Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Each year, as we enter Holy Week, the question is raised, who was Jesus? Was he a real person, or just a made up, mythical character? Was he as reformer who became the victim of a corrupt social and political system? Was he a moralist who stepped on one too many toes? Or was he truly the Messiah, the Promised One, the King of Kings?
From a distance, the events of Holy Week look like a tragic story of betrayal and the misuse of power and authority. It looks like Jesus was swept along by the social/political current of his day, which ended in a tragic death. But if we look closer, we will discover that Holy Week was a carefully orchestrated series of events that accomplished a much higher purpose than anyone could have imagined. What looks like a tragic defeat, from a distance, is revealed as an amazing victory, when we look closer.
The prophet Isaiah foreshadowed the events of this week in Isaiah 53. The climax of Isaiah 53 is verse 10. Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. All that happened to Jesus during Holy Week was a part of God’s plan of salvation for us. Nothing happened by chance. Nothing was random or unanticipated.
From the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, Jesus was in control. Each event was carefully crafted to accomplish one goal, the salvation of humanity.
- On Palm Sunday, Jesus intentionally rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, to the cheers of the crowds. He had kept a low profile throughout his three year ministry, but not on that day. He intentionally entered Jerusalem as the Messiah. Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" "I tell you," he replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out." Luke 19:39-40
- When Jesus taught in the Temple, the religious leaders wanted to arrest him, but they could not because the crowds adored him. He moved about Jerusalem freely. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. Matthew 21:46
- At the Last Supper, Jesus knew in advance that Judas was going to betray him. All he had to do was to inform the rest of the disciples and the plot against him would have been thwarted. Instead, he allowed Judas to leave. Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. "What you are about to do, do quickly," Jesus told him, John 13:26-27
- In the Garden, Jesus submitted himself to the Father’s plan, even though it meant suffering and death for him. He could have refused. He could have gotten away, but he didn’t. He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." Matthew 26:42
- When the religious leaders came to arrest Jesus, it was Jesus who was in charge of the situation, not them. Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons. Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, "Who is it you want?" "Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "I am he," Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, "I am he," they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, "Who is it you want?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." "I told you that I am he," Jesus answered. "If you are looking for me, then let these men go." John 18:2-8
- When Jesus stood before Pilate, it was Pilate who was afraid, not Jesus. Jesus refused to be intimidated by this powerful man. The Jews insisted, "We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God." When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. "Where do you come from?" he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. "Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar." John 19:7-12
- Even on the cross, Jesus was in total control. He refused to respond to the taunts of the crowds. He extended grace to a dying thief. And in the end, he let go of this life. Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46
- But none of this would make any difference at all, if it were not for the empty tomb on Easter morning. The resurrection is the final piece of God’s eternal plan. It is the climax, not just of an individual’s story, but of all of human history. The resurrection changed everything! In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " Then they remembered his words. Luke 24:5-8
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Friday, March 20, 2015
Every August, the Minnesota Vikings show up in Mankato, MN for training camp. The purpose of this event is to prepare the players for the regular season. The coaches want the players to be ready to handle whatever their opponents throw at them.
When a young person enters the military, they are sent to boot camp. The purpose of this is to prepare these young people to serve in our military. The goal of the drill instructors is to prepare the troops for whatever the enemy might throw at them.
When a young person is learning to drive, they attend drivers’ training. The purpose of these classes it to prepare the young person for the responsibility of driving. The goal of the instructor is to prepare these new drivers for whatever they may encounter on the roads.
We all know the value of training. Most of us have gone into situations less prepared that we should have been. In the midst of the situation, we usually wish we had prepared better to face the challenge.
What is true in life, in general, is doubly true for our spiritual lives. Just like the Vikings going to training camp, and soldiers going to boot camp, and young drivers going to drivers’ training, so we should be enrolled in soul training. We should be preparing our spirits to face whatever challenges our enemy, Satan, is going to throw at us. It is important to prepare for the physical challenges of life. It is even more important to prepare for the spiritual challenges of life. Paul challenged Timothy to be actively involved in soul training. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:8)
One of the ways that we do soul training is to gather the right equipment. Just as football players and soldiers need proper equipment, so we need proper spiritual equipment. Paul calls this equipment the armor of God. Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:10-12)
The goal of soul training is to prepare us to face both the positive and negative side of life. At Vikings training camp, the players learn how to execute offensive plays and defensive plays. So it is with us spiritually. We must learn how to live for Christ and how to defend ourselves against Satan’s attacks.
The positive side of this equation is the easier and more enjoyable side of training. We learn how to study God’s word and apply it. We learn how to love one another. We learn how to walk with Christ. We often spend much time refining our offensive plays. On the other hand, we tend to overlook the more difficult side of training. We will not always be on the offensive. In fact, we will spend much more time on the defensive. There are three major areas of soul training that we need to work on. We need to work on facing temptations, trials and tragedies.
Temptations are those obstacles Satan throws in our way to knock us off track. These are usually negative things that lead us away from Christ and a Christ-like life. Some temptations are blatant and many are subtle. We have to be on our guard and ready to counteract these temptations. No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Trials are the hardships that we face in life. Some of these may be direct attacks from Satan, or they may just be part of living in a fallen would. Trials can discouragement us and immobilize us, if we are not prepared for them. God often uses trials to strengthen us and to refine our faith. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)
Tragedies are the devastating events in life; a death or a significant loss of some kind. These are the hardest obstacles for us to overcome. They often take us by surprise. We are rarely prepared for them when they happen. It is during tragedies that our soul training pays off. It is during these times we discover the depth of Christ’s love, kindness, compassion and care. It is during these times that we need to dig deep and hold onto God’s promises. The greatest promise that God has given us is summarized in His words to Joshua before he led the people of Israel into the Promised land. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:9) Jesus reaffirmed this promise when He commissioned his disciples to take the Gospel into the world. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20)
We all need soul training, so that we will be prepared to face all of the challenges of life. Whatever life throws at us, we can rest in the promise that we do not face those challenges alone. Jesus will always be with us, leading the way. "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
I want to recommend a great soul training book. It is "Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering" by Tim Keller. It is an excellent resource to help us prepare for the inevitable struggles we will face in life.
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins."
A while back there was a Zits cartoon that hit a little too close to home. Jeremy asks his dad if he has a telephone book. When his dad produces it, Jeremy takes a picture with his phone. In the last frame, he is sharing the picture with his friend Pierce. Pierce comments, I bet he still uses maps.
At our recent Leadership Board retreat, we heard an excellent presentation on the use of social media. Social media is the current way that many people connect and communicate with one another. It is exciting, dynamic and a little scary for those of us who still use the telephone book and “real” maps. Social media is definitely a new set of wineskins.
In Mark 2, Jesus challenges the stiff, legalistic approach to faith of the Pharisees. Jesus confronted their strict application of the law. Specifically he confronted fasting and what is lawful to do on the Sabbath. At the heart of what he was saying was the reality that the Pharisees had made the rules more important than the intent of the rules. Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Mark 2:27
On the other side of the coin, Jesus made it clear that He held the Law in high esteem. His purpose was not to set aside the Law, but to perfect it. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Matthew 5:17
Herein lies the dilemma that we face today. The truth of the Gospel is unchanging. The methods by which we communicate the Gospel are constantly changing. Our job is to keep these two things in proper perspective. Some people, like the Pharisees, put their focus on keeping the Gospel pure. To do this, they enshrine the Gospel in old forms that do not communicate well today. Others put their focus on being relevant to today’s culture. They jettison all older forms of worship and communicating the Gospel in favor of what is new and trendy. In their effort to be relevant, they massage the Gospel to be more palatable to today’s audience.
Jesus masterfully blended these two elements. He preserved the essence of the old, while introducing the vitality of the new. The prime example of this is what He did on Maundy Thursday, as He led his disciples in the traditional Passover meal, while redefining its elements for the new reality of His death and resurrection.
As we move into the future, we need to seek to balance the old and the new to accomplish Christ’s purposes. We must cut the anchor ropes to the past that hold us back, yet we should never abandon the wealth of wisdom and knowledge from the past. We should embrace new ways of connecting and communicating, without leaving some of our people, in the dust, on the side of the road.
When Jesus interacted with people, He met them where they were at. Then He gently guided them forward. He never demanded that they catch up to Him or be left behind.
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
Daily we hear new reports of the brutality of ISIS and Boko Harman. We are appalled by the news of kidnappings and mass beheadings. The question, “why”, rings in the air. Politicians dance around the issues, trying not to offend anyone. Editorialists expound a vast array of reasons for the violence and give their answers. In all of the discussions, there is one word that is rarely, if ever, used to explain our global disease. It is the word “SIN”.
In my daily devotions, I have been reading in the book of Leviticus and in a book by Tim Keller, titled Walking with God in Pain and Suffering. Today, those two books came together for me in a new way. Keller has been advancing the argument that secular society has no satisfactory answer for pain and suffering. If God, or any spiritual reality, is left out of the equation, then our only response to pain and suffering is a shrug of the shoulders. We are just meaningless byproducts of the evolutionary process. There is no higher meaning and purpose in life than survival. The best we can do is try to minimize pain and suffering as much as we can. This approach leaves the vast majority of people cold. Even people who do not believe in God, are appalled by the idea that their life is meaningless.
Keller contrasts the secular view with the historical, religious view that has been held by millions of people in the past, and even still today. Whatever the religious philosophy is, it seeks to interpret pain and suffering from the perspective of a higher purpose. Religion gives meaning to both life in general and the struggles of life in particular. Of all the religious players in the field, Christianity rises above the rest. Christianity offers meaning and purpose that transcends pain and suffering. It doesn’t try to excuse it or just eliminate it. Christianity defines pain and suffering in ways that help people navigate through extremely difficult situations in positive, meaningful ways.
The Bible makes it clear that the ultimate cause of all pain and suffering is sin. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, sin and death entered the world. We have all been living with the consequences of the fall ever since. Jesus came into the world to deal with the problem of sin and death. He took the sin of the world on his shoulders, and paid the penalty for our sin on the cross of Calvary. The Gospel promises us that, if we will accept what Jesus has done for us by faith, we can be forgiven and set free from our sin.
The Gospel does not put an end to pain and suffering in the world. The Gospel gives us the strength to face pain and suffering with courage and strength. We do not have to just endure; we can overcome. Jesus made a promise in Martha, in the face of death, that still applies to us today. Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" John 11:25-26
This brings me back to our current situation and the book of Leviticus. There is no doubt that evil is running rampant in our world. There are many superficial reasons given for this; poverty, powerlessness, politics. These are really only symptoms of the root problem; sin. Sin is the cause of all pain and suffering in one of two ways. In general, we live in a world that has been tainted and twisted by sin. We all face the consequences of this. Many tragic things that happen are a result of the prevailing sin nature of our world. More specifically, much pain and suffering is the result of personal sin. James warns us that our evil desires lead to negative results. What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. James 4:1-3
So, the skeptic asks, why would a loving God allow this to go on. I think the answer may be found in Leviticus 26. Here God tells the people of Israel that if they will obey God and follow him with all their hearts, He will shower blessings upon them. But, if they choose to rebel against God and go their own way, He will allow disaster to strike them. He will remove His hand of grace and allow them to face the consequences of their choice.
We live in a world that increasingly wants to live as if God does not exist. Paul has aptly described our world and the consequences of turning our backs on God in Romans 1.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. Romans 1:18-32
God is allowing us to face the consequences of our rebellion, just as a loving parent allows their child to face the consequences of their rebellion. God’s desire is not to make our lives miserable, but to awaken us to our sin and our need for the Savior. The solution to pain and suffering is not found in removing the transcendent. It is found in embracing the transcendent.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.”
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
I have been reading the book of Leviticus in my daily devotions. Leviticus is not a book I have studied in depth. I have read it on a number of occasions, but it is not a book I readily go back to for devotional study. Reading it has been a challenge. It makes me very grateful for the grace of God.
Leviticus is a book of laws, given to Moses, by God. It was intended to set the people of Israel apart from all the other nations; to make them holy to God. I understand the big picture, the overarching purpose of these laws. But, as I consider the specifics, they make me just a little uncomfortable. Many of the laws seem arbitrary, and the penalty for violating them seems harsh. I am particularly puzzled by the laws regarding what is clean and what is unclean.
I think there are at least three reasons why God gave these laws to the people of Israel. First, and foremost, God gave these laws to demonstrate the seriousness of sin. Sin comes at a cost, and that cost is very high. Second, God gave these laws to make the people of Israel distinct from all the other nations of the world. It is these very laws that have allowed the Jews to remain a unique people in the world. Third, God gave these laws to test Israel’s commitment to God. God entered into a covenant relationship with the people of Israel. That covenant promised certain blessings, but it also made certain demands. God’s blessings were dependent upon Israel’s obedience to God’s laws.
When Jesus came, He fulfilled all of the requirements of the Law on our behalf. Through faith in Him, we have been released from the burden of the Law. We have passed from Law to grace. This does not mean that we can disregard God’s commands. Instead, we can live in obedience to God’s commands without the fear of punishment. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2)
Paul helps us understand that the Law was put in place to show us our sin and our need for a Savior. The Law could never save us, it could only condemn us. Jesus came to fulfill the Law for us, so that we could be set free from sin. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4
Now, through faith in Christ, we live under grace; God’s unmerited favor. God has credited to us the righteousness of Christ. We have been redeemed and have been included in God’s forever family. So, now that we live under grace, how should we live? Should we totally disregard God’s standards and live life for ourselves? Paul says GOD FORBID!!!!!
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Romans 6:1-4
God gave the people of Israel the Law to show them their sin and their need for a Savior. He gave them a means, by which they could atone for their sins on a temporary basis. When Jesus, came he took away the need for these temporary solutions. He brought a permanent solution to our sin problem, by his death on the cross and His resurrection.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Romans 3:21-26
We are the recipients of God’s grace. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) In light of God’s amazing grace, we should then live lives that reflect the new life He has placed within us.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:1-6
If I am not careful, I can full back into the trap of being a legalist; of seeing this spiritual journey as a set of rules to which we must conform. Thank God for the Book of Leviticus. As I read it, I am reminded that the path of legalism is a losing effort. No amount of legalistic fervor can make me acceptable before a holy God. I praise God that I live under grace. I have been made spiritually whole and holy through Jesus Christ. I am now free to spend my life discovering the implications of the amazing truth.