With The Old, In With The New

Matt. 9:14-17

I’m not intimately familiar with either wineries or patching old garments, so I had to do a little research on this, but it was very rewarding. Here’s some background on these two topics, and it sheds light on what Jesus was talking about.

Have you ever bought or worn pre-shrunk jeans? Of course, if you wear blue-jeans, then you know that they shrink a bit when you wash them, so you have to take that into consideration when you’re fitting into them at the store. I don’t know if they still do it, but Levi’s used to offer pre-shrunk jeans so that you could tell exactly how they would fit while still in the store. So what do you do if you tear the pants? If they’re just a pair of jeans, then you might be tempted to just sew a patch onto them. The problem is that if the jeans have already shrunk as much as they’re going to, and the patch is newer, then the patch'll shrink and tear away from the pants.

It’s the same issue with wine. As grape-juice ferments, it releases gasses which expand in whatever container the wine is in. People during this time stored wine in goatskins. But if the goatskins were new, and the grape-juice was still releasing the gasses, it'd burst the skins and spill out.

So what’s the point of this story? In both illustrations, you have the same principle: You can’t mix the old and new, because they just don’t go together. You have to pair new garments with new patches, and new wineskins with new grape-juice. But what is the “new” and the “old”? Is Jesus teaching that the Old Covenant is obsolete? What do you think? Do you think that the One who told us that he didn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it would turn right around and tell us that the Law is now obsolete? Does that make sense?

No, the Law is not obsolete. Its principles are timeless. But the specific applications of those principles have changed. We don’t have to worry about gleaning in our fields, but we still need to take care of the poor.

But Jesus is the agent of change here. He's brought out a New Covenant, and it is different from the Old one. He brings new life, new beginnings, new hope, and it can’t be contained in the old ways of doing things. If we try to mix the Old and the New covenants, we’re in danger of it all coming apart.

So how do we apply this today? We’re aren’t in a lot of danger of falling into the forms of the Old Covenant—there aren’t a lot of Bible teachers out there who tell us we need to keep kosher or keep the Old Testament laws. If anything, we’re in danger of completely writing the Old Testament off as totally irrelevant. But we're always in danger of falling into the trap of traditionalism. In fact I find it pretty ironic that the generation that supposedly shuns all traditions tends to set up its own traditions and calls it something else.

But just as he did before, Jesus offers a new way. He offers new hope, a new beginning. In fact he promises to make “all things new.” Are you holding onto your old way of doing things, just because it’s comfortable? He wants to make a fresh start with you, right here, right now: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!"

Lord Jesus, I don’t want to hold onto anything that doesn’t come straight from you. You're infinitely creative, and you're constantly in the process of re-creating me. Whatever I can do to cooperate, show it to me and give me what I need. Please.

[July 29]--Whose Authority?

Matt. 9:1-8

Authority is sometimes a bad word in today’s political climate. We tend to be distrustful of both the word and those who claim it over us. Of course, this very nation started out by telling the Mother Country “You can’t tell us what to do!!!!” so this might not be so surprising. Whether we know it or not, however, we submit to authorities all the time, and rightly so. When you follow a doctor’s treatment, you’re recognizing his years of training and experience over your own (which is none). When you board a plane, you’re submitting to the authority of the pilots and flight attendants who have the responsibility of getting everyone to their destination safely.

Authority is the main issue in today’s passage, whether you notice it or not. A crowd had gathered around Jesus, and some men brought to him a friend who was paralyzed. Mark and Luke tell us that they couldn’t get to him because of the multitude of people, so they tore through the roof and lowered him down in front of the Master.

There are a lot of interesting things to notice about this passage.

• It was the friends’ faith that impressed Jesus, and this was a type of faith that doesn't give up at the first sign of obstacles or problems. They cared about one thing: Getting their friend healed. They weren’t leaving until they got it, sort of like Jacob when he wrestled with a “man.”

• Notice that Jesus addressed the man’s primary need first. People might have physical needs like hunger, thirst, health, but the most important need is to have our sins forgiven. Jesus easily could've eliminated all sickness from Israel (and he could do so today all around the world), but that wouldn't have solved our #1 problem: We all have an appointment with the Judgment Throne of God, and all of us will be found guilty before it if all we have is our own righteousness.

Then we come to the crux of the matter, that of authority. For the rest of this commentary, I have to give full credit to C. S. Lewis. According to him, Jesus' words to the paralytic man is one of the most audacious claims ever to come from someone’s lips, and it means he was either God incarnate or a blasphemer of the worst kind. He unilaterally proclaimed that this man’s sins were forgiven. Why is this so important? Aren’t we supposed to forgive? Yes, we're supposed to forgive sins against ourselves. You step on my toe, and I forgive you. I insult you, and you forgive me. But what if Joe stepped on your toe and I said “I forgive you, Joe”?

In other words, the one offended is the one who has the right to forgive. And Jesus didn’t bother to go around and find all the people who'd been hurt by this man on the mat. The reason for this is because there's only One whose law is broken and whose love is wounded every time we sin. So do you see why this is so important? Do you see what Jesus was claiming?

And then he backs up what he was claiming. Anyone can say the words “Your sins are forgiven,” but it’s a lot harder to say to a paralytic “Get up and walk.” So in order to show that he has authority to forgive sins, he healed the man. Now that's authority!

So I address this to two types of people today. First, have you come to an understanding of who Jesus really is? Have you finally stopped wrestling with his claims, and submitted to him? He’s God incarnate, and that means he has some claims on your life. And for those who feel like God can’t possibly forgive that sin, take heart. He has the authority to do it, and even more so, he promises to do so. You have his word on it.

Lord Jesus, you are God. You have full claim over me, twice over. You created me, and you’ve bought me. Thank you so much for proclaiming my sins to be forgiven. You're so good to me.

[July 28]--Following Jesus

Matt. 8:18-22

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s very relevant to today’s reading, so I have to repeat myself to some degree. There's a lot within the “Seeker-Sensitive” movement within Christianity to recommend it. If a lost person comes into a worship service and feels uncomfortable, it should only be because the Holy Spirit is convicting him of his sin and his need for Christ, and not for any other reason (like the music style or the dress code). Although not explicitly committed to that exact philosophy, our church still tries its hardest to carry out that principle, and I’m very glad of that.

But there’s a grave danger within this movement, and every church--whether expressly "seeker-sensitive" or not--has to vigilantly guard against it. The problem is that pastors tend to emphasize quantity over quality when it comes to making followers of Christ. Making the numbers is not just the most important thing-sometimes it’s the only thing that matters. Some pastors would rather have 1,000 half-hearted church members than 20 really on-fire disciples of Jesus. So sin is sometimes excused, even among professing believers. People come forward to “make a profession of faith,” they might even go to a new member’s class, and they're baptized as quickly as possible. And then the pastor is wondering why so many people “come in the front door and exit the back.”

If they were to follow the example of the Master, then this problem could be largely avoided (of course, even he retained only 11 out of 12). When someone came to him and said “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go,” most pastors would've jumped at a convert like this. A lot of ministers would respond with “That’s wonderful! Let’s say a prayer, fill out this membership card, and schedule your baptism! And can you teach next week in Sunday School?” But our Lord didn’t respond like that. Notice the wisdom in his answer. He didn’t just turn the man away and say, “No, not interested in any more disciples. Thanks for applying.” But he wanted the man to understand the full implications of following him, or as he later put it, “Estimate the cost.” Jesus was (at that point) homeless. If this prospective follower was expecting to live in a palace and spend his days counting the money he was raking in, he needed to find another teacher to follow.

And then another man, whom Jesus actually pursued, answered in a different way. Jesus’ response might seem shocking to modern hearers, but trust me, your shock is nothing compared to the shock of his original audience. In that culture, for someone to forsake his father at the time of death would be literally unthinkable. Now to be fair, his father probably wasn’t dead yet, and who could tell when he'd pass on? But that doesn’t much lessen the impact of this.

Does this mean that we should avoid being around our parents in their dying moments, and skip out on the funeral, in order to follow Christ? For most people, no. The One who told us to “honor your parents” in his Top Ten Commandments isn’t likely to contradict himself here. But there might come a time in which we have to choose between Christ or our parents, and we have to make the right decision. If the Lord, under special circumstances, calls us to “abandon” our parents, then he'll provide for them. For some of us, this might mean we do things in following the Master of which our parents don’t approve. Ask any believer who came from a Jewish or Muslim background, and for them this dilemma is more than academic or theoretical. They made the choice to obey God rather than their parents, and most of them have paid an enormous price. But whatever that price was, they’ll tell you it was worth it.

Lord Jesus, yes. Whatever you want me to do, wherever you want me to go, whatever you want me to sacrifice, the answer is “yes.”

[July 27]--What Impresses Jesus?

Matt. 8:5-13

If you’ve been reading closely, you might've noticed that we skipped a short story about Jesus healing a leper in 8:1-4. The reason we’re not talking about this today is because I plan on discussing that when we get into Mark next year. If there’s a passage in Matthew which we don’t address, then we’ll probably look at its parallel next year when we examine Mark and Luke.

In case you didn’t know it, a Centurion was a Roman officer in charge of 100 soldiers. The amazing thing about this and other passages is that the Bible presents a fairly positive view of any Roman soldiers at all. They were a brutal occupying force, and most Jews hated them with every fiber of their being. For a Jewish rabbi to say anything but a curse on these men would be incomprehensible among Jesus' first audience. But our Lord was willing to see beyond politics to a man’s soul, someone who was willing to trust in him.

Not only trust in him, but show an amazing amount of faith. In fact, that’s the answer to the question posed in the title for today’s devotional. There are only two times in which Jesus is described as “amazed” in the Gospels. The first is Luke’s account of the Centurion, and in another story recorded in Mark 6:1-6. In Mark’s story Jesus returned to his hometown and people refused to believe in him; he was “amazed at their lack of faith.”

That’s what impresses Jesus, what catches his attention. That’s what causes us to stand out from other people, according to him. We just need to trust him.

The centurion did, and not only did he see his beloved servant healed, but he got a compliment from Jesus which I'd love to get: Jesus hadn't seen anywhere in all Israel anyone who had faith like this man. The soldier was able to rise above the political controversies and the inbred contempt he'd have for Jewish teachers and rabbis. He was even able to rise above the superstitious limitations people tended to have on God’s power. Most people, even if they believed in the Lord, somehow thought that he had to be physically present in order to work his power. The centurion, however, saw past that nonsense: The Roman officer didn’t have to be standing over the shoulder of a subordinate to make sure an order was obeyed, so why would Jesus need to do so?

Again, I find myself envious of this man. He was able to trust Jesus and take him at his word, and received a compliment that I'd love to get. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from following his example and getting the same word from the Lord Jesus, is there?

Lord Jesus, so often that’s what it comes down to, right? I just need to learn to trust you better. Lord, I do believe. Please help my unbelief.

[July 26]—Law Inside And Out

Romans 2:12-16

            I know we looked at this passage as part of yesterday’s reading, but I think these four verses need a day by themselves before we move on.
            Just to review: The Gentiles only had General Revelation, while the Jewish people had Special Revelation, namely the Scriptures and the events recorded in them.
            What’s General Revelation? It’s revelation which is given to all of humanity, which can be accessed by anyone. I’m probably stealing these terms from someone, but I divide it into the Outer Witness and the Inner Witness. The Outer Witness is discussed in chapter one: God’s physical creation tells some things about him. Paul says his “invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature” are clearly seen. I’d suppose he’s talking about God’s power, his wisdom, his eternality, and the fact that he’s outside nature and not part of it.
            Today’s passage addresses what I call the Inner Witness. These Gentiles had never heard of Moses or the Torah. They’d never heard from Sinai that you aren’t supposed to steal or murder or commit adultery. So how were they able to function at all? Why wasn’t there just complete anarchy and chaos throughout history?
            The Lord’s placed within every person some understanding of right and wrong. And then society and culture (which is basically just a group of individual people acting together) codifies moral standards, both in formal law and informally in such things as taboos.
            Please forgive me as I quote myself from before: C. S. Lewis outlined this for us beautifully in The Abolition of Man. In it he lists universal principles which almost every culture has adhered to, in word if not in deed. Then he lists specific quotes from different religious leaders and philosophers which agree with the sentiment. For example, he might list “Condemnation of unnecessary killing,” and then quote from Buddha, Confucius, and Plato. The point of this is not to put the Bible on the same level as other religious systems; quite the opposite, in fact. Lewis thoroughly accepted that although God has revealed truth to all people, they've perverted it. But imagine, if you will, a culture in which treachery is celebrated, in which a man boasts of backstabbing his best friend. Imagine a world in which ingratitude is rewarded, in which theft is applauded. As Lewis said, religions might differ on whether you can have one wife or four, but none of them tell you that you can have any woman you want. They might differ on whether to lie to an outsider, but none of them hold up dishonesty as a virtue.
            This is what Paul is talking about when he says that men without the Mosaic Law “do by nature things required by the law.” It’s showing to some degree “that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”
            So what’s the problem here? Why isn’t this “Inner Witness” enough?
            Number one, it’s not complete or totally accurate. Like every other aspect of our existence, it’s affected by sin. For example, the revealed truth that everyone is created in God’s image--and is thus to be accorded dignity and respect and equality before the law--has never, to my knowledge, been followed or even attempted to be followed, except in societies heavily influenced by the Bible. The ubiquitous institution of slavery—until about 200 years ago, and only removed by the influence of the Bible—repudiated this sublime truth.
            It happens on the personal level as well. That’s what Paul is talking about when he says that their consciences can “defend” them. We know that lying is wrong, and we know that we wouldn’t want someone to lie to us, but when telling the truth would hurt us, then we can come up with excuses as long as our arm as to why in this instance, it’s justified.
            And at its best, all the inner witness can do is. . .testify against us. We know that lying is wrong, and we lie anyway. We steal when we know that stealing is wrong. We hate or belittle or do even worse to others.
            That’s why those “who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law.” They don’t have the Bible, but they know enough to condemn them before God’s throne.
            Furthermore, the inner witness can’t lead us to the Savior, at least not on its own. The only thing that can do that is God’s truth as revealed in Scripture, and the Holy Spirit using it as a sword. Remember, Paul says that on our own, no one seeks God. He has to pursue us, he has to hunt us down and take positive action to subdue us.
Aren’t you glad he did that for you?

Father God, if you hadn’t pursued me and rescued me, then all my upbringing and exposure to your word would only make my condemnation worse. On my own, I would never have sought you. But you sought me, and you found me. Thank you. 

[July 26]--Wisdom and Folly

Matt. 7:24-27

These are the last verses of the Sermon on the Mount, and they're a perfect ending to all he’s taught so far. He’s spoken about a lot of subjects: prayer, lust, hatred, worry, money, Hell, and a host of others. Now he caps it all off with a miniature story, and the main point is pretty easy to pick up.

He holds up for us two different people, and what separates them might not be obvious at first. Both of theses men are “hearers.” They’ve heard God’s word. They might be sitting together in church listening to the same sermon. They might attend prayer meetings together. They both might even be in leadership positions in the church. But there's all the difference in the world-maybe all of eternity-between these two. Those five little words “. . .and puts them into practice” is what's so important to our Lord, and it should be just as important to us.

James also warned us about this tendency: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” When we merely listen to the word and don’t put it into practice, we’re deceiving ourselves. We think a “little religion” will help us get by, but we’re seriously wrong. And the storm will expose this little game for what it is. Of course, what Jesus is talking about isn't gaining salvation by works, unless he's contradicting his own word later on. Putting his word into practice starts out by recognizing that you haven't been doing so up until now, and coming to him for salvation. And even after we're saved, not putting his word into practice will surely lead to disaster, just like it always does.

So what’s the final outcome for these two men? Notice that they both encountered storms in life (because everyone does), but the end result was as different as night and day. After the storm had passed through, only one man’s house was still standing. He'd invested in his personal relationship with Christ, and it paid off in the end. The other man watched as his house came down, and all of his time and effort had been utterly wasted. I love the image with which he ends the story: “It fell with a great crash.”

I really don’t have much else to say, except to ask you and me a few simple questions: “Which man am I? What am I investing my life in? What's my house built upon?” The answers to those questions will make all the difference in the world.

And now for one of my favorite songs of all time that brings this Scripture into practical focus, "Two Sets of Jones'" by Big Tent Revival.

Lord Jesus, I pray, I hope, I plead with you to make me into a wise man. Every moment of every day I’m making choices about my foundation. Please give me strength to make the right ones.

[July 25]--The Great Divide

Matt. 7:15-23

During these times, it’s always popular to talk about unity. Presidents are elected by convincing enough people that they're “uniters” and not “dividers.” All division is considered to be bad. Of course, this isn't a completely negative change: We used to be divided by race, and that’s no longer considered acceptable. But the Bible talks about divisions as well, and not all of them are bad. In fact, some of them are God-given.

The first division in this passage is between false teachers and true. It always amazes me when people are scandalized by the latest preacher to be caught doing something wrong. Naturally they assume that anyone wearing minister’s clothes is to be trusted. I wish it were so, but it’s not. And worse, a bad minister doesn’t just hurt himself; he usually leads others astray. And we need to keep in mind that the Lord holds us accountable for following bad teachers: “If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

So how do we distinguish between false teachers and good ones? “By their fruit you will recognize them.” This isn’t just referring to their lifestyle but also their teaching. Do both conform to God’s word? This isn’t to say they need to be perfect, since all of us are sinners in need of God’s grace. But they need to be following Christ, and attempting to live up to his standards. And we need to hold up every sermon, every teaching session against the standard of God’s word. And of course this means we need to study it, read it, and know it.

Then Jesus moves from fake teachers to fake believers. This is an amazing passage to me. These alleged followers pointed to prophecies in his name, casting out demons, and performing miracles, and he never disputed their claim to have done so. Is it really possible to prophecy (or preach) in his name, cast out demons, and even perform miracles of some sort, and still be lost? It sure looks like it to me.

What was the central issue, the main concern? Why would Jesus cast them out of his presence? He makes it abundantly clear here. When he says “I never knew you,” it doesn’t mean he doesn’t know their names, it means that they never had a personal relationship with him. They'd never really put their faith in him, had never repented of their sin, and had never claimed his gift of grace. They'd spent years and years play-acting, pretending to not only be a Christian but a miracle-worker. But he wasn’t impressed, and their little game was exposed in the end.

Friend, this is a solemn warning to each of us. Have you truly placed your trust in the Savior? Or have you been play-acting? If you’re reading this and haven’t ever done so, please read this. He knows your heart, and you know that you need him. Please stop the games.

Lord Jesus, I thank you for saving my soul. I know that I’ve placed my trust in you for salvation, and I completely turn away from any claim to righteousness apart from you. You are my all in all.

[July 24]--Telling the Truth

Matt. 7:13-14

Today’s passage is a striking warning for all of us, and it needs some attention. Here are some of my thoughts on this:

Jesus Christ, the most loving and compassionate man who ever walked the earth, the incarnation of Love himself, spoke quite frequently about Hell. In fact, he spoke more about Hell than about Heaven. The common word for hell, gehenna, was a trash-heap outside of Jerusalem at which garbage was dumped, set on fire, and perpetually burned. Twelve times this word is found in the N.T., and eleven of those times they come from Jesus’ lips. Why would he speak about this? Because he was loving and compassionate! If a doctor had a patient with cancer but withheld this fact from him, what would you think of that physician? What would be the loving and compassionate thing to do?

We must imitate our Master in this. This doesn’t mean that every Christian is called to be a preacher, but we must all be honest with our friends and relatives who are without the Savior. We’re called to be messengers of the Good News, but the Good News has to start with the Bad News.

We don’t need to be concerned if the way we’re following isn’t the most popular. In fact, the exact opposite is true. If the path we’re on seems to be the way that everyone else is using, that would be a cause for worry. Christ’s true followers have never been the majority, and the Good News will never be as popular as the latest religious fad. If the world calls us narrow-minded and bigoted, that’s probably a compliment. In fact, if someone called me narrow-minded, I would point them to this very passage and say “You’re absolutely right. I certainly am ‘narrow-minded’ because that’s what Jesus was talking about here.”

Again, the perfect balance is found in Eph. 4:15Speak the truth in love. Most Christians find it easier to do one without the other. Some Christians are really good at speaking the truth, but they almost sound as if they're perfectly fine with people heading into destruction. I'd contend, however, that most believers (including myself) fall into the opposite trap. We're around lost people every day, and don’t want to speak the truth in fear of offending someone. Quite frankly, that’s not showing love either.

BTW, if you're reading this and wondering what I'm talking about, check out my summary of the Bible in one verse (which I've borrowed from others) here.

Lord Jesus, as I point the fingers to others, I find myself convicted by this as well. Am I showing real love to the lost people around me? Please give me the words to speak, and may they see your love reflected in everything I do and say.

[July 23]--Asking, Seeking, Knocking

Matt. 7:7-12

This seems like a very simple passage to understand, but once you probe just a little you’ll find that it’s one of the most profound you’ll ever read. It’s been misused quite a bit by some televangelists, so let’s clear up some common confusion about it.

First off, is this a blanket promise that he’ll give us whatever we ask for? Some preachers might teach so, but I don’t agree. Read the latter portion of the passage, and ask yourself some common-sense questions. Jesus compared our heavenly Father to a human parent, arguing from the lesser to the greater. If a human parent gave his young child everything he asked for, would that be showing real love? Of course not. Quite frankly, I'd rank it as child-abuse almost on the level of hitting them. We desire things all the time which are harmful to us and others, so our Father lovingly and wisely tells us “no.”

So what is Jesus talking about? What’s his point? He wants to encourage us to be bold in our prayers, always acknowledging that our Father knows infinitely better than we do, and will answer according to his perfect plan which will glorify himself and benefit us. If we found out about a parent who neglected his children, who failed to provide them with food, clothing, or shelter, what would we think of them? Or even worse, if the child, asking for a piece of bread, instead got something useless or even harmful? So if a human parent (and the best of them aren't sinless) wouldn’t do that to his own child, how much more can we trust our Father to provide what we need!

By the way, I’ve also used this as a witnessing passage. I’ve talked to lost people about the claims of Christ, and they expressed doubt in the truthfulness of the Good News. I've pointed them towards the promises of vss. 7-8 and challenged them: “Just pray to him, saying ‘If you’re there, Jesus, if this is true, show yourself to me. Make it clear to me.’ If the Bible’s a bunch of myths, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. But if it is true, then I believe that Jesus will keep this promise and make it clear to you.”

Do some preachers misuse this passage? Absolutely. But in reacting to them let’s not overreact in the opposite direction. We need to be bold in our petitions to him, not timid! We don’t want to presume on him, but we need to realize that he is perfectly capable of going beyond what we ask or even imagine. Are you bringing “God-size” prayers before your Father? Why not?

Thou are coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.


Father, you're so big, and my prayers are so small sometimes. Help me to pray under the guidance of your Spirit, and know that I’m praying to Almighty God.

[July 22]--Hypocrisy and Honesty

Matt. 7:1-6

In this society, today’s passage might be one of the more popular ones. We’re always told that judging people is wrong, and I’ve actually heard people cite this verse when it’s pretty obvious that this is just about the only verse they know. Jesus’ words against lust or greed are ignored, but we certainly like to pay attention when he condemns a judgmental attitude.

But as usual, we need to look a little closer to avoid misunderstandings. Did Jesus condemn all judging? Does he not want us to discriminate at all between good and evil, between foolish and wise choices, between people who are trying to follow God’s instructions and those who aren’t? If he was telling us this, then that would contradict further instructions later in this very sermon. How could we discern between true teachers and false teachers, between good fruit and bad fruit, and between the path of life and the path of destruction if we forfeit judging altogether?

What Jesus was condemning was a judgmental attitude, which seeks to make ourselves look better by comparing ourselves with sinful people. You might've heard this already, but just in case you didn’t, the word “hypocrite” was a term used for actors in plays. Commonly they didn’t have enough actors to fill every role, so the actors would hold masks in front of their faces to show the audience that they were playing a different character. So in other words, Jesus was calling judgmental people actors. Friend, when you condemn others with this type of attitude, you’re pretending. You’re acting as if you somehow need a little less grace than someone else. It took the blood of the Son of God to cover your sins, and you deserve hell no less than anyone else. We're all guilty before God’s throne of justice, and if he treated us as we deserved, well, you get the idea.

We sometimes forget it or under-emphasize it, but I really believe Jesus has a sense of humor, and it shows in this passage. Come on, isn’t it a funny picture? Can you imagine a man walking up to his friend saying “Hey buddy, let me help you with that speck out of your eye” while he’s sporting a log out of his head? I think our Savior was using humor to make a point. Sins are just like headlights on a car, yours look so much more glaring to me than my own.

This doesn't mean that we don’t come alongside our brothers and point out to them when they’re doing wrong. To avoid that duty is not showing love to them. But that’s the key word: We are to speak the truth in love, not with a prideful attitude that thinks that we’re somehow immune to what they fell into. All of us are in daily need of God’s grace, and none of us deserve it. So despite how some people might abuse and distort this passage, let’s not lose sight of the hard truth here. Don’t ignore the “log” while you’re offering help to someone else’s “speck.”

Lord Jesus, it is so easy to fall into this trap, and so hard to stay out of it. Please keep me mindful of what it took to save me, and help me see others with nothing but love and compassion. Let’s leave the judging up to you, shall we?

[July 21]--Materialism and Trust

Matt. 6:19-34

I think that this passage is so important to read, especially for Americans. Unless you’ve traveled abroad, you probably have no idea just how wealthy this nation is compared to others. Other nations have millions of people starving to death or just hanging above sustenance level. The main problem our poor have is obesity.

We’ve discussed this before, but I think it bears repeating: There's nothing intrinsically wrong with wealth. Several godly men in Scripture were very wealthy. The important question is not whether you have possessions but whether your possessions have you. If the Lord himself appeared to you and said (like he did to a certain young man) “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” then what would be your reaction? I know what it should be, but what would it be?

Now, is our Lord against saving money? Not unless Scripture contradicts Scripture, since the book of Proverbs advocates it. He’s just promoting wiser investments. So how do we store up “treasures in heaven”? There’s a simple formula, taught to me years ago from Bill Bright. According to Scripture, there are three things we can invest in which will last for eternity: God, the word of God, and the souls of men. In as much as I invest in these, I’m investing in eternity. In as much as I invest in things which are not on this list, I’m investing in something that'll be dust and ashes some day.

The other thing which Jesus was promoting was simple trust in our Father. He’s not against saving money, but he is against putting our trust in money or possessions to protect us or provide for us on a rainy day. Isn’t that the heart of a lot of pursuit of wealth? We’re scared to death of being poor, of losing our home, of losing our car, of losing our lifestyle, and we’re willing to do almost anything to keep them. But our Lord pointed us to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. The birds don’t worry about food, and the flowers don’t worry about clothing. Our Father provides for them, so how much more will he take care of his blood-bought children!

Instead of wealth, our first and foremost goal--actually our only goal--should be the pursuit of his kingdom and his righteousness. His kingdom is not a physical place, but wherever his children eagerly do his will and strive to see his righteousness brought about on this sin-cursed world. I’m certainly not there yet, but I want to be. How about you?

Lord Jesus, so often I don’t trust you, and I invest my time and money in things that won’t last forever. Please change my priorities, change my attitude, change me.

[July 20]--“Lord’s Prayer”

Matt. 6:9-15

This passage rivals the 23rd Psalm as the most famous and often-cited piece of Scripture, so I was pretty intimidated by the prospect of commenting on it. Countless sermon series have been preached on this, but we only have space for a few short notes.

• The address is to “Our Father,” which speaks to both our intimate relationship with him (“Father”) and the communal nature of the church (he isn’t just “my" Father but “our" Father).

• The first thing we're supposed to ask for is “Hallowed be your name,” which ought to be the top priority of every believer. We should desire, with all our hearts, to see his “name,” his reputation, be lifted up and given the respect, awe, and worship he deserves, by both ourselves and by the entire world. His name should be treated as holy.

• Along with this desire for his name to be treated as holy, we should desire to see his kingdom come forth. Every place where Christians gather should be a “colony of heaven,” a place where the Lord is obeyed with the same eagerness which angels display around his throne.

• Notice that he doesn’t say “Give us today our steak and lobster.” He promises to take care of our needs, not necessarily all of our desires.

• The requirement for our forgiveness couldn’t be any clearer. There's absolutely no way to keep communion with our Father if we harbor an unforgiving spirit. You can stop forgiving others when you stop needing forgiveness. By the way, the main reason I put “Lord’s Prayer” in quotes in the title is because the common name for this passage is a bit of a misnomer. Jesus himself could never pray this prayer, since he didn’t have any sins that needed forgiveness.

• How proud we are, how greatly do we overestimate our spiritual maturity! When Jesus predicted Peter’s denial during their last hours together before the cross, Peter’s pride led him to firmly contradict this: “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” How many times would that claim echo through his mind and mock him over the next few hours! None of us, save the Master himself, knows the full power of the Enemy, and none of us should desire to find out. If the Father sees fit to remove the “hedge of protection” around us and let the Adversary strike, then so be it. But always our plea should be “Lead us not into temptation.”

I know that a lot of people learn this prayer as a mere rote, and they repeat it as a meaningless ritual. But that doesn’t change the fact that this prayer has a lot of meaning for us, and the Lord Jesus submitted it to us as “how you should pray.” This doesn’t mean that we have to include the exact verbiage in every prayer, but it does mean we should study it so that every aspect of it is woven into every conversation we have with our Father.

Father, my first and foremost desire is to see your name be treated as holy, your kingdom come, and your will to be done in my life, just like it is in heaven. In order for that to happen, some changes have to be made. Please show me what I need to do, and give me the strength I need.

[July 19]--Charity, Prayer, and Fasting

Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18

It’s not too difficult to see the pattern here. Verse one gives the general principle (don’t do your acts of righteousness before men), while the other verses in today’s passage lists three “acts of righteousness” which are easy to fake for the world.

The first is charity, or giving to those in need. Notice that the Savior assumed that his followers will give to those in need: “When you give. . .” Unfortunately, a lot of believers aren't even making it to the first step of giving to people, much less giving it to them secretly! But once we realize that the Lord's been so good to us and we need to give back to him by giving to others, then we need to be careful to do it “in secret,” not for the applause of men.

The second is prayer, and again he assumed that we'll be praying people. How can you be a Christian and not have regular communication with your Father? Now, does this command forbid all public prayer? Of course not, since Jesus himself frequently prayed in public. But as we get more mature in our faith, how precious are those moments when we commune with him, and bask in his presence, without all the distractions!

The third “act of righteousness” is fasting, and again Jesus assumed that we’ll participate in it. Now, let’s be clear: There's no command in the New Testament about how often we fast, so it seems that every believer should fast as they're led by the Spirit. And I don’t think it necessarily has to be food. You might fast from TV for a week, or something else that distracts you from serving the Lord. The point is to refocus yourself on him, and retune your ears to hear his instructions.

Now notice the two phrases which are repeated in all three sections, and remember, repetition is one major way that Scripture emphasizes something very important. Jesus warned against doing your acts of righteousness in front of people in order to impress them. Why? Because they “have received their reward in full,” and because “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

I promise you: If you haven’t been tempted by this, then you will be. I thoroughly believe that every believer is tempted to “put on a show,” especially as they’ve become well-known as a Christian for some time. If you’ve been called as leader in his church, you need to be extra careful about this. Jesus was serious, and the Father's always watching.

Father, you're the One who searches out hearts and minds. I'm so tempted to put on a show sometimes. I’m so concerned about my reputation. Please, let me do whatever I do for an audience of One. 

[July 18]--Going Beyond the Call of Duty

Matt. 5:38-48

Today we wrap up the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, and what a standard to meet here! There are a lot of commands in Christianity which are duplicated in other religions, such as the prohibitions on murder, adultery, theft, etc. But there's no equivalent to this in any other religion or philosophical system. The closest you’ll find to it is the pacifism in some Eastern religions, such as advocated by Mahatma Gandhi. But nowhere else are followers commanded to love their enemies like Jesus does here.

Now, as always, let’s look at some background for this passage, which might avoid misunderstandings.

• Slapping on the cheek probably doesn’t refer to threatening someone’s life, but more of a personal insult.
• As far as giving to someone who asks you for something, this needs to be taken into the context of the rest of Scripture, which is just as inspired as these verses are. Christians are to always promote love in their giving, and Paul commanded us not to give to someone who can provide for themselves. This is for the sake of both the receiver (who becomes dependent) and the giver (who no longer has the resources to give to more worthy causes). To enable someone to continue a self-destructive lifestyle by giving money to them is not loving them.
• Roman soldiers could command a civilian to carry his personal equipment for one mile, and the Jews were famous for measuring out exactly one mile and dropping their packs without giving one extra inch of service to the hated Roman oppressors. But Jesus came along and commanded his followers to “go the extra mile” (yes, this is where the phrase came from).

Do you want to be like your Heavenly Father? Every true Christian does, right? Then one way you can be like him is how you love the unlovely. I heard someone say there are three ways you can treat someone who mistreats you. Imagine if someone purposely damaged your car. You can say “Damage my car, I break your face!” Or you can say “Damage my car and I won’t do anything.” Or finally you can say “Damage my car and I’ll wash yours.” You can tell from this passage which one Jesus wants us to say.

So how do I do this? It’s one thing to forgive someone who slapped my face, it’s another to forgive someone who really, purposefully, maliciously set out to hurt me. Well, aside from the standard answer of “through the power of the Holy Spirit,” there’s at least one practical solution which Jesus mentions here: praying for them. I’ve experienced this myself: I was really angry with a co-worker who seemed to “have it in for me.” I felt absolutely no love or compassion for her, nothing but self-righteous anger, even bordering on hatred. Then I started praying for her, and my Lord started changing my attitude towards her. I thoroughly believe that it’s impossible to continue to pray for someone and also continue to hate them. Either one or the other will drop away. As you spend time talking to your Lord about your enemies, he starts to let you see them with his eyes. He’s in the process of conforming you to his likeness, and you won’t look like him until you do this. Like I said, pretty high standard, huh?

Lord Jesus, there's absolutely no way I can do this without your help. Please change me. I want to see the people around me with your eyes. Your eyes of compassion, your eyes of mercy. You're so quick to forgive me, and you expect me to do the same to others.

[July 17]--Truthfulness and Oaths

Matt. 5:33-37

Interpretations of this passage, and especially how to apply it, vary widely among Christians throughout church history. Some churches have taught that it’s unlawful for any Christians to take any oaths at all, so they don’t pledge allegiance to the flag, and they refuse to swear to tell the truth in court.

Others take a different approach, pointing out that the passage specifically forbids taking an oath in the name of created things, not God himself. This was the practice of the time, by the way: Religious Jews would be extra careful in how they would word their oaths, and would split hairs on which ones were binding and which were not. Jesus condemned this practice in Matt. 23:16-22. In other words, we shouldn’t swear oaths in the name of any created thing, only God himself.

Since the Old Testament saints regularly took oaths and God never condemned them for it, the second argument has some merit. However, I think we can easily miss the point here. The main point of this whole chapter is for us to go beyond external obedience to the heart of the matter. I don’t think the question is whether it’s allowed to swear to tell the truth in court (which I don't happen to think God condemns), but what type of people we are in daily life. If someone asks us to do something and we agree to do it, can they trust us? Christians shouldn’t be the type of people who need to swear on a stack of Bibles in order to get people to believe them.

Jesus’ standard is that when your mouth speaks “yes,” people can take it as “yes,” not “yes but with these conditions and asterisks and caveats.” They shouldn’t have to parse your meaning, like a certain President a few years ago who got into trouble over the definition of “is.” In our general conversations, there should be no shades of meaning, or lying by hiding the truth in the midst of a lot of verbiage. If we're followers of Jesus, then we're aligning ourselves with the One who's Truth incarnate. When he was under the worst pressure of his earthly life, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” That’s the Savior whom we serve, and that’s the type of people we ought to be.

Lord Jesus, your standard here is so high, and I fall so far short. Please make me like you. Please help me to always speak the truth in love, just like you did, and just like you still do.

[July 16]--Marriage and Divorce

Matt. 5:31-32

Please forgive me if the following material is old news to you, but I think it’s important to know a little background about this. As we discussed back in March, the first time divorce was mentioned was in Deut. 24:1-4. This was the passage that the religious leaders debated back and forth in discussing when divorce is appropriate. The school of Shammai said that “something indecent” referred to marital unfaithfulness, so he and his followers held that this was the only legitimate reason. Hillel and his disciples held that “becomes displeasing to him” meant that the husband could initiate divorce for just about any reason, even if the "reason" was that she didn’t cook his food properly.

It’s pretty obvious that Jesus agreed with Shammai, but I think in the context of this whole chapter in Matthew there’s something else going on here. Jesus never presented a contrast between his teachings and the Old Testament, but he did set up a contrast between the Old Testament and the common misinterpretations of it. In other words, as the Author of the Torah he had the ultimate right to interpret it, and he was restoring the original meaning of the Law to them.

As you can read from this passage, Jesus didn’t say that divorce is never an option, but it should certainly be the last one. If a someone cheats on their spouse, God allows it, but he never encourages it. The only other legitimate reason why believers are allowed to divorce is if they’re married to a nonbeliever and the nonbeliever wants to leave (not the believer).

What about remarriage? John MacArthur, a strong conservative teacher and preacher, makes the case for allowing remarriage if the divorce was due to unfaithfulness. Under the Old Covenant, the penalty for adultery was death, and the faithful spouse was allowed to remarry after the adulterous spouse was executed. Under the New Covenant, we don’t execute adulterers, so the unfaithful spouse is allowed to go on living. Should we then punish the faithful spouse because under the new system we’re more lenient? His argument sounds persuasive to me.

But among all this talk about divorce and remarriage, we should not lose sight of this fact: God hates divorce because he loves marriage, and he loves people. He knows what damage divorce does to people, especially the most vulnerable, namely women and children. He created marriage in the first place, and he values it very highly. Do we?

If you’re married, are you doing the work necessary not only to preserve but to strengthen your union? If you’re single, then are you going to settle for anything less than God’s best for you? I know it’s a cliché, but he really does know what’s best for us, and he has our best interests at heart. Let’s go by his standards, not the world’s.

I also fully understand that a lot of people reading this have already gone through a divorce. That's tragic, but it doesn't have to be the end of your story. No matter how much at fault you were for the breakup (and I'd venture that in virtually all divorces there's no one single party 100% at fault), you can have a new beginning right now. Confess and turn away from any lingering sin (sexual and non-sexual) and resolve to start doing things God's way today. Not the culture's way, and certainly not the way you've been doing things up till now. I warn you, you're going to hear this aphorism a lot if you hang around with me for long, since it consolidates so much truth in so few words: There's never been anyone in the history of mankind who did things God's way who ended up regretting it. 

Lord Jesus, help me to value marriage, not only my own but those around me. May my eyes and my heart be faithful to the one you’ve given to me.

[July 15]--Lust and Adultery

Matt. 5:27-30

Of all the commands of the Bible, this has got to be just about the most countercultural. Our whole entertainment industry is largely based upon violating these instructions. When I was in the Army, I got into discussions with other guys about God’s standards for Christian men, and I might as well have been speaking Swahili to them. You’ll find a lot of agreement with nonbelievers when it comes to Christian ethics: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t commit murder (and even hatred is frowned upon). But when it comes to this, you’ll find almost no one-except for Bible-believing Christians-who'd agree that lusting after women is wrong.

First, I think it would help to clear up some misunderstandings about this. I don’t think that Jesus meant that we can’t appreciate female beauty. If I see a TV show or movie and recognize that the actress is physically attractive, I don’t think that’s wrong. But where does it turn into lust? When I fantasize about what I’d like to do to her if I had the opportunity. I know it’s a well-worn cliché, but it’s still true: There’s a difference between a bird flying over your head and letting it nest in your hair.

Again, does this mean that God equates lust and physical adultery? I don’t think so, for the arguments we made yesterday. But what Jesus is targeting is the mental attitude that leads to actions. Just like there was never a murder that didn’t begin in the heart, there's never been an act of sexual immorality that didn’t begin in the thought-life.

Does this command apply to single guys as well? Sorry gentlemen, the answer is yes. If I’m gazing upon women, even as a single man, how can I claim that I’m respecting them as image-bearers of God? The proper expression of sexual desire is towards your spouse, and if you don’t have one, then you need to seriously consider getting one. That’s why Paul advised singles to marry if they're having trouble controlling their sexual urges.

On a side-note, I’ve actually used this passage as a tool in witnessing. When I’ve been talking to a guy who’s lost, part of the problem is to make him realize that he’s lost. Most people assume that if they haven’t murdered anyone and they’re basically an honest person, they’re all right in God’s eyes. In order to disabuse them of this notion, I’ve shown them this passage, and I’ve had guys look at this and say, “I guess we’re all in trouble [this is the edited version].” And I’ll reply, “Exactly! That’s why Jesus had to die, because none of us can meet his standard!”

This is tough command, and I’ve never met a Christian guy who could claim that he obeyed it all the time. The good news is that our God is compassionate and gracious, and as believers we have access to the strength of the one Man who actually succeeded where we fail. But where it starts is taking our thought-lives seriously. You can’t read this passage and come away with the idea that Jesus doesn’t care about what we’re thinking about. It’s an ongoing battle, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Lord Jesus, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

[July 14]--Hatred and Murder

Matt. 5:21-26

When Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, one thing (among others) which he might've meant was to reestablish the true meaning of the Law. The command not to murder is one of the Ten Commandments, and he certainly didn’t come to correct the law itself. But what he did intend to do was correct our misunderstanding of it.

People would hear the command and think “Well, I’ve never pulled a knife on someone, so I’m fine.” Not so fast. What Jesus is saying here is that God is concerned with our heart attitudes as well as our physical actions. There was never a murder committed with the hands which didn't originate in the heart.

But we need to clear up some misunderstandings here. Is Jesus saying that hatred of someone is just as bad as physical murder? I don’t think so. There are degrees of punishment in hell, and there are levels of accountability, so there are some sins which are worse than others. Any sin is enough to send someone to hell, but not all sin is equal in God’s eyes. The thing we need to keep in mind is that God takes any sin much more seriously than we do. Any sin, any failure of perfect obedience on our part is--in the words of R.C. Sproul--cosmic treason.

But what we need to do, instead of just being concerned about physical action is to constantly reexamine our attitudes towards the people around us. The word Raca is an Aramaic term of contempt, roughly equivalent to calling someone an idiot. And of course Paul called the Galatians foolish, so it’s not so much the term itself that Jesus is warning against. I believe that he’s warning against disregarding the image of God found in every human being. It’s the contempt in your heart which you mutter under your breath when someone cuts you off. It’s truly desiring harm to come to someone who's harmed you. It even extends to squabbles within the church. When a dispute arises, we need to work for reconciliation decisively and quickly, knowing that we need to do this before we dare to come into our Father’s presence in worship.

So you see, it’s much more than merely not hating someone. The standard is much higher than merely avoiding fantasizing about harming someone. God wants us to recognize that every person we meet--no matter how boring or annoying--is stamped with his image, and is precious in his eyes. Only then can we claim that we’re following these instructions. I don’t claim to perfectly obey it, but with his grace I’m trying. How about you?

Lord Jesus, help me to see that person not with my own self-interest, but with your eyes of love, compassion, and mercy. They're precious to you, valuable enough to die for. May my words, deeds, and thoughts reflect this.

[July 13]--Fulfilling the Law?

Matt. 5:17-20

Lots of Christians are “one-thirds” Bible-believers, at least on a practical level. They might claim that the Old Testament is God’s word, but they certainly don’t show it in their study habits. They focus any daily Bible reading on the New Testament and ignore the other 2/3 of the book! That's something that bothers me. A lot. And that brings us to today's Scripture reading. We talked about this when we were discussing the Torah back in February, but here we’re going to look at it a bit more thoroughly. What exactly did Jesus do in relationship with the Law when he came?

Right at the beginning of the New Testament, in its first major teaching portion, Jesus shows how we should look at the Old Covenant. Despite what we might think, he did NOT come to do away with it, but to fulfill it. Now considering that Paul told us repeatedly we’re not under the Law anymore, how do we reconcile this?

I think that the balance is found in the perfect phrase: “not to abolish but to fulfill.” What does it mean that he “fulfilled” the law? Well, there are at least three ways we can answer that question, and none of them exclude the others. First, Jesus fulfilled the law in his life. He was perfectly sinless, and perfectly obeyed the Father’s will in every thought, word, and deed. Second, he fulfilled it in his death. When he died, his righteousness was applied to us, and now in his eyes we have perfectly fulfilled it. Finally, he fulfills it in our daily lives. As he begins and continues the daily process of making us like him, he fulfills the requirements of the law through us in how we talk, speak, and act.

Remember what we talked about in February? When studying the Law, it’s all about principles and applications. The principles never change (like caring for the poor), but the specific applications change as we move from ancient Middle East society to modern America (we don’t need to worry about gleaning crops, for example). By studying God’s word (all of it), we learn what pleases him, and he changes us into the likeness of Christ.

We don’t need to be concerned about our eternal standing before God. Through his sinless life and obedient death, Christ fulfilled the law on my behalf as far as that goes. But in pleasing the Father, that is something I do need to be concerned about. That depends on some choices I make everyday. Will I listen to his voice? Will I study his word? Will I ask for his help? Am I willing to do whatever it takes to follow his plan?

Lord Jesus, I thank you for giving up your life for me. Now it’s my turn. I belong to you, and no one else. Please make me like you. You perfectly pleased the Father in everything, and I’d like to do that.

[July 12]--A Little Prose

Matt. 5:13-16

Wait a minute, didn’t we just look this passage yesterday? Yes, we did, but I had to share this little prose, since I didn’t have space for it yesterday. I’ve had it in my Study Bible for years, and it’s always prodded me to reach beyond my comfort zone.

I simply argue that the cross be raised again

at the center of the market place

as well on the steeple of the church.

I am recovering the claim that

Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral

between two candles.

But on a cross between two thieves;

on a town garbage heap;

at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan

that they had to write his title

in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek. . .

And at the kind of place where cynics talk smut,

and thieves curse and soldiers gamble.

Because that is where He died,

and that is what he died about.

And that is where Christ’s men ought to be,

and what church people ought to be about.

-- George MacLead

Lord Jesus, give me your eyes. Let me see the people in need around me, whom you purposefully put in my path, just so I can represent your love to them. Give me the courage to share you with them, to BE you to them. Thank you for the privilege.

[July 11]--Salt and Light

Matt. 5:13-16

As surely as night follows day, the change comes in a believer’s life, sometimes slowly, sometimes pretty quickly. When a person first gets saved, especially out of a sinful lifestyle, he still has plenty of friends who are still lost. The mature Christians warn the newly-born child of God that he needs to be careful about his old friends, that they'll be a constant source of temptation for him to backslide into his old way of life. He’s encouraged to hang around other Christians, especially more mature ones, and to get involved in church activities. And of course he does this, and over time his lost friends drift away or are driven away. Part of it comes from his new lifestyle, because even the nicest Christian in the world is going to constantly dig into their conscience. Part of it also comes from the fact that the new Christian just can’t participate in all their activities any more. And the new believer might be--consciously or unconsciously--giving off “vibes” that he’s better than they are, which is not an attractive feature.

But whatever the reason, most believers over time develop more and more friendships with fellow believers and fewer relationships with lost people. If we want to change this, there has to be effort involved. Our society itself encourages people to hang around others of like minds, no matter what the interest: Republicans hang around other Republicans, football fans hang around other football fans (of the same team), etc. It’s entirely possible (and quite natural) for most folks to seal themselves off from people who disagree with them.

I’m not saying that this is a totally bad thing. It IS possible for a new believer to fall back into his old lifestyle with the help of his unsaved friends, and the church has to be his new support structure. Getting into the basic Christian disciplines, like Bible reading, praying, and fellowshipping with other Christians is going to take up a lot of his free time. We all must do this if we’re going to grow closer to Christ. But is it possible to go too far in this direction? I think so.

You might know that salt was used as more than a mere spice for food. It was a preservative agent. In the absence of refrigeration, salt was rubbed into meat to make it last longer. With this in mind, let me just ask a few questions to get you and me thinking about this.

Christians, especially as they mature, are complaining a lot about the state of this society. There are some fields of work that have especially bad reputations: attorneys, actors, musicians, politicians, and salespeople. If these fields have such low moral reputations, why do you think that is? Well, if you don’t preserve the meat, why should you be surprised if it spoils? If you turn off the light in a room, why are you surprised if it gets dark? Lots of Christians would shy away from these professions, because they have such bad reputations. But as we look at the people involved in the latest scandal and cluck our tongues, how do you think Jesus sees them?

How many believers fight over positions at the local Christian bookstore? They don’t want to have to be around people who curse or sleep around or disagree with their beliefs. And there are people called into “Christian” or “ministry” positions, but most aren’t. Most are called into a mission field called the work place.

Lord Jesus, it's so easy to be in my bubble. And I need my support system. But I want to share the Best News I’ve ever heard with the people you put in front of me. Help me to see those open doors, and to step through them.

[July 10]--Beatitudes

Matt. 5:1-12

Starting today we’ll spend the next couple of weeks in the Sermon on the Mount. This is his first recorded set of teachings, but he'd been preaching and teaching for some time before this. Since this is the Gospel targeted towards a Jewish audience, some scholars think that it’s not a coincidence that there are five major teaching sections in the book, corresponding to the five books of the Torah.

Quite frankly, I’m more than a little intimidated by teaching on this section. It’s widely regarded by Christians as the best sermon ever spoken, and I hardly feel qualified to give it justice in this humble devotional. But here goes. . .

The Old Testament ends with a curse, a dire warning for people who refuse to obey God’s instructions. The New Testament, on the other hand, begins with blessings. That literally is what a beatitude means: a blessing on someone. Other modern translations render the verses are “Happy are. . .” but I disagree with them. It means more than mere happiness, it means that God is smiling down upon someone. It means that they're to be envied.

Notice first of all how topsy-turvy all these values are. We naturally desire--and the world applauds--the exact opposite of all these things. But our Lord says that the conditions described here are to be sought after, not shunned. I’ll just make a quick note about each of them.

• “Poor in spirit” means we recognize our utter spiritual poverty before God. Christian character starts with humility, acknowledging how bad off we are without the his grace.
• “Those who mourn” probably is referring to mourning because of the sin in our lives. When we do this, he promises to provide the comfort of his mercy.
• “Meek” does not equal “weak.” Jesus called himself “meek” in 11:28-30 (the same word in Greek is translated as “gentle”). Among other things, it means that you give up your own will for the needs of others.
• What's my “hunger and thirst”? I have a desire to follow Christ and obey him, but is it my food and drink? I wish it was so. If it was, I'd be imitating my Savior.
• Do I still need mercy? Everyday. I can quit being merciful when I don’t need mercy from my Father.
• I heard from someone that to be pure in heart is to desire one thing only. If something is “pure,” then that means no mixture with anything else. Is my heart pure? Are there any rivals for my First Love?
• The best way for me to be a peacemaker is to work for reconciliation between God and sinners. In other words, share the Good News with them.
• The last one doesn’t mean that we need to seek persecution. But it does mean we need to change our attitude towards it, because in this country we seem to squeal like stuck pigs whenever we perceive someone impinging on our “rights.”

I don’t know about you, but going over these verses, I think I need some mercy right now.

Lord Jesus, your teachings are so high above me, and I fall so far short. Please change me. I need it so badly.

[July 09]--Galilee?

Matt. 4:12-17

There’s a reason why God gave us four Gospels instead of just one. While I do believe that each of the Gospels is accurate and can be harmonized with each other, they all have different emphases. Mark presents Jesus as the Ultimate Servant who at the same time displays awesome authority and power. Luke presents him as the Son of Man, and since it was written by a Gentile (the only Gentile writer in the Bible, by the way), he loves to focus on the universality of the gospel. John’s portrait of Jesus is the Son of God who “made his dwelling with us.”

Matthew’s intended audience apparently was Jewish, since he emphasizes Jesus as the King of the Jews who fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy. He’s the New Israel, the One who'll accomplish what the old Israel was supposed to do but failed miserably. You’ll notice in today’s passage a phrase often repeated in this Gospel: “to fulfill what was said through the prophet. . .” or some variant.

But the interesting thing here is that in the midst of all this “Jewishness” comes something unexpected. What was Matthew’s point? Jesus spent most of his life in Galilee, and what did Isaiah call it? “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Each of the areas listed in the quote were well-known not only as Jewish-Gentile mixture but was also infamous as being of low reputation morally. This is the area in which Jesus grew up, and it’s the area he chose to live in after his ministry started.

So even in this “Jewish” Gospel, you have evidence of God reaching out to Gentiles. Of course, this climaxes in the last couple of verses of the Gospel, famously known as the “Great Commission.”

So what’s my point here? Just another reminder that as Americans there are segments of the world which we tend to “write off” as being unreachable. There is a whole one-sixth of the population, namely Muslims, which we might think of as not worth the effort. And even if we can’t (or won’t) go to their lands, through the Lord’s providence they’re coming here. Do we see this as just a threat to our way of life, or do we see it as a golden opportunity? Seeing where he chose to live, how do you think our Savior sees it?

Lord Jesus, please open my eyes to the opportunities you’ve put all around me. And when I see them, give me the courage to grab a hold. Please make my heart like yours.

[July 08]--Temptation

Matt. 4:1-11

Wait a minute, didn’t we look at this passage a couple of months ago, when we spent a week on Satan? Yes, we did, but there are a few other lessons which we can glean from this passage, especially in the context.

First, we need to see how crafty our Enemy is. Our Lord was just baptized in obedience to the divine plan, and the Father publicly proclaimed him to be his own Son, with whom he was very pleased. The Spirit came down and anointed him, officially making him the Messiah. After all this spiritual “high,” he was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness for his first confrontation. The Adversary waited until he'd gone through all this exposure to the elements and had deprived himself of basic needs for over 40 days. Our foe is very intelligent and good with strategy, and he always hits at the weakest points in our armor.

Second, notice that he knows Scripture as well. I'd probably be flattering myself if I claimed that I knew God’s word as well as the Devil does. This fact should both humble us and prod us to study God’s word all the more. Not just read it, but study. And please, learn to study it in context. Satan quoted from the Psalms, but he stopped short of the verse which promises that God’s children will tread upon the "lion" and the "cobra," both images which are associated with the Enemy. If we want to actually have the word change us, as opposed to just use it to further our own agenda (like him), we have to learn context. I really don't think I can emphasize this enough.

Third, this should comfort us because we have a sympathizing Savior. Heb 4:14-16 is one of my favorite passages in all the Bible: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Politicians, justly or unjustly, always try to present themselves as having the “common touch,” and no one wants to be accused of being “out of touch.” Despite all the claims of earthly politicians, there is One who really is like this. Our Savior, the King of all Kings and Lord of all Lords, knows exactly what you’re going through when you’ve been attacked. When you pray, you should always know that you have a sympathetic ear. Why not use this privilege right now?

I suggest we use the passage from Hebrews as our prayer, to make it our own.

[July 07]--Baptism

Matt. 3:13-17

As you might have noticed by now, we aren’t looking at every single verse in the book of Matthew. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, this isn’t a verse-by-verse commentary. There are plenty of those out there, and they can do a much better job than I can of explaining every little detail of the book. Second, I’m planning on doing Mark and Luke next year, and I want to avoid repeating myself. As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of common material between them. That’s why they’re called the synoptic gospels (meaning “same view”). Because of this, I’ll try to focus on unique material from Matthew, along with some other stuff to fill out the three months. After Matthew we’ll spend the rest of the year examining the Gospel of John.

Today’s passage chronicles Jesus’ baptism, and I’ll just make a couple of quick observations. First, let’s ask a simple question: Why did Jesus get baptized? People usually got baptized to symbolize and inaugurate a new lifestyle of following God. It especially signified repentance: a turning away from the old life to the new one. Obviously Jesus had no sins to repent from, so why did he do this? Of course, if we're scratching our heads concerning the reasoning behind this, we're in good company, since John the Baptist apparently confessed some confusion on this himself when Jesus approached him.

The most common one offered is that he’s providing an example for us to follow. Others emphasize the fact that he’s the head of the church and the new humanity. Both of these are entirely plausible, but there’s another explanation, and Jesus actually provided it: “to fulfill all righteousness.” Or in other words, “It’s the right thing to do.” It looks like this is what the Father told Jesus to do, and so he was doing it. That'd  make sense, considering the Father’s declaration right afterwards. Whatever the Father told his Son to do, that settled the matter.

By the way, you have the entire Trinity present here: Jesus the Son, the Holy Spirit anointing him (literally making him the Messiah, or “Anointed One”), and the Father verbally giving his official “stamp of approval.” All of them were present at the creation of the world, they were all involved in his conception, and they all make an appearance at the inauguration of his ministry and his first public appearance.

So what does this mean to me? Well, if you haven’t been baptized, I would ask “Why not?” Also we can consider Jesus’ example of obedience to the Father. Beyond that, though, this passage is very comforting to us as believers. Why? Because the Father publicly declared that he was “well pleased” with his Son. Paul said that Jesus is our “righteousness, holiness and redemption.” Christ is my righteousness, my holiness, and I claim no other. My righteousness--my holiness--is the Lord Jesus, who perfectly pleased and obeyed the Father all during his earthly life. Aren’t you glad?

Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, my holiness, my redemption, and I claim no other. You perfectly obeyed the Father, and I need to be more like you. Please.

[July 06]--The Hidden Years

Matt. 2:19-23

I’m always amused by this: Every few years a “new” book comes out with the “hidden” life of Jesus. They claim to finally “unveil” the mystery of what Jesus did which isn’t recorded in the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). The reason I put so much of that in quotation marks is because none of it is new, and they aren’t unveiling anything except their own unwillingness to accept God's word for what it is. They're basically peddling old heresies based on stories told about Jesus which the Church as a whole rejected a long time ago (such as the alleged "Gospel of Thomas"). People like to press Jesus into their own mold, and if the Jesus of the Bible doesn’t fit their liking, then they’ll make up one who does. Amazing, isn’t it, that the “Jesus” whom they find in “lost” documents fits their belief system perfectly?

But what do we know about these years, between the return from Egypt to his public appearance at his baptism? Well, we know from Luke a certain incident when he was twelve, but not much else seemed to happen. When he returned to his hometown to preach there as an adult, they were amazed because this seemingly ordinary boy who'd grown up among them was now claiming some incredible things. So while he'd been apparently well-liked by his neighbors he'd grown up with, he didn't have any reputation of being extraordinary in any way--including being some kind of miracle worker or divinely-inspired preacher or teacher.

So it seems that for almost thirty years not much happened in the life of Jesus. There are no records of a single miracle, not a single sermon, not a single explicit indication that the Son of God was walking among them. For almost thirty years he had to walk past sick people and know that he could heal them with a word. He saw countless people falling further into the pit of sin and knew that he could give them the words of hope and life. But he didn’t. And knowing the compassionate heart of Jesus like you do, how do you think he felt about that?

He learned a trade, probably the same one as his adopted father, and quietly lived his life for thirty years. Why? Why wait that long? For one reason, but it was all the reason he needed: It was his Father’s will. His Father’s plan was for him to have thirty years of preparation (defined by mostly living a fairly ordinary life in Nazareth) and then reveal himself publicly and start his ministry, but not until then.

Maybe, in a much smaller degree, this describes you. You’ve been waiting for what seems like forever. You know that God has a wonderful plan for you, and you think you’re ready, but you’re not. He’s saying to you, right now “Wait, my child. My timing is perfect, and when the time is right you’ll be amazed.” This is a lesson that Jesus knew instinctively, but it’s something I need to learn and relearn on a daily basis. The good news is that the One who perfectly waited on his Father’s plan now lives inside you, and he offers you his strength. Will you take it?

Father God, it seems so long, waiting for your timing, but it’s worth it. Oh, it’s so worth it.

[July 05]--The New Israel

Matt. 2:13-15

Of course, if you’re familiar with your Bible you know what happened after the Magi left. Since it’s pretty well known, we won’t spend a lot of time on the Slaughter of the Infants. What I'd like to examine a bit further is how Matthew (under the inspiration of the Spirit) interpreted the flight to Egypt.

Being in danger of their lives, the family fled to Egypt out of Herod’s reach, but according to this passage there was more to it than that. Referring to this incident, the author specifically quoted from Hosea 11:1: "out of Egypt I called my son." Since he took the trouble to do this, it might profit us to look at the original context from Hosea, which was recounting the history of national Israel. Because of this, many biblical scholars believe that Matthew was drawing a parallel between national Israel and the Messiah. Both fled to Egypt to take refuge (in accordance with God’s plan), and eventually they were called out once the danger was passed.

This is a very important point, since it sheds some light on who Jesus is and why he came. What was God’s purpose for Israel? To be a kingdom of Priests, in other words to represent God to mankind and mankind to God. In this they failed miserably. They broke, abused, and totally twisted the Lord's perfect Law. They abandoned their Savior and his covenant. Many times God told them that they were acting as bad as or even worse than the nations who had come before them, who'd fallen under the Lord's judgment (for example, here). Instead of being a light to the nations and leading them to the one true God, they turned people away from him. And they paid the price.

But where national Israel failed the test, Jesus succeeded. He perfectly followed the Father's plan for himself and the world, and perfectly obeyed him. He was--and is--the new Israel. All the promises which God made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David are fulfilled in him.

What does this mean to us? When other people fail in meeting their promises, he doesn’t. What sinful mankind fails to be, he is. All of God’s promises and blessings are made flesh and fulfilled in Christ. And the other part of the Good News is that we will one day be like him. He’s in the process of making us like him in word, in thought, and in deed, and one day he’ll finish. Do you see why it’s called Good News?

Lord Jesus, everything I fail to be as a man, you are. Please make me like you, and show me how I can cooperate. Without you, I can do nothing.