A Personal Devotional Journal

I invite you to journey with me. Sometimes we will look at short passages of Scripture and I will give my first thoughts and impressions. Other times, I will just share my thinking about spiritual issues. Always, you are welcome to comment and add your thoughts. Together, we could learn something.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Matthew 6:24 "Two Masters"

"No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon."

Some translations use the word money for mammon.  The Jewish concept of mammon was more than just money, though.  It was more about a lifestyle of collecting material possessions. I call this earth stuff.

This verse follows on the heels of "where your treasure is, there your heart is."  Jesus is reminding us that our priorities matter if we desire to be Kingdom people.  We cannot be true servants of God if our top priority is accumulating material possessions and wealth and making ourselves comfortable here in this earthly kingdom.  It cannot be done.  These are two different paths.

The issue is not so much whether we have money or material possessions or even if we are comfortable; how tightly we hang on to such things, however, is a big issue. 

Picture this in your mind.  The path of serving earth stuff and the path of serving God have the same starting point, but the paths gradually separate.  Although they start at the same place, they end up in entirely different places.  At first, we can walk with one foot on each path without much problem.  But as the paths separate, eventually we must make a choice.  There is a point where we can no longer walk on both paths because they are headed in different directions.  We cannot truly serve both God and mammon.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"How Great The Darkness" Matthew 6:22-23

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!"

Jesus is on a theme here that His Jewish listeners at the time may have grasped more quickly than modern Westerners.  The last section talked about where are hearts are in relation to our treasures.  This section talks about eyes and light and darkness, but in a sense, they are talking about the same concept.

The Jewish listener would have understood that this wasn't actually talking about eyes and literal darkness and light.  This was a common metaphor.  It is talking about spiritual vision and internal realities.  Good correct clear spiritual vision brings light, and impaired or clouded vision leads to darkness. 

There is a very real sense in which our spiritual vision, our understanding of God, our intimacy and relationship with Jesus, determines the outcome and direction of our lives.  No matter what our head-knowledge of Bible stuff is, if our internal reality is spiritually confused, "How great the darkness!"

Friday, April 23, 2010

"Treasures" Matthew 6:19-21

"Do not lay up...treasures on earth...but lay up...treasures in heaven.... For where your treasure is, there your heart is also."

The call of the Kingdom is worked out in real life, and there is a sense in which we are either in or out.  In evangelical circles we often talk about the proper order of priorities: God, family, career (and other stuff).  But, just saying that these are our priorities does not mean they are.  It is actually not difficult to discern our true priorities.  Our priorities (treasures) are clearly shown by what we think and dwell on, and what we spend our time and money on.

If we say that the Kingdom of God is our priority, yet we spend all of our energy, time and finances building our little kingdoms here (including careers, homes, financial security, etc.) we are deceived.

We make many choices every day concerning serving God or serving self, establishing our own agendas or following His.  We may not like what Jesus is saying, but He definitely means what He is saying: where your treasure is, there you heart is. 

The flip side of this difficult teaching is that if we are Kingdom people with Kingdom purposes, there are eternal rewards, and that these eternal rewards far outweigh the temporary indulgences that we tend to reward ourselves with here and now.  It is worth our investment to be Kingdom people.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Father Will Reward You" Matthew 6:16-18

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.  Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,  that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.   And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

I don't believe that Jesus is speaking here about fasting or not fasting.  While fasting was an assumed discipline of devout Jewish worshipers, Jesus is not trying to make a case for fasting; rather, Jesus is again speaking of heart motives.  Even in the personal spiritual disciplines -not just fasting, but also studying Scripture, praying, giving and even worshiping, and even preaching or teaching- there is a huge difference between true, authentic communion with Father and putting on a religious show so that others will recognize how spiritual we are.

This does not mean that we should never pray in public or worship in public or speak Scripture in public.  And it doesn't mean that if anyone finds out about our spiritual habits of fasting or praying or studying that those things no longer have spiritual value.  But in all spiritual pursuits, our heart motivations matter.  Am I truly seeking God or am I simply seeking attention?

A reality worth understanding: we generally get what we seek.  If we are seeking attention, we can usually draw attention to ourselves; but there is no spiritual value in it.  If, on the other hand, we are seeking God, we are rewarded with a deeper, more intimate, more personal relationship with Father.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"If You Forgive" Matthew 6:14-15

"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

At the end of this prayer that Jesus modeled for us, He comes back to the forgiveness issue. This is a thread that runs through much of Jesus' teaching. It is worth digging into a bit and trying to understand.

First, let's back up and review who Christians believe Jesus is. What we believe about Jesus matters a whole lot. I don't just mean in terms of to whom we look for salvation -that part is obviously important and quite clear to those who are followers of Jesus. Rather, I mean that what we believe about Jesus matters a whole lot in terms of how we interact with and interpret Scripture.

Jesus lived here in our world, walking and talking and teaching. He lived among real people who wrote down what He did and said. What we believe about Him, must influence how we read and interpret not only what He did and said, but also how we interpret other writers of Scripture who came after Him, and even before.

So, according to Scriptures, we believe that Jesus is the Son part of the Three-In-One God. We (Christians) believe that He was with the Father in eternity. We believe that Jesus was and is the Creator, and that He willingly chose to lay His deity aside as He took on flesh and blood and came to His creation. He left eternity and stepped into time and space and lived among us. We believe He lived a perfect human life and died for our sins, clearing the way for us to have a right relationship with God. We believe Jesus rose again from the dead and returned to God the Father. I’m hoping that all of us are on the same page with this –this is basic Christianity.

Now, if Jesus came from the Father and returned to the Father and is, in fact, part of the Godhead -if He is, as Scriptures clearly teach, God –then I think it is safe to assume that what Jesus taught, and what He focused on, and what He modeled for us is incredibly important. If anybody in the history of the earth had His priorities straight and understood how things really are, it has to be Jesus. I know that the Old Testament is Scripture. And I know that the writings of Paul and Peter and John and the rest of the New Testament are Scripture. But if God became man and made His dwelling among us and explained to us how things really are, that has to become the lens through which we interpret the rest of Scripture.

Some people mistakenly insist that since all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), all Scripture is equal for all things. I believe that all Scripture is important, and useful for it's intended purpose. Some Scriptures are intended for encouragement, some for teaching, some for correcting, some for training. Some Scriptures lay the foundations of theology, and some give us historical framework. But, clearly, not all Scriptures are to be used equally for these different intended purposes. It is our job to discern which Scriptures are to be used for what. This includes discerning which Scriptures are theologically foundational Scriptures through which other Scripture is interpreted.

It seems obvious that for we who call ourselves followers of Jesus, the actual teachings of Jesus, who was and is God, must be the key to unlocking the rest of Scripture. We can’t do it the other way around. We can’t take the writings of Paul and interpret Jesus. We can’t take the prophets and interpret Jesus. We must use Jesus to interpret everything else –because Jesus is God.

The reason I am making such a big deal about this is because in today's passage from Matthew 6:14-15. Jesus is telling us that if we refuse to forgive others, the Father will not forgive us. This is serious, and either Jesus knows what He is talking about or He doesn't. Either Jesus is correct in saying that our forgiveness is related to our willingness to forgive, or He is mistaken. What we believe about Jesus is going to have a great deal of influence on how we interpret this. I choose to take it at face value and not try to explain it away for the simple reason that Jesus is God, and I am His follower.

What this means, at the least, is that for we who are followers of Jesus, forgiveness is not optional. We cannot actually be followers of Jesus and refuse to forgive others when they wrong us. We will talk more about the "how to" of forgiveness when we get to Matthew chapter 18 (read ahead if you want).

For today, though, let's commit to the desire. Because I love Jesus and I am His disciple, I choose to forgive -I am willing, with His help to forgive those who have harmed me.

Monday, April 19, 2010

"Lead Us Not Into Temptation" Matthew 6:13

"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

In the book of James chapter 1, we are told bluntly that we should not believe that God tempts us with evil -temptation is, it tells us,  a product of our own internal desires.  I believe that this insight from James helps us to understand what Jesus is asking us to pray.

Jesus is not suggesting that God has plans to direct our paths into situations that we can't handle, where we will be overwhelmed by evil.  I think He is suggesting something opposite.  Jesus is saying that we need to submit and surrender our plans and thinking to God so that we won't be lured and tempted by our own wrong desires and then be overwhelmed by evil.  We are asking God to directly intervene and mediate in those places where the devil would use our desires against us.

Lead me, Lord, away from my own best thinking which is susceptible to manipulation by the enemy, and set my heart, instead, on paths of righteousness.  Amen.

Friday, April 16, 2010

"Forgive Us Our Debts" Matthew 6:12

"Forgive us our debts as we forgive (or have forgiven) our debtors."

I feel a sermon coming on.  Actually, I'll try very hard not to be preachy, but this is a citical concept in Kingdom living.  We need to grab this and understand it. 

When Jesus uses the term debt here, He is clearly not talking about finances;  He is talking about sin.  Yet the language used in the Greek (original manuscripts) was accounting language -it is speaking of actual debts that are owed.  Jesus is teaching us to pray, to ask our Father, to forgive the sin debt that we owe Him proportional or in accordance with our willingness to forgive the sin debt that others owe us.  Immediately upon finishing this prayer, Jesus goes back to this phrase and expounds to make sure we get it right.  We will talk about that part in a couple of days.  For today let's look at the idea of sin being a debt that is owed.

I think we mostly understand our need to be forgiven.  I believe we understand that our sin addicition is systemic and we can't break our bondage to sin without God's intervention.  God's intervention, God's solution to our sin problem was to allow Jesus to take the guilt and shame of all of our sin and die for it -the debt of our sin has been paid.  The law is satisfied.  Forgiveness is given. 

The part we don't always understand is that when people sin against us there is also a debt that is owed.  Because we know that we are supposed to forgive others when they wrong us, we tend to minimalize the wrong that has been done.  It is not OK with God that people sin against us.  In equating sin as a debt that is owed, Jesus is telling us to take an account of what is owed.  Don't minimalize, don't sweep it under the rug, and don't pretend everything is fine.  Take a spiritual and emotional inventory and honestly assess the damage and hurt.

We can’t forgive a debt without taking an account of what is owed.  The reason we feel bitterness or pain is because something is owed.  There is a spiritual and emotional debt.  We must take a full account of the debt before we can effectively release it.

Releasing the debt once an account has been taken is simply a matter of admitting to God that we don't really want to carry the hurt anymore, and literally asking Him to carry the debt for us.  In a sense, we sign the debt over to Him.  Now it is no longer ours, it is His.  In forgiving, we are turning the people who hurt us over to God.  Forgiveness is a big deal.  This is critical to Kingdom living.  We'll explore this more as we get to Jesus' further teaching on it.

In the mean time, "Father, forgive the debt I owe as I forgive others the debts they owe me."  Amen.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Daily Bread" Matthew 6:11

"Give us today our daily bread."

I know quite a few Christians who seem reluctant to ever ask God for anything for themselves -I also know many who always selfishly ask God for self-indulgent things.  A right relationship with God, however, brings balance to our lives.

Here we are instructed to ask God for our daily bread.  Daily bread, of course, is referring to our physical and material needs.  If we are Kingdom minded people, loving God and serving God, it is not selfish to ask God to provide for our legitimate needs.  In fact, it is not wrong to tell God our desires.  What parent would think badly of his son or daughter for speaking of real needs and deep desires?  God is our perfect Father, and not only does He not mind our speaking of such things, He delights in the conversation.

And although this verse is telling us to make our needs known, our Father is so thoughtful and so gracious that He often gives us our desires as well.

Father, provide for me today what I need -You know my needs even better than I do.  I will learn to be content with your provision because I know that You know what is best.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Your Will Be Done" Matthew 6:10(b)

"Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

It is not coincidental that Jesus phrased this prayer in such a way that God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven directly follows the idea of God's Kingdom coming.  Again, we sometimes relegate His Kingdom and His will being accomplished to some far away date when Jesus finally comes again.  This truth, however, is condiderably more immediate.

I'm thinking of where Paul says that we are ambassadors for Christ.  Consider the role of an ambassador.  An ambassador fully represents his home country, wielding the authority of his home country to accomplish the agenda of his home country.  When an ambassador speaks in an official capacity, he speaks in the name of his home country.  And if an ambassador begins carrying out his own agenda instead of the agenda of his home country, using his political clout and authority and influence improperly, it is treason.

God has an agenda for this world.  God has plans and desires.  His plans and desires are accomplished through His people, His ambassadors.  There is a very real sense in which when we ask that God's will be done, we are not simply and passively and fatalistically abdicating our role in accomplishing God's purposes; rather, we are actively, as His ambassadors, seeking our assignments.  We are seeking direction from our King so that we can accomplish Kingdom purposes -not somewhere in the sweet bye-and-bye, but here and now, today. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Your Kingdom Come" Matthew 6:10(a)

In this prayer that Jesus used as a model to teach His followers how to pray effectively, Jesus said we should pray that God's Kingdom will come.  I think that we often relegate this idea of His Kingdom coming to sometime in the future -when Jesus comes again -perhaps the millennial reign of Jesus.

But Jesus actually talked about the Kingdom of God more than any other topic.  While modern evangelical Christians talk a lot about being born again, Jesus only used that term one time.  Of course, people do, indeed, need to be born again, but being born again clearly wasn't the heartbeat of Jesus' message.  We also talk about church and the importance of attending.  Jesus only used the word church (ecclesia) three times.  Of course, gathering together with other Believers is important, but it wasn't the heartbeat of Jesus' message.  We talk about the importance of missions -going into all the world and preaching the Gospel.  Jesus specifically mandated Believers to go just before He ascended into heaven, and He sent the disciples out evangelizing a couple of times, and He did say once, "As the Father has sent me, now I'm sending you."  Of course, missions is important, and we do, indeed, have a mandate to go forth and make disciples, but missions was not what Jesus talked about the most.

What Jesus talked about the most was the Kingdom of God.  He taught about this well over 100 times as recorded in Scripture.  Even after the resurrection during that short time before He ascended to heaven, Acts chapter one tells us that He was teaching them about the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is the heartbeat of what Jesus taught.  And only a handful of times was Jesus referring to end times events.  The Kingdom is not primarily about His second coming.  Jesus said the Kingdom is already among you.  He said the Kingdom is in you.  The Kingdom is wherever the King is.  The Kingdom is wherever God is working.

When Jesus is teaching us to pray that God's Kingdom will come, He is not saying that we should pray that the end times will come quickly.  God has a plan and a time scheduled for Jesus' second coming.  It will happen when Father decides the time is right.  That is not what we are praying for.  What we are praying for is that God's Kingdom will be fully established in us, so that God can work through us.  What we are praying for is that our hearts and minds will be fully aligned with God's desires and agenda so that we will be Kingdom people.  In a sense, praying "Your Kingdom come," is an act of surrender.  We are surrendering ourselves to God's Kingdom, God's will, and God's purposes.

Friday, April 9, 2010

"Our Father" Matthew 6:9

"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name."

Jesus has just been teaching on how not to pray -now He teaches how we ought to pray.  Although we sometimes recite this prayer in our church services, it was not really meant to be used as a rote or ceremonial prayer, rather as a model for the kinds of things we ought to pray.

The Greek word Abba (father) that Jesus uses here was the intimate word that all little boys called their fathers, leading many to think that the proper English translation should be daddy instead of Father.   On the other hand,  Abba was also the word that most adults called their fathers, so we might not want to get hung up on the word daddy.  Jesus wasn't likely instructing us to use a new title so much as inviting us to think of God differently.   Abba is a word that implies intimacy, warmth, trust and love -Jesus certainly meant to imply these things.  In the Old Testament, there are quite a few references suggesting father-like qualities of God, but this is the first place we are instructed to use such an intimate word to address God.  This is clearly an invitation to think of ourselves as a part a family, not just a religion.

The word hallowed simply means sacred or holy.  This, then, reminds us that God's name is important.  In the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments told us not to take the name of the Lord in vain.  There is a connection here.  In modern times, we have come to think that taking God's name in vain means using it in a cursing sense -and, of course, it does mean that.  But because God's name is holy and sacred, this warning to not use His name in vain means considerably more than not cursing.  Vain means without reason.  We should not refer to God flippantly, lightly, or without specific reason.  When we call on the name of the Lord, it is a holy thing.  We live in a culture that disrespects and dishonors God.  Let's make sure that we have no part in such foolishness.

So, in this first phrase of the Lord's Prayer, we have two concepts that are both important and can bring us to a balanced understanding of how we ought to think about and address God.  His name is sacred and He is God in heaven -implying sovereignty and holiness and majesty.  But He is also Father -implying intimacy and warmth and trust.

This is our God.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Praying Like Hypocrites" Matthew 6:5-8

"And when you pray, you must not pray like the hypocrites.  For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others."

I believe that the modern version of this is when people use public prayers as an opportunity to quote all of the Scripture they have memorized and/or teach their favorite doctrines.  Sometimes these prayers go on and on and on, and never actually get around to speaking to God at all.

Think about the futility of using prayer to quote Scripture and teach doctrine.  God already knows Scripture and doesn't really need to be reminded -and His theology is already pretty good and He doesn't actually need to be corrected or taught.  I do wonder sometimes, though, if our efforts to teach doctrines while praying might be because we know in our hearts that our theology doesn't completely align with His.

This has to be true: prayer that is for the "benefit" of people who are listening, is not actually prayer at all.

Just a wild thought: maybe we should use our prayer times to call out to Father and seek His face?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Motives Matter" Matthew 6:1-4

"Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."

I was just remembering the story of the prophet, Samuel, anointing David as King of Israel.  He passed over all of David's older, bigger, stronger, better-looking brothers and said, "Man looks at outward appearances, but God looks at the heart."

That same principle is what Jesus is talking about here.  Motives matter.  It is possible to do the right things with wrong motives.   And it is still good in the sense that the right things are still being done.  However, when we do the right things with the wrong motives, there is no spiritual benefit for us.  God looks at the heart.

This isn't really about whether or not people are watching.  The reality is that people are often watching.  If we are following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, doing the good works that have been assigned to us, people will notice.  We can't help that, and it really doesn't matter.  The point isn't whether people notice; the point is the motivation of our hearts.  If we do what we do in Jesus name for His glory and for His Kingdom's sake, He notices.  Man looks on outward appearances, but God looks at the heart.  Motives matter.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"Being Perfect" Matthew 5:48

"Therefore, be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect."

Let's start with the easy part: the word therefore.  Therefore means, "in light of everything that just preceded -in light of what has just been talked about."  So, in this passage, Jesus is saying "In light of all of this teaching on love and the Kingdom and integrity, be perfect as you heavenly Father is perfect."

Now, for the harder part: this idea of being perfect like God is perfect.  That command seems a little extreme, just a bit out of our league.  I would feel better about it if Jesus had said something like, "Try real hard to be more or less as perfect as your neighbor."  I'd even be ok with, "Be more or less as perfect as your preacher."  But, "Be perfect as God is perfect," seems just a tad impossible.

The issue here is, of course, this word perfect.  When we think of the perfection of God, we all know we are never going to measure up.  God is absolutely perfect in every way, and despite our attempts at being good, we aren't even close -I mean we are not even close to being good, let alone perfect.

It might help to know that the word translated into English as perfect, the Greek word telios does not actually mean absolute god-like perfection.  Telios has a very specific type of perfection in mind.  It means to be complete, whole, mature, and having integrity.  So, this command that Jesus is giving us here might be better understood as, "In light of this teaching on the Kingdom and love and integrity, whole-heartedly pursue integrity and spiritual maturity."

We are brought to this kind of perfection by following and obeying the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit, cooperating with Him as we are transformed into the likeness and character of Christ.  Follow and obey and work with God as He transforms us -still a difficult command, but not impossible.

Friday, April 2, 2010

"Where's The Love?" Matthew 5:43-47

"You've heard it said to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say you should love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.... For if you only love those who love you, how is that any different than everybody else?  If you are only loving and kind to your friends and family, aren't you just like the nonbelievers?"  (paraphrased)

The lines are obvious and the mandate is clear.  No gray area here.  If we are followers of Jesus, we are citizens of a different Kingdom.  The Kingdom of God has one law: LOVE.   If we do not love, we are not truly following Jesus and we are not participating in the Kingdom.

All earthly kingdoms operate by a natural law -everyone loves family and friends -this is natural.  But the Kingdom of God is supernatural.  There is an expectation that citizens of The Kingdom see the wisdom, and understand, and live our lives in light of the one law. 

If we love God and love others, the Kingdom grows and our Father is glorified.  We bring glory to Father as we learn to transcend the natural by loving others with His love -and we bring honor to Jesus as we learn to love Father.