Tag: oppression

Story 40: Tell Me Who the Real Sinners Are

Matt. 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32

capernaum

This is a picture taken on the shore of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Two thousand years have passed, but little has changed there since Jesus walked along the edge of the water and taught. How amazing to know that these places that He lived and grew up and ministered are real. How amazing that all of His promises about a future hope…even for wretched sinners…are just as certain to come true as the world we live in already is.

Jesus was out once again walking along the shore of the sea. What a beautiful view with the yellow, rolling hills that molded themselves around the blue, shimmering waters of Galilee. It was probably some time in the fall, but the nation of Israel is in a land where the weather is mild, even in the middle of winter. As He went along, the crowds continued to follow Him. And He continued to teach them about the Kingdom of Heaven.

The time came for Jesus to leave the crowd, and as He walked away, He came across a man named Matthew (or Levi) who was a tax collector. He was sitting at his tax booth, busy at work.

There was a lot of shipping on the Sea of Galilee. There was also a major international road that threaded its way right through Capernaum. It lead all the way north to Damascus, out to the Mediterranean Sea, and down south to Egypt.   There were a lot of ways for a tax collector to make a lot of money in that town.

In the eyes of most people in Israel, one of the worst things a Jewish person could be was a tax collector. That’s because they were not collecting taxes for the nation of Israel. They were taking taxes from their fellow Jewish countrymen and giving them to Rome. The worst part was, they usually overcharged and kept the extra for themselves. A Jewish tax collector was seen as a terrible traitor, and they were much hated by their own people. They had sided with the oppressor! The corruption of the tax collectors was so common throughout Israel that they were excommunicated from the Jewish faith.

And yet, that is not how Jesus treated Matthew as He passed by his booth. Instead, He looked over at him and said, “‘Follow me!’” He was calling Matthew to be His disciple!

What? Wow! What was Jesus thinking? Of all the people in the crowds who were following him, why in the world had He chosen a tax collector? It was hardly the best way to form a team that would build His popularity or respect. We don’t know the exact thoughts going on in Jesus’ head, but we do know that Jesus didn’t do anything apart from the will of His Father. This Matthew was chosen by God to be a disciple of the Messiah.

This was probably not the first time Jesus and Matthew had met, but it was a great big turning point in Matthew’s life. He would never be the same again. When he heard the words of Jesus, he did not hesitate. He immediately stood up and followed the Lord, leaving everything else behind. He walked away from a comfortable job that made him very wealthy, trusting completely in Jesus. Gone was the security of riches, but he had gained a new life of honor, adventure, and eternal hope.

Matthew was so thrilled to follow the Lord that he threw a banquet at his house. He wasn’t going to keep his faith a secret! A huge crowd of his fellow tax collectors were invited along with a bunch of other sinners. Now, in those days, “sinner” was a really insulting word. It described anyone who was in rebellion against God. The way they lived their lives helped spread the power of darkness in the world. In that day, it made them a social outcast. It was quite a gathering, and there, in the midst of them all was the Lord Jesus and His disciples, reclining at Matthew’s table, sharing a meal. In the Jewish culture, eating with someone was an important sign of friendship. Jesus was making it very clear that He identified with and accepted the men and women around Him.

What was the Lord doing? Why would he befriend people that were in hateful rebellion against His Father? Well…because they weren’t. They believed in Jesus, and they had become His followers.

Do you think Jesus might have lied and told them that their sins were okay? Do you think they could be His followers if they hadn’t repented? Do you think they would have come to Matthew’s house if they had no plans to respond to the famous message of his guest? No. This banquet was full of those whose hearts had been changed, and it was a great and wonderful thing to celebrate!

The Pharisees and teachers of the law heard about the feast and grumbled. They were offended that this new preacher would spend so much time with such horrible people. What if people thought Jesus was saying their sin was okay? They went to the Lord’s disciples and complained. “‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collector and “sinners”?’”

Jesus overheard them and answered, “‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means; ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Jesus was quoting Hosea 6:6, using the Old Testament to prove His point to these religious leaders. They couldn’t deny the words of their own prophet!

The religious leaders were very proud, and they had set themselves on a level that was higher than everyone else. They thought they had the right to judge. But in this story, they were the ones that were rebelling against God because they were rejecting His Son! They refused to follow Him and show the same kind of mercy that He was giving to the lost children of Israel. They refused to hear the voice of their own prophets. Would they ever learn?

Story 39: Forgiveness

Matt. 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-2; Luke 5:17-28

Worship

Can you imagine watching your friend, paralyzed and unable to go anywhere without your help, rise and pick up the mat that you carried him on? Can you imagine the conversations you would have on the walk home? The new plans he would have for his life? The happy gratefulness he would feel towards the One who gave him healing? Everyone who has received Jesus into their heart has received a far greater healing…has more healing to receive…and will see a day of utter and complete freedom from all that has held us in bondage. Happy is the person who believes in those promises so deeply that he or she can begin to live in that happy sense of gratefulness today.  It is one of those prayer requests He is sure to answer.

The times that Christ lived in were very different times from our own. There were no news cameras or newspapers. It wasn’t possible to take a picture with a cell phone and post it on the internet. In those days, news travelled mouth to mouth or through messengers that would run or ride on horseback to deliver important information. Yet the human race was still very much the same as we are now. They cared about the same kinds of things and spread the same kind of gossip. Sometimes that worked for the good. Sometimes it wasn’t helpful at all.

Jesus had performed an amazing miracle. He had healed a man with leprosy. Word about it spread far and wide. The popularity of Christ was growing. Even though His ministry was far in the north of Israel around the Sea of Galilee, people down south in Jerusalem were hearing more and more about Him. The priests were getting curious. Who was this Jesus who had been so bold in the Temple? What were these rumors of miraculous healings in Galilee all about?

A few days after Jesus healed the leper, He got into a boat and crossed the Sea of Galilee back to His own town of Capernaum. It didn’t take long for everyone to learn that He had come home.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law had come from all the villages of Galilee. But it was not only the local religious leaders that were there. Pharisees from Judea and Jerusalem had been sent as well. They wanted to check out this Man who presumed to preach the Kingdom of Heaven to the masses. They wanted to test His healing power to see if it was real. And if necessary, they planned to put a stop to His ministry if it didn’t fit their idea of what it should be.   These men saw themselves as protectors of the faith. But would they try to protect the Jews from their own Messiah? Would they recognize Him now that He was finally here?

On the day of this story, Jesus was teaching in a home. So many people came to hear Him that the house was packed. People were crammed in every doorway, and there was no room for anyone else to come in.

As Jesus spoke, there came a noise from the roof. Some men had heard about Jesus’ remarkable healing power, and they thought He might be able to heal their friend. He was a paralytic, and it was painful to watch him struggle. How they wanted to see him walk again! What excellent friends.

The room was so full that they couldn’t get in through the door, but there was another way. The roofs of homes at that time in Israel were flat. They were made with tablets of clay. There was usually a staircase on the outside of the house leading up to it. These devoted friends carried their friend up to the roof of the house and began to move the clay tiles out of their way! They were going to lower their friend down to Jesus if they had to!

Imagine what is was like to be sitting in the room, listening to Jesus. Imagine hearing the footsteps of these men over your head, the clay tablets shifting and scrapping and lifting up, and the light streaming in! Now picture a mat lowering down from ropes right into the center of the room. Can you see it in your mind as the shriveled, paralyzed man on the mat came down to rest right at the feet of Jesus? What was Jesus going to do with this interruption?

He could have gotten mad at the interruption of His important message (for surely it was important.) He could have said, “Not now…not in front of these guys from Jerusalem. They want to take me down!” He could have ignored the man and kept on going, or refused to heal Him because it would be one more wearying exertion of His power.

Jesus was moved by the faith of these bold friends and this broken man. He turned to the one at His feet and said, “‘Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.’”

Wow. The Lord had just wiped away every bad thing the man had ever done. He was totally clean in the eyes of God.

When the Pharisees and teachers of the law heard this, they knew exactly what He meant. They thought, “‘Who is this man who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’”

That was a good question. It is true that only God has the right to forgive sins. If Jesus claimed to do so, He was claiming to be God himself! That was blasphemy! It was the worst sin someone could do. It offended the majesty and glory of God himself! Either Jesus was the worst of sinners, or He really was God! He didn’t leave room for any other explanation! These religious authorities were going to have to make some decisions. They either had to curse Him as a blasphemer, which was a sin worthy of death, or accept Him as Lord.

When the religious leaders heard Jesus claim to do something only God could do, they could have chosen to believe. The evidence was there. Stunning miracles seemed flow from every direction wherever He went. They could remembered their prophets who said this would happen when the Messiah came. They could have rejoiced at seeing people set free from their suffering. Instead, they stood there, accusing Jesus and raging against Him in their minds.

Jesus knew exactly what these Pharisees were thinking. The Spirit of the Lord was with Him, showing Him everything He needed to know. So He said to them, “‘Why are you thinking evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, and walk’? But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has Authority to forgive sins…’”

Then Jesus did something very bright and bold. He turned to the paralytic and said, “‘Rise, take up your bed, and go home’”*

The man did just as Jesus said. What faith it must have taken to rise up in front of all those people! But he did. His shriveled legs that had been useless were now strong and whole.   He picked up his mat and walked right out of the room! Can you imagine his joy as he walked home with his friends? How many years had it been since he could take himself anywhere? The Lord Jesus had given this man strength that the terrible Curse had robbed him of, and now he could step out into a whole new life!

You would think that everyone who saw this amazing miracle would be out of their minds with excitement! You would think that it would convince even the hardest heart that this Jesus was truly from God. But the religious leaders were full of their own pride. They had their own ideas about what the Messiah should be like, and their hearts were not open to anything else.

What a tragedy to miss His glory! Think about what they were missing! The Maker of the earth was standing in the room with them, and all they could do was fester about their own small ideas about God! Would they continue in their deception? Would they ever have eyes to see?

The rest of the Jews in the room were not so hard hearted. They saw the beauty of what happened for the paralytic and they were filled with amazement and wonder.   They began to give glory to God, praising Him and saying, “‘We have seen remarkable things today!’”

*quotes are from the NASV Matthew text

 

Story 36: Signs of the End of Suffering: The One with Healing in His Hands

Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-28; Luke 4:31b-37

St Pierre guérissant un paralytique

Imagine watching a man stand when he could not walk before. Imagine someone weak and shivering suddenly strong and shining. What would you say to the Man who brought these beautiful things about? What would you do to be near Him?

In the early days of Christ’s ministry, He spent His days preaching and teaching in the northern region of the nation of Israel around the Sea of Galilee. One day while Jesus was in Capernaum, He went for a walk along the edge of the water. The sea was surrounded by beautiful rolling hills. All along the shore there were clusters of little buildings showing where the towns and villages huddled up to the water. Even in our time a light breeze usually flows along the surface of the Galilee, fresh and clean. Only for Jesus, the air probably lingered with the smell of fish as well. As Jesus walked along, He saw Simon, who was called Peter, and His brother Andrew. They were fishermen, and they were standing on the shore casting their nets into the sea, working to get their catch for the day. Jesus called out to them, “‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men!’”

Andrew and Peter had already met Jesus at the Jordan River. John the Baptist, the great prophet and preacher of their time, told Andrew that Jesus was the One.  Andrew went to get his brother and they went to meet Jesus.  They walked with Jesus on the road from the Jordan up to Galilee together. They saw the power of God’s Word in Samaria when Jesus spoke with the woman at the well.  The whole village believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.  When Jesus said He would make them fishers of men, they knew what He meant.  Jesus was inviting them to rescue the lost people of the world from the mire of sin and death and capture them for the Kingdom of God.

When they heard the words of the Lord, Peter and Andrew stopped what they were doing immediately. They left their nets on the sand and followed after Him. The three men continued on their way along the shore. Imagine the glistening, calm water.  As they went, they came upon another fishing crew. They were out on their boats mending their nets. It was James and John. Their dad was Zebedee, and they ran his fishing business with him. They were also Jesus’ cousins.  Jesus called out to them, too. Immediately, they left their father and the hired servants on the boat and followed after Jesus.

It is important to realize that these guys didn’t understand this as a temporary decision.  These men were not leaving their jobs to spend time with Jesus for the day. They were choosing to become the disciples of the Lord. They were committing to a new life with a new purpose. How exciting it must have been to be chosen. Were they a little nervous, too?  Where was this path going to lead?

The men went into the town of Capernaum. This was where Jesus stayed now that Nazareth had rejected Him so completely. They tried to throw Him off a cliff after He preached in their synagogue! (See Story 34.)  Consider the bravery of Jesus that He went to Capernaum’s synagogue on the next Sabbath and began to teach.  But the people of Capernaum were different. They listened and were amazed. He spoke with such authority! He wasn’t like the scribes who taught everything based on what other humans said. He spoke directly from the wisdom of God and it was full of rich, textured truth that resounded in their souls.

On that particular day, there was a man in the synagogue that was possessed by an evil spirit. An evil spirit is what we would also call a demon, and though a lot of people in the world don’t believe they exist, the reality is that they do, and they are vicious creatures. They are fallen angels who rebelled against the goodness of the Most High God in Heaven.  They are the followers of Satan, and they long to destroy anything that God loves.

In the modern world, people often scoff at the idea of evil spirits or angels. But they also can’t explain why every religion in the world talks about dark spirits that go around tormenting and possessing humans. From the spirit houses in Thailand, the djinns of India and the Middle East, to the worship of Satan and the occult in the West, there is a consistent phenomenon that science cannot explain away.  Some have tried to chalk these things up to mental or physical disorders, and sometimes that is true. But sometimes there is much more to the problem than that.  The pervasiveness of it across the world is evidence that something exists that science has yet to fully understand.  In fact, when Christians tell people in many countries of the world stories from the Bible about demons, they don’t have to explain what they are…the people already know.  Their cultures are well aware of their presence.  It is the arrogance of the West (and its ignorance of its arrogance) that assumes it can discount their experiences and knowledge as mere superstition and ignorance.

The Bible makes it clear that demons are real beings with real power…and they do real damage.   Jesus could take them on directly because He was alive with the power and authority of the Most High God.

As Jesus was preaching in the synagogue, one of these malicious demonic spirits had power over one of the men who was listening to Him. The demon understood exactly who Jesus was, and he didn’t like it at all. He used the man’s voice to cry out against the Son of the Living God:

“‘Ha!’” he yelled out. “‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are-the Holy One of God!’” The evil spirit knew exactly who Jesus was and why He came. It knew that with the coming of the Messiah, the power of all demonic forces would be brought to an end. But it wasn’t going to go without a fight. With these words, the demon was trying to wield power over the Son of God who had become a man. These evil beings work through dark powers with strange rules they feel they have to obey to get them to work. By proclaiming Jesus’ name and exalted rank, it was trying to claim control over Him. In order for this to work, it had to state an accurate description of who Jesus was, but to do that, it had to reveal Christ’s status as God himself!

Jesus had no fear of the nasty being. Magical incantations and manipulation are nothing against the immensity of the all powerful, Most High God. He rebuked the demon with a strong, stern voice, “‘Be quiet! Come out of him!’” He demanded.

The demon threw the man into a convulsive fit and cast his body to the floor. When he was gone, they took care of the man and found that he hadn’t been injured.

Imagine the silent tension in the room as everyone watched the dramatic scene! Imagine how chaotic the world would have felt as the demon disrupted everything with his strange, evil voice? Imagine how the strength of Christ’s power and authority would have filled the room as He cast the evil spirit out. Imagine the relief and freedom of the man who had been taken over by it’s power!

The rest of the people in the synagogue were stunned and amazed. They murmured to each other questions like, “‘What is this teaching? With authority and power He gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!’” The murmurings in the synagogue spread like wildfire to excited discussions in the homes and villages all around Galilee. What was happening to the order of the world?

The people of Jesus’ time understood the power of these evil forces. Evil spirits were able to curse their victims with terrible diseases. They could bring confusion and even insanity to the mind, and they could provoke a person to violent acts of rage. But worst of all, they worked to deceive people into rebellion against the Most High God. The people of Jesus’ time understood when they or their loved ones were being oppressed by evil spirits. Who was this man that had no fear of them? What did it mean that He could command them with a word? And could He bring them freedom, too?

When Jesus left the synagogue, He headed for Peter’s home. James and John were with Him. When they arrived, they learned that Peter’s mother-in-law was very sick. She had a high fever. When Jesus arrived, they asked if He could help. The Lord went bent over her and took her hand. He rebuked the fever and raised her up. Immediately the fever left her. She got up from her bed and began to serve them. Jesus hadn’t just taken away the disease, He had restored her strength! He gave her life and energy so that she could do what she loved. How delighted she must have been to be able to serve her guests, especially the One that healed her.

Meanwhile, more and more people were hearing the story of Christ’s power in the synagogue. By nightfall, they were coming in droves to the door of Simon Peter’s home. It was the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, so they waited for the sun to go down. Everyone who had loved ones suffering from diseases or demonic possession wanted to bring them to this new hope for healing.

Pretty soon, the whole city was standing at Peter’s door.   Jesus went out to them and began to heal them one by one. Some came with terrible diseases, but when they spoke with Christ, they felt their pain disappearing, their weakness go away, and their sores clear up. Imagine their relief! Imagine how grateful you would feel if you watched the suffering of someone you love change to health and strength! It must have been awesome to behold! What a wholeheartedly joyful assembly that must have turned into on the doorstep of Peter’s home…what wonder and outrageous delight.

The authors of Scripture explained that as Jesus healed, He also caste out many demons. As they left their victims, they would scream, “‘You are the Son of God!’” just like they had in the synagogue.  These demons knew who Jesus was, too.

Sometimes it is important to ponder these things for a little while because they are so grand, strange, and profound that our minds can’t quite wrap around it all.  Before the beginning of human time, demonic creatures had once been holy angels. They had been given the unimaginable gift of living in Heaven and serving God in perfect peace. They recognized the Son of God because they knew Him before the creation of the world. They knew Him as the One exalted on the throne of Heaven!

When Adam and Eve turned away from God and gave their allegiance to Satan, they gave the Evil One and all of his demonic followers great power over the human race. This had gone on for thousands of years. But something new was afoot. The Son of God was the power behind the whole universe and now he had become a man (See Colossians 1:15-20).  The evil spirits didn’t even try to pretend that they could ignore the commands of Christ. As He demanded that they leave their victims, the only damage they could do was declare Him to the people and reveal His true identity before His time had come. Perhaps they could even destroy His credibility by making it look like they were His heralds. Perhaps they could confuse the people by linking Him as a partner with Satan!

Jesus would have none of it. He ordered them not to speak, and they had to obey. And all of this showed, once again, how Jesus was indeed the coming Messiah. Not because of what the demons declared, but because of what His works of compassions showed. For Isaiah the prophet had written: “He himself took our infirmities, and carried away our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4).  God had promised through the prophet Isaiah that He would send an Anointed One who would come to change the world (Isaiah 61)…and eight hundred years later, that time had come.

Story 29: Proof to Believe: What Can Satisfy the Resistant Soul?

John 2:13-24

To this day, devout Jewish people make pilgrimages to visit what we believe are the last remnants of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Today it is called the Wailing Wall. It is so named to describe their grief over the destruction of their most sacred place of worship. But what if their own God provided a far better Temple? What if He is calling them still?

Jesus performed an amazing miracle for His mom. It was quiet and unseen by most, but a few of the people at the wedding feast understood what happened. The parents of the bride had failed to bring enough wine, and to save them from their shame, Jesus had turned many gallons of water into the fine drink. The Lord who created the universe is also the God who thought up the wonder of wine and weddings and falling in love. And One Day, The Son of God is going to celebrate a wedding of His own (Rev. 19: 6-9).

After the feast in Cana, Jesus went back with His mother to Capernaum. His brothers and His disciples went with them.  They stayed there together for a several days. Imagine the conversations!  Then the time came for the Passover. The Lord Jesus and His companions travelled to Jerusalem to worship at the holy feast. But when He got to the Temple, He was filled with rage. The outer courts were full of men selling cattle and sheep and doves. It looked like the scene of a common market! These creatures were supposed to be there so the people of Israel could offer them to God as sacrifices in the Temple. They were meant to be a holy offering, but these men were turning it into a dirty money-making scheme. Jesus took cords of and began to scourge the moneychangers and merchants who were taking advantage of the people. As He drove them out of the Temple with their animals, He threw down their money and turned their tables over in disgust. “‘Get these out of here!’” He commanded. “ ‘How dare you turn My Father’s house into a market?’”

Imagine the intensity of the moment! There were animals and men running in every direction, fleeing the purifying wrath of Christ. As His disciples watched their Teacher rage fiercely in His righteous anger, they remembered that the Old Testament told about One who would burn with passion for the Temple of God. Psalm 69:9 says, “‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” This verse was meant to point to Jesus. It was meant to show that God approved of the Messiah when He came in His blazing goodness. The disciples saw the connection and believed.

But the Jewish leaders were affronted. Who did this carpenter think He was to come into their Temple and defy their way of doing things?  These men were in charge of the Temple, and they had allowed those moneychangers and animals to come inside. The only person would could override their decisions was someone who had been sent by God Himself, and He would be able to prove His authority with miraculous powers.  They confronted Jesus by challenging Him: “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’”

Jesus said to them, “‘Destroy the temple and I will raise it up again in three days.’”

Wow. That is a bold statement. The Temple was a massive, grand building. The Jewish leaders questioned Him, “‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’”

But the Lord wasn’t speaking to them plainly. He was speaking in mysteries and riddles because their hearts were hard. The Temple He spoke of wasn’t the building in Jerusalem. He was talking about the Temple of His own Body.  At the time, His disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant, either. But after Jesus died and rose again on the third day, it all became very clear.  They remembered what He said, and they believed.

While Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover, He performed many miraculous signs. They showed that He had a special power from God. It meant that they should have believed Him when He said He was sent by God. It is interesting that the religious leaders had demanded a miracle from Jesus, but when He performed them, they still didn’t believe. They said that a miracle would be proof of His authority, but then refused to accept it.

Many other people saw these signs and believed in Jesus. But the Lord did not put His trust in them. Jesus was walking the earth as the Man who is God, but He lived in total dependence on His Father in Heaven. He did nothing apart from obedience to His Father’s leading. God knows the motivations and desires of every person. He knew that even those who had begun to believe in Christ’s message were still burdened with the sins that lead to betrayal. Jesus could not put His trust in the frailty of those around Him. But His Father was nothing like that. The love of God is loyal, strong, and never failing. Jesus looked to His Father alone, and He was more that enough.

Story 24: Hardened Hearts

Matthew 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-14

What do you do when the good Laws of God are turned against the people and used to support the control and corruption of the religious leaders? What if the system is so entrenched that nobody can see it as a problem? Sometimes it requires the voice of a radical to break through.

When was the last time someone caught you doing something wrong? Did you get embarrassed? Angry? Did you start to argue? Make a joke?  Hide?  Or do you get sad and quiet?   Did you repent?

Most of us don’t want anyone to see our sin unless they are joining us in it.  How much worse when someone calls us on it!  Yet that is exactly what John the Baptist was doing in the desert of Judah. You would think that as word spread about John’s message, people would stop coming. But they didn’t.  They started coming in droves.  Did the people sense that the Spirit of the Lord was in his words?   His message must have been uncomfortable, but so is the shame of sin. Perhaps their longing for the freedom he offered overcame their hiding. Whatever it was that drew people to him, the popularity and fame of his ministry continued to grow.

The religious leaders in Jerusalem saw that John’s influence was widening out through the nation, and it bothered them. What if he grew to be more popular than them? What if he tried to challenge their positions of power?   Who was this son of Zachariah?

When John saw these religious leaders coming out to him, he was filled with indignation. His father was a priest. He had worked with men like this, and he knew them well. Some of them were called the Sadducees. They were a powerful group who were very careful to follow the Law of God in the Torah, or the first five books of the Bible. They didn’t believe the rest of the Old Testament was a part of God’s Word. They ignored the Psalms and the stories of King David. They also didn’t believe in the supernatural. They said that angels and demons were ideas that humans made up. They rejected the idea that there was life after death or that God was at work in the world. But they held great power over the Jewish faith in Jerusalem, and they were in charge of the Temple.

Another group of Jewish leaders was called the Pharisees. They believed in the whole Old Testament, just as Jesus did. They honored what Scripture taught about angels as majestic, living beings that were messengers from God. They understood that demonic spirits were real and destructive to human life, and taught that there is life after death. It was the Pharisees who started the synagogues and taught in them. The synagogues were houses of worship in the towns and villages all over Israel where the common people came to honor the Lord and learn from Scripture.

The Pharisees were the true leaders of the Jewish faith for most of the Jews. But they were very hard leaders to follow. They were so determined to obey the laws of God that they added new, harsh laws for the people to obey that were not from the Lord. Most of the people could not keep up with their multitudes of rules and demands, and so the Pharisees treated the people with a spirit of rejection. Their own religious purity had become more important to them than love for God or love for the people. Their legalism kept the children of God from understanding God’s love as well. Their ministry to the people was often based on fear and shame.

Imagine how that effected the people’s relationship with their God!  Imagine how displeased God was that His own leaders were creating barriers for His people from His great love!

The Sadducees and the Pharisees disagreed about almost everything, and they hated each other for it. Members of both groups made up the Sanhedrin, which was the powerful counsel of Jewish leaders who made the great decisions for the Jewish faith at the Temple in Jerusalem. Tragically, both groups dishonored the God they claimed to serve. Their positions of power and their own righteousness were far more important to them than the will of the Lord. As they made their way to where John preached, he cried out against them with a fierce and angry rebuke:

“You brood of vipers!” he declared. Wow. That is pretty harsh. He called them poisonous snakes! How dare he insult the most powerful men in the nation…and in public! The crowds must have been shocked!  He went on:

“Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Wow! As a prophet of God, John was declaring that these men were so full of sin that they weren’t even worthy to be warned. They didn’t deserve a chance to change. He said the things they claimed to do for God were actually selfish and sinful, and so the result was like rotten fruit. Good fruit would only come if they humbled themselves and repented.  That would be pretty tough to swallow if you’d been walking around for a decade or so thinking you were hot stuff spiritually.

John kept right on speaking his ferocious words to them: “…do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children of Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’”

It is hard for us to imagine how fiery and bold these words would have sounded to the people of John’s time. There they all were, standing along the banks of the Jordan River. Soldiers and tax collectors and farmers and every other manner of men and women were there. But when these religious leaders came, everyone else probably cleared the way.   These were the men that everyone else listened to and feared. And these men proudly assumed they were most spiritual, holy people on earth. They were used to being treated with deference and respect by everyone in their society.   And yet here was this bold man dressed like Elijah, declaring in front of everyone that they were the worst sinners of all! They had misrepresented the Lord of all creation! They had lied about the most sacred Truth!

Then John went after their most prized possession. This was something both the Sadducees and the Pharisees could agree about. These men believed that they were special because they were part of God’s holy nation, the children of Abraham. But now John was declaring that their leadership over the nation was so terrible that the whole nation was going to be severely judged . It didn’t matter if they descended from Abraham if they did not honor God with their lives. The true, spiritual children of Abraham were those that lived by faith in God, and the leaders of Israel during the time of John were far from it.

Would these religious leaders turn their hearts back to God in repentance? Would they allow John to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah? Would they welcome Him when He came? Or would they continue in their rebellion and use their religious positions to exalt themselves and oppress the people?

As we read the story of the life of Jesus, we will meet many different people. Each of them will have to decide whether they will turn to Jesus in faith or harden their hearts against Him. John knew that many would refuse the message of Messiah, and so judgment was on the way.

Christ and John the Baptist were calling the nation of Israel to repentance.  Here is a beautiful song that shows what that can sound like:

Story 22: The Radical

John the Baptist

If God gave you a message that would offend your most powerful leaders  and turn your nation upside down, would you give it?

What would it have been like to grow up knowing that an archangel had announced your birth…knowing that you have the unique and perilous calling of a prophet? That’s what John the Baptist knew his own destiny.

A lot of us have heard the stories of the Bible for so long that we forget to think about what it would be like to have lived them.   If you believe these are just made up stories, then there isn’t much to wonder about.  But if they are true…wow.  What would it have been like to be a character…making choices, facing consequences, dealing with fears, desires, and unknowns?

The Lord gave Zechariah and Elizabeth a son when they were already old and grey. They were so old that everyone was certain that this child was a miracle from God. Every child is precious, but clearly this one had a very high and special purpose.

Gabriel declared that this boy would come in the spirit of the great prophet Elijah. He also gave John’s father special directions about the kind of life John was to live. There were things that he was never allowed to do. For example, he could never drink any kind of alcohol. He would be filled with the Spirit of the Living God instead!

As John grew, God called him out into the desert wilderness to live, just like the stories of Elijah in the Old Testament. And just like Elijah, John wore the simple, rough clothes of a man set apart for God. It was made of itchy, course camel’s hair. He wore a leather belt around his waist and he ate wild honey and locusts for his food. Imagine his long, hot dry days alone, meditating on the Word of God. Imagine the deep, dark, cold desert nights with thousands of brilliant stars sprinkled across the sky as John prayed and pursued the will of the Lord.

John had a vital message to declare to God’s people. The prophet Isaiah had told of John’s coming over seven hundred years before the time of Jesus:

“‘I will send my messenger to you,

who will prepare you the way-

a voice of one calling in the desert,

“Prepare the way for the Lord,

make straight paths for him”’”

These verses are from Isaiah 40:3-5. This chapter is the beginning of the great prophecies about the Messiah in the book of Isaiah.   The prophet explained that some time in Israel’s future, a man would come as a herald to declare the coming of the Messiah. This messenger would speak with the power and authority of one sent by God.   He would be the last of the great prophets of Israel. But the great difference between John and the prophets of old was that John was preaching to the very people who would meet the Messiah Himself! Their hearts had to be made ready for their King! Would the nation listen to this messenger of the Lord? Would they repent of their sin?

The time came when God called John to leave the wilderness and begin his powerful ministry of preaching. As John the Baptist taught, he quoted Isaiah 40 to help the Jewish people understand who he was. According to the way we measure time now, this probably happened in the summer of 26 AD.   But that isn’t how years were measured in those days. Back then, time was measured by the years of the seemingly all-powerful rule of the emperors of Rome.

Luke records that John began preaching in the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius Caesar. At that time, Pontius Pilate was the Roman official who governed Judea, the southern region of the land of Israel. There were also Jewish rulers that worked under the power of Roman rule. When King Herod died, the Roman leaders decided to break up the land of Israel between his sons. His first son, also named Herod, was made ruler over the land of Galilee. His brothers Philip and Lysanias were made tetrarchs over other regions.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Caiaphus and Ananias were the high priests over the Temple in Jerusalem. They were appointed by the first King Herod. Needless to say, they did not receive their appointments in an honorable way. They commanded the highest religious position in Israel through political corruption and sheer ambition. It was a terrible way to become the priests that were meant to stand as mediators between a holy God and His people. But the role of high priest in Jerusalem was a position of tremendous power, and it attracted men full of selfish aims. They were meant to act as the spiritual leaders of the children of God, but their hearts were far from His will.

Luke was careful to record the men who ruled over the Israel during the time of John’s life and the life of Christ. These men held great worldly power, but John the Baptist came in the power of God’s Spirit, and he lived for the Kingdom of God. The rulers of the world would come up against God’s power through God’s servant, and they would have to make choices. Would they submit to the unstoppable plans of the Lord of all?

John began to travel throughout the countryside, preaching to the people and baptizing them. He told them, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”

Now, this sentence is very, very important. It is the whole point of John’s powerful ministry. It is worth pondering for a minute.

John had the passion of a prophet. For him, repentance meant a radical change of heart. It meant turning away from anything that was against God. It meant rejecting anything that was impure or offensive to Him. When John baptized the people, they had to confess their sins as something they no longer wanted any part of. Then they were baptized. Their full body was dunked under the water, like in a rushing flood that washes away every unwanted thing. It was a powerful, symbolic and spiritual act, declaring to the world that they had died to one way of life and were rising up into another!

God made declarations all over Scripture that He loves a repentant spirit. He promises that He will always accept those who come to Him with true humility. He promises to take all the filth of sin and shame and cleanse the heart to make it pure and clean. He promises to give strength to anyone that trusts Him and seeks to live a righteous life. That was the longing of John’s heart for the people of Israel. Isn’t it beautiful?

What do you think John meant by the “Kingdom of Heaven?” Well, when a Jewish person heard this phrase, or when they heard “Kingdom of God,” a whole bunch of connected ideas would have come to their minds. They understood that their God, Yahweh, was eternal. He had no beginning, He always was. At some point in eternity, God moved in a special way. He created the entire universe, from the most vast spaces and regions in the dark deep and the most gigantic stars to the tiniest beetle on a blade of grass. All of it is God’s, and so it is all a part of His great, universal kingdom.

God had also given humanity the unimaginable privilege of watching over part of His kingdom. He gave humans dominion and authority over the earth. We were to be His empowered servants, doing His perfect will, ruling and reigning for Him over this beautiful blue planet we call home. When humans gave their allegiance to Satan and chose to believe him over God, we brought a terrible curse into our world.   Our rejection of God plunged the world into a kingdom of darkness. Sin, disease, hard labor, suffering, and death became a part of everyday life here. Our first father, Adam, chose it, and as the father of the human family, he chose it for all of us. The disease of sin and shame infests every human life.

But God would not let the story end there! God had a plan from the beginning to break into the darkness with His Kingdom of Light. The Jewish nation was an important part of God breaking in with images and teachings of His holiness and love. It was their prophets that would tell of God’s wonderful plan to establish His righteous kingdom of light and joy and peace through the Messiah. That was the kingdom that Israel was waiting for.

John knew that the Old Testament said that with the coming of the Messiah, this great Day of the Lord was on its way. The righteous who truly loved their Lord and lived to be obedient to Him would be saved. But the hard hearted and sinful were going to be destroyed. Their refusal to turn away from evil made them unfit for the Kingdom of Heaven. It showed that God was not their true King. Their own decisions would make them fit only for God’s wrath and judgment.

John knew that his job was to prepare the people of Israel by presenting them with a choice. Yet he did not know all the details about the future. He didn’t know exactly how everything was going to happen. He went out and faithfully to preach the message of warning that God had given him so that the people would have their chance to welcome their Savior and his Kingdom with hearts made clean by repentance!

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