Tag: Jerusalem

Story 36: God’s Unthinkable Command

Genesis 22

 

The life and times of Sarah and Abraham rolled on as they raised the son that had caused them so much waiting…and then so much laughter.  The usual frustrations and tensions of life in the wilderness came and went.  Abraham continued to live a life of righteous faith in the land for all to see. Treaties were made over water wells, animals were born and raised, the seasons came and went, and Isaac grew to become a young man.

Then, once again, God came to Abraham.  This time, He came with the greatest test of all.  He said, “‘Abraham!’”  Abraham said, “‘I am here!’”

And then God gave him the most unimaginable instructions in history: “‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.’”

What?  Read that again!  What could God mean?  This was the God of life, the God of the great and precious promises!  Did He really want Abraham to kill his own son?   Could it be possible?  How could He be so cruel?

Now, the sacrifice of a child was nothing new to the people of the Ancient Near East, which is the time and place Abraham lived.  Many of the gods of that region demanded the sacrifice of offspring.  But this God, the God of Abraham, was different.  He was righteous and generous, the God of creation who made the world to be good…a world without sin or death or sorrow.  It took the mutiny of humans against this good God to bring all that is sad and destructive.  So this command by God seems strange, barbaric…out of character.  And not only that, but this God had promised Abraham this very son.  It was from Isaac that He promised to raise up a mighty nation.  Did He really mean what He said?

God made it clear that He knew exactly what He was demanding of His servant.  He pointed out how precious Isaac was to Abraham all along the way.  He repeated,  “‘This is your only son…this is the son of your great love,’”  and then said, “‘Now sacrifice him to Me.’”  Abraham had waited twenty-five years for this child.  He had loved him for seventeen more.  It was an impossible request.  It was radical obedience, the most extreme imaginable.  In all likelihood, it would have been easier for Abraham to take his own life than to bring an end to Isaac’s.

When we read this story, we are supposed to gasp.  We are meant to be shocked!  For anyone else to command this of Abraham would have been a horrific sin!  Through this story, God is pushing us…He is demanding more.  He wants us to be disturbed…to fight through our understanding of Him and His ways.  Just as Abraham had a response to give, so do we.

Faithfulness to the Most High God is the highest good.  Trusting Him is more important than anything.  Every other loyalty, even to the life of a son…even to a promise of God…must fall away, so that the Lord of all Creation Himself is our one true devotion.  And God, the Maker of all things, has the right to command life or death as He pleases.  He is not bound by the rules that humanity is bound by…the value we place on every human life is because of the value He places on every human life.  It is His right to bring life and end it.  It is the truth of every single day for every person in our world.  Our role as His trusting servants is to stand before Him with humbled reverence and awe, and to obey.  In this extreme command, God was requiring that Abraham surrender the depths of everything, even this deepest, most precious gift from God, even the most critical moral code, even the covenant…the his purpose in life…back to God.

It might have looked to Abraham like all was lost.  If he obeyed his mighty, worthy Lord, he would be without the heir of the Promise.  But he didn’t.  Abraham had already learned through many trials that his Lord was the God of the impossible.  Through each stage of his journey, God was training him and preparing his faith, stretching him and disciplining him to be his resilient, steadfast servant.  Abraham grew in endurance and power to hold on to God’s promises even when he could not understand God’s plan.

Through it all, Abraham did not weaken in faith, but became stronger.  He knew that God would keep His promises no matter what.  With this new command, he did not argue and he did not complain.  He did not even question God.  He would not fail to step out in obedience now to this great and mighty Lord, even when His directions were horrifying.

Abraham’s loyalties belonged completely and utterly to God.  His obedience was immediate. Early the very next morning, he prepared to go.  He put a saddle on his donkey.  He had two servants gather their things to come along.  He cut the wood for the sacrificial offering of his son, fully preparing to carry out God’s strange and unimaginable command.  And then they began their trek.  It was to be a journey of almost fifty miles.  What a lonely time it must have been for Abraham as they walked along through the heart of the Land of Promise.

The Bible doesn’t tell us anything about the journey.  We don’t learn how Abraham felt, what he dreaded or imagined.  We don’t know what he talked about with Isaac and their servants.  The silence in the text is a piece of literary mastery, forcing us to wonder, to be uncomfortable with both God and Abraham…to ask, “How could they?”  It is meant to provoke you and I to consider our own faith…to disciple us with the discipleship of Abraham.  To measure our own lack of faith, our own judgment of God, against the maturity and trust of Abraham.  Where we, in our lack of faith, might see a small and petty God, a cruel deity and a subservient and immoral Abraham…willing to kill his own child…the Bible casts a much grander possibility for life in relationship with God.  Abraham’s vision went beyond the limits of this natural world and put faith in His supernatural power to accomplish His covenant.  Abraham did not doubt that God could keep His covenant even now…that He could even raise Isaac from the dead.

It the process, Abraham demonstrated that his loyalty was to God himself, not to the promise of what he would gain from God…and not from the evidence of what could be seen, but from faith in that which is not seen.

 

 

Story 204: Ascension

Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:1-12

Jesus comes from heaven

Jesus told the disciples to meet Him on a mountaintop in Galilee. Perhaps He had them gather there so that those who believed in Him up in the north of Israel around the Sea would have a chance to see with their own eyes that He had risen from the dead. We can’t be sure. We do know that at one point, He appeared to over 500 people. It is interesting that Jesus only seemed to come to those who showed true faith. He was not interested in coming back and proving Himself to the chief priests or to Pilate. He came to those who loved Him and had put their hope in Him.

When Jesus revealed Himself on that hill in Galilee, they saw Him and worshipped Him. Yet even then, some of His followers had doubt in their hearts.

In one way, it is easy to judge His followers. How can they still doubt after all that they have seen? In another way, it is comforting. For all the times any one of us has struggled to have faith, to trust the Lord in the midst of tough circumstances, to believe in His love, we can take heart that those who walked with Him felt that way too.

Jesus had a message for them. It was His final teaching about the Kingdom to the crowds. Only this time, He was giving marching orders. For this was no mixed mob of malicious religious leaders, curious bystanders, and thrill seekers. These were the faithful, and a glorious responsibility lay before them. There was a task to be done!

After all the times Jesus had preached overlooking the beauty of the Galilean Sea, this was His final teaching in bodily form. Things were about to change seriously.   He wasn’t going to be their main Teacher any more. The Spirit was going to come, and Jesus was going to ascend on high. This is what the Lord said:

“‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”

Matthew 28:18b-20

These powerful words are the way Matthew chose to close his book. They were so important to him that they were the final image he wanted to leave in the memory of his readers.

These were more than the marching orders for the generation that lived and walked with Jesus. They are the marching orders for everyone who has followed Christ ever since. The Good News of what Christ accomplished has to go to all the nations of the world! We are all disciples who are meant to draw others into the same discipleship. In every generation there are people who God the Father has given His Son. As His disciples of each era proclaim the Gospel, His chosen ones will hear His voice through their teaching. As they put their faith in Jesus Christ, their commitment would be sealed through the Spirit and expressed through baptism. They, too, would be bound up in the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And because of their devotion to Christ, they will long to honor His commands.

This wonderful purpose statement for all believers is topped off with some even more amazing news. Jesus was given all authority in Heaven and on earth. The final victory was won when He died and rose again. He is seated at the right hand of the Father. Love truly rules the universe.

Yet in the perfect, ordained plans of God, the cursed world continues to grind on. Satan and his evil minions continue to do their best to bring destruction and evil to the human race. But the new, bright, golden seed of God’s Kingdom has been growing for two thousand years, and nothing in the universe can stop it, ever. Christ the Lord will always and forever be with His disciples, empowering them through His Spirit to spread His Word and live in the power of His beautiful, righteous ways.

For forty days Jesus appeared at various times and ways to His own, teaching them about their new life in the Kingdom. He came to James, His brother, who hadn’t believed in Him before He rose again. It was only after the resurrection that James truly believed. God would go on to make him the leader of His church in Jerusalem.

At some point in those forty days, the disciples all travelled back down to Jerusalem, for Jesus said that was where the mighty, new work would begin.   Jesus continued His teaching, telling them not to leave Jerusalem until it happened. They were to wait until God gave them what He had promised them, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Then He said, “‘…for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”

The disciples were full of questions. The death and resurrection of Christ had taken them back, but they still remembered the promises of the Messiah. In the book of Isaiah, a time was foretold when God would renew Israel and make her the greatest nation in the world. Now that Jesus clearly had power over life and death, that seemed even more possible. Would the Spirit give them power to bring it all about? So they asked Him, “‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom of Israel?’”

Jesus said, “‘It is not for you to know the times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth’” (Acts 1:7-8).

The Lord and His disciples had begun to walk, crossing from the high walls of Jerusalem, down into the Kidron Valley. Imagine their thoughts as they walked through the Garden of Gethsemane, which lays along the sides of the Mount of Olives. When they had climbed the Mount, Jesus lifted up His hands and blessed them. These blessings were not just nice, thoughtful words. They carried tremendous power to bring about God’s good and pleasing and perfect plan.

As Jesus was blessing them, He began to rise as One who was being lifted up. The disciples looked on until He disappeared in a cloud. Still they gazed up in wonder at this Man who was God. As they continued to stare, two men dressed in white appeared beside them. They said, “‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into Heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into Heaven.’”

Wow. Someday He is going to return, and we know exactly how and where! The only thing we don’t know is when. That is only known to God the Father.

The disciples witnessed something breathtaking that day, but something else happened that was even more epic and amazing that they didn’t see. When Jesus arrived in Heaven, He took His rightful place, seated at the right hand of God on His eternal throne! WOW! Can you imagine the homecoming that must have been?   Can you imagine the heavenly celebration as Christ came in utter victory? What worship was offered by the angels? What joy flooded the throne room? The dark work of defeating sin and death was finished!

Meanwhile, the disciples walked back down the slopes of Mount Olive and into the city of Jerusalem. They were filled with an unexplainable joy, praising their Lord, anticipating the things that were to come.

John would go on to live much longer than any of the other disciples. He would continue to serve the Lord and oversee His Church long into the second generation of Christ followers. Even as the followers of Christ went through terrible persecution by the Roman government, the Church would continue to grow in faith and strength and numbers. In the years before John died, he would write his Gospel, filling in extra details that could not be found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke and displaying a magnificent vision of Christ as Lord.

Three of John’s letters to the Church are also found in the New Testament. We can read them and learn his heart’s concern for God’s people. How he longed for them to love one another! It was the same longing that Jesus has had throughout time!

John also wrote the last book of the Bible. It is called “Revelation.” In his later years, the Lord Jesus brought John up into a vision of the heavenly places. He showed him the things that are going to take place when God finally brings this cursed world to an end. We can read it and learn what is to come! In the meantime, we live in the same era, under the same New Covenant that Jesus won for His first disciples. We are a part of the Church that God used Peter and John to begin! May we be as faithful as they were in their persevering faithfulness to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Lesson 176: The Last Supper: Washing Feet

Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16Luke 22:7-13; and John 13:1-17

VATICAN CITY - SEPTEMBER 21: The Washing of the Feet mosaic in the St. Peter's Basilica on September 21, 2013 in Vatican City, Italy. One of the world's most visited sacred sites with 7 Million annual visitors.

Thursday of the week-long Passover Celebration had come. It was the Day of Unleavened bread, one of the highest feast days on the Jewish calendar. The official Passover lamb would be slaughtered in memory of that epic event in Egypt when God waged judgment on the Pharaoh. Every first born in Egypt would die…except for the sons of the Hebrew people. The Hebrews had been told to put the blood of a spotless lamb on the doorposts of their homes. This act of faithful obedience would save their firstborn sons and open the door to their freedom from the Egyptians. For century upon century, the Hebrew people (who came to be called the Jews…a shortening of the name of the tribe of Judah) would celebrate that breathtaking time when God delivered them from slavery.

That first sacrifice of the lamb as a form of salvation for the people under Egyptian slavery was an image or a shadow of the one that Jesus was about to purchase with His own blood. The difference was that His death was not for the sake of one generation. His payment didn’t pay for merely one group of people. Jesus would offer His life as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of the members of any generation who put their faith in Him.

The disciples asked Jesus where He wanted them to go to prepare the Passover meal. Jesus told John and Peter:

“‘Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house that he enters. And you shall say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher says to you, ‘My time is at hand. Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” And he will show you a large, furnished upper room that is ready and prepared for us.’”

Imagine how random and strange it must have felt to simply follow a stranger into a house because he was carrying a pitcher of water. What if they followed the wrong man? How did Jesus know when the man would happen to walk down that road with a pitcher of water? It took faith for His disciples to obey such orders. It could have made them look like total fools.

They could have asked Jesus for more details. Jesus could have told them the man’s name. They could have talked to him before following the guy into the house. However, the disciples were getting used to the ways of Jesus. It seems like the Lord set the situation up in a way to make sure that the disciples knew that this arrangement was divine. They were nailing down the details, but God the Father was orchestrating the whole thing. Then Matthew, Mark, and Luke all made sure to record what happened. It must have been an important story. It tells us some interesting things about how God works with His beloved as He calls them to act in history.

The disciples went out just as Jesus told them and found everything happened just as He said it would. As the Lord obeyed his Father with utter perfection, the Divine plan unfolded. Every step was purposed by God, and at every stage, Jesus listened to His Father and obeyed.

In the evening, the disciples gathered at the place that they had prepared to celebrate the Passover meal. Jesus was reclining as they sat on the floor together at the table. He said, “‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’”

Think about this for a second. Jesus was God and was infinitely loved by God. He also had the whole heavenly host of angels as His beloved servants. Yet as Jesus was faced with bearing the weight of human sin and the full force of God’s wrath against it, He tenderly longed to be with these bedraggled and confused disciples. His love had nothing to do with some special quality in the ones He was loving. The greatness of Christ’s love for them had to do with His tremendous ability to love. As we read the things He shared with His disciples, we can take His Words very, very personally. They belong to us, too.

It is also interesting to note that as Jesus ate, He was aware that this was His last feast before His suffering. Yet His vision did not stop at the cross. He was looking through the cross to the victory that would be gained on the other side. For you see, Jesus lived in the fullest fullness of faith. He knew that He had come to earth from God and that He was returning to His Father. He knew that His Father had already given everything into His hands. Yet with all of that epic hope in front of Him, Jesus still focused on the present moment of obedience. As John described it, even though Jesus knew the hour of His sacrifice had come, “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1b).

Jesus rose from His place, took off His outer cloak and tied a towel around His waist. The disciples must have wondered what in the world He was doing. Then He went over and poured water into a bowl. One by one, He went to each of His disciples and began to wash their feet. Imagine how dirty and cracked those feet were after the miles they walked each day. Imagine their astonishment that their Master would do such a thing. It was a lowly job, the filthiest of all. In Israel, only non-Jewish slaves were supposed to do it. Yet there was Jesus, scrubbing and rinsing off the dirt and wiping each foot clean with His towel.

By the time He got to Simon Peter, Peter had decided. This was not going to happen. He declared, “‘You shall never wash my feet.’”

Jesus said, “‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’”

Peter replied, “‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’” Oh! How earnestly Peter took everything way too far! But listen to the Lord’s gentle reply, “‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.’”

Why do you think Jesus chose this night to wash His disciples feet? These were His last hours with them on earth before His death. They would remember these moments with special clarity for the rest of their lives. What was so important that this activity trumped anything else He could have said or done that night?

Well, the first thing we know is that the foot washing was an image or symbol of what Christ was about to do for them in His death. He would break the power of the Curse. Just as Adam’s sin brought death, the death of Jesus would bring life to all who believe in Him (see Romans 4 and 5). He was breaking into the order of the Fallen World and bringing a New Age. In the New Order, anyone who put their faith in Jesus is completely cleansed and made right before God! They are given the righteousness of Jesus Himself! From that moment on, they are transformed into a new kind of creature. Their hearts have been utterly changed, and they no longer belong to this world. When they do sin, they do not go back to being lost and cursed and shamed before God. They simply need to confess. Jesus will wash those areas of filth clean, just as He was washing His disciples’ feet. Everyone who has put their faith in Jesus can trust that before God, they are made clean. Yet just as Christ told Peter, His disciples still need to come to Him every day. They need to be cleansed from the sin that will still trouble them while they live as strangers in a world that is Cursed. But this image was not only about being cleansed from sin. Jesus was modeling how He wanted His disciples to relate to one another.

When Jesus said that not all of His disciples were clean, who do you think He was talking about? Do you think Judas knew that Jesus knew? What would it have felt like to be Judas as Jesus was washing his feet? Wow. In that moment, and in all the moments of the week before, Judas had every chance to repent. But even as Jesus scrubbed the filth from his feet, Judas clung to the filth of his heart. Even as Jesus pointed out that Judas was not clean, Judas rejected his chance to confess. And so he became confirmed in his sin.

When Jesus finished washing all of their feet, He said:

“‘Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me “Teacher” and “Lord” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’”

John 13:12b-17

Jesus explained to His disciples that now that they were cleansed from their sin, they had marching orders. Jesus would conquer sin and death, and a New Age would begin. It would be possible to have a whole New Covenant with God.

These men were to be the heralds of all that Christ had done, carrying His message to the world. The Kingdom of God would burst out into the Kingdom of Darkness like a brilliant flame as the people gave their lives in faith to Jesus. They would be cleansed, too, and the community of love that they built together would be like a fortress in His Kingdom on earth!

How would they treat each other? Would they become greedy and grasping like the Pharisees, who fought for the seats of honor? Or would they carry in their hearts the character of their Master? Would each choose to wash each other’s feet with humility, meekness, and a desire to be peacemakers? In these sacred moments when the Lord of the Universe knelt down and scrubbed the filth of the day off of His disciple’s feet, He gave a physical demonstration of how the citizens of His Kingdom were to turn their hearts towards one another. It is an image we can take into every relationship and every situation to measure whether our hearts are like the heart of God.

 

 

Story 173: Passion Week: On Watching and Waiting Well

Matthew 25:1-30

Vintage retro effect filtered hipster style travel image of burning candles in Buddhist temple. Tsuglagkhang complex, McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India

Jesus and His disciples sat together on the Mount of Olives. After several years of hearing about the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus was giving them insight into the glorious things that lay ahead for the future of humanity. He was also giving them grave warnings for those who do make the purposes of the Most High God a high priority in their lives. He did this by telling two parables.

The first parable was a tale of ten virgins at a wedding. According to Jewish custom, young unmarried girls were an important part of the wedding ceremony. In their tradition, the wedding ceremony took place at the bride’s house, and it often happened at night. The groom and his friends would join together at the groom’s house and celebrate as they made their way to the home of the bride. It was the job of the young virgins to go out and welcome the bridegroom as he came with his procession. After the wedding ceremony, the whole party would go back to the groom’s house for a great feast.

These are important things to know in order to understand the story Jesus was about to tell His disciples:

“‘Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. [That means they poured oil into them so they would continue to burn.] And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise answered saying, “Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he answered, “Truly, I say to you, ‘I do not know you.’ Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’”

Matthew 25:1-13

Wow. In some ways, this story seems kind of harsh. Those poor young girls, left out of the great feast because of their forgetfulness. Yet when we think about what choices they had made leading up to this sad outcome, we see how serious their mistake was. When a person places a high value on something, they think about it. If it is an event, they might put hours into preparation, carefully considering what they will wear and how they wish to present themselves through their behavior. For an event like a wedding, the amount of value put on the event is an indicator of the value that is placed on the couple getting married.

The choice of the five virgins who carefully brought extra oil shows they had thought ahead. They had planned in case the groom was late in coming and invested their money to have extra oil on hand. By comparison, the five virgins who brought no extra oil were showing the lack of importance of this moment to them. They wanted to receive the honor of participating without giving the honor due to those who had invited them.

In the Bible, the Lord Jesus is often described as the bridegroom who will come to take His Bride up to eternal life. This “Bride” is a metaphor for the Church, or all those who genuinely put their faith in Him. In this story, the ten virgins are like the people of our time, the ones who are waiting for the Bridegroom to come. If we are wise, we will be like the virgins who planned ahead to make sure they would be ready. We will choose to place tremendous value on that great moment when the Bridegroom finally comes to take us home. We will live our lives as those who are in waiting, using our lives as a time to prepare for His return.

The Lord went on with another parable. It has many of the same ideas:

“‘For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded them, and he made talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more saying, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, “Master, you delivered to me two talents, here I have made two talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered not seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Matthew 25:14-30

This story offers a great hope and a sharp rebuke. Each one of Jesus’ disciples throughout time has been given gifts that are meant to be used for the Kingdom of Heaven. How will we use them? If we use what we have faithfully, whether we have been given an abundance of gifts like the man with five talents, or less like the man with two talents, the Lord will be greatly pleased, and we will be called good and faithful servants. But for those who squander their time and do nothing with the gifts God gives them, it will be as if they did not know Jesus at all. They will be cast out with the nonbelievers as if they never knew Him. In truth, if someone chooses to believe that God is a harsh Master that takes more than He gives, then that person truly has not known Him or put his or her faith in Him.

Consider the epic promise this parable holds out for those who use their gifts for the Kingdom. They will be welcomed to enter into the joy of the Master. This is no ordinary approval by a human boss…this is the exuberant, unending, perfect joy of the Most High God. Imagine what it must mean to enter into that joy!

Consider the epic warning this story offers for those who fail to use their gifts for God’s Kingdom. Their resentment of God and their accusations against Him will seal their fate. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” is the way Jesus described Hell.

This stark contrast is not meant to drive us to despair, but to give us a dramatic comparison that makes our choice clear. In this confused and convoluted world, it is often challenging to realize the inner workings of our own heart. What is our attitude towards God? Do we give to Him wholeheartedly, striving to advance His Kingdom with the gifts He gives? Do we use them only to get what we want for ourselves? Do we see His gifts and treasures as burdens? Are our hearts full of gratefulness and trust in the goodness of the Master…or are they tightened up into bitter, toxic little wads, assuming the worst about His intentions towards us? Jesus is making it clear that the choice is ours…we can move into a life of gratitude and service, or into resentful bitterness.

Many of us have allowed our hearts to become hardened and angry. Often this is because of pain and disappointment we have experienced in life. We need to know that our attitude is a choice. We can live in the misery of toxic negativity, or we can make the agonizing choice to let go of all that…to forgive those who must be forgiven, to do the hard work of taking our thoughts captive and choosing to trust God with the outcomes of our lives…even in the midst of painful circumstances.
We can see King David, the ancestor of Christ, doing just that in Psalm 31.   One way to turn our hearts to faith is to pray through these Psalms, asking the Lord to make the words true of our own hearts:

“In You, O LORD, I have taken refuge;

Let me never be ashamed;

In Your righteousness deliver me…

“For You are my rock and my fortress;

For Your name’s sake You will lead me and guide me…

“I will rejoice and be glad in Your lovingkindness,

Because You have seen my affliction;

You have known the troubles of my soul…

“Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;

My eye has wasted away from grief,

My soul and my body also.

For my life is spent with sorrow,

And my years with sighing;

My strength has failed me because of my iniquity,

And my body has wasted away.

Because of all my adversaries, I have become a reproach…

“I am like a broken vessel…

“But as for me, I trust in You, LORD,

I say, ‘You are my God.’

My times are in Your hand;

Deliver me from the hand of my enemies

And from those who persecute me;

Make Your face shine upon Your servant;

Save me in Your lovingkindness.”

 

Psalm 31:1, 3, 7, 9-11a, 12b, 14-16

Story 172: Passion Week: The Unknown Hour

Matthew 24:32-41; Mark 13:28-32; Luke 21:28-33

Hourglass, Eternity, Time.

Jesus had given His disciples the lesson that all of Israel had longed to hear. As they sat together on the Mount of Olives, He laid out God’s plan for the end of human history. Times would continue to be hard in the world of sin, and the hardships would grow worse until the time of the Great Tribulation. But the horrors of life under the powers of evil would be cut short, and the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, would return in power in a mighty flash across the sky. The Lord told His disciples to be on the lookout. He said:

“But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

“‘Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away.'”

Wow. What did He mean when He said that all of these amazing things would happen before this generation passes away? Well, sometimes we think of generation as a group of people who was born in a certain time period. Your mother and father were probably born in the same generation, and then you were born in the next generation. But sometimes generation can mean a group of people that have the something important in common. The disciples of Jesus were men who would receive the Holy Spirit and become new creatures in Christ. They were to pass that incredible message on through the proclamation of the Gospel, and many more would put their faith in Christ. God would strengthen them to pass on the faith as well, and Christianity would grow and grow for two thousand years (so far). In that case, everyone in each century who put their faith in Jesus Christ is a member of the generation that Jesus was speaking of. The Lord will keep the Body of Christ alive until the very end when He returns to make all things new. Is it possible for us to know when that will be? This is what Jesus said:

“‘No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.'”

Wow! Not even Jesus, the Son of God, knows when the end times will come. How can that be? Isn’t Jesus God? Doesn’t He know everything?

Well, yes, He is fully God, but as we learn in Philippians 2:1-11,when He came to earth as a human, “He emptied Himself, took on the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of a man.” He grew up and learned as any other human being does. He waited on His Father for all of His understanding and did nothing apart from His Father. The Spirit of God taught Him all the magnificent truths that He taught about the Kingdom of God as Jesus depended on Him completely. It is wonderful that Jesus lived exactly as we are called to live, only He did it perfectly! He was the perfect model for how to live a fully human life.

If not even the angels or God’s Son know when God the Father will bring all time to an end, what does Jesus want His disciples to do as they waited for His return? He told His men this:

“ ‘Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house knew in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’”

Matthew 24:42-44

Do you think Jesus really meant that His disciples had to stay awake forever? Weren’t they allowed to sleep? Of course they were. They had to. Jesus was describing to them how they had to stay awake to God’s plan throughout their lives. They had to pay attention to the things going on around them and watch for the birth pangs. The Lord Jesus wants His followers to live with sharp and ready loyalty, as if He could come back any day. He went on:

“‘Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions.’”

Wow. There are high honors awaiting the faithful servant! Jesus gave us powerful reasons to strive hard to do all that He has called us to. But Jesus also knew there would be many servants who would be terribly unfaithful, and He had words to say to them, too:

“‘…if that wicked servant says to himself, “My master is delayed and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Matthew 24:45-51

That is a graphic and horrific warning…all the more so because someday it will be true. Yet consider the reason that the person will face such punishment. God hates it when humans hurt and oppress others. He watches over every human and pays close attention to how they treat each other. Every person matters to God, and no one person has the right to abuse another, no matter who they are. There are severe penalties for every servant that dishonors the Lord. It shows that he or she never belonged to God in the first place. There is also tremendous, lavish grace for those who truly repent.

Story 171: Passion Week: The Abomination of Desolation

Matthew 24:15-28; Mark 13:14-23; Luke 21:20-24

Earth in fire

Earth in fire

Jesus was sitting with His disciples on the Mount of Olives.  It was evening.  As they looked out on the City of Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus described to what the last stages of human life on Earth would be like, and it was a devastating picture.

There would be wars between nations. There would be great famines where many people and animals would take the long, slow path of death from lack of food and water. False prophets would rise up and claim to be the Christ, and many would follow them. It would be a time of terror, confusion, and pain.

Even in the midst of these horrors, God would continue to pursue humanity with His love. As human society and the earth groaned under the intensified suffering and weight of the Curse, the followers of Christ would carry the Good News of salvation out into the world. They would declare that the Lord Jesus had already won the way to freedom and peace, and that the end of the story was filled with hope. But just as the religious leader of Jesus’ time  rejected Christ when they met Him face to face, many would reject the message of His Kingdom when His followers proclaimed it to the world. In fact, they would persecute and destroy them.

Even as the Lord explained this hard truth to His disciples, He promised that everyone who followed Him to the end would receive a gift that is worth far more than anything they could lose in this world. They would receive everlasting life in the presence of Christ Himself.   The eternity before them was a place of perfect, overflowing abundance, a feast of happiness that would never it.  It would be more than they could ever ask for or imagine.  It was worth standing with Christ in this world to gain the immeasurable blessings of the world to come.

Imagine what those moments were like for the disciples that evening on the Mount of Olives…the cooling air, the darkening sky, the breeze, the holy city laid out before them with the massive edifice of the Temple rising up and dominating the skyline.  The history of Israel’s past stood before them in physical form as God’s Son explained the how future  history of the whole world  would unfold.   He began to describe what was going to happen in the final days, often called the Great Tribulation.

“‘So when you see standing in the holy place “the abomination that causes desolation,” spoken of through the prophet Daniel–let the reader understand–then let those who are in Judea fall to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now–never to be equaled again.'”

What is this abomination of desolation? What could be so terrible that people will have to flee from their homes and fields to the mountains? Well, there is a prophesy about it in the Book of Daniel. It tells of an evil prince who will come and lead the people of earth into a time of terrible corruption. Here is how Daniel 9:27 describes him:

“And he will make a firm covenant with many for one week, but in the middle of the week he shall put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, even until complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”

These verses are challenging to understand. The Lord used terms like “weeks” as symbols of time that we don’t fully understand. Many think that the week was a symbol for seven years. Each day as a year when this terrible ruler will work great evil on the earth. When he puts an end to the sacrifice and offering, that is a symbol for the worship of the Most High God in the Temple that went on every day in Jerusalem. This evil leader will try to force the end of worship of the living God.

Many scholars believe that this prophecy has already been partly fulfilled. Several hundred years before Jesus, a terrible enemy of Israel named King Antiocus IV Epiphanes had the image of a Greek god put up in God’s holy temple. He ordered his men to do everything they could to desecrate and dishonor the Jewish God. He oppressed the Jewish people and made the life of Israel miserable. Other scholars believe this prophesy points to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, just forty years after the death and resurrection of Christ. But it is clear that the full and final fulfillment of this prophesy will happen at the very end of time, when the great enemy of God, the Anti Christ, comes in power in his service to Satan and brings the worst corruption and wickedness that the world has ever seen. There is more to this prophecy to come in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote about it in his letter to the Thessalonians. John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, also wrote about it in the Book of Revelation. This is the last book of the Bible and it describes how Christ is going to bring this world to an end and create a whole new Heaven and Earth. As that time comes near, the world will go through a Great Tribulation.

Jesus had more to say about it to His disciples:

“‘If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or, “There he is!” do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect–if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time.'”

Jesus was being very careful to warn his followers. He wanted them to know, but He also wanted them to warn the generations of the future by writing this message down in the Bible. Someday, and it could be in our own time, believers will read these words and watch them happen right in front of them. We don’t know when it will happen, but the followers of Christ have clear directions about some things they can be sure of. The Lord went on:

“‘So if anyone tells you, “There he is, out in the desert,” do not go out, or “Here he is, in the inner rooms,” do not believe it. For as lightening that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man. Where ever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.'”

The Lord made it very, very clear. When He returns, He will not come back as a man walking around on the earth. He will come with a supernatural, glorious flash across the sky that everyone on earth will see.

A vulture is a bird that eats the remains of other animals. Before a flock of vultures descends on the dead body or a zebra or a cow, they will circle high, up in the sky. The people for miles around might not be able to see the dead animal on the ground, but they know that it is there because of the vultures flying way up in the air. In the same way, when Jesus returns to judge the death and destruction of sinful men on earth, He will come brightly flashing above. It will happen in a way that nobody will be able to mistake Him. The believers in Jesus through all the centuries of history can be sure that the men and women who claim to be Christ are false. We don’t have to pay any attention to them or give them our devotion. Our Lord and Savior is going to come again…but this time He’s coming across the sky! Jesus went on:

“‘Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.””

Wow! What a glorious time that will be! After all the years of suffering, of hatred and malice and war, the Lord Jesus will come on the clouds. Read the prophecies of Daniel 7:13-14 and Zechariah 12:10-14 to see how God foretold of this magnificent time through His servants. The stars of the universe will shake, and He will be revealed to all the world as the eternal King. He will send His angels to gather the elect, His faithful and chosen servants on the earth, and bring them to Himself. Wow! Can you imagine what it was like for the disciples that evening as they sat on the Mount of Olives? Picture the lights coming on in the city of Jerusalem as twilight set in and the quiet appearance of stars in the darkening night sky.

Story 169: Passion Week: The Widow’s Mite

Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4

elderly lady begging in Morocco

For most of the Bible stories on this site, the only things added to the stories are things like geographical facts, theological insights or reminders of where we are in the context of the broader biblical narrative. The goal is to keep as close to the story as possible while providing helpful information to understand it better.  The story of the widow’s mite is very short.  It is only four verses in both Mark and Luke, yet it is rich with the background of what it would have meant to be a widow in the time of Christ and what it would have meant to trust God in such a state. How might she have leaned on the Word in her growing process of trusting God wholeheartedly? There is a reason Jesus responded to the widow’s faith with such tenderness and delight…and even holy pride? For this precious story, I thought it might help to add a backstory to help us dig into what it meant for her to trust the Lord so profoundly…

She didn’t have much. Time had worn hard on her life. Yet over the years, she had learned things that gave her a simple but magnificent freedom. Though she had loved her husband greatly, God had taken him very early, and she had been a widow for a long time. As her own years stretched on, she became more and more poor. There were days when she wasn’t certain if she would eat. There were nights that would have been much more pleasant if she had another blanket to keep her old bones warm. Yet God had proven utterly faithful in the long and lonely years. She felt the covering of her Lord over her, like a great wing overshadowing her and protecting her (Ps. 17:6-9). The Most High God had been so close. How He loved her so! She didn’t have much, but everything she had belonged to Him, and He had provided (Prov. 3:5-6; Is. 30:15). And so with her last two copper pennies, she made her way along with the crowds to the grand and glorious Temple.

The Passover Feast had come once again, and as always she wanted to bring her offering to her Lord. As she entered the gates, the religious leaders stood tall in their elegant robes, speaking to each other in dignified voices. They could hardly veil their scorn for the masses of people who clogged the Temple courts with their gifts to God. The dear widow crept on by, far beneath their notice or care. As she looked up at their imposing figures, she recognized one of them. He was the son of the Pharisee who owned the home that she and her family lived in when her husband died. It was such a nice, open place, so full of love and memory. Of course they could not afford to live there once her husband was gone.

How terrible she felt when she could not pay her last month’s rent. The Pharisee was furious with her. She supposed he had a right to be, though it was hard when he claimed all of the belongings that she and her husband had gathered over the years.  He held great power and great knowledge of Scripture.  It never occurred to her to consider whether he was right in what he did…it was what the people expected from these religious leaders.

That move was the first of many.   It was also the beginning of a whole new life with God. She began to see Him move His strong arm to protect her in ways she could not have imagined before. Strangers would show her unusual kindness, food would come at just the right time, a neighbor would give her a new tunic just as hers was wearing out. Day after day, her God had proved faithful (Ps. 18:1-19). How powerful and mighty was He! How loving and good!  When she saw the women who were consumed by their clothing and jewelry, her heart filled with pity for them.  What a burden to carry, what a barrier to finding hope in God Himself instead of all those trappings.  How precious her time with God had become, how wonderful His deeds, how beautiful His face.

These were her thoughts as she walked through the Temple courts. She had spent many years choosing to trust God, choosing to be grateful, and now grateful praise were the pattern of her thoughts and feelings. Joy was the habit of her heart (Ps. 5:10-11; 37:3-6).

As she quietly moved into the line up to the Temple treasury, she could hear the clanging of the golden coins that the rich poured into the collection drums. What a wonderful riot of noise they made. “Surely,” she thought, “They give a great and mighty gift to God.” She looked down into her hand at the little nubs of bronze that sat in her palm. They were ridiculous, weightless little coins. They were only worth a cent, but they were everything. And because of her long years of faith, because of her deep humility, knowing that she could never have enough to give her holy God, she was content to give Him what she had. He would accept them as surely as He accepted her. With a special peace she prayed:

“‘Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord God,

Bright hope lifted in her as she silently declared,

“‘The Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them–

the Lord who remains forever faithful.

He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry…

The LORD watches over the alien

And sustains the fatherless and the widow,

But He frustrates the ways of the wicked.

The Lord reigns forever…

Praise the Lord!'”

Psalm 146:5-6a; 7a; 9a; 10b

She knew Him. She knew the value of her offering to Him. So great was the love of the Almighty God. She lived in the shelter of His wings. And there was a wealth and abundance to her inner life.  For you see, this poor little widow was lavishly rich in faith.

That day was very busy for the Lord Jesus in the Temple courts. He taught bright and striking things about God and the future. He fiercely rebuked the leaders of Jerusalem, who used the faith of God’s people to make money for themselves and reinforce their positions of power. The contamination of their sin was everywhere.

Jesus also knew that not everyone in Israel was so rebellious. There were many who worshipped God in beauty and truth from the depths of their hearts. As He continued doing the perfect will of His Father in the Temple courts, He saw them, too.

At one point in the day, Jesus stood with His disciples across from the Temple treasury. People filed in, bringing their money offerings to God. The rich came in proudly with their large sums. How much they seemed to give the Lord! How blessed they were in this life! Many Jews believed that those who gave more money pleased God more than those who couldn’t afford it. In fact, many in Israel believed that God blessed the rich with more money because they were more righteous than the poor.

Imagine the pressure and shame this put on those who were already living in poverty. Not only did they live with the pain and struggle of having so little, they had to live with condemnation because they were poor! Once again, Jesus came to speak a bright and beautiful truth against a terrible, destructive lie.

As Jesus watched the people pour their riches into the treasury drums, He spied out a woman by herself…a widow…who crept up quietly among them. She was obviously poor. Her clothes were little better than rags. The Lord continued to watch her as she reached out her hand and dropped in two tiny copper coins.   They made no sound, especially compared to the wild jangling of the wealthy offerings poured out by the people in front of her. If anyone had been close enough to look into her eyes, they would have seen a rich and glowing delight, a contentment too deep for words.

The Lord Jesus was not so close, but He saw. He listened to the Spirit of His Father and was deeply moved.   With all the examples of faithless unbelief in Israel surrounding Him, here was a woman of true devotion. She loved His Father, she trusted Him, and the Son of God was amazed. He gathered His disciples together…He didn’t want them to miss her. They wondered what the urgency could be. With a tender smile lingering in His eyes, Jesus pointed her out.

“‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put more than all the other contributors to the treasury; for they put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.'”

Wow. Imagine the glory of the little widow! In the courts of the Temple, the King of Creation’s palace on earth, she delighted the Prince of Heaven with her beauty…an exquisiteness of trust that radiated from her humility and surrender to God. For all of the darkness and faithlessness in the nation of Israel, here was the one who could strike the heart of God’s Son with wonder. Her abandoned trust was all He ever wanted from them all…and all He requires from each of us.

Story 167: Passion Week: Dirty on the Inside

Matthew 23:13-27; Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47

Dirty dishes waiting for wash.

As Jesus stood in a courtyard of the Temple, He had already begun to declare His indictment against the religious leaders of Israel.  It was a mighty confrontation.  Here was the Son of the living God, pronouncing God’s rebuke against the leaders of His holy nation…His treasured possession. The abuse of their power over God’s people was great.  It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (see Hebrews 10:26-31)

In the last story (see Story 166), Jesus said that while it was right for the common people to follow the teachings of their leaders that came from the Bible, they had to reject their way of life. True followers of God were meant to be people of great humility and service, which was exactly opposite of how those religious leaders lived.

Now Jesus was going to pronounce a declaration of seven woes against the Pharisees and scribes that would utterly expose them as religious frauds. Yet these woes had a far stronger power than mere accusation. Jesus was declaring the judgment of the Most High God on these men. This is what He said:

“‘But woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the Kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.'”

Wow.  Not only had these leaders failed to repent and worship their Lord, they did everything they could to force others to turn away from the Messiah as well. Instead of inviting the people into the presence of God’s love, they stood in the doorway and blocked the path.

And so Jesus declared the second woe :

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law, and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.'”

Can you hear the righteous anger of the Messiah? Can you understand His holy rage? These were the men who had been given the great and precious promises! Out of all the people on earth, they had the privilege of spending their entire lives studying God’s holy Scripture.  Yet they used their positions of power for selfish ambition. They were such terrible models of God’s righteousness that everyone they mentored became just as despicable as they were.  Jesus went on:

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

This third woe might seem confusing. Jesus was dealing with some very specific wrongs that the religious leaders were committing against the people of His day.  What were these oaths that Jesus was so angry about? Well, the scribes and Pharisees had developed a legal system with oaths. If someone made a promise with a certain kind of oath, it was legally binding. The person who said it had to follow through or receive a penalty. But if they said a different oath that was similar but had a few small changes in the words, then the oath wasn’t binding at all. The oath giver wasn’t legally bound to follow through.

Imagine how confusing that must have been for common people who didn’t understand all the rules. The religious leaders who knew what to say could trick the common people into believing they were making a binding oath that they didn’t really plan to keep. They could say, “I swear by the Temple” instead of “I swear by the gold of the Temple,” knowing that it didn’t count. They wouldn’t have to keep their promise.

Imagine how much this added to mistrust among the people of God’s holy nation.  Their own leaders were using the oaths of the Temple to manipulate them! In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus said that a true follower of God who lived in His presence would want to speak the truth as clearly and consistently as possible. When he said, “Yes,” it meant “Yes.” When he said “No,” he really meant “No.” Imagine the trust this would build between people if they knew that whatever the other person said was really what they meant. They could be trusted to keep their promises. That is what the religious leaders should have been teaching the nation of Israel. That is the culture they should have been fighting for with everything they did! That is the way of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus went on:

“‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices, mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.'”

As Jesus declared the fourth woe, He blasted the religious leaders for their poverty of obedience. It was true that the Old Testament law commanded that they give a tenth of everything to God. The religious leaders were faithful to do that about the smallest things… even garden herbs like dill and cumin. But then they lived as if the great, glorious (and much harder) obedience of showing mercy and establishing justice in their land was as nothing. As leaders with real power, it was their job to protect the vulnerable from mistreatment and shame, but they refused. They made a big deal about the rituals of religious activity from the Law as if they were the most important things, while ignoring the things that were deeply important to God, who loves justice and mercy. They were carefully straining out the gnats of obedience while swallowing the camels of injustice and corruption.

The Lord continued:

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

The cup and dish are a metaphor of the lives of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. They made sure that the outside of their lives was squeaky clean. Everything they did in front of people looked very holy and religious. But in their hearts and in the secret places, they were greedy and selfish.  They were filthy with their malice and ambition! Jesus commanded them to clean up their insides, to purify their hearts. If everything they did flowed from a heart devoted to their holy, Most High God, then they wouldn’t have to worry about what they looked like on the outside.

The sixth woe Christ spoke was a lot like the fifth. He said:

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

In those days, the Jews would often whitewash with chalk the tombs where they buried their dead. By clearly marking the tombs, they made sure that anyone walking by would not defile themselves by touching them. (According to God’s holy Law, it would make them unclean for seven days if they were to touch one.) This was one of God’s wise codes to help protect His people from disease and degradation…to remind them that death had no part in the holiness of their God.  Rather, it was the consequence of the human choice to reject Him, the Author of Life.  These tombs that were marked with white chalk looked like something pure and clean…yet they were still the place where the dead were kept. The bodies inside were rotting away, and all that would remain was mere skeleton. The wicked hearts of these religious leaders were filled with the same death and decay. They looked like they were pure and clean, but it was all a cover up for the rot inside.

Christ was using powerful images in these six woes to provoke the scribes and Pharisees and warn the people. There was only one more woe left. Would the seventh woe bring them to repentance?

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 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.

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