Story 164: Judgment: God’s Job and Ours

Matthew 21:18-22 ; Mark 11:19-26

Silhouette of dead tree at sunset

The coming of Christ to Jerusalem was like a rush of wind, blowing through the hustle and bustle of the Passover Feast, disrupting everything and turning it upside down. As He walked in upright, steadfast obedience to His Father, He shook the settled pretenses of false worship and the malice of the corrupt leaders. The favor of the people was being called out. Would they choose the ways of man or the ways of God? Would they be on the right side of True History?   Would they give their loyalty to their Lord?

As everyone watched to see what the radical young preacher, this Jesus, would do, nobody seemed to realize that they were the ones being tested. They thought it was Jesus who was under scrutiny, but in God’s reality it was their time for choosing. Meanwhile, Jesus stood in the straight, iron strength of God’s mighty power against the churning mess of sinful men. It was up to everyone else to realign themselves with Him.

One way to think about this is to compare our need for God to our need for oxygen. We can’t survive without oxygen. It is ridiculous to reject air.  It is pointless to argue or complain about having to breath. It is far better to be grateful that the oxygen is there. On a far deeper level, we need God.  Every culture has formed some faith system in their reach towards Him.  But Jesus declared that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  We can’t get around what He said…either He is wrong and He was a horrible liar, or He is right, and we ought to give all that we have to follow Him.  There is no other option for eternal hope. He is the Source, and without Him, when the human race rejects Him, we plunge ourselves into horrible defeat.

This defeat may take time.  The religious leaders certainly thought they were going to get away with killing Jesus.  But today, the names of the high priests are only known to history because they murdered the Son of God, while Jesus has been worshipped with great devotion since the day He rose again.  In the end, Christ will have the total victory, and those who do not align their hearts and lives to Him will face absolute devastation.

The second day of the Passover week had come and gone. Jesus journeyed with His disciples on their nightly path to Bethany. It was a small village on the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from the city. It is the place where He raised Lazarus from the dead. It is also where Mary, Lazarus’ sister, had anointed Christ with perfumed oil. Jesus and His disciples slept there through the watches of the night to regain their strength. As the sun rose, they could look across and see the formidable walls of Jerusalem. How it must have glimmered in the sun.  As morning came, Jesus journeyed with His disciples back to the Temple.

Along the way, they came across the very same fig tree that Jesus had cursed the day before. Only now, the bright green leaves were gone. The entire tree, from the roots to its highest branch, was shriveled and dried up. It was shocking. Something that had seemed so vibrant and alive the day before was completely dead.  As we look at the stories in the book of Matthew and Mark, we can see that the fig tree was a symbol.  The nation of Israel had not responded to their Savior…they had not produced the spiritual fruit they were made for.  And because of this, there would be judgment.  Somehow, the Jewish people would be cut off from life. Today we can look back and know that this prophecy came true.  Within the lifetime of the disciples, the nation of Israel was totally decimated by the Roman Empire.  It would be another 2,000 years before Israel became a nation again.

When Jesus’ disciples saw the tree, they were amazed. “‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’” they asked.

Then Peter remembered what Jesus said. “‘Rabbi,’” he said, “‘behold, the fig tree which you cursed has withered.’”

Jesus responded, but you’ll notice, He didn’t say much about the fig tree.  He simply used it as an example to offer His disciples a rather astonishing promise:

“‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go throw yourself into the sea, and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours'”

Mark 11: 22-24

These words of Jesus are so grand and great that they are difficult to believe. When we read them… and I mean really read them, do we take His words seriously? Is there doubt, reluctance? Are we carrying some fear that He won’t answer?   Do we sincerely believe our prayers can have that kind of power? And if we don’t…what does that tell us about our faith in Jesus?

These words were a challenge to the disciples. Jesus knew they had faith, but He also knew there was greater faith to be had, and until their faith was so great that it could move a mountain…truly and completely believing it is possible in the power of God…then they were meant to keep on pursuing greater faith.

These words were not just a challenge for the disciples. They were meant for all who belong to Jesus. As we seek to live by faith, to follow Him on the path of faith, what it is that He is putting in front of us to pray for? Do we have the faith to ask without doubting? Surely as we start to pray those prayers, Jesus will lead us into deeper realms of faith…to the place where He will answer them. He will remove the barriers and brokenness in our hearts so that we can wholeheartedly embrace fullness in Christ.

Jesus knew that we all have those barriers to faith, so He explained an important one to His disciples:

“‘And whenever you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in Heaven may forgive your sins'” 

Mark 11:25

Imagine how this all looks from Jesus’ perspective. God is all powerful, all knowing, totally able to do anything He chooses.  And He is full of love and desire to work in power through His children. Yet unforgiveness is toxic. If we are full of anger, unforgiveness, and malice towards each other, what will we do with His power? We will abuse it…use it as a way to compete and tramp down others…allow our own darkness to taint God’s work in the world. Even as we seek to love God, we will misrepresent Him because we haven’t chosen to forgive.

This may seem like a small thing, and because we treat it like a small thing, we live smaller lives for God.  Forgiveness is a big deal in the eyes of God.  It is important to quiet ourselves and take time to listen to our hearts. Who have we not forgiven?  Who has hurt you? Ask yourself this and be still. Listen to the answer inside you. Who do you feel hurt by? Who makes you feel angry when you think about them? Who do you have accusations against? Whose success is threatening to you? Whose failure would you enjoy?  Who do you avoid?

We were created for a perfect world of perfect love. We were not meant for this petty, selfish world where we do so much to hurt each other. There is much to forgive. Pray through forgiveness with the Lord, even for things that seem small to you: “Lord, I forgive Susie for ignoring me and favoring Sally…Lord, I forgive Jack for mocking me in front of our colleagues…Lord, I forgive my husband for leaving his clothes on the ground so I have to pick them up.”

Pray also through the big things, so great and painful that they are hard to think about… “Lord, I forgive my mother for abandoning our family…Lord, I forgive my neighbor for slandering me and destroying my reputation…Lord, I forgive my husband for abusing our child.”   These are agonizing pains…the horrors of a world under a terrible curse. Jesus does not require that we allow sin to continue, and we are meant to protect the innocent. We should not agree with abuse and slander and abandonment, and we should stand with Jesus against evil as we are able. But when sin comes against us, we are still required by God to forgive. It removes the toxic power of unforgiveness from our souls and allows us to draw near to God.  We can trust…we must trust…that He will apply His perfect justice and mercy in His perfect time.

When Jesus cursed the fig tree, it was a symbol of God’s coming judgment on the nation of Israel. They refused to repent and put their faith in their Savior. Yet when Jesus answered His disciples about that curse, He did not tell them to do the same. They were not to curse the nation. They were to pray in faith for big things, and they were to forgive.


Story 163: The Passion Week, Day 2: What is Your Delight?

 John 12:44-50

Sermon on the Mount

When Jesus came into the world as an infant, it was not the same as when you or I came.  When God gave us to our parents, it was the beginning of each of us in the world.  When Jesus came, He left the throne of Heaven to do so. He left the vision of His glorious Father and the adoration of the angels to become an infant, taking on all of the vulnerability of a human baby and the challenges of life that follow.  And when He came, it was to the nation of Israel.  God had raised up this nation from the beginning, the children of Abraham, to bring salvation to all the nations.  Little did Abraham or his descendants understand the remarkable way that God would do it.  The Lord would show up Himself, coming in the form of a man, making Himself a servant (see Phil. 2:5-11).  And though Jesus went around the nation of Israel teaching the bright, ringing truth of God’s love and His Kingdom…even though He spent His days healing the sick, making the lame walk, and casting out demons…even though all He ever did was profound good…the religious leaders of Israel wanted to kill Him.

Jesus came with a message of repentance, longing for the people to recognize their sin and turn from it.  He came with the power to free them, if they would only agree to being freed.  Yet for the most part, the people did not repent.  Many enjoyed hearing His preaching.  His miracles were amazing and the rumors and guesses about what He was going to do next were exciting, but when it came down to it, the hearts of the crowd were not inclined to deal with their rebellion and lack of love for the things of God.  They wanted a spectacle more than they wanted a Savior.

At this point in the story, Jesus had been traveling around the nation of Israel for over three years.  He had gone to their synagogues, journeyed to their villages, and preached under the open sky.  He had relentlessly pursued them with His love.  Now He had come to the Passover Feast in Jerusalem to lay down His life.  How would the people respond to His teaching in the last days of His presence among them?

In the midst of the broad rejection of Jesus, there was a remnant of those who believed, even among the Jewish leaders. Yet as time passed, the religious leaders that hated Jesus made sure there would be a steep price to pay for loyalty to Him. His followers could be put out of the synagogue. They could lose their positions of influence. In the end, many of the leaders who supported Jesus at first began to fall away.  They loved the praise of men more than they longed for the praise of their heavenly Father. To their shame, they were too afraid to stand with the Christ.  The remnant that had seemed so promising caved under the pressure of the powerful religious leaders.  They rejected Christ, too.

Jesus cried out:

“‘When a man believes in Me, he does not believe in Me only, but in the One who sent Me. When he looks at Me, he sees the One who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in Me should stay in darkness.

Wow.  Imagine what it was like to be among the people who were listening to Jesus.

For you and I, Jesus has been famous for two thousand years.  Billions of people have believed He is the Son of God, and so for many of us, these words don’t seem so strange.  But imagine if you were hearing them for the first time.  Jesus was claiming to be the Light.  He didn’t say He was pointing to the light, or that He was explaining the light.  He said, “I am the Light.”

But there is more.  Not only did Jesus claim to be the Light, He claimed to speak for Almighty God Himself.  The way the Bible explains God to us is that He is all powerful, all knowing, and absolutely perfect in holiness.  And because God wants a right relationship with the people He created, it is very important to Him that we understand who He is and what He is like.  This isn’t because God is vain or selfish.  It isn’t because He is power hungry or controlling.  Those are qualities that describe humans when they misuse the good things God has given them.  The reason God wants us to know Him as He is because He is good…He defines what goodness is, and He made humans to thrive with Him as their source of joy and happiness.  He designed us to live in close relationship with Him, and when we are without it, we suffer.  Often, we then try to find other ways to be happy, but it doesn’t work.  It would be like trying to use water in the gas tank of a car.  Cars aren’t made to run on water.  It would be like putting a lamp on a plant and hoping it will grow.  A plant doesn’t need lamplight, it needs the sun.  We need the light of God, and when Jesus came into the world, He said that He is that Light.  Anyone who does not live in His Light is in darkness because He is the only true Light.  Jesus went on:

As for the person who hears My words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects Me and does not accept My words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. For I did not speak of My own accord, but the Father who sent Me commanded Me what to say and how to say it. I know that His command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father told Me to say.’”

           John 12:44-50

This was an interesting thing for Jesus to say.  While Jesus was the Light, He was still living in total obedience to God the Father.  He was not claiming to be the Light out of His own demand for prestige or status.  He was claiming to be the Light because He was submitting to His Father.  It is what God the Father told Him to do.  Jesus was simply asking the people of His day to do the very thing He was doing…to listen to the Father and obey Him in the same way Jesus was listening and obeying.  If they didn’t, the judgment of God would be upon them.

Either Jesus was right, and everyone in the world should have bowed on their knees and submitted to every word He said, or He was wrong, and He was spreading the most despicable lies the world had ever heard.

Who can claim to speak for God? Who dares to command the authority of the One who made all things? Yet Jesus did. Was He completely insane? Was He desperately evil? Or was He the Son of the Living God? His outrageous statements were so extreme that those were the only options He gave the crowds. What were they to do with this Jesus that their rulers hated so much? Where would their loyalties go?

For those who choose to follow the light of Christ, there is an amazing example of what is possible for us in the life of Jesus.  He delighted to obey His Father.  And He knew that whatever His Father told Him to say to the people, it was because His Father wanted to bring them eternal good.  It was no fleeting happiness He offered, no fading beauty or time-bound hope.  The promise was for everlasting joy and freedom…a world of total security and happiness and rest and health.

Try to imagine living in a world where sickness, financial stress, and relational pain are totally and completely over.  Imagine a world where a good and gracious God loves you with a lavish, perfect love that never ends.  Imagine living where there is no death and all of your struggles with sin are over.  That was the gift Christ came to win.  All He asked for was repentant faith. However, all the people could see were the tawdry things of this world.

The stories of the Bible are powerful because they not only tell us what happened in ancient times, but they also show us the kinds of things that have happened between God and the human race. throughout the ages.  We have many examples in this story of things that are still happening today.  We can choose to be like the religious leaders who hated Jesus and wanted to kill Him.  We can be like the cowardly religious leaders who saw Him for His beauty but turned away because loving Him meant losing status or power among the “right” people.  We can be like the crowds who only wanted Jesus for what He could give them instead of seeking to give Him everything.  Or we can be like Jesus, who wasn’t thinking about what He personally wanted at all.  He turned to His Father and listened, and then moved out into whatever direction His Father said.  That simple purpose, that eloquent plan, was the one necessary thing for Christ…and it is the vision of the life He has for us.

Imagine the feeling of delight.  Think of moments where you felt a powerful, deep delight in your heart. What were you doing?  Who were you with?  Maybe you have never felt it, but can you imagine how wonderful it would be?  That is what God wants us to have…with Him.  That is what Jesus had, it is how He lived and breathed.  It is what we can have as we grow into deeper life in Him.

Story 162: Passion Week, Day 2: The Coming of the Son of Man

John 12:20-36

VIENNA - JULY 27:  Holy Trinity. Detail from fresco of scene from apocalypse from 19. cent. in main apse of Altlerchenfelder church on July 27, 2013 Vienna.

VIENNA – JULY 27: Holy Trinity. Detail from fresco of scene from apocalypse from 19. cent. in main apse of Altlerchenfelder church on July 27, 2013 Vienna.

It was the second day of the week. The exaltations of Christ’s triumphal entry the day before and the havoc He had created in the morning as He threw out the businesses that clogged the worship in the Temple courts were still ringing in the atmosphere of the Feast. At this point in the story, Jesus was teaching in the court of the Gentiles, keeping the money-changers and sellers out, holding His ground for the purity of His Father’s holy Temple.

Among the crowds there were some Greeks. They had come to the Feast, seeking to worship the Most High God of Israel. They listened to the Lord’s preaching in the court of the Gentiles and were intrigued. They went up to Philip who was from Bethsaida in Galilee. They could see that he was one of Jesus’ close disciples. “‘Sir,’” they asked, “‘We wish to see Jesus.’”

Now, the Greek people were among the most sophisticated thinkers in the world. We still study the works of their great philosophers. Their ideas were so rich and deep that their language was able to communicate ideas as no other language could. The Romans found the Greek languages so beautiful that even though they had enslaved the Greek people as a nation, they took on the Greek language as their own. Educated Greek slaves were valued tutors for the children of the elite rulers of Rome. When these Greek men heard the words of Christ, they recognized a depth that they wanted to pursue.

Philip went to Andrew and told him what they said, and they went to Jesus together with the request. Jesus had no answer for them. Now was not the time for Him to make a great name for Himself among the great scholars and philosophers of the world. He had a far greater goal.  The time had come for the Messiah of the Jews to bring a redemption that would extend salvation to the Gentiles.  Jesus had a task to complete for His Father, and all of His focus was trained on it. He said:

“‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who lives his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves Me must follow Me; and where I am, my servant will also be. My Father will honor the one who serves Me.’”

John 12:23-26

Jesus would bring salvation to the world, and He would do it in the way the Father ordained. How opposite the ways of God are from the ways of the world. Every logical, human thought would have driven Jesus to grab hold of every chance to influence the wider world. There was no rational reason to believe that His death would bring anything more than an end of a life, and the end to His ministry. Now that the Jewish leadership had rejected Him it made perfect, worldly sense for Him to go with the Greeks and proclaim His message among their people instead.  But Jesus was not operating by the sight of fallen humanity. He was moving forward steadfastly by faith. In doing so, Jesus was modeling the life that He calls all who follow Him to. It was the route to honor in halls of the Most High God. Yet for all His bold obedience, He still carried in Him the heart of a man. He said:

“‘Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’”

John 12:27-28

By denying an opportunity to find His fortune with the Greeks, Jesus was once again choosing the way of the cross.  This story is a short passage in Scripture, but it was a significant moment in the choices of Christ.  By speaking the tremors in His heart out loud, Jesus showed the inner surrender that was taking place as He stepped forward in constant obedience to His Father. And His Father responded. As Jesus uttered this, standing with the crowds on the steps of the Temple, the voice of God Himself came booming from the throne of Heaven:

“‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’”

Wow. WOW! The crowd heard it. Imagine them startled, looking up, shaken by the sound. They turned to each other and murmured. Was it thunder? Was it an angel? Nobody could imagine that it was the Father Himself!. Once again, the glory of God was swirling all around them, but they were too spiritually blind to see. Jesus said:

“‘This voice was for your benefit, not Mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’”

John 12:30-32

Once again, the people were given a magnificent testimony that the Lord Jesus was the Christ. If the people had listened, they would have seen the profound events that were happening around them and would have understood. God’s judgment was coming. It would fall on the shoulders of His Son, and He would utterly defeat sin and death, crushing the powerful tools of Satan against humanity. Through His infinitely valuable life, Jesus would purchase what no other human could afford.

As Jesus spoke to the crowd, He gave hints about exactly how He would do it. He would be lifted up. We can read this now and see clearly that He meant He would be lifted up on the cross. By His precious blood, He would buy the right to salvation for humanity, who was so impoverished by their shame that they could never afford it otherwise. When the people in the crowd heard this, they may not have understood that Jesus would die by crucifixion, but they knew that He meant to die. They said:

“‘We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, “The Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’”

You see, the Jews were looking to the prophecies of the Messiah’s everlasting reign. There are many of them in the Old Testament. In 2 Samuel 7:11b-13, when the prophet Samuel was anointing David to be the future King of Israel, he spoke the words of God when he said:

“‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you:

“‘When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish His kingdom. He is the one who will build a house in my name, and I will establish His kingdom forever.’”

King David himself wrote about God’s promises to him in Psalm 89:3-4”

“You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one,

I have sworn to David my servant,

I will establish your line forever

and make your throne firm through all generations.’”

The prophet Isaiah declared it as well:

“For to us a Child is born,

to us a Son is given,

and the government will be on His shoulders,

And He will be called Wonderful, Counselor,

Mighty God, Everlasting Father,

Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of His government

there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne

and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it

with justice and righteousness

from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the Lord will accomplish this.’”

Isaiah 9:6-7

Daniel saw the coming Messiah in a vision and said this:

“‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into His presence. He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His Kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.’”

Daniel 7:13-14

The Jewish people were looking forward to that victorious Messiah that the Bible so surely proclaimed. Yet here was Jesus, preparing them for His death. It didn’t fit their storyline. The Son of Man was not supposed to die. He was supposed to win! They could not imagine that the mighty victory would come through humility, surrender, and death. But the thing is, the people didn’t have to understand the whole story to be faithful. They just needed to trust what He taught. Jesus said:

“‘You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.’”

John 12:35-36

Once again the Lord Jesus offered Himself. But once again, they rejected Him. In spite of the grand celebration the day before, the glorious miracles, the upholding of righteous truth in the Temple and His clear teaching, the voice of God thundering from on high…in spite of all this, the crowds did not follow the light. They clung to the darkness where it was familiar.

The people of Jesus’ day are not so different from the people of our own time.  Their temptations are the same as our own.  We have been given our own messages about the work of God, our own signs about following Him and choosing a life of surrendered faithfulness.  Will we reject Him out of protection for our positions of power and greed, like the religious leaders?  Will we seek Him as long as He stays safely behind philosophical ideas and arguments? Or will we follow Him according to His plan, along the path of a life surrendered to the plans of God?




Story 161: Passion Week, Day 2: The Scourging at the Temple

Matthew 21:12-13 ; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-48


Jesus had entered the Jerusalem for the Passover Feast with an invasion of praise and worship. The people danced alongside Him as He rode a colt into the City of David, fulfilling the prophecies of Zechariah for all to see. The long-awaited King had come. Healings poured out as Jesus came to the Temple.  The lame began to walk and the blind were made to see. The Messiah had come to undo the horrific power of the Curse against humanity, and these miracles were just a small glimpse, the first taste, of that amazing work.

Imagine the buzz in Jerusalem that night as they retold the stories of all that had happened that day. Imagine how the people waved the palms at His coming. Picture Christ making His way to God’s Temple and the magnificent miracles and wonders dancing all around Him in the wake of His healing power…imagine the odd disconnect of the angry officials in that glorious moment, the singing children, and the sense that something was about to change forever.

The next morning, Jesus and His disciples returned to the city. On the way, the Lord grew hungry. In the distance along the road there was a fig tree. Its leaves were sprouting, but as Jesus drew near it, there was no fruit. So He said, “‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’” His disciples heard Him, but they didn’t understand. What could He mean?

Well, in the Old Testament, the fig was often a symbol of the nation of Israel. For example, Jeremiah wrote:

“‘I will take away their harvest, declares the Lord. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.’”

Jeremiah 8:13

Jesus was not angry at the tree. Passover was not the time of year that figs grew. He was teaching a deep spiritual truth. The Jewish people were like a tree that bears no fruit. They organized their lives around the ritual worship of Passover and festivals and the Sabbath, but their hearts were far from God Himself. There is no true worship or true fruit without wholehearted devotion to God. And because they withheld themselves from God, it was going to be just as Jeremiah said. Their harvest was going to be taken away from them.

When Jesus cursed the fig tree, it was a symbol of the curse that was about to come upon the nation of Israel. The Lord Jesus had searched for true worship in Israel. He had called out to them to repent and offer themselves back to their Lord. He had given them signs and miracles and truth, pouring His days out in longing pursuit after the hearts of God’s children. But His great love went unrequited. He was rejected. They did not repent.  The nation that had been given the breathtaking privilege of glorifying the Messiah…the Son of the Living God…the Creator of the universe…when He came to live among them, had failed.  And so in forsaking their call, they would shrivel to nothing.

But in spite of the cataclysmic failure of Israel, the plans of God were not defeated. Christ was about to go on to do the work that He had come to earth for, and that fruit would last far longer than the walls of earthly Jerusalem.

On the morning of the second day of the week of His Passion, the Lord and His disciples trekked up into the city and made their way to the Temple. In the outer courts where the Gentiles were allowed to come, the buyers and sellers were busy. They were selling animals for the people to offer at the Temple, but they clogged the walkways and crowded the space that God had set aside for Gentiles to come and worship the living God.

The Gentiles were not allowed into the inner courts of the Temple. That was a privilege God had ordained for His specially chosen people many centuries before.  But the Lord had set aside this courtyard so that non-Jews would have a place to seek the Living God. Now that sacred space was filled with the noise and chaos of those who were bent on greed. It was no place for true worship.

Just a few years before, as Jesus started His ministry, He had come to these same courts filled with holy rage. He took a rope and made a whip, thrashing it around to drive the moneychangers out with their sheep and cattle. He turned over their tables and scattered their coins on the floor. They had overtaken His Father’s house with their corruption and filth, forcing prices up and seeking their own gain from the sacrifices that were meant to purify the people of God. The Son of God would not have it.

Imagine the shock of the people as they saw His righteous courage boldly fly in the face of accepted practice. Year after year they had come to the Temple.  The Jews who were pure in their hearts towards God must have been revolted by this contamination of the place that was meant to be God’s holy throne on earth.  Yet their priests accepted it. In fact, they seemed to embrace it. For the common Jew, the honor of the religious leader’s positions of authority was enough to help them accept the diminished use of God’s palace. Who were they to argue against the chosen leaders of the Lord? But Jesus had no scruples with confronting the lie.

Imagine the anger of the religious leaders when Jesus held out the bright, redeeming truth. For you see, they received their own cut from the sales at the Temple. If they honored the rebuke of the fiery young preacher, it would diminish their own wealth, and their loyalty to that god allowed for no compromise. The Temple of the Most High God was one thing, but their own comfort and status was another.

As Jesus returned to the Temple for this final Passover, He found everything in the same condition as it was the time before. The area given for the Gentiles to worship was filled with business. The Temple that was meant to be a house of prayer for all the nations was clogged, blocking their way to God.

Once again, the Son of God would have none of it. Try to imagine the scene as Mark describes it in His Gospel: 

“…Jesus entered the Temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.”

Mark 11:15-16

Imagine the commotion. He had disrupted the whole Temple system.  Many of the people who came from out of town went to those sellers to buy animals for sacrifice. Foreigners came there to exchange their money. When they arrived, they found all that was gone. They had to go looking for the businesses that were now scattered outside the temple grounds.   If someone tried to sneak something past Jesus, He would send them away. The Lord was purifying His Father’s house, and nobody could get by him. He completely dominated the scene.

As Jesus preached to the crowds in the courtyard of the Gentiles He explained Himself:

“‘Is it not written:

“My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’?

But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Mark 11:17

The King had entered His city and gone straight to the heart of the Kingdom. As long as He was there, He would maintain the purity of His Father’s house. But the lack of true devotion by the leaders and the people made His triumphal reign a temporary gift. The King would not remain with the people, for they were not truly His.

When the chief priests and scribes learned about Jesus’ activities in the court of the Gentiles, they did not turn to God’s sacred Scriptures. They did not fall on their knees in prayer. They did not consider the words of their Messiah. There was no repentance in their hearts. The activities of the Messiah only intensified their hatred and rebellion. That is often the way things work with people who are committed to their bondage of sin.

Imagine the sun shining down on a piece of butter. What happens? The butter becomes soft and easy to use. But when sun shines down on clay, it doesn’t get soft. It gets harder and harder until it feels like concrete. It begins to crack and split. Jesus was like the sun, shining truth on the people of His day. Some reacted to Him like butter. Peter and John and Mary Magdalene and all of His true followers were softening in surrender to the plans of the Most High God. But the religious leaders were like clay, and the more Christ’s light shined, the harder they became.

And so they began to feverishly plot and scheme about how to destroy Him. As the people listened to Christ with astonished amazement, the leading men debated how they could kill Him without running into problems with the crowd. The people were hanging on to His every word, creating a barrier between the predators and their prey.

Story 160: The Triumphal Entry of a Weeping King

Matthew 21:1-11; 14-17; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-10

Church of St. Anne - Palm Sunday

The Lord Jesus and His disciples began their trek from Bethany to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast.  Jesus had raised His friend, Lazarus from the dead only a few days before.  Multitudes of people who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast had gone to Bethany to see Lazarus and Christ.  It was the talk of the nation.  It confirmed to the religious leaders that Jesus had to die.  Now as Jesus and His disciples made their way back to the City of David, the crowds followed them with all the clamor and excitement of high expectations.  What was Jesus going to do when He arrived?  Would there be more miracles?  What would He say to their leaders?

When they arrived at Bethphage, which was on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of the disciples on ahead. There were special preparations that had to be made. For you see, the events of this day were going to have a high and holy meaning. Events that were predicted hundreds of years in the past would finally come true.

Jesus gave two disciples very specific directions. He said:

“‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her upon which no person has ever sat. Untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.’”

Matthew 21:2-3 and Mark 11:2b

 The disciples went off and did just as the Lord had said. They found the animals tied to a door outside in the street. When they began to untie them, some people standing nearby with the owners asked, “‘Why are you untying them?’”

The disciples said, “‘The Lord has need of them,’” just as Jesus had told them. The owner gave them permission to take the creatures. The disciples lead the donkey and her colt out to Jesus on the Mount of Olives.   Little did they understand the significance of what they were a part of. In fact, it was only after Jesus ascended into Heaven that they would think back on this day and realize the great prophecy they had taken part in. For you see, in Zechariah 9:9, the prophet said:

“‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!

Behold, your King is coming to you,

righteous and having salvation is He,

humble and mounted on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

Zech. 9:9, ESV

These verses are a part of Zechariah’s description of a time when the King of Israel would see that His people were deeply afflicted. God would move in power on behalf of His people to deliver them. After complete and final victory over their enemies, their righteous King would ride into Jerusalem in victory. His conquest would bring peace not only for Israel, but for all the nations of the world. He would be the perfect, ideal ruler, like nothing the world had ever known. He would also be humble. Though He was mighty, He would submit with perfection to the King of Creation, honoring the Most High God with His reign.

Obviously this King would be no ordinary man. These were prophecies of the coming Messiah. As Jesus operated in absolute obedience to the will of His Father, God carried out His plans in perfect unison with the things He had foretold in His holy Word.

As the disciples led the donkey and her colt to Jesus, they had no idea they were swept up in the Great Unfolding of Zecheriah’s words. They just obeyed. When they arrived, they lay their garments across the back of the colt. Jesus sat on the young creature, and they began their procession into the City of David.

As Christ and the multitudes with Him moved towards the high walls of Jerusalem, the great crowds inside the city heard that Jesus was on His way. They began cutting the branches of palm trees to wave for the royal procession. Then they rushed out to receive the One they had been waiting for. Imagine their joy and excitement as they all began to shout out praises from their sacred book of worship:

“‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’”

Psalm 118:26

 The crowds that had followed Jesus and the disciples from Bethany walked along behind Jesus as He rode on the colt. They had watched Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, and they were full of hope for the great things that He would do. Pretty soon, the masses from Jerusalem joined them in one great throng of vibrant energy and celebration as Christ rode the hill up into the City. The people began laying their cloaks and garments out on the road ahead of Him. It was an act of humble submission. They were physically showing their homage to the Man they were calling their King.

Imagine the fervor and joy! Thousands of years of national longing was pouring out in a lavish display of thankful praise. They had seen the miracles! They had heard the stories of His powerful works! The Great Day had arrived!

The entire city was alive as even more people rushed out to see the Man who had raised Lazarus from the dead.

The religious leaders heard the commotion and joined the throng of jubilation. When they heard the people give praise to Christ as King, they began to grumble to one another. “‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after Him!’”

Then some of the Pharisees went to Jesus as He rode through the shouts and praise of the crowd. “‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!,’” they demanded.

Jesus looked back at them and declared, “‘I tell you, if they kept quiet, the stones will cry out!’”

Jesus was not only the King of Israel, He is King of the universe, and every part of it is called to worship Him!

But even as the Lord rode through the excitement and clamor, He was flooded with a deep, inner sorrow. He looked up at the great walls of Jerusalem, the City of God’s special choosing, and wept, saying:

“‘If you, even you, had only known what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you in the ground, and you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’”

Luke 19:42-44

This terribly sorrowful saying was a prophecy. “If only you had known what would bring you peace.” Consider the sorrow of Jesus, reconciling His rejection with the vast and breathtaking consequences that were to come. The city of Jerusalem was going to be so devastated that every building would be crushed to the ground. But Jesus was not only mourning the future of Jerusalem. He was mourning the future of the whole nation. Jerusalem was the capitol, where God had set His special, intensified presence on earth. It was also a symbol for Israel, His treasured possession.

Even now as the people joined in wild celebration, Jesus knew what lay ahead. This moment of righteous glory would not last long. The nation that refused to repent through the Lord’s years of wondrous ministry would not stand with the Messiah in the end, either. The consequences would be great. Within the lifetime of the children who walked the streets of Jerusalem that day, the Roman army would come. When they were finished brutalizing the City and its people, there would be nothing left to call a city. The nation of Israel would disappear from the face of the earth for thousands of years.

With the rejection of their Messiah, the Jewish people were about to choose the ways of God’s enemy over the way of God’s righteous plan. And so the Lord would give them their way. Instead of having this humble King on a colt, they would have the malicious ways of the world, and it would devour them. The mighty Roman Empire would crush them. The depths of grief in this Son of David, this Son of God’s holy love, must have been great as He wept on His way into his City.

Picture the moment…the eloquent mourning of the King for the deep tragedy ahead in the midst of the jubilant crowds, waving their palms.

Yet in the midst of the disaster that faithless Israel was bringing upon themselves, Jesus carried a much deeper hope. He would have victory in spite of their betrayal.   It would be nothing like what they were hoping for. Through His perfect life, Jesus had been conquering the powers of sin and death by making the way to become the perfect, spotless Lamb. Now the time of His sacrifice was upon Him.

The grandeur of what He was going to do was far more vast and deep and high than anything they could comprehend. His deliverance was not for the nation of Israel alone. It was not merely for all the nations on earth for all time. Jesus had come to redeem the entire created order! His death would purchase the entire universe. He would make all things new!

As the throngs of people entered Jerusalem with their Messiah, they had no idea of the greatness of what they were celebrating. But the ruckus they caused stirred the rest of the city. “‘Who is this?’” was asked as the loud parade made its way inside the walls.

“‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth!’” the crowds proclaimed back to them.

The crowds journeyed with Jesus all the way to the Temple. The blind and the lame were there among the people, and an outpouring of healing came through Christ, making them whole and strong. What a delight and absolute thrill to watch men and women who were bound up and deformed jump up and dance and sing! What a marvelous party they were having, right on the steps of God’s holy Palace! The children were so swept up in the excitement that they were jumping and crying out with happy exaltation, “‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’”

In the midst of this unimaginably boisterous and absolutely appropriate happiness, the religious leaders and Pharisees grew bitter with indignation.‘Do you hear what they are saying?’” they demanded to Jesus “. They were red hot mad. The people were calling Him the Messiah, and Jesus wasn’t doing anything to stop them. It was as good as if Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah Himself.

Fortunately, Jesus was the Messiah, so He told them, “‘Yes! Have you never read:

‘From the lips of children and infants

You have ordained praise’”?

Wow. Now Jesus was quoting Psalm 8. If we read a little bit more of the Psalm, we will understand why this made the Jewish leaders even more angry:

“‘O Lord, our Lord,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens,

From the lips of children and infants

You have ordained praise.

because of your enemies,

to silence the foe and the avenger.’”

Psalm 8:1-2

 Jesus didn’t have to quote the whole Psalm to these men. They knew exactly what Jesus was saying. The children who give praise in these verses are giving praise to God Himself. Jesus was making it very clear that He was the divine Messiah. He was also making it clear that King David had foretold this very event.

The children were proclaiming the praise of Jesus against the religious leaders who had made themselves Christ’s enemies. These men should have led God’s nation to worship their Messiah. They had failed, and now the children cried out in their place.

Jesus spoke the truth boldly to them, and it was a kindness and a grace. There was still time, this was fair warning. They were on the wrong side of God’s holy plan. Would they repent?  They wouldn’t. They did just as the Psalm foretold. They were silenced in their rebellion, and they went away to plot once again about how to destroy the Son of the Living God.

The evening was drawing to a close on that remarkable day, so Jesus and His disciples left Jerusalem and went back to Bethany to stay for the night.


Story 159: Anointing and Honor: On Loving the Savior

Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 11:55-12:11

virgin mary

Everyone in Jerusalem was preparing for the Passover Feast. Pilgrims from all over Israel would begin to stream into the city. Jews and converts to Judaism from distant lands would travel to the City of David for the annual celebration. They came to purify themselves according to the Old Testament customs given by the Most High God Himself to Moses. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of setting up camp, buying provisions, visiting with family and going to the Temple, everyone was keeping an eye out for Jesus. Passover was only six days away.

Would the radical young preacher show up?

The Pharisees and the chief priests were well aware of the whispers. How it enraged them! But in the secret places of their high counsel, they were scheming and preparing for the coming of Jesus. They were making plans to seize Him. They knew it wouldn’t work to arrest Him in front of the crowds. He was far too popular, and He was too quick-witted. He always seemed to outsmart them and twist their own arguments around. They weren’t about to risk having to answer any of His questions in front of the people. They had to find some way to get a hold of Jesus when the crowds were not around. Once He was arrested and tried, it would be too late. The common people would have to accept the facts and let the Sanhedrin give Jesus His due punishment.

And so the orders went out. If anyone learned where Jesus was, they were to report it immediately to the religious leaders.

Meanwhile, Jesus and His disciples were in Bethany, just a few miles up the road from the City of David. This was the town of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was here that just a few days before, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. On the day of this particular story, they were in the home of Simon the leper…though he probably hadn’t remained a leper long after meeting Jesus.  The rag-tag band of the devoted friends of Christ were sharing a meal together.  Lazarus was there with them, reclining at the table, alive and well.  Imagine the conversations they had.

At some point during the meal, Lazarus’ sister Mary came into the room with an alabaster vial in her hand. It was filled with a pound of nard, which is a very expensive perfume. It was probably given to Mary as part of her dowry. She was meant to give it to her husband as a treasure for her marriage. Mary had found her treasure in Christ. She broke open the vial and began to anoint Jesus’ head. Imagine the quieting of the room with this beautiful motion. Imagine as the wonderful scent filled the air. Mary moved to Jesus’ feet, pouring the perfume out, bowing low on her knees to wipe them with her hair. Imagine her sweet humility as she came to her Lord with her whole devotion. She was pouring out the finest gift she could offer to the One who held her heart.

In the midst of this beautiful moment, some of the disciples grew indignant. Judas Iscariot grumbled, “‘Why this waste? Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii, and given to poor people?’”

Wow. That tells us the high value of Mary’s gift! Three hundred denarii would pay a laborer for a whole year. But Judas was not truly concerned for the poor. He was the disciple in charge of the moneybox, and he was stealing from it. He was reacting against her out of his own greed.

The disciples listened to Judas. He made sense. What about the poor? How could Mary be so frivolous? They began to scold her, but Jesus put it to a stop. “‘Why are you bothering this woman?’” He said:

“‘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 anointed My body beforehand for the burial. She has done what she could. 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.’”

Matthew 26:10-13 and Mark 14:8

Wow. What a tender, loving Lord, so full of appreciation for her sacrifice. Though He is the Lord of all Creation, her offering mattered and she was honored. And the amazing thing is, we can look back now and see that His prophecy has come true. The story of Mary’s great devotion is recorded in three of the Gospels. It has been told all over the world for two thousand years. What a sorrowful and sacred privilege to be chosen to anoint the Savior in preparation for the day when He would offer up His life.

Did the words of Jesus about His coming death strike Mary in the heart? Did  His followers start to understand what was coming?

Meanwhile, the word went out that Jesus was in Bethany, and that He had just raised a man from the dead. This wasn’t the first time Jesus had performed such an amazing miracle, but this time, the man had been buried for several days. It was an impossible miracle, but so many people were there as eyewitnesses, it could not be denied.

Multitudes upon multitudes of people who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover began to make the journey to the little town of Bethany, just to get a glimpse of Jesus and Lazarus. Many who went to see Lazarus went away believing in Christ.

When the news got back to the chief priests, they called a counsel. As they discussed the new situation, they realized that Lazarus was living proof of a magnificent miracle. And there was no way they could disprove it. Too many people were there and saw it with their own eyes.

It is interesting that this didn’t make the religious leaders pause for a moment. Did they really want to kill a man that had raised someone from the dead? Did they want to mess with someone who showed such unimaginable power? What else could Jesus possibly do to convince them that He was the Messiah?

The religious leaders could have allowed this remarkable story to reconsider their plans. They could have rejoiced that one of Abraham’s children had been spared an earthly death. They could have totally and completely repented and declared that Jesus was the Messiah on the very steps of the Temple. But they didn’t. The religious leaders were too enflamed with their jealousy to be wise. This Jesus needed to die, and so did His friend.

Story 158: On Becoming A Many-Mina’ed Servant of God

Luke 19:11-28


As the Lord Jesus moved from Jericho on the path to Jerusalem, the people wondered what would happen when He got there. Would He reveal Himself as the conquering Messiah?   Would He usher in the Kingdom of God? Would Israel have her final victory over the oppressive control of Rome?

Imagine the fervor of the people as they thought about what the days ahead might bring!




Israel was the nation that had watched the Red Sea tumble down on the Egyptian chariots. Their ancestors saw God destroy the Assyrian army overnight!

But the people were missing something. The heroes in those stories…King Hezekiah and Isaiah and Moses…the great servants of the Lord…were heroes in the Bible because they listened to God. They waited on the Lord and obeyed.

Over and over again, Jesus had spoken of the coming days. The Lord was communicating His plans to His people, but they weren’t listening so they didn’t know how to obey. In fact, they were going to kill the Messenger!

Jesus knew what lay ahead for Him. The Father had purposed it before He made the world. But the people did not understand, and so Jesus told this parable. In some ways, the story is told in a way that cloaks His meaning with mystery. But in truth, anyone who sincerely pursued Jesus, who was listening intently, would find understanding, and that is exactly why Jesus told it this way. Only those with ears to hear would truly hear. This is what He said:

“‘A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. “Put this money to work,’” he said, “until I come back.”

“‘But his subjects hated him, and sent a delegation after him to say, “We don’t want this man to be our king.”

“‘He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

“‘The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina had earned ten more.”

“‘“Well done, my good servant’!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.”

“‘“The second came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned five more.”

“‘His master answered, “You take charge of five cities.”

“‘Then another servant came and said, “Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.”

“‘His master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking what I did not put in and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?”

“‘Then he said to those standing by, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.”

“‘“Sir,” they said, “he already has ten!”’”

“‘He replied, “I tell you that everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here to kill in front of me.”’”

Luke 19:12-27

Wow. In this parable, Jesus is the king. Against the hopes of the crowds and His own disciples, Jesus was letting them know He was going to go away for a time. That is what Jesus meant when He said He was going to a faraway city. He was going to die on a cross and rise again, and then He was going to ascend into Heaven. And just as He said in the parable, Jesus is coming back.

The point of the story is this: what will Jesus find when he returns? Will there be servants on the earth who have taken His generous gifts and used them for His glory?

Apparently, there will be! In the parable, there were two servants who took their mina and multiplied it. A mina is a coin that is worth about three months of a common laborer’s wage. The servants who used their mina to create more minas are an image of what God wants His people to be doing as we wait for His return. Will we work to take His gift and multiply it during our time on earth?

We can ask ourselves: How will we live, now that we have the precious gift of salvation? What will we do now that the Spirit of the Living God is inside us? How will we pray and seek the Word? How will we love others? Where will we proclaim the Gospel, telling the world the Good News about our coming King? As we step out in the small areas of faithfulness that God provides…the one mina…He will honor it with even greater responsibility and reward in Heaven!

Everyone who puts their faith in Jesus will spend their lives in eternity with Him. That alone is an unimaginably great gift. But there are degrees to the greatness of the reward that each of His servants will receive, and these depend on our faithfulness to Him in how we live our lives on earth.

The servant who did nothing with his mina had no thoughts about how he could work or labor for his King. As opportunities came, he turned away from them. He grumbled about the austere, high standards of the King, but in truth, he was lazy! The King had given him a very generous opportunity, but he groused around in self-pity while the other two men got to work.

And then he blamed his failure on God. In the story, he accused the king of being harsh.  Is that true? How did the king treat the men who had multiplied their minas? He gave them lavish and gracious rewards! But the man who had done nothing couldn’t see it. What a shameful way to abuse the blessings of the King!

In many ways, this is a dangerous temptation for followers of Christ. The Lord said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” He said, “Blessed are you when they persecute you.” If Jesus is our model for how to live, then life as His followers should show a radical separation from the ways of this world. But rising to faith and hard work means rising to value the things of God over the other options. In those things, Jesus is abundantly, powerfully generous. When He denies us the things of the world, it is to help us let go of them so we can long for the things of Heaven. The one-mina-man wanted nothing to do with heavenly things.

Jesus knew that there would be many followers to come who would be like the ten, five, and one-mina men. He also knew that as He headed into Jerusalem, there was another sort of man waiting for Him, full of venom and hate. The characters in this parable who followed the King to the far off kingdom to reject His leadership are an image of religious leaders who were plotting Jesus’ death. They believed that they had the power and authority to oust the King and decide who they wanted as their leader.

They were entirely mistaken and the judgment of the wicked will come to them and those like them.

We can see in history that one stage of that judgment has already happened. The city of Jerusalem would not last longer than the generation of men that put Jesus to death. The Romans would come and lay it to utter waste. The stories of that horrific time are recorded by Josephus, a Jewish historian.

But there is another time to come when Christ will fully judge those who reject His rule. It will not only be for the tyrants and evil men whose terrible deeds make us shiver as we read about the darkest moments of human history. Each person has been given authority and dominion over their little square of the world. Each of us has people who God has called us to love. We each have work that God has prepared for us to do. Will we act like little tyrants, managing our little worlds out of selfishness or fear? Or will we make our mina count for the name of Jesus Christ?

Story 157: Zaccheaus and the Glorious Indignity of Tree Climbing

Luke 19:1-10

Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall

It was the time of the Passover Feast for the nation of Israel. Over two thousand years before, God had brought the Hebrew people out of their slavery to the Egyptian Pharaoh. The Pharaoh had been given chance after chance to set God’s people free, but he had refused. The Lord sent frogs and gnats and hail and boils, but still the Pharaoh’s heart was hard against the will of the King of Creation. And so God brought the final judgment… God declared that He would reclaim the life of every firstborn son in the nation of Egypt. It was life that God had given in the first place, gifts of deep joy to the citizens of the nation who were oppressing His own chosen people. In response to the Egyptian king’s continued refusal to let the Hebrew people go, the Lord would withdraw the life He had given to sustain their firstborn sons.

In many ways this was a great reversal. The Pharaoh had been taking the lives of the firstborn sons of Israel so that their population would stay small and under his control. The difference was that he had no right to take these lives. It was murder, pure and simple. But the Lord, the Author of Life and the King of Eternity, sits in a very different position than that of a human king. The way we respond to God is supposed to be very different from how we think about human rulers. If we truly believe that He is Lord, if we commit to trust in His Word, if we recognize that there is a Creator who is the definer of wisdom and truth, then the only right response is to respect His choices and honor Him with obedience.  As He wisely governs over kings and nations, He can see things that we cannot, and His choices are beyond our comprehension. Our role is to simply trust Him.

In many cultures of the world today, it is taught that the human mind is the highest form of intelligence in the universe.  It becomes our job to figure out God, to decide if He is right or wrong, and if  He doesn’t measure up to our standard, we are taught we are wrong to believe in Him. While it is true that God has made humans in His image and that we are responsible to use our minds to discern right from wrong, the way we understand this has to come from God.  There is only One True Lord.  Humanity is far too messy, far too captive to their own needs and the power of their culture to be the final arbitrators of absolute truth.  The only Being great enough for that role is God Himself.

As we look out at all the other options in the world, there are many things we can put our faith in.  We can trust in our own abilities, in other people, in wealth or power, in our leaders or our nation, or in any one of the many religions that claim they are showing the way.  Or we can pray and ask the true and living God to reveal Himself to us and show us how to follow Him.  The Bible is where He tells His side of the story for humanity.

One of God’s major movements in history to bring us salvation came when He set the Hebrew people free from slavery to the Egyptian Pharaoh.  The night that the Lord would claim the lives of the firstborn sons of Egypt, He told the Israelites to sacrifice a  lamb and share it as a meal with their families. They were to take the blood of the lambs and put it on the doorposts of their homes. This act of faith would tell the Lord to pass over their homes and keep them safe from judgment (see Exodus 12).

The judgment of God came on the nation of Egypt in that long, dark night, and all the firstborn sons lost their lives…including the son of Pharaoh, the future king. In his grief, the Pharaoh finally agreed to let God’s people go.

God told Moses that His people were to commemorate that remarkable release from bondage every year in the great Feast of Passover.  And they did.

Over 1,500 years later, Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem to celebrate that great Feast. Only this time, He would be the firstborn son who would bear the brunt of the judgment brought by the sin of humanity. He would be the Passover Lamb whose blood would bring protection from judgment for all who respond to God by faith. God had already planted deep in the heart of His people the images of and understanding of sin, judgment, and grace…images that would find their final resolution in the Person of Jesus Christ. The images that pointed to the coming of the Son of God were in their history…they were in their beloved symbols of faith and rituals and the pilgrimages that marked their calendar year.   Would the people of Jesus’ time have eyes to see what was unfolding before them?

As Jesus headed towards the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem, He was flanked by crowds of people. When they passed through the city of Jericho, a 45-mile distance from Jerusalem, everyone must have stopped to see what all the ruckus was about. The rumors of Jesus’ coming had probably preceded Him for days. Everyone wanted a peek at the Miracle Worker who was turning the nation upside down.

One of the men of Jericho was named Zaccheaus.  Zaccheaus was a tax collector, which meant he was doubly despised by the Jewish people. He was a pawn in the hand of the Roman government, collecting taxes for them from his own countrymen. Not only that, but he overcharged his fellow Jews, collecting more than necessary to line his own pockets. Zaccheaus’ work was especially wicked because he was chief over the other tax collectors. He oversaw the corruption that put heavy burdens on the people. Jericho was a major city on a major road, and he could demand a heavy toll.

But Zaccheaus had heard things about Jesus that were curious. It was said that the tax collectors and sinners were flocking to Jesus, and that He wasn’t turning them away. What could it mean? Was there hope for Zaccheaus, in spite of all that he had done?

As the crowd moved down the road, Zaccheus, who was very short, realized he would never get a good look at Jesus unless he got himself to a higher place. So he ran ahead of the mob and found a sycamore tree. He scrambled up onto the branches just as Jesus was about to pass by. When the Lord got there, He looked up and said, “‘Zaccheaus, hurry up and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’”

Wow! Can you imagine? With all the people around Him, and with all that was going on, Jesus was compelled to stop.

Have you noticed how often Jesus was moved by boldness? Whether it was the crying out of Bartemeaus, the bleeding woman who reached out and touched His cloak, the centurion who trusted Jesus to heal from miles away…or Zaccheaus casting aside his dignity to climb a tree…Jesus seems to have been compelled by those acts which fell outside the norm, those moments where someone’s need and faith compelled them to move past their usual ways, often at the risk of looking foolish.

When Zaccheus heard the words of Christ, he wasted no time.   He clamored back down the tree and welcomed Christ to his home joyfully.

When the Jews saw who Jesus was going to spend the evening with, they all began to grumble. How quickly their mood changed from praise to complaint! They hated Zaccheaus! “ ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,’” they said.

They could have asked Jesus why He was doing something that was so far from what their own religious convictions would tell them to do.  They could have waited to see what He was going to do.  But they didn’t.  Instead, they gossiped.

Jesus was not interested in obeying the crowds. He was loyal to the will of His Father, and God the Father knew a great work was happening in Zaccheaus’ heart.

Zaccheaus stood before Jesus and declared, “‘Look Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’”

Wow! What a beautiful picture of true repentance. Zaccheaus had turned completely around.  Imagine it. He was going to give away half of everything he owned…that might include selling houses and farms and gold. Imagine the wonderful things he would do for the poor.  Imagine how it would change their lives!

It was not only the poor whose lives would change.  Anyone that had felt the bite of his corruption was going to be blessed now...four times over.  This is the beauty of salvation at work.  This was the repentance Christ had been looking for as He traveled around the nation of Israel.  Zaccheaus’ heart was transformed by the Good News.

Jesus declared to Zaccheaus and the crowd, “‘Today salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.’”

Wow.  It might be easy to miss the power of what Jesus was saying here.  The Jewish people were very proud to be the descendants of Abraham, and rightly so.  It meant they were a part of God’s chosen people. This is the greatest honor that has ever been bestowed upon a nation.  But they did not consider tax collectors a part of their family. Zaccheaus showed by his repentant faith in Jesus that he truly was a member of Abraham’s family. And Jesus showed the Jews in a bright and beautiful way that God has a wealth of compassion and grace for all who believe.

You will notice that Zaccheaus did not tell Jesus, “I believe, but I’m not going to change anything. I’ll just keep right on robbing the people and living in sin.” When we come to the Lord, we need to come with humility and repentance.

Imagine how the world changes when we do that. Imagine how it blessed the poor and the people that Zacchaeus had once overcharged? They could pay their debts, feed their children, take care of their homes. They didn’t have to live in fear of the new tax season. The men that worked under Zaccheaus would learn to do their work without corruption. All that had been crooked and deceitful, the sin that caused so much damage, would become untwisted and straight. Greater peace would be brought to the people of Jericho and everyone that passed through.

This is one of the powerful ways that the Kingdom of God is established on earth.

It is easy to think of Jesus as serious and intense…because He often was. But imagine His joy at the party as they celebrated the change in the life of Zaccheaus.   In just a few days, Jesus would be heading for the cross, yet He took the time to celebrate this one transformed life.

In Hebrews 12:2, the Bible says that Jesus endured the cross and despised its shame because of the joy set before Him. On the other side of the cross, Jesus would be raised up to sit at the right hand of the Father, on the Throne of Heaven. And because of His sacrifice, people like Zaccheaus and you and me will be able to join Him there.  Our salvation was part of the joy that was set before Him.

Was the incredible gift He was about to win for Zaccheaus on His mind as they celebrated? Was the beauty of Zaccheaus’ transformation a comfort to Jesus…a reminder of the beauty of what He was about to do?

Story 156: Blind Bartemeaus

Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-19:10

 Christ healing sick and blind people. Stained glass.

The eyes of the whole nation were on Jesus, wondering what the unpredictable young preacher would do next. Everyone knew that the most powerful religious leaders in the land had turned against Him. They were looking for any excuse to get rid of Him. Yet there was such great authority in His teaching.  It was as if He took all the gross distortions and lies of humanity and made them right and true again.  What is more, His remarkable miracles seemed to fulfill the prophecies of old.  His works of healing and freedom for the broken were so powerful and beautiful that the crowds continued to be in awe of Him.  He couldn’t be silenced.

The Lord Jesus had traveled all over the nation of Israel, starting in the north, around the Sea of Galilee where He had grown up. He began by going to the synagogues, offering the religious leaders of Israel a chance to recognize that their Messiah had come. All they had to do was honor Him. And yet they didn’t. Their determination to protect their own positions of power and status and their own rules and traditions about what God meant in the Bible kept them from surrendering when God actually showed up. What an honor it would have been for them to be the generation of Israel that welcomed the Savior! But in clinging to the honors of this world, they lost the honors of eternity.

And so Jesus left the synagogues and began preaching out in the countryside, on the hills and plains where the crowds would come by the thousands to meet Him. He traveled to the towns and villages all across the land, reaching out towards those who hadn’t come to Him, preaching the Good News of His Kingdom all along the way.

Now the time of Jesus’ preaching ministry was coming to a close. The Passover Feast had come and the people of Israel would be making the pilgrimage to offer their sacrifices at the Temple.  They would bring their wheat and lambs, but Jesus would bring the ultimate sacrifice, He, Himself.  He was going to lay down His own life. Yet His sacrifice was not only for Himself or His family and it was not only for the generation in which He was living. It was for every generation that has ever lived. And for that, Jesus had to journey straight into the heart of danger…to the City of David, the great king and ancestor of Christ. Jesus would die outside the gates of King David’s city, and in doing so, He would make the way for the fulfillment of God’s covenant with David.

This is what God promised David a thousand years before Jesus came:

I have found David, My servant;

with My sacred oil I have anointed him.

My hand will sustain him;

surely My arm will strengthen him.

The enemy will not get the better of him;

the wicked will not oppress him.

I will crush his foes before him

and strike down his adversaries.

My faithful love will be with him,

and through My name his horn will be exalted.

I will set his hand over the sea,

his right hand over the rivers.

He will call out to Me, ‘You are my Father,

my God, the Rock, my Savior.’

And I will appoint him to be My firstborn,

the most exalted of the kings of the earth.

I will maintain My love to him forever,

and My covenant with him will never fail.

I will establish his line forever,

his throne as long as the heavens endure.

Psalm 89:20-29

By the time of Jesus, King David had been long dead and the king that then reigned over Jerusalem was Herod, a man of great folly and corruption. But the True King was coming to wage war on sin and death and the victory would be totally His.

Would the people understand? Would they worship the One who had come? Did they have the courage to acknowledge Him now as He journeyed towards Jerusalem?

When Jesus and His disciples arrived in Jericho, just forty five miles outside of Jerusalem, they had been joined by a great crowd on the way to the Passover Feast. How exciting it must have been to be journeying with this radical Preacher.

Imagine the sight of the energized multitudes converging on Jericho. Can you feel the hustle and bustle of people bumping up against each other, trying to get a look at Jesus, wondering to one another what He would do next?

As they went along, they came upon a blind beggar, who sat by the side of the road. His name was Bartemaeus, and he was the son of Timaeus. When he heard the crowds coming, he asked what all the noise was about. They told him that it was Jesus of Nazareth, coming his way.

As soon as Bartemaeus heard that, he began to cry out, “‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

People began to rebuke him harshly, telling him to shut his mouth, but Bartemaeus refused. It only made him shout out even louder than before: “‘SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME!!!’” Wow! That is the power of perseverance!

Jesus heard him. In the midst of the throng and the forward motion of the crowd, He stopped. “‘Call him here,’” He said. The people called out to Bartemaeus and said, “‘Take courage, arise! He is calling for you!’”

The second he heard that, Bartemaeus threw off his cloak, jumped up, and ran straight to Jesus.

Jesus asked, “‘What do you want Me to do for you?’”

“‘Rabboni,’” Bartemaues implored, “‘I want to regain my sight!’”

The Lord Jesus touched his blind eyes and said, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.’”

Bartemaeus’ sight came back instantly. Imagine how he felt as the light came flooding in!

Sit for a minute and imagine all the ways his life would change.  He would see the blue sky again.  He would be able to look on the faces of the people he loved.  He would be able to work and provide for himself and his family.  The days where he had to stumble around and be led from place to place were over.

But that was not the only healing that took place. His faith in Jesus had brought the far greater healing of his heart and soul as well. He was saved!

As Jesus began to walk forward with the throng of people, Bartemaeus followed along, giving glory to God and praising Him with outrageous joy.  When the crowds saw the jubilant happiness of Bartemaeus and realized what had happened, they were amazed and gave praise to God as well.

There is so much richness in this story that is easy to see just by reading it through the first time. But the amazing thing about God’s stories is that we can never go deep enough…there is always more treasure to find if we only dig a little deeper. One of the tools we can use to dig are questions about the story. We can pay closer attention to what happened in the story by asking: What did each character say and do at each stage of the story? What choices did they make…and what other choices could they have made? And what were the impact and consequences of these choices?

For example, the crowd that was so excited to be traveling with Jesus were also very quick to try to shut up Bartemaeus.  Their reaction to him was very different from the response of Christ.  What do we learn about the people who showed such contempt for a blind beggar seeking the attention of a spiritual leader?  They seemed to like the idea of the radical nature of Jesus’ teachings and healings, yet in the practical outworking in daily life, they found it rather inconvenient.  But for Jesus, His radical words matched His radical way of life.

Or think about what Bartemaeus did when he learned that Jesus was in the crowd.  He immediately began crying out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Why did he choose to call Jesus the Son of David? Didn’t Bartemaeus know that it was dangerous to say that he believed that Jesus was the Messiah? What if the religious leaders found out? What if one of them was there in the crowd, taking notes? Bartemaeus could have chosen to cry out the name of Jesus instead. It would have been safer. But he chose to declare Jesus for who He was.  Blind Bartemaeus could see what so many others refused to see, and he was bold in faith and proclamation.

Jesus had many choices, too. He was bearing the greatest burden any human has ever had to carry…and He was walking towards the greatest suffering any human ever had to experience. Yet when He heard Bartemaeus cry out in faith, it compelled Him to stop. The whole force of the movement of the crowd was going forward; the people themselves thought Bartemaeus was a nuisance.  The disciples were there and they didn’t do anything to help him.  But Christ stopped everything to show him mercy.

There are many times in life when the people in our lives…the crowds…may fail to see what God is doing. Sometimes these people will be among the Lord’s most faithful followers.  But if the Lord has given us sight…if we have a chance to declare the Son of David…if there are ways we need to cry out for His mercy…then Blind Bartemaeus, the beggar, is our model. We are never too inconvenient for the Lord, and He will stop everything to respond to the cry of faith.

Story 155: Heading Towards Jerusalem

Matt. 20:17-28; Mark 10:35-45


Jesus was headed for Jerusalem. As they walked along the road, He strode with determination to move towards His task ahead. The disciples were amazed and full of fear. Everyone knew the rumors about the plans of the Sanhedrin. Jerusalem had become a dangerous place. Something seemed to loom over them as they drew nearer and nearer to the City of David. The national tension was building as everyone waited to see how the story of the radical young preacher would play out. In the midst of it all, Jesus set His face like a flint towards the capitol and journeyed on. How could He face such danger so steadfastly?

At one point in their journey, Jesus took the twelve disciples aside. Once again, He tried to warn them about what was going to happen. For Him, it was clear as day. He said:

“‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled…

“‘…He will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death.

“‘He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him, and kill him. On the third day, he will rise again.’”

Wow. Jesus knew exactly, exactly what was about to happen. How? Well, He read the Word and understood the prophecies. He also had the Holy Spirit guiding and leading His understanding. The Spirit revealed the plans of His Father to Him, and He trusted His Father to carry them through. God was entirely in control of the unfolding situation. The Sanhedrin and all of the other characters that would play a part in the story were moving to accomplish God’s will, whether they meant to or not.

The Lord was going to use even the darkest evil in the hearts of men to bring about His good and perfect plan.

But even as Jesus explained the coming events in detail, His disciples didn’t get it.

Was the thought of Jesus’ death too terrible to think about? Or was His declaration that He would rise from the dead too strange to comprehend? All the disciples could seem to grasp was the vision of the conqueror, the Messiah who would come to rule and reign. THAT was the mission they wanted to join! That was the Son of Man they wanted Jesus to be.   They could think of little else.

Imagine the chatter between the band of disciples and faithful followers who went everywhere with Jesus. Were they guessing how Jesus might take His seat of power? Were they hoping for even grander miracles than the ones they had already seen? How did they think He was going to squash the Roman Empire?

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to go back in time and join them for a mile or two as they walked towards Jerusalem?

At some point in their journey, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus. Now, this woman was not only the mother of two of Jesus’ closest disciples. She was also Jesus’ aunt. As she and her two sons came to Jesus, she got down and bowed before him. It was a sign of request. For you see, she was about to ask Jesus for something big. Her sons said, “‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’”

Wow, that was a bold. What could they possibly be seeking? “‘What do you want me to do for you?’” Jesus asked.

Their mother answered, “‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at Your right and the other at Your left in Your kingdom.’”

Ah. So that was their goal! They were trying to secure positions of honor for themselves for the day when Jesus established His realm. And since they were headed for the nation’s capitol, it probably looked like that time was coming soon.

As Jesus spoke of His Kingdom, they assumed that He was talking about a day when He would sit on the throne of David. And Jesus never denied this, for some day it is going to happen. He will fulfill all the prophecies that tell of a day when a descendent of David will sit on an everlasting throne. But that time was thousands of years in the distant future! There was much work to be done in the meantime.

John and James and their mother had no eyes to see the things that would come before the glorious time of Christ’s absolute rule. All they knew was that if the twelve disciples were going to sit on thrones and judge the nation of Israel, these two wanted to be the ones sitting on the thrones of highest honor.

Surely John and James had good reason to believe that they would be so highly chosen. They were His cousins after all! And while Jesus had His twelve disciples, He had an even closer, inner circle of three, and these two brothers were a part of it. Yet this grasping ambition was far from the ways of Christ. They were busy seeking the way to be first. They did not hear Jesus when He said that the last will be first and the first will be last.

Jesus answered them, “‘You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’”

One way the Bible describes God’s sovereign work is through the symbol of a cup. The cup holds God’s divine plan for a person or a group of people that He pours out on their lives. Sometimes it is a cup of blessing. At other times it is the cup of God’s wrath against sin.   Jesus knew what was ahead on the cross. Before He became the crowning glory of God’s Kingdom, He knew the cup of God’s wrath would pour out on Him, bringing Jesus unimaginably great suffering. The agony we should rightly bear for our rebellion and rejection of God would be bourn by God Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. It would be the most stunning victory in the history of humanity…but in the days ahead for James and John, it would look like a devastating defeat. Would James and John want to follow Him there?

They answered, “‘We can.’”

Jesus knew their great weaknesses. But He also knew what would happen after His great conquest. His death and resurrection would win the way for His Holy Spirit to come to James and John and empower them. They would be given the strength to sacrifice the things of this life in order to live for God. He would make the way so that they could become like Him. So He said:

“‘You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for Me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.’”

Wow. Jesus knew what His life and death would mean for His disciples for the rest of their lives on earth. They would drink His cup of suffering. John alone would live on to be persecuted. He would watch the Church grow even as all of the other disciples lost their lives for the sake of the Gospel. John would end up exiled on an island because of His loyalty to Jesus. He would write five books of the Bible before the Lord took Him home, including the last one that tells us what happens when Christ returns.

As you read the words of Jesus, do you sense how He had a much bigger picture than everyone around Him? They were confined to the smaller landscape of things that were happening in their own time. But through the power of the Spirit, Jesus could understand His purposes for all time, and even beyond! He lived with the constant awareness of a far better life ahead in eternity. He was returning to His Father to sit on an everlasting throne, and His disciples would join Him. His Father had purposes for each of them in this life. He also has a plan for each of them in their everlasting life, but those plans are still hidden in the mystery of His wonderful will. The amazing thing is that we will be there to see it!

When the other disciples found out what James and John had asked for, they were annoyed. All of their competitiveness and pride came roaring to the surface. James and John had tried to get an upper hand over them in the Kingdom…and they tried to use their family ties to Jesus to get it! How quickly the disciples descended into the ways of grasping, sinful men. Surely if God could be trusted, He could be trusted about this! Yet they did not trust. And now they were divided. Was this how the leaders of God’s people were meant to act? They were starting to look like the Pharisees! Jesus said to them:

“‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.’”

Matthew 20:25b-28

Wow. Everything in God’s Kingdom was upside down! Actually, everything in God’s Kingdom is right side up, and the things of this world are upside down. In most societies, servants and slaves are constantly laboring to care for everyone else, but they receive the least pay, have the lowest status, and often receive very little kindness.   Anyone who lives with that kind of humility in Christ’s Kingdom is the very greatest of all. And as Jesus prepared to lay down His life for the world, He became the perfect model of that greatness.

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