[Sept 30]--Is Everybody Called To Missions?

Acts 13:1-5; Eph. 4:11-13

As you might've guessed, I’m very missions-minded. The Lord has laid it on my (and wife’s) heart to take part in fulfilling the Great Commission, which is made up of the last three verses of Matthew (which we read yesterday). Jesus commissioned us to go and make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them to obey Jesus’ commands. All four of the Gospels, plus the first chapter of Acts, have some version of this final command, so apparently God considers it pretty important.

But is everybody called to missions? Well, yes and no. I firmly believe, based upon the above, that every Christian is called to be involved in missions. If nothing else, every follower of Christ is called to sacrifice some of his time, talents, and treasure towards accomplishing this.

But is everyone called to be a missionary? No, I don’t think so. Acts 13 is the first instance of the Holy Spirit specifically calling someone to leave behind their current life and lifestyle, and go to an unreached group of people and share the Good News of Christ with them.

The same goes for evangelism. Every Christian is called to be a witness for Christ, to be on the lookout for opportunities to share what Christ has done in their lives. But not everyone is given the spiritual gift of evangelism, as we note in the Eph. 4 reading above.

But before you think that this lets you off the hook, you might want to ask yourself some tough questions. Even if you aren’t called to be an evangelist per se, are you looking (and praying) for ways and opportunities to talk with people about your Savior? Could you explain how someone can be reconciled to God and have their sins forgiven? If not, why not? If you got informed that you just inherited a billion dollars from some rich uncle you never knew, would you share that news with your friends? If a friend was dying of a disease, and you happened to know what the cure was, would you withhold this information? If not, then why do you treat the best news that anyone's ever heard like it’s some terrible scandal? If you'd like to see one way to share the Good News with someone, here's a way.

And while we’re on the subject of missions, how’s your giving to this enterprise? We can always see what our priorities by looking at someone’s bank account records. What would yours reveal?

I certainly don’t claim that I’m entirely innocent on this either. But I think it would be a great start for all of us to invite the Lord to examine our hearts and listen carefully to what he tells us.

Lord Jesus, please forgive my apathy. People are lost, entire groups of people are heading into an eternity without you, and sometimes my actions show how little I care about that. Set off a flame in my heart, and let it burn. May what breaks your heart, break mine.

[Sept 29]--Famous Last Words

Matt. 28:16-20

These last words in Matthew are Jesus’ final instructions to us before he went back to the Father. They’re famously called “The Great Commission,” and they have quite a bit of meaning, much more than my poor resources can really handle, but here goes. . .

Our Lord starts off with an incredible claim, one which is both a comfort and a challenge for us. Not some, not most, not almost all, but all authority in heaven and on earth has been placed under Jesus’ feet by the Father. This should be a comfort to us, since the One in charge is our beloved Brother, he who showed his love for us by bleeding and dying for us. This is who’s in charge: Not kings, not presidents, not dictators, and certainly not chance. But it’s also a challenge, because it leads into explicit instructions for us.

As someone once famously put it, every time you read a “therefore” in Scripture, you should notice what it’s “there for.” All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, and therefore. .  . what? This should lead to what action on our part? We're given three things to do. The first is to go and make disciples. This might come as a shock to some folks, but showing a good example of Christlikeness and waiting for them to come to you and ask you “Why are you so different from other people” is not mentioned here in God’s evangelism program. Not that our lifestyle isn’t important, but we have to go to them. Interestingly, sharing the Good News with them is implied in the “making disciples” part. Obviously you can’t make disciples without making converts, but just getting people saved isn't the ultimate purpose. The purpose is to make obedient followers of Christ.

The second step is baptism, which is a public commitment for the disciple to make. It’s a public announcement that he's now a follower of Jesus, showing that the old life is gone and the new one is here now.

Finally, we're to teach them to obey what our Lord commanded us. Did you notice the final goal here, what we're working towards with all this? Obedience.

And then we end on another word of encouragement, giving a kind of parenthesis that goes with his word of authority he started with. He's in complete charge of everything, and he's with us. Bringing all nations into submission to Christ seems to be a pretty daunting task, but we aren’t alone. While we’re working, he’s working with us and through us and before us. He’s here, right now. What part is he calling you to play in all this?

Lord Jesus, when I look at the state of the world we’re in, it looks like we have so far to go. I’m really glad that you’re in charge of all this, and that you’re with us. Whatever part you want me to play in it, wherever you’re sending me, the answer’s “yes.”

[Sept 28]--Resurrection

Matt. 28:1-10

I sure am glad that the story doesn’t end with chapter 27, don’t you? The whole point of this final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is to narrate both the fact of his resurrection along with why it should matter to us, some of which we’ll examine tomorrow.

He was crucified and died on Friday afternoon, and had to be quickly buried before the sun went down, since leaving out his body would break Moses’ law. They couldn’t work on the Sabbath (which began on Sundown), and they couldn’t leave the body overnight. Ironically, the reason Moses told them to take down the body before sundown was because anyone hung on a tree was under God’s curse. As Paul explained, Jesus was cursed--indeed, he became a curse--for us.

But Sunday morning came, and what a glorious morning! The women set out as soon as the Sabbath had ended so that they could actually finalize the burial and pay their final respects to their dead but beloved Master. But the Father had other plans. . .

By the way, why is it important that the Gospel writers all record that it was the women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection? Because this is more evidence that he really rose from the dead! If the disciples and Gospel writers wanted to make up stories about his resurrection, they wouldn’t have written it this way. Women were usually not allowed to testify in court, since their testimony was considered worthless and routinely dismissed. But our Lord, who cares deeply about the least of these, wanted these dear women to have the honor of being the first witnesses of this history-changing event. Yes, that’s the type of God he is.

Our Father thought it proper to accompany his Son’s resurrection with earthquakes and angels. This is exciting, not only because of Christ’s resurrection but because it’s similar to the one we’ll undergo someday. One day, our Lord Jesus will descend and call us out of our graves. The earth will split and give up her dead, and we’ll join to meet him in the air, accompanied by, you guessed it, his winged servants.

Leave it to our Lord and his servants to turn a cemetery into a place of comfort and hope. I love how the angels mildly rebuke the women: Notice that they point out that Jesus had risen “just as he said.” Why should they be surprised at this news? Had his word failed at any other point up until now? I know I know, I probably wouldn’t have done any better. . .

And finally they see him again. Their beloved Lord, whom they had last seen as a very dead corpse. Now he was alive again: His heart beat, his lungs drew in breath, his synapses of his brain were firing again. And more than this—he wasn’t in the same type of body that they had seen before. Now he was in a new type of body, a type that they would one day share. A body not subject to aging, tiredness, sickness, pain, or death.

I am also very aware of the grace, mercy, and tenderness he shows here. No word of rebuke from his lips about their lack of belief, and he has no word of condemnation for his disciples for abandoning him in his hour of need. Instead, he gives the women a sacred and joyful mission, and calls the disciples his “brothers.” I’m very glad that he’s not ashamed to call me his brother, aren’t you?

Of course, today's devotional wouldn't be complete without "Was It A Morning Like This?" by Sandy Patty.

That’s what the resurrection is all about: hope, power, awe, and anticipation of what he’s going to come up with next. And that brings us to tomorrow. . .

Lord Jesus, I am so sorry for those times that I haven’t believed what you said. I thank you that you don’t condemn me. You just forgive me and restore me and give me a new mission. I can’t wait to find out what it is.

[Sept 27]--Burial

Matt. 27:57-66

After hours of trials, mockery, torture, and crucifixion, Jesus was dead. He'd “given up his spirit,” since no one could ever take it from him. Some theologians have theorized that since he had never sinned, and had never come under sin’s dominion, he wasn’t subject to death, and would thus have never died until he submitted to death. This makes sense to me, since he had said that no one would take his life from him, since he would lay it down of his own accord.

Now he had to be buried. Here are some points to gather:

• Again we see the complete care--down the smallest detail--with which the Lord fulfilled the words of his servants the prophets. Isaiah had predicted that the Messiah would be buried with the “rich in his death.” Unless Joseph had intervened, his body would've been cast into a mass grave, probably to decay quickly since it would be exposed more to the elements and scavengers. But since the Psalmist had also predicted that his body would not see decay, he had to be preserved for the three days.

• This passage, despite our natural reaction of sorrow in reading the details of his burial, actually can provide some comfort. The first reason it encourages me is because this reminds me that the Lord has his servants in the shadows. We know nothing about this man, except that he'd been a secret follower of Jesus. Probably no one knew that he was a follower except for Jesus and himself, until this moment. He'd feared the Jews, but now, by asking for his body, he was basically proclaiming himself a disciple. God has many secret followers, who don’t always proclaim themselves publicly. This isn’t ideal, I suppose, but we should take heart that the Lord, and thus we, have more friends than we know of.

• It also reminds me that all the plans of the Enemy and wicked men against our Lord actually turn out for his glory. The religious leaders wanted to make sure that the disciples didn’t steal his body and thus claim he had risen (as if that was on their minds at the moment!). So they set the seal on the tomb and posted Roman guards at the entrance. So what did they end up accomplishing? All they did was provide evidence that Jesus rose from the dead! Our God reigns, and does not accomplish his purposes despite the best efforts of the Enemy, but because of them! So take heart.

Father God, you're in charge, and I’m not, and that makes me verrrry glad. Help me to trust you.

[Sept 26]--Death

Matt. 27:45-56

Yesterday we focused on the physical and emotional agony that Jesus underwent, both before and during the crucifixion. But there was more, actually far worse, that he experienced, and it’s all bound up in those nine words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We don’t know all the details, but for a moment in time our sinless Savior became sin itself. John said that “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Let me introduce a word here: propitiation. This means the full satisfaction of God’s righteous wrath against sin. The 1984 version of the NIV had an alternate translation in its footnote on 1 John 2:2 which said that Jesus’ death "turns aside God’s wrath," away from us towards himself. In that moment, his fellowship with the Father, perfect up to that point, was broken. This is a dark mystery for us, so I don’t think I’ll say anything more on this issue, lest I dig deeper than I should and end up saying something wrong.

I also want to note that every detail, down to smallest trivia, had been worked out by the Father, and this is displayed in vs. 48 of today's passage. Hundreds of years before, the Psalmist, under inspiration by the Holy Spirit predicted that the Messiah would be given vinegar for his thirst. This whole event was not a tragedy, nor a senseless act of violence. This had been prepared by the Father before the universe was spoken into existence.

Finally, I’d like to write a few lines about what is to me the most meaningful aspect of this passage. When he cried out and gave up his spirit, the curtain at the temple was torn in half. This was the curtain that separated the Holy of holies from the rest of the temple, and thus the world. The high priest was the only man on the planet who could step into that chamber, and then only once a year. Why? What separated us from God? Only one thing, the same thing that had caused the exile of our first parents, and that has kept us away from him ever since: sin. As soon as that was dealt with, the barrier was down. And it’s extremely important that it was torn from top to bottom, not bottom to top. Man, with all his efforts, could never have torn that barrier down. But God could, and did.

Why is this so important? Because we now have access to the presence of God through Jesus, we are invited—no, commanded—to come into his throne room. For the rest of the universe, for the assembled angels, that room holds a throne of judgment, of power, of justice, of awe and majesty. But for us, it’s more than that: It’s a throne of grace, where we can “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

Now, our sins are forgiven and our relationship is restored. We who were once enemies of God are now reconciled to him, and he can adopt us as his children and shower blessings upon us, like he’s always wanted. All of this was accomplished by a naked man on a cross.

Lord Jesus, you are my High Priest, and you’ve escorted me into the presence of the Father. May I take full advantage of every right, every privilege you've earned for me. Starting now.

[Sept 25]--Crucifixion

Matt. 27:32-44

This is probably one of the hardest devotionals I’ve had to write. The main reason for this is because I feel so inadequate. Poets, preachers, and theologians have all expounded on his Passion, and they can do it with much more eloquence than I could ever muster. But here are a few points to consider for all of us:

A) The horror and brutality of the physical pain was unimaginable to us. I find it interesting, however, that there really isn’t that much of a description of the actual crucifixion itself. The Gospel writers give some detail about the torture and other hardships he underwent before the main event: mockery, being spat upon, being hit with fists, the crown of thorns, and the actual flogging by the Roman whip (remember, complete with a piece of bone in every single strap). But when it comes to the cross, they simply say “And they crucified him.” or words to that effect. The reason for this omission of detail? For the first century audience, there was no need: They knew full well what a crucifixion looked like. But there might be another reason. Perhaps they didn’t give details on this not because they regarded it as unimportant, but as so poignant and meaningful that no human words could capture it. It was too “close” for them to examine.

B) But the thing we need to keep in mind here is why he did it. He died a vicarious death, and everything he went through was for our sake. Why was he falsely accused? So that we can be declared “not guilty” in God’s court. Why was he beaten? Because “by his wounds we are healed.” Why was a crown of thorns placed upon his head? So that one day we could receive a crown of glory. Why did he die? So that we could live forevermore.

C) And what should our reaction should be to this, when we realize that it is my sin and your sin that nailed him to that tree? Let’s be clear here: It should not be guilt. That's not the purpose here, or at least not at the end. It should promote hatred of sin, since that’s what killed him. And it should provide a constant well-spring of thankfulness that leads to obedience.

Now for your viewing, I present what I believe is the best music video of all time, "Secret Ambition" by Michael W. Smith:

Lord Jesus, thank you. Those words seem so inadequate, but I don’t know what else to say. Except, “I’m yours, to do with as you please.”

[Sept 24]--Judas’ Final Words

Matt. 27:1-10

We talked about this man a few days ago, but I thought it might be worthwhile for us to look at him one more time before we lay him to rest. He was hand-picked by Jesus, after our Lord spent the entire night in prayer, presumably asking the Father for guidance in choosing his apostles. That’s right—Judas was an answer to prayer. We examined some of the possible reasons why he did it about a week ago, but now I’d like to look at the aftermath of what he did.

I have to credit J. C. Ryle for this question, because it reveals an important point: Why did Judas not testify at Jesus’ trial? The Sanhedrin, I’m sure, would've loved to have the damning (even if false) testimony of one of Jesus’ inner circle of followers. If Judas could've stepped forward and claimed that Jesus was a hypocrite, a con-artist, or even worse, that would've been a gold-mine for Jesus' enemies. And it would've been in Judas's self-interest to exonerate himself in the eyes of others: “Sure I betrayed him, but I had good reason. He was involved in all these terrible sins and crimes. . .” But he didn’t. His last recorded words were "I have sinned for I have betrayed innocent blood." The only reason we can come up with is that Jesus was truly sinless.

Judas had all these privileges, and threw them all away. This should be a warning to all of us. Am I resting on mere knowledge, on my background, on privileges that God has given me? As Paul said, “Let us live up to what we have already attained.” Light which God has revealed to us--without our acting upon it--will only serve to condemn us.

We should also notice the nature of sin from this passage. Like the adulterous woman described in Proverbs, it appears to be smoother than oil, but in the end it’s as bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. The author of Hebrews says that its pleasures are “fleeting,” and that certainly was the case here. The problem is that while the pleasures are fleeting, it sticks you with the cost. He'd sold his soul for 30 pieces of silver, and they ended up on the temple floor. Sin promises big but never delivers. As our first parents learned to their sorrow--and as every person has learned ever since--sin will always end up taking you further than you’re willing to go and costing you more than you’re willing to pay.

Someone told me a long time ago that there are people in this world whose sole purpose in life is to provide a negative example for us to avoid. There’s no one else who fits that description more than this man. He stands as a sober warning to all pretenders, all mask-wearers, everyone who thinks that their God-given privileges are enough to save them, and everyone who's willing to put their own purposes above what God's told them to do. And that could include you or me. As Michael Card once put it in “Traitor’s Look”: “Now Judas don't you come too close/ I fear that I might see/ That traitor's look upon your face/ Might look too much like me/ Cause just like you I've sold the Lord and often for much less/ And like a wretched traitor I betrayed Him with a kiss.” Here's the song in full:

The good news is, with our Savior there’s forgiveness and restoration. All we have to do is come to him, just as we are, and he’ll welcome us back home.

Lord Jesus, even though I’ve sold you for even less than silver, you still love me, you still want to fellowship with me, and you pick me back up and clean me off. Thank you.

[Sept 23]--“Trial”

Matt. 26:57-68

There's a good reason why the title is in quotes: The “trial” of Jesus was a show-trial, an utter mockery of justice from start to finish, with the verdict never really in doubt. If you do just a bit of research, you’ll find why Jesus’ arrest and trial were completely illegal. Just a few examples: 1) He was arrested and tried at night, and Jewish law only allowed daylight proceedings. 2) The witnesses against him didn’t agree, which completely contradicted Mosaic law. 3) He was required to testify against himself, which was also illegal (which is carried over into our legal system). 4) The charges against him were switched. When he was brought before the Sanhedrin (a religious court), the charge was blasphemy, but when he was brought before Pilate (a secular court), he was accused of claiming to be "King of the Jews," which would mean inciting insurrection.

When they charged him on oath and asked him if he was the Christ, the Son of God, his answer literally is “You have said it,” or as some translations put it, “It is as you said.” This was an idiom meaning “The short answer is ‘Yes,’ but you don’t know the full meaning of the question.” In other words, he answered affirmatively, but made it clear in his answer that they had no idea who the Messiah was supposed to be.

Please notice that our Lord’s last words to the religious leaders of Israel were those of warning. They expected the Messiah to come down from the clouds in power and glory, and he will. This first time he came in humiliation and submission, barely even raising his voice. It won’t be like that the next time he arrives.

There seem to me to be two main applications from this passage. The first is to stop whining. We're so quick to defend ourselves when someone slanders us or misrepresents us to others. We trip all over ourselves to “set the story straight.” Friend, if you claim to be a follower of Christ, then why would you be surprised at this? Earlier Jesus warned us: “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!” On the other side of the coin, we should take heart if we’re lied about and treated with contempt because of false accusation. We’re in the best of company, aren’t we?

Lord Jesus, when I start to complain because someone is talking bad about me, please shut my mouth. When they hurled their insults at you, you didn’t retaliate; when you suffered, you made no threats. Instead, you entrusted yourself to him who judges justly. I want to be like that, please.

[Sept 22]--Arrest

Matt. 26:47-56

The final moment of confrontation has come, the great battle to end all battles has begun. The Enemy, working though his servants, strikes first. Studying the passage, we might notice a few things:

Jesus’ gentleness and grace, even in the face of utter betrayal. Here was a man who'd been chosen by him, worshiped with him, performed miracles in his name, ate with him, and who finally handed him over to his enemies for 30 pieces of silver. And how did Jesus address him? “Traitor”? “Scum”? “Piece of filth”? He certainly would've been justified in doing so, but no. He called him “Friend,” even as this man was kissing him on the cheek to signal to the soldiers which one was Jesus.

The utter cowardice of Jesus’ enemies. Of course they couldn’t arrest him during the daylight hours, could they? Of course not. Are you expecting the Enemy or his servants to fight honorably? Why would you think a foolish thing like that?

Jesus’ condemnation of force used in his name. I think we have here a strong prohibition against using the sword in his defense. The sword has its uses. God has put it in the hand of government to restrain evil in the world and maintain civil order. But it’s not to be used to defend the name of Christ or spread the Message of Christ. That’s one of the beauties of this nation: That we believe in freedom of religion. We try to persuade, and we pray for peoples’ hearts to be changed. We don't try to have the state do the Church's job.

Jesus’ submission of his own will. He makes it abundantly clear in this passage that he was not a prisoner because he failed to escape. There were thousands upon thousands upon thousands of angels who were awaiting the word. One word from Jesus’ lips, and and there wouldn't have been enough left of the soldiers for their own mothers to identify. But that word never came. Why? Because he was there to submit to the Father’s will. This meant submitting to his enemies’ tender mercies.

Our tendency to overestimate ourselves. Jesus had predicted it, but none of them really believed it until it happened. Look, most (if not all) of us are guilty of this fault. When the sun is shining and the birds are singing and all is right with the world, it’s easy to make promises about future faithfulness to him. But as soon as troubles come or the pressure is turned up, we drop those vows like the proverbial hot potato. All of us are masters of self-deception, so we need to cultivate, by God’s grace, a spirit of humility and healthy self-distrust. As Alistair Begg reminds us, “The best of men are men at best.” His grace is the only thing keeping me from falling, and I'd better remember it.

Like the rest of the Gospel (and really all the Bible), this passage highlights the brightness of our Savior and the utter depravity of men. Pretty good thing to remember, if you ask me.

Lord Jesus, it’s easy to point a finger at the disciples who couldn’t run away fast enough, but what about me? How many fights have I fled when you asked me to stand my ground? Please forgive me and change me.

[Sept 21]--Gethsemane

Matt. 26:36-46

Now we return to Matthew’s Gospel for the final chapters. His last stop before his Passion was a garden. Apparently it was a place he frequented regularly, since Judas was able to lead the soldiers there to arrest him. He often took time out to commune with his Father. Here are just some observations:

• The name Gethsemane is derived from an Aramaic word meaning “oil press.” It was a place of crushing, so this certainly was an appropriate name.

• Several years ago a famous (and blasphemous) movie came out entitled The Final Temptation of Christ. In a very real sense, this was his final temptation. He had to make the final choice to obey his Father or give into his own desires. Our First Parents were also confronted with a choice in a Garden, and they failed miserably. Here a choice was made as well, with very different results. The beautiful paintings of Jesus placidly accepting the will of the Father, complete with a halo around his head, is not the picture Scripture presents. This was a man in severe agony. Before his arrest, before a single lash of the whip, he shed blood.

• Luke’s account also mentions angels coming to attend him. Interestingly enough, both Matthew’s and Mark’s account of his temptation in the wilderness tell of angels giving him aid and somehow “attending” him, while Luke’s does not. In his final confrontation with the Enemy, now Luke has angels while the other Gospel writers don’t mention them.

• As C. S. Lewis pointed out, this was undoubtedly both an encouragement and a disillusioning moment for him. He was praying, he was asking, he was pleading for a way out of this. He did not want to do this. He asked his Father to find another way, and the response he got was angelic support, which in effect, was a gentle “no.”

• The impression we get from the Gospels is that he spent some considerable time in the garden, but his recorded words take only a few seconds. Most likely his disciples, after a large meal and a late night, only record for us the words they heard before they drifted off. In his moment of need, when he could have really used the support and prayers of his friends, they fell asleep. The fate of the universe hangs in the balance, and they’re asleep. I wish I could condemn them, but I’d end up condemning myself along with them.

• And of course, they paid for their laziness. He warned them to “watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” They didn’t, and when the soldiers arrived, their lack of spiritual preparation led to their fleeing and scattering in the darkness.

• Finally, this is the perfect model of prayer for us. There's nothing wrong with desiring good things, and even to avoid bad ones. Our Lord, even in his human nature, didn’t sin, so we don’t sin either when we follow his example by asking the Father for something different from what he’s given us. But the perfect attitude always comes with the caveat: “Not as I will, but as you will.” Ask, but submit to the Father’s will.

There are a lot of lessons we could pull from this, and I think I’ve got what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell me. How about you?

Here's Michael Card's meditation on this, "In The Garden."

Father God, your ways are so much above my ways. I’m your adopted son, so I need to act more like it. Please make me more like Jesus. No, really.

[Sept 20]--The Lord’s Supper: Salvation Future

Matt. 26:26-30

The Lord’s Supper or Communion, or whatever term you have for it, is a mine of rich symbolism of our salvation. We looked at how it represents our salvation past and present, so let’s look at how it pictures our salvation in the future.

The image of a feast, especially a wedding feast, is used multiple times in Scripture to symbolize our eternal destiny. Isaiah 25:6-8 is one of the first: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.” Several of Jesus’ parables used a wedding feast as the setting, such as "The Wedding Feast" and "The Ten Virgins," and he used this image in warning the Jews of his time that they'd be excluded from God’s final celebration unless they repented and believed in him. And of course the last book of the Bible uses this word-picture in 19:6-9: “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” At the last supper Jesus had with his disciples before the Passion, today’s passage records him saying that he would “not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom."

We don’t know all the details about the future, and we don’t need to. The main point that the Lord is trying to get across to us is celebration. We'll all sit down and enjoy his presence forever and ever. We'll meet with saints we’ve only read about, along with millions of countless faces whose names'll only be made famous at the consummation of history.

This is what we should think about when we participate in Communion. This is why Paul told us that “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

Hopefully this will make the Lord’s Supper a bit more meaningful for you. It’s both sadness and joy, a memorial and expectation, solemnity and festivity. He’s inviting you to his table, and his feast is prepared. Are you coming?

Lord Jesus, I can’t wait to see what you have in store. You've spent the last 2000 years getting your feast ready, and you’re almost ready to call the guests. Do you have more people for me to invite?

[Sept 19]--The Lord’s Supper: Salvation Present

John 6:53-59

As we said yesterday, the Lord’s Supper presents us a picture of our salvation past, present and future.

So in what sense are we saved in the present tense, and what does Communion have to do with it? Here’s a simple summary of it. We were saved from the penalty of sin, which was justification. We are saved every day from the power of sin, which is sanctification. And we will one day be saved from the presence of sin, which will be glorification. Today, day by day, moment by moment, our Master offers us freedom from the power of sin.

How do we acquire this, and what does it have to do with us "[eating his] flesh and [drinking his] blood”? Of course, the Roman Catholic Church loves this passage, since they claim it teaches transubstantiation, the belief that when the elements are blessed, they literally become the body and blood of the Lord. The interesting thing about this is that the Jews who had been following him up to this point interpreted this literally as well, and most of them abandoned him because of it. But in the context of the chapter, Jesus makes it clear that the way we “eat and drink” him is by believing in him, not through any physical action like taking Communion, which didn’t even exist as an ordinance when the Lord was speaking these words.

So if we “eat and drink” him by believing in him at the beginning, does this have anything to do with our life with him after we’ve received him? Of course it does: That’s why he mentions that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood “remain” in him, and he in us (vs. 56). This is the whole idea of the present aspect of salvation in the Lord’s Supper—he doesn’t just save us, pat us on the back and say “Good luck with that!” He sustains us day by day, moment by moment. He “feeds” us and sustains us. His life becomes ours.

Per usual, C.S. Lewis has a wonderful way of illustrating this point. In his poem (you didn't know he wrote poetry, did you?) "On A Theme From Nicolas Cusa," he writes

When soul and body feed, one sees
Their different physiologies.
Firmness of apple, fluted shape
Of celery, or tight-skinned grape
I grind and mangle when I eat,
Then in dark, salt, internal heat,
Annihilate their natures by
The very act that makes them I.

But when the soul partakes of good
Or truth, which are her savoury food,
By some far subtler chemistry
It is not they that change, but she,
Who feels them enter with the state
Of conquerors her opened gate,
Or, mirror-like, digests their ray
By turning luminous as they.

So have you “fed” upon him today? Are you feeding upon his word, basking in his Presence, listening to his voice? What makes you think you can make it without that?

And as a special treat, here's Rich Mullins's "Peace (A Communion Blessing From St. Joseph's Square)":

Lord Jesus, you sustain me with your life, and you’re in the process of changing me into your likeness. Any way I can cooperate with that, please show me and give me the strength to do it.

[Sept 18]--The Lord’s Supper: Salvation Past

1 Cor. 11:23-26

Both of the ordinances of the Christian experience (communion and baptism) are rich images for us. In fact, both of them are pictures of salvation past, present, and future.

The past element of the Lord’s Supper is pretty obvious. It commemorates and memorializes what happened on a Thursday evening/Friday morning about 2,000 years ago. The torn bread symbolizes his body, which was broken for us. He was scourged with a Roman whip, which had bits of bone in every strip, so that as the victim was struck, his back was torn to pieces. He was beaten, spit upon, and finally hung upon a cross. It was a horrible death reserved for slaves and the basest of criminals. We don’t know how Paul died, but we know that he didn’t die this way, since Roman citizens were exempt from this. My friend, the cross is where we get the word excruciating from. The writer of Hebrews says that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” His body's become for us a “new and living way” into the presence of the Father.

And there is his blood, symbolized by the wine (or grape juice, if you prefer). Neither wine nor grape juice are simply poured out of a tap—they are produced by squeezing the very life out of the grapes. Again, the writer of Hebrews gives us some insight into this: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” When you sin, something has to die. God only has one real penalty for sin: death. Physical death, then spiritual death is the lot of every one of Adam’s kin. But due to what Jesus accomplished on the cross, our sin does not have to lead to our death. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin, and by it we’re redeemed (literally “bought back”).

All of this was for our benefit. Ours was the sin, and his was the pain. Ours was the transgression, and his was the blood spilt for it. This is why, when we eat the torn-apart bread and drink from the cup, we do it “in remembrance” of him.

Now for your edification, here's "Come To The Table" by Michael Card.

Lord Jesus, I don’t know what else to say, besides “thank you.” I belong to you twice-over, once because you made me and once because you’ve bought me back. I’m yours, so please help me to live like it.

[Sept 17]--The Lord’s Supper: Fellowship With Jesus

Luke 22:14-16

Yesterday we mentioned that the Lord’s Supper is supposed to be celebratory, and today’s devotional dovetails on that. Yes, it commemorates a sacrifice, what our Savior had to undergo in order to redeem us. But we need to remember that it’s also fellowship with him.

Remember what we said about the presence of God at the end of Exodus? God is omnipresent, and he completely fills the universe. Technically, there’s nowhere on earth where he’s more “present” than anywhere else. So what happened in Exodus 40, when God’s presence “filled” the tabernacle in a way that that it didn’t five minutes before? What happens in worship today? Again, the concept of radio/TV waves is pretty helpful. They surround us and go through us constantly, 24-7. But most of the time we’re completely unaware of them, until. . . when? When we turn on a device that captures those waves and translates them into something we can see and hear. God’s presence is like that: He’s all around us and in us, and worship “tunes us into” him.

Why do I bring up worship in the context of the Lord’s Supper? Well, another name for it is “Communion,” and there’s a good reason for that. When we take the elements alongside other believers, it "tunes" us into his presence like few other things, or maybe like nothing else. That’s why I was a little reluctant to use the word “symbol” when describing it. There’s nothing magical about the elements, but there’s nothing like this experience in helping us focus on him and bask in him.

On a related note, there’s a little bit of Greek that gives us real insight into Jesus’ emotions. The NIV translates the first part of vs. 15 as “I have eagerly desired. . .” and that’s as good a rendering as any. The Greek word is epithumia (where we get the word “pathos” and related words like "pathetic") and literally the text quotes Jesus as saying “With desire I have desired. . .” What’s interesting is that this is the same word used for “lust” several times in Scripture, like in Matt. 5:27-28. The word “lust” almost always has a bad connotation in English, but the same Greek word is used both for the illicit passions of an adulterer and Jesus’ desire to have this final moment of fellowship with his disciples. I think that he still has that desire today, to relate to us and enjoy us and have us enjoy him.

In fact, he might be speaking to you right now. Can you hear him?

Lord Jesus, I’m listening. I’m sorry for letting other things distract me. Please help me to focus on you, even if it’s just for a few moments.

[Sept 16]--The Lord’s Supper: Celebration

Matt. 26:26-30

Since we’ve come to the part of Matthew that narrates the last supper Jesus had with his disciples before he was crucified, commonly called the Lord’s Supper, I’d like to spend the next few days examining it. Each day will focus on another aspect.

First, we need to go ahead and determine what it's not. Despite what Roman Catholics and others might claim, the bread and wine do not become the body and blood during the Lord Supper. When Jesus said that “This is my body,” I interpret that the same way I interpret his words when he claimed to be “the gate” or the “true vine.” He used metaphors all the time, so I believe he meant that the elements symbolized his body and blood. His disciples were all Jews, and the thought of eating real flesh and drinking real blood would've been horrifying to them. On a related note, Jesus was sacrificed once and for all, so the Lord’s Supper isn’t a sacrifice, either.

So if it isn’t literally the body and blood, what is it? Well, among others things, it’s a celebration. A solemn one, to be sure, but we're celebrating something. What are we celebrating? Our sins are forgiven! Isn’t that enough? Dealing with the sin problem opens a door to all sorts of wonderful things. Our relationship with God, long severed, is now restored. He’s adopted us as his children and heirs. All of that's possible because of what the Supper pictures for us.

I think we lose something when we see the Supper as only a memorial service. Yes, we need to focus on what it cost our Lord to effect our forgiveness, but it’s been accomplished. He’s been yearning to bring us back into full fellowship since the Fall, and he did it.

According to some Jewish sources I’ve researched, the “hymn” they sang as they left for the Garden was probably a collection of Psalms 113-118, since this was the Jewish tradition of that time. If you read those Psalms, they aren’t funeral dirges, but instead are joyful and filled with thanksgiving and praise for all God has done.

So the next time you partake in the Lord’s Supper, I urge you to not turn it into a guilt-fest. Yes, you need to meditate on what it cost him to redeem you, but also thank and praise him for doing so, and for accomplishing what he set out to do.

Lord Jesus, you are so good to me. I celebrate and worship you. My sins, which were so many, are now covered, never to be brought up again. Thank you.

[Sept 15]--Judas

Matt. 26:14-25

History is sadly ironic at times. Next to Peter, this man has got to be the most famous of Jesus’ disciples (unless you count Paul, who wasn’t one of the original Twelve). He’s been the subject of countless psychological studies, and with good reason. Why would he do this? What could possess a man to do it?

First, we need to get some side-issues out of the way. Since I don’t believe that Christians can lose their salvation, I don’t believe that Judas lost his. Obviously this would mean that the man was never saved to begin with, since Jesus called him “doomed to destruction.” This'd also mean that he preached, taught, and performed miracles (including driving out demons), all while being unsaved and a pawn of the Enemy. Let’s take a lesson from this: Do not be impressed by a preacher who claims to heal sickness and perform miracles. Maybe he can—but that’s no indication that he’s right with the Lord.

So why would Judas do this? There are several theories out there, some more credible than others. Some scholars link his last name with the sicarii, a band of Jewish nationalists who assassinated any collaborators who cooperated with the hated Roman government. The theory goes that since Judas was a zealot, he agreed to join Jesus’ band (remember, he was hand-picked by Christ himself) only because he thought that Jesus was going to be the political and military conqueror who'd smite their enemies and free Israel. Once it became clear that Jesus wasn’t going to be that type of Messiah, Judas planned to betray him, possibly in order to force Jesus’ hand and turn some of the miraculous power he’d displayed as a show of force against Rome. I do admit it has some appeal to it, but it does seem to be reaching. Others, pointing to the fact that he was pilfering the treasury of Jesus’ ministry, think he was simply looking for some more money.

I don’t think we know exactly why, and we won’t until Eternity. We do know that Satan “entered” Judas, but just like in our discussion of Joseph’s brothers, there’s no indication that Judas was not responsible for his own actions. God planned it, Satan influenced him, but Judas had a decision to make, and he made the wrong one.

“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me” just heightens the guilt. In ancient Middle Eastern culture (as today), to share a meal with someone was a sign of friendship and trust. John’s account notes that Jesus handed this piece of bread directly to Judas, probably as a last private appeal of love.

So did Judas perform an unpardonable sin? Leaving aside all questions of predestination, if Judas had asked for forgiveness, would Jesus had granted it? Of course he would. 1 John 1:9 promises that if we confess, he will forgive, cleanse, and restore, and it has no conditions on the heinousness of the sin. Moses, David, and Paul were all murderers whom we’ll meet someday in heaven. As someone pointed out to me, the problem was that Judas ended up looking up to the wrong tree. One tree was one of final regret and condemnation, while the other one promises mercy and forgiveness, no matter what we’ve done.

So what does this mean for us? First, we need to examine ourselves to make sure we’re really in the faith. For about three years, Judas had eaten with, slept next to, performed miracles in the name of, and had spent his lifetime with the Lord Jesus. But in the end, for whatever reason, he turned his back on all that. I thoroughly believe that he's the quintessential example of the unsaved church member, who's heard tons of sermons, heard plenty of Bible teaching, and who's even served in leadership positions but who has no personal relationship with the Savior.

Second, this passage should put a nail in the coffin of a disbelief in eternal punishment. If there were no such thing, or if there was an end to hell’s agony, then there is no way Jesus could have said about Judas “It would be better for him if he had not been born.” That could be the personal epitaph of everyone who has died outside of Christ, but it'd make no sense if the ultimate fate of the lost is annihilation and oblivion.

The bad news is that there is a real place called hell. The good news is that no one has to go there. Our Lord Jesus bled and died a horrible death to redeem us out of that horrible place. From the darkness of Judas’ soul let’s turn our focus to the Man who loves us and who'll one day gather us to himself.

Lord Jesus, I know that sometimes I’ve sold you for much less than 30 pieces of silver. And you keep forgiving me, and cleansing me. Please help me, change me, and remake me.

[Sept 14]--Anointed At Bethany

Matt. 26:6-13

I know that I’ve been pretty rough on all of us the last few days, so I’m pleased to study a Scripture of encouragement. Today’s passage takes us to Bethany. This is the last week before Jesus’ Passion, probably on Tuesday. This is actually recorded in three of the four Gospels, and John’s account is the fullest, since it gives some extra motivation on the part of the woman, and her actual name. Let’s get some application.

1) I think the main point here is that Jesus loves to honor those who honor him. The disciples, led by Judas (as seen in John’s account) reprimanded her for the “waste” involved. Jesus didn’t see it as a waste at all. Friend, no true service done in the name of our Lord is a waste. Don’t let the world tell you that lie. They’ll tell you that you’re wasting your time, talents, and money by giving it over to Christ, but theirs is not the One whose approval is important. Jesus made a prediction that has definitely come true, quite literally. Every time the book of Matthew is read, she’s honored. The Bible is translated into hundreds of different languages (with more all the time), and her costly sacrifice is held up as an example for all of us.

2) Dovetailing along with the first point, this is a foretaste to come. When he returns, all the “secret” things done in service to him will be exposed and applauded for all those assembled in glory. A cup of cold water, a kind word, money given in secret, all the way up to martyrdom (which most of us will never experience) are all being recorded. Do you feel unappreciated at church when all the hard work you do goes unnoticed? It’s not. He’s watching, and he’s smiling. Here are two verses for you, and I’d recommend you memorize them when you’re feeling it’s all for nothing: “Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” and “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” Please let these verses lift up your spirit, as they’ve done for me multiple times.

Lord Jesus, please remind me of your presence all the time. I know your eyes are upon me, but it’s so hard to keep faithful when no one notices what I do for you. Yours is the only applause I seek, or it should be.

[Sept 13]--Sheep and Goats

Matt. 25:31-46

For many years now, Christians have been accused of not caring about the poor. “All you care about is saving their souls, while they’re starving to death!” is the cry. This is sometimes a bogus charge, but not always. To any degree that it’s true, however, it’s a failure to read and obey our Bibles. Jesus was concerned about the whole man: body, soul, and spirit (or however you designate the parts of us). He taught and preached, but he also looked out for physical needs as well. This doesn’t mean that every church is meant to become a food-bank and homeless shelter, but it does mean we need to take passages like today’s very seriously.

To be fair, there are Bible teachers, whom I respect, who think that this passage applies only to the End Times. At the end of days, they say, Israel will be persecuted as never before, and Jesus will judge the people who lived during that time as to how they treated the Jewish people (“these brothers and sisters of mine”). There is a case which can be made for that interpretation, but I think the point should be expanded to today as well.

By the way, this is a textbook case of the need to take the entire Bible in context and to use other hermeneutical skills. If you just had this passage to go on, then you could easily come to the conclusion that the way to get into heaven is by taking care of the poor. That’s why we have the book of Romans: To tell us explicitly how to get back into a right relationship with God. The point of this passage is not to tell us how to deal with our sin problem, but to tell us how the Lord expects his children to live. We show our spiritual parentage in how we act. God’s children should always be on the outlook for opportunities to serve Christ by serving others.

Now, literally, is every poor person a “brother” of Jesus? No. The Bible plainly teaches that no one is naturally born into God’s family. We're all born as spiritual children of Satan until we're adopted into Jesus’ family. But in as much as we display Christ’s love in practical ways to those in need, Jesus counts it as doing it for him and unto him.

Michael Card has a beautiful song about this issue: “Distressing Disguise.” He says “Every time a faithful servant serves/ a brother that’s in need/ What happens in that moment is a miracle indeed/ As they look to one another in an instant it is clear/ Only Jesus is visible/ for they’ve both disappeared. . . In his distressing disguise/ He hopes that we realize/ That when we take care of the poorest of them/ We’ve really done it to him.” Here's the whole song for your edification.

So how is Jesus in “disguise” around you? What opportunities has he given to you to serve him?

Lord Jesus, there is so much need in the world, and I’m only one man. I know you don’t expect me to solve all the hunger problems in the world, but there are people you cause to cross my path everyday, who need to be shown your love in a physical act of service. Please give me a servant’s heart, please give me a heart like yours.

[Sept 12]--Ten Virgins

Matt. 25:1-13

I have to admit a certain amount of trepidation in writing today’s devotional. The main reason for this is because this passage is the source of some debate among Evangelicals, and most people come to this passage interpreting it according to their own viewpoints on the Second Coming. I want to be fair in dealing with Bible-believing siblings who disagree with me.

To start out, let’s have a little primer on Jewish wedding customs in 1st century Israel. It would start with a man coming to a woman’s family and asking for their consent to marry. They would agree on a “Bride Price,” which the man would pay to the family to show how much he loved her. He'd then take his leave and begin building a honeymoon suite in his father’s house, and the room wouldn't be complete until the man’s father gave approval. If someone asked him when the wedding would take place, he'd tell them, “Only my father knows.” While this construction was ongoing, the fiancée was expected to be ready for her beloved’s arrival, and her bridesmaids were expected to keep lamps and oil prepared as well. Once the bridegroom’s father said that the wedding chamber was ready, the groom and his friends would approach the girl’s house, blowing a horn called a shofar to signal their arrival. He'd claim his bride, take her to his wedding chamber and consummate the marriage, and the week-long wedding celebration would begin outside.

Now, to be fair, some teachers claim that the virgins can’t represent the church, since that would be the bride in the story, but I think they’re guilty of over-allegorizing the parable. Remember, parables aren't allegories. Not everything in the story is a symbol for something else.

What does the oil represent, if anything, since it seems to be a focal point here? Oil was used for anointing priests and kings, and the Messiah was anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, so it seems to be a reasonable assumption that the oil represents the Holy Spirit. Since every Christian has the Holy Spirit living inside them, this would be a division between genuine and false Christians.

So how can we apply this today? First, we need to realize that the visible church will have both believers and non-believers within it. They worship together, pray together, and mingle every Sunday. But there will come a day when this conflating will end. The Master will come at a time when we least expect him, and the door will shut. On one side will be those who've truly given their hearts to Christ, and on the other side will be those who will hear the most frightening words ever uttered: “Truly I tell you, I don't know you.”

So what about you? Have you truly given your heart to Christ? If you're not sure, please read this. If you have, then what about your family? Your friends? Your neighbors? If the trumpet called today, would they be ready?

Lord Jesus, all around me are people who need to hear about you, and to see you reflected in how I talk and act. Please show me these opportunities, and give me the strength and courage to claim them.

[Sept 11]--Looking For Jesus

Matt. 24:36-51

If you’ve been looking forward to Matthew chapters 24-25 expecting a deep study on the return of Jesus Christ, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I have some beliefs on the Second Coming and what’s going to happen prior to that, but in this devotional I’m going to mostly stick to what every Christian ought to believe instead of focusing on disputable timetables and points of debate among Bible-believing Evangelicals. I firmly agree with Alistair Begg that “The main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.” I guess I’m a practical theologian, so if your views about eschatology (the last things) don't affect your daily walk with Christ, then they don’t mean a whole lot.

Our Lord is pretty practical as well when it comes to the issue of his return. We very rarely find him dwelling on this without adding a warning to “watch.” What does this mean? What does it mean to be prepared for his return? I’ve heard some people claim that if the end of the world is near (like during the Y2K scare) we should stock up on guns, food, and ammo. That, however, is a far cry from what Jesus talks about here.

It seems to me that there are two main points in this passage, and if you get them right, everything else is just a side-issue. The first thing to keep in mind is that you won’t see him coming, and neither will the world. While Noah was building the ark, the people around him were living their lives: eating, drinking, getting married, etc. What’s really interesting to me is the word picture he draws of separation. Believers and  nonbelievers live and work together all the time, and they intermingle on a daily basis. But this will not always be so: Husbands will be separated from wives, parents from children, brothers from sisters, and even preachers from listeners.

So if we aren’t going to see it coming, then how can we “watch” for him? In the same way that a soldier on guard duty is on watch. He doesn’t know when the enemy will approach, nor does he get advance notice of when his commander will swing by for a surprise inspection of his post. So this leads me to the second main point that Jesus is trying to make. To paraphrase him, "When I return, let me catch you doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Whether I come tomorrow or a thousand years from now should make no difference in your obedience."

Lord Jesus, I want that to be me. I hope and pray that your return will be a source of joy--not fear—for me.

[Sept 10]--What Was Wrong With The Pharisees? Part Five

Matt. 23:29-36

Have you ever been to a funeral of a person of questionable character? I'd imagine it’s pretty amusing in a way. No matter what the person did while alive, no one brings up the uncomfortable truth while at the gravesite. We always want to avoid speaking ill of the dead.

This is understandable, but that’s not what Jesus was condemning here. Apparently the Pharisees preferred dead saints to live ones. While they were alive, most prophets were not revered. Instead they faced ridicule, outright persecution, and even murder. If you were looking to be popular, being a true prophet of God was not the way to do it.

But along came the Pharisees, who built tombs and memorials to honor these men of God. But Jesus claimed that these teachers were not the spiritual heirs of the prophets, but of their murderers. Why would he do this? Aside from knowing their hearts, did he actually have any evidence for this?

Yes. The One the prophets testified about was standing right in front of them, and they firmly rejected him. This was the main point of the prophets: to prepare God’s people for the Messiah. The Pharisees would give great speeches about how wonderful these messengers of the Lord were, and then turned their backs on the fulfillment of everything the prophets worked for.

By rejecting Jesus, they were aligning themselves with the ones who slew the prophets. They always venerated the prophets, but only the dead ones. During the time of Moses, who was a true man of God to them? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but not Moses—he must be stoned. During the time of Samuel, whom would they proclaim as a messenger from God? Moses, but not Samuel—don’t listen to him. They continued to pledge respect for the dead saints from long ago, but the One who was calling them back to God right now, standing in front of them, was not worth listening to.

Do we do the same thing? Well, there are denominations right now who claim to be heirs of spiritual giants (like John Knox, Martin Luther, and John Wesley) but--I have to be brutally frank here--who completely ignore what those men stood for during their lives. Those men stood for integrity in following God’s word, but some of the churches who follow in their name, not so much.

What about us? Some of us might be guilty of this. When we claim to reverence the Bible and have it in a prominent place in our home but make no effort to read, study, and obey it, that’s serious. If you claim that Jesus is your Lord, he has a piercing question for you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put my heart under the Surgeon’s scalpel once again.

Holy Father, your standard is so high, and I fall so far short. Thank you for your grace which not only forgives me, but also changes me. Whatever I need to do to cooperate, please give me the strength to do it.

[Sept 09]--What Was Wrong With The Pharisees? Part Four

Matt. 23:25-28

\When defending the faith before skeptics and other nonbelievers, one of their favorite charges is “hypocrisy.” A lot of unchurched people, when you ask them why they aren’t attending, will trot out their favored horror story about hypocrisy. And to the degree that it’s true, it’s a serious problem. I once saw a cartoon of a conversation between a Christian and a skeptic, and the skeptic blurted out “I really HATE hypocrisy!” and the believer answered “Well, then you and Jesus have at least one thing in common.”

What do we mean by this word? As we discussed before, it was a term used for the drama stage. Due to the lack of talented actors, directors routinely used the same actor for the same parts. In order to distinguish between different characters, the actor would wear different masks during the play.

A hypocrite isn't someone who says one thing and then fails to live up to his own standards. A hypocrite is a pretender, someone who puts on a show for others. He tries to impress others with how holy he is, how righteous, how close to God. You might be able to impress people, but I assure you that he isn’t impressed.

Does this mean that the Lord doesn’t care about sin, as long as we’re open about it? Um, no. He hates sin. Our sin is what nailed his Son to a cross. But what’s the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous? “Admit you have a problem.” It’s the same in our relationship with God. As long as we pretend that everything is fine, nothing can be done.

We probably understand the image of the cup and dish, but what about the simile of a tomb? Jews took great care not to touch dead bodies unnecessarily, since it made them unclean. So they'd paint tombstones white so that people could avoid them. That was what he wanted them to understand: To the world outside they were beautiful, but to the Lord their hearts were “full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” If you've ever had to deal with a dead body, you know how much a disgusting stench it gives off after just a few days. That's how disgusting hypocrisy is before the all-seeing Judge.

I could be wrong, but I think that this is a greater danger as a Christian gets more mature in the faith. The Lord starts to remove some of the more blatant sinful habits, such as drunkenness, sexual immorality, and filthy language. But as the believer starts to improve in these areas, it’s easy for him to forget that God is just as concerned, if not even more so, with the condition of our hearts.

That’s why it’s so vital to spend time sitting at the feet of our Lord Jesus every day, asking him to point out the areas that need work. He's the ultimate heart specialist, and dealing with our problems from the inside-out is his specialty.

Lord Jesus, no more pretending. I wasn’t fooling you, anyway. Please forgive me, and cleanse me from the inside-out. Thank you for your promise to do this.

[Sept 08]--What Was Wrong With The Pharisees? Part Three

Matt. 23:16-24

In the third part of why Jesus had such a problem with the Pharisees, we need to learn something about oaths. It’s not something we think much about, except when someone swears to tell the truth in court. Why does someone do this? What does it mean to raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth, “so help me God”? Why do Presidents put their hand on the Bible when they’re taking an oath of office?

When someone takes an oath like this, they’re doing more than just saying “I promise to do this.” They’re bringing God into the situation, asking him to be a witness that the one swearing is telling the truth and will keep the promise. If the oath is broken, then he invites the Lord to come in and punish him appropriately.

So why was Jesus bringing up the issue of oaths? Because the Pharisees were splitting hairs in order to get out of what they were promising. They would say “X doesn’t really mean anything, but if I swear by Y then that’s something important!”

When someone does something like this, they’re being dishonest, but they’re also being forgetful. Whenever two people are talking, there’s an unseen listener, someone who's recording every word. Whether I mean to or not, I’m bringing God into the conversation. If I swear by “the altar” then I’m swearing by the One to whom the altar is dedicated. If I swear by “the temple” then I’m swearing by the One who dwells in it. If I swear by “heaven,” then I’m swearing by the One who sits on the throne there. I might think that I’m somehow leaving God out of it by only swearing by inanimate objects, but I’m not. Remember, every word of every conversation is being recorded, and if I claim to be a follower of Jesus then I need to be the type of person who has a reputation that my “yes” means “yes” and my “no” means “no.” I shouldn’t have to swear on a stack of Bibles to get someone to believe what I’m saying.

The second part of the passage is related to the first. The Pharisees, as someone once described to me long ago, were experts at “majoring in the minors.” They'd strain out with a cloth any gnats (the smallest unclean animal) from their water while swallowing a whole camel (the largest unclean animal). What God considered less important, they fixated upon. What God considered more important, like “justice, mercy and faithfulness” was completely left in the dust.

Does this mean that outward expressions of devotion, like tithing, are not important? Um, no. Verse 23 is pretty specific. Nothing here lets us off the hook when it comes to demonstrating our faith. If my heart is right with him, I will show it in acts of devotion. If I don’t, then something’s wrong. But this does serve as a warning that it’s easy to focus on outward expression and have a heart that isn’t right with God.

So how’s your speech? Do you have the reputation as someone who can answer a simple question with “yes” or “no” without a bunch of caveats and asterisks? Have you forgotten that he’s listening? Or have you put on a show for people, straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel?

Lord Jesus, your word is like a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting and healing at the same time. Please change me, from the inside-out. I so desperately need that.

[Sept 07]--What Was Wrong With The Pharisees? Part Two

Matt. 23:13-15

Why does God hate hypocrisy so much? Why did Jesus speak so strongly against the Pharisees? Today’s passage gives us some more insight.

What is it that angers God, that really gets him riled up? Well, sin will do the trick, but there’s something that might even get him even more upset. If we sin against him that’s bad, but if we keep others away from him, that’s far worse. Not only did the Pharisees not accept the Truth, but they did everything within their power to keep others away from salvation as well. The most dangerous thing in the world is to stand between God and someone who's honestly seeking him.

One of the strange things about this modern age is the value placed upon zeal. It matters very little what a person does, whether the impact from their lives has been positive or negative, as long as they really put their “all” into it. Everyone supposedly wants to "make a difference." As someone pointed out to me several years ago, however, Hitler “made a difference.”

Now the Pharisees were certainly zealous about what they were doing. Zeal in itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a huge asset, but only if pointed in the right direction. Paul, who was “a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees,” was very zealous before he encountered the Christ on the road to Damascus. When he was converted, did Jesus change Paul's personality to reflect less zeal? Of course not! The Lord took all that zeal and just channeled it into his service.

Why is this important? Because zeal in the wrong direction is worse than a merely sinful lifestyle—It brings others down with you. Jesus said that the disciples of the Pharisees were “twice as much a son of hell as [they were].” These converts were actually better off before the Pharisees got to them.

Here are some hard lessons for me. I’m not a naturally zealous person. I’m better than I used to be, but the Lord has had to work on me with that. I’m pointing in the right direction, but no one ever accused me of being a fanatic on anything. Now, the Pharisees were doing more harm than good, but can I actually learn something from them? Do I “travel over land and sea to win a single convert”? Do I even cross the street?

I know that I’m in God’s kingdom, but am I inviting others to come in through the door after me, or am I “[shutting] the kingdom. . .in people's faces”? Brennan Manning once said "The biggest cause of atheism is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and deny him with their lifestyle.”

My Lord had some really tough words for the Pharisees, but a lot of what he’s condemning them for is sounding awfully--uncomfortably--familiar. How about you?

Lord Jesus, please, please, please—may every word I speak, every action I take, draw other people towards you instead of away from you. Make my life a clear reflection of you, of your holiness, your grace, and your love.

[Sept 06]--What Was Wrong With The Pharisees, Anyway?

Matt. 23:1-12

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s sadly ironic that the Pharisees were Jesus’ worst enemies all throughout his ministry. He actually agreed more with their theology than with the other sects: They believed in holy living, the authority of the entire Old Testament, the Final Judgment, and the existence of angels, demons, and the afterlife. So what was his major grief with them? Well, this entire chapter is the answer to that question, so we’ll spend the next few days studying it.

The amazing thing, when we consider the tenor of most of this chapter, is that he starts off by commanding respect for their office. Notice I said their office, not the men themselves. Rightly or wrongly, they were in the place of spiritual authority (“Moses’ seat”), so when their teaching aligned with God’s word, it was to be heeded. But their personal lives left something to be desired. In this passage he “pulled back the curtain” and exposed these men’s hearts.

So what was the first charge of indictment? They “[tied] up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” This is not the goal of God’s instructions and commands. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Second, they cared more about what people thought about them than what God thought. “Phylacteries” were little boxes containing Scripture that they wore on their forehead and on their sleeves. Moses commanded them to put God’s word on their foreheads and hands as a continual reminder, and they literally did it. Jesus’ didn’t condemn this practice in itself, but he denounced their motives. Simply put, they wanted to impress people with how spiritual they were. They loved to be honored and given great spiritual titles.

This is a good time, by the way, to remind everyone how important it is to know your entire Bible. Paul called himself the spiritual “father” of the Christians in Corinth, so this is not an absolute prohibition of the term “father” or “teacher.” What we have to avoid is the desire to be known for these things so that we can be exalted above others and make ourselves feel important. I might be a "teacher" of you in some sense, but in the most profound sense we're all just students in the Master's school, and we never graduate as long as we're on this side of the Great Divide.

Instead of just pointing the finger at the Pharisees, let’s see if there are three fingers pointing back at us, as the cliché says. What would be the equivalent of making your “phylacteries wide”? Maybe letting your fellow believers know that you’re more spiritual than they are? Do you bask in applause when they compliment how wonderful a Christian you are? Are you doing anything “for people to see”?

Now if you’ll pardon me, I need to have some words with my Savior about this. I expect it won’t be pretty.

Lord Jesus, your word cuts like a knife right through my façade, doesn’t it? Please cut through all the acting, all the desire for men’s applause. Please put it up on the cross, where it belongs.

[Sept 05]---Jesus’ Turn

Matt. 22:41-46

After facing several questions from his critics and answering them perfectly, Jesus finally decided to go on the offensive and ask them something. Understanding this passage requires a bit of background knowledge, and then we’ll try to apply it.

There were a lot of different interpretations of what the Messiah (or Christ) would be: Some thought he'd be a great political leader and help Israel rise up against the Romans, while others saw him as mostly a great teacher. Others visualized him as a prophet, since Moses predicted a successor who'd equal or surpass him. But the idea of God coming in human flesh would've been completely foreign to them.

But there was one thing that most everyone agreed upon: The Messiah would be the “son” (descendant) of David. There were a lot of kings in David’s line, but most of them didn’t even come close to David’s glory, and most of them were quite a disappointment.

Jesus didn’t dispute their answer to his question--in other words, they were correct in assuming the Messiah would be a "son" (descendant) of David--but he wanted to expand their understanding of who and what the Messiah would be. He pointed them to Psalm 110, which is actually the most quoted Psalm in the New Testament. Another thing that most religious scholars agreed upon was that it was a Messianic Psalm, predicting his arrival.

So here was Jesus’ simple question: If David (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) was talking about the Messiah, why would he call his descendant “Lord”? Respect was always given to your ancestors, not your descendants.

We know the answer because God’s revealed it to us through the rest of his word. The Messiah was more than merely a human teacher. He was more than a mere military leader. In fact, he was not merely human at all. In the Psalm we see a hint of the fact that the Messiah would be God-in-human-flesh and thus entitled to the title “Lord” by his ancestor: "The Lord [referring to the Father] said to my Lord [referring to Jesus]. . . "

So let’s try to apply this. Jesus’ question at the beginning is really important: “What do you think about the Christ?” Is he just a good source of advice, which is how most of the world approaches him? Or is he God-with-us, our Divine Savior and Lord?

If he is your Lord, if he is God, then that means you have some obligations to him. He deserves your ultimate loyalty, your wholehearted obedience, and your sacrificial love.

If you’ve accepted this, then have you completely trusted him with your future? The verse from Psalm 110 quotes the Father as saying “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” This is the final fate of all Jesus’ enemies, from Satan on down. This Lord over the universe is also our dearest Friend, and he desires for us to trust him everything we have. Do you?

Lord Jesus, yes I trust you. Not nearly enough. I believe, Lord. Please help my unbelief.

[Sept 04]--What’s Most Important To Jesus?

Matt. 22:34-40

I’ve always believed that the author of a book is the best interpreter of it. Critics and other readers can debate back and forth about the deeper meaning and symbolism of a novel, but the author is the best person to ask about this.

So when a Pharisee came to Jesus and asked him what was the greatest commandment, the answer should be pretty important to followers of Christ. As the One who wrote the Torah, he’s the best interpreter of it.

Before we delve into his reply, it might behoove us to examine what he didn't say, and compare it to how we might have answered. He didn’t say “Don’t murder.” He didn’t say “Don’t commit adultery” or any other commandment regarding sexuality. His reply didn’t say anything about lying or honoring one’s parents. All of these are important (they made his top ten list, after all), but they’re not the most important commandment.

But his answer is the perfect one, since everything else in the Law falls under one of these two categories. If you love God, you won’t worship idols. You won’t treat his name lightly. You'll obey his commands. You will want to declare his praises and tell others about him. The same goes for the second command: If you love your neighbor, then you won’t murder him, lie to him, or steal from him. More than that, if you love him, you’ll want to tell him about the Savior and how he can be reconciled to God. If he’s a brother in Christ, you’ll be looking out for his interests instead of just your own. And of course my “neighbor” is anyone I come into contact with who needs to be shown God’s love. Paul echoed Jesus on this last point.

By the way, I’ve actually seen this passage used as a witnessing tool, for which I have to give credit to Dr. Sproul. Let’s say that you’re talking to a person who isn’t convinced that he needs a savior: “I’m not that bad a person. I haven’t killed anyone, I haven’t cheated on my wife. In fact, compared to some people out there, I’m a pretty decent guy.” I'd then ask him, “So do you think that’s the most important thing to God? What did Jesus say about that?” I point them to this passage, and ask them, “So do you do that? Can you really say that you love God with everything you have and everything you are?” Of course not. “So this is like coming into a court of law on an accusation of murder. Your plea is ‘Yes your Honor, I did kill that guy. But in my defense, look at my great driving record. And I have been on time every year in paying my taxes.’” In a court of law, murder is much more important than keeping a good driving record. In the same way, you just admitted that in the most important commandment that you just read, which is most important to Jesus, you’ve failed. Of course, this would lead into why God’s standards are much higher than ours, and why we desperately need a Savior.

But on a note to fellow Christians, I’m convicted by this every day. I know that I don’t love him anywhere close to what he deserves. That’s why I need his grace, every day. I’m so glad that his displays of compassion are “new every morning,” aren’t you?

Lord Jesus, your standard is so reasonable, but I fall so far short of it. Please forgive me, and help me. Change my heart, my mind, my soul to what I should be.

[Sept 03]--Angels And The Afterlife

Matt. 22:23-33

After his encounter with the Pharisees and Herodians, then another group comes forward to throw Jesus off by asking him a tough question. As you can see from the text, the Sadducees were a sect of Judaism--actually making up more of the wealthier class--which denied the general resurrection of humanity at the end of history. They also disbelieved in angels and were complete materialists. Their question originated from what was probably a cute story that they made up for the sole purpose of needling their Pharisee rivals (who actually agreed with Jesus about the afterlife). Supposedly the Sadducees held to these beliefs because they only accepted the Torah as authoritative. But while it’s true that Moses rarely spoke about an afterlife, angels are scattered throughout his books, starting in Genesis chapter 3.

By the way, when talking to nonbelievers, this is a pretty common tactic. Often they love to introduce some hypothetical situation and ask how our faith can reconcile with that. I’ve had people bring up everything from space aliens to the poor pygmy in Africa who’s never heard of Jesus. Friend, if the God you worship can be figured out by human understanding, then you’re worshiping the wrong God. Of course there are going to be questions we can’t answer. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The truth in Scripture was revealed to give us what we need to know about God and ourselves. It's not there to provide answers to every question or to satisfy our idle curiosity.

I love the first part of Jesus’ response: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” That’s the source of just about every major error out there, isn’t it? If you understand God’s word and actually believe that God is capable of living up to his word, you don’t really need to worry about falling into error.

The second point that our Lord made is that our understanding of what awaits us is very limited. In fact, we know much more about what heaven will not be than what it will be. For example, we know that there will be no crying, no pain, no tears, no sickness, and no death. So what does Jesus mean by saying that we’ll be like the angels? We won’t have any death there, so there won’t be any need to replenish the population. Sexual pleasure will fall by the wayside, not because we’re becoming emotionless robots, but because it will be eclipsed by so much more.

And finally, he points them back to the very Scriptures which they claim to follow. When the Lord appeared to Moses, he introduced himself as the “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” not “was the God.” They might have been dead to Moses, but they were alive to God, and they still had a personal relationship with him of some sort. In fact, Luke’s version adds “for all are alive to him.” Every person who has ever lived is going to live forever. We might prefer annihilationism, the belief that lost souls will be obliterated instead of being sent to conscious punishment in hell, but it’s not supported by Scripture.

I don’t know about you, but all this talk has made me pretty homesick. We don’t know much about our eternal home and new bodies, but it’s enough to give us a sure hope. It also should motivate us to be more obedient, more pleasing to our Lord. When God issues a command in heaven, the angels trip all over themselves rushing forward to obey. That’s a great example to follow, don’t you think?

Lord Jesus, the future you have in store for me is glorious, literally. Please continue this process of making me like you. I really need help in that.

[Sept 02]--Paying Taxes (Our Favorite Subject)

Matt. 22:15-22

I know it’s probably going to anger some people, but I do have some sympathy for (some) IRS agents. We all know that we have to pay taxes to pay for government to function, but none of us relish it. I’m sure that a lot of IRS personnel are honest and nice people, but the popularity of their job usually ranks around the bottom, along with politicians and used-car salesmen.

But as unpopular as taxes and the IRS are today, they’re embraced with a hug and kiss compared to how the Jewish people saw them during the time of the Gospels. At least we can say that we’re living under a government that we’ve chosen, and if the taxes are too high or unfair we can work to change that. But Israel was held captive by the hated Roman government, and she had absolutely no choice in how she was governed. Every penny collected in taxes was used to support an oppressive system that held them under its boot. Tax collectors, who were Jews hired by the Romans, were commonly assassinated as collaborators. So do you start to get the idea that the Jewish people hated taxes?

So along came the Pharisees and the Herodians with the specific intention of “trapping [Jesus] in his words.” They asked a simple moral question, and either a “yes” or “no” would get him in trouble. If he said yes, then the people would despise him as a Roman sympathizer. If he said no, then they would accuse him before the Roman officials as promoting sedition (a capital offence). In case you didn’t know, by the way, the Herodians were supporters of King Herod. The Pharisees, ardent nationalists, would normally loathe them, but when it came to Jesus, these sworn enemies were perfectly happy to work together to oppose him.

Also notice how they try to “butter him up” in order to throw him off. Beware of flattery! We make a grave mistake if we think that persecution and trouble are the only weapons in the Enemy’s arsenal. What was it that brought down Samson--the armies of the Philistines? No, the flattery of a woman. What was Hezekiah’s final downfall? Was it due to the Assyrian army who marched against him? No, it was the flattery of the Babylonian ambassadors. As J. C. Ryle put it, Satan is never so dangerous as when he masquerades as an angel of light, and the world is never so dangerous to the Christian as when it smiles.

So what was Jesus’ answer? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.” What a perfect response, completely confounding them in their efforts! But this raises some questions which we need to examine.

What belongs to Caesar? According to Romans 13:1-7, we should obey all authorities which are over us, whether we agree with them or not. All authority has been put in place by God, and the person in authority is God’s servant. Does this mean that God agrees with everything the authority does? Of course not! Just read the books of 1 and 2 Kings to see plenty of examples of his displeasure at kings. But it does mean we need to change our outlook of government and all other authorities which are over us. And yes, this means paying the taxes we owe.

But what belongs to God? Well, Scripture tells us that he deserves first loyalty. If the state tells us to disobey God, there’s no question as to whom we obey. But today’s passage raises an interesting point. Jesus requested a coin and asked them what image was inscribed on it. So the coin belongs to Caesar because his image is stamped upon it. So what about us? Whose image do we bear? What’s implied here?

Lord Jesus, my first and ultimate loyalty goes to you. I belong to you, twice over. You created me, and you redeemed me. Please help me to live like it.