[Aug 31]--Eviction Notice

Matt. 21:33-46

As near as I can tell, our society has lots of sympathy for renters and little sympathy for landlords. TV shows and movies tend to present landlords as humorless jerks who are looking for any excuse to raise the rent and/or evict the helpless tenants. But the real world is a little more complex than that. If a tenant doesn’t pay his rent, or does some things to reduce the value of the property (like trashing the place), it’s usually very difficult to get them forcibly removed.

The background situation described today was actually pretty common back in Jesus’ day, and it still was practiced in some parts of the United States until recently. The landowner would let people stay on his land, and plant and harvest crops. They'd get to keep a certain portion for themselves and give him the rest when called for, all of which would be agreed to beforehand. But in this situation, the renters didn’t want to live up to their end of the bargain.

This story is mainly directed towards Israel, but if we think it doesn’t apply to us as well, we’re being pretty foolish. God is the landowner, and he “cultivated” Israel. Various times Israel is compared to a choice vine which the Lord “planted” and from which he expected a harvest (for example, here). When God didn’t get the harvest he deserved, he took punitive action.

This nation is a lot like Israel. In fact, our founding fathers repeatedly compared it to such, saying that we would be like a new Israel, a shining city on a hill. Like Israel, the Lord has been incredibly good to us, piling up blessing upon blessing, especially spiritual ones. Has there ever been a nation so blessed by so much access to the Word? You can go into any Christian bookstore and choose from hundreds of different study Bibles, each trying to suit your purposes and stage of life.

And God not only gave them his word, he also sent prophets to steer them back on course when they went astray. We too have had lots of great preachers, teachers, and pastors. There are lots of  Bible-teaching and preaching churches out there.

How did they react to all this blessing? You can read the story. They treated his sent servants with abuse, with disdain, and occasional murder. And finally he sent his own son. Maybe his thinking was "This will show them I’m totally serious about negotiating a peace. Maybe they were confused, maybe they thought the former servants were imposters or something."

But what they did to the son was the last straw. He could forgive how they treated his servants, but not this. He was going to come pay a visit himself, and this time there'd be no peaceful outreach, no negotiations, no outstretched hand. Once they rejected the son, there was no other possibility but total war.

I don’t think that America has gotten to that point yet. Christians aren’t being openly persecuted, and there's still some openness to the Message of Christ. I really hope I’m right. But on a personal level, the principle is still the same. Anyone can commit any sin and still be forgiven if they ask for it, but to reject the Son is to cut oneself off from the only source of forgiveness and reconciliation that there is.

If you’re a believer, please be thankful for the blessings you have, the opportunities he poured out upon you. And you might want to pray for your nation and your lost friends and family members. If you’re not a believer, if you haven’t placed your trust in Christ yet, please do so today. The time for negotiations is rapidly closing.

Lord Jesus, please help me to make the most of every opportunity you’ve given me. When your servant comes to rebuke and steer me straight, please give me listening ears and a soft heart.

[Aug 30]--The “Bad” Son and The “Good” Son

Matt. 21:28-32

I’ve heard the job of a preacher is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” There’s a lot of truth in that, and our Lord certainly followed that pattern here. It’s a short little parable with a lot of meaning, and it has something to say to various kinds of people.

Now to those of us who profess belief in God, who claim to trust in Christ, it shines the spotlight on our lives. We might've started out well, at least in the outward appearance. When we came to faith in Christ, we pledged ourselves to follow him, to obey him, to “go and work today in the vineyard.” What happened to our commitment? I don’t know about you, but this is some tough love that I need to hear. Jesus is not impressed with promises that we make, only with the follow-through.

But the story also has a word of comfort to others as well. Is there, in the back of your mind, the question “Will he really forgive that?” Yes, he will. When we get to glory someday, we’ll meet some murderers, two of which you might've heard of: David, and Paul. They had innocent blood on their hands, and the Lord not only forgave them but restored them and used them mightily in his Kingdom. No matter what we’ve done, if we just confess and give ourselves over to him, he’ll do the same for us as he did for them.

I guess if there is one unifying message from this parable, it’s this: "What matters is NOW." Not the promises you made yesterday, nor the sin you committed yesterday. All of us have made promises to him we haven’t kept, and all of us need forgiveness, most of us on a daily basis. We need both his forgiveness and his strength to do better, TODAY.

Another ironic thing is that the pattern he noted continues today. The religious people, the upstanding citizens, the family-devoted, all tend to perceive Jesus’ offer of forgiveness with less than outstanding enthusiasm. “I mean, I really don’t quite deserve hell, do I? I’ve never murdered anyone, I’ve never cheated on my wife, I’ve never even cheated on my taxes.” But when it comes to criminals, those who really have killed people, or stolen from people, or who sold drugs, or did things which aren’t mentioned in polite company, they have a huge advantage when it comes to receiving Christ. There's no way to fool themselves into thinking that everything is fine with them. They’re sinners under God’s wrath, and they know it. Not that they need Christ any more than the religious man or the law-abiding man, but they at least can see their need better.

We all need his grace, his mercy, his power. He wants us to commit to him, to surrender to him, to place ourselves under his authority. TODAY. If you haven't done that yet, or aren't sure if you have, please read this.

Lord Jesus, that really applies to me. I'm so glad that your mercies are new every morning. Please help me to live up to what I promised, and I desperately need you to help me to do that.

[Aug 29]--Questions About Authority

Matt. 21:23-27

We’ve mentioned it before, but it is one of the sad ironies of the Gospels that Jesus’ worst opponents were not the flagrant sinners, nor the Roman authorities, but the religious leaders. I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising, however, since that’s often the case today.

They came to him and brought up a bone of contention that had been bothering them since he had first made his appearance. Who did he claim to be? Who did he think he was, anyway? They all prized religious education, especially by the more prominent teachers (Paul cited his teacher when giving his testimony), and Jesus had none of these credentials. If you could quote so-and-so when you were teaching, that would add more weight, but Jesus never quoted anyone except the Old Testament. It was almost as if he considered himself higher than--and superior to--any of the religious teachers of their day.

So they asked him this obvious question, and as he commonly did, he answered back with a question. In fact, he promised to tell them where he got his authority if they just answered him. The passage explains their dilemma pretty well, so I won’t repeat it. They refused to answer his question, so he declined to answer theirs. Their final confrontation over this issue would have to wait until his trial.

So what does this matter to us today? For a very important reason: Many people treat the Bible today like they did John the Baptist back then. What do I mean by this? Well, what was their thought process here? They couldn’t just simply dismiss John’s ministry, nor could they acknowledge its divine origin. Ask a lot of people today: “Is the Bible divine or just a human book?” They’ll hem and haw and dodge and weave, and completely avoid the question. If they’re honest they have to concede that the Bible is the cornerstone of Western civilization and the source of a lot of things they like, such as respect for human life and dignity. They might even admit that it has some good advice. They might say “Of course I respect the Bible,” but really they don’t. If you respect someone, then you take what they say seriously. The Bible doesn’t claim to be a source of good advice. It claims to be the very words of God himself. It's either that, or it's essentially worthless. 

It’s really the same issue with how someone approaches Jesus. They don’t want to dismiss him completely (at least not in public), but they show no respect for him when it comes to his own claims about himself. Either he’s the Lord God in human flesh, or he’s a crazy man, or he’s a very evil man. The one thing he can’t be is a good teacher.

But what about you? You might be a believer, you might even have placed your trust in Christ. But if you aren’t obeying him, if you’re dismissing his word with your lifestyle, then aren’t you making the same sort of mistake? He’s not Dear Abby. He claims to be a lot more, and he has claims on you and me.

Lord Jesus, you are Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Your word is truth, and heaven and earth will pass away before it does. I need to live like that’s true, don’t I?

[Aug 28]--Entering Jerusalem

Matt. 21:1-11

The events described here are traditionally referred to as the “Triumphal Entry,” and I can understand why. This is the first and last time that Jesus got anywhere close to the accolades and public adoration on earth that he deserved. But at the same time, we need to remember that our Lord wasn’t feeling so very triumphant himself: He was wiping away tears as he neared Jerusalem, knowing what would happen to him in a few days, and what would happen to the city in a few years.

What was happening had been predicted by the prophet Zechariah over 400 years ago. When a king approached a city on a donkey, it was a sign that he was coming in peace, just visiting his subjects to inspect part of his kingdom or get an accounting from officials under his authority. However, when a king approached a city on a white horse, this meant that he was coming as a conqueror, destroying his enemies. The first time he came will be very different from how he'll come a second time.

“The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.” What a concept! I don’t know about you, but I wish this verse applied to me all the time. If it did, life would be a whole lot better.

The final lesson I get from this is the fickleness of human praise and adulation. I think it’s both sad and ironic how aging movie stars desperately try to make one last movie so that their star of fame will burn just a little bit longer. They’re frantic that the crowds that once flocked to see them and begged for their autographs are now finding someone younger and prettier. Politicians who once had major political power eventually retire and the calls for news interviews eventually dry up.

That’s the way of the world, and it’s never been better illustrated than right here. None of these people in this adoring crowd stood up for or with Jesus less than a week later. Why in the world should we care about the praise and applause from people? Much better to seek and get the praise of the One who’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. He’s never abandoned his friends, and he never will. He sees us and knows us, and if he says that we’re doing a good job, that means a whole more to me than any applause this world will ever give me. How about you?

Lord Jesus, please forgive me for seeking the applause of people. The only applause I should seek is from nail-scarred hands. Please make me into the type of man whom you praise.

[Aug 27]--Is God Fair?

Matt. 20:1-16

I guess I’m a little iconoclastic, but I love to find and study and teach about sections of Scripture that most people don’t know much about. Today’s passage is a parable with which most people aren’t familiar, but it has some pretty deep lessons and raises some important issues for all of us.

In order to understand the story, you need to be familiar with how farming was normally done in the 1st century. I remember driving through downtown Fort Worth during the morning and seeing lots of men hanging around under a bridge as I passed. They weren’t bums or homeless people; they were day-laborers looking for work. I actually saw a pick-up truck loading some guys into the back and driving off, maybe to a construction site or a home-repair job. This is how crop harvesting was done during that time. The owner or foreman would go to the city square, negotiate a wage, and bring men back to the field to work for the day, and of course the wage would be dependent on how desperate the laborers were to work and how desperate the landowner was to get his harvesting completed.

You can read the story yourself, so I won’t repeat it here. But that leaves us with the question in the title. Well, to paraphrase a recent President, it depends on your definition of “fair.” By that term do you mean treating everyone the same? If so, absolutely not. Do you mean it as a synonym for “just,” meaning giving everyone what they deserve? Well, in a way, since my sins have to be punished and the price for them paid, either by me or by my Substitute. Or by the term do you mean giving everyone a proper portion? By some people’s definition of fairness, the landowner should have given a much lower wage to the Johnny-come-lately who showed up at the last minute. I mean, don’t the early workers have a point in their complaint? They'd worked longer hours and bore more of the burden than the guy who showed up at the last minute.

But the landowner, speaking from God’s perspective, countered with logic which is hard to refute. This was his money, to do with as he pleased. He'd agreed to give the first workers a denarius, and he'd given it to them, thus keeping his word. If he chose to give the last worker ten times or a hundred times what he paid them, that was his business!

This story has so much application on many levels, but let me focus on just three. First, there's the presentation of the good news here. None of us deserve to be in heaven. The Lord has promised to save each one of us if we place our trust in Christ as Savior and Lord. All of us are in this sense beggars, showing up as the last man did, deserving nothing good but receiving much more than we ever dreamed of earning. He's certainly kept his word. I think I need to credit Dr. Sproul with this, but someone pointed out to me a long time ago that on Judgment Day, absolutely no one will get worse than they deserve. No one. A lot of people--myself included--will get far better than we deserve, but no one will get worse.

Second, this does have an application for us in the next world. Naturally, this passage has to be taken in context of what the whole Bible teaches about eternal rewards. None of us deserve to be in his presence, but he does reward us according to what we’ve done for him. So what does this say about that? All believers are going to the same heaven, and none of us can boast about being there. There'll be people there who've done much worse things than I've ever done. There'll be murderers there, child-molesters there, people who've done indescribable acts of brutality to other people. I'm going to share heaven with them. If you haven’t struggled with that concept, then maybe you haven’t wrestled enough with the full implications of the Good News.

And finally, it speaks to our sense of fairness vs. God’s plan for us. Have you ever struggled with envy? Have you looked at how he's blessed you vs. how he’s blessed others, and felt cheated by him? If so, this story has a word for you as well: It’s none of your business how God decides to bless someone else! What do you really deserve from God? Oh, that’s right—hell. Anything this side the Lake of Fire is pure grace. He’s already blessed you so much, and for you to look at how he decides to bless someone else is extremely ungrateful, to say the least.

So what has he said to you through this story?

Lord Jesus, just like Job I need to close my mouth when confronted by your grace and majesty. You've been so good to me, and if you decide to bless someone else ten-thousand times what you’ve given me, I just need to grateful. Thank you.

[Aug 26]--Summing Up Marriage and Divorce

Matt. 19:1-11

We briefly discussed this back in July, but I thought it'd be worth it to take a closer look at the subject. Today’s devotional won’t have a lot of new material, mostly a summarizing of what I’ve said before about this.

The issue of marriage (and the corollary question of when is it right to divorce) is the source of a lot of debate over the years. The Roman Catholic Church basically says “Never,” while most Protestants say “Usually wrong.” The problem with us Protestants is that despite our professed belief that divorce is usually wrong, our practice doesn’t reflect that very well. There are way too many Christians who are on their second or third marriages, separating even from spouses that they married when they were believers.

As we mentioned last month, in the time of the Gospels there were a lot of various opinions of the rightness of divorce. Some taught that it’s perfectly fine for a man to divorce his wife for any reason he deems necessary, including cooking his food badly. Others taught that divorce is only an option when one spouse is unfaithful. Jesus obviously agreed with this latter opinion, but he went further back than Moses’ time, right to the beginning of the human race. Adam and Eve were the prototype, and their relationship is the pattern for all of us: one man united with one woman for life.

Why did God give Moses his instructions on how to divorce in Deut 24:1-4? Because he wanted to discourage divorce, not encourage it. In a perfect, sinless world, there'd be no divorce, but that world is not this one. There are cases in which no reconciliation is possible. Adultery is the only legitimate reason for believers, and if a Christian is married to a non-Christian and the non-Christian wants out, then divorce is allowed for the nonbeliever to seek (not the believer).

What about remarriage? This is pretty touchy. In no way do I want to encourage anyone to get a divorce, but--as John MacArthur argued--it seems to be acceptable for a believer to remarry if the divorce was on biblical grounds. 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 to even ask under what circumstances divorce is legitimate is to completely miss the point. Divorce is never a good thing. It might be necessary in some situations, just like amputation is necessary in some dire scenarios. But it’s always the last option, not the first. Why? Because God wants us to remain in a miserable marriage? Does the God of the Bible strike you as some sadist who takes pleasure in people’s misery? If that’s your impression of the God of the Bible, then I feel for you. His first desire is for his glory, but he has no desire to see us miserable. The reason why he hates divorce, why he hates adultery, why he hates pornography, etc., is the same reason why a doctor hates cancer: because of what they do to people. He hates those things because he loves marriage and loves people.

Please forgive if you read this before in my earlier blog, but it really bears repeating:
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. 

What he wants is for the marriage we have now to be a colony of heaven instead of the other place. When we place him as the center of everything in the home, and follow his instructions, we’ll be amazed at how it sweetens our marriage and makes the home the place where we actually want to be.

Lord Jesus, help me to be the kind of spouse I’m supposed to be. I’m supposed to be a servant, but way too often I only serve myself. Please give me your attitude, please change me.

[Aug 25]--Forgiveness

Matt. 18:21-35

I have to confess that this is one of my favorite parables in all the Gospels. It’s a wonderful indication of how our Lord was able to pack so much meaning into just a few short verses.

I saw a sign outside of a church once that said “Marriage is the union of two forgivers,” and that’s true of all human relationships. We all sin, we all struggle with a sinful and selfish nature, and if two people spend any amount of time together they’re going to have something to forgive. Most people, believer and nonbeliever, readily admit that we need to forgive each other, but where Christ takes us to a whole new level is in not only why we forgive but where is the upper threshold of forgiveness.

Peter asked his Master about this issue, and actually he was being pretty generous by the standards of his day. Most rabbis taught that you were required to forgive up to three times, but he offered up the number seven. Jesus’ answer, in effect, brings us to a completely different attitude altogether. In effect, Peter was asking how much “debt” someone could enter in our ledger, and Jesus told us to throw the ledger out. He’s not telling us to forgive 77 times (or 490 times, depending on your translation). He 's telling us to stop counting.

Remember when I talked about parables, and warned that not everything in a parable corresponds to something symbolized? Well, that rule doesn’t apply here, because you can easily see how every character symbolizes something else. The king is obviously God, and the unmerciful servant represents us, at least how we tend to be. None of us could ever pay him back the debt we owe, and all of us as believers have had our slates completely wiped clean.

And of course the forgiven servant went out and found a fellow servant who owed him just a few dollars, and treated him in the exact opposite way he had just been treated. Did you notice that the second servant’s appeal is almost word-for-word the same as what the first servant had said to the king?

What does the prison symbolize? Some people (wrongly, I believe) try to make the prison out to be hell, but I don’t think so. I believe that the Bible is pretty clear that you can’t lose your salvation, and it does make sense for it to be something else. Have you ever met someone who couldn’t forgive, who was still holding onto some hurt or slight or offense from years ago? Did they seem happy to you? Any joy there? Any peace? I would nominate them as the most miserable people on earth. The worst prisons on earth are those without any physical walls.

So now we have two very good reasons to forgive. The first is an appeal to what’s right. My friend, if you’re a believer, if Christ has forgiven you your sins, then you have no right not to forgive. I promise you, no matter what they did to you, it’s nothing compared to what you’ve done to the heart of our Father. And the second reason? Pure self-interest. You'll have no joy, no peace, and no true fellowship with your Father until you let it go.

I realize that I may be talking to someone who has a lot to forgive. I’m not talking about “You dented my car.” Maybe it’s “You stole my innocence as a child,” or “You murdered my family member.” I'd never presume to tell you to forgive that person, but Jesus does. You might not feel you can, but you can. With his strength, his power, his Spirit, you can. Quite frankly, it’s not really an issue of “can” but “want to.” Some people actually want to hold onto the anger, the bitterness, the hate. Please don’t be one of them.

Lord Jesus, I have absolutely no right to hold onto this anger. You forgave me, and that’s reason enough. Please help me, give me the strength, and the desire, to do this.

[Aug 24]--Peace In The Church

Matt. 18:15-20

I fully recognize that I can be overly obsessive about things like this, but taking things out of context really sets my teeth on edge. How many times have I heard people quote Jesus as saying “And if I be lifted up, I will draw all men to myself” and then go on to pray “And that’s what we’re going to do here tonight, Jesus. We’re going to lift you up so that you can draw all men to yourself!” The only problem is that they’re pulling that verse kicking and screaming out of context. Look at where Jesus said that, and you’ll see that he’s not talking about “lifting him up” in the sense of praising him, but something else entirely.

The case upon which this passage is based is not quite as bad, but it’s still a good case for reading the context. How often have you heard people say before a church service “Jesus, you promised that where two or three are gathered, you’ll be there in the midst of them. Well, we claim that promise right now.” Now, let me say that you can possibly make a case for claiming the promise when it comes to prayer, based on vs. 19. But what’s the main point here? What’s the big deal about two or three? Why didn’t Jesus say four or five? Is there something significant about the numbers?

Yes! Back in the Torah, God laid out some safeguards against false accusations in court. In order for someone to be convicted of a capital crime, you couldn’t be put to death on the basis of one witness, since that one person might have a vendetta against you, or could be easily bribed. You could only be executed or punished based on the testimony of two or three witnesses.

So what’s the main emphasis here? Church discipline, which is a phrase which has fallen out of fashion here in America, but which is a thoroughly Biblical concept. If there's a major issue arising between church members, or if someone is flagrantly living a disobedient lifestyle, then here’s the procedure. You must try to work out everything between yourself and the other party, and attempt to keep it as private as possible. Then bring in two or three witnesses. Then bring it in front of the church, and if the offender is still not repentant (meaning a change in lifestyle), then as a last resort you expel them from your congregation until they repent. The point of this is not to punish anyone, but to maintain order and peace in the church and to restore and reconcile a brother.

In this atmosphere of individualism and everyone valuing their independence, this might be a strange concept, but it’s vital. Sometimes I need to just look in the mirror and repeat to myself “It’s not all about me.”

Lord Jesus, if I’m doing anything to bring disharmony to your church, if I’m doing anything to drive a brother further away from you, then please point it out. It IS all about you.

[Aug 23]--Special Privileges

Matt. 17:24-27

Without a doubt, the grandest mystery of Scripture--next to the nature of the Trinity--is the Incarnation. We’ll camp out on the head-scratcher of who Jesus is/was when we get into the Gospel of John in a couple of months, but today’s passage is so short, yet so packed with meaning, that I wanted to touch upon it here.

By the way, this is another advertisement for a good study Bible. If you don’t have one, this story is a bit difficult to understand. Back in Exodus 30:13, Moses instructed Israel to institute a half-shekel tax on every male. This was to be used for the upkeep of the Tabernacle, the official place where man met God in fellowship and worship. They carried that over to the temple of Jesus’ day.

The collectors came to Peter and asked him whether his Master paid the temple tax, and I love how Peter just went ahead and answered on his behalf. He assumed that if it was the law, then his Master would obey it, which apparently was Jesus’ standard.

So Peter went to his Lord about this, and Jesus asked a simple question, and this is where we “part the curtain” just a little bit on the subject of the Incarnation. As he frequently did, Matthew recorded Christ as starting off with these words: “What do you think. . .?” Obviously if a king has subjects, he’s going to tax them and not his own sons, right? The temple was built as “[his] Father’s house” and he considered it as such.

As God’s Son he was exempt from all this. But there’s a phrase I learned a long time ago that’s saved me a lot of unnecessary strife: PYB—Pick Your Battles. He put up with the minor humiliation of paying the temple tax in order to “not offend them.” He willingly subjected himself to human authority as part of his Father’s plan. This is just among the smallest of the little sacrifices he made in order to participate in humanity.

On a related note, this is a little insight into Jesus’ economic status. In order to pay this tax, which was about two-days wages, the Lord resorted to miraculous means to meet his obligations. He didn’t have a secure home during his earthly ministry, and he was, by choice, living a life of poverty.

Of course, these hardships are pretty trivial compared to what he was going to go through later. But within these verses we see encapsulated the mystery of the Incarnation: God made flesh, willingly subjecting himself. And why did he do this? Among other reasons, it was for you and me. It was for our benefit. It was all part of the Father’s plan to rescue us, you and me, from the mess we put ourselves in.

Lord Jesus, this is not even the tip of the iceberg of what you went through for me. When I start to complain about some “hardship” I’m going through, please shut my mouth up, and let me talk about a more worthwhile subject, like you.

[Aug 22]--Oops, Should’ve Quit While I Was Ahead

Matt. 16:21-28

Aren’t there times in which you made the above statement? I know I have. You know that little switch, that little guardian which is supposed to stand between your brain and your mouth and tell that thought “Stop, go no further!”? It sometimes doesn’t work for me.

And it certainly didn’t work for Peter. The disciples still had no clue why Jesus really came. They understood that he was healing and teaching, and certainly wasn’t raising an army to overthrow the Roman government. But this prediction was a bit much. And even when they did a double take, they still didn’t listen to all he said. They heard “must be killed” and their brains froze on that statement, completely ignoring the part about the Resurrection. And Peter once again spoke as the spokesman for the group, but this time it didn’t work out so well.

I heard from someone a long time ago that two words just don’t go together: “No” and “Lord.” A minute ago Peter was making the Great Confession, specifically claiming that he was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But apparently the Son of the living God doesn’t know what he’s doing. His plan needs some adjustment. He needs some earnest counsel about how to proceed, since this idea about getting killed needs to be nipped in the bud.

And if Peter’s response here is different from what he said a few moments ago, Jesus’ response is even more startling! He was just pronouncing a blessing on Peter as having special revelation from the Father himself, and now he’s calling him Satan. Or is he? I personally believe that what Jesus was addressing was the Enemy who was, at that very moment, using one of Jesus' closest followers to attempt to divert him from the Father’s plan. This should be warning to all of us: Satan can’t possess us as believers, but he can influence and use us and even speak through us at times.

And just to make it clear, to make sure there were no misunderstandings, Jesus wanted to make sure that all of them knew what was coming. He was going to have it rough (to put it mildly), but none of them were going to get off scot-free. When Jesus used the image of the cross, he wasn't referring to a pretty piece of jewelry, nor to a a piece of wood or metal on a wall. They all knew what the cross meant. If anyone picked up his cross, he was a dead man walking. This is what each of them had to look forward to, and each of them had to count himself dead before proceeding any further.

But the good news is that this wasn’t the end of the story. Jesus’ cross led to an empty tomb and a crown of glory, and as his followers we share in that. First the cross, then the crown. You can’t have one without the other.

Lord Jesus, I hear what you’re saying, and I know what my sinful nature wants. Help me to deny myself, take up my cross and follow you. It’s very simple, but very hard to do. In fact, it’s impossible to do without your power and strength. I need this, very badly.

[Aug 21]--‘Fess Up!

Matt. 16:13-20

This passage of Scripture has a lot of depth to it, and wars have been fought over its meaning. I’ll try to be as fair as I can with people who disagree with me, but it’s really important to get this right.

Jesus was speaking with his disciples, and I always imagine him sitting around a campfire after a hard day’s work of healing and teaching. Before going forward together with him, however, they needed to get straight in their own minds who and what he was. We can stand at the periphery only so long: At some point we have to make a choice as to who he is. We can visit church services, read our Bibles, and do a lot of “seeking” and investigating, but eventually we have to come to terms with what he was claiming about himself. He wasn’t just a nice teacher or a good man, since that’s the one thing he could never be. As C. S. Lewis so famously put it, a man who claimed that things that Jesus claimed about himself would be a lunatic on the level of a man who says he’s a poached egg, or else he'd be the Devil himself. The only other alternative is that he’s the Lord of heaven and earth, and he’s the Savior we all desperately need.

When Peter made what’s called "the Great Confession," Jesus’ response is very instructive. He didn’t rebuke or correct his assertion. On the contrary, he blessed him for it. People who are witnessing to nonbelievers, please take note: Jesus specifically told him that Peter's confession was a revelation from the Father himself. We can’t reason our way into this blessed conclusion, and no one else can convince us of it. This doesn’t discount the value of trying to make the Good News as appealing as possible, nor does it dismiss apologetics (presenting the case for Christianity in a logical way). But ultimately the results of our efforts have to be given over to our Father and that person’s response to him. This really does take the pressure off you when you think about it.

And no, despite what the Roman Catholic church teaches, Peter is not the “Rock” upon which Jesus is building his church. There is absolutely no way that the Source of all wisdom would entrust the construction of his church to a flawed human being. There are other explanations which make a lot more sense: The “rock” could be either the truth of Peter’s confession or the Lord Jesus himself. I tend to lean towards the second one, since God refers to himself as our Rock several places in Scripture.

And please notice who's building the church. Ultimately it is not the pastor or preacher, nor any evangelistic program that builds the church. He can use those things, but he's the One who does this. Again, this takes the pressure off us, but it also should keep us humble whenever we see a church increase in size.

Let me make a final note about verse 19, and I’ll say something else that some people, especially the Roman Catholic church, will heartily dispute. The Greek could go one of two ways: “Whatever you bind on earth will be loosed in heaven” or “Whatever you bind on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, either we or heaven (a shorthand term for God) takes the initiative on binding and loosing. To those people who think we do the binding/loosing, do you really think we command, and God just obeys? Um, no. Quite frankly, I don’t want to really take the initiative on anything when it come to things like this. I believe that "heaven" (our Savior God) binds and looses, and we proclaim to people what he's revealed to us. And that’s the way it should be.

Lord Jesus, you lead and I follow. I thank you and praise you that the Enemy’s camp is under siege, not your Kingdom. The gates of his kingdom will not prevail against the advance of your church. Thank you for making me part of that.

[Aug 20]--Water-Walking and Sinking

Matt. 14:22-33

This is one of my favorite stories, mostly because it has some great lessons for us to learn, and can be a source of great comfort to us. It’s really packed with meaning, but I’ll just list some of the more obvious applications for us. Of course I believe it literally happened, but almost every aspect of the story can be symbolically applied to our lives today.

We’ll spend some more time on Jesus’ prayer time at a later date, so let’s talk about the storm and what happened during and after it. The Sea of Galilee is famous for being a source of furious squalls and tempests which can arise in a moment with no warning. In the middle of one of these, the disciples saw a figure approaching them. Their first reaction might seem a little strange to us as we study it from the safety of our homes, but surely it’s no more weird than what was really happening.

But don’t you love the Lord’s reaction to their fear? Literally he said “Take courage, I am.” In other words, it’s really me, not some ghost. And in the middle of whatever “storm” we’re experiencing, those are the most comforting words we can hear. He didn’t immediately stop the storm (though he could have), but above all the noise of the crashing waves, the wind, and the thunder, they could still hear his words of peace.

But Peter, as usual, stepped in front of the others and asked for even more than just words of comfort from a distance. He figured that if his Master could walk on the waves, he could too. He asked, and the Lord Jesus answered positively and invited Peter to join him. And now there were two men, not just one, walking out on the sea.

Unfortunately, like many of us, he got distracted. Instead of keeping his eyes on his Lord, he looked at the wind, the waves, and what was happening around him, and he sank. Now, I know that a lot of people condemn Peter for this, but let me point something out: At least he got out of the boat. The other disciples were perfectly happy watching all this from a distance.

And also to his credit, when he saw himself sinking, he did the right thing: Call out for help to the only One who could rescue him. He got a mild rebuke once they got into the boat, but I would bet anything that he would've done anything to experience that again.

As I mentioned before, there are a lot of lessons we can learn from this. I’ll let the Spirit speak to you about what you need to do, like he’s done for me.

Lord Jesus, please remove any pride that keeps me from calling out to you when I need it. I know that you’ll grab my hand and won’t let me sink, like always. Thank you so much!

[Aug 19]--Hidden Treasure

Matt. 13:44-46

I’m a dog lover, and I have been since I got my first one at ten years old. I’ve always had small dogs, and my wife and I got our first one about a year into our marriage. We rapidly expanded our family to another dog and two cats for our home. I love coming home to the dogs, since no matter what type of day I’ve had, no matter how many people I’ve disappointed, I’m suddenly a rock star when I walk through the door.

But there’s one really nasty habit they picked up, and I didn’t see it coming since this was the first time I’ve had dogs and cats in the same house. Apparently, dogs love cat poop. Yes, you read that right. They raid the litter box every time they have access, and their breath advertises it. To us that stuff in the box is nastiness incarnate, but to them it’s buried treasure.

The reason I bring this up (and I apologize if you were reading this while eating something) is because it certainly illustrates that one man’s treasure is another man’s um. . . well, you get the idea. The problem is that people spend their lives searching for things that won’t satisfy. They invest their time, their talents, and their treasure in things that will one day be dust and ashes. You might have laughed just now at my dogs’ antics, but how foolish are the choices you’re making?

Jesus, in today’s passage, compared the Kingdom of Heaven to two different things, but the images are meant to convey the same idea. Whatever I give up in service to my King, it’s worth it. This doesn’t contradict in the slightest the teaching about salvation by grace through faith. But he does call us to give up on ourselves, to surrender our old way of life when we come to him. He invites us to come to him as we are, but part of receiving him is repentance, which means we commit ourselves to doing things his way from now on.

But whatever he calls us to give up for him, it’s not really a sacrifice, at least not in the end. The man who discovered the treasure in the field (like finding a gold mine on some property) would look like a fool in paying so high a price, but he wouldn’t look at it that way. The same goes for the merchant who discovered the valuable pearl: He considered everything he had to be a small enough price to pay for it.

Throughout history, both in the Bible and outside it, there's never been anyone who gave up something for the Lord who ended up regretting it in the end. And the reverse is true as well: There'll come a day when we'll regret the opportunities we squandered. Like my dogs, we all tend to make some poor choices in what we consider treasure.

Lord Jesus, whatever you ask of me, it’s worth it. You will never end up being a debtor to anyone. Please help me to trust you, to see with eternity coloring my choices.

[Aug 18]--Why Did Jesus Tell Parables?

Matt. 13:31-35

Before we get into the question asked above, we might want to define the term, and also set some ground-rules. The term “parable” comes from two Greek words which mean “to throw alongside.” If you have an object lying on the ground, and you toss something next to it, that’s what’s described here. The idea is comparison. That’s why Jesus started many of his parables with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like. . .”

But just like with narratives, we have to exercise some caution. First, a parable is not an allegory. An allegory is a story in which every character symbolizes something else. Character X represents a concept like freedom, while character Y represents some other concept like sin. In a parable, by contrast, not every character has to symbolize something. Another thing to keep in mind is that parables illustrate, but they’re not a source of theology. You have to go the didactic (teaching) portions of Scripture (like the Sermon on the Mount or a letter from Paul) to know how to interpret a parable.

So why did Jesus use parables? Well, part of it is because of the atmosphere in which Jesus was teaching. There was speculation all over the place about the Messiah. Many (if not most) Jews believed that the Messiah was going to be a great military leader who would liberate Israel and kill all the Roman soldiers. His audience included enemies, namely the religious leaders, who would constantly be listening for any talk that might be interpreted as seditious or rebellious, so they could hand him over to the tender mercies of Roman executors.

But another reason was one that Jesus gave, so there was no misinterpretation. Read this carefully, so that you can experience the full impact: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'” He told the crowds parables specifically so that they would not understand what he was saying!

Why would he do this? Because he was looking for quality, not quantity, of followers. The casual listener, the curious attendee, the fence-sitter, the miracle-and-wonders seeker, he had absolutely no interest in gaining, at least in the long term. Of course he cared about them--he didn't want any of them to perish, but all of them to come to repentance--but ultimately he was seeking people who were committed. If they actually made it past the idle-curiosity stage, then he'd take them to a whole new level.

So what about the church today? Are we concerned about what Jesus is concerned about? What’s more important, getting rear ends in seats on Sunday mornings, or seeing real lives being changed by the Good News?

Father God, I want to realign my priorities with yours. Please, renew my mind and change my agenda.

[Aug 17]--Weed Control

Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43

Do you know what the definition of a weed is? It’s any plant that you don’t like in your garden or yard. My wife is a gardener, and there are plants that seemingly sprout up from nowhere to get her blood boiling.

Jesus told a parable about weeds, and this story has the honor of changing the course of a colony before our nation was founded, and it ended up influencing the course of this entire country.

How could this be? If you’ve been raised in Baptist circles as I have, and have taken a course in Baptist history, then here’s a name you would recognize: Roger Williams. He was a minister who tried to live and work among the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans had left England because they were being persecuted, but they didn’t seem to get the lesson. This is the sad irony: Christians who'd been persecuted for their beliefs turned right around and persecuted others for their beliefs.

Along came Roger Williams, and he never quite got along with the Puritans, and one of the bones of contention was the concept of religious liberty. He believed and taught that the state has no business dictating to people what they should or shouldn't believe when it came to religion. He believed that each one of us will be held accountable to God for our faith and practice, and no one else, especially not the government, has the right to interfere in that. He was eventually cast out of Massachusetts, and went and founded the colony of Rhode Island, the first such colony (or any governing body) which legally practiced complete religious freedom. There were no laws telling you which church to attend (if any) or any beliefs which you had to hold. It was his idea which eventually flowered into the religious liberty which we hold so dear today.

And to what Scripture did he point to argue for this insane new concept? The passage you just read. Removing disbelievers from the world (which is the field) is the Lord's job, not ours. When we try to do God’s job for him, when we try to root out the weeds ourselves, we end up tearing out the “wheat” as well.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t need to oppose evil and wrong beliefs. It just means that the weapons which we use are spiritual, not of this world. The world tries to solve its problems with bullets or ballots. Our weapons are infinitely more powerful: prayer, the truth of God’s word, Christian love and unity. If we try to fight this battle on the Enemy’s terms, we’ll lose every time.

Lord Jesus, when I look at the political situation around me, I get so frustrated. But that only means that I’m looking at things with my eyes instead of yours. Please help me to trust you, to do things your way instead of mine.

[Aug 16]--Filling a Void

Matt. 12:38-45

One of the first lessons that students of physics learn is that “nature abhors a vacuum.” This means that when you try to empty a container of air and whatever else is inside it, then something else will try to fill the void. The same principle applies in the spiritual realm as well.

Anyone who reads the Gospels for the first time might be surprised to learn that Jesus’ worst and deadliest enemies were the most religious and zealous people of his day. He never had a problem with the Roman soldiers who lorded it over the nation of Israel, and he certainly didn’t have any major clashes with the overt “sinners” surrounding him. It’s especially strange when you consider that he'd agree with the Pharisees regarding most of their theology. He would've totally agreed with them about the existence of God, of Satan, of angels, of the literal truth of the Torah, and the certainty of a judgment to come.

We’ll get into more into what problems he had with the Pharisees at a later time. But for now, we get a hint of the major conflict which would result in his murder. They wanted to test him, and in complete unbelief they asked him to perform some public miracle—as if he hadn’t done enough already, but one more miraculous sign would've them convinced.

He condemned them for asking for this, and unfavorably compared them to the people of Ninevah and the Queen of the South, both of whom saw what God was doing and responded appropriately. But what’s the point of the last part of this passage?

I wouldn’t discount the literal meaning of what Jesus is saying about spiritual forces, but I really think that this would be beside the point. What did the Pharisees represent? Why did they hate Jesus so much? They're the ultimate example of religious reformation without a real relationship (please pardon the alliteration).

Imagine a person who’s involved in a terribly sinful lifestyle. He comes to his senses and realizes that the path he’s on will only lead to destruction. So he reforms his life: He no longer smokes, drinks, or indulges in sexual immorality. But what’s missing? Christ! Is it possible to reform your life on the outside, without a genuine relationship with the Savior? Of course it is! This would describe millions of Muslims all over the world, for example.

But what happens to religion without Christ? The man so described becomes a target for seven worse demons than he had before, so his situation is even worse than before he cleaned up. Why did this happen? Because nature abhors a vacuum. He supposedly got rid of the worst sins in his life, but Christ didn’t come in to fill the void, so something else-- far worse--came in instead.

Devotion to Christ is the most wonderful thing in the world. In fact, it’s what we were created for. But religion without Christ is worse than useless—it’s the most destructive force in the history of mankind, and so of course it’s the most useful tool in the Enemy’s hands. So have you fallen into the trap? Do you have religion or a relationship?

Lord Jesus, you know what I want. I will settle for nothing less than you. Nothing is worth pursuing anyway.

[Aug 15]--Rest

Matt. 11:25-30

Today’s passage is an open invitation, and these five verses are really packed with meaning. Each sentence could be the source of a sermon, but we’ll just pick out a few thoughts which I’ve managed to glean.

First, we have some insight into God’s revelation to humanity. Exactly why some people receive Christ while others reject him is a matter of a centuries-long debate, and it’s a mystery which we’ll never completely solve in this life. However, there's a practical application which we can make from our end. Throughout the Bible and throughout history, God has tended to reveal himself to people who are childlike and humble in their openness to his truth. The proud and arrogant who think they have all the answers close themselves off to his light. As Mary once said, “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

Second, I notice this is a peek “behind the curtain” in the relationship between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. Whatever our view of Jesus, it can’t possibly be high or exalted enough, since the Father has placed all things in his hands (or under his feet). And anyone who attempts to know God without going through Jesus is wasting his time. Christ is the door through which we have to enter in order to get to the Father. There’s no other.

The third thing is the invitation we mentioned before. You know, people used to look forward to peace and solitude, to be alone with their thoughts. Now a modern person would probably look upon that as sheer torture. We punish our worst criminals with solitary confinement. Why? Because we can’t stand to be alone with our thoughts for five minutes. We have no peace. We are, in fact, rest-less. But Jesus offers to step in and provide rest to our souls, just like he stood up in a boat and brought peace to a raging storm with one word.

To his enemies, he's the worst nightmare they'll ever face when they stand before him to be judged. But to his friends, to us who've been forgiven and reconciled, he's gentler than the softest spring breeze. Peter after his failure, Thomas after his doubts, and a host of countless others could testify about the gentleness of Christ.

And what does he ask in return? He wants to come to us as we are, but he will give us a yoke, a burden to carry. Whatever his burden he gives us, however, will be nothing compared to the burden of sin, fears, doubts, and restlessness which we hand over to him. And here’s a quick word to people who still feel burdened after they come to Christ. He promised that his yoke is easy, his burden is light. If the burden you’re carrying seems to be crushing you beneath its weight, it’s not the burden that Jesus has given you. J. C. Ryle said that his yoke is no more a burden to us than feathers are to a bird.

So how about you? Are you enjoying his rest? Do you have the attitude you need to learn from him? Why not?

Lord Jesus, I am so busy running around because I’m carrying my burdens instead of what you’ve given me. Please give me your peace, your rest.

[Aug 14]--Responsibility

Matt. 11:20-24

Dr. R.C. Sproul, one of the most prominent theologians of our time, says that the most frightening verse in all Scripture is Jesus’ statement that “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Today’s passage is along those same lines.

Imagine for a moment two Christians. One of them (me) is in America, the other in the Middle East. I, as an American, can go into any Christian bookstore and pick from hundreds of Bibles: different translations, different study notes, leather vs. paperback, etc. I have hundreds of churches within my city, and many of them preach God’s word faithfully. I can turn on my radio or TV, and be exposed to some really great preaching (OK, so some of it’s not so great, but still. . . ). I can go online and get access to commentaries from some of the greatest Bible teachers in history, much of it for free.

On the other hand, the Middle Eastern Christian has only access to portions of God’s word. He frequently exchanges his portions with other believers’ portions so he can read what he can. He has to meet in secret, and the preacher/teacher in his meetings might not have any more theological training than he does. No access to Christian bookstores, TV, or radio.

Now this is not to condemn American Christians, or at least that’s not my purpose. I just want to ask a simple question. The Bible says that each of us will give an account of ourselves to the Lord, as believers. Do you think that he'll hold the Middle Easterner to the same standard as he does me? I have access to so much of God’s word and Bible study helps (preaching, teaching, commentaries, etc.), and he has very little.

This is why Dr. Sproul said that's why Luke 12:48 is so frightening to him, and today’s passage should give us pause. Jesus is very upset over opportunities that we let slip. Are we taking advantage of the vast resources he's showered us with? Are we being obedient to what he’s revealed to us?

And there might possibly be someone reading this who hasn’t placed his faith in Christ. This passage is especially meant for you. If you’ve been living in America, you’ve had access to the Gospel like no one else in all history. I promise you, the Judge is watching and recording. And according to Jesus’ own words here, he will hold you more accountable than someone who's barely or never heard. Please listen to his voice, right now. If you haven't read my summary of the Bible in one verse, please read this.

Lord Jesus, I squander so many opportunities, and I’m not very obedient to what you’ve revealed to me. Please help me. Change me. Help me to live up to what I’ve learned.

[Aug 13]--Final Instructions Part 4

Matt. 10:37-42

At times I have to wonder about some peoples’ perception of Jesus. Their image of him is of a mild-mannered teacher who just instructed us to love one another, basically Mr. Rogers in a robe. Anyone who presents this picture of him is either deceiving you or has never read the Gospels. The Jesus of the Bible says some pretty controversial things, some things which cause any careful reader to scratch his head.

We read that Jesus told us to “hate” our parents, and today’s passage might shed some light on that. It’s not that we’re supposed to actively wish them harm—this is the same One who told us to honor our parents in his Top Ten list. But we can’t let love and respect for our parents be a rival for our First Love. It’s the same thing with our children. C. S. Lewis mentioned a painting he once saw which depicted the Lord commanding his disciples to hate their parents, and their reactions are telling. Most of the twelve are standing with puzzled looks on their faces, but not Judas. He look absolutely gleeful in being relieved of this responsibility. And just to put the nail in the coffin that this is a concession to any selfishness on our part, he also puts our own lives on the list which must be given up in his service.

Now most of us won't be called upon to literally give up our parents, our children, or our lives for him. But we have to commit ourselves--we have to resolve in our heart of hearts--that everything we have belongs to him, twice over. We must count ourselves as dead men who just happen to be walking around, living sacrifices if you will. Once we give up our lives to him, we’ll find in the end that it wasn’t really much of a sacrifice at all. In losing ourselves in him we’ll finally “find ourselves.”

And he ends this passage with a word of encouragement. They would, over the coming years, be hated above all others. They'd be accused of everything from cannibalism to incest in the early church. Their message would never be the most popular, and they could expect to be treated no better than their Master. But there was a good side to this. He told them not to take this personally. However they were treated, Jesus would see it as being done to him. Anyone who received their message was accepting God’s message, and anyone who rejected them would really be rejecting Christ, not them.

So I ask you, before we move to another chapter in Matthew tomorrow, how do you view yourself? Do you see yourself as the Lord's representative and messenger? Do you see yourself as dead to the world? Are there any rivals to your First Love? Please excuse me, I need to go do some repenting right now.

Lord Jesus, you are my all in all, but I certainly don’t act like it sometimes. Any idols in the temple, any rivals to you, please cast them out. Right now.

[Aug 12]--Final Instructions Part 3

Matt. 10:24-36

As we continue in Jesus’ final instructions before he sends them out “on their own,” there are a lot of interesting points to examine. Our Lord gives the exact right amount of “tough love” combined with comforting promises.

The first two verses today ought to give us pause. If we’re popular as individuals or as a church or in the church in America, is that necessarily a bad thing? Should we want to be hated? If we’re being the salt and light we’re supposed to be, doesn’t Jesus say that the natural result of that would be people praising our Father in heaven? Wouldn’t that mean that we'd be somewhat popular, or at least not hated like Nazis?

Like most good questions, the answer can’t be just “yes” or “no.” Like Christ himself, believers cause a division among people. Jesus had very few if any people who met him and walked away as neutral: They tended to either worship him or plot his murder. It’s the same way with us, or it should be. If we’re representing our Savior the way we ought, then most people will either end up joining us or hating us, and Jesus wanted to prepare us for the worst. If we are pretty popular or being left alone by the world, then that might be a danger sign.

If you look at church history, by the way, we’re an anomaly. During most of its 2,000 year history, the church has been commonly persecuted. It’s only within the last 200 years, in this tiny sliver of time and in this nation that we’ve had some relief. I could be wrong, but I think that this period of tolerance will come to an end very shortly. Amazingly enough, the first word out of his mouth after this warning about being treated no better than the Master is “So” or “Therefore” in the NASB. Because of persecution we should not fear them. Why? Because the truth will eventually come out, and God’s children will be vindicated in the end. Along with this, we should remember that fear of man and fear of God are mutually incompatible.

And also we need to keep in mind that our Father is taking care of us. He knows exactly what’s happening to us, and he knows us intimately (of course, some of us have less hair than others for him to keep track of). When we’re being persecuted for our faith, he’s not standing off on the sidelines, watching from a distance. Just like with Job, the Enemy has to get specific permission to touch us, and it all has to be filtered through the Father's perfect, loving plan. Just be faithful, don’t be afraid to acknowledge him, and trust him. Hmmm, trust and obey. That seems to be a pattern, doesn’t it?

Lord Jesus, I don’t want to be looking for persecution, but I can’t expect to be treated any better than you were. When the time comes to make a choice, please give me the strength to make the right one.

[Aug 11]--Final Instructions Part 2

Matt. 10:17-23

Matthew chapter 10 can be a little confusing, and I certainly wouldn’t claim to fully understand all the details here. Sometimes he makes it sound like he was planning on coming in power and glory within the next few months. But we don’t have any record of the apostles being persecuted during their short assignment in Israel, and they weren’t brought before Gentile kings and governors during Jesus’ earthly ministry. It appears that some of this is meant to apply during their first assignment, while some of it is meant to apply in the years to come, while they're spreading the Good News all over the known world.

There are at least three explanations for verse 23, and they all hinge on the word “comes.” In what sense would Jesus be “coming” to interrupt their evangelism of Israel? 1) He could be referring to coming behind them as they went through Israel. They wouldn’t be finished with this first mission before Jesus literally overtook them. 2) He could be referring to “coming” in judgment on Israel in A.D. 70. That was the year that Israel rebelled against Rome, and in retaliation the Roman government absolutely destroyed the nation. Roman soldiers pulled apart the temple brick by brick, thus fulfilling Jesus’ predictions. They ran out of wood for all the crosses they were setting up all around Jerusalem, crucified Jews covering the landscape. The Jews were scattered all over the world, and it was only in 1948 that they became a nation once again. 3) He could be referring to a final evangelization of the Jews just before he “comes” in power and glory. I’m not dogmatic on any of these, but I lean towards the first one.

But let’s get practical for a moment, and the rest of this devotional has little to do with how you interpret vs. 23. I guess you can summarize the instructions as “Be concerned but don’t worry.” We need to be concerned because men are sinners. Those of us who have non-Christian relatives can testify that they can still be loving, loyal, and affectionate. All of my family at least claims to be followers of Christ, but I'd imagine that every believer would be loathe to imagine that their own family would betray them. I'd hope not. But we have to take Jesus’ warnings to heart. If someone only has natural affections to sustain them, then that’s not a firm foundation for loyalty when the pressure really comes. We have to be prepared to be hated.

But we don’t need to worry. Jesus promises to give us the words to speak. We don’t need to worry so much about saying the wrong thing. If we just trust him, he’ll take care of our mouths. Does this mean that preachers don’t need to study, that we can just walk up to the pulpit and claim vs. 19-20? Um, no. If someone is arrested and brought before a governor on trial for his life, then I think this verse applies. But if a pastor is just lazy and doesn’t take the time to study and improve his speaking skills, it’ll show in his sermons.

Lord Jesus, I thank you for your promise to take over my mouth. I need that pretty badly. Thank you for showing me that you’re in charge, not some politician or king or tyrant. Help me to trust you.

[Aug 10]--Final Instructions

Matt. 10:1-16

Today we return to the main study of Matthew. The title of today’s devotional is a little misleading, but what I mean by it is Jesus’ final instructions before he sent them out “on their own.” Up to this point, he'd always been physically with them, but now there was a new phase in the Father’s plan. Jesus wanted Israel to be told about the coming of the Messiah, and he was now sending the Twelve out to make the grand announcement.

Before we go forward, we need to include a little side-note on Jesus’ teaching in this chapter. At least some of it is not directly applicable to us. Not everything that Jesus said to an individual is applicable to every believer at all times. On this mission, he told the disciples to avoid all contact with Gentiles, and spend all their time with their fellow Jews. Later on, in the last three verses of this very book, he told them to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. Some of this is specific instruction for those men at a particular time and place. Having said that, there's a lot we can learn from this chapter, so we’re going to spend the next few days dissecting it and seeing how the Lord can use it to change us.

First we notice that the twelve apostles were appointed as his special representatives, and he gave them unique authority to drive out evil spirits and heal all sickness. Do I believe that every believer is called to do these things? No. All of us have different callings, and even Paul didn’t heal everyone at every point in his ministry.

So what about his instructions about lodging and money? Are we forbidden to pack any money or extra clothes when we go on a mission trip? Is there something wrong with moving to another set of accommodations if the first is not suitable? I don’t think so. I believe God wants us to plan ahead. But in this time and under these circumstances, they were to trust the Lord to provide them for everything they needed. And aren’t we all? For most of us, we need to trust God but still prepare for the worst. But if he ever calls us to abandon all creature comforts and throw away all physical means of support, then we can rest in the fact that he knows what he’s doing.

There are, however, some principles which are universally applicable. The first we already mentioned: Trust the Lord to provide for your needs. He'll never call where he’s not prepared to provide. Second, don’t take rejection personally. If we’ve accurately represented him and his message, then the response is between them and God. We should recognize, though, that for someone to reject the Lord's messengers is a very serious thing. The custom of wiping the dust off your feet was actually quite common for Jews. They'd do so every time they crossed over from Gentile territory to “holy ground.” Now Jesus boldly told his apostles that any town that doesn’t receive him will face harsher judgment than Sodom on the Last Day. Pretty frightening and shocking when you think about it.

Third, we need to be careful when dealing with people. Jesus told his apostles that as they step into the world, they need to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Not everyone is worthy of our intimate trust. The Enemy has scattered his children among God’s church, and we won’t know about all the fakes until the Lord returns. But if we rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit, we don’t have to worry about that so much. There are bad people in this world, but our Savior is still in charge. We just need to trust and obey.

Lord Jesus, that is what it comes down to, isn’t it? Trust and obedience? I do trust you, and I want to obey. Please help me.

[Aug 09]--Final Testimony

Matt 14:1-12

Today’s passage is a sort of a “flashback” narrative. Herod started hearing about this new teacher and miracle-worker who was walking the countryside and gaining new followers every day, and his first reaction was a window into his guilty conscience. The writer of Proverbs said that “The wicked flee though no one pursues,” and Herod was a great demonstration. John had been dead for some time, and the evil king immediately assumed that the preacher had come back from the dead, specifically to haunt him for his crimes.

The passage then goes on to describe John’s final days and why Herod felt so guilty. You can read the whole sordid story, so I won’t recount it here. But there are a few things to point out before we leave the subject of the Baptist.

One of the interesting things you’ll find as you mature in Christ is how uncomfortable non-Christians will be around you. It’s not even an issue of a “holier-than-thou” attitude on your part. You don’t have to preach at them or tell them they’re going to Hell. A lot of times your very presence makes them feel uneasy, since you’re a constant reminder of their sin and how they’ve turned against God. Peter reacted this way in one of his early encounters with Jesus, so we shouldn’t be surprised by this.

John was down in the prison, not able to speak with anyone unless they came down to him. He was completely helpless. But that wasn’t good enough for Herodias. Nothing less than John’s murder would suffice, so she plotted with her daughter to trick Herod into agreeing to it.

But his death didn’t silence his voice. Like Abel, he still spoke while being dead. He still spoke to Herod’s conscience and would grant him no peace. Even years later, the apostles in the book of Acts cited John's testimony while preaching about Christ.

And Jesus honored this. If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you might remember that the Savior went through multiple trials, both before the Jewish religious leaders and before secular authorities. He didn’t speak in his defense much, but he usually answered some questions or charges. But when he stood before Herod, the murderer of John, he didn’t speak a word. The Lord had already sent his representative in the person of John, and Jesus didn’t have anything more to say.

And of course, this wasn’t the end of John. On the Last Day, when Christ calls all the dead out of their graves, I guarantee you John will come out looking better than Herod in the end.

I hope that my Lord, on that day, will pay me some of the same compliments that he gave John: that I was faithful to his mission no matter the cost, that I was single-minded in my zeal to point others away from myself and towards Christ, and that I had a lasting legacy of challenging other believers. I don’t think I could ask for anything better.

Lord Jesus, whatever it takes, this is what I want.

[Aug 08]--Chasing Followers Away?

John 3:22-30

Yesterday we discussed how John the Baptist viewed Jesus, but today we look at how he viewed his ministry versus Jesus’. John had a lot of disciples who loyally followed him, even after he was put in prison. As I mentioned before, even today, over 2,000 years later, he still has followers in the Middle East.

But his disciples saw a problem developing. We don’t know how an argument about ceremonial washing led to this subject, but for some reason it prompted his acolytes to confront their teacher. They'd seen John baptize Jesus, which would normally mean that John was the spiritual superior in their relationship. They heard that Jesus had set up his own ministry, which included baptism and teaching, just like John’s. But now they saw that Jesus was getting more and more attention, which was naturally drawing it away from their beloved master.

What was John’s reaction? First he started with a general principle, which could be applied to both himself and Jesus: Our assignments are not something we can apply for or complain about; they’re given to us from above. God had given John a certain task, and now the Messiah, according to the Father’s plan, was going to take center stage. John was going to lose more and more followers to Jesus as time went on.

And what was John’s reaction? Overwhelming joy! He compared himself to a friend of the bridegroom, roughly equivalent to our “best man.” In those days, the groom, not the bride, was the central person in a wedding. When the friend of the bridegroom had done his job well, then no one would be thinking about him at all. Total success for the friend of the bridegroom would end in everyone focused on the most important person there.

I'd like to adopt the final verse from today’s passage as the guiding principle for my life, wouldn’t you? Of course, John was referring primarily to their respective ministries, but it applies so well to a host of other areas. I heard a preacher once say that if people walk away from his sermons and said “What a magnificent speaker!” then he'd failed utterly. If they walked away and said “What a magnificent Savior!” then he felt that he'd succeeded.

I don’t believe that becoming more like Christ somehow “dissolves” my personality. But when it comes to my sin and my selfishness, the more people see of Christ--and the less people see of Keith--the better. How about you?

Lord Jesus, you're so wonderful, so magnificent, so gracious and holy. Please change me. I want to think more like you, talk more like you, and act more like you.

[Aug 07]--How Did He View Jesus?

John 1:26-34

As we saw yesterday, John was very careful about letting people think more of him than was warranted. He wanted to immediately disillusion anyone entertaining the notion that he was the Messiah.

So how did he view Jesus? Actually, he was the first one to recognize Jesus. After Mary was visited by the angel and the Holy Spirit conceived within her, she went to visit her relative Elizabeth. As soon as Elizabeth heard the sound of Mary’s voice, John leaped within her womb for joy—that’s right, the first person to recognize Jesus was an unborn baby. From that point forward, John was all about pointing others towards Christ.

There’s something you might want to know about concerning religious traditions in those days. It was very common for disciples to do menial tasks for their rabbis: washing their clothes, cleaning their house, serving their food, etc. But there was one task which was forbidden for rabbis to expect from their followers: untying their sandals. This was considered too degrading a task for a teacher to expect from his students, under any circumstances. This was considered slave work. But John said he was unworthy to even untie the sandals of the One who was coming.

What exactly did John know about God’s plan? From today’s passage, apparently more than Jesus’ own disciples did. They never quite captured the notion that our number one problem is sin, not political oppression. But John pointed to Jesus and proclaimed to anyone who'd listen that this was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” I don’t think that John necessarily had the details worked out, but he at least had the important parts clear. He also knew and announced that Jesus was the Son of God, a very controversial claim for Jews, both in that time and today.

He also knew that Jesus one day was going to judge the world and separate the saved from the lost, and John urged his listeners to prepare themselves by repenting. The only thing he might've gotten wrong was missing the distinctive purposes of his first and second comings. He apparently thought that Jesus was going to accomplish spiritual redemption and eternal judgment all within the same time period, which would explain why he was so downcast about being in prison and not seeing Jesus take charge the way he was expecting (see our discussion on Matt. 11:1-15 two day ago).

The point I’m trying to make is that he basically got it right when a lot of people, including Jesus’ closest followers, got it really wrong. He had his doubts at times, like most of us do, but Jesus was very pleased with him. His whole-hearted devotion, his single-mindedness in pointing others to Christ while deflecting attention from himself is something we all need to work on. Wouldn't you agree?

Lord Jesus, I have so far to go when it comes to things like this. Please give me this kind of single-mindedness, this kind of purity of heart. I need it so badly.

[Aug 06]--How Did He View Himself?

John 1:19-28

“No one greater born among women” “Prophet of the Most High” “The Elijah Who Was To Come” These are pretty lofty compliments and titles for John the Baptist. He was considered a great prophet sent by the Lord. You’ll find some disciples of his even in the book of Acts, decades after the events of the Gospels. In fact, did you know that there are still followers of John the Baptist to this day in the Middle East?

But how did he view himself? Some representatives of the religious leaders came to see this new teacher and find out what he was claiming and if he was going to be a threat to their establishment. Their questions to him and his direct answers provide some insight into this man.

First and foremost, he wanted to make it perfectly clear that he was not the Messiah. The phrase “confessed freely” is very emphatic. He didn’t hem and haw about it: He wanted to squash that rumor and speculation in its cradle. Then they asked him if he was the return of Elijah (who'd been taken up to heaven without dying), and he denied it. Then they asked him if he was the "Prophet" (which Moses had predicted), and again he denied it, especially since Moses was referring to the Messiah in that passage.

This might raise a question in some peoples’ minds: If he wasn’t Elijah, then why did Jesus say John was in Matt. 11:7-15? Because he was the fulfillment of the last verses of Malachi, and he had come in the spirit and power of Elijah.

So how did he view himself? He was nothing but a voice, an announcer for the coming Messiah. He was there for one main purpose: to point people towards Jesus, which meant that people had to get ready for him. We’ll talk more about his attitude towards Christ tomorrow. But for now we need to focus on his lifetime goal, which should be ours as well.

What can we learn from his example? When someone pays us a compliment, do we soak it up like a sponge? I know I do at times. But what I need to do--what we all need to do--is use that as an opportunity to point others towards our Savior.

Lord Jesus, may every word I speak, every action I take, everything about me point people towards you, never away from you. You're worthy of all the attention I can muster.

[Aug 05]--Crisis of Faith

Matt. 11:1-15

John the Baptist was never a man to mince words. He never would've made it to high political office, since he never was one to use sugary phrases to flatter people. He saw people living disobedient lives (who should've known better) and he spoke out against them. But what if the sinner in question was a person in power, even a king? John couldn’t have possibly cared less. When Herod was living in sin with his brother’s wife, the man of God didn’t hesitate in preaching against it in public. And what was John’s reward for his integrity, his willingness to “tell it like it is”? Well, Herod didn’t exactly react like David did.

The question to ask before we go any further is “Was John sending the disciples to Jesus for his own sake, or for the sake of his disciples?” The question they were sent to ask was pretty shocking on its face. John himself had proclaimed that Jesus was "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world," and had seen the Father and the Holy Spirit both publicly endorse Jesus at his baptism. So was he going through a crisis of faith, or was he simply doing this to strengthen the faith of his own disciples?

I want to be perfectly fair here and say that there are a lot of biblical scholars and teachers who disagree with me about what I’m about to say. Many men, whom I respect greatly, claim that the only reason why John sent his followers to Jesus was to help them in their faith, not his. They claim that it’s an insult to the man to think that he ever faltered in his belief. But I have to respectfully disagree. After performing miracles and preaching the good news, Jesus told John’s disciples to go back to their leader and report to him what they had seen and heard. To me this is evidence that John was wavering in his faith.

And to say this is not to cast aspersion on him, since he'd be in really great company. David certainly had doubts, if the Psalms are any indication. Abraham, the father of all who believe, didn’t show 100% trust in the Lord at all times. I'd submit that every believer, or at least most of us, go through periods of doubt in our walk with the Lord. When times are really tough and every indication is that he's abandoned us, it’s pretty common to question his goodness and plan.

But John did what we need to do when experiencing doubt. He went to the Lord about it. That’s what the doubting Psalms do: They go to him with our fears, uncertainties, anger, and even doubt. We have to talk to him about our feelings. Don’t pretend they don’t exist.

And notice how Jesus responded. He didn’t castigate or harshly condemn. He simply pointed the doubter back to what God was doing and who he (Jesus) was. In fact, he gave John a huge compliment in public. John was not a “reed swayed by the wind,” someone who'd change his message to fit opinion polls. He wasn't distracted by the lure of creature comforts. He stood in front of a king who could order his death in a heartbeat and called him out. And Jesus was extremely pleased with him. So doubts don’t have to disqualify us from faithful service which our Father smiles upon. If you’re going through some doubts right now, these are some good lessons for us to take to heart.

Father God, I know I need to trust you completely, and I really shouldn't doubt you at all. Please help my unbelief, and help me to be faithful. I'd love to someday hear you say the same things about me that you said about your servant John. With your help, it can happen.

[Aug 04]--What Was His Message?

Matt. 3:1-12

Yesterday’s passage mentioned that John the Baptist was a prophet (in fact, the first one in about 400 years), and today’s reading demonstrates that pretty effectively. Despite some peoples’ image of a prophet as someone who predicts the future, their main job was not to be fortune-tellers but to present God’s message to people, which sometimes included prediction but often didn’t. Most of the time, prophecies fell into two main categories. If the people were disobedient to God’s law, then the prophet pointed this out to them. And if they were going through terrible times, he could also provide the Lord's message of comfort. From reading about John today, you can probably guess what type of message he usually relayed.

By the way, what does the Bible mean by repentance? Literally the Greek word means to "change one's mind," but in context of what the Bible says about it, it means so much more. Basically  the Scriptures use it in the sense of a change of mind which ultimately results in a change of lifestyle. If someone is heading due east and they make a u-turn and go due west, that’s repentance. We need to repent when we come to Christ, pledging ourselves to abandon our old way of life to follow him (see here, among many other passages). But we also need to repent as believers when we find ourselves in disobedience to him--read through the letters to the churches in Rev. 2-3 and see how many times you see the word “repent.”

You can see that concept of "change of mind leading to a change of life" here in today's passage. Notice that John called for “fruit in keeping with repentance.” If someone claims to have repented but isn't demonstrating any change in lifestyle, then this belies their assertion.

Another thing I find very interesting in his message is his complete rejection of salvation by heritage. Many Jews thought they were on good terms with the God of Israel simply because they were physical descendants of Abraham. In fact, there was a common perception that Abraham was standing at the gates of Hell, checking every person about to pass through to see if they were circumcised, and sending them up to Heaven if they passed his personal inspection. To this, John’s response was absolutely not!!!

Baptism was not original with John. When a Gentile wanted to convert to Judaism and follow the one true God, he was baptized to symbolize his new life. But what made John so different was that he was baptizing everyone, because everyone was out of sync with God’s standards and needed repentance. As you might guess, this was pretty scandalous—the notion that (gasp!) even practicing Jews needed to get right with the Lord.

And why did they need to repent, especially now? Because the Messiah was on the horizon! He was almost here! Later we’ll talk more about how John viewed himself in relationship with Jesus, but for now we’ll just point out that he was all about pointing people to the One who was coming after him. According to John, the Messiah was coming, and he (the Messiah) was about to separate the wheat from the chaff. The way people harvested wheat was to toss it into the air. The wheat would fall to the ground while chaff--useless pods which looked like wheat to the casual eye--would be blown away by the wind. The Coming One was going to do this with humanity, and all of us needed to be on the right side of the coming separation.

Lord Jesus, these are hard words from your servant, but they come right from your heart. Is there something of which I need to repent? Something that’s separating you from me? Whatever it is, please show it to me and let’s deal with it. Right now.

[Aug 03]--Song Inspiration

Luke 1:67-80

Jesus pronounced that among those born of women there was no one greater than John, and today’s passage adds to the support of that. Once John was born, his father, inspired by the Holy Spirit, composed a poem/song about him which made it into Scripture. How many newborns can have that said about them? So what does this passage say about John, and what can we learn from it?

Zechariah’s song starts out with praise to the Lord, for now the man knew that God was initiating his plan to redeem his people. To be fair, there’s nothing explicit about the Lord’s agenda to ultimately redeem all the nations. But Zechariah knew that Israel needed to be redeemed, which literally means to “buy back” something. The Messiah was about to arrive, and everything would be made right at that point. God’s promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs were about to be fulfilled.

And again we see a recurring theme about John’s purpose: “to prepare the way for him.” How was he going to do this? By giving them a knowledge of sin, of promised forgiveness, and thus bring people back into a right relationship with the Lord. I love the beautiful imagery he used to describe the Messiah: “the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Even when revealing information about his boy, Zechariah still focused his attention on the Messiah. Everything revolved around him, even one so great as John the Baptist. We’ll develop that theme over the next few days.

So how can we apply this? Well, what was John’s appointed task? To prepare people for the coming of the Messiah. He’s come once, but he’s due to return anytime now. So what’s our appointed task? Much the same. We need to tell people--who are “living in darkness and in the shadow of death”--that there's a judgment to come, that forgiveness is available, and we can do our best to lead them “into the path of peace.” Where does the path of peace lead? Right to the foot of the cross.

Father God, there are people like this all around me. I cross their path for a reason, and you've appointed me to be your representative to them, to lead them out of darkness into your glorious light. Please show me how to do that, and give me the strength to do it.