Story 49: The Sermon on the Mount: Naming the Blessed

Matthew 5:13-11

Sea of Galilee.

This is a picture of the “Mount of Beautitudes,” the place where Christian tradition says Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. We can’t be sure that this is the exact spot, but it might very well have been, or at least some place like it. Imagine sitting and listening to Jesus with the breeze coming off the water and the sunlight glinting off the waves. What we know for sure is that the hills of this picture are the same that Jesus walked along with His disciples.

Just before giving us the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has explained that crowds of people were traveling from all over the nation of Israel and the surrounding Gentile countries to get near Jesus.  There was a massive outpouring of healing of all kinds of diseases, severe pain, demonic oppression, and physical deformities.  The heart of God for the suffering of humanity was shining through the obedient actions of His Son.  Jesus had also chosen the twelve disciples.

One day during this time of outpouring power and wild popularity, Jesus saw the crowds and made His way to the top of a mountainside.  His disciples gathered around Him to listen.  What is interesting is that Matthew says that the words of Christ that followed were specifically to teach them. The crowds were allowed to listen, but this sermon was given to teach those who were devoted to Him about  how they were to live for the Kingdom of God.  They would carry on the message of the Kingdom to the world after He took His seat on his throne.

Serving the Most High God in a world riddled with sin and evil is not easy. There are all kinds of problems and challenges that can get in the way of doing it well. Some day, those who have faith in Christ will be taken to Heaven, where we will never be tempted by sin again. We will be made whole and free to obey God perfectly. As we wait for that wonderful day, the Lord Jesus wants His followers to strive to be made perfect in God’s power. In the heart of this Sermon, He says, “‘Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.’” As we read more, we will learn what that perfection means to Christ.

In the beginning of the Sermon, Jesus teaches about the kind of people who will be allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a very different list than the kinds of things we usually tend to value. He says nothing about the proud and accomplished rulers of earth or the rich or the fabulously talented. Does God bless the ones who get all the hard work done? Will the blessed be the good looking people whose beauty seems to shine wherever they go or the innovative and creative?  These are the things we value, aren’t they? If you made a list of the people in the world today that are famous and widely respected, they are mostly made up of people who are some combination of these things. And many of these things can be very good. But in this fallen, cursed world, everything gets distorted, even our ideas of who we are meant to be and what is valuable. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave a beautiful picture of what it means to have a heart that is being perfected by God.

Imagine the power of the message as Jesus poured out pure, whole, enlivened truth to a sinful, dark, confused, and suffering world. This is what He said:

“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and

thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blesses are the merciful

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called the sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted

because of righteousness

for there is the kingdom of heaven.’”

Matthew 5:3-10

 Aren’t those beautiful words? Read them again! What do you think Jesus meant by “blessed”? In the Bible, believers are blessed by God.  What I think is totally amazing is that believers can also bless God. When God blesses us, it means He is approving of us. He is pleased…delighted, enjoying who we are in our relationship with Him. It moves Him on our behalf.  And when we bless God, it means we are praising Him because we see Him for all the wonder that He is.  There is no act that a person can do that is greater than giving praise to the most worthy God. And that matters to Him.  A lot.  It is also critical for the human soul to do it…it is what we were made for, and when we don’t, something is missing within us.  There is no gift that we can receive that is of higher honor than to receive God’s blessing.  The interaction between God and His children in mutual blessing is the central goodness and joy of where the human race were created to live.

Our whole hearts should strive to be the kind of person He longs to bless.  This is our expression of love to Him.

If we consider the things the people who are blessed will receive, it is pretty stunning…comfort, mercy, to be filled with righteousness, to become inheritors of the earth, to receive the Kingdom of Heaven, to be given the ability to see God…wow.

So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? What does it mean to mourn, to be meek, and to hunger and thirst for righteousness? How does Jesus want us to show mercy, to become pure in heart, and to be peacemakers? And what does it mean to receive the remarkable gifts that each of these qualities bring?

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Story 48: The Sermon on the Mount: AKA “Marching Orders”

Matthew 5-7

Stairway to heaven

The promises of Scripture do not tell of a perfect world in our lifetime or this era of human history. That can only happen when sin and death are utterly destroyed…at the return of Christ. But those who follow Christ are meant, in the power of His Spirit, to spread the goodness of the Kingdom of Heaven as far as possible in their lifetime through the transformation of new hearts given over to Him.  The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are beautiful and radical.  They speak of the radically different life that the disciples of Christ are called to…transformation that goes to the deepest places of the mind and heart.

There are few sections of the Bible that are read and celebrated as much as the Sermon on the Mount. It is found in chapters five through seven in the book of Matthew. It contains some of the most beautiful ideals ever written down by a human hand.

As Jesus was preaching and teaching along the edges of the Sea of Galilee and throughout the region, He spoke over and over again about the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Kingdom of God). When Matthew wrote his story about Jesus’ life, he brought together all the good things that Christ’s listeners were so amazed about and put them into one section for his readers. They answer the question: How are members of the Kingdom of Heaven supposed to live?

But why is this such a big deal? Why does humanity need anyone to teach us that?

Well, does anyone have to wonder if we are in trouble as a race? Consider the crimes of malice that go on every day across the globe: malicious threats, muggings, theft, greed, murder, lust, abuse.  The earth is a cursed world where men and woman and children live in sin and compromise. We don’t all commit every sin that is possible, but every one of us has sin mingled in with even the best things we do. The human race constantly rebels against the Lord.  We hurt ourselves and destroy each other, from the most common forms of gossip to the horrors of war and genocide.

By comparison, the words of the Sermon on the Mount are pure and bright. Jesus invaded the history of humanity on a game-changing rescue mission. He came to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  In Heaven, God’s will is followed perfectly. As followers of Christ obey the will of God on earth, they become a part of establishing His Kingdom here. They become an important part of God’s grand rescue.

Before the terrible curse ever happened, God knew it was coming.  He understood that His beloved people would fail, and He already had a plan to save them.

When Adam and Eve fell into sin, they handed the human race over to the power of Satan. Some people have a problem with the idea of Satan. He might seem like a crazy, outdated superstition. But the Old Testament and New Testament assert that Satan is a real personality, a fallen angel, who is the powerful, evil enemy of God. It is interesting that as the discoveries and inventions of science grew in society, a lot of people started to reject the idea of Satan or the demonic.  It is as if  he had be a part of the system of the natural human world to exist at all. Satan is part of supernatural existence, outside of the limitations of our natural universe. As scientist learn about new dimensions and whole aspects of our universe such as dark matter that they cannot explain even though they are part of the natural world, it might be necessary to reevaluate the authority science should have in telling the human race what is possible.  This is especially true about the supernatural which does not claim to follow the rules of nature.  We might begin to consider having a little bit of humility about what the spiritual systems of faith have said about what has been going on around us all along. According to the Bible, Satan is a real being with his own personality, and he is utterly evil. He seeks to destroy the human race.

When Adam and Eve sided with Satan in the Garden, they made a choice that separated them from their mighty Lord. But God was not going to let it end there. Over time, He raised up a nation through the children of Abraham. It was the early stages of His salvation plan for the world. They were to be a holy people, set apart from all the other nations to have the special, powerful presence of God among them. Through the leadership of Moses, God gave them the Law to help them understand the purifying, healing ways of God. It was meant to help the Israelite nation honor their holy, righteous, and loving Lord with devotion and obedience. It was meant to create a structure of healthy boundaries that supported the process of loving one another, bring protection and security for the poor and vulnerable, and prepare the way for their Messiah.

Now Jesus was going to show how high and pure and exalted that Law was always meant to be. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught how the clean, bright, holiness of God was meant to penetrate to the deepest thoughts and motives of the heart.

Jesus was preparing for the day when He would conquer the power of the curse. He knew that He was going to defeat death and sin through His own sacrifice, and that He was going to rise again. Death could not hold Him. He also knew He would ascend on high and take His seat at the right hand of God on the throne of Heaven.

As Jesus looked forward to God’s plan, He knew that once He was seated on the throne, He would send His Spirit to all those who put their faith in Him. The Holy Spirit would empower His disciples to be His wholehearted servants. They would spread the Good News of His Kingdom throughout the world.  They would live in devoted allegiance Christ as He ruled and reigned over them from Heaven. They would be called the Church, and the reign of Christ’s Kingdom would grow on earth through them. The Spirit would give them strength to overcome the Kingdom of Darkness. But Satan and his demonic host will continue to viciously fight until the time when Jesus returns and brings final, total defeat against all His enemies.

From the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the time we are in now, those who follow Jesus are living out the Kingdom of Christ in a cursed world. Sometimes it is called the time of the “now” and the “not yet.” Believers already have Christ as their King and Priest, and they already have His Holy Spirit within them.   But we are still waiting for the time of the “not yet.” That is when Jesus will return to utterly overpower His enemies and establish His Kingdom in fullness. We already have His life in us and are a part of His Kingdom, even as we wait for His Kingdom to come in fullness. The Sermon on the Mount tells how He wants his disciples to live on earth for His Kingdom in the mean time. They are marching orders.

Many of the things in Matthew’s sermon are also found scattered through the stories in the book of Luke as well. Jesus probably used similar stories over and over as He proclaimed God’s truth to His thousands of listeners across the nation of Israel.

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Story 47: The Choosing of the Twelve

Mark 3:12-19/5:1-2; Luke 6:12-10

Jesus Preaching

Imagine watching a healing right before your eyes…a blind man sees, a demented girl is made calm and clear eyed, a paralyzed woman walks…the grossest, most awful consequences of this broken world made right. These stories of Christ are just the beginning, the foretaste, of what Jesus promised to do. One day He is going to return and make all things new.

Jesus was doing massive amounts of healing and preaching to the multitudes. The Jews from Galilee and Judea that came to Him early on in His ministry were being joined by Gentiles from cities hundreds of miles away. They had heard rumors of One who could heal, and they flocked to Galilee just to get near this Jesus whose fame was spreading far and wide.

One night, in the midst of this busy time, Jesus went off to a mountain to pray. He was there all night, seeking the will of His heavenly Father. Imagine the conversation they must have had, the intensity of the love that flowed between them, the utter surrender to God’s will in Jesus every response. He was strong to not only want to do God’s perfect will, but to carry it out with perfection.

When He came down from the mountain, He called His disciples over to Him. These were the men who had been following Jesus throughout His ministry. From the many who had been with Him, He chose twelve. These were the ones that the Father had chosen to be the special servants of His Son.

Already the power of God was flowing from the One in Jesus Christ to those who had faith.   Already the Kingdom of God was spreading out from his Son to the lives of those who had put their trust in Him. But now these men were entering a special new stage. They would be trained by the Lord Himself. He would teach them and model for them, and then send them out to practice.  He would prepare them to be sent out to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven. They would learn to cast out demons and bring His healing to the broken. They would be on the front lines as heralds with the Messiah!

Imagine walking with Christ every day. Imagine being called to be the inner circle of His fellowship, knowing the intimate thoughts of His heart. They would have the unimaginable privilege of drawing near to the Son of the Living God.

What is truly amazing is that these men shared that tremendous honor in the pages of the Gospels. We are the disciples of Christ, too, and we can learn the same lessons He taught the first twelve through their own words! And the Lord Jesus is near us, too, if we have put our faith in Him. In fact, He is even closer than He was to the disciples when He walked with them on earth. He has sent His Spirit to everyone who believes in Him. Scripture says the Spirit resides in the heart of all who have faith.

The name of the twelve disciples were these:

“Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and his brother John to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder); Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him” (Matt. 3:16b-19).

As you hear these names and think about where they came from, it is a pretty amazing list. All of these men were Jewish, but they came from very different parts of the Jewish world.

None of them were members of the religious leadership of Israel. There were no Pharisees, teachers of the Law, or Sadducees. None of them held a seat of power in the Sanhedrin. If God was trying to be strategic according to the world’s terms, these would have been the men to choose. But He didn’t.

Instead, He picked men that had very little to offer Jesus. Four of them were common fishermen. One was a despised tax collector. They had all the wrong credentials, if they had credentials at all. Some of them had reputations that could be seen as a source of shame for a leader. But God looks at the heart. He doesn’t need to harness the reputations of people who are impressive to the world to accomplish His will. He draws His true servants from those who have allowed the deep, sacred things to take place in the quiet places of their souls. Humility. Repentance. Surrender. Gratefulness. Devotion. Often it is those whose lives are not cluttered and preoccupied with the accolades of this world who have the privilege of developing these internal riches. It is a faith that is worth far more than gold.

After Jesus called the twelve disciples, they descended down the mountain. They came to a place where the ground leveled out. Christ looked out and saw the teeming masses of people that were waiting for Him. And they continued to come. They would stay on for days, camping out in Galilee so that they could hear the words of Jesus the next day. His healings had power, but so did His preaching. So Jesus sat down and began to teach them again. His disciples sat near Him, for they were His main students. It would be their job to take His message out to the farthest reaches of the world.

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Story 46: A Day in the Life: The Crowds Come

Matt. 12:15-21/Matt. 5:1-2; Mark 3:7-19; Luke 6:12-10

Ancient Palestine Map Printed 1845

This is a map of what Israel would have been like at the time of Jesus. You can see the long shoreline of the Mediterranean all along its western side. The lake at the top is Galilee, where Jesus grew up and spent the early days of His ministry. The river the flows down from Galilee is the Jordan, and it ends in the Dead Sea. On the eastern side of the Jordan is where the Gentiles of the Decapolis lives. They would have had to hike all the way up to Galilee for several days on foot just to get near Jesus. What would make you walk that far?

One of the ways a writer expresses what is important is by using a lot of repetition. You can tell what is important to them by the subjects that they bring up the most often and by what themes get the most volume in their writings. This is true of the authors of Scripture as well. The writers of the Gospel gave a lot of space to record the many times Jesus spoke with the religious leaders of His day and the many times they rejected Him.

We believe the book of Mark is a recording of Peter’s account of Jesus’ life. In Mark 3, Jesus is described as becoming deeply troubled and distressed by the hard heartedness of the religious leaders. Imagine Peter, full of love and devotion for his newfound leader, watching Him get rejected. It was brave for Jesus to continue on with His bold message. It was also brave for His disciples to stand by Him.

Jesus knew that the Pharisees and other religious leaders hated Him with a deep, murderous passion. Things were getting dangerous, but it was His time to die. So He left the towns and synagogues where they controlled the population and went to the Sea of Galilee, where He could speak more freely.

The people from all the villages and towns of Galilee came out to hear him. Imagine them streaming along the pathways and roads, chatting and laughing. Imagine them bringing their sick children and lame grandparents with bright new hope. Imagine the paralyzed walking away on their own feet, the deformed made whole. Imagine the quiet and fervent discussions as the people made their way home at night. What wonderful things they saw each day! Surely this man brought a new era…a new world! Was He the Messiah?

Soon, word about His amazing healings spread all over the nation of Israel and beyond. As His fame spread, the desperate and hurting and those that loved them came from all over to seek out His healing touch. And the Spirit of God gave Him great power. All the people were being healed, freed from demonic spirits, and made strong. People walked days to come and see Him, from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea.

It would be interesting if you and I could join these people on their long walks on the road to Jesus. What do you think they talked about? Some of them probably hoped He was the Messiah. Others probably thought He was a prophet. The Gentiles might have thought he was a magician or a god like one of their idols. But none of them seemed to understand that He was the God of the universe. Did they wonder how He got His power? Did they wonder why He didn’t take any money for these glorious healings?

The people that flocked to Jesus had enough faith to hope that Jesus could reverse the power of brokenness and disease.   Little did they understand that Jesus had come to do far more! In the end, He was going to conquer sin and death itself! We know that now, and we can see how He was showing the first glimpses of His Kingdom reign through these powerful works as He preached the Good News.

Imagine what a beautiful scene it was as Jesus preached along the shores of the sea. A light breeze blows almost constantly off the water. The air was fresh, the water azure blue and shimmering in the sunlight on warm days or solemn grey on cloudy ones. Imagine what it was like to sit among the thousands upon thousands of people after your long journey. You would be probably be thirsty and dusty. Here was a fresh water lake to wash and quench your family’s thirst. It was too dangerous to preach in the synagogues, but God had provided Christ with a far more beautiful amphitheater.

In the midst of serving the people, Jesus told His disciples to keep a boat ready for Him in case the people began crowding Him. Often when the demonic spirits who plagued the people saw Jesus, they would make the people they tormented fall to the ground. They would cry out through them, “ ‘Your are the Son of God!’” These demonic spirits were not on the side of Jesus. They were not trying to proclaim the Good News. They were trying to sabotage the Lord’s ministry. It was not time for a full understanding of Christ to be revealed. So Jesus warned them not to tell anyone who He was. And since he is God, they had to take that warning very seriously.

Soon the people from non-Jewish towns as far as Tyre and Sidon heard about the miracle worker in Israel and started making their way to Him. More Gentiles started to flock in from the Decapolis. It was a group of ten cities along the other side of the Jordan River. The lives of the Gentiles had been deeply scarred by the Curse as well. They, too, loved their family members who were lame or suffering from painful diseases. Even though the Jews were their enemies and they didn’t understand the power of the Living God, they did understand their great need for something more. When they heard of this Jewish healer, they came from hundreds of miles to get to Him.

In all of this, the prophecies of Isaiah were being fulfilled. In Isaiah 42:1-4 it says:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,

the One I love, in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on Him,

and He will proclaim justice to the nations.

He will not quarrel or cry out;

no one will hear His voice in the streets.

A bruised reed He will not break,

and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out,

till He leads justice to victory.

In His name the nations will put their hope.”

Israel flag on pole on earth globe illustration

Indeed, as the people of Tyre and Sidon and the Decapolis came, they showed how the whispers of how the nations would put their hope in Him. Two thousand years before, the Lord promised Abraham that His descendants would bless the world.  Jesus was just getting started.

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Story 45: Hearts Grow Harder Still

Matt. 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-3:6; Luke 6:1-11

cuore nella pietra

In the Old Testament book of Exodus, God sent Moses to the Pharaoh of Egypt to ask him to set the children of God free. In the story, we can watch over time how Pharaoh hardened his heart over and over again. Until the story finally shifts to a new phrase. It starts talking about how God hardened Pharoah’s heart. While we know that God chooses those who will belong to Him (see Ephesians 1 and Romans 9), we also see how somehow within the purview of His will He offers men the opportunity to respond to Him. In His tremendous love and grace, He gives them chance after chance until at some point, their opportunities are over. God lets them have their own way. In the story of the life of Christ, we see the Lord give the religious leaders chance after chance to see what God was doing in their time. Some of them, like Nicodemus, respond to their Messiah with devotion. Others, like the Pharaoh, add layer upon layer of hard crust on their hearts.

After His great confrontation with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, Jesus made the journey with His disciples back home to Galilee. One day, Jesus and His disciples were going for a walk through the grain fields of the countryside. It was the Sabbath, the day of rest and worship for the people of God. As they went along, His disciples began to pick heads of grain to eat. That may seem like a small thing to you, but when the Pharisees heard about it, they were totally offended.

The way the Jewish people spent their Sabbath was a very big deal to the Pharisees. They had created a bunch of rules about what the Jewish people could or could not do on the Sabbath. It was true that God commanded that His people rest on the Sabbath, these leaders took it to a wild extreme. Sabbath was a gracious, loving gift from God to His people. He was creating sacred space for them to come every week and have fellowship with Him. It was a day of holiness where mercy should have been celebrated all the more! The religious leaders took the beautiful, life-giving law of God and added harsh, extra laws to them. Everyone felt bound to carefully obey or risk stern condemnation.

That doesn’t sound very restful does it? In fact, it was pretty distracting. Instead of spending a day of rest with their Lord, everyone had to worry about getting into trouble. Even the restful and leisurely act of going for a walk through the grain fields could be turned into a major confrontation. When Jesus’ disciples rubbed the grain in their hands and pop the kernels into their mouths, that crossed the line. The Pharisees declared, “That is too much like harvesting! That’s work! Who do these men think they are to disobey the Sabbath?” Do you see how controlling it was? Can you imagine how exhausting it was to have people regulating everything that way? The Sabbath was being robbed of its joy by the very people who were supposed to lead the nation in worship!

The Pharisees did not see it that way. They went to Jesus and said, “‘Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’” They took their own ideas and made them as important as Scripture itself! Jesus would have none of it. He went back to the Word. reminding them of a story about David, the great king and one of the great heroes of the Jewish faith. This is what Jesus said:

“‘Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread-which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 

Wow. The eating of the bread in the Temple was forbidden in the most sacred laws of Torah. But King David broke that law because it was more important to take care of his men. How much more can the disciples of the Messiah break the petty laws that the Pharisees had made up on their own? Jesus went on:

Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent…(Matt. 12:3-8). The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’”   (Mark 2:27).

Wow. It is hard for us to understand what an extreme claim Jesus was making here. He claimed to be greater that the holy Temple in Jerusalem! He claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath! He stood in the face of these men and told them that they were all wrong! How the Pharisees must have been seething at this tremendous rebuke! And how much worse that the One rebuking them was claiming to be God! Did they worry that He might be right?

On another Sabbath, He went to a synagogue where the Pharisees were already plotting against Him. They wanted to catch Him doing something that they could get Him in trouble for, so they pushed the question of the Sabbath even further. “‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’”

In the synagogue was a man with a shriveled up hand. Was he a normal, pious Jew that came every week? Had he come because of rumors about Jesus, the Miracle Man? Or was he there because the Jewish leaders wanted to set Jesus up? The Lord had a reputation for compassion, and the leaders were pretty sure He wouldn’t be able to resist a chance to heal. Then they could accuse Him. This was a trap.

Jesus was unafraid. He was not under their power or control. The Spirit of the Lord had anointed Him for perfect wisdom. He challenged the tensions head on and told the Pharisees:

“‘If any of you has sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep? Therefore, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’”

Wow! That flew in the face of everything they commanded of the people. He basically said, “You are not only wrong, you are utterly without mercy.”

Then Jesus did something even more wonderful. He told the man with the withered hand to come forward and stand in front of everyone. Boldness! As the man stood there, Jesus asked the Pharisees, “‘I ask you , is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life, or destroy it?’” He looked each of the men who wanted to destroy His life in the eye. Then He spoke to the man with the withered arm, “‘Stretch out your hand.’”

The man held up his arm and stretched it out, and as he did, a magnificent miracle happened. His arm grew out to perfect health! It was totally restored! It was just like his other, good hand! Wow! Can you imagine watching it happen? Can you imagine the wonderful change it would make in this man’s life? Wouldn’t that make you feel like rejoicing for the rest of the day?

But the Pharisees were so angry that they couldn’t enjoy the miracle. They were bitter that even though Jesus had won the argument, but they still couldn’t accuse him. For you see, Jesus hadn’t touched to man to heal him. He only told the man to stretch out his hand. Jesus didn’t do anything that the Pharisees could call work. They couldn’t say that he broke the Sabbath because speaking was allowed on the Sabbath. And yet it was clear to everyone there that the Lord had performed a fabulous miracle. It was a brilliant strategic move on the part of Christ.

The unbelief of the Pharisees was not only sad, it was dangerous, but not for Jesus. He was safe in the will of His Father. They could do nothing against the Son that the Father had not prepared. The unbelief of the Pharisees was dangerous for them. On a day when they could have rejoiced with their Messiah and celebrated an astoundingly wonderful healing, they hardened their hearts. They went off enraged and bitter instead. They began to speak in private meetings with each other, plotting how to destroy the Lord.

And so their hearts grew harder.

They even joined with the Herodians, a group they normally hated, to plan exactly how they could kill their God.

Their hearts grew harder still.

A point would come when their hearts would grow so hard that they would become confirmed in their sin, unable to repent, and doomed to die apart from the love of God.

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Story 44: The Right Side of Belief Part 2: Hearing what He really said

John 5:31-47

This stained glass of Jesus expresses such a beautiful sense of His patience strength as He taught the people that came to Him.  When most of us are attacked by others, all we want to do is return the attack or run away. But when Jesus taught  the religious leaders that were plotting to have Him killed, He continued to explain and give examples and answer their questions.  It wasn’t a one-time generosity. It was an ongoing, lavishly loving endurance towards those who wanted Him dead over several years.

Listening can be a dangerous thing. Often we can have so many thoughts in our head…so many assumptions about ourselves and others and the way the world works…that even when we do listen, we only hear what makes it through the grid of our own mental noise. It is something we can do with the words of Jesus. We hear or read what He says and decide what it means by processing it through the grid of what we think we already know. Instead of bringing what we think we know to His Words and allowing them to change us, we alter our reading of what He said to fit our understanding. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had a lot of reasons to want to keep their own grid in place, and it blinded them to the danger of a failure to listen.

Imagine it. Crowds of the Jewish people had flocked to Jerusalem for a religious festival. The radical young preacher that everyone was talking about was there with rumors about His healings and vibrant, new teaching. Imagine standing there as the religious leaders came to Him, angry and hostile. Here were the most powerful men in Israel confronting Jesus, a carpenter…a blue-collar worker from the backwoods. Most people would have wilted under the force of their intimidation. Jesus did not. He went on with His words to the religious leaders that were plotting to kill Him:

“‘If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid. There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that His testimony is valid.”

Jesus is talking about God the Father.  The men He was talking to believed that God was absolute Truth.  Whatever He says is what is True.  So according to their own worldview, if this God testified that Jesus was His Son, then nobody in Heaven or on earth could argue against Him.  Jesus is letting the religious leaders of His day know that if they were really listening to God…if they were faithful leaders…then He wouldn’t have to argue with them.  They would know who Jesus was and they would honor Him. Jesus went on:

“‘You have sent John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light.’”

There is a lot going on in these words. John the Baptist was a hot political topic. He spoke with truth and power, and the people of Israel flocked to him. The religious leaders were divided over how to handle John. He was so popular with the people that they had to play a political game. They couldn’t really embrace the man who renounced them as a brood of vipers, but if they rejected him, the people might decide they were on the wrong side of history. They might look in the Old Testament stories about the evil leaders of the past who persecuted the prophets and decide their own religious leader were from the same clan.

Of course, the leaders could have simply repented, which was all that John required. Instead, they continued with their politics, more concerned about their positions of power and keeping the people pacified than seeking the truth of what God was doing in their time.

Jesus had no problem with the truth. He gave John a ringing endorsement and pointed out that at one point, the religious leaders had, too. It is interesting that Jesus also tells His motive. He explains that He is saying these things so that the religious leaders might be saved. Imagine it. These men were plotting to kill Jesus.  The reason they were talking to Him was to figure out a way to destroy Him.  Jesus knew this, and all the while, He kept persevering… taking their accusations and returning with answers of Truth, coming up against their anger and hostility and insults again and again. With all the amazing good He was doing in Israel, transforming the lives of the hurting and bringing Words of grace and life, He still took time for the haters. He didn’t bend the Truth for them, but He kept engaging them.

“‘I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given Me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent Me. And the Father who sent Me has Himself testified concerning Me. You have never heard His voice nor seen His form, nor does His word dwell in you, for you do not believe in the One He sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me and have life.’”

These words should be a source of reverent, holy fear for everyone of every era who seeks to be faithful to God. Technically, these men knew the Bible better than anyone in the world. But they didn’t understand the Bible. The only way to truly understand the Words of Scripture is by reading it out of devoted love for God.  It is meant to be read with an earnest desire to learn His will.  The religious leaders were reading it for the sake of their own knowledge and power.  Jesus went on:

“’I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your heart. I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not accept Me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?’”

Clearly, it was possible to have a different kind of relationship to Scripture and to God than these men were willing to understand. If they had understood…if their hearts were full of devoted love…then when they met the Son of God, they would have dropped everything to follow Him. Jesus told them:

“‘But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote abut Me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?’”

Now Jesus was going straight for the lie they were clinging to. These were men who followed the outward laws of Moses better than anyone. Their confidence in their own obedience was the shield they used to justify their abuse of power. But Moses was a man who loved the Lord as his friend. He longed with God for the Law to be obeyed with hearts of devoted, surrendered, love.  Not only were these religious leaders missing what God was doing in their own time, they had missed what He had been doing from the beginning of their nation!  And now they were standing there, trying to block the path of God’s Son!  Would they ever learn to listen?

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Story 43: The Right Side of Belief Part 1: Hearing what He really said

John 5:19-30

Venice: Saint Mark basilica Judgement mosaics

This mosaic of the Judgment of Christ is in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. The Basilica was finished somewhere around 1073 AD and the mosaics were done by the end of the 13th century. People have come to gaze on the beauty and intricacy of this image for almost a thousand years. Many must have responded to its message as well: Some seeing an image of deep hope, while others a sense of foreboding dread. All it takes to be freed from the fear of judgment is to believe in the power and message of Christ in His death and resurrection.

The book of John was the last of the three Gospels to be written. At the end of his book, John tells the reason he wrote his Gospel. It was so that, “…you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name’” (John 20:31).

In John 5, the Apostle records a powerful message that the Lord Jesus gave in Jerusalem. It teaches us a lot about who the Lord really was. When Jesus gave it, He had just healed a man by the Pool of Bethsaida. The religious leaders were angry because the Lord had broken the Sabbath by telling a man to pick up his own mat as part of his healing. The religious leaders had added extra rules about what could and could not be on the Sabbath.  When Jesus ignored their rules and told others to so as well, it showed that He wasn’t very impressed with their authority.

The religious leaders were more angry that Jesus broke their rules than excited to see the life of a deeply broken man transformed. How awful.  They were having to work pretty hard to ignore that Jesus’ miracle was the exact kind of thing their great prophet, Isaiah, said the Messiah would do when He came.

The religious leaders confronted Jesus and got mad again. This time they were upset because Jesus said that God was His Father. That meant He was calling Himself the Son of God. The religious leaders were so enraged they started to look for a way to put Jesus to death.

Let’s pause for a second here and ask what else they could have done. They could have asked Jesus to use His power to help them bring healing to all the people suffering in their nation. They could have asked Him to explain what He meant when He said God was His Father. They could have used their positions of power and influence to declare that He was the Messiah to the rest of the nation. They could have believed. But they didn’t. Instead, they treated Him with the disdain of a heretic.

Jesus boldly answered them. We can learn a lot from what He said:

“‘I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can only do what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does. Yes, to your amazement He will show Him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom He is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father.’”

Wow. In their limited range of worldly power, the religious leaders dared to judge the Son of God, but one day, He would be the Judge of all humanity.   They were treating Him with breathtaking shame and dishonor, but those very men will honor Him on that Day of Judgment, whether they honored Him on earth or not. These men thought they could worship the God of Israel at the same time they were shaming and rejecting His Son. Jesus was letting them know that they couldn’t have it both ways. If they didn’t embrace Christ, they were rejecting His Father as well. He went on:

“‘I tell you the truth, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be condemned. He has crossed over from death to life.’”

Well, that is amazing, isn’t it? All the religious leaders had to do was believe. All we have to do is believe! It is so simple. But it was the one thing the religious leaders refused to do. Then Jesus said:

 “‘I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself.   And He has given Him authority to judge because He is the Son of Man.’”

Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come out-those who have done good will rise to life, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only what I hear, and My judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him who sent Me.’”

A lot is happening in these verses. Some day Jesus said He is going to judge humanity, and those who do good…those who believe (in the depth of genuine belief that causes them to live for Him)…will have everlasting life. Those who don’t believe will be condemned.

Jesus could have struck the religious leaders with lightening right then and there. That would have been tempting for a lot of us! He could have bowed down in fear and let them silence Him. But He did nothing apart from the will of His Father. Instead, the very God that the religious leaders thought they were serving stood in front of them and showed them incredible grace. He gave them a warning, telling them that they were on the fast track for judgment. He knew that His Truth, the concrete, real Truth ordained from the Throne of Heaven, would ultimately prevail.

Would the religious leaders repent? Would they be wise enough to question what they thought they knew? Would they allow themselves to see?

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