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.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Mathhew 26:36-45 "Staying Focused"

Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.”  He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed.  He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour?  Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!”
Then Jesus left them a second time and prayed, “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.”  When he returned to them again, he found them sleeping, for they couldn’t keep their eyes open.
So he went to pray a third time, saying the same things again.  Then he came to the disciples and said, “Go ahead and sleep. Have your rest. But look—the time has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

This was, without a doubt, the most vulnerable time of Jesus' life.  He knows exactly what is about to happen.  In His humanness, He is struggling.  He turns to His three closest friends for encouragement and support.  He asks them to sit with Him and pray for Him.  Instead, when their friend (and teacher) needs them most, they sleep.  It reminds me of -well, me.  I'm afraid I do a similar thing more often than I am even aware of it.

God has an agenda.  God has purposes.  God has expectations. God has plans for me (and you).  Sometimes I am aware, in tune, on the same page with God and I am obedient.  Sometimes.  Other times, however, I am more aware of my own needs and plans and agenda than I am of God's plans for me.  I get caught up in real life and forget that there are more pressing concerns than my being tired, or hungry, or bored, or lonely -I can get so focused on whatever my own needs are that I am aware of little else.  Just like Peter, James and John.

I am encouraged, though, by Jesus' response.  There is a sense in which Jesus is disappointed, but not demeaning or hurtful.  Jesus is aware of their frailties.  He is disappointed that they are unable to stay focused and be with Him in His hour of need, but He never accuses them of being unfaithful or unloving.  Instead, He looks at their hearts and says, "The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.... Go ahead and sleep.  Have your rest."  I believe He has the same response to you and me when we lose sight of the bigger picture and get caught up in the minor details of our own lives and issues.  He desires that we stay focused and hear and obey; but He understands our frailties and looks at our hearts instead of just our actions.

Lord Jesus, help me today to hear Your voice and obey.  Help me to stay tuned in and focused on Your plans and Your agenda.  I want so badly to please You and get it right.  But sooner or later, I am bound to focus on myself instead of You.  Thank You that when I fail, you don't accuse or condemn; You look at my heart and know I love You.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Matthew 26:31-35 "I Will Never..."

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:
“‘I will strike the shepherd,  and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” 
Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” 
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” 
But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. 

 It started with Peter, then all the others joined in, "I will never..."  But in the end, they did.  Peter did, and the rest did as well. They did what they said they would never do.

This does make me stop and think.  Where am I deceived?  What am I capable of?  What remains in me that the enemy could exploit?

I don't suppose very many addicts started out thinking they would ever be addicts.  I don't guess very many murderers intended to be murderers.  Most leaders who experience moral failure never intended to have a moral failure. 

Whatever the sin, when it comes to the biggies, we would all like to think that we will never go there or do that.  And it seems that just making the declaration, "I will never..." is not a very effective preventative.  So, how do we guard against doing those things that we don't want to do -or perhaps against those things we kind of want to do but know we shouldn't do?  How do we lessen the risk?

I think maybe it starts with coming out of denial.  Obviously we (as humans) are capable of every kind of evil.  And we (as individual Christians) are capable of pretty much anything other people are capable of.  Just admitting that it could happen increases our ability to prevent it.

Admitting our vulnerability puts us in a good position to humbly seek God's provision.  When I understand that I am at risk, I am in a good position to actually ask Father, "What is the plan?  How can I stay connected to You in such a way that keeps me safe from the enemy's schemes?"  Clearly, I am at much greater risk when I am relying on my own strength and my own best thinking.

On my own, I am weak and vulnerable and and easy target -even when I feel strong and invulnerable. On the other hand, when I humbly admit my weakness and trust in Father's provision, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me."

So, Father, today show me Your plan.  Help me not to rely on my own thinking, rather, to trust You and follow You closely -one step behind You, walking where You walk.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Matthew 26:26-30 "A New Agreement"

As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it, for this is my body.”
 And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, “Each of you drink from it,  for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many.  Mark my words—I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” 
Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.

Keeping in mind that Jesus and His disciples were celebrating the traditional Passover meal, what Jesus does and says here is a little surprising.  Seder meals (the Passover meal) are scripted, kind of like a play.  Every year the same words get said at the same times in the course of the meal.  The meal is a remembrance of the Israelites' deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  They remembered how God had orchestrated their escape through Moses, and how He had provided for them in the wilderness and how He had brought them into their land.  Jewish people had celebrated this meal/play every year since ancient time.  In fact, modern Jewish people still celebrate the Seder meal.

Because Jesus' disciples were Jewish men, they had each celebrated this traditional Seder meal every single year of their lives.  They knew the script by heart.  So, it was surprising when Jesus picked up the bread in the middle of the meal and instead of saying the traditional words, He said, "This is my body, given for you...take it and eat it."  The disciples evidently obeyed, but were, no doubt, a little confused.  What did this mean?  They didn't understand.

A while later in the same meal, Jesus took the cup of wine -again, instead of reciting the familiar words of the Seder, He said, "In this cup is my blood -a new covenant between God and His people.  It is poured out for the forgiveness of sins....Take and drink."  Awkward, confusing, frightening words.

At the time, the disciples did not understand.  They did not yet know that the Kingdom Jesus talked of so often was not an overthrow of the Roman government -it was an overthrow of all political, social and religious systems for all time.  They did not know that yet -but they would learn it soon enough.

They would learn it, but I often wonder, have we learned it?  Do we know what it means that the first will be last and the last will be first?  Do we know what it means to treat everyone else as better than ourselves?  Have we learned to care for the widows and orphans and poor and broken of this world?  Do we treat the marginalized and hopeless with the same dignity and respect that we treat the prosperous?  Can we pray sincerely that Father will forgive our sins to the same degree that we are willing to forgive others when they sin against us?  Can we even pray sincerely that His will be accomplished here on earth in the same way it is is heaven?

This covenant in the shed blood of Jesus is about so much more than where we go when we die.  It is about how we live our lives here and now.  Yes, the Kingdom is coming.  But at the same time, the Kingdom has come -it is here.  It is at the same time, here and not yet.  We must not wait until Jesus returns to begin living in the Kingdom.  He shed His blood and gave His body so that we can begin living in the Kingdom now as we await the glorious fulfillment of the Kingdom later.

Lord, help me live today as a Kingdom person -seeking first your Kingdom and righteousness; help me trust You for anything else I need along the way.  Amen.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Matthew 26:20-25 "God's Grace & Our Own Best Thinking"

When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve.  And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”
Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.  The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” 
Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?”
Jesus answered, “You have said so.”

It is surprising and perplexing to think that Jesus knew who was going to betray Him.  In fact, it safe to assume that Jesus knew when He chose Judas as a disciple that Judas would one day betray Him.  In fact, it is an even safer assumption that as God knit Judas together in his mother's womb, He was aware that this tiny child would grow up and betray Him.  And yet, knowing all of this, Jesus treated Judas with the same dignity and respect that He treated all the other disciples.  Jesus loved Judas just as much as the others.  Jesus gave Judas every chance possible.  But Judas, relying on his own best thinking, made a choice -a bad choice.

I believe Judas had a choice.  I don't believe that Judas was merely "pre-destined" to evil.  If God hardened Judas' heart, it was only hardening it and locking it into a position that Judas had already decided upon.  So, the question is, how did one of Jesus' chosen 12 come to this awful decision?

It seems unthinkable that Judas could have so misunderstood Jesus.  It is difficult to imagine that Judas was so completely clueless as to Jesus' identity and purpose.  So, it is possible, as some scholars believe that Judas was simply tired of waiting.  He may have betrayed Jesus simply to force His hand.  If so, Judas, no doubt, fully expected that Jesus would defend Himself at trial -that Jesus would use the opportunity to reveal once and for all His identity to the masses and would then raise His army and overthrow the Roman oppressors and re-establish Israel as God's chosen people among the nations.  But that didn't happen.  Judas was sadly mistaken -not about Jesus' identity, but about His purpose.

Jesus was, indeed, the long awaited Messiah, but He did not intend to overthrow Rome and establish an earthly, political kingdom.  His purpose was, instead, to establish a New Covenant (a new agreement between God and man) and in the process, bring God's Kingdom (spiritual kingdom) here to earth.

I think that Judas' sad mistake was natural.  He simply did not understand what Jesus had been saying.  He heard the words, but missed the meaning.  Judas entire relationship with Jesus was built upon some preconceived notions about what the Messiah was supposed to do.  In a sense, Judas already had a messianic theology.  He was not willing to set aside his own best thinking for the reality of the actual Messiah.

I wonder how often we do a similar thing?  How often do we come to God in prayer, or come to His Word with our preconceived notions of what it all means -with our pre-established systems of theology -and fail to hear what God is actually saying?  What would happen, I wonder, if we listened when we prayed expecting God to answer?  What would happen if we quit relying on our own best thinking?  What would happen if we set aside what we think we already know when we sit down to read the Bible, and let the Bible itself tell us what to think and believe instead using the party line of whatever theological camp we belong to determine how we interpret Scripture?  I'm guessing we would all be surprised.  Very surprised.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Knowing Jesus Vs. Knowing About Jesus" Matthew 26:14-16

Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests  and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over. 

Some people have speculated that Judas (being a zealot who was looking for and longing for the revolution) simply got frustrated and was trying to force Jesus' hand.  Somewhere around a million people were in Jerusalem for passover that year.  Jesus was popular with the people.  If the crowds got stirred up, something was bound to happen.  So, the theory goes, Judas betrayed Jesus, not just for the money, but to force Jesus to defend Himself.  If Jesus was arrested, He would have to defend Himself and the mass of people would rush to Jesus' side and the revolution would be under way.

It is possible that Judas thought these things.  How sad.  Either way -whether Judas betrayed Jesus for money or for politics, how sad.  Sad because it is clear that although Judas knew all about Jesus, he did not know Jesus.   Judas was one of the twelve.  He traveled with Jesus, just like Peter and John and the rest.  He listened to Jesus teach.  He saw (and to some degree or another participated in) the miracles Jesus performed.  He ate with Jesus.  He heard the same parables.  He heard the same prayers.  He knew what Jesus liked to eat, what Jesus thought was funny, and what Jesus' favorite color was.  These are things you learn about someone you live with.  Judas knew all about Jesus.  Yet, somehow, knowing all about Jesus, Judas had missed the most important thing -the actual relationship with Jesus.  He knew all about Jesus, but, somehow did not actually know Jesus.

Unfortunately, I think that many of us who call ourselves by His name today have the same problem.  We know His words.  We know how Christians are supposed to think and act.  We know how Christians are supposed to vote.  We know all kinds of Christian things.  We know all about Jesus, but we don't know Him.  We don't have His heart.  And without His heart, we cannot effectively be His hands, feet or voice.

Even though Jesus came and lived among, us, and died for our sins and rose from the dead and conquered sin and death forever -even though Satan has been defeated and authority has been stripped from him -even though there is now nothing (because of Jesus) that keeps us from the Father's love -the Church is largely ineffective because we know all about Him without actually knowing Him.  And this is particularly sad because most Christians don't even know that we don't know Him.  We assume that if we go to a building on Sunday mornings and put some money in the offering and sing the songs and affirm the sermon that we know Jesus.  All the while, the lost remain lost; the brokenhearted remain brokenhearted; the sick remain sick; those in bondage remain in bondage.  Something is wrong.  We don't know Jesus.

Lord Jesus, help us.  Help all who claim Your name to hear Your voice and understand Your heart.  Help us to see others as You see them and to love others as You love them.  We are tired of knowing all about You.  Help us to know You.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Matthew 26:6-13 "The Importance Of Knowing Jesus"

     While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper,  a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
     When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked.  “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
     Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.  When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.  I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

 Jesus had just been teaching that at the final judgment part of the criteria He will use in separating the sheep from the goats (those who actually know Him from those who do not), is based in how we have treated the poor and the hurting.  It makes sense, then, that the disciples would object to this waste of money.  The expensive perfume that was poured out on Jesus' head could have, in fact, been sold and the money used to help the poor.  The disciples were not mistaken in their assessment, except for one detail.

Even at this point when the disciples had walked with Jesus for 3 years and heard Jesus teach and knew more about Jesus than any other people possibly could have, they still did not understand who Jesus was.   And they would not (could not) fully know Jesus until after His death and resurrection.  I'm not blaming the disciple here, just pointing out the obvious.  They knew all about Jesus, but they did not know Jesus.  

The woman in this story intuitively understood something that the disciples at this time only understood in theory: Jesus was and is worthy of our worship. If they had really grasped who Jesus was, they would have known that the glory of who Jesus is and the majesty of why He was among us trumps everything.  If they really knew Jesus, they would have understood that even our treatment of the "least of these" (the poor and hurting and marginalized of society) must flow out of our love for Christ -we love because He loves us; we treat others with respect and dignity because He treats us with respect and dignity; we forgive because He forgives us.  

Lord Jesus, teach me to love You more.  Help me to know You more.  Let my love for You overflow into the lives of others who need to know You too.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Matthew 26:1-4 "Hearing What We Want To Hear"

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples,  “As you know, Passover begins in two days, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
At that same time the leading priests and elders were meeting at the residence of Caiaphas, the high priest,  plotting how to capture Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the Passover celebration,” they agreed, “or the people may riot.”

Jesus clearly understood the path before Him.  He knew what was about to happen.  He knew what the religious leaders were plotting.   He tells His disciples that He is about to be handed over to His enemies and that He will be crucified.  The disciples, somehow did not catch on. 

The book of Luke tells this story even more bluntly.  There Jesus lays it out in detail.  He says, "We are going to Jerusalem where I will be arrested and handed over to the Romans -I will be mocked and flogged and spit upon and treated shamefully and then killed, but on the third day I will rise from the dead."  Luke goes on to say that the disciples did not understand the significance of His words and failed to grasp what He was talking about. (Luke 18:31-34)

It is not that Jesus was being evasive or unclear.  Yet the disciples did not understand, and, apparently heard what they wanted to hear.  We have the ability to do that -to pick and choose what we hear.  

I regularly minister to people who are angry with God because some facet of life did not happen according to their expectations.  I have, no doubt, occasionally been guilty of this myself. This little story is a reminder that sometimes my expectations are simply a matter of me hearing what I want to hear instead of hearing what God is actually saying.  When Jesus says that we must pick up our crosses and follow Him, does that actually sound like a life of prosperity and ease?  How about when He says, "If they hated Me, they will hate you too?"  or that whoever clings to life will lose it, but whoever gives up his life for the Kingdom's sake will gain?

We hear clearly when Jesus tells us that He came to give us "abundant" life.  We don't hear as clearly when He tells us that we must die to ourselves or when He says, "If they hated Me, they will hate you too."

Of course, all of what Jesus told us is true.  In Him we have abundant life and joy and peace -and at the same time we will be hated and persecuted and misunderstood.  Both are possible -just as when Jesus said "I will be crucified, but on the third day I will rise again."  And not only are these seeming contradictions possible, they are connected.  Before Jesus could rise from the dead, He had to be killed.  Maybe before we have abundant life we have to surrender the lives we have.  Maybe before we experience the fulness of His love and joy and peace in the spiritual realm, we must experience the absence of those things in the physical.  Maybe the true Christian life is both difficult and good.

Lord, help me to lay down my expectations of what I think ought to be for the reality You have lovingly put before me.  Help me to hear You more clearly and follow You more closely.   In Your reality I find love and peace and joy in the middle of my brokenheartedness. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Matthew 25:31-46 "Sheep & Goats"

        “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’....‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
       “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’....‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 
       “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

 Jesus here talks about what will happen when He returns.  There will be a time of judgement.  Just as in the previous story, when the master returned and the servants had to give an account, Jesus says that when He returns there will be a time of accounting.   A surprising time; it seems that the main question Jesus will be wanting answered is not about theological correctness.  He will not ask which denomination I was a part of or where I stood on eternal security or even His sovereignty.  He will not care whether I was Reformed or Armenian or Charismatic.  The question of tongues will never come up and neither will the doctrine of election.  The burning question -the one that must be answered -the one thing Jesus says that He will use to judge me and determine whether I belong to Him or not concerns how I treated "the least of these."

I believe that when Jesus is judging me, He will likely never ask, "How much do you know?"  On the other hand, He very well might ask, "Where is your heart?"  

I know that this makes many people mad.  Christians tend to think that Jesus must not actually mean what He is suggesting.  We want it all to be about whether we said "the prayer," whether we were baptized, how we take communion, and where we go to church.  It is not that those things are unimportant to how we live and relate to God here and now.  There is no excuse, since we have Scripture readily available in dozens of translations, to not read His Word and know what it teaches and hold the best theology were are capable of understanding.  But Jesus, whom I believe to be God incarnate, said very clearly that I will be judged not by my theological understanding and knowledge; rather, by whether I visited those in prison, fed the poor, and cared for the hurting.

Lord Jesus, help me to love those that You love in the way that You love them.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Matthew 25:14-30 "Investing Wisely"

 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone.  He gave five bags of silver to one, two bags of silver to another, and one bag of silver to the last—dividing it in proportion to their abilities. He then left on his trip. 
“The servant who received the five bags of silver began to invest the money and earned five more.  The servant with two bags of silver also went to work and earned two more.  But the servant who received the one bag of silver dug a hole in the ground and hid the master’s money.
 “After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money.  The servant to whom he had entrusted the five bags of silver came forward with five more and said, ‘Master, you gave me five bags of silver to invest, and I have earned five more.’ 
“The master was full of praise. ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’
 “The servant who had received the two bags of silver came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two bags of silver to invest, and I have earned two more.’
“The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’
“Then the servant with the one bag of silver came and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a harsh man, harvesting crops you didn’t plant and gathering crops you didn’t cultivate.  I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth. Look, here is your money back.’
“But the master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! If you knew I harvested crops I didn’t plant and gathered crops I didn’t cultivate,  why didn’t you deposit my money in the bank? At least I could have gotten some interest on it.’
“Then he ordered, ‘Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one with the ten bags of silver.  To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.  Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"

What strikes me in this story is that everyone was given something to invest.  Some were given more than others, but everyone was given a measure.  The Bible tells us that God gives every Believer spiritual gifts to invest in the Kingdom.  Some people seem to have stronger, more visible giftings.  Some can preach or sing or exercise other high-profile talents and gifts, while others have subtler gifts like the ability to listen compassionately or pray or serve others.

God's expectation for how our gifts are used correspond directly to the gifts He has given.  He only expects us to use what we have been given -we are not responsible for what we have not been given.

In this story, the one servant who does not invest what he has been given and thereby displeases his master, has the same problem that many of us have.  We often let our fears paralyze us and keep us from doing what we know we ought.  We allow fearful, negative thinking to consume us.  We allow all kinds of "what if" scenarios to play out in our minds.  The end result is that our gifts go unused.  What God could have done in and through us never gets accomplished.  And worse yet, we never learn to trust Father -which means no intimacy.

Here is the deal: we all have fears.  Everyone.  But if we want to be used of God, we must confront our fears in Jesus name.  We must step up.  We must find ways to use and exercise the spiritual giftings that Father has given us.  There is a definite "use it or lose it" principle at work.  On the other hand, gifts that get used, grow.  Whatever talents and abilities (no matter how small) that get exercised, increase.

Father, teach me to use what You have given me wisely and effectively so that Your Kingdom may grow and I may grow more in love with You.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Matthew 25:1-13 "Being Ready"

At that time the Kingdom of heaven will be like this. Once there were ten young women who took their oil lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and the other five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any extra oil with them, while the wise ones took containers full of oil for their lamps. The bridegroom was late in coming, so they began to nod and fall asleep.
 It was already midnight when the cry rang out, "Here is the bridegroom! Come and meet him!" The ten young women woke up and trimmed their lamps. 
Then the foolish ones said to the wise ones, "Let us have some of your oil, because our lamps are going out."
 "No, indeed," the wise ones answered, "There is not enough for you and for us. Go to the store and buy some for yourselves."

 So the foolish ones went off to buy some oil; and while they were gone, the bridegroom arrived. The five who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast, and the door was closed.
 Later the others arrived. "Sir, sir! Let us in!" they cried out.
"Certainly not! I don't know you," the bridegroom answered.
 And Jesus concluded: Watch out, then, because you do not know the day or the hour.

As we've pointed out before, Jesus spoke more about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of heaven) than any other single topic.  Here He puts the warnings concerning the end times that we have been looking at into a context of the Kingdom. 

Since learning to be Kingdom people and learning to recognize the Kingdom and learning to live in the Kingdom is of primary importance to Jesus (and therefore to us as apprentices of Jesus), He points out something obvious yet profound.  A time is coming, we don't know the day or hour, but it is coming, when we will no longer be able to learn about or learn to live in the Kingdom.  A time is coming when we are either in or out.  Either we will have learned and will be living according to the principles of the Kingdom, or it is never going to happen.  Right now is the the learning time.  When the learning time is over, it will be too late to learn.

Jesus' warning is "Watch out!"  If we spend this time that we are to be learning to love God and others manipulating others to love ourselves, time will run out and the lessons we need to live in the Kingdom will go unlearned and our entire purpose for having been created will have been irretrievably  squandered.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Matthew 24:36-51 "Keep Watch"

Here Jesus is still talking about the end of time.  He tells us that when He comes again, it will be just like the days of Noah -people consumed with self-indulgent living and not even aware of God.  They were unaware of God, but God was not unaware of them.  And when God had enough, He sent the flood.  

Jesus then has a warning for the church, which He likens to a servant that the master puts in charge of the household while he is away.  In this story, the servant begins to think the master is never going to return and begins using the household resources for himself and begins mistreating fellow servants -then the master returns.  This, Jesus says, is how it will be when He returns.  

 We should not think that God is being tricky or manipulative; that's not the case.  God has given us grace and mercy and compassion.  And He has entrusted to us His Kingdom.  He has given us a double mandate -to love Him and others and to make disciples.  He has gifted us with every resource we need to accomplish our mandate.  In fulfilling His purposes for us, we find meaning and purpose and fulfillment in our own lives -we were created for this.  And yet the vast majority of humans reject His love, His forgiveness, His mercy and His grace, leaving the mandate unfulfilled -pretending that it doesn't matter and that He won't care.  Hoping that Jesus won't actually come again.  This is exactly how Jesus said it would play out.

 And to those of us hoping to be found faithful, He says, "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come."  There will be a day -it is going to happen -our Lord will come.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Matthew 24:1-35 "Signs of the End"

The disciples asked about the end of time.  Jesus here answers them giving a list of things to watch for.  These include wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, an increase in wickedness and a decrease in love, false prophets and false messiahs.  Jesus not only tells what kinds of events to watch for, but also why He is prophesying these events: so that we will not be alarmed when the occur (verse 6).

Many times over the years people have put together charts and timetables and timelines and calendars to predict exactly when Jesus will come again.  Most of these people are well intentioned (I guess), but miss the point.  The point is simply that we be prepared and not be alarmed. These cataclysmic events were predicted.  Jesus said they must happen.

In fact, Jesus said that these events would be like birth pains.  Labor pains get more intense and more frequent as the time of birth draws closer.  In the same way, according to Jesus, earthquakes and famines and natural disasters and wars and wickedness will increase in intensity and frequency as the time for Christ's return draws closer.  Even though things may seem out of control, they are not. 

I don't think very many people would argue as we look around our world today that earthquakes and famines and wars and wickedness and natural disasters of all sorts are increasing in intensity and frequency.  We don't know when the end will come, but we know for certain that it will come.  And we know for certain that the events that Jesus predicted are occurring. 

Don't be alarmed, but do be ready.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Matthew 23:27-29 "As a Hen Gathers Her Chicks"

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone to death those sent to you! How often I wanted to gather your children together the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings! But you were not willing! Your house will be abandoned, deserted. I can guarantee that you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ”

 Although Jesus said this about Jerusalem, it reflects His heart toward all of His people.  It shows His desire for us.  He longs to gather us under the protection and shelter of His wings as a hen gathers her chicks.  What a wonderful image.

Our problem, as Jerusalem's, is that we don't cooperate.  He longs to protect -we walk away.  He longs to comfort -we seek solace from medications, food, money, entertainment, etc.  He longs to shelter us from the storms -we demand our own way.  He longs for us simply to rest in Him -we are not willing.

The result of our unwillingness is spiritual and emotional abandonment.  Our spiritual houses become barren and deserted.  It is not that Father is hard-hearted.  He has already expressed His desire to gather us and pour His love out upon us.  It is more that we are hard-headed.  We leave Him no option but to leave us alone.

The Good News is that this isolation is by our design, not His.  If we will draw close to Father, He will draw close to us.  The moment we turn our hearts toward Him, He is there waiting with open arms.    He is gently and patiently waiting for our prodigal hearts to head for home.

Father God, help me to draw closer today.  Shelter me under Your wings. Let me rest in Your grace and mercy and abide in Your love.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Matthew 23:29-36 "The Woes of a Heart Condition"

How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You make fine tombs for the prophets and decorate the monuments of those who lived good lives; and you claim that if you had lived during the time of your ancestors, you would not have done what they did and killed the prophets. So you actually admit that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets! Go on, then, and finish up what your ancestors started!  You snakes and children of snakes! How do you expect to escape from being condemned to hell?  And so I tell you that I will send you prophets and wise men and teachers; you will kill some of them, crucify others, and whip others in the synagogues and chase them from town to town.  As a result, the punishment for the murder of all innocent people will fall on you, from the murder of innocent Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar.  I tell you indeed: the punishment for all these murders will fall on the people of this day!

This is one of those passages that begs us to remember who Jesus is: God, Creator of all things.  In this passage where Jesus continues to pronounce woes upon the religious elite and hypocrites, He implies something that must be true, but perhaps we wish wasn't.

Jesus is looking at the hearts of these religious leaders and comparing them to the hearts of religious leaders in the past who defied and rebelled against God and murdered His prophets.  The current religious leaders, evidently, stated that they would never have dones such a thing, but Jesus corrects them saying that they certainly would have.  Jesus, the judge of hearts, says that the hearts of those murderers in the past and the religious hypocrites of His own day were exactly the same.

It is one thing to say that all of these religious hypocrites have the same bad hearts, but Jesus takes it yet a step further.  He declares that since they have the same hearts, they will have the same punishment -those who committed the murder and those who have committed no murder but have the same hypocritical hearts.

We tend to think that we will ultimately be judged on what we did or did not do -that we will be judged according to our deeds and actions.  Jesus reminds us that our deeds are a result of our beliefs -not our head knowledge, rather, our heart-beliefs.  The heart is central. 

This brings us back to where Jesus began this bigger section of Scripture.  He bluntly stated that the greatest commandment was to love God with all of our hearts, souls and minds, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  And He said that all of the laws and the teachings of the prophets were fulfilled by keeping these two commandments.  If we could learn to love God with all of our hearts, everything else would fall in line.  On the other hand, even if we never actually did anything wrong but failed to love God, we would have missed the entire point of life. 

Please, Lord Jesus, continue to teach me to love You with all of my heart.  Guard my heart. Seal my heart.  Let my heart be Your home.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Matthew 23:27-28 "Whitewashed Tombs"

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness."

 Just to remind us of the context of these woes that Jesus is pronouncing on the Pharisees:  the teachers of the law and Pharisees were asking Jesus illegitimate questions trying to trick Him into saying something they could twist and use against Him.  Among the questions that were asked was one concerning which law, which commandment, was the most important.  Jesus answered that the most important commandment was to love God with all of our hearts and souls and minds and strength, and the next, to love our neighbors like we love ourselves.  And then Jesus made an astonishing statement.  He said that all of the law and all of the teachings of the prophets were fulfilled by keeping these two commands.  If we could truly learn to love God and others, the law would be fulfilled.

Immediately after this, Jesus began speaking these woes upon those who were asking trick questions -the religious leaders who did not understand and did not truly care about the heart of God.

The theme of this woe, much like the others preceding, is the importance of internal spiritual realities and not just external appearances.  God is not nearly as concerned about our looking religious as He is about learning to love Him.  Intimacy with Father produces transformation, but external appearances do not produce intimacy.  When we are worshiping and opening our hearts to God and loving Him, we are changed simply by being in His presence.  But this internal transformation only happens when we forget about being religious and just abandon ourselves to the relationship.  When we being motivated by looking good and acting religious, by definition we are not being motivated by loving God and others.  In other words, when we are focused on the externals, it prevents us from focusing on the internals.  Jesus likens this to whitewashed tombs: beautiful on the outside, but filled with death on the inside.

Father, today help me to care more about how You see me than how others see me.  Teach me to love You more; and as I love You, let Your love flow into the lives of those around me.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Matthew 23:25-26 "Dirty Dishes"

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean."

 We have a tendency to focus on how things look.  There is a saying, "Perception is reality."  And, in some ways that is true; it is not true in a Kingdom sense, however.

When the prophet Samuel, directed by God, went to Jesse's home to anoint a new King for Israel, he was sure that several of Jesse's older sons were King material.  They were big and strong and good-looking.  But God passed them by and chose instead the youngest son, David, who was watching the sheep out in the field.  David was not yet as big, strong, or good-looking as his brothers, but God saw something in him that his brothers didn't have.  Here is a truth that God revealed to Samuel:  man looks at outward appearances, but God looks at the heart.

Outward appearances can be deceiving.  Sometimes people who look like everything is great on the outside are falling apart on the inside.  And, sometime people who seem to be struggling are being stretched and growing.  Only God sees the whole truth about a person.

So, Jesus says that we need to quit being outward focused (as in outward appearances) and start taking care of the internal stuff.  As with other spiritual truths, when we get our focus right -taking care of our own internal junk, it just happens that we also begin to look right on the outside too.

When we begin to see the reality of this, we understand why we need to be concerned about our interior motives and issues.  Hiding our problems leads to hypocrisy: clean on the outside, filthy on the inside.  We need to be transformed as we allow Jesus to renew our minds.  We need to quit hiding our issues, let God expose them, and allow Jesus to heal them.

Lord Jesus, help me to be the man that people think I am.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Matthew 23:23-24 "Swallowing Camels"

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give to God one tenth even of the seasoning herbs, such as mint, dill, and cumin,  but you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain a gnat out of your drink, but swallow a camel."

 What does God really care about?  What does He want us to care about?  Jesus gives us a clue.  Although preachers world-wide seem to think it has to do with tithing and not robbing God -as important as that may be -money is not what God is passionate about.  And many believe that God's foremost priority for us is obedience -as important as that may be -but even obedience is not what Jesus indicates here.  

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were completely obedient to the letter of the law.  This is what Jesus is talking about when he mentions the mint and dill and cumin.  Since the law commands that a tithe be given, they tithed.  They tithed willingly, and they didn't just tithe on household income; if they had an herb garden, they even brought a tenth of the produce to the temple as a tithe.  They were fanatical about obedience to the law.  But something was amiss.

Although they were fanatical about obeying the law, Jesus identifies three things as being more important than tithing and even more important than strict obedience to the letter of the law.  Jesus specifically mentions justice, mercy and faithfulness.  These are not laws exactly, these are character qualities.    To be more specific yet, these are character qualities of God.  Jesus is saying that developing these character qualities is more important than legalistically keeping the law.  Next, Jesus says something that we might want to note:  obedience to the law without having these qualities (justice, mercy and faithfulness) is like straining a gnat from our drink and then swallowing a camel.  This is a picture of absurdity.  We might think even with a lack of godly character and wrong motives, someone obeying God's law is still way ahead of those who don't keep the law.  But Jesus says differently; keeping the law without developing godly character is worthless and ridiculous.  Why?  Because more than anything else, God loves us and wants us to love Him.  And if we learn to love God, two things start to happen.  One, we begin keeping the law, not out of compulsion and sometimes not even aware that we are keeping the law, yet we end up keeping the law because -Two, we begin to be transformed into the likeness and character of God.

Legalistically keeping the law is putting the cart before the horse.  The first and more important things are to accept God's love, learn to love Him, and begin to love others.   Jesus said that all of the laws and teachings of the prophets can be kept by learning to love.

Let's not strain out the gnats only to swallow camels.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Matthew 23:16-22 "Yes and No"

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’  You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?  You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’  You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?  Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.  And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.  And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

 Let's make sure we understand what Jesus is teaching here.  He is not saying that swearing by one thing (either altar or gold) is more binding than swearing by another thing.  To think that would be missing His point.  Jesus is identifying in the Pharisees a lack of understanding of a fundamental character quality that God's people ought to possess: integrity.  In fact, in another place Jesus says very clearly not to swear by anything because people should be able to take us at our word.  When we say yes, it should mean yes.  When we say no, it should mean no.

Playing games with honesty is not God's way.  I heard a preacher teaching a while back that we need to be very careful about the wording when when pray and be very specific because God is likely to give us exactly and only what we ask for.  For example, if you need a new car, ask for a Mercedes just to make sure God doesn't stick you with a Kia.  THIS IS WRONG!  God isn't mean spirited, and He can't be manipulated.  Playing games with wording is Satan's domain.  Jesus said that Satan is a liar and the father of lies.  This means that all deception and trickery originates with Satan.

And this is the heart of what Jesus was teaching.  Playing games with the wording to get out of keeping an oath or a promise is 100% Satan's domain, and God's people should not participate.  When we, as God's people, blur the lines between lying and truth, we are fudging on one of God's primary character qualities and siding with the enemy.

When we say yes, let it mean yes.  When we say no, let it mean no.  Let's be the kind of people that others trust because our Father is trustworthy.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Matthew 23:15 "Hypocrites: A Double Portion"

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!"

I've seen this principle enacted in real life.  On one of our trips to Africa, we arrived shortly after a big name evangelist from the U.S. had been there.  Reportedly, he stayed in a five-star hotel, demanded a chauffeured Mercedes limousine to get around and was paid $50,000 for a two night stadium event.  I have no idea whether or not anyone found a real relationship with Jesus through that event, but I know for sure the impact he had on local pastors.  Many began to dress like him, adopt his preaching style and mannerism, and preach a lot on tithing and prosperity.  They all want to be rich like the American -and many became  spiritually abusive in the process, attempting to build their own kingdoms instead of God's Kingdom.

But this warning is not just for manipulative prosperity preachers; this is a serious warning for any preacher or teacher who loses sight of the greatest commandment that Jesus gave us just a few verses earlier: Love the Lord you God with all of your heart, soul and mind -and love your neighbor as yourself.

When we teach people to follow theology (of any stripe or color) instead of teaching them to love Father, we have missed the mark completely and are leading people astray.  Theology is simply man's attempt to explain the things of God.  Theology has a place in helping us understand God and things of God, but theology is not God.  We must not get too attached to theology at the expense of actually learning to love God and others.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Matthew 23:13 "Shutting Out The Kingdom"

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either."

 We tend to think of the Pharisees as the bad guys because they often opposed Jesus and because they ended up having Jesus killed.  In the culture of the time, however, the Pharisees were considered the best of the best.  They were experts in God's Law.  They even added new laws to interpret the old laws.  And they kept the very letter of the law.  Unfortunately, in the process of keeping the letter of the law, they sometimes violated the principle of the law.  And ultimately, even though they diligently kept God's laws and believed that they were honoring God by being so strict in their interpretations, they became enemies of God.  

Understand that the Pharisees did not consider themselves to be enemies of God -they assumed that they were favored by God because of their keeping of the laws and rules.  But God considered them enemies because their opinions ended up being more important to them than God's opinions.

The spirit of pharisee-ism is still alive and well today.  Bible teachers often teach their own theological bent instead of teaching people to love Jesus.  This causes people to embrace religion without having any real relationship with God.  In essence, they shut the door of the Kingdom in people's faces, refusing to go in themselves and not allowing others to enter either.  We don't really need systematic theology to live in the Kingdom.  What we need is to love God more, forgive others more, and do good as the Spirit prompts and leads us.  More relationship.  Less religion.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Matthew 23:1-12 "Trying To Get Noticed"

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples.  The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees are the authorized interpreters of Moses' Law.  So you must obey and follow everything they tell you to do; do not, however, imitate their actions, because they don't practice what they preach.  They tie onto people's backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry, yet they aren't willing even to lift a finger to help them carry those loads.  They do everything so that people will see them. Look at the straps with scripture verses on them which they wear on their foreheads and arms, and notice how large they are! Notice also how long are the tassels on their cloaks!  They love the best places at feasts and the reserved seats in the synagogues;  they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them Teacher.  You must not be called Teacher, because you are all equal and have only one Teacher.   And you must not call anyone here on earth Father, because you have only the one Father in heaven.  Nor should you be called Leader, because your one and only leader is the Messiah.  The greatest one among you must be your servant.  Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great.

Although Jesus speaks here about how Pharisees dress and what they want people to call them, He is not actually talking about garments and titles; rather, He is addressing motives and attitudes.  Hypocrites love to call attention to themselves.  Jesus tells us that this is not how the Kingdom operates.  Kingdom-minded people call attention to their King, not to themselves.  Accordingly, those who honor God are honored by God.  Those who exalt God are exalted by God.  This is not something we can fake or manipulate because God knows the motives of our hearts.

Be wary of "leaders" who call attention to themselves -something is amiss.  As with the Pharisees, these kind of people might sometimes be able to expound on Scripture and teach correct doctrine, but that does not make them worthy of honor.  People can be skilled teachers, or have spiritual anointings or operate in high-profile spiritual giftings and at the same time be arrogant and ambitious and self-absorbed.

Don't follow/honor/imitate anyone because of giftings and anointings -follow because of character and the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control) evidenced in his life.  Godly character can't really be faked -it only comes from walking with Jesus.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Matthew 22:41-46 "Jesus Questions The Pharisees"

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them,  “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
 “Sit at my right hand

until I put your enemies

under your feet.”’

If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?”  No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions. 

The Saducees and the Pharisees had been asking Jesus questions -not legitimate questions, wanting to know truth; rather, tricky questions trying to embarrass Jesus publicly.  Now, Jesus asks them a tricky question.  Jesus knows (as He had already told the Saducees) that they didn't really know or understand either Scripture or the power of God.

The question Jesus asks is fairly simple -If the Messiah is a son (descendant) of King David, why did David prophetically call Him Lord?  The Pharisees chose to walk away rather than answer.  You see, people were increasingly believing that Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus instead of denying it was increasingly proving it to be true.  So, when Jesus asks this, many of the people listening believed He was speaking of Himself.  The dilemma for the Pharisees is that the only possible answer to this question is that David was prophesying that his descendant Messiah would be more than just a human sent by God and used by God -that the Messiah would be Divine.  This is not something they wanted to state publicly in front of people who were believing Jesus was the Messiah.  In fact, their plan was to execute Jesus for blasphemy for implying that He was, indeed, the Messiah and that He was, indeed, Divine.  The last thing they wanted was Scriptural proof.

It is not hard to see why the Pharisees came to the conclusions they had come to.  They had a very long history of religious traditions and paradigms and already knew (or at least thought they knew) how Scripture ought to be interpreted.  Their main problem was simply that their interpretations did not match God's interpretations, and their spiritual reality was not God's spiritual reality.  I believe that we are always in danger of falling into the same trap.  Just as with the Pharisees, it is easier for us to rely on our denominational and theological traditions and teachings than it is to enter into authentic and intimate relationship with God.  We are sometimes more concerned with what men say than what God says.  God has a habit of rocking the boat.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Matthew 22:34-40 "The Greatest Commandment"

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.   One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

It is not surprising that the Pharisees sent an expert in the Law to question Jesus. What is surprising is the legitimacy of the question. I wonder if, considering Jesus' growing popularity with the common folks, the Pharisees were trying to nail down Jesus' theological (and political) bent. Maybe they wondered if they could recruit Jesus to their cause or at least tag into His popularity. At any rate, the legalists sent a legal expert to ask a legal question: "Which commandment is greatest?" Or "Which law is most important?"

Before I go further, let me clarify what I believe about Jesus Christ because this will help you understand the lens through which I am looking at life and interpreting Scripture. I believe that Jesus is part of the Triune God –the Three-In-One God comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe that He was with the Father in eternity, and 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. I believe He lived a perfect human life and died for our sins, clearing the way for us to have a right relationship with God. I believe Jesus rose again from the dead and returned to God the Father. I’m hoping that we 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. 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.

With that in mind,  we can see the importance of Jesus' response.  God is telling us exactly what His priorities are.  Jesus replied, "Love God with all you've got -body, mind and soul;  and love others like you love yourself."  In other words, Jesus said that the most important thing is love. First, to love God –and then to love one another. This is so important, according to Jesus, that it supersedes the entire law. If we actually learn to love, everything else takes care of itself.

This is clearly the heart of God. This is the bulls-eye of the target. This is what makes Christianity different than any man-made religion. This is it. Jesus taught and modeled love. Authentic Christianity is not religion, it is relationship. The mark of Spiritual maturity is not how much of the Bible we have memorized, it is not how many people we have led in the “sinner’s prayer,” it is not how much spiritual power or anointing we operate in. The only authentic mark of Christian maturity is how much we love God and how much we love others.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Matthew 22:23-33 "More Games With God"

That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.  “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him.  Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother.  The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh.  Finally, the woman died.  Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.  At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.  But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you,  ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 
When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching. 

We sometimes think of the Saducees and the Pharisees as being pretty much the same -probably because neither party (they were more than just religious factions, they were political parties within the Jewish Theocratic system of government) especially liked Jesus and both parties were always asking trick questions trying to trap Jesus in saying something that the general population would find offensive.  But the Pharisees and the Saducees were quite different.

The Pharisees believed that if they could keep the Law of Moses perfectly, God would be impressed with their diligence and would then be convinced to relent and deliver them from the hands of the Roman Empire.  Accordingly, they were all about the Law.  This is why they were so legalistic -they believed that their deliverance from Rome depended upon everyone keeping the Law.  The Saducees, on the other hand, didn't believe this at all -they weren't even convinced of the reality of God, and certainly didn't think that God was going to deliver them from Rome.  They were Jewish by birth and practiced the Jewish religion for reasons of tradition and patriotism and heritage and the better good of society, etc.

In this story, the Saducees came to Jesus with a trick question.  The question isn't as important here as Jesus' response.  I believe that His response covers all our tricky Theological strawmen as we snipe at one another over theological issues that don't reflect God's heart.  Jesus didn't debate them.  There would be no point.  He simply said, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God."

The inference in Jesus' response is that we need two things to even approach theological correctness.  First is a knowledge of Scripture -and the second is knowledge (experiential knowledge) of the power of God.  Experiential knowledge does not come from studying textbooks or even from listening to good teaching -or even from studying Scripture.  Experiential knowledge of the power of God comes only from an authentic, personal encounter with the living God.

People who are always arguing over theology are, at best, immature and and lacking wisdom -and at worst, lacking any real relationship with God at all.  We would be well to take Jesus' approach and not enter into their foolishness.  “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Matthew 22:15-22 "Playing Games With God"

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.  They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.  Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?  Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius,  and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. 

 The Pharisees were playing games.  They didn't realize it at the time -they thought they were playing games with men, but they were playing games with God.  They were so confident their theological paradigm was correct that it never crossed their minds that they might be wrong -about anything.  So they came up with tricky questions and false arguments and straw men of every sort to prove to themselves and others how clever and how correct they were.

Of course, there is a big problem with this approach to the spiritual life -the problem is that even though they couldn't see it, they were wrong -completely wrong.  This seems obvious to us since we have Scripture and history to show us the reality.  It was not as obvious to them.  From their perspective, they were serving God by exposing false teachings and a false prophet.

The sad thing is that we do the same thing today.  We will fight to the death to defend theological paradigms that have nothing to do with the heart of God.  Charismatics battle Evangelicals that battle Presbyterians that battle Baptists that battle Methodists that Battle Congregationalists that battle Armenians that battle Reformers -and all do this in the name of God, quoting Scripture, defending Truth against bad doctrine and heresy.  Meanwhile, as we play games with God, the world watches and wonders.

I wonder what might happen if we actually believed what Jesus taught?  "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself."

When we stand before God, I'm certain that He is not going to question us on our denominational distinctives or theological correctness; instead, He will look at our hearts.  Did we love God?  Did we love others?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Matthew 22:1-14 "Proper Attire Required"

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.  He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.  The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.  The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes.  He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

 It's not difficult to see the in the basic story here the picture of Jesus.  The Father first invited the Jews to celebrate His Son, their Messiah.  They rejected their Messiah, and consequently, we (the Gentiles) were invited to the feast.

God's grace and compassion and mercy are overwhelming.  We who did nothing to warrant an invitation have been invited.  We receive all the benefits and love of the Father -all the attention that He would pour out on His people.  We have, in a very real sense, become God's chosen people.  We have been grafted into His family tree.  He withholds nothing.

But there is something here that we often forget.  Although God's compassion and mercy is overwhelming and His grace sufficient to meet every need, it is not given without expectation.  God has expectations.  He has requirements.  This is a reality often overlooked in Evangelical circles.  All have been invited and anyone may come, but we don't set the terms of the invitation.  We come to God on His terms or we we can't come.

We come to the Father in brokenness and humility, accepting Jesus as His one and only provision for our rebellion and sin.  We clothe ourselves in the righteousness of Christ.  We turn our hearts from the agendas and desires of the flesh (this world's best thinking) and allow Him to transform us into the likeness and character of Christ.  It is an all or nothing proposition.  We must fully enter in, or we may not enter at all.  The invitation has been given.  But we must respond appropriately.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Matthew 21:42-47 "The Cornerstone"

Jesus asked them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:   
   ‘The stone that the builders rejected
      has become the cornerstone.
   The Lord is responsible for this,
      and it is amazing for us to see’?

 That is why I can guarantee that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce what God wants. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken. If the stone falls on anyone, it will crush that person.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his illustrations, they knew that he was talking about them. They wanted to arrest him but were afraid of the crowds, who thought he was a prophet.

First, the obvious: Jesus is speaking of Himself.  He was rejected by His own people -particularly by the religious leaders and the religious elite -and yet became (according to the Father's plan) the very cornerstone of His Kingdom and the only means by which we can have an intimate, right relationship with Father.

The part of this passage that stands out to me as I read it today, though, is where He says,  "Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken. If the stone falls on anyone, it will crush that person.”  It seems to me that we all fall into one of these two categories -those who here and now are broken by the reality and truth and love of our Savior, and those who deny Him, turn from Him, reject Him, yet one day will bow before Him and be emotionally, spiritually and even physically crushed by the Truth they rejected.  In both cases there is a sense in which we are broken.  In one scenario, however, we are broken and restored and filled with purpose, joy and hope.  In the other, we are broken and hopeless.

Lord Jesus, Thank You for allowing me to be sweetly broken, and wholly accepted.  I gratefully and willingly bow before You here and now and acknowledge that I am Yours -I belong to You.  You are my Master, my King and my Friend.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Matthew 21:33-41 "For Whom Do We Labor?"

“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.  When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.  Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.  Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’  So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” 

 Let's make sure we put this into the context in which Jesus taught it.  This is during the last week of Jesus' life, just before He was arrested and crucified.  Jesus was at the temple teaching when the religious leaders challenged His right and authority to teach.  Jesus did not answer them, but He taught these parables instead.  It seems obvious that Jesus is talking about the religious institution.  And whatever was true for the religious institutions back then is still true for us today.  These parables give us a glimpse of how the Kingdom functions and how God thinks.

The landowner, of course, represents God.  The vineyard is the ministry of the church (or in Jesus' day, the temple).  God set the church up to be functional -to bear fruit.  The job of the the tenants (church people, Christians, Preachers and Teachers), is to care for the vineyard in such a way that it produces fruit that benefits the true owner -God.  The caretakers (we who are Christians) are not the owners.  We were not given the authority to build our own kingdoms, have our own agendas, or produce fruit just for our own benefit.

When any given local church, or even any given denomination operates the vineyard for personal profit, reputation, prestige, power or influence, it is no longer functioning as the Kingdom.  Even when a church teaches a lot of good things and does a lot of good things, if it has it's own agenda it is not functioning as the Kingdom.  When we do that we are not loving God, rather using God to love ourselves. 

Does God care about this?  After all, isn't the Gospel still being taught?  Maybe.  But, clearly motives and agendas matter to God.  We have a King.  We have a Kingdom.  When we substitute our own agendas for His Kingdom agenda -when begin building our own kingdoms, we are robbing God.  And even though He is patient and gives us plenty of time to learn to love Him and serve Him and repent from our foolishness, if we don't repent their will one day be a consequence.  The owner will visit the vineyard and "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end."

Lord Jesus, as I serve you in the section of the vineyard You have entrusted to my care, help me to mindful of Your desires, Your plans, and Your fruit.  Lord, find me faithful.  I long to hear those beautiful words, "Well done My good and faithful servant."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Matthew 21:28-32 "What Father Wants"

 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

 The thought that crossed my mind is how many Christians sit in church every week listening to powerful and theologically sound sermons learning who God is and what He wants and how to please Him and how we ought to think and how we ought to live.  All across America (and probably the world) churches are becoming like seminaries.  Never before in history has the Word of God been more accessible and better taught.  And yet, we are spiritually dead and dying.  

Churches are full of people who know doctrine and theology (and will argue it incessantly), and at the same time live with no transformation, no joy, no power, no fruit of any sort.  Something is radically wrong.  Jesus says what.

Knowing the will of Father and doing the will of Father are completely different things.   In another place, Jesus said, "You are my friends if you do what I command."  It is not just about knowing what God says or even hearing what God says -it is about living and doing what God says. This is the Kingdom!

Here is the biggest rub:  we cannot do what He says until we surrender.  We cannot accomplish His agenda and our own at the same time.  It can't be done.  Here is what Father wants:  children who are willing to hear what He says and willing to live it out in real life. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Matthew 21:23-27 "When to Confront"

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” 
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’  But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

 One thing we know for certain that Jesus was not adverse to confrontation.  Just a couple of days before this, he had cleared the temple with a whip.  Other times he had called out the priests and pharisees calling them, "A brood of vipers," and "Whitewashed tombs, clean on the outside but full of death on the inside."

Here, the pharisees and priests confront Jesus and demand to know by whose authority He is teaching.  Jesus just kind of side-stepped the issue.  He could have told them.  He could have told them and backed it up with a miracle.  In fact, He could have told them and backed it up by calling down a few thunderbolts from heaven -it might have been very convincing.  Instead, He side-stepped the issue, ultimately saying, "I'm not going to tell you." 

Since we know that Jesus was not afraid to confront, but often chose not to confront, it seems to me that we can become just a little more like Jesus if we can figure out what criteria He used to decide when and when not.

It seems to me that Jesus confronted when their was evil or injustice.  It also seems that He was not very interested in defending Himself when others made accusations -implied or directly.  In other words, Jesus confronted others when a moral and/or spiritual principle was at stake, especially when it involved the helpless and the powerless.  But it was never a matter of personal pride or saving face.

Many years ago when someone accused me of something, my father gave me what I believe turns out to be truly godly wisdom.  He said, "If what they are saying is true, repent and get it right.  If what they are saying is false, let God and the fruit of your life be your defense.  Either way, you don't need to defend yourself."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Matthew 21:18-22 "Fruitless"

Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.  Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.  If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

In many ways, this is an odd passage.  Jesus commands a fig tree to wither and die just because it has no fruit.  The disciples were amazed, and Jesus uses the opportunity to teach about faith.  I kind of get what He is saying about faith.  I mean, I do not have that kind of faith, but I understand the principle He is teaching.  There is something else here as well, though.  There is a Kingdom principle that Jesus often teaches and here illustrates:  Use it or lose it.  

God has an expectation that whatever He has given us, we should use for His Kingdom's sake.  To him who has much even more is given.  To the one who buries his giftings and hides his treasure,  what little he has is taken from him.

In this process, I believe God is patient and gentle.  He teaches us.  When Jesus asked one man if he believed, the man replied, "I do believe; help my unbelief."  That was both honest and enough.  God works within the boundaries of what He has given. There is no doubt, however, that God expects us to use what He has given.  If I have just a little faith, God doesn't expect me to move a mountain -but He might expect me to pray for my neighbor or my children or a co-worker.  And as I exercise my faith, He gives more.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Matthew 21:14-16 "Sponanteous Worship"

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.  But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
   “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
   “‘From the lips of children and infants
   you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”

I don't think it is coincidental that as soon as Jesus drove out the money changers and cleared the temple of inappropriate activities, appropriate activities broke out.  Namely, people began to worship -starting with the children bursting forth in spontaneous praise.

I often pray for God to break out in our churches, and long for a movement of God marked by spontaneous, authentic, unashamed worship and praise.  As I read this simple story, I find myself wondering if a few things need to be cleared out before God will reveal Himself in this way.

And what about the personal, intimate experience with Father?  I wonder what needs to be cleared out of my life in order to experience Him anew...

I find that I easily get distracted and just drift day to day -getting by.  Not that there is anything overwhelmingly wrong going on; just that there is nothing overwhelming supernatural going on.  

Father, please overwhelm me.  Call forth your praise in me.  Renew me.  Make me clean and whole.