[July 31]--What About The Spirit? Is He God?

Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 5:1-4

Like I said yesterday, the second chapter of Acts is when things really start happening. Our Savior repeatedly promised that he would send the Spirit to us after he ascended, and this was very different from all the other times the Third Person of the Trinity had come in the past. Starting with Pentecost, he came to stay. He came to inhabit human flesh, just like the Son did, forever and forever. Because of this radical change in how God “did things” from that point forward, I thought this would be a great time to do a topical series on Pneumatology, the study of the Holy Spirit. We’re going to spend the next couple of weeks or so on both his nature and his work.

I think it’s a shame that this topic has been the cause of a lot of division in the Church, especially since one of his jobs is to unite us and make us one in the Body. The sad fact is, sometimes discussions about him can bring more heat than light. I’m going to do my best to leave all my biases behind and focus on what Scripture actually says about him. At the outset I have to acknowledge that a lot of this material is based upon The Mystery of the Holy Spirit by R.C. Sproul.

Before we delve into what he does, let’s take a bit to focus on who he is. Part of the problem is that he usually works “behind the scenes,” and there’s a lot more focus placed on the other members of the Trinity. But here’s what we do know about him:

First, there’s no question that the Bible presents him as God. Just before he ascended, our Lord Jesus gave us our overarching marching orders, commonly known as the “Great Commission.” We're commanded to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the “name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Please notice that it’s “name,” not “names.” The construction in the Greek makes it clear that the Father, Son, and Spirit are presented as essentially equal in the formula. I meant the word "essentially" quite literally: The Spirit is one in essence with the other Persons of the Trinity. Whatever the Father is in and of himself, the Son and Spirit are. The Father is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, etc., and so are the other Persons.

In the second passage from Acts, we see this concept repeated. Ananias and Sapphira tried to deceive the apostles and the church, because it was the “in” thing to sell property and donate the proceeds to the needs of the church. Notice Peter’s accusation here. The first sentence says they'd lied to the Holy Spirit, and in the next verse they'd lied to God. The two terms were equal in Peter’s mind.

But if the Holy Spirit is divine, why do the Scriptures present him in such a servant-like manner? It’s the same principle as with Christ. We have to distinguish between his nature and his position. In his nature, Christ is one in essence and equal to the Father. But in accordance to the divine plan, his chosen position was submission to the Father’s will. It’s the same way with the Spirit. We’re going to see over the next few days precisely what that means.

In the meantime, this is a great reminder to me as to what the Father expects. The Holy Spirit, as we shall see, delights to serve the Father and exalt the Son. He doesn’t have any trouble working “behind the scenes” and bringing glory to the Son. So what rights do I have? Is there any work too humble, too “beneath me”? I think you know the answer to those questions, don’t you?

Father, may your Spirit fill me with your presence and do the work of molding me into the likeness of your Son. May the gentleness and humility of your Spirit change me from within. Please.

[July 30]--Happy B-day!!!

Acts 2:1-13

Now we get to the exciting part of the book. Chapter one seems to be just a prelude to what happens next. The traditional name of the book is "Acts." Acts done by whom? Well, traditionally the answer to that is “the Apostles.” But an equally useful name might be “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”

Just to give you a heads up, we’re going to be studying the nature and work of the Spirit for a few days starting tomorrow, so we’re not going to delve too much into that subject today. I'd prefer, instead, to focus a bit more about Pentecost and what it means. “Wait a minute, I thought they were one and the same?!” Not quite.

Let me preface this by saying that I have some very dear brothers of the Pentecostal/Charismatic persuasion. We have no trouble fellowshipping together, praying together, worshiping together, and encouraging each other. I have no doubt as to their salvation or their sincerity. They have a strong desire to please our Father and exalt Christ. But we have some differences, some major and some not so much.

Let me come right out and say it. Pentecost was a one-time event. It’s not something we need to repeat over and over. People who pray for “another Pentecost” might be sincere, but I think they’re confused. Let me explain.

In several ways, Pentecost mirrors the Incarnation. In the latter, the Son left his home by the Father’s side and came to take on human flesh. He didn’t subtract at all from his Divine nature; he only added to it. He took on a human body and dwelt among men. This was the Father’s means for accomplishing his purposes.

Can you guess the parallels? During the O.T. period, the Holy Spirit came and went. He came and dwelt within people for a short period of time, accomplished his purpose, and then he might or might not stick around afterward. He came upon Saul, empowered him as king, and then left when the king became disobedient. This is why David, when he repented from egregious sin, pleaded with God not to take the Spirit away from him.

Now everything is different. Jesus promised that when the Spirit came after his Ascension, the Spirit would come to stay: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever.” Not come and go. The Spirit was sent by Jesus, and he came down to inhabit flesh and blood. This is how he accomplishes his purposes in this age: Through the Body of Christ, otherwise known as the Church. It’s not to be repeated any more than the Incarnation.

Let me make one more parallel which is really interesting to me. When the new tabernacle was inaugurated in Moses' day, the glory of the Lord came down and filled the structure with a physical manifestation. When the new temple was dedicated by Solomon, the people also saw a physical manifestation of God "moving in," so to speak. This was his new place of residence, the official meeting-place of God and men. Now we see him moving into his final temple, the universal Church. God has a new place of residence, and he again demonstrated it publicly and physically.

Let me point something else out here, and it’s really wonderful. One of the saddest incidents in Scripture is found in Genesis 11. Remember the Tower of Babel? Men in their pride decided to unite in rebellion against God and erected a tower to symbolize and facilitate their unity. The Lord came down to “see” what was occurring and in (relatively mild) judgment confused all their languages. And we’ve been disunited ever since. I’m not saying that disunity is a bad thing necessarily. Quite frankly, I’m suspicious and nervous when people start uniting except under the banner of Christ. Despite what you might've been told, unity is not good in and of itself. People can be united in bad things as well as good things.

But on Pentecost we see God mercifully begin the grand reversal of that curse. People from all different languages, cultures, backgrounds, etc. were united by the work of the Spirit. And the process is continuing. I have—right this instant--millions of siblings in Christ from all languages, cultures, nations, economic statuses, skin colors, etc. None of those things make a bit of difference now. Now we actually can unite in submission to Christ, and it’s nothing but a beautiful thing.

And it continues all the way into Heaven. God parted the veil a bit for John the apostle, and this is what he described to us:

“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

"Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb!’”

I can’t wait to see that, can you?

Father, may that day swiftly come, and I want to have a part in that. Please.

[July 29]--Casting Lots

Acts 1:12-26

After Jesus left to return to his place by the Father’s side, there was still a short period in which they had to wait for the promised Holy Spirit to be sent. So what to do in the meantime? They weren’t supposed to be his witnesses until they were led and empowered by the Spirit. They weren’t supposed to travel anywhere—they were directed to stay in Jerusalem until he gave them the “Green Light.”

Before we get to what they ended up doing, let me make a couple of notes about the setting. Luke lists the eleven remaining apostles, along with some other believers. The author makes special mention of two other groups, and since every word of Scripture is significant, we might want to take a quick look. First, Luke tells us that the group of Jesus’ followers were praying along with “the women” and Mary the mother of Jesus. Please notice that they were not praying to Mary. I have some dearly beloved Catholic friends, but—to be quite frank—the very notion that we need to pray to Mary (or any other person besides Deity) is blasphemous. I know they don’t mean it to be, but it is. We have one Mediator between us and the Father, and he's all we need or could want. This is the last time that Mary is mentioned in all of Scripture. After this, the Spirit didn’t see fit to mention her any further. The book of Acts, the letters of Paul, Peter, James, John, the author of Hebrews—none of these tell us anything further about her. She fulfilled her (admittedly unique and honored) role in God’s redemptive plan, and then she faded from history.

The other group he refers to are the (half) brothers of Jesus. Just eight months prior they were not believers in Jesus at all. Then something changed, and they became followers of Christ and eventual leaders. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and wrote the book of the N.T. that bears his name. Also people tend to forget that the book of Jude was also written by a brother of Jesus. The only explanation I’ve ever heard that makes sense is that Christ himself appeared to James personally after the Resurrection.

Then we get to the main story today. Peter stood up in front of all the gathered believers (about 120) and made an announcement/proposal. He quoted Scripture from the Psalms which predicted the betrayal of Judas, and made some commentary about the traitor’s fate. Then came the proposal. He submitted that they should cast lots for--and thus designate--a successor to Judas.

Now, I’m going to put forward a pretty radical notion, but I have some evidence to back me up: I think Peter and the disciples were well-intentioned but dead wrong to do this. Can you find for me one scrap, one scintilla of evidence to support what they did? Did Jesus ever mention his intention to fill the spot right now? The last recorded instructions from our Lord were to wait for the Holy Spirit to come.

With every ounce of respect due, is there any direct evidence that they actually sought God’s guidance on this? Look carefully at the prayer they prayed: “Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry.” Not "Please show us what the next step should be. Do you want us to go ahead and appoint a successor, or wait?"  What if I prayed thus: “Father, I’ve already decided that I’m going marry one of these two girls. Please show me which one I’m supposed to marry within the next six months.” I’ve already decided what I’m going to do, and I want God to bless it. If there's any point at which they did pray for guidance from the Lord as to whether or not a new Apostle needed to be named, it's not recorded.

And here’s something else to consider. The lots chose Matthias. I'm sure he was a wonderful follower of Jesus.  Although I'm not condemning the use of lots as categorically sinful, I have to point out that after this incident there's never any recording of believers--indwelt by the Spirit--using lots to make a decision. I can't say that someone is definitely sinning when they use lots or dice or something similar in making decisions, but something about it really doesn't seem appropriate in our post-Pentecost age.

But there is one other, a man who called himself an apostle on the same level as the other Eleven, who was certified as an apostle by the church and by the other Eleven, and who went on to perform miracles, open up doors for the Good News, and who wrote half the New Testament. But the disciples in chapter one, without the advantage of the Holy Spirit (who didn’t come until chapter two), decided that they needed a replacement right here and right now. Everything in this passage looks all the world like apostles taking it upon themselves something which was a unique prerogative of the Lord himself.

I might need to remind you of this principle, and it applies to the rest of the book of Acts: Narratives only tell us what happened, not necessarily what should've happened. We interpret narrative portions by using the didactic (teaching) portions. The Sermon on the Mount is a didactic portion of Scripture. The Mosaic Law is didactic. We can't simply look at what someone (no matter how noble his character) did, either in the O.T. or N.T. and follow his example blindly. And I would point out that while the writings of the Apostles (and their chosen delegates) are infallible, Paul's public calling out of Peter--as recorded in the book of Galatians--shows that their actions, even after Pentecost, were still liable to mistakes.

Keep in mind that an "apostle" literally is a "sent one." There's a sense in which each one of us as followers of Jesus is a "sent one," but there are twelve men whom Jesus chose as his special and authoritative representatives who had unique authority to speak for him. As best as I can tell, it looks all the world like Mathias was chosen by men, not the Lord.

But let me say--for the sake of fairness--that there are tons of Bible teachers whom I highly respect who disagree with me and who approve of what the disciples did here. For the reasons I've just stated, we just interpret this story very differently. It's not a hill I'd die on.***

Assuming that my interpretation is correct, however, then I see a pretty big application here. We now have the Holy Spirit. There’s no further precedent of lots to be found in Scripture. But even with the Spirit living within us, we tend to “jump the gun” and go forward without consulting the Source of all Wisdom. And then we wonder why things didn’t work out like we planned. Duh.

Father God, you're the Source of all wisdom and all goodness. When I tend to go with my own plan, please rein me in. Please give me listening ears and a soft heart.

***If you strongly disagree with me on my interpretation of this passage and want to pursue it in further depth, then you can take a look at this if you're so inclined. I did some research and laid out the best of the arguments I could find against my position. I then examine them and go into detail as to why I end up leaning towards the position I hold here. Be warned, it's eight pages long and goes into some depth on this issue.

[July 28]--Right-hand Man

Acts 1:1-11

I know we looked at this same passage yesterday, but there’s one more aspect of it that deserves a full day’s entry. The last part of the passage describes his Ascension, the fact that he bodily left this plane of existence to return to his place with the Father, the place he vacated at the Incarnation. This is a part of Christian doctrine, but a lot of believers just read it and confess that it occurred without realizing the full import of this event. Yes, it’s a vital and essential part of our faith, and—being the practical theologian I am—I’m going to give you at least five reasons why this should matter to you.

First, his ascension to the Father’s side caps off and signifies his completed work of atonement, the covering of our sin by his blood. The author of Hebrews makes a huge point of this. At least four times he uses the term “once for all” to express this truth. There were no chairs in the priestly part of the temple, since a priest’s work was never really completed. Every year, over and over and over and over, this man would go into the Most Holy Place and offer the same sacrifices to God in order to cover the sin of the people. In stark contrast, the writer of Hebrews says about Jesus that “[after] he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” Including this verse, there are four times he uses this phrase ("sat down") to show us that Christ’s work of atoning for our sins is finished. Our sins are covered and forgiven. In that arena, his work is done.

Second, his ascension means that while his work of atonement is completed, he’s still doing the other task of a priest: Intercession. You and I need a mediator, a go-between. We need someone to stand between us and the Father and plead our case. That’s another thing accomplished by this event. The apostle John tells us “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” He’s our Defense Attorney, and you could never ask for a better one.

There’s a third purpose for the Ascension. At the Last Supper, the disciples were, quite understandably, upset as it finally dawned on them that the Master was serious about leaving them. But according to him, there’s a greater purpose behind this: “[Very] truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” That’s what happened on Pentecost, and it continues today. All the work of the church since the departure of Christ has been accomplished because of the Holy Spirit, who lives inside us and does his work through us.

Fourth, the Ascension is a further source of comfort to us beyond what we’ve already discussed. The entirety of Jesus’ ministry was a clash of two opposing spiritual kingdoms. The Enemy had laid claim to this world and all humanity since the Fall of our first parents. As C.S. Lewis put it, each and every square inch in the universe is claimed and counter-claimed by the Lord and Satan. We know from Colossians that Christ’s death and resurrection were the death-knell of Satan’s kingdom. I personally would pay a good amount of money to see the look on our Enemy’s face at the exact moment when he realized that he'd lost everything.

But the Ascension made it official. Paul was praying for the Ephesians, and he specifically wanted them to know in a personal way the power of the Almighty in their daily lives In describing this power he said “[this] power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” All power. All authority. The names of Presidents, kings, and dictators are all under the authority of that Name. They’re all under his feet. And it started at this point, when the Father invited his Son to "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet."

And finally, the Ascension is a reminder and a pattern of his return. That’s the point the angels were making at the actual point of departure, right? "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." It’s a great “tension” verse. Right now, at this very moment, we have work to do, and we shouldn’t spend a lot of time “looking into the sky.” But at the same time, his Ascension—and all it represents—should encourage us to keep at it. Don’t give up, please.

Lord Jesus, you're deserving of all praise, honor, glory, and especially obedience. The same power that raised you from the dead now lives within me. By your grace, I want to see it in action.

[July 27]--Sequel

Acts 1:1-11

So now we get to the “sequel” to the Gospels, the book of Acts. As a kid, I loved this book, mainly because it had almost as much “action” as the stories in the O.T. It was the same reason I loved the book of Judges. I was into comic books, and I was on the lookout for magnificent deeds and glorious adventures experienced by my heroes. And there are plenty of miracles in this book.

As I got older and (hopefully) more mature, I realized that this was a really skewed view of how the Lord normally works. Throughout history, the times in which God works openly and publicly like he did during the time of Moses or (to a lesser degree) the events of Acts is actually quite rare. Most sick people are either cured by natural means or they stay sick and/or die. Most dead people are still in their graves. And believers who are in prison usually are not released by angels. Our Lord has chosen—most of the time—to work behind the scenes and/or through human means.

The reason I mention that is because I think it’s easy to get caught up in the exciting parts of Acts and miss the main point. Luke’s main goal here is not to record a bunch of miracles in the early church. If God parted the veil and acted out in the open for a while, then there’s a reason he broke his regular pattern. We’ll get into that at a later time.

The book starts out, just like Luke’s Gospel, with an introduction to “Theophilus” (whoever that was). Luke tells us that Jesus spent forty days with the disciples, making it perfectly clear that he was alive. These were not Elvis sightings. He showed himself to them no less than ten times as recorded in Scripture, depending on how you count. Again he told them to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit before they did anything else.

I find their question and his response in vss. 6-8 to be very useful for us today. Every God-fearing Jew was longing for the Messiah, and there was one thing in particular they were waiting for him to accomplish: The restoration of Israel. The prophets seemed to promise a national renewal in which Israel was on top of the world. They wanted to see Israel free, prosperous, and not under the boot of any oppressors, which they hadn’t seen for some time.

What was his response? “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” In effect, he very lovingly and kindly told them “That’s none of your business!” That’s the Father’s business. I think there are quite a few believers who need to read this. If you’re really concerned about the “Signs of the Times,” then here’s a reality check. I think the Father’s doing a fine job of taking care of the “times and dates,” don’t you?

So what's our part? Two words: Obedience and testimony. Instead of worrying about when Jesus is coming back or how he’s coming back or what’s going to happen right before he comes back, how’s about we concentrate on obedience? Do what he told us to do.

And part of that is providing testimony. If you’ve studied the book of Acts before, you might know that a lot of commentators consider the rest of this book to be an unfolding of 1:8. They started in Jerusalem, then they move to Judea and Samaria, and then they start taking steps towards spreading the Good News to the ends of the earth. That’s our job. That should be our focus.

There’s more to talk about here, but it really deserves a day of its own. Hopefully you’ll think it’s worth it.

Lord Jesus, I know I’m guilty of this sometimes. I look around for any signs that your return is soon. In the time I have left, I want to be faithful with what you’ve given me to do, right here and right now. By your grace and power.

[July 26]--Hurry Up and Wait!

Luke 24:36-49

Well, yesterday we took a last look (for a while, at least) at the story of the Passion. Today I just wanted to make a couple of points about the Resurrection before we leave it behind as well.

As I said a month ago, I think one of the strongest arguments for the veracity of the Christian faith is the Resurrection of Christ. All the other religious figures who've walked this planet are now worm-food. There’s only One who’s alive and will be forever. And one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the Resurrection is the change that came about in the lives of the disciples.

We read a couple of days ago about how Peter was afraid to be associated with the name of Christ and denied that he even knew him. But forty days later he stood in front a crowd and boldly preached a sermon that A) Indicted them for the crucifixion of Jesus, and B) Led 3,000 of them at one time to faith in the Messiah and public baptism. Each one of the Twelve (minus Judas, plus Paul)--with one exception--died a martyr’s death.

What changed in that brief span of time? There are two answers to that question. The first, as I said, was the raising up of Christ from the dead. What in this world could possibly threaten them if their Master had power over life and death and demonstrated that power in such a dramatic fashion?

Let me one more point about this issue before we move on. The disciples were all gathered together in a single room. Suddenly Jesus “stood among them.” Just prior to this he had disappeared right in front of two other disciples and appeared instantaneously in another area. He was able to eat food, so he wasn’t a ghost or a phantom. This was his new body after the Resurrection, and now everything had changed. When he comes back, each of us is going to have a new body like his. Please read this carefully, so there’s no misunderstanding: Everything Jesus is able to do as a man, I will be able to do. This will be a body that will never experience sickness, sin, pain, or death. Along with that, apparently it’ll be able to do some pretty amazing stunts, like we read here.

But there was one other reason for the 180 degree change in the disciples over such a short time. It’s mentioned here, and it’s a great segue into the next few months as we delve into the book of Acts.

I was in the U.S. Army for six years, and while I’ll always be grateful to it for the opportunities, it was frustrating at times. One of the phrases which we learned pretty quickly and which captured several situations was “Hurry up and wait!” We were expected to be at a certain place at a certain time, and then sit around.

That’s what the disciples were told to do, in essence. Jesus had risen, and the story of the Good News was complete, or so it seemed. There was a world lost and dying out there. What were they waiting for? The one last piece of the “puzzle,” as you’ve undoubtedly guessed, was the Holy Spirit. We’re going to spend some time in a few days on the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, so I won’t go too much into why he (not “it”) was so essential that the Savior told them to wait.

So how does this apply to us? Unlike some dear siblings in Christ, I thoroughly believe that each child of God has the Holy Spirit within him. It’s not an question of “Do I have the Holy Spirit?” so much as “Does the Holy Spirit have me?” But we have to have his empowering presence. We have to wait for his timing. And we have to be willing to do what he’s told us to do. I know, it’s frustrating at times. But if he tells us to wait, it’s worth it. Trust me.

Lord Jesus, may I never get over the fact that you’ve conquered death, sin, hell, and the Devil. They are all under your feet. And I share in that victory. Wow.

[July 25]--Life Slogan

Luke 23:44-49

Can I be completely frank here? This is going to be the last entry we devote to the actual Passion of Jesus Christ for a while. With Luke we’re finished with our survey of the Gospels. For the rest of the year, we’re going to examine the book of Acts (with some short topical studies). Next year, God willing, we’re going to use to go through the prophets and then the Epistles. Again, I need to be honest here: I’m a little glad. I know we need to focus on it, but the details about the death are not a very encouraging subject. What his death meant and what his death accomplished are extremely important--actually essential to our faith--and I’m probably going to revisit that several times over the remaining time we have. The Epistles are commentary on what the Passion and Resurrection mean for us as N.T. believers, but they really don’t get that much into the physical details, and I think there’s a good reason for that.

Anyway, what does Luke tell us about the final moments for our Savior? If you’re ever playing Bible trivia, and you’re asked “What were Jesus’ final words on the cross?” then today’s passage contains the answer. If you’re in church long enough, you might one day hear a sermon series on the “Seven Statements of Jesus on the Cross,” which there were. These are the last words Jesus produced with his dying breath.

And there’s a lot of meaning here for us. I’ve mentioned this several times in our study of John’s Gospel, because it’s a recurrent theme in it, but it bears some quick review. We’re saved not just by the sinlessness of Jesus but by the positive righteousness of Christ. He did more than just avoid conscious sin all his life. A baby has never consciously made a choice to sin, but if that was enough Jesus could've just died as an infant. There's a reason why he had to live for 33 years before he died. During that time, he was continually and consciously obeying the Father’s will. He spoke what the Father told him to say and did what the Father told him to do. This is what the writer of Hebrews means when he says that the Son “learned obedience from what he suffered.” Not that he ever disobeyed the Father before the cross, but he had never before experienced obedience to the point that he did at the cross.

And that wonderful truth is crystallized in his last words on the cross. It was his life slogan, so to speak. From the moment of first consciousness as a human being to that last moment before he died, he committed his life into his Father’s hands. That’s a great comfort to me, but it’s also convicting when you realize that this is what I’m supposed to do as well.

Luke then mentions his quotation of the centurion after witnessing what he did. I’d like to spend the rest of today’s entry, however, on a tribute to the women in Jesus’ life. We studied Christ’s attitude towards women a few days ago, but here are some points to consider on top of that. Yes, as today's passage points out, women were last at the tomb and first on Sunday morning. Jesus respected them and honored them far above what their culture and society practiced. But Luke also mentions something about them that the other Gospels don’t. How did Jesus and the disciples get their expenses paid? The Master didn’t make a habit of paying bills through miraculous means. All of the Twelve left their jobs behind. There were undoubtedly various supporters and followers who didn’t leave their jobs and who donated. But Luke—always looking out for the underdogs—specifically points out that it was a small group of women who regularly supported Jesus’ ministry.

Yes, the men were at the forefront of the mission. They were his main spokesmen and public representatives. But it was the quiet “behind the scenes” work of women which was used by the Lord to make it possible. And one day they’re going to join a select group. These names are unknown on this side of the Veil, but in the Halls of the Most High God they have applause they would never trade for anything. Not for all the gold and fame this world could ever offer. For their applause will come from nail-scarred hands.

Lord Jesus, I want to follow your heart. I want to be on the lookout for unknown servants who stay far away from the spotlight. Please let me be an encouragement to them. That would be my honor and privilege.

[July 24]--Two Criminals, Two Destinies

Luke 23:39-43

I guess I’m sort of a geek when it comes to thinking through things, but I wonder about the weirdest questions at times. Why do two people hear the same sermon and one of them receives Christ and the other doesn’t? Two kids are raised in the same family with the same background, and attend the same church growing up. One becomes a minister, and the other grows into a hellion. Theologians have their own answer to questions like that, but I really believe it’s a mystery we’re not meant to solve this side of the veil.

I do have to say, however, that today’s passage is a great illustration of that mystery. Jesus had been abandoned by his disciples, but he wasn’t alone. His mother was there, along with some other women, and even John was there. But he had two other companions, and they were dying alongside him.

By the way, if you ever hear these men called “thieves,” that’s a misnomer. You weren’t crucified for theft. That’s why the newer translations call them “criminals.” Remember that crucifixion was the most horrible, painful, degrading and tortuous means of execution the Roman Empire had ever devised, and they were experts in dishing out painful death to people whom they didn’t like. It was reserved for the basest of criminals and for slaves. Roman citizens were exempt from it.

Since Barabbas was supposed to be executed along with them, and he'd taken part in (and possibly led) an insurrection (a sure-fire way to get yourself crucified by Roman soldiers), these probably were his partners in rebellion. That's why the NIV translates Mark's description of them as "rebels," and the NET Bible describes them as "outlaws," as opposed to other translations which have rendered them as "robbers." Remember, theft by itself wasn't a capital crime. Quite possibly they'd come from similar backgrounds. We’re not told anything else about their story before this.

We also know from Mark’s Gospel that both of them had verbally abused and mocked Jesus while hanging from their own crosses. It’s only natural, I suppose. You’re in incredible pain and humiliation, and you’ll end up lashing out at anyone who becomes a convenient target. The world had cursed them, so they just passed on the hate.

But then something happened. We don’t know what it was. There are a lot of Christian songs about these men, and they each espouse a theory on what brought about the change of heart in one of them. I tend to think it was our Savior’s reaction to his murderers that got his attention: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” I’m sure that no one at that scene had ever witnessed something like that.

He’d heard the mockery: “You’re the King of the Jews!” He'd seen them nail a sign over his head that read “King of the Jews.” So from that he was able to reason that what Jesus’ enemies claimed in mockery, this Man really was.

What did the criminal know? Well, he knew that Jesus was the King, and that eventually this King was going to come into his Kingdom. He knew that Jesus was innocent of wrongdoing. He knew very well that he himself was a sinner and in need of mercy. His plea to the Savior showed that he was just throwing himself on “the mercy of the court,” so to speak. The man hadn’t been baptized. He had led a life of crime and murder. He certainly had a very deficient theological understanding of Jesus. He couldn’t expound on the book of Romans for you. But he knew enough, and he grabbed hold of what he knew and ran with it.

And how did Jesus respond to this? Mercy. Forgiveness. Restoration. Glorious promises. When a sinner puts his trust in Christ, that’s enough.

Now, there’s a word of warning here for anyone taking “comfort” in this story. If you haven’t received Christ, and you’re thinking “I’ll get around to that someday,” this story is not meant to encourage you to put it off any further! I don’t know who told me this a long time ago, but it’s absolutely true: The Bible records one “deathbed conversion” so that no one will despair, but it only records one, so that no one will presume.

If you’re a believer, then this is a great time to meditate on and express your gratitude to your Savior. You deserve Heaven no more than that filthy, murderous criminal. Jesus’ blood had to cover you just as much as him. His grace, mercy, and forgiveness is upon you.

If you happen to be reading this, and you've never placed your trust in Christ, please read this, and receive him today. As countless preachers and teachers have pointed out, those two men symbolize all of humanity. All of us have a date with death, and one of those two men represent each one of us: Either a condemned criminal who has been forgiven, or one who's not. And how we respond to Jesus will be the only thing that makes a difference, both in this world and the next.

Lord Jesus, I thank you so much for your grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Your blood has cleansed me and made me whole. You are so good to me, aren’t you?

[July 23]--Denial

Luke 22:54-62

Today’s passage, of course, is talking about Peter’s denial of Christ. Peter was the preeminent disciple and apostle, partially chosen by Christ and partially self-chosen for that spot. Jesus picked him along with two others (James and John) as a sort of “inner circle” who were witnesses of events that no one else (including the other nine) was even aware of (like the Transfiguration). But his personality caused him to sometimes push himself to the front of the crowd as well. When the Twelve wanted a spokesman to speak to the Master about something, he usually fit the bill.

Then we come to a night that was at the same time one of his worst and one of his best he’d ever experienced. The Last Supper was a time of intimate fellowship, a good meal, and a solemn celebration. But despite the positive atmosphere there hung over everything a. . . feeling that something was wrong. The Master kept on talking like this was their last time together. He was enigmatically referring to a “traitor” in their ranks. He warned them that all of them would abandon him when the crisis arrived. All of them, of course, reaffirmed their full commitment to him and assured him that they'd never do something like that. But Peter went beyond all that. Looking the Master straight in the eye, he swore that even if everyone else ran, he would die by Jesus’ side. That’s when Jesus made the prediction that cut Peter’s heart in two. No. He couldn’t really mean that. There was nothing on earth that could make him disown the Master. Not once, not twice, but three times? Never!!!!!!

And naturally everything happened just as the Savior had predicted. He was betrayed by one of their own, arrested, and all the disciples fled into the dark like frightened children. Yes, even Peter. Now we have to grant that he did try to defend the Master with a sword, and even cut a man’s ear off. But with a word of rebuke, Jesus put a stop to any physical defense and healed the wound. That apparently drained all the strength out of the would-be defender, and he fled like all the rest.

Why am I going into all this? There is a point here, I promise. Peter was, without a doubt, Jesus’ foremost apostle at that time. John might've had a more intimate relationship with Christ, but Peter was the most prominent one. He made the biggest promises. He did nothing half-way. And in his own strength, he only ended up falling that much harder.

He ended up denying that he even knew Jesus’ name. Not once. Not twice. Three times. A servant girl scared him out of his wits. He was in the middle of solemnly swearing that he had no acquaintance with this Jesus of Nazareth when the rooster crowed. Just as Jesus had predicted. And Luke records that at that very moment “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” Apparently as he was being moved from one trial to another, the Savior glanced over and caught Peter’s face—with the denial still on his lips.

So what can we learn from this? As Alistair Begg puts it, “The best of men are men at best.” Jesus taught us to plead with the Father “Lead us not into temptation,” and we really need to pray that! The best and brightest among us, the most committed follower of Jesus can fall so badly that you don’t even recognize him.

But we should let Peter’s story be a comfort as well as a warning. Today’s passage certainly isn’t the last time we hear about him. Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples, and apparently there was one time in which he reserved a one-on-one appearance just for the broken apostle. He was forgiven and restored. Failure was not the end of Peter’s story, and it doesn’t have to be yours either.

Lord Jesus, how many times has my mouth made promises I didn’t keep? I keep failing, and you keep forgiving. Thank you. You are so good to me.

[July 22]--Get Back to Work, The Boss is Coming!

Luke 19:11-27

Over the years, there have been quite a few debates about which economic system is closer to what the Bible prescribes for society. Some say that Free-Market Capitalism is the best system for raising people out of poverty, while others prefer more government regulation and state welfare. Without getting into that debate right now, I’d like to submit something: In at least one sense of the word, God is a capitalist. If you define a capitalist as someone who invests in something and expects to make a profit from it (i.e., he expects to get more out of it than what he put into it), then the Lord certainly meets the definition.

There are two parables of Jesus which are similar in their basic setting and plot. The boss, or king, goes away for a short while and leaves some money for his servants to invest while he’s away. The other one is in Matthew. They're similar in the basics, but they differ in a lot of important ways. Matthew’s version has the Master giving separate amounts to different servants, presumably based on his evaluation of their industriousness and skill. In today’s passage from Luke, he gives the same amount to each of ten servants. Also the whole amount was different, since a talent was a lot of money, worth more than a thousand dollars. A mina, however, was worth about three month’s wages. Matthew has a “Master,” while Luke has an actual “king” who’s going to get enthroned, hence the side-story drama about subjects who protested and revolted against his rule.

But the main point is the same: God has invested each of us with certain gifts, and he expects a profit from them. In both stories the servant gets into trouble by assuming that his Master is a “hard” man who’s demanding and exacting. Thus this genius hides his money away. When the Master returns, the servant gives back the exact same amount as he received. But he didn’t give the money to his servants for “safekeeping.” He gave it to the servants to make use of it in order to further his interests.

There’s a real important difference we see in Luke, which is a strong point to make. First, I have to say it again, since this society has trouble hearing it: We're saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. When we get to Heaven, none of us will deserve to be there. I deserve nothing but eternity in Hell, and so do you. But there is the concept of reward in Scripture. As you work for Christ, he’s taking note of that. When you make sacrifices for the Kingdom, he records it. When you love the loveless and show Christ-like mercy to those who do wrong to you, he notices. Hebrews 6:10 is one of my favorite verse in all Scripture when I’m feeling down or discouraged.

Exactly what’s God’s “system”? What’s the relationship between doing X and getting Y as a reward? The Bible never says. But this story gives us a few principles which we should know:

• Trustworthiness in small matters leads to being put in charge of bigger things. You might think to yourself “I wish I had a million dollars. Just think about the things I could do for the Kingdom if I had that type of money!” Friend, you’d have the same type of faithfulness and attitude towards a million dollars that you have with the one dollar you have in your pocket right now as we speak.

• It’s quite possible to lose what you have. You ever hear the phrase “Use it or lose it”? It certainly applies here. If the Lord has given you something, you need to use it in his his service. If you don’t use it, he’ll take it away. Maybe here, maybe when he returns. There will be people who are glad to be in the presence of Christ, but who still regret the loss they’ve suffered due to their own foolishness.

• There’s a huge ratio between our service and his reward. Turning the money into a profit ended up giving him more than he possibly dreamed. When we stand before the Seat of Christ and receive our reward for service, there will be no one who complains that they got cheated. Do I really need to say it again? Have you memorized it yet? Are you completely sick of it yet? There’s never been anyone in the history of mankind who did things God’s way who regretted it in the end.

So what do you think?

Lord Jesus, you really are coming back, aren’t you? Am I setting myself up for regret or for joy? By your grace, let’s get to work.

[July 21]--Wee Little Man

Luke 19:1-10

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that being a tax collector is one of God’s favorite professions. Yesterday we saw a story in which one of them was a hero and left the congregation with the Lord’s smile upon him. John the Baptist certainly minced no words when it came to denouncing people for their sinful lifestyles, but he had pretty mild things to say concerning this profession. One of Jesus’ twelve apostles was chosen from this crowd, and went on to write one of the Gospels.

Does this mean that the Lord had no problem with the moral level of most tax collectors? Does he condone theft? Of course not. And our Savior had no problem with acknowledging that they were common thieves. In his Sermon on the Mount, he put them on the same level as pagans: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” He was under no illusions as to their moral character.

By the way, before I forget, I’m wondering how many of you actually get the reference in the title. When I was in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, we sang about Zacchaeus: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. . .” Catchy little ditty, and it was useful in teaching us this story.

Notice that he wasn’t just a tax collector, but a “chief tax collector.” This man wasn’t just a thief and a collaborator; he likely had an entire district and several collectors under his authority. As the passage states, he was very wealthy, but he suffered from abject poverty in the spiritual realm. Apart from having no friends in the community, he knew that something was missing. He heard about this Teacher coming to Jericho, and the Spirit stirred within him and compelled him to see the Rabbi. Climbing a tree was considered pretty undignified, but he didn’t care. He had to see Jesus.

You’ve read the story: Jesus saw him up in the tree and singled him out of the entire crowd to spend some time one-on-one. I love how Jesus just invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house, but the guy was more than glad to jump down and take him to his home.

Once again we see the unbridgeable gulf between how the religious see people in sinful lifestyles and how Jesus sees them. They saw nothing but the sin, and he saw not only that but a soul in desperate need.

It would seem to me that between vss. 7 and 8 we have a time gap. I’ve always visualized it as Zacchaeus having supper with the Savior, and after some dinner conversation standing up and making his proclamation. The main point is the incredible work that Christ (and the Holy Spirit) did on his heart in a short amount of time. The Law of Moses only called for an extra one-fifth returned in the case of money stolen. It only required a double fine when an animal was stolen (a very valuable commodity), and it only obligated a four-fold restitution if the animal was stolen and killed. But as it often happens, the work of the Spirit induced him to go beyond what was strictly required by the Law. Add on top of this the fact that he was going to give half of all his possessions to the poor, and you can see how big a change was made here.

A quick note needs to be inserted here. Again, we’re saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. We’re not saved by giving up our possessions or by making restitution on the things we’ve stolen. Jesus said he was now a “son of Abraham.” He was a physical descendant of Abraham at birth, but now he was saved by becoming a spiritual child of Abraham. The way you do that is by imitating Abraham in being declared righteous because of your faith. The inward change worked itself out and displayed itself in a radical change in lifestyle.

Verse 10, for me, really summarizes this entire Gospel, in fact it crystallizes the Good News in its entirety. This is why he picked Zacchaeus out of the crowd. Not because he was more righteous or more deserving of personal attention, quite the opposite. And that’s why he came for you and me. That’s why he picked you and me out of the mess we put ourselves into, why he cleansed us with his blood, and why he’s adopted us as his siblings and co-heirs. We were lost, and he came to seek us out and save us. Aren’t you glad?

Yes Lord, I’m verrrrrry glad of this. Whom can I tell about this? Who are the lost around me to whom you’re sending me?

[July 20]--Two Pray-ers

Luke 18:9-14

Last year we spent several days over why the Pharisees and Jesus butted heads so often, so we won’t go too much into that right now. I think, however, that it would be helpful for us to remember how Jesus’ original audience would have reacted to this story. People today don’t tend to have a lot of respect for religious leaders (with some justification), especially for those forty years old or younger. But the Pharisees were highly respected by the common people of that time, even if it was nigh impossible for the common man to keep up with the fastidious nitpicky rules which made up the traditions of the elders. The Pharisees were esteemed for their holiness and zeal for God’s law.

On the other hand, our Savior couldn’t have made a better pick to provide a more stark contrast with the Pharisee. Just a quick reminder: Tax collectors were hated, despised, and often assassinated. Each one was considered a traitor to his own people by collaborating with the hated Romans. On top of that, they commonly stole from people by taxing more than Rome actually required and pocketing the remainder.

Knowing this, I can just imagine how someone in Jesus’ first audience would've anticipated how this story ended: “And the Lord smiled on the Pharisee for being righteous, and in response to the tax collector’s prayer, God said ‘Yeah, I agree. You really are scum. Mercy? Forget it!’”

Think about this—The tax collector is the hero of the story. Why? What did he do right that resulted in God’s forgiveness and a frown on the religious man?

Before we do that, let’s take a quick examination of the Pharisee’s “prayer.” I put that in quotes for a reason. This is because the man’s prayer is nothing but patting himself on the back. He’s got nothing but good things to say about himself. He’s following God’s law, and thus he thinks he’s worthy of the Lord’s smile. Notice that he loves to compare himself to other people: robbers, evildoers, adulterers, and of course the tax collector sitting in another spot in the congregation (probably by himself). That’s the essence of our misunderstanding, isn’t it? Ultimately God’s standard is not some other person. His standard is perfection.

That’s my “Jerry Springer” theory. The reason those reality shows are so popular is because you can watch them and think pretty well of yourself: “Well, I’ve never cheated on my wife with my sister-in-law.” As long as we compare ourselves with another sinful person, we’ll always find someone worse off than ourselves.

And then we get to the tax collector, the hero in this tale. He’s screwed up, and he knows it. He knows that if he ever gets what he deserves, he’s toast (literally). He’s under no illusions that he’s in a right relationship with the Almighty Judge. There’s no pleading of extenuating circumstances, no bringing up of any excuses, like a bad childhood. He throws himself completely on the mercy of God’s “court.”

Here’s the punchline: It worked. God forgives him. His slate is wiped clean. The term Jesus uses is “justified,” and it’s a word he didn’t use often. Paul did a lot, though. It’s used several times in Romans to describe what happens to us when we receive Christ as our Lord and Savior. It was a legal term, roughly equivalent to being declared “not guilty” in a trial.

We’re really guilty. All of us have broken God’s law and God’s heart. We don’t do the things we’re supposed to do, and we do things we know we shouldn’t. And when we come to Christ and plead nothing but his mercy, we’re forgiven.

Of course if you’re reading this and haven’t received Christ, then you know what to do. If not, I’ve written about this elsewhere.

If you’re reading this and are saved, do you think you’re off the hook here? Um, no. If you’ve known the Savior for a while, I know what danger you’re in, because I’m in it too. It’s so easy to tap into the spirit of the Pharisee, especially as we see society degrading itself further and further. If you compare yourself with Hollywood actors or Wall-Street crooks, you look pretty good, don’t you? Drop the act, won’t you? You know you need God’s mercy and grace as much now as you ever have. Take this story as a dire warning, which it is.

Lord Jesus, I’m so sorry for channeling the spirit of the Pharisees sometimes. There’s only one Judge here, and it’s not me. Please remind me of that, as often as I need it.

[July 19]--Crazy Lady

Luke 18:1-8

I have to confess that this is one of my favorite parables of Jesus; in fact, I can’t think of one off-hand that I love more. As I mentioned last year, the Bible doesn’t contain a lot of humor. If it did, it wouldn’t be as effective as a cross-cultural message for the entire world, since humor doesn’t usually translate well across borders. Nevertheless, there's some humor scattered here and there in the Scriptures.

I thoroughly believe that this story is one of those instances. Since we’re a visual society, imagine this story acted out. First, we have a judge who doesn’t fear God or care about men. Judges in particular were required to fear (i.e. have a healthy respect for) God in order to avoid criminal or unethical behavior, since an authority figure needs a reminder that there’s Someone watching over him who'll call him to account. Apparently this judge wasn’t God-fearing and placed no priority on justice, which explains why Jesus calls him “unjust” in vs. 6.

Enter the widow, or “crazy lady” as the judge likely called her (under his breath). Here’s where I see some humor. The judge wakes up in the morning, sits up in bed, yawns, and stretches. There’s a pounding on his door, and he curses to himself as he gets up and goes to it. He peeks out the window and says “It’s that crazy lady again! If I stay quiet, maybe she’ll give up and go away!” Just as he thinks this, he hears her yelling “I know you’re in there, judge! I’m going to keep pounding on this door and putting on a show for your neighbors until you come to the door!” He reluctantly opens it muttering “Listen lady, I told you before, I’ll get to your case when I get to it!” “Not good enough! I need justice now!” “It’ll have to be. Good day!” She becomes like a cartoon character, popping up at the worst moments. He’s trying to eat his breakfast, and she pops her head in the window and yells “When are you going to take my case?!” He gets into bed at night, and she’s under the bed and pops out again: “When are you going to take my case?!” He leaves the office for a nap under a tree, trying to get some rest and a break from the crazy lady. Guess who hunts him down and finds him out there?

It doesn’t take much of this before he has all he can take. She’s harassing him again about taking her case and he blurts out “OK, you win! Come in Monday morning and I’ll get the paperwork started!” She’s in the middle of her latest rant when she stops herself and says “What?” “I said you win, lady. I’ll look at your case. Come in Monday morning and I’ll help you out. That’s on the condition you stay out of my house until then.”

Now, what is Jesus’ point here? Is he comparing God to this judge? Of course not! It’s a contrast, or actually an argument from the lesser to the greater. He does the same thing when he tells us “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” The best parents in the world, as much as they love their children, are not perfect and still are selfish at times. How much more will our Father give us what we need?

That judge couldn’t care less about that widow. But she wore him down, and he decided to take her case before she sent him to the loony bin. Our Father isn’t like that at all. He loves us with an everlasting love, and a sparrow doesn’t fall out of a tree without him knowing about it. He’s committed himself to taking care of our needs. He sent his Son to bleed and die for us. He doesn’t have to badgered into taking care of his children. He delights in it.

And that extends to prayer. Remember, that’s the point of the story. He wants us to “pray and not give up.” So what about when the times when I'm “[crying] out to him day and night,” and nothing is happening? Why isn’t he intervening in my situation? Why is everything getting worse? Well, there are a lot of possible reasons why he hasn’t openly stepped in yet, and I'd never presume to know what’s going on with you in your own situation. But I do know this: Whatever reason he has for not stepping in yet, it’s not because he doesn’t know or doesn’t care. He does. He always has. And in the right time and in the right way, he will step in and set things right. Just keep praying, and don't give up. Please.

Lord Jesus, I know your truth, but sometimes it’s really hard to keep going when you don’t show yourself. I know you’re here, and you love me. Don’t hide yourself any longer, please.

[July 18]--One Out Of Ten

Luke 17:11-19

As I’ve mentioned before multiple times, I’m a big fan of Dennis Prager, a conservative Jewish radio talk-show host. I don’t always agree with everything he says, but he certainly provides an interesting perspective on the Torah and the rest of the O.T. One interesting point he made from the book of Exodus recently was on the spiritual state of Israel once they got out of Egypt. They'd seen such incredible miracles and had been redeemed so magnificently by the hand of the Lord. And what was their mantra? “Oh, if only we’d stayed in Egypt! Things were so good there! We had plenty of meat in every pot, and didn’t have to eat this nasty Manna every day!” Oh, really?! And I guess you had less mouths to feed anyway, since an entire generation of infant boys was cast into the river and murdered! Have you forgotten how brutal the slavery was? How often you cried out to the Lord for deliverance? Prager’s point is that we tend to idealize the past and disparage the way the Lord's blessed us in the present. From there he uses that to teach us about ingratitude and how 1) How universal it is, and 2) How evil it is.

In fact, you could make a strong case that it lies at the heart of our first parents’ sin. God had plopped them into the middle of a bountiful garden and provided for their every need. How many trees were there in the Garden for them to eat from? I don’t know, but I do know how many trees were forbidden to them: One. And instead of focusing on what the Lord had given them, they fixated on the little which he had not given them.

And of course the pattern continues to today’s passage. Remember our little talk a few months ago about what lepers had to endure? Not just the physical symptoms. The utter and complete isolation from “normal” society. Permanently excluded from worship in the temple. Cut off from all your family and friends. Not able to touch another human being unless they’re unclean too.

It’s a common occurrence in the Gospels. Physically inflicted people cry out to Jesus, and in his compassion he heals them. On a side-note, they weren’t healed until they showed some faith by obeying what he said: Once they started walking to the priest, they were cleansed on the way. And out of the ten, one turns back to say “Thank you.” Thank you for saving me from a lifetime of pain and misery and isolation. Notice the wonder of Jesus that children of Israel showed less spiritual sensitivity than this “foreigner,” a frequent theme in Luke. Even in the midst of Christ’s earthly ministry to the Jews, his grace was reaching out to Gentiles as well.

That’s the heart of ingratitude, isn’t it? The Lord has given us so much and has been so generous, on the physical plane and especially on the spiritual one. If you’re an American, I guarantee you that you’ve eaten better today than about 90% of the rest of the world. You probably live in a bigger and better house, and you’re undoubtedly a lot healthier too. Then we get to the spiritual blessings he’s poured into our laps until we can’t hold any more: chosen before the foundation of the world, bought by his blood, adopted into his family, given the Holy Spirit, declared to be the co-heir of Christ, protected by his seal of ownership, etc.

And when we stub our toe, we’re so mad at God we want to spit. When our favorite TV show doesn’t record properly on our DVR, we’re like children banging our spoons on our high chairs. When our boss yells at us or our spouse doesn’t appreciate us the way we like, we sulk. Notice I said “we,” and I meant it. I’m not pointing fingers, or if I am I’ve got them pointing at me as well. It’s something I struggle with just as much as anyone else.

Here’s a challenge for you, a “game” which I and my wife play when we’re tempted to whine and moan about our circumstances: “The Thankfulness Game.” We take turns going back and forth, and when your turn comes back, you have to name something for which you’re grateful. It really improves your attitude, trust me.

Father, I’m so sorry for the times I’m like the other nine. You’ve been so good to me and mine, and I want to reflect that. In the way I talk and in the way I act, I want to show the world how good you are.

[July 17]--Oh Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!

Luke 17:7-10

Have you ever had a rude waiter/waitress serve you at a restaurant? I confess I've never actually had one, but I’ve heard horror stories from people who have. Maybe they did everything right on your order, but make it obvious that they don’t want to be there. Perhaps you came at the end of their shift, or you’re bearing the brunt of misdirected anger they hold for the customer who just left. Or anger at their boss who just yelled at them, or anger at someone else who wronged them. No matter what, though, it’s really annoying. Putting a smile on your face and being friendly when you don’t feel like it is part of your job description when you’re in the field of customer service.

I think about a scenario like that when I read today’s passage. I figure some people, if they’re reading these verses for the first time, are scratching their heads. The boss in this parable seems pretty nasty. I mean, you come in from the field after a hard-day’s work, and your employer expects you to fix supper and serve it to him?! What a jerk! And once the meal’s served, God have mercy on the servant who actually expects a little gratitude for all the hard work he’s done!

Once again I bring up that magical word—context—in order to help us understand this. Let me try to clear away any misunderstanding by asking a simple question: “Is the way God's presented in this passage consistent with the rest of Scripture?” Do we commonly see him snubbing his servants and not giving them the appropriate applause when they do hard work for him? Is he the tyrant presented in today’s story? Of course not! He’s always willing to honor his servants when they do a good job for him. Abraham comes immediately to mind. Remember when his and his nephew’s servants were squabbling over land and water? He suggested the two groups part ways, and very magnanimously volunteered to let his nephew pick first which part of the land in which to settle. The Lord immediately blessed and praised him for this and made some more glorious promises about Abraham’s future.

This is a pattern you see over and over in the O.T. When his people are even making baby-steps in faithfulness, he lavishes praise on them and pours out blessings galore. What about the N.T.? Jesus makes promises about our future rewards which make the Old Testament pledges look paltry by comparison, like here. And have you forgotten Mark’s portrait of our Savior as our Servant? He came here to serve us, and of course the greatest display of this was at the Cross. In fact, the image he presents in this passage about a hard-case boss who's expecting to be served is the polar opposite of the image he presents of himself in Luke 12:35-37. In that passage, he says that when he finds his servants doing what they're supposed to be doing, "he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them." 

So what’s the point here? It’s doesn’t seem that difficult to me: This is not how the Lord treats us, but it does accurately represent how we should be thinking about ourselves. I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat it because we American Christians have such a hard time getting it into our thick skulls. God does not owe you anything except judgment and condemnation. You owe him everything, twice over. He created you, so everything is his to begin with. But take that thought to orders of magnitude when you remember that he paid to redeem you with his own blood.

And what the servants are supposed to think about themselves is absolutely true: If we did everything God told us to do, he still would not owe us. Of course we don’t do everything we‘re supposed to do. We’re still frequently disobedient. But even if we were perfectly obedient, God would still not owe us anything. We'd only be doing what we’re supposed to be doing anyway! We'd still be “unworthy servants.”

It’s worth noting once again, however, that this is the polar opposite of how our Father treats us. He's incredibly generous with his servants/children, not giving us what we deserve (judgment) and also giving us what we don’t really deserve at all (praise for doing what we’re supposed to be doing anyway). I’m really glad that this is the type of Father I have. Aren’t you?

Father, I really am an unworthy servant. But you have made me your co-heir, and the blessings are piled on top of other blessings. You are a wonder to me.

[July 16]--Rich Man, Poor Man

Luke 16:19-31

Now we come to another story of Jesus which is much more familiar than the one about the shrewd manager, namely the one about the rich man and Lazarus. Here are a few side-notes before we get to the crux of it.

• There’s considerable debate about whether or not this is a parable (that is, a made-up story) or real-life narrative. Did this actually happen? For the parable side, it is true that this matches the format of Jesus’ parables, and it fits in with parables in Luke’s placement in his Gospel. But there are some real arguments for the “really happened" side. First and foremost, if this is a parable, it’s the only one in which Jesus named a character, something he didn’t have to do in order to make the point of the story. Second, nowhere does Luke or Jesus actually call it a parable, as they commonly do when introducing one. For these reasons I’m convinced it’s not a parable and actually happened.

• This again signals the need for context, context, context. If all you had was this story, you’d assume that the way to get to heaven is by being poor. The Bible, however, is very clear on how to receive salvation and be right with God, and it has nothing with the size of your bank account. We’re saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing.

• So what is the main point of this story? It would seem pretty obvious to me: The Afterlife is going to provide some real reversals from this life. In this world, Lazarus barely had clothes on his back and was continually starving, while the rich man dined and lived like a king. In the next world, however, everything was severely reversed.

Now we come to an extremely unpleasant subject. If you assume, as I do, that the story gives true insight into the nature of the Hereafter, it tells us a lot more about Hell than it does about the End of the Saints. I remember hearing several years ago a sermon entitled “What your friend in Hell wants you to know,” and it’s stuck with me ever since. Here’s what we can learn about it:

1) It’s a horrible place. The rich man was in conscious torment. He remembered everything about his past life, and the pain of lost opportunities added to his suffering.

2) It’s permanent. This is not a place of parole or purgatory, where you can escape eventually. It’s forever and ever and ever, and you never get out. Ever.

3) It doesn’t get rid of anyone’s sinful nature. Punishment in Hell doesn’t change anyone’s state of rebellion or reform a single soul. Notice the rich man still disdained Lazarus, and selfishly wanted him to leave Paradise in order to warn the brothers.

4) I still remember the main point of that sermon: If your friend could get one message to you right now, it would be “Don’t come here!”

Why did Jesus tell us this awful story about this awful place? Because he doesn’t want people to go there. As someone once put it, you can go to Hell, but you’ll have to step over the broken, bleeding body of the Lord Jesus in order to get there.

Why did I spend all this time talking about Hell? Because I’ve taken upon myself the responsibility to teach about what Scripture says, and this is part of it. Would you want a doctor who spares your feelings and tells you what you'd like to hear? Why would you want a Bible teacher who does the same?

The applications are pretty obvious here. If you haven’t received Christ, then this is the best—really the only--time to do so. Please read this if this applies to you. If you’re a believer, then Christ has saved you from all this. I’m not expecting you to become a preacher or an evangelist, but we can’t shirk our responsibility to tell people the truth.

Father, you’re the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. You don’t want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance. Please give me that heart and passion for those who don’t know you.

[July 15]--A Hero?

Luke 16:1-13

God’s word is full of examples of irony, and I guess I’m enough of an oddball that they’re fascinating to me. The Story of the “Prodigal Son” is Jesus’ most famous parable. Countless sermons have been preached from it to good effect. But right after it is a story that rarely ranks on anyone’s “favorite parable” list. The NIV calls it “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager,” and that’s as good a name as any. It took me a while to get the point of this story, but it’s become one of great meaning to me.

We start off the story with a “manager” or “steward” and his rich boss. Actually he had the same type of job that Joseph did under Potiphar. The manager was a trusted servant who was put in charge of a person’s day-to-day operations. It was commonly his job to feed the other servants, pay the bills, conduct business affairs, etc. Joseph was an honest one, and this guy was not. The rich man discovered some discrepancies in the books, and gave him notice. Apparently the boss only saw him as incompetent, not dishonest, which explains why the manager had enough time to do what he did.

Interpreters disagree over whether or not what the manager did in response (in approaching all these debtors) was dishonest in itself or not. What was the extra money that the manager's taking off their bills? Was it the boss’s interest rate? Was it his own little “managing fee”? Or was the manager simply stealing from his boss one last time? Jesus doesn’t really make it clear, but I would lean towards the first option. At any rate, it looks like his special arrangement was dishonest, since he kept it a secret from the boss.

There are two surprising things about this story, at least to me. The first is the boss’s reaction to this. The manager still was fired, but the boss actually complimented him on his shrewdness. His reaction was not “You stole from me! I’m having you thrown in jail for that!” It was “Well done! I’m impressed!” I guess he admired the manager’s skills and intelligence, even if he despised him for his dishonesty.

The thing that surprises me much more is the “punch line” of the story. Jesus is praising the manager! He points us to this guy as someone to emulate! This lying thief provides an important example for us to follow!

Our Lord, who put a commandment against stealing in his “Top Ten” list, is not condoning dishonesty or theft. But he wants us to learn some things from the manager. There are some admirable attributes which we need and often lack.

First and foremost, the guy saw enough of the future to prepare for it. He knew he was about to turned out of his job, and he took steps to provide for himself. He was smart enough to realize that he either had to have a source of income or starve. So he carried out a plan to ingratiate himself to some people who'd be indebted to him.

That’s really the main point that Jesus is making here. Like the manager, we’re handling money and resources which don’t really belong to us. We’re only managers ourselves, and one day we’re going to have to surrender it all and give an accounting. No matter how much money I have in my bank account, whether $20 or $2,000,000, it’s all going away. No matter what I invest it in, it’s going to be dust and ashes one day: Land, stocks, buildings, technology, etc.

But there’s one area in which I can invest which will provide “dividends” on the other side of the Great Divide. Souls. I can invest in souls. How can I do that? By pouring my resources (money and everything else I have) into spreading the Good News of Christ and helping people to develop a relationship with him. That’s what Jesus is talking about in vs. 9. Once I step into Eternity, I'm going to be welcomed by those whose lives the Lord touched through me, and I'd rather have that than Bill Gates's bank account any day, wouldn't you?

That’s the sad irony here. The manager puts most believers to shame when it comes to seeing the future. Even materialistic nonbelievers can know that they aren't going to have their job forever, so the smartest among them plan for the inevitable day when that income dries up. We as followers of Jesus know that everything in this world will be dust and ashes someday. Why don’t my investments reflect that? And don’t forget what he said as an epilogue to this: If I want to have the Father trust me with “true” riches, I need to be a good steward of what he’s given me thus far. Am I? Are you?

On a much more positive side to this, here's a video perfectly illustrating this grand "welcoming" which Jesus talked about: "Thank You" by Ray Boltz

Lord Jesus, please give me an eternal perspective. May I hold loosely to what I’m going to lose anyway, and really pour what I have and what I am into what’s going to last.

[July 14]--Who’s the Prodigal One?

Luke 15:11-32

OK, we’ve come to it. This is undoubtedly Jesus’ most famous parable, repeatedly told over the last 2000 years. It’s a beautiful story, and God has certainly used it to bring countless lost souls to himself. The only reason why I wouldn’t like it is because it’s so familiar. There’s not a whole lot I could say about it that you haven’t heard before, assuming you’re familiar with it at all. For all that you’re about to read that you’ve heard before, I apologize.

First, the very fact that the son is asking for his “share” of the estate would've been totally shocking to Jesus’ first audience. It’s hard to overestimate just how blatantly disrespectful this would've been seen. He was basically wishing his father was dead. And as soon as he got his inheritance, he turned it into cash and left home, effectively saying to his entire family “You’re dead to me now.”

He went off to a “far country” and used up all his money in “wild living.” There’s some debate as to whether or not his brother was exaggerating when he accused him of using it on “prostitutes.” I tend to think that it's a fairly reasonable assumption that he did.

I know I said this last year when we discussed the Fall of humanity, but it bears repeating: Sin will take you further than you want to go and end up costing you more than you’re willing to pay. The Enemy of our souls will always present his “package” as a great deal, and it starts out sweet and ends up with the most bitter of aftertastes. The writer of Hebrews put it best when he called it “the passing pleasures of sin.” The pleasures soon go away and leave behind the bad consequences.

Once the money ran out, he sank to what he thought was the bottom, then sank a little more. Just remember this is a supposedly Jewish kid, and this was a Jewish audience listening. For the boy to get to the point of feeding pigs would be the lowest of the low. That is, until you realize that he was in such bad shape that the “food” that the pigs were eating was starting to look pretty good. That’s where you end up when you step outside of the Father’s house.

I love the phrase “when he came to his senses,” don’t you? It took him reaching rock bottom to realize just how good he had it back in the father’s house. Even the lowest servants in that house had it better than he had it now. So he rehearsed his little speech, got up, and walked back home.

Notice that the father noticed him “a long way off,” which seems to indicate he was looking for his boy. Day after day he was working outside, scanning the horizon for the son he had lost. When he saw him, he ran out to meet his son. What better image could Jesus present as to how God responds to sinners who have come to their senses?

Here’s where I have a couple of questions. This story has had several titles, including “The Prodigal Son” or “The Lost Son.” These aren’t necessarily wrong, but I have a slight quibble with both of them. The word prodigal can mean “wasteful” or have other bad connotations. But it could also mean “lavish” or “yielding abundantly.” In that case, you could also call this the story about “The Prodigal Father.” When we come home, he spares absolutely no expense to demonstrate how happy he is about that. Each of these three stories has a celebration when what was lost was found. His heart is to forgive, to restore, and to redeem. In the end, all of his enemies will be destroyed. But his preferred method of destroying his enemies is to turn them into his adopted children and co-heirs.

The trivial objection I have to the other title is that this is not a story of one lost son. I might call it “The Story of Two Lost Sons.” Look carefully at the mind-set presented by the elder son. The entire household is having a lavish party to celebrate the return, and he refuses to participate. The father comes out to plead with him, and the son displays an incredibly self-righteous, disrespectful attitude. Please notice that the returnee is called “this son of yours,” not “my brother.” This is meant to unerringly mirror the thoughts of the Pharisees.

So are the portrayals of either son hitting home to you? Have you been “feeding the pigs,” trying to tell yourself that you’re really not that bad off? If you have questions about that, see here. Or is the picture of the elder brother a little closer to the truth than is comfortable? What do you think?

And finally, here's a video of my favorite song about this story...

Lord Jesus, once again I’m reminded that apart from you there’s nothing good inside me. I need your mercy just as much now as I ever have. Whenever the spirit of the elder brother starts to come back up, please squelch it as only your grace can.

[July 13]--Leaving No Corner Unswept

Luke 15:8-10

Here we have the second of three stories which Jesus presented to illustrate the Father's determination to reclaim the lost. We looked at the shepherd’s search yesterday. Why would the Master tell another story that basically says the same thing? Why not merely skip ahead to the longest—and to most people, the most poignant—of the parables, the one about the lost son? I think he wants to highlight some different facets of his redeeming love, and also repeat some things for emphasis.

First, this story points out the effort to find what was lost. I’m sure the shepherd put a lot of time and energy into finding his lost sheep, but the story about the coin really brings it out in stark detail. Houses, especially one-rooms like hers, didn’t have windows and only had a dirt floor. That would explain why she’d have to light a lamp and sweep the house. This would likely make it an all-day affair.

Why would she put forth so much effort over one little coin? The sheep likely had sentimental value, but why the fuss over this? The coin was a drachma, which was about a day’s wages. Being poor, the woman could ill afford to let it go. But even more than that, some people say that this was part of a ten-coin set. Some have also theorized that it was her dowry, which would have been extra precious to her. In any case, it’s obvious that this one coin was incredibly valuable to her, and she wasn’t going to stop until she found it.

As I mentioned yesterday, God has been searching for lost sinners since the Fall of our first parents. The Bible is a record of God seeking the people who have run away from him. One of the biggest fallacies I’ve ever heard is that the Bible is a record of “man’s search for God.” Nonsense! Our first parents hid from him, and we’ve been hiding ever since. Some might object to this, saying “But what about all the religions out there? Aren’t they an expression of our search for God?” No. They’re still a way for us to hide from the true, living God. All the rituals, all the ceremonies, all the rules and regulations and myths which man has invented are just a way to avoid the One who created us and who will one day judge us.

All this reminds me of a story I once heard. A pastor was talking to a young girl and wanted to know if she had received Christ. He asked her “Little girl, have you found Jesus?” She answered “Mister, I didn’t know he was lost!” That brings it home, doesn’t it? Jesus wasn’t the one who was lost. We were.

My friend, unless God sought you out and hunted you down, you’d never come to him! The same goes for me. But thank the Lord, he turned on the lights in our dark world, swept out the corners, and was determined to find me. And when we’re found, there’s cause for celebration. We’ll go into this more tomorrow, but it’s worth noting now: In each of these stories, once the lost item (sheep, coin or son) is found, there’s a party to be thrown. In the first story Jesus said there’s rejoicing “in heaven.” Here he says there’s “rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God.” All this over one person who’s claimed by the King? Really? He said it. You read it.

I don’t know about you, but the one thing that comes to my mind in answer to all this: Gratitude. I was lost in the darkness and dirt. It took a lot to find me and claim me. From before the beginning of time, my redemption was meticulously planned out. And just at the right time, he pulled me out of my own mess, cleansed me, claimed me, and now considers me one of his “crown jewels.” Wow.

What else can I say, but thank you. And as always, I’m yours.

[July 12]--None Left Behind

Luke 15:3-7

I think God has a real heart for outcasts, and right now I’m not talking about the lost sheep in today’s story. I’m talking about shepherds. You might not be aware of this, but shepherds were not highly respected in the ancient Middle East. They were dirty, they were uncouth, and they were considered a very “low” occupation. But in spite of this, or maybe partially because of it, God held them to a place of honor. Of course, the two greatest leaders in the O.T., namely Moses and David, started out in the fields.

But the real kicker is the fact that God compares himself to a shepherd multiple times in Scripture. Of course you’re probably familiar with David’s 23rd Psalm, famous the world over. But the Psalms call God’s people “sheep” at least eight times besides there. The prophets also repeatedly quote God as dealing with his people as a shepherd, such as here. Ezekiel in particular predicted that, in stark contrast to the false shepherds (bad leaders) who'd come before, the Lord himself would come and be the good shepherd who'd be what they'd been waiting for. And the imagery just continues into the N.T. One of my favorite passages in John is where Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd,” obviously claiming that he’s fulfilling Ezekiel’s promises.

Why do I bring this up? Just to remind you that when God’s word calls us sheep who need a shepherd, it’s not a compliment. Quite frankly, sheep are just about the stupidest domesticated animal we have. As I mentioned in January, there’s a reason why they need constant oversight and protection. They tend to wander away from the herd and into situations they can’t get themselves out of, like off a cliff or into a brier patch. My favorite anecdote is that they’ve been known to drown because they literally are too stupid to come in from the rain. And they have no natural defenses against predators, so they’re an easy mark.

That’s why they--and we--need Someone greater than ourselves to rescue us, the point of today’s story. With many Middle Eastern shepherds, their animals weren’t just a source of meat or wool. The sheep weren’t numbered—they were named. The shepherd would regularly have a headcount so that he would quickly know who was missing. And just like the story says, the moment he realizes that one is missing, he'd spring into action, leaving the rest to go find it. Can you imagine him, calling the sheep’s name, frantically searching for this animal like it was a lost child?

Oh, what a beautiful image when he finds it! He puts it on his shoulders and carries it all the way home. When he makes it there, he calls his buddies and tells them there’s going to be a celebration.

By the way, this parable really illustrates the limits of such stories to teach us. Parables are not allegories, and they have one—or at the most a couple or three—points to make. They’re not meant to teach a comprehensive view of God or anything else. For example, does the Lord really leave behind (or neglect) some of his established children in order to go after that one who’s missing? Really? I don’t think so. The story mentions this in order to hit home just how important that lost sheep is to its owner, and how important the lost are to God.

There are two more things I’d like to bring to your notice regarding this passage. One, it presents a wonderful image of the lengths our Savior God will go to in order to bring us back to himself. That shepherd went all over the countryside, and he wasn’t going to quit until he brought that sheep home on his shoulders. This is a pattern that goes back all the way to the Fall of our first parents, as recorded in Genesis. They disobeyed his express command, and he didn’t wait for them to come to him to confess. No, he sought them out and chased them down with his indefatigable desire to redeem and restore.

I’d also like to remind you that our Shepherd had to do a lot more than just find us and carry us home on his shoulders, as he himself reminds us in John's Gospel. No, our Shepherd laid down his life for us. It cost him his very blood to bring us into his fold. Aren’t you glad he did?

Lord Jesus, even though I’m one of your sheep and I belong to you, I still tend to wander away from you. Please bring me back when I need it, and do whatever it takes to keep me close by your side.