[June 30]--Parting the Veil

Luke 9:28-36

My Savior is pretty amazing. Apart from the obvious, I mean. He’s God in the flesh, sent to save us, completely submissive to the Father’s will, etc. But there’s one thing I keep noticing in the Gospels which is an attribute we don’t talk much about: He always gives his followers/friends exactly what they need at exactly the right time. When they need some simple instructions, he provides it. When they need to get a break from the smothering crowds, he calls for a retreat. When it’s time to get back to work, he lets them know. When they need a kick in the seat of the pants, well, guess what?

Today’s passage is a perfect example of that. If you read the verses just prior to that, you can guess what type of mood the disciples would be in after a little “pep talk” he gave. You can read it here, but I’ll summarize it: I’m about to die, and life for you is not going to be much better. If you’re going to follow me, you’ll have to resign yourself to being a dead man walking. When this is all over, it’ll be great: I’ll come down with the angels in power and glory, and knowing me will be the best thing that ever happened to you. But for now, it’s nothing but hardship and (likely) an early grave.

Like I said, not exactly a “pick me up” type of speech. Just remember, though, that our Lord always tells us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. But after laying it all out for them, he saw that they needed some balance.

Often he went alone to “recharge his batteries” by spending time with the Father, but not this time. He took his “chosen three” with him and gave them the morale booster to end all morale boosters. I guess he figured that once he did this for the top three, they'd encourage the rest.

During 99.99999999% of his earthly life, the glory of the Lord Jesus was veiled. Most of the time, you could pass him on the street and not take a second look. His own brothers didn’t believe in him, nor did the people in his hometown. This was part of the deal regarding the Incarnation: He laid aside his glory in heaven and became “nothing. . .taking the very nature of a servant.”

But for a brief moment on that mountain, the veil was parted. The same glory that caused Moses’ face to shine like the sun was now in front of the disciples. And they didn’t know whether to be overcome with joy or terror. On top of the transformation of Jesus, they see him talking with Moses and Elijah, the great Law-giver and one of the greatest prophets.

Once again, I love how brutally honest the Bible is about its heroes. If I was making this stuff up, I'd definitely put better dialogue in Peter’s mouth, or just present him as being wisely silent in worship. I love Luke’s little aside: Poor Peter was just babbling and didn’t know what was coming out of his mouth, like a lot of people who are emotionally overwhelmed.

Some commentators speak poorly about Peter’s statement on a theological basis. He was very wrong in equating the Lord Jesus with Moses and Elijah in worship. But come on, let’s cut the guy some slack, shall we? Do you think you’d be thinking clearly in those circumstances?

Then the voice of the Father interrupted Peter’s incredible wisdom with some correction. Moses and Elijah were prominent servants, but that’s all they were. In contrast, this is my Son, and the best thing you can do--instead of talking so much—is to listen to him. Which, of course, is the best advice anyone ever gave to anyone else.

Naturally that’s a good application for me. Also we need to be extremely grateful for mountaintop experiences like this. Your days seem to be getting harder and harder. God seems so far away at times. He promised that in life you’ll have trouble, and he’s certainly keeping that promise! But then, all of a sudden, he calls you aside and gives you a big morale booster. He parts his veil, just for a moment, and lets you see a smidgeon of his glory. And that’s enough to keep you going. He always gives you just what you need, doesn’t he?

Yes, Lord, that’s absolutely a bedrock truth. Thank you.

[June 29]--Gifts and Responsibility

Luke 8:16-18

I know I’ve admitted this before, but in case you’re tuning in late: Yes, I’m a comic-book geek. I’m a big fan of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the X-men, the Fantastic Four, etc. And of course one of my favorites is Spider-man.

One of the reasons I like them so much is because of the underlying message for all of them. If you’ve been given special abilities, you need to use those gifts to help others and fight for what’s right, especially in standing up for those who can't defend themselves. If you’re a fan of Spider-man (or have seen the movies), you know the slogan I’m going to bring up here: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Of course the writers of comic books mostly aren’t Christians (or even theists), so I always feel like asking them “Great responsibility to whom or to what?” You can’t just be responsible to yourself. You have to be responsible (or accountable) to something or someone higher than yourself.

That’s where today’s passage comes in. The Bible’s clear that there’s one Person who has given us all our skills, innate talents, and abilities. Actually, strictly speaking he hasn’t “given” them to us, in the common sense of that word. When we say someone has “given” me something, it’s mine to A) keep and B) do with as I please. There’s absolutely nothing that God has given us which qualifies.

You might be thinking “Well Keith, you believe that you can’t lose your salvation. Are you going back on that by saying that it’s not mine to keep?” Nothing doing. No, you can’t lose your salvation. But you’re not supposed to keep it to yourself. You’re supposed to spread it around!

That’s the closest thing to an exception that I can think of. Every penny he’s “given” me, every talent/spiritual gift, every relationship, and every other resource he’s made available to me will have to be given back to him someday. I won’t get to keep any of it.

Also I need to remember that everything that God has given me will be the subject of a conversation I’m going to have with him someday. He’s going to point to X and ask “Keith, I provided you with X, so what did you do with it?” That’s what I mean when I say that he’s going to hold us accountable for what we do with what he’s given us.

Now let’s get to the specific gift Jesus is talking about in today’s passage, namely spiritual truth. The Lord Jesus had revealed things to his disciples that no other human had ever seen or heard. And the end result of this would be that they were to shout it from the housetops. A candle does no good under a bed.

And here’s the main point of what I’ve been leading up to. You need to “consider carefully how you listen.” Notice the warning presented right after that verse. If you put your “light” under the bed, if you fail to broadcast what God has revealed to you, then what you have will be taken away. This isn’t referring to your salvation, but to your effectiveness.

Why are so many of the mainline denominations falling away from the truth? Well, my pet theory is because they didn’t put a priority on evangelism and missions. Jesus told us“Go and make disciples of all nations. . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” and they stopped listening. And whatever connection they had with God’s truth was eventually lost.

If that doesn’t sober you regarding the state of the church in America, it should. America has—for a very very long time—been the vanguard for missions and evangelism. That’s changing. And if we continue to get distracted from that focus, we’re going to discover what little we had is now lost.

Lord Jesus, please put fire within our souls, a passion for reclaiming lost souls and seeing them become your followers. And let that start right here and now with me.

[June 28]--Take My Mother-in-law, Please!

Luke 4:38-44

I thoroughly believe that all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, and training in righteousness. That means that everything we need to know about God, about us, about the next world and how to live in this one is all there. Nothing is missing. But having said that, I have to confess a little frustration with the stuff that the Bible casually mentions and then leaves behind as it moves on to another topic.

Peter had a mother-in-law. That means at some point he had to be married. What?! Who was his wife? What was her name? Why isn’t she described at all? Did she have a good influence on her husband? Did she accompany him on his missions travels? The only reason we know she existed is because of this verse and 1 Cor. 9:5. Oh well, I guess I just have to fall back on to this one essential fact: Whatever I need to know, God has provided. If he hasn’t seen fit to include certain details, then he knows best.

So Peter’s mother-in-law was sick, and Jesus came in and “rebuked the fever.” This by no means is to be taken as evidence that the all-knowing Savior didn’t know about germs and microbiology. But we weren’t designed to have fevers. Sickness and death came into the world only once we invited sin through the door. I think this was an indication of the frustration that the Lord has with all sickness. Any illness on our part is an indication that this world is not what it’s supposed to be.

Then the woman, after she was healed, provides a wonderful example for us to follow. She was sick, Jesus healed her, and what did she do? What was her first inclination? To serve her Healer and his followers. You were not saved so that you can sit on your duff and soak up the blessing. You were saved to serve! And of course we serve both our Savior and our fellow siblings under him.

And naturally our Lord would never expect us to do something he was not prepared to do himself. What she did in miniature for a few, our Lord did for many over a period of many hours. This is one of the grand mysteries of the Incarnation. Apparently the use of his Divine power to heal people tired him out. How does God-in-the-flesh get tired? Beats me. But it’s clear from this and other passages that--even before the Cross—helping us cost him something.

But the point we need to see is that the Lord Jesus, after a day of healing person after person after person after person, had to take a break. Some people get rejuvenated by gardening, while others watch TV in order to shake off the burdens of the day. Still others spend time with friends in order to unwind, or maybe they spend time in less noble habits. But not our Lord. When exhausted by the work of the day, he spent extra time with the Father. That’s what “recharged his batteries.”

And when the next morning came, along with it came a renewed sense of purpose. Yes, there were needs that still cried out to be met. But under the Father’s plan it was time to move on to the next project. In the carrying out of the Father’s plan in your life, the same thing might happen. You might have to deafen your ears to the cries of needy people in order to keep to the Father’s agenda. Ultimately it’s only his voice that matters, right?

There’s plenty of material here for the Spirit to use in refining me. What do you see for yourself?

Lord Jesus, it’s so easy to rest when it’s time to serve. My spiritual ears need a cleaning which only you can provide. Please.

[June 27]--Welcome Home!

Luke 4:14-30

Simeon had prophesized that the Messiah would be a sign that would be “spoken against.” This is the first strong hint in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus’ identity and mission wouldn’t be universally accepted by the nation of Israel. In fact, as it turned out, the exact opposite was true: Most people within the nation would reject him and later suffer the consequences. And here we have the first example of that rejection.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem but was raised in Nazareth. Most of the people in attendance at the synagogue had seen him grow up. They knew his parents and his brothers. They'd heard of his miracles in Capernaum, so this was the “hometown boy making good.” He was visiting, so they of course invited him to do the reading from Scripture and speak on it—Synagogues routinely allowed itinerant rabbis to do this. They probably thought they were in for a reading and then a short sermon which they could feel good about. Boy, were they wrong!

Jesus read from the book of Isaiah, and the passage he picked was universally understood to refer to the coming of the Messiah. This was the mission of the Anointed One: preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for prisoners, give sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the “year of the Lord’s favor.” If you read the original verses from Isaiah, however, you might notice something. Jesus stopped in the middle of verse 2 and ended his quote before he got to the part about proclaiming “the day of vengeance of our God.” The reason for this is pretty simple—The first part of the verses was fulfilled upon his first arrival. The part he left off will be fulfilled when he returns.

And that was the punch line of the entire reading. Those verses in Isaiah, which you heard multiple times and said “Amen” to? They’re being fulfilled right now, as I’m speaking to you. In fact, the fulfillment of those verses is standing right in front of you.

At this the people wondered about this. We know this boy! I held him on my knees and bounced him up and down! My kids used to play with him! But notice that they “spoke well of him.” At this point in time, they were not rejecting him wholesale. They seemed a little skeptical, but at least they were predisposed to think well of him.

But then an amazing thing happened. Jesus took whatever good will he had gained in his hometown and threw it away. He brought up two examples from Scripture: the widow in Zarephath and Naaman from Syria. What did these two have in common, and why would Jesus bring up these people?

There’s one answer that satisfies both questions. Both of them were Gentiles, and God specifically bypassed Israel to bless them. He sought them out, they responded to him, and he showered them with grace. And in both times Israel was bypassed purposefully because she was being unfaithful to the Lord.

Jesus’ point? You’re supposedly God’s people. You’ve been blessed beyond measure with a greater amount of revelation and truth than any Gentile could ever dream of. And if you squander it, I’ll take it to someone who’ll accept it. Because. . . wait for it. . .God loves Gentiles as much as he loves Jews.

And the people heard this stinging truth and said among themselves “I guess he’s right. Why wouldn’t he love them like he loves us? It’s not like we’re born better than they are. We’ve been given more in blessings, but there’s no reason why the Lord can’t and shouldn’t reveal himself to outsiders. The more the merrier! There’s plenty enough of God to go around!”

Um, no. That’s not how they responded. They responded by trying to throw Jesus off a cliff, prevented from doing so only by miraculous intervention.

Just off the top of my head, here are three possible applications. First, we need to be open to God working in ways we don’t anticipate. Second, we need to have a broader view of God’s love and concern for people we tend to look down upon. And third, we need to pray for America. God has blessed her soooooooooo much, and if we don’t make wake up now, we might have an even ruder awakening someday to realize that his blessing has passed us by. Just a thought.

Father God, I love this country and what it’s stood for in the past. With all her flaws, she’s still my country. Whatever it takes, please bring her back to your side. And let it start with me.

[June 26]--What Should We Do?

Luke 3:7-14

Last year we spent a few days examining the life and mission of John the Baptist. I don’t mind telling you that he’s a big hero of mine. I’m not about to go out into the desert and start eating locusts and honey, but there’s a lot about him that we need to emulate. His single-minded devotion to his all-consuming purpose of exalting the Messiah above himself is the primary thing I have in mind. As far as John was concerned, public attention was a zero-sum game. Any amount of public attention which he (John) received was that much less attention paid to Jesus, and that was unacceptable to him. Another thing which comes to mind is his willingness to stand before kings and whoever else would listen and tell them what they needed to hear. A word from a king and he'd be a dead man (which of course is what eventually happened), but he couldn’t care less. Whatever God told him to say, that’s what he would say.

But today’s a good reminder that he actually had some ethical teachings as well. Yes, his primary focus was on preparing people for the coming of the Messiah, but that also entailed getting them ready morally. The spiritual state of Israel around the time of the first coming was pretty sorry.

Today’s passage starts out with John’s standard warnings. Please note the underlying basis of his moral teachings: There’s a time of wrath coming. God is love, but he hates and must punish sin. Lots of Jews no doubt believed that they were safe because they were physical descendants of Abraham. In fact, there was a popular teaching that Abraham stood at the entrance to Hell and examined everyone coming in. If he found that you were circumcised, he'd intervene and send you up to Heaven instead.

John’s response to that type of teaching? Stop fooling yourself! Having Abraham as your physical ancestor is no guarantee that you’re right with God. I mean, how could anyone who knew their Bible at all believe that garbage? Read any of the O. T. prophets, please. Physical children of Abraham are a dime a dozen: God could produce as many as he wanted from these stones. As the old saying goes, God has lots of children but no grandchildren. So get right with him! Start doing what he tells you to do! His “axe” is about to swing, and any “tree” not producing fruit is going to fall and burn.

So the people asked a good question. If the Lord wants us to start living right, what specifically does he want us to do? John then responds with three commands. The first is a general one meant for everyone. The second and third are for specific groups, but they still hold some meaning for us.

First on John’s list is generosity with your possessions. We don’t really possess our possessions. God owns it all, and he’s loaned some of it to us. One day he’s going to call us to account for it, and hoarding it all up is not a good option. If you see someone in need, help them. The amazing thing is that he had to tell them this.

His second admonition is towards tax collectors. As I mentioned before (or as you’ve undoubtedly heard), this group of characters was considered the worst of the worst, the scum of society. First and foremost they were traitors to their own nation. Rome was the brutal occupying force, and they were perfectly willing to be collaborators with it, much like the French people responded to those who'd cooperated with the Vichy government. On top of that, they were well-known for cheating the tax payers. Rome demanded a certain amount of money, and whatever the collectors gathered on top of that, they got to keep. John told them to stop cheating people.

The third set of instructions is towards Roman soldiers. By the way, this is a huge testimony to the incredible impact of this man. These are hard-bitten, cynical men who'd seen the worst of humanity. Also keep in mind the typical attitude of Roman soldiers towards Jews, and these would be the absolutely dead last candidates for listening to a Jewish teacher. And they heard this crazy preacher from the desert and were willing to do whatever he said. And what did he tell them? He told them to stop intimidating people and to not “shakedown” innocents for cash, both common practices.

Here’s an important thing to consider. Not once did the preacher tell them to quit their jobs, just to be ethical in how they carry them out. That tells me there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with those professions. Taxes have to be collected, and the state has to have force available to it.

So what can we get from this? I’m not a tax collector, and you might not be a soldier. But you might be in a profession in which it’s common to do the wrong thing when no one’s looking. But you can be the “light” in that darkness, and you can be the “salt” to keep it from spoilage. You can be, and you need to be.

Lord Jesus, you have pretty high expectations, don’t you? I know, I know. Your grace is going to make me into what you want me to be, right? Thank you.

[June 25]--Jesus, Where Are You?

Luke 2:41-52

From the events surrounding Jesus’ early infancy we skip ahead to an incident which happened when he was twelve years old. Here are a few short notes:

• Again we see an indication of the godly and obedient nature of his earthly parents. They lived in Nazareth, which was way up in the northern part of the country (Galilee, remember?), and for them to make the long trip every year to the Passover was a sure sign of their attempt to follow God’s law. Jesus grew up in a home where the Lord’s word was honored and obeyed.

• Jesus was twelve, which was the age around which children were considered to be on the verge of becoming an adult. The men and women traveled in separate caravans, and a boy of twelve could've been in either group, or with relatives (as the passage states). That’s why it’s perfectly reasonable for his parents to leave without him and go for some time without missing him.

• Notice that he'd been missing for three days before they found him. Can you imagine the terror going through the minds of his parents?

• In contrast to the sheer panic exhibited by his parents, I just love Jesus’ calm response to them. Mary called Joseph his “father,” which legally he was. But his answer to them contrasts Mary’s designation of Joseph with Jesus’ true Father. They could have saved whatever time they spent looking for him all over Jerusalem. This was his Father’s house, and so that’s where he was.

• I know it’s trite, but there’s truth to this statement: Mary and Joseph weren’t the last people to lose Jesus at church. Thank you, Michael Card.

Again, assuming that this was told to Luke by Mary, I find it interesting that this stuck out in her mind when reminiscing with the author. She told us nothing about his childhood, about his relationship with his (half) brothers, whether he had any friends, what he liked to do in his spare time, etc. What she (and the Spirit inspiring this) wanted us to know was this event from his childhood. Why? What’s the point here? Because this is a foreshadowing of his later life.

Luke made sure to tell us that Jesus from that point forward submitted himself to the authority of his parents. The One who gave us the Fifth Commandment would not disobey it by showing his parents any lack of honor or respect. But there would come a time, prefigured by what happened here, in which Jesus would have to forsake his temporal family obligations and step forward on the path his real Father had planned out.

And contained within this passage, we find the mystery of the Incarnation touched upon. In one sentence we find Jesus referring to his real “Father”: He is God in the flesh, the Word sent to dwell among us. Nothing has been made apart from him. Every molecule in the universe exists because he said so. In the beginning, he was with God, and he was God. And then two and three verses later we see the human side of the equation. He submitted to the temporary authority of people whom he had created. And even more mysterious, he grew. Not just physically. He grew in wisdom and in favor with God and men. Now, how exactly does an omniscient God grow in wisdom? You got me. The best explanation I’ve heard is that in the Incarnation, the Living Word laid aside his divine privileges. Part of the Father’s plan was that he wouldn't have access to everything he would've had as God. There were parts of the Father’s plan which he didn’t know fully as an adult. Again, if you can explain this fully, you’re smarter than me.

For today’s prayer, how’s about we sit in silence for a few moments and contemplate and meditate on what our Lord went through in order to redeem us? He submitted to the Father’s plan-- which had a lot of unpleasant aspects--for your sake and mine. Putting himself under the authority of his parents was just about the easiest part of that plan. He was in store for a lot worse. Think about that for a bit, will you?

[June 24]--Simeon’s Song

Luke 2:21-35

I have another confession to make. We’re allowed to have favorite Scripture verses, right? I know that all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, etc., but that doesn’t mean I can't like certain passages more than others. And today’s reading is my favorite of the four songs in Luke. It’s called the Nunc Dimittis, because like the other three it’s named after the first two words in the Latin translation: "Now you dismiss. . ."

Before we get to the song, here are a couple of notes about the context. Mary and Joseph were not sinless, but they did try to obey God’s law as best they could. Forty days after a male baby was born, he was to be presented to the Lord and a sacrifice was to be given. Since during the Passover the Lord had spared the lives of all Israel’s firstborn, then every firstborn of every type belonged to him. If it was an animal, then that animal was to be sacrificed and offered to God. If it was a child, then an animal was offered in his place.

Please also note the type of sacrifice that Jesus’ parents made. It was a poor person’s offering, so this is an indication of their economic level. Jesus could have (and should have) been born into the richest palace built by man, but the Divine plan chose a poor family.

Then we get to Simeon. There wasn’t a single godly Jew in Israel who wasn’t eagerly awaiting the Messiah. I love the phrase which Luke assigns the Savior: “The Consolation of Israel.” They'd been waiting soooooooooooooo long for God’s promises to be fulfilled, and now they were about to be consoled by the living fulfillment of those promises. And Simeon had been given a promise which every faithful Israelite would've loved to receive. He knew that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah in the flesh. And every morning he woke up and probably asked himself “Is it today, Lord? Will I see him today?”

Now we get to my favorite part of this, the song itself. The same Voice which had given him the promise now whispered in his spirit “This is the One.” Probably his parents were standing there wondering why this old man was crying as he held the baby.

“You made a promise, and now you’ve kept it. Now I can depart in peace.” He'd heard about God’s salvation on Sabbath-day sermons. He'd read about God’s salvation in his holy word. Now he held God’s salvation in his arms. What was Jesus’ name again? “Yahweh saves.”

And what was hinted at in the first two songs now is brought to full bloom. He’s the Consolation of Israel, but he’s so much more. God has prepared this little baby in the sight of all people: white, black, Asian, African, rich, poor, Jew, Gentile, man, woman. He’s the glory of Israel: Everything that national Israel was supposed to be and failed, he is. But most important (to you and me, unless you’re Jewish), he’s the light to the Gentiles. We’ve been sitting in darkness, but now our Light has arrived.

Then Simeon finished talking with God and now had a few words to say to his mother. Her Son would cause the rising and falling of many in Israel, meaning that everyone would stand or fall based on their relationship with him. And he would be a sign that would be “spoken against,” which would reveal the state of everyone’s heart who encountered him. Your spiritual state would be exposed by how you reacted to the Messiah.

And now for the final heartbreak. I imagine he gently points to her chest as he makes his final, dark prediction: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” I'd suspect that these words would echo through her mind over and over as she was forced to watch her own Son hanging on a cross.

You can probably guess the application. Simeon’s song, even more than the others, is particularly meant for me. I’m not Jewish, so I’m a “wild branch” who had to be “grafted” into God’s “tree.” When Simeon was singing, he was singing about you and me. As he’s weeping for joy, we’re in his vision. Aren’t you glad?

In celebration of that, here's Ron DiCianni's painting Simeon's Moment. Notice the outline of the world behind him.

And per usual, here's a great song by Michael Card for the occasion: "Now That I've Held Him In My Arms."

Lord Jesus, you’re not only the Consolation of Israel, you’re mine as well. Thank you so much for claiming me out of darkness and into your glorious light. Who else can we bring into this?

[June 23]--Zechariah’s Song

Luke 1:67-79

Yesterday we looked at the Magnificat, Mary’s song as recorded in Luke. I forgot to mention this, but there are four songs in Luke, each one of them a work of beauty. Hers is the first, then there’s Zechariah’s, then Simeon’s, then the angels’ on the night of Jesus’ birth.

Today we’re going to briefly examine Zechariah’s song, otherwise known as the Benedictus. The reason it’s called this is the first word in the Latin translation: “Blessed be” (“Praise be” in the NIV).

There’s a little bit of irony here. Zechariah was a priest, and he finally got his “number” called in order to offer incense in the temple. When he finished, he was supposed to step outside and offer a blessing on the people. Instead, because of his lack of faith in the Lord’s promises, he was struck mute. Now, once his tongue is loosened again, he offers an inspired benediction.

Like Mary’s song, Zechariah’s is chock full of Old Testament allusions, and sounds like it could fit right into the Psalter. Here are a few notes I’ve made:

The term “horn of salvation” is a common Old Testament phrase (like here). The horn was a symbol of strength and power, and the authors used it as shorthand for the Lord intervening on their behalf. They were in desperate need of salvation, and God stepped in to provide it. It wasn’t John the Baptist, but the One for whom he was preparing Israel, who was the ultimate fulfillment of that phrase. We were just about as bad off as you could get, and our Savior God was finally going to step in do something about it.

His first emphasis in the song is national salvation, the fact that the Messiah’s coming will signal his rescue of Israel from all her enemies. That won’t be completely fulfilled until his Second Coming, but just like the O.T. prophets, he combined the two comings into one (we’re going to get more into that next year, God willing).

Notice how both Mary’s and Zechariah’s songs have a common theme in them: God is now acting to fulfill his promises made to Abraham. For example, the Lord had promised their fathers that through Abraham all the nations would be blessed, and this is the beginning of that.

Notice the ultimate purpose of this Redemption. The Messiah was coming, and he was just over the horizon. He was coming to save us. Why? Was it just for our sakes? No! The reason why he was doing all this was so that “to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” You were saved, not primarily for your benefit, but so that you could serve your Redeemer.

Then we get to John the Baptist’s role, the son of this song's composer. It’s the natural thing for a father to exalt his son above everybody else, but Zechariah--under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit--knew that his son, as great as he would become, would always be under the shadow of One greater. As we saw last year in our study of John the Baptist, that man’s whole purpose in life was to point people towards Messiah Jesus. Any glory or accolades or concern about his own honor was immediately directed towards his Savior. He would be a “prophet of the Most High,” in fact the last in a long line of O.T. prophets.

John was there to prepare people for the coming of Jesus. One of the ways he did this was to present the message of salvation and the forgiveness of sins. That’s our main problem summed up in one word: sin. That’s what separates us from God in this life, and that’s what sends us into an eternity of darkness.

But John was also there to present the Savior. That’s the “rising sun” who came down “from heaven.” He’s going to “shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

I know we saw this last year when we looked at the Baptist, but it bears repeating. John’s mission is ours: To prepare people to meet Jesus, warn them about our main problem, and present the Savior to them. Am I doing that? Are you?

Lord Jesus, in everything I do and say, I want to do that. Please give me singleness of purpose.

[June 22]--Mary’s Song

Luke 1:26-38, 46-55

Like I said yesterday, there’s quite a bit of evidence that one of Luke’s primary witnesses which he employed was Mary, the mother of Jesus. Before we get to today’s passage, let’s talk a bit about the woman herself.

We know something about her background. It seems likely that the genealogy in chapter 3 is the lineage from Mary, while the one in Matthew is through Joseph. If so, then Jesus was a descendant of David from both his mother’s and his (legal) father’s side. That would mean that our Savior truly deserved the title of “Son of David” and was the fulfillment of the multiple prophecies predicting that a descendant of David would be rule forever on his throne.

I don’t like to offend anyone unnecessarily, and I’ve had some dear Catholic friends over the years. Having said that, I can’t justify how the Catholic Church treats Mary. Mary was not sinless, and quite frankly I think it’s ridiculous to teach that she remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. My Catholic friends actually tried to convince me that only a sinless person could produce a sinless person. If so, then where did Mary come from? Were her parents sinless as well? And friends, there's only One to whom we’re meant to pray, and it’s not Mary. Paul tells us unequivocally that “there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” Not a host of mediators that people like to call Saints. Not Jesus plus his mother. Nope. The only mediator we have or could want or need is the Lord Jesus Christ. On top of this, the Torah strongly forbids us from talking to the dead, for another thing. And yes, Mary is dead. She did not physically ascend up to heaven like Jesus did.

Now that I’ve managed to offend every practicing Catholic who’s reading this, let me say something that Protestants need to hear. In responding to the way that the Catholic Church treats Mary, I do believe that we’re in danger of belittling her contribution to God’s plan and her character as well. She was used by God in a unique way to bring our Savior into the world. And he picked her for a reason.

Today’s passages give us at least two things to consider. First, she was obviously a God-fearing person who loved the Lord and was perfectly willing to submit to his plan. If you’ve ever seen The Nativity Story (a great movie), then you get a hint of what must've been going through her mind. She'd be in real physical danger once word got out that she was pregnant without a full husband. At the very least she was going to be insulted and ostracized by people she held dear. This is a girl—probably a teenager—on whom the weight of the world rests, and she purposefully commits herself to God’s plan, no matter what the cost.

And the lady knew her Scripture! Her song (starting off with acknowledging God as her Savior) could've fit right into the Psalms. It emphasizes the sovereignty of the Almighty, and how he overturns the plans of kings. It points out that God likes to reverse things and do the unexpected (like what was happening to her right now!). The rich are sent away hungry, and the poor are lifted up and fed. And most important, he’s remembered to be merciful. He’s remembered his promises. He’s stepping out from “behind the scenes” and is about to openly act on behalf of his people. She mentions the Lord’s actions to the benefit of Abraham’s family, and that includes me. It also includes you, if you’ve placed your trust in Mary’s Savior. This song can be on our lips. All of us can join Mary in singing that “the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.” Amen!

I know that there are multiple versions of "Mary Did You Know" out there, but here's one of my favorites.

Lord Jesus, I thank you that you haven’t forgotten to be merciful. You’ve filled me to overflowing with your goodness and provision, and you’ve kept every single one of your promises. Holy is your name.

[June 21]--Introduction: An Orderly Account

Luke 1:1-4

Well, we’ve done the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, so there’s only one left by my count. Full disclosure: After John, this is my favorite of the Four. Let’s talk a little background for a bit, shall we? Before we do, let me just submit an apology to anyone reading this if this is old news for you.

Luke was a “doctor,” and a close companion of Paul’s. He went on Paul’s journeys and mission trips. Starting around Acts chapter 16, you might notice that the narrative goes from third person plural (“they”) to first person plural (“we”) which we take to mean Luke joined Paul’s party at that point.

But this is the unique thing about Luke: He’s a Gentile. Paul in one of his letters distinguished Luke from the Jewish people accompanying him (Paul). On a (partial) side-note, the word unique does not mean “unusual.” It means “one of a kind.” Luke’s the only Gentile among two-dozen authors of the Bible who’s not Jewish. So if you have a problem with Jews, you’ve got a problem with your Bible.

His background really shines throughout both of his works (this Gospel and the book of Acts). His Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ care for and ministry towards the Gentiles, along with others often regarded as outcasts in Israel, such as Samaritans, women, children, tax collectors, and “sinners.” And of course his second book takes this emphasis and kicks it into overdrive.

The Gospel (and Acts) are both dedicated to “Theophilus.” Who’s this? Literally the name means “lover of God.” Most scholars think it’s a Roman official (“most excellent”) who was a believer but who didn’t want to “come out” as a Christian just yet. So Luke used this pseudonym for him.

Today’s passage is a great study in “tension” regarding the inspiration of Scripture. Who wrote the Bible, God or men? Peter gives us the most complete answer when talking about the prophets: “though human, [they] spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The word “carried along” was used to describe what wind does to a sail.

So men wrote it down, but they were led and guided to do so--from beginning to end-- unerringly by the Holy Spirit. But today’s verses add something interesting to the mix. Without detracting at all from the authority of Scripture, Luke makes it clear that he used human means to accomplish what he set out to do. He didn’t just sit up in a room somewhere in a trance and have all this transmitted into his head. Just like a journalist, he went out and interviewed witnesses, collected what they said, and arranged it in an orderly fashion for us to read. The fact that he was highly educated likely aided in making this "an orderly account.'

None of this subtracts one iota from what we believe about the inspiration of Scripture. In fact, if anything, it adds to the credibility. If Luke (or some other author) was making this up, wouldn’t he claim to be an eyewitness himself? But Luke makes no such assertion.

Here’s one other thing that you might not have known. It’s pretty obvious that Luke presents a lot more material about the Nativity than any of the others. Assuming that this is based on eye-witness accounts, that would mean that one of his primary witnesses was Mary, the mother of our Lord.

Why did he write this? Yes, he wrote it to teach us about Jesus. A lot of his material is unique to his Gospel. But the main purpose for his work is stated in the last verse: “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” You’ve heard some things about Jesus, and now we’re going to differentiate fact from fiction. And the things which you’ve already heard about the Savior which were true, we’re going to reinforce them. Come to think of it, that’s a good purpose for this blog. I sure hope I succeed.

Lord Jesus, in everything I do and say, I want to draw others to you. Either closer to you as believers, or into your presence for the first time. Could I have that, please?

[June 20]--You Can’t HANDLE the Proof! Part Five: Some Last Witnesses

1 Cor. 15:1-8

Today we’re wrapping up the evidence I’ve gathered for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. To summarize, we’ve examined 1) the huge rock and Roman soldiers which were placed in front of the tomb, 2) the fact that the primary witnesses would not have been allowed to testify in open court, 3) the fact that none of the disciples (among the Eleven or any others) were expecting the event, and 4) each and every one of the disciples were willing to die for the faith, something they would have to know was a lie if the event didn’t take place.

That brings us to today’s passage. If you know the book of 1 Corinthians, then you know that Paul had a unique relationship with the Corinthian church. Like any parent of a rebellious teenager, he simultaneously wanted to hug them and strangle them. His first letter to them is a litany of problems. Chapter fifteen is where he deals with some people who were actually denying the general resurrection of believers (which will happen when Christ returns). The point he’s leading up to is that if resurrection is impossible, then Christ hasn't been raised either.

But he starts out the chapter with a simple restating of the Good News in order to lead into all that. He presents four propositions which are literally essential to our faith. People use the term essential to mean "really important," but that’s not what I mean here. I mean these four things make up the essence of the message, like the essence of water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. On these the Church stands or falls. That’s why he calls them “of first importance.” They are: A) Christ died for our sins, B) he was buried, C) he was raised from the dead, and D) He was seen by witnesses.

What I’d like to focus on today is his list of witnesses here. We’ve seen some of these people before, such as Peter and the apostles. But he lists some others as well which should interest us.

First he just casually mentions that at one point Jesus appeared to over 500 believers at one time. We’re not sure when this actually occurred, since there’s nothing that happens to be recorded in the Gospels which would definitely match that description. But the very fact that he just casually mentions it is noteworthy, since he also says that while a few of them are dead (“fallen asleep”), most of them were still alive when he wrote this. You might've heard of mass hysteria, but there’s nothing we’ve ever seen which could explain over 500 people experiencing the same illusion at the same time.

Second he points to James. This isn’t the apostle (and brother to John), since that James would've been one of "the Twelve" Paul alluded to earlier in the passage. No, this is referring to the half-brother of Jesus. Please keep in mind that none of Jesus’ (half) brothers believed in him before the Passion. In fact, on at least one occasion they came to forcibly take him away because they thought he was crazy. But later on, this same James became a pillar of the church, the leader of the first church council, and the author of one of the books of the N. T. (yes, that James). What happened? It’s explained in today’s passage: “Then he appeared to James.”

And finally we have the climax of this short list. Say whatever else you like about him, Saul of Tarsus was never a fence-sitter when it came to the message of Jesus Christ. He was violently opposed to it, going from house to house and hauling Christians out of them to put them on trial. In fact, he was on his way to Damascus in order to find more Christians to arrest and kill when he met Someone. He met the risen Lord Jesus. And the #1 enemy of the church became its #1 spokesman. He was the last witness to be presented, but he’s one of the strongest.

So what does this mean to us? Well, I don’t really have anything that you haven’t heard before. But here’s one thought to leave you with. In another letter Paul tells us that the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead now lives in us. Think of the power that it took to breathe life back into the dead body of Jesus. And know that this very same power lives inside of you. Pretty amazing, huh?

Lord Jesus, you are amazing. I thank you that your life, your power, your victory is now mine as well. Now, what’s next?

[June 19]--You Can’t HANDLE the Proof! Part Four: Change of Heart

John 20:24-29; Acts 5:27-32

All right, we’ve been looking at some evidence that Jesus physically rose from the dead. There are the guards, the rock, the fact that the primary witnesses were women, and the fact that the disciples were caught completely unaware by the event. Today’s exhibit in the case is slightly related to yesterday’s entry, but it’s different enough that it merits a look all its own.

We examined yesterday the attitude that the followers (including his closest ones) had after the Passion. None of them were anticipating his return. All of them were in hiding from the authorities, with good reason. The people in charge had arrested and crucified their Leader, so it'd be understandable that they feared that they'd be next. When they were told about the empty tomb, one of the apostles actually believed upon running there and seeing it, but most of them certainly didn't believe that anything miraculous had happened.

Don’t you feel just a little sorry for Thomas? He’s forever linked with doubting. In fact, he’s a nickname for people who doubt when they should believe: Who hasn’t ever heard of a “Doubting Thomas”?

But I’m forever grateful for him. His doubting might not have been a great example for us, but he stands as the best example of the hard-core skeptic who would never have accepted the testimony of others. How's he introduced into this narrative? It wouldn’t be enough for this man to see the risen Savior. He said he would have to physically touch the wounds on the risen body. Then Jesus appeared in front of him and invited him to do just that. We aren’t told whether he actually put his finger on the scars, but we do know something that he did do: Proclaim that this is the Lord of all Creation in front of him.

This story epitomizes the change in the hearts of the apostles and other followers. Right after the death of their Master, they’re all hiding behind locked doors, fearing that at any moment they’ll hear the stomps of Roman soldiers approaching to drag them all away. Fifty days later, Simon "I don’t know this man you’re talking about!" Peter is delivering a public sermon in front of thousands of people, and here’s the finale of his message: “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Quite a turnaround, no?

The passage today from Acts is pretty typical of the rest of the book: The followers were brought in front of the authorities, were warned not to teach anymore in the name of Jesus, and promptly defied the ones who could kill them. What could've happened to make this change?

Remember the most popular theory of the skeptics, their counter-explanation for what happened on Easter Sunday? They tell us that the disciples overpowered the guards and stole the body. But that theory has some real problems: Why would these men be willing to die for what they knew was a lie? And if anyone was qualified to know if Jesus was still dead, these men would be. But they were the same ones who stood in front of High Priests and Roman governors and told them “We must obey God rather than men!”

And this dying prospect wasn’t a hypothetical scenario. According to church tradition (the best source we have from that period), each of the Twelve (minus Judas plus Paul) died a martyr’s death. There was one exception to this—John the apostle died of old age, but he did so in exile on the Isle of Patmos and suffered many hardships for his Lord. The best explanation for all of this is that they saw, talked with, touched, and ate with the risen Savior.

Again we have an application here besides just the bolstering of our faith (and answering the skeptics). The same Jesus who turned cowards into martyrs lives inside me right now. He’s no less capable of making the same change in me that he did then. Is that what I want? Is it what you want?

Yes Lord, that’s what I want. So often I’m hiding away when I ought to be proclaiming the Good News about you. Make the change, please.

[June 18]--You Can’t HANDLE the Proof! Part Three: Willful Blindness

Luke 24:13-35

So we’re continuing in the presentation of some evidence of the Resurrection of Christ. Today I’d like—just for a little bit—to get into the heads of the followers of Jesus right after Easter Sunday.

Critics and skeptics have all come up with their best theories about what really happened after the Passion. The one thing they hold on to with all their grip, their sine qua non, is that Jesus did not rise again from the dead. If he did, then they need to reexamine their disbelief in his claims. If he really did rise again, then he’s more than just some teacher or good man whom they can ignore at will. So therefore they have to come up with an alternate explanation.

And of course the most common one is that the disciples made it all up. They snuck up to the tomb, overpowered the Roman guards, moved the stone out of the way, and stole the body. They then claimed that Jesus rose from the dead.

Does that make sense? Well, yesterday we examined one piece of counterevidence to that: According to this theory, the church leaders, for some reason, picked women as the first witnesses of the Resurrection, who were looked down upon as second-class citizens and who couldn’t testify in court. Interestingly, they particularly picked a woman who at one time had been possessed by seven demons.

Does this theory jibe with the disciples’ attitude that’s described in Scripture? As we discussed last year, one of the reasons why I believe in the authority of the Bible is because of the less-than-flattering portraits it draws of its “heroes.” Abraham, Moses, David (the top three names in the Old Testament) are all there with their flaws painstakingly presented. My favorite line from Homer Simpson: He picks up a Bible and says “I hate this book! Everybody’s a sinner in here! Except for this guy.”

And it’s certainly the same with the disciples. These are the pillars of the church, its main representatives to the world. If you were making up stories about them, wouldn’t you show them with more faith in their Lord? The Gospel according to Keith would have the disciples waiting for their Savior at the tomb, eagerly anticipating his return.

Guys, this shouldn't have come at a great shock to them. It’s not as if he hadn’t predicted this multiple times. In fact, it was pretty rare for Jesus to predict his death and not predict his resurrection in the next breath. He specifically told them that he was going to be betrayed by one of the twelve (came to pass), that he'd be rejected by the Jewish people (came to pass), that he'd be handed over to the Gentiles (came to pass), that the eleven would desert him (came to pass), that Peter would deny he knew him (came to pass), and that he'd be crucified (you get the idea). Each one of these predictions came true—to the letter—but what’s this about a resurrection? Whoa, we never saw that coming! He told them all about this, and it’s like he was Charlie Brown’s teacher from the TV specials.

But that’s the picture of the disciples that the Gospels draw for us. The attitude of Cleopas and his companion was very typical of the rest of them. The death of Jesus crushed them. These are not people who expected this at all.

So how can we apply this today, other than bolstering our faith in Scripture and in Christ? Well, here’s one that jumps out at me: When Jesus tells me something, I need to listen. I can point my finger and accuse the apostles of shutting their ears to what their Lord had plainly said, but am I any better?

Lord Jesus, it’s like the “ears” of my spirit need to be unstopped at times. Only you can do that. Please.

[June 17]--You Can’t HANDLE the Proof! Part Two: Primary Testimony

Matthew 28:1-10

Today we’re continuing the laying out of some of the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yesterday we looked at the stone and the guards which had been placed in front of the tomb. As you know from reading the Gospels, the guards were surprised by a violent earthquake and the appearance of angels which descended on them. Understandably, these battle-trained warriors weren’t prepared in the slightest for this, and they fainted (trust me, you might do the same). The angel(s) then moved the stone--not so Jesus could get out, but so that witnesses could get in.

The women who got up at dawn in order to go the tomb were not going there to witness a miracle. They hadn’t had time to finish preparing the body before the onset of the Sabbath on Friday, so they were coming to pay their last respects to their beloved Master.

They found something very different from what they expected. Luke tells us that there were two “men” at the tomb, while Matthew only mentions one of them as the spokesman. The four Gospel accounts can be reconciled together, but they all tell distinct aspects of what happened. Here’s something that each one of them mentions, however: They all tell us that the first witnesses of the Resurrection were women.

In this modern day with an emphasis on equality of the sexes, it’s easy to miss the significance of that. Jewish society was pretty advanced in comparison with the rest of the world, but they still didn’t hold a very high view of women. Pharisees prayed everyday and thanked God that he had not made them a Samaritan or a woman. Women’s testimony was held in very low regard and they weren’t allowed to testify in open court.

One other thing to note before I get to my main point. Each of the Gospels mentions by name a particular woman who was a witness to these things: Mary Magdalene. She had once had seven demons inside her, and Jesus had cured her.

Now here’s the question we need to confront. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Resurrection was all a big hoax. Let’s suppose that the early church had made it all up. If they were making up a story about the raising of Jesus, they would not have set it up so that women were the primary witnesses. If for some reason the apostles were brought into court on charges of preaching the Good News, they couldn’t present these women as witnesses. On top of that, they not only picked women, but this particular woman. Mary Magdalene, an ex-demoniac? Would you have picked her if you were making this up?

Why did the Father arrange this? Why did he provide that women, especially this woman, would be the first witnesses of the resurrection of his Son? I can think of two reasons. First, there is the fact that we discussed before. The Father wanted the resurrection of his Son to be indisputable, and this is one more piece of evidence that it happened.

Second--and this is more poignant than the first—the Lord has a soft spot in his heart for the “underdog.” The outcasts, the “has-beens,” the “nothings” and “nobodies” are special recipients of his loving attention. Women were treated like second-class citizens in that society (like in most others), so this is indicative of how he thought of them. They might be despised by the world at large, but he wants to honor them.

Yes, that’s the kind of God we serve. If you’re one of “those” types of people, take heart. If you place yourself in his care, he’ll honor you more than all the accolades that the world could ever provide.

Lord Jesus, do I honor the “least of these” the way you do? Or do I join in the world in passing them by? I think I need some adjustment, don’t I?

[June 16]--You Can’t HANDLE the Proof!

Matthew 27:62-66

Since we ended Mark’s Gospel yesterday on the angel’s announcement of the Resurrection (duh!), I thought this would be a great time to take a short interlude. For the next few days I’m going to present some evidence that the Resurrection actually happened. I apologize for the bad pun off the famous line from A Few Good Men, but I couldn’t come up with anything better (titles aren’t my strong suit).

Before we get to the evidence, let me present some thoughts on why this is important. That’s the job of a practical theologian: To always ask “So what?” For me, the primary reason why this is so vital is because it backs up the claims of Christ in a unique way. You can visit the tomb and view the bodies of Confucius, Buddha, etc. Every other religious leader out there died and stayed dead. And quite frankly, it doesn’t really make that much a difference whether they’re alive or not. Their claims to ultimate truth don’t depend on their being alive.

Not so with Christ. If we found the body of Jesus, if we found so much as a finger bone, then the entire faith falls apart. The main representative of our faith after Pentecost, the one who literally wrote half the New Testament, said “[If] Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have [died] in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, our entire belief system stands or falls on the Resurrection.

I mentioned before the book Who Moved the Stone? by Frank Morison. He was a world-class scientist who set out to disprove the Resurrection. He looked at the evidence from a historical viewpoint, and you can guess the result. The first chapter is “The Book That Refused to Be Written.” The main piece that he couldn’t get over? It’s found in the title of the book itself.

This is one of the great ironies found in God’s word. The religious leaders knew that Jesus had claimed that he would rise from the dead (something that his own disciples had trouble remembering), and they wanted to prevent his followers from stealing his body and then claiming he had risen. So they went to Pilate and asked for guards for the tomb.

Please keep in mind that these are Roman soldiers. They were trained to fulfill their duty or die trying. The seal that’s mentioned here? That’s referring to the seal of the Roman Empire, and that meant death for anyone to break it.

I don’t want to mock anyone, I really don’t. That’s not my purpose. But for someone to deny the Resurrection, they have to claim that the disciples--some untrained fishermen and an ex-tax collector--snuck up on these guards, overpowered them, removed the stone, and stole the body. And quite frankly, it's a funny picture to imagine.

That’s where the grand irony comes in. The religious leaders wanted to stifle any claims that this “deceiver” rose from the dead. What they ended up doing was providing some of the best evidence that he did rise from the dead.

This has got to be one of the best examples I’ve ever encountered of God’s sovereignty in action. Our Lord does not accomplish his purposes in spite of the Enemy’s best efforts, but because of them. The Father wanted to make sure that his Son’s resurrection was attested to by the best evidence. Why? He wants us to place our faith in his Son and submit to him. That’s what this whole thing is about, right?

Father God, I praise you that you turn our Enemy’s best plans into your best triumphs. You are sovereign almighty God, and there is no other.

[June 15]--Two Little Words

Mark 16:1-8

A couple of weeks ago I had a devotional entitled “One Little Word” which showed just how important one word can be. Today as we close up the study of Mark’s Gospel, we’re going to see how important two little words can be.

Before we get to that, I’d like to just bring up a little background as a reminder. First, keep in mind that every word, down to the "smallest letter," and "the least stroke of a pen," was planned out and inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s incapable of “small talk.”

All the other Gospels have accounts of the Resurrection, and they all focus on different eyewitness testimony as to what happened. But Mark’s Gospel is unique in just two little words, and they made all the difference in the world to one man in particular.

This man had been one of the closest confidants of Jesus, one of the “three.” He'd seen things only two other men had witnessed. Most of the time he was the spokesman for the group. He'd experienced at least one miracle none of the other disciples had (walking on the water). When the Master predicted that his closest followers would all abandon him when the arrest warrants came, this man boldly pledged 100% loyalty. “All the rest might abandon you, but I’ll die by your side.”

And when the time came for a final choice, the once-bold disciple denied that he knew the name of Jesus of Nazareth. A little girl came and questioned him, and he swore that he didn’t know who she was talking about. He had three chances to reaffirm his commitment to the Lord Jesus, and three times he failed miserably.

Then Easter morning came, and the women got up and approached the tomb to do the final acts of devotion for the corpse of their Master. Hopefully you already know what the ladies found there: An angel (actually there were two, but only one is mentioned here) who was waiting for them. He told them the good news (which they should have anticipated) and sent them on a mission.

Here’s where Mark’s Gospel is unique. The other accounts note how the angels sent them to bear the news to the disciples, but here they mention two words that make a world of difference to one man in particular: “. . .and Peter.” He’s singled out as someone they have to tell first.

Why would Peter be singled out? Because he was the leader among them, and he'd failed the most spectacularly. The others had run away, but he had denied he even knew the Master’s name in order to save his own skin. When his Savior could have used the support of his closest friends, Peter’s failure would've cut the deepest.

And thus Peter needed to know that this was not the end. He needed to know that he was forgiven, and the Lord certainly wasn’t through with him yet. He had lots of plans for the ex-fisherman, and this was just turning the corner.

Why is this so important? Because maybe you’ve failed your Lord as spectacularly as Peter did. And guess what? Your Savior, when it’s needed, is as gentle as a summer breeze. He specializes in giving us the exact word of grace that we need. Yes, he’s like that.

Lord Jesus, I know that I’ve needed your word of grace so often. As often as I fail, your grace is greater than my sin. Thank you so much.

[June 14]--Some Thoughts On Pilate And Barabbas

Mark 15:1-15

I don’t have it on my list of recommended books, but I really like Who Moved the Stone? by Frank Morison. It’s a classic apologetic by an archeologist who examined the historical evidence of the Resurrection from a scientific standpoint. He started out as a hardcore skeptic and ended up a fervent Christian after he looked at the available evidence. Another interesting aspect of his book, however, is that he offers an insight into Pontius Pilate and a theory about the “behind the scenes” story regarding the trials.

Morison asks a good question: Is it reasonable to think that the Sanhedrin just dropped Jesus at Pilate’s “doorstep” (so to speak) without consulting Pilate at all beforehand? We know that they officially couldn’t administer the death penalty themselves under any circumstances. They brought Jesus to trial, “found” him guilty (we’ve talked before about the blatant illegalities of the trials), and then brought him to Pilate. Pilate tries at least three times to let Jesus go, appearing exactly like a man looking for an excuse to free him or at least pass off responsibility for his case. And the Sanhedrin representatives are completely taken aback by this, which would make sense if they had a prior arrangement with Pilate concerning the rabbi from Nazareth. What causes Pilate’s change of heart? Why did he suddenly not want to have anything to do with the case? The best explanation, in fact the only one that makes sense to me—A note from his wife urging him to stay away from all this, precipitated by her dream.

Why do I bring all this up? Just to provide some “inside baseball” about the trials? No. The point I’m making is this—Pilate just thought that this was a routine case. Do you honestly think this was the first trial he oversaw in which he suspected that an innocent man was being framed? Of course not. And most of the time, he couldn’t care less. But this Man was different, and he knew it. He tried to set Jesus free, but the cries of “You’re no friend of Caesar!” changed his mind back again. So he thought he could be neutral on the issue of Jesus. But he couldn’t, and we can’t be either.

In the end, no one is going to successfully rest as a fence-sitter. Pilate actually represents a lot of people today. They don’t want to think badly about Jesus Christ, but they’re not ready to submit to him in trust and obedience. They try to make themselves believe they hold no ill will towards him. But they’re fooling themselves. In the end, you’re either a follower of his or not.

Let’s talk just for a moment about Barabbas, shall we? We know next to nothing about the man, but we do know some things. He was guilty of insurrection and murder, which were capital crimes. The criminals (not “thieves” as some people call them) on either side of Christ were likely his partners in crime. Since he was guilty of promoting rebellion against Rome, he was set free on the charge by which Jesus was officially killed. Remember, the Sanhedrin couldn’t execute anyone, and Pilate wouldn’t kill someone on the basis of a religious disagreement. But insurrection against the Empire—Talk about a zero-tolerance policy.

Also you might have noticed his name. Barabbas means “son of the father,” but the real Son of the Father died instead. So literally Jesus died in the place of Barabbas.

I believe in the literal accuracy of Scripture, but the ironies pile on top of each other, don’t they? Barabbas is you. Barabbas is me. We stood condemned, and like the original criminal, we were in line to get exactly what we deserved. But Someone died in our place.

Lord Jesus, words escape me. What else can I say but “Thank you”? That and “I belong to you.”

[June 13]--You’re Not Listening

Mark 14:27-31

For the longest time I’ve been interested in Greek mythology. Have you ever heard of Cassandra? The god Apollo saw her and was attracted to her beauty, and was moved to give her the ability to see the future. But she didn’t return his love, so he turned her gift into a curse: She could still know the future, but no one would believe her predictions.

The point here is obvious: When you know something bad is about to happen and your intended recipients of said warning don’t pay any attention, it’s pretty frustrating. I think of that story every time I read about how the Lord warned someone and they wouldn’t listen. You’ll find this frustration on God’s part recorded multiple times in the prophets, and this is another example.

My friend, of all the people who ever walked this planet, no one understood the human heart as well as our Lord. He knew each soul down to its lowest and deepest level. Freud might've had trouble understanding the hidden motives and dark corners of the psyche, but not the Master. His followers might display some appalling naiveté concerning human nature, but not him.

The setting was the Last Supper he was going to have with his disciples before his Passion. He knows what’s coming: The arrest, the show-trials, the beatings and torture, and the experience on Calvary. He also knows that each of his disciples will run away like frightened deer as soon as trouble arrives. He predicts their abandonment of him, citing a prophecy from Zechariah.

Peter always has been the spokesman for the group, usually saying what’s on everyone else’s mind. And of course Mr. Confidence says “Maybe everybody else will run, but I won’t. I’ll die with you first.”

I believe that every word of Scripture is God-breathed, and nothing is missing that we really need. But sometimes I truly wish that it would give us more descriptions of facial expressions. I think that our Savior had an especially sad look on his face when he made a specific prediction concerning Peter. This was the closest thing he had to a “right hand man.” This was the one into whom he'd invested the lion’s portion of his teaching. This was one of the “chosen three” who'd seen things no other human had ever seen (like the Transfiguration). He was going to be, for a time, the main spokesman for the church after the Master had gone. And not only would this man run away when the squeeze came, he would do something especially horrible. He was going to deny that he'd ever heard the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

What should Peter have done? Was there any way to make that not happen? I do know that there are times in the Prophets in which God predicts something and it doesn’t happen because the people, thus warned, turn from the path they’re on. Nineveh is one prominent example. The prophet Jonah’s message (as recorded) gave no ray of hope, just a sure prediction of doom: “Forty days and Nineveh will fall.” The people heard, listened, and repented. And the prophet’s prediction never came to pass.

So if Peter had said to Jesus “Wow Lord, if you said it, then that means it’s going to come true. What do I need to do to make sure it doesn’t?” what would have been Christ’s response? We’ll never know, because that’s not what Peter said and we can’t rewind time. What he said was “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” How utterly stupid. Again, did he think that his Master was mistaken concerning human nature? Did he think that his Savior had a lower estimate of Peter’s faithfulness than was warranted?

Wait a minute, what are those fingers doing pointing back at me?! When I make bold claims about my faithfulness, I’m just being realistic! It’s not like I need to pray for God to not lead me into temptation or anything. When he says to “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” he must be talking to someone else. Oh nuts. You’ll have to excuse me. I need to go fix my sarcasm meter, it just pegged out.

Lord Jesus, I desperately need listening ears and a soft heart. Your voice is so soft sometimes, I have some trouble sometimes hearing it above all the noise. And I really need to listen, especially when you’re warning me about something.

[June 12]--The Eyes Of Jesus

Mark 12:41-44

Have you heard the old joke about the burglar and Jesus? A guy breaks into a home when the owners are out for the evening. The house has all its lights out, and he’s searching it via flashlight. Suddenly he hears out of the darkness “I see you, and Jesus is watching you too.” He immediately panics and flashes his light all around the room to see who’s with him. He doesn’t see anything, so he figures he was just imagining it. He goes a little bit further and hears again “I see you, and Jesus is watching you too.” Again he searches the room for the source of the voice, and finds nothing. He hears it one more time “I see you, and Jesus is watching you too.” He swings his light behind him and finds. . .a parrot in a cage. The burglar laughs and says “What kind of idiots would have a parrot who says that?” The parrot replies “The same kind of idiots who would name their Rottweiler Jesus. Sic ‘em!!!”

No, I’m not going to give out my home address so you can hunt me down after that lame joke. I just couldn’t find any better segue than that for today’s story. Jesus was watching the people as they were giving into the coffers for the completion and upkeep for the temple. Sorry, just one more story that illustrates how important that statement is. In a small church, the pastor did something unusual as they passed the “plate” around for the offering. As the plate made its way down the pews, he stood behind it the entire time and intently watched as each person took the plate and passed it on, either contributing to it or not. Obviously this made a lot of people nervous as they noticed him standing over their shoulder to observe if they gave and how much. After the plate finished its rounds, the pastor returned to the lectern and preached on today’s text. He told the congregation “A lot of you were pretty nervous as you noticed me watching what you did with the plate. Why are you so bothered by it? Each Sunday your Lord is doing exactly the same thing.”

It seems to me that today’s story has both a comforting and distressing aspect, depending on what type of giver you are. Let’s take the second type first. If you’re giving “out of your wealth,” then apparently that doesn’t impress Christ.

Can I be perfectly frank here? The 10% rule was under the Old Covenant. I realize that there are people out there who say that we aren’t under the Old System anymore, so that rule no longer applies. OK, let’s grant that point just for the sake of argument. Are you telling me that you owe God less than a believer under the Old Covenant?! If you know anything about your Bible at all, you’ve got to know that you have so many more privileges under the New Covenant—which is signed in Jesus’ blood. C. S. Lewis had a good standard, besides the standard “10%” rule. If your budget is not getting “pinched” by your giving, that’s a bad sign. If there aren’t some things that you’d like to do or buy and can’t afford because of your giving, then he'd say that your attitude needs to be reexamined.

The bad news is that Jesus is always watching. But there’s potentially good news as well: Jesus is watching. If you’ve made real sacrifices and think that your giving hasn’t been noticed, let the widow encourage you. He knows. Maybe no one else has given you the applause for the sacrifices you’ve made, but he will. He who noticed the “widow’s coins” is standing over your shoulder as well.

Now’s a good time for some honesty. Have I always been as generous as I should? Have I always even kept to the miserly “10%” rule? I wish I could claim that. But I'm trying, and I’m cooperating with the Spirit to make the proper course corrections. Hopefully you are too.

Lord Jesus, my attitude towards giving stinks sometimes, doesn’t it? In fact, I shouldn’t call it “giving,” as if I’m not just returning something that belongs to you already. Everything I have and everything I am belongs to you. I’m not my own, I’ve been bought with a price. Please help me to demonstrate that.

[June 11]--A Second Look At Housecleaning

Mark 11:15-18

You might be wondering at today’s title. We actually looked at John chapter two last year, and we covered that Gospel’s accounting of Jesus’ clearing the temple. The little oddity is that John’s temple clearing places it near the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry, while the Synoptics place it near the end, actually in the last week before the Passion. For reasons I went into last year, I believe that they’re two separate occasions. If so, that would mean that clearing out the temple was both his first and last public appearance before the Cross.

Last year we looked at one of the reasons why the Master was so angry at those selling in the courtyard of the temple: It was exploiting the poor in the name of the Lord, and I'd suspect that there are very few things that make him more upset. But today we’re going to examine the other reason.

The temple in Jesus’ day had four sections or courts. The courtyard in the front was open to Jews and Gentiles. The section inside that was only open to Jews, both male and female. The court inside that was only available to Jewish males. Only priests could enter the final area outside the actual temple. I myself have actually looked at and touched a stone from the entrance which warned Gentiles to go no further on threat of death.

Jesus had cleared out the temple three years ago, but it didn’t take. The courtyard was again filled with people selling all sorts of animals and various other goods. And that’s when Jesus took action. Please note that this is the only recorded violence of Jesus of Nazareth. What made him upset?

Look at his quote from Isaiah. The temple was the official place for Gentiles to meet the one true God. Yes, they could hear about him and pray to him anywhere else. But they couldn’t sacrifice to him anywhere else, which was an integral part of worship. It was supposed to be a “house of prayer for all nations.” Solomon had expressed this intention specifically at his inaugural prayer for the original building: that people from all over the world would hear about the God of Israel and worship him there. Why? “So that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel.” I'd also like to point out that this sectioning off the Gentiles and women was not something that the Lord originated. That was man’s tradition.

The one official place for Gentiles to meet and worship God was turned into a marketplace. Can you imagine trying to worship there? That’s one of the main things that upset Jesus. Come to think of it, that’s what got Jesus angry at his disciples earlier: They were keeping children away from him. So anyone who gets between the Lord and someone who wants to meet him is in dangerous territory. Hmmm. . . .

If that’s true, then I think we’re all on pretty thin ice here. I’m not actively telling people to stay clear of the Savior, but do my actions do the job?  When they see the huge gap between my profession of faith and the way I talk and act, does that cause me to get between them and the Savior? Paul condemned the Jews of his day, saying that “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” May that never be true of me. Lord, please.

Lord Jesus, please please please let me be an open, inviting door into your Kingdom. May it please you that absolutely nothing I do turns someone away from your grace.

[June 10]--Fruitfulness and Prayer

Mark 11:12-14, 20-25

I might need to clarify something I said a few days ago. The times I listed were the few times in which Christ is described as angry. Obviously those weren’t the only times he actually was angry. He was human and experienced the same types of daily frustrations which all of us do, plus a lot that we’ll never undergo. Today seems to be another time in which he was upset. Why?

I did some research, and here’s what I found which might shed some light. Of course, I’m a city boy, so all of this was new to me. Fig trees were planted and then allowed to grow for three years before they were expected to produce fruit. Once they did, they were harvested twice a year. One of the ways you could tell that a tree had figs was--as you might expect from the passage--that it had leaves. We’ve managed to piece together that June was more than a month away when this happened, which was the typical harvest time (“the season for figs”). If you were walking along the road and saw a fig tree with leaves, your assumption would be that the tree was producing fruit early. For a tree to have leaves but no fruit would be most unusual.

Please keep in mind that this is the only destructive miracle which Jesus performed during his earthly ministry. All his other works were healing or restorative or productive in nature: multiplying loaves and fish, healing people, raising them from the dead, etc.

I don’t know if he was truly angry at the tree, but he did decide to use this as a living illustration of two lessons. The first we’ve already noted—When someone is presenting a “false front” in pretending to produce fruit and not really producing it, that’s not acceptable to the Master. He expects fruit from his “trees.” He expects a return on his investments.

The other lesson is on prayer. Once more I need to remind you of the importance of context. There are a lot of people in the “Faith” movement who love to take passages like this and build a whole system of theology on them. They loooooove passages like this which seem to grant carte blanche to whatever you want. If you want X, then just pray for it, believing that God will provide it, and he has to.

Before we even get to the problem of context we have a little language problem to consider. What does the word “pray” even mean? Literally the word means to ask. Not demand. Ask. He owes us nothing except judgment, and we owe him everything.

But in the context of the whole of Scripture there are plenty of conditions on prayer. John tells us that it needs to be in accordance with his will. The Psalmist warns us that if there’s unconfessed sin harbored in our heart, God won’t listen. Even in today’s passage there’s a condition: If you have anything between you and someone else, you’ve got to forgive them. Notice the universality here: “Anyone” means Christian or nonbeliever. On a side-note, the last verse also dispels the notion that we need to wait until someone asks us for forgiveness before we forgive them. If you’re praying and realize that you’re holding a grudge, you forgive them immediately.

But having given all the caveats and conditions in the last paragraph, let me make a confession. I’m far too timid in my prayer life. I sometimes get so caught up in theological correctness that I neglect the childlike expectation that my Lord wants from me. One of the reasons why the “Faith” people are led astray is because of lavish promises which Jesus made. Yes, they’re misinterpreting those promises, but in rebutting the bad theology I’m in serious danger of neglecting the promises themselves. They might be too close to demanding things from the Father, but I could stand to be a lot bolder in my asking. What about you?

Father, you're a great God, and my prayers often don’t reflect that. They’re so small and aren’t worthy of the awe-inspiring Almighty God whom I worship. Please guide me through this.

[June 9]--Service With A Smile, Part Two

Mark 10:35-45

Yesterday we focused on the brothers’ request for an exalted place in Christ’s coming Kingdom. We also saw the Master’s response, namely that they didn’t understand what being in Christ’s Kingdom is all about. Believers naturally like to focus on the Crown that awaits us, but we always like to forget that the Cross comes first. No cross, no crown.

But then Jesus expands on this concept of what the Kingdom entails and goes beyond it. He tells us a lot about himself and a lot about us.

We’re going to look at this in the opposite order in which he does. He talks first about us as his followers and uses himself as the basis for what he wants to see in us. Instead, we’re going to look at Christ first and then what we’re supposed to do and be in response.

What does this passage tells us about our Lord? It tells us three basic things about him, and each deserves a sermon on its own.

First, Christ tells us that he didn’t come in order to be served. He certainly deserved to be. If all the kings of the world came to him, threw all their gold at his feet and swore 100% allegiance to him, that would still be far less than he deserved. If he lived in the grandest palace that man could build, that would be beneath his worth. If he had any worldly pleasure immediately at his beck and call, he'd still not be getting all that he was owed.

But he wasn’t served. He had the adulation of the crowds at certain times, but he wasn’t really served by them. He had some followers who pledged obedience to him, but their service was mighty fickle, and they were just a handful. During most of his life, most everybody passed by him and didn’t give him a second glance.

Second, we’re told that he came to serve. Those crowds that we just mentioned? They weren’t there to serve him. They came expecting things. They had sick people, they had hungry people, they had lonely people. And Jesus gladly gave them what they needed. He gladly gave of himself to them, to the point of metaphorical and literal exhaustion. He gave until--in his humanity--he didn’t have anything more to give, and then he gave a little bit more.

The third point is actually not really a separate point but the ultimate example of the second. What was the ultimate example of his service to us? You probably knew the answer to that already, but just in case you weren’t clear on it, he tells us. In fact, this is the main reason he came: “to give his life as a ransom for many.” We were all captives to the Enemy of our souls. Just a reminder: We put ourselves in this mess. We were under the Father’s wrath. We owed an eternal debt we could never pay. And he paid it. Just so we’re clear—The ransom analogy is not a perfect one, since the debt was not paid to Satan. But Jesus did pay the price to the Father so that we could be reclaimed by him.

So we know the “what.” Now we come to the “so what?” Jesus was not giving a theology lesson, or if he was it’s a very practical one. Jesus gave up heaven and all the rights and privileges of being the Son of God. He “made himself nothing. . .taking the very nature of a servant.” So what does this mean for us?

It means that we ultimately have no rights. None. If Jesus, the very Son of the Most High, gave up all that  he did, what right do we have to cling to our honor, any privileges we have? If I’m called to scrub toilets, then I still haven’t been called upon to humble myself nearly as much as my Savior was. The thought “I deserve better than this” should be squelched immediately whenever it surfaces.

Or to put it more positively, the way to advance in this Kingdom is to go downward. Unlike the business and political world, here we’re supposed to claw our way to the bottom. No place is too humble for a blood-bought child of God.

The Lord Jesus is not only our Savior but our prime Example as well. He was perfectly willing to leave behind what he deserved. It looks to me that I need a major overhaul in my perspective and attitude. How about you?

Lord Jesus, I fall so far short of who I need to be. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even be the man I am now. Fill me with your Spirit, with your attitude. I want to grow up to be just like you, please.