ARE YOU REALLY BLESSED IF YOU HAVE NOTHING?

poor

 

 

Jesus calls “blessed” what we usually call “NOT blessed.”

 

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Matthew #10 . Chapter 5:1-2

Chapter five is the beginning of what many people call “The Sermon on the Mount.” At the end of chapter four, we saw large crowds of people following Jesus around, mostly because he healed people. Matthew records that Jesus took his disciples aside, up a nearby mountain and spent some time teaching them. It isn’t spelled out, but it the picture seems to be of more than just the twelve apostles here. Instead, this teaching was for everyone who wanted to follow him. I think the main point Matthew was making was that there was a difference between “the crowds” and “Jesus disciples.” In other words, this teaching was given to people who trust Jesus and want to continue to trust him and be related to him. These are not standards we should try to apply to people who are not Christians. They are, however for all disciples of Jesus. Today, if you believe in Jesus and trust him, you are one of his disciples. This teaching is for you.

I’ve always heard Matthew 5:3-12, (the first part of the Sermon on the Mount) called “the beatitudes.” This never made any sense to me, because the word “beatitude” doesn’t appear anywhere in this passage in the English translations; it is a word of Latin/French origin anyway, not a Greek or Aramaic term. Besides that, until I looked it up in a dictionary, I didn’t know what “beatitude” meant.[1]

What Jesus is really teaching in this first section of the Sermon on the Mount are attitudes of the heart that ought to mark every person who is a Christian. Once again, we need to recall that He is speaking to people who are already in relationship with him. I don’t believe that the “blessings” which he pronounces over these heart-attitudes can be separated. In other words, he is not saying, “some of you are blessed because you are poor in spirit, and others are blessed because they are pure in heart…” No, the truth is one cannot be pure of heart unless one is also poor in Spirit. Likewise it may not be possible to be a peace-maker unless one is also gentle or meek. So the point is, Jesus wants all of his followers to be growing, and possessing all of these character traits in increasing measure. Certainly, some people may find it easier to be a peace-maker than to maintain a pure heart, while others have trouble with the idea of persecution, even while they desperately hunger for righteousness. Jesus certainly takes us just the way we are. It is also true that when we come into relationship with Jesus, he begins to change us by the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us to become more like the original blue-print he had when he made human beings, before Adam and Eve sinned. In other words, if we are tune with the Holy Spirit and with the Bible, we will continue to grow.

Before we look at what Jesus pronounces “blessed” I would like us to briefly consider what most of our culture might say about these same topics, if we were honest with ourselves. I am sad to say that many of us who are Christians often fall into the same patterns of thought, myself included. So an American version might read like this:

    • Blessed are the financially secure, for they have no worries, and money sets them free to pursue who they want to be.
    • Blessed are those who never experience any grief or pain, for life is easy for them.
    • Blessed are those with ambition, for they will get what they really “go for.”
    • Blessed are those who remain outwardly moral and upright, for they will be respected by all.
    • Blessed are those who are kind when it doesn’t really hurt them, for we think they are both good and smart.
    • Blessed are those who “seize the day” and are not encumbered by prudish moral distinctions, for they get to enjoy all things.
    • Blessed are those who can arrange circumstances to get what they want.
    • Blessed are those who never face persecution.

I honestly believe that most people in America, even many Christians, would find themselves agreeing with some, or even most, of the statements above. As I just mentioned, in unguarded moments I even find myself thinking this way, especially with regard to the first two and the last one. But this just one example of how Jesus’ thinking is so counter-cultural. Many of the blessings above are diametrically opposed to the statements Jesus makes in Matthew 5. And some of them, while not precisely opposite in meaning, completely miss the intentions of Jesus. So what does Jesus say? We will begin to look at that in detail right now.

The sermon on the mount continues through all of chapters five, six and seven. It includes the teaching that to lust is equal to the sin of adultery, that to hate or call someone a fool is the same as murder. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As we read these things, I think you will be continually struck by one recurring question: Who could actually live like this? Who is truly capable of living up to these holy standards?

We are meant to ask that question, and to struggle with it. The standards of the sermon on the mount show us our spiritual poverty. They make us hunger and thirst to be that righteous. This shows us clearly that we do not have the resources to be that Holy We are meant to realize that the answer is “not me.” In fact, only one person could possibly live up that standard: Jesus himself.

So where does that leave us? We need Jesus to live his holy live “inside” of our lives, through our lives. We need to recognize our deep spiritual poverty, our desperate need for Jesus.

And that is why Jesus begins his whole discourse with this sentence:

“The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (Matt 5:3, HCSB)

We begin to have the right attitude when we realize that we are utterly without resources. We cannot be perfect. We cannot attain to the standard of Jesus. Instead, we recognize that we are dependent upon Jesus to manifest his holy and perfect character in and through our lives.

To be poor in spirit means to realize our true position before God. Consider Revelation 3:17. This is part of the message Jesus gave to the church in Laodicea.

“You say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched, and miserable and poor and blind and naked…”

It is so easy to come before God thinking we have something of value to offer him. We think the fact that we live basically moral lives ought to count for something. We think that we are certainly not as bad as some people, and that ought to be a bargaining chip for dealings with God. Sometimes if we do something particularly noble or self-sacrificing, we suppose God has to recognize that. This is not the attitude of someone who is poor in spirit. The poor in spirit know that before God, we have nothing. They know that we are in fact wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked when it comes to spiritual things. Now, if this were our physical condition, I imagine we would be desperate. We would urgently seek help for our impoverished situation. In the same way, the mark of spiritual poverty is desperation for God. For the poor in spirit, all back-up plans have failed, all safety nets have broken, all contingency actions have been fruitless. The last drop of water is gone from the desert traveler’s broken canteen; the safety line of the rock climber has snapped in the fall; the last bullet is gone from the gun of the soldier, and the enemy is advancing.

Does this describe your spiritual life? Are you desperate for the Lord? Do you cling to his promises as a shipwrecked sailor clings to his life-ring? Do you truly believe that without the great mercy of God you have nothing, that without him you are utterly lost? And do you believe that you have no claim on him, that nothing you have or are can manipulate him to act on your behalf? Jesus once asked his disciples if they wanted to leave him. Peter said:

“Lord, to what person could we go? Your words give eternal life. Besides, we believe and know that you are the Holy one of God” (John 6:68-69)

Peter and the others were desperate. They knew that they had no where else to turn. And they knew also that they had no claim to make on God, no basis by which to demand deliverance. Desperate, they threw themselves on the mercy of God. The words of the old hymn, Rock of Ages put it very well:

Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling

Naked come to thee for dress; Helpless, look to thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me savior, or I die.

The Kingdom of heaven belongs to the spiritually poor because only the spiritually poor are willing to come on God’s terms. I encourage you this week to think of yourself as poor in spirit, and to receive the blessing of all of God’s fullness poured into all of your emptiness.

Hold on to this lesson, and return to it during these next weeks as we continue through the Sermon on the Mount.


[1] If you want to know, look it up yourself!

TEMPTATIONS

 

TEMPTATION

Jesus faced some powerful temptations. We face the same kinds of tests. The way that he overcame them can help us to trust him to overcome them in our lives also.

 

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Matthew #7 . 4:1-11

Last time we saw how, at the baptism of Jesus, the Father and the Spirit showed how pleased they were with him. The next thing Matthew records is that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Mark records that this happened immediately after:

Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. (Mark 1:12, HCSB)

There is an important point here. It isn’t the main message of the text, but I think it is very significant for many of us. The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was with him, leading him. And he was brought into a desert wasteland where he had no food and had to fight with devil.

You don’t have to go very far in America to hear a Christian says something like this: “If you just follow God, he’ll take care of you. Your life will go better.” The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was leading him. However, his life did not get better, but harder. Following God is not a guarantee that everything will go well for you. That’s hard, but it’s the truth. When we follow God, his goal is to lead us to the place where we understand that this life on earth is not the main focus.

There is something else that many people may need to hear today: Our circumstances do not necessarily reflect how God feels about us. Jesus had nothing to eat. He was assailed by the devil, and living in a desert wasteland. And the Father was so pleased with him; the Spirit was with him. The Father has his reasons for allowing Jesus to go through that. But his reasons had nothing to do with his delight in Jesus.

Sometimes, when I’m going through tough times, I think maybe God is mad at me, or perhaps I’ve done something that has caused him to teach me a lesson. Another thought I have sometimes is that I’m going through hard times because I’ve made the wrong choice, and not listened to the Holy Spirit. But that could not have been the case with Jesus. The Father was pleased with him. The Spirit was leading him.

I think this passage calls us to dare to look at our circumstances differently. In Jesus, the Father is pleased with us, too. What we are going through is not necessarily a sign of how God feels about us. It’s true that, unlike Jesus, we sin. Sometimes we go astray and hard circumstances are a result of our bad choices. But Jesus shows us that you can follow the Spirit and still end up in wasteland with no food and the devil attacking you constantly. Just because you are in a hard time does not mean that God is displeased with you. Trust his love and grace to you!

Now, let’s take a look at some of the specific temptations faced by Jesus at this point. By the way, Matthew does not claim that these were the only ways Jesus was tempted by the devil. These are just a few of the many. But they were very powerful and difficult. You could classify these three incidents as temptation to doubt God’s provision, his protection and his purpose. But I think it’s worth looking at all three more closely.

Jesus was fasting. In some ways, fasting is all about dependence upon God. It’s almost like saying, “I need you more even, than I need food!” In my experience, when done right, fasting leads me to a greater sense of dependence upon God, regardless of what needs I may perceive in my life.

4:2 says that Jesus was hungry. Satan came along and said, “Why don’t you just create some food for yourself? You are God in human flesh, after all.” Pay attention, now. Being hungry isn’t a sin. It was natural for Jesus to be hungry. He was hungry because He himself had created the human body to need food. So, the temptation here is not about eating – it is about control. Satan was saying, “You’re hungry. You can satisfy your own hunger. Just reach out and do it – meet your own needs.”

Jesus, in taking on human nature, committed himself to live in complete dependence upon the Father, even as we humans are called to live in dependence upon him. To live as a human, to fulfill his mission, he had to trust in the Father to take care of him. In reply to the devil, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3. The whole verse says this:

He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deut 8:3, HCSB)

In that verse, Moses was reminding the people of Israel how God dealt with them in their desert wanderings. The point is, the hunger came about as a result of God’s work, and the hunger was ultimately satisfied by God. Jesus was saying: I will not meet my own needs. I will allow the Father to put me in a place of need, and I will allow Him to meet those needs in His way, and His time.

We experience similar situations, even when we aren’t fasting. Maybe it is in regard to physical needs, like hunger, or physical intimacy. Or maybe we are “hungry” for emotional needs. God wants us to depend on him to satisfy our needs in his way and in his time. Satan wants us to insist upon our needs getting met in our way and in our time. The temptation is to take control of the situation rather than trusting God. Jesus chose to trust God even while his need to eat was not being met. He calls us to that same kind of faith. Can we trust God to meet our need for love, even when we feel unloved? Can we trust him to take care of us, even while we can’t pay the bills?

We can’t manufacture that kind of faith. But Jesus has that sort of trust in the Father, and he put it into action as a human. And if he we trust Jesus, his strength, faith and integrity are available to us. Through faith, we can let Jesus, living inside us, overcome those temptations and bring us to a place of trust in the Father.

The next temptation recorded may not seem like much of a temptation to most of us. The devil suggests that Jesus should throw himself off the highest place in Jerusalem. From there, he would certainly die, unless God saved him. I think there are several temptations here. One is an inducement to suicide. Jesus faced some incredible hardships within a few years. It would be easy to simply retreat from life, and go back to heaven through death.

Without contradicting that, there are other things going here also. I think the devil was trying to cast doubt on Jesus’ sense of identity as the Son of God. He says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…” In other words: “You think you are God’s beloved Son? Prove it.” Again, the devil is inviting Jesus to doubt God, to doubt what had been said at Jesus’ baptism. As an evil twist, he is also casting doubt about whether the Father really would rescue Jesus, really protect him.

As a final, diabolical element, Satan quotes scripture, twisting its meaning and purpose, to try and convince Jesus to do it. I think that is a very important point. In this world of sin, anyone’s words can be twisted and misused, even God’s. Psalm 91 (quoted here by Satan) is an assurance of God’s care for his people. It is not an invitation to commit suicide and see if God will stop you. It’s not an invitation to force God to prove something.

But I think we all have the temptation sometimes to want God to prove himself to us. Sometimes we all doubt whether God will really keep his promises, and we think it would be nice if we could make him show us. We also feel the temptation to doubt who we are in Jesus. The bible says that in Jesus, we have forgiveness and redemption; we are holy and blameless; we have every spiritual blessing; we are more than conquerors; we have rest for our souls; we are the righteousness of God; we are a new creation, we have real life, everlasting life; we have peace; we have grace; we stand in God’s favor…and much, much more. It all seems too good to be true. That can’t really be us. The devil will tempt you to believe that it IS too good to be true. He’ll make you doubt your true identity in Christ. When he does, ignore him, and trust Jesus in you to send him packing.

In verses 8-10 the devil makes Jesus an offer: “Worship me, and you can have the world.” I think we read this and sometimes think, “That’s silly! Jesus is Lord, why would he worship the devil?” Remember, however, when Jesus lived on earth, he made himself completely dependent upon the Father, just as we are completely dependent upon him. The Father had a mission for him, and it involved a lot of hard work and pain and suffering. What the devil offered Jesus was a shortcut. Jesus came to save the world. The devil says, “I’ll give you the world without all that suffering. Just call me ‘Lord.’”

Remember, the previous two temptations questioned Jesus’ very identity. Now, the devil is trying to assume he has succeeded, and Jesus is willing to doubt himself enough to do that. Along with that, he is offering the inducement of an easy way out. He’s saying, “You can accomplish your mission without all that hardship and pain and suffering. I’ll just hand it all over to you. The Father is trying to make you jump through hoops – I won’t do that. Just worship me, and I’ll take care of everything else.”

Since the time of Jesus, there have been many stories about people “selling their soul to the devil” in exchange for some wonderful thing. But the truth is, the temptation is not usually so blatant as that. I think it is more like these examples:

You really just need to relax and “check out” of all the stress for a while. You want some peace. There’s pill you can take, or a joint you can smoke that will take care of it all, or you could drink enough alcohol to “take the edge off.” Smoking, pot, taking the pill, or having a few drinks is easy. It’s deals with the pain or the stress quickly. But it doesn’t really deal with it – not permanently. And in exchange, you give up control and end up needing the pot or the pill, or the booze. You trade more and more of your life away in order to keep those things in your life. You think it’s a momentary out, a harmless short-cut. But you are trading your life to the devil in exchange for it.

Let me say something briefly about marijuana. Everyone I’ve spoken with who smokes it tells me that it is not addictive. I think it’s true that physically, there are no withdrawal symptoms if you quit. But the same people who say it isn’t addictive keep smoking it, even when it costs them their jobs or their relationships and even sometimes their freedom. If you are willing to give up friendships and livelihood for it, you are addicted, no ifs, ands or buts.

Here’s another soul-trade. You want security in your life. You want to make sure that you will never be in a place of need. So you work long hours. You give your life to your career, and exchange you get a savings or investment account. But it turns out, no amount is enough to make you feel secure. You work harder, and trade more time with your family, more time with God – more and more of your life – for this security. It’s a deal with the devil. It costs too much.

People do the same thing with status and fame and power. Maybe a little bit of “tough business practice” which is really just cheating, will allow you to get where you want to be. Maybe just a little more time away from the family.

Sometimes people even think they can accomplish God’s mission but do it the easy way. Just go to church, throw some money in the offering plate, and then you can ignore God the rest of the week. It’s easy.

Now, I don’t mean to say that it’s never easy to do what God wants of you. Sometimes it is extremely grace-filled and easy. But we need to pay attention to the deals we make to get what we want.

Real peace comes from trusting Jesus in the middle of hard times. Real security comes from trusting Jesus in hard times. Sometimes God just gives peace, or sometimes he just gives us sense of security. But those things come as we trust him, not from taking short-cuts.

When we look to anything but God for peace, security or comfort, we are in danger of looking to that thing as an idol. I don’t mean that we can only have peace or comfort through severe meditation and scripture study. The Lord may touch you through music, or a friendship, or a good book or movie, or a meal enjoyed (without gluttony). The Lord blesses us through all sorts of things. But we need to look beyond the things themselves to the Lord who gives them. And certain things and activities are just deals with the devil.

Jesus overcame this the third temptation the way he did the other two – he relied upon the scripture, throwing the truth at the temptation. This is one reason why it is important for us to know the bible for ourselves. It is vital ammunition in the spiritual battles we face.

One final thought from this passage. The temptation, the fasting and the desert wasteland were a season for Jesus. It came to end. The trials do not last forever. When it was over, angels came and ministered to Jesus – in other words there was relief from the difficulties that Jesus had faced. Some of us need to hear this – that our hard time does have an ending. We can’t predict when that will be, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn’t just an oncoming train.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.

WAS JESUS JUDGEMENTAL?

winnow3

While Jesus is not a judgmental figure, the whole world is judged by its response to him. He does “separate the wheat from the chaff,” simply by being who he is.

When we trust Jesus and continue on in that trust, God the Father includes us in all the grace and blessings of Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 6

Matthew #6. 3:11-17

Some people have called John the Baptist “The Last Old Testament Prophet.” The Old Testament prophets often pointed out the sins of the Israelites, and of the nations around them, and warned that God would bring judgment upon them if they did not repent. John had a similar message, but there were two key differences. First, while the Old Testament prophets aimed their message at whole nations, John’s message is for individuals. He isn’t calling the nation of Israel to repent – he is calling you to repent. Second, the Old Testament prophets predicted (correctly, it turns out) that judgment would come about through war and destruction. But the judgment that John saw coming was to come about from an individual – the Messiah.

Matthew records a difference between John’s baptism and that of Jesus: John’s was symbolic of repentance; the baptism of Jesus would accomplish something internally – it would bring “the Holy Spirit and fire.” John says some things about Jesus that may seem a little strange to us:

“His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn. But the chaff he will burn up with fire that never goes out.”

First, this is strange to us, because we don’t know what a winnowing shovel is, and maybe not even chaff. Back in those days, when people harvested wheat, they would generally take it to a threshing floor. Usually, this was simply a wheatheadcleared, flat area on a hilltop. They would beat the heads of the grain, either by gathering stalks and bashing the heads on the ground, or maybe by hitting the heads with a stick or wooden hammer. They would throw the empty stalks aside. What was left was a mixture of wheat grains, very short pieces of stalk and pieces of the outer part of the wheat seed structure, called “chaff.” At this point, the famers would take a winnowing shovel. They would scoop up the mixture of wheat grains and chaff, and throw it up into the wind that blew across the hilltop. The chaff is lighter than the wheat grain, so the wind would carry that away, while the grain fell back to the ground on the threshing floor. Obviously, the grain was collected and stored. The chaff was sometimes burned up. This picture is one of getting rid of useless material that you do not want, and refining and saving what you do want.

winnow1

Now that we understand what John is saying, it is still strange to us, in that we often do not think of Jesus as bringing judgment. There is no question that judgment is what John means. Those who belong to God are going to found and refined and saved, and those who do not are going to blow off in the wind, and, after, be burned in the fire. John’s main point is: “It’s time to get ready! Repent, be among those who are saved!”

I think in our modern times, we view Jesus as just mellow and loving and sort of “all encompassing.” That is reinforced by many bible verses in which Jesus declares God’s love, and many other bible verses which teach that grace and forgiveness come through Jesus Christ.

But the bible also teaches that Jesus is the dividing point between those who will be saved, and those who won’t. Jesus is the meeting point for both grace and judgment, salvation and condemnation. Even Jesus taught this:

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (John 14:6, HCSB)

In Jesus, we know the way, the truth and life. But without Jesus, we are lost. This is both grace and judgment. It is important to understand though, that the judgment and condemnation come only when we reject Jesus. John explains in his gospel:

For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God. “This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:17-19, HCSB)

Thus, everyone in the whole world is judged by how they respond to Jesus. If they respond in faith, the result is grace and salvation. But those who reject Jesus are separating themselves from God’s grace and life:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:11-13, HCSB)

So, while Jesus is not a judgmental figure, the whole world is judged by its response to him. He does “separate the wheat from the chaff,” simply by being who he is. If you are in Jesus, you are the wheat, you are safe in God’s storehouse. If you are not in Jesus, you are the chaff.

Throughout history, Jesus has been this dividing point. Many people are willing to look at Jesus as a good moral teacher. Many more are happy to acknowledge him as a prophet. But when it comes to putting faith in Him as fully God (God the Son, one God along with the Father and the Spirit) and as a personal savior, many people seem to balk. I have had many cordial conversations about religion with my Muslim friends. One time, a friend and I had a long talk, and he said, “Tom, we have so much in common. But there is just one point that is a problem. You worship Jesus as God. According to Islam this is the one thing that will send you to hell.”

I said to him, “That’s interesting, Abdul, because that is the one problem I see, also. You don’t worship Jesus as God, and according to Christianity, this is the one thing that will send you to hell.”

Neither one of us was upset with the other. Most Muslims I have met in America are very open to talk about religion without getting upset. But we had both arrived at the same conclusion: Jesus was the point of division. How we respond to Jesus meant life or death, heaven or hell. Though we differed on which response went which way, we agreed that our attitude toward Jesus was the defining thing. Jesus’ very life and message sorts out who belongs to God and who does not.

If you haven’t put your trust in Jesus, if you haven’t surrendered your life to him, now would be the time. You are either in Christ, or you are not. If you are in Jesus, you are in God’s favor. If you are not in Jesus, you are not in God’s favor, and you are in judgment.

By in Jesus, I mean you are continually trusting him as you go through life. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing to rest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. This is not a situation where you just say, “Well I got baptized, so I’m good now.” Or “Well, I got saved five years ago, so I’m good now.” This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus,” and we are saved and safe, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us.

After John has been talking about Jesus, Jesus himself showed up and asked to be baptized. I’ve mentioned previously that John and Jesus probably knew each other before this; in fact John responded in faith to Jesus when they were both still babies in the womb! So when Jesus asks to be baptized, John is shocked.

But John tried to stop Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and yet You come to me? ” Jesus answered him, “Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him to be baptized. (Matt 3:14-15, HCSB)

I think what Jesus was saying there was all about his mission, his very reason for coming into the world. He came to take on humanity, and the sin of humanity. Jesus entered into repentance for that on our behalf. He identified with us through John’s baptism. It was the first public step in fulfilling his mission to bring righteousness to the world. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says:

God made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Cor 5:21, HCSB)

Jesus was baptized as part of that “becoming sin” for us. I don’t mean he became sinful, but I mean he identified with our sinful humanity, and God eventually (at the cross) placed all of the sin of the world upon him, so that we could be called righteous by placing our faith in him.

Matthew writes:

After Jesus was baptized, He went up immediately from the water. The heavens suddenly opened for Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on Him. And there came a voice from heaven: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him! (Matt 3:16-17, HCSB)

“This is my Beloved son, I take delight in him!” These words came from heaven not only at Jesus’ baptism, but also again, on a mountainside, as recorded in Matthew 17:5-6.

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him. Listen to Him! When the disciples heard it, they fell facedown and were terrified. (Matt 17:5-6, HCSB)

The apostle Peter wrote about this in his second letter. He says that the repetition of this voice from heaven means that the message is “strongly confirmed.”

For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, a voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him! And we heard this voice when it came from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic word strongly confirmed. You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dismal place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2Pet 1:16-19, HCSB)

Peter says we would do well to pay attention to this. So let’s pay attention to it.

First, I think this reminds us that it’s all about Jesus. Sometimes we get confused, and we think faith is all about what Jesus did for us. That’s important, but when we look at things that way, it puts the focus on ourselves. Quite apart from us, Jesus is focal point of history. This word from heaven reminds us that.

Second in Jesus (see above) this is God’s attitude toward us. When we trust Jesus and continue on in that trust, God the Father includes us in all the grace and blessings of Jesus.

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved. We have redemption in Him through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding… We have also received an inheritance in Him (Eph 1:3-8,11 HCSB)

The New Testament is full of verses explaining that in Christ, we have what God gives Christ. In other words, if we are in Christ, God looks at us, and has the same attitude toward us that he has toward Jesus himself. So, in Jesus, God is looking at us, and saying “You are my son, my daughter. I am so pleased with you.” Really. I know we are inclined to think that can’t be right, but listen to the Holy Spirit through Isaiah:

Let the wicked one abandon his way and the sinful one his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, so He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will freely forgive. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the LORD’s declaration. (Isa 55:7-8, HCSB)

God viewing us “through the lens of Jesus,” so to speak, doesn’t make sense to us. But it makes sense to him. So, if you trust Jesus today, I want you to hear these words spoken to Jesus, applied also to you: You are his beloved son or daughter. He looks at you, in Jesus Christ, and say, “I am so pleased with you.”

~

Clear Bible is a listener supported ministry. We reach more than 15,000 people each year with clear, understandable bible teaching.

 We ask you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. We value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

 Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support my family and me.

 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

WHAT BARACK OBAMA HAS IN COMMON WITH JESUS

obama1

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:

Download Matthew Part 4

 

 

Matthew #4 . 2:12-23

Sometimes, at my house, we have leftovers for supper. We often do this on Sunday nights, so no one has to cook, and we can all have a day off. I actually really enjoy this, particularly when we have high-quality leftovers. So, we might get it all out, and then call the family together and say something like:

“OK, everyone, we have some leftover lasagna from when we went out to eat, some spinach pie, and some curry. Take your pick, and dig in.”

Sometimes, I think of bible passages like leftover-night. We’ve got several good things to choose from, and maybe everyone will get something a little bit different from it. That’s how I feel about our text this time. So, I’ll set out the food and let you dig in. Start out by reading the passage, if you haven’t already (Matthew 2:12-23). For those of you who got sucked in by the title, let me offer full disclosure: I’ll get to Jesus and Barack Obama in the second half of this post. That’s part of the “second serving.”

Last time, we looked at the Magi (wise men). Our text this time picks up at the end of their appearance in the bible. On the way to see Jesus, they had stopped first in Jerusalem and asked King Herod about the birth of the Messiah. Herod had pretended to be interested for the sake of worshipping the Messiah himself, but in truth, he asked the Magi to come back and tell him about it so that he could learn the identity of the child, and have him killed.

Herod had become king of Judea through scheming with Rome, and he held the position because he was supported by the Roman army. He wasn’t a Jew, and the Jews resented him. Just a little more than a generation before Herod, the Jews had still been ruled by a Jewish king. As a king, Herod was smart, insecure and ruthless, which was a bad combination for the people he ruled. Most likely, he thought that the child was some kind of descendant of the Hasmonean (Jewish) kings who had ruled the region in his father’s time. He saw the messiah as a real and political threat to his throne and to his life.

God warned the Magi in a dream not to go back to Herod, and they obeyed. After they left, God spoke to Joseph in a dream also, and warned him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape from Herod. Joseph also obeyed. The fact that Jesus spent time in Egypt fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy, the fifth fulfilled prophecy that Matthew refers to:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. (Hos 11:1, HCSB).

After time passed, and Herod never heard from the wise men again, he realized he was not going to learn the identity of the Messiah. He flew into an evil rage, but it was also a cold and ruthless rage. By simple mathematics, he figured out how old the Messiah would be, and had every male child that age and younger in Bethlehem killed. This fulfilled yet another prophecy, from Jeremiah 31:15.

This is what the LORD says: A voice was heard in Ramah, a lament with bitter weeping — Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children because they are no more. (Jer 31:15, HCSB)

After Herod died, Joseph had yet another visit from the Lord in a dream. This time he was told it was safe to return to the territory of Israel. One more dream warned him not to go back to Bethlehem or Jerusalem, however, which were controlled by Herod’s son Archelaus. So Joseph settled the family back in Nazareth, Mary’s hometown. Matthew makes reference to one more prophecy, the seventh so far, that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene. This probably comes from one or two sources. Isaiah 11:1 says:

Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. (Isa 11:1, HCSB)

In Hebrew the word “branch” sounds a lot like the word Nazarene. There is another prophecy that does not name Nazareth, but it does name the region (Galilee):

Nevertheless, the gloom of the distressed land will not be like that of the former times when He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. But in the future He will bring honor to the Way of the Sea, to the land east of the Jordan, and to Galilee of the nations. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness. (Isa 9:1-2, HCSB)

Matthew may have been thinking of either or both of these passages, which were widely regarded to apply to the Messiah.

These fulfilled prophecies are important, not only to the Jews who first read Matthew’s book, but also to us. Let me review them for you, with a reference to where Matthew shows them as fulfilled. The Messiah was supposed to be a descendant of David (1:1-17), but born of virgin (1:18-25). He was supposed to be born in Bethlehem (2:1) and associated with a star (from Numbers 24:17, fulfilled in Matt 2:1). Though born in Bethlehem, he was to come from Egypt (2:14), and there would be lamenting in Bethlehem near the time of his birth (2:16-18). Though born in Bethlehem and called from Egypt, the Messiah was supposed to come from Galilee/Nazareth (2:23).

Even if you took out the virgin birth, the probability of a single individual meeting all these criteria is extremely low. You see, this is one reason that prevented every woman who had a baby boy out-of-wedlock from claiming that she was really a virgin and her baby was actually the Messiah. There were simply too many strange requirements to meet. Only Jesus met them. And Matthew is not even close to finished pointing out all the ways Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. If you were with us on our study called “Understanding the Bible” you know that there is no doubt that all those prophecies were written long before Jesus was born.

That should encourage our faith. This is one of our “meals” this time. Do you need to hear again how unique Jesus was? Do you need the faith-boost of understanding how he fulfilled things that were written about him hundreds of years before he was born? Do you need to be reminded of how amazing and how reliable the bible is? Sink your teeth into these fulfilled prophecies.

There is another one here that is very personal for me. Some of you know that I grew up in Papua New Guinea. When you grow up in a country that is not the home-country of your parents, you experience some very unique things. People who grew up this way are called Third-Culture-Kids (TCKs), because we are not really from the first culture (the home country of our parents), but we aren’t really from the second culture either (the place in which we grew up). By the way, President Barack Obama is one of us.

When I was younger I had to come to terms with the fact that I am a person without a real home culture or home country. Sometimes, I felt like I was from outer space. Even after more than twenty years in the same country, I still feel like this at times. For all my life, I’ve had to deal with being absent from either one home, or the other. I’m not trying to say “poor me,” but the fact is, I’ve found that only other TCKs really understand. When I was coming to terms with all this, I remember complaining a little to the Lord. I said, “You say that you can understand and empathize with our weaknesses, because you’ve been tested in every way just as we have (Hebrews 2:17-18). What about this? What about the strange struggles of being a TCK?”

I thought I had him, until the Lord pointed me to this passage in Matthew, and it hit me like a cement truck: Jesus was a Third Culture Kid. Like me, and like Barack Obama, Jesus was a TCK. He was born in Judea, but raised for some of his childhood in Egypt, a place where his parents were not from. He wasn’t really from there either, but by the time he came back to Nazareth, he would not have really thought of himself as from that place, either. If you had asked him, “Where are you from?” he would have given a typical TCK type answer:

“Well, I was born in Bethlehem, Judea, but I grew up in Egypt. I come from Nazareth, but right now I’m living in Capernaum.”

To make this more applicable to people other than TCKs, let me clarify the main point: Jesus can really, truly identify with you. There are probably only a few hundred thousand TCKs in the entire world (maybe far fewer), but Jesus made sure he could relate to us, and us to him. Whether you are a TCK or not, realize this – Jesus has made it so that he can truly understand you and your struggles. Don’t doubt that he knows and understands what you are going through, and cares about you in the midst of it.

A third “dish,” that I notice in this passage is the way the Lord spoke to people in dreams. In this passage, he did it four times – three to Joseph. Joseph also heard from the Lord in a dream in Matthew 1:20. Dreams are a tricky thing. First, and most importantly, I want to caution that you should never listen to your dreams if they are “guiding” you to do something that the bible clearly says you should not; or if they guide you to refrain from doing what the bible says you should. The bible is our final and authoritative guide. Even so, I do think that sometimes Christians put God in a box – that is they won’t even consider the possibility that he may speak to them in dreams. Joseph’s experience shows us that the Lord can and does lead us directly in choices and directions where the bible is not specific, or in things that the bible does not address. It may be through dreams, or some other method, but the point is, God remains active in our lives.

Yes, it is true, Joseph was the step-father of the Messiah, so his choices were pretty important. But there is nothing in the text that suggests other Christians should be different, or treated differently by God. In fact, the Holy Spirit gave dreams to lead Peter (Acts 10:10-19) and Paul (Acts 16:9-10) and even Cornelius (Acts 10:3-5). Joel, the prophet, inspired by the Holy Spirit, predicted that the Lord would use all sorts of ways to speak to his people after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit

After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions. I will even pour out My Spirit on the male and female slaves in those days. (Joel 2:28-29, HCSB)

So, what I get from Joseph’s dreams is that God wants to speak to us, even about our specific lives and the choices that we face. As you face choices, I encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you and guide you; and then trust that He will. In fact, I trust that he is speaking to you right now. Why don’t you pause and listen, and absorb what he wants to do right now?

~

I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

 

In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.

 

I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 

Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 

If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

 

Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support my family and me.

 

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE?

do-not-judge.001

The bible has been proved historically reliable many times, but it does get misused an awful lot. Sometimes, people don’t want to believe it because they don’t really understand it. Too many people read the bible to use it in arguments, instead of reading it to get to know Jesus better.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:


To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Understanding the Bible Part
Understanding the Bible #5

We’ve learned where the Old and New Testaments came from. We know by objective, scientific criteria that the documents we have today are accurately preserved copies of what was first written or spoken. We understand from archaeology that both the Old and New Testaments are historically reliable. These things are facts, not religious opinion. Most of these facts were discovered by people who were trying to prove the opposite.

Though the bible is completely reliable in the history that it records, it isn’t simply a book of history. It tells us other things that we cannot verify with science; things about God, human nature, human relationships and human-God interactions. It even talks about things that we rarely see (if at all) in our lifetimes: the parting of the Red Sea, the feeding of the five thousand, healings and exorcisms. I think this is one of the main reasons people ignore the bible. These aren’t every day events. It’s hard to believe that stuff like that ever happened. Maybe you have struggled with the same thing.

Let me address that briefly. Consider a person whom you think is entirely reliable. If she tells you that chicken is only $0.99/pound at Kroger on Wednesday, you know that you can go to Kroger and find chicken for exactly that price. If she tells you that she once met the mayor of New York City, it does not surprise you at all when she produces a picture of her with the Mayor, and a signed note from him to her. If you ask her to give you the square root of 361, you can bet your next paycheck that she’ll say 19.

Now, suppose, one day, your friend tells you that she just found out she has cancer. You know she wouldn’t lie to you. You know she wouldn’t be mistaken. You absolutely believe she has cancer. A few weeks later, she tells you that she went to a prayer meeting, and people prayed for her healing. A few days after that, she went to the doctor, and found out she is now entirely cancer-free. She claims she has been miraculously healed. Would you believe her?

You would believe your friend about the price of chicken, the mayor of New York and square root of 361. You would believe her when she told you she had cancer. So why wouldn’t you believe her when she says she was miraculously healed?

If you would not believe in the miracle, I suggest to you that there is only one reason: you have a pre-existing bias against miracles. Your friend has proven many times to be reliable about things you believe in. The only reason to disbelieve her now is because she is saying something that you have already decided you will not believe.

Your friend is just like the bible. The bible has proven many times to be entirely reliable about things like the culture of the ancient middle east, the existence of specific cities and specific people. It has shown again and again to be a reliable record of battles, and kings and wars. We know it records the truth of those kinds of things. The only reason to doubt what it says about God, human nature and miracles is because we have already decided that we do not want to believe those things. This is a silly, irrational, illogical position to take.

I mean it: logic is on the side of miracles.

Having said all that, the bible does get misused an awful lot. Sometimes, people don’t want to believe it because they don’t really understand it. We began the last few weeks, to talk about how we actually understand the bible. The first step is understanding that the purpose of the entire bible is to reveal Jesus to us. We read it so we can know him, and know him better, and follow him more fully.

One thing that happens with the bible is that a lot of people do strange things with it. Mostly, it is pretty straightforward and easy to understand. However, there are some parts of the bible that are more difficult to comprehend. It doesn’t help that because it is a religious book, people seem to forget common sense rules of reading books. I want us to learn how to understand the bible properly. So, for the next few weeks, we will consider some common sense practices that we ought to use when we read the bible.

READ THE BIBLE IN CONTEXT

Read it in Context with the Surrounding Verses

Imagine that you are reading a book about penguins, written by one person, a penguin expert who spent years studying the birds in Antarctica. The book was written in 1965. Suppose in one section of the book, she writes “Penguins are large, flightless birds.”

Later in the book, she describes her feeling of joy and awe as she watches the birds “spreading their wings as they dive and soar through the open blue.”

How do you handle this apparent contradiction? Do penguins fly, or don’t they?

Too many people, if they treated this book like the bible, would say, “This book is full of contradictions. I don’t believe anything it says about penguins.”

Others might really want to believe that penguins can fly. They would say: “Penguins are birds – the book says so. Birds fly. Penguins have wings – the book even says that. Wings are for flying. To top it off, she writes about them soaring through the open blue. This book teaches us that penguins fly.”

What about the bit about them being flightless birds? “Maybe that was an error. Or maybe she just didn’t understand penguins as well as we do, nowadays. Science has come a long ways since 1965.”

Of course the whole idea of someone with those attitudes is silly. Most people, reading the book as they read most books, won’t even notice the contradiction, because they will read the book in context. In other words, they won’t just take a few sentences of it here and there from different chapters, and use those to make broad declarations about penguins, or broad declarations about the book contradicting itself. So, instead of reading an isolated sentence about penguins soaring through the open blue, they will read the entire chapter in which the author describes SCUBA diving while she watches the penguins swim around her in the clear, blue sea. In context, “soaring through the open blue” is clearly about swimming, not flying.

The problem is, too many people read the bible to use it in arguments, instead of reading it to get to know Jesus better. So, instead of reading it in context, they go searching for a verse or a few verses that seem to say what they want the bible to say. Others want to discredit the bible altogether, because they don’t like what it says, so they go searching for isolated verses which sound like they contradict each other. But to someone who knows the bible, it usually sounds as silly as someone trying to use a well-researched book about penguins to prove that penguins fly.

This is one reason I so strongly recommend that you work your way around the bible by reading in one book (say, Matthew) until you’ve read that whole book, and then pick another book and do the same. Maybe you only have time to read a chapter, or just a few verses each day. That’s fine. But read (however slowly) through one book at time, moving from the beginning to the end of the book (I don’t mean the whole bible – I mean a book within the bible). If you don’t, you will have great difficulty understanding what you read, because it won’t be in context.

If everyone in the world who quotes the bible did this, my blood pressure would be significantly lower. Honestly, I’d like to say that “Read the Bible in Context” is the first, second and third rule of common sense bible understanding.

Let me give you an example of context. Suppose a friend of mine claims to be a Christian, but he watches pornographic movies and visits nude-bars. He sees nothing wrong with doing these things. I might say to him, “You claim to follow Jesus. But the lust in your heart is something wrong, Jesus died to make it right. You shouldn’t continue to feed your lust that way. Jesus is calling you to repent.”

Suppose he replies to me (quoting the bible) “Jesus said, ‘Don’t judge others!’”

Do you know the context for those words of Jesus? He said it in Matthew 7:1, during the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” Do you know what else he said in that very same sermon? He said he had not come to abolish the law, and anyone who relaxed the standards of the law was in trouble (Matthew 5:17-20). He also said lust was wrong (Matthew 5:27-30).

In fact, let’s look at the entire section where Jesus supposedly told us not to judge.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

The context of “do not judge” is the whole sermon on the mount, as I mentioned. In that context, there is simply no way that my friend can defend his activities as righteous and OK. “Judge not” does not make him free to do whatever he wants. But it doesn’t even have to silence me. Even in this smaller context, we can see that it is not as simple as “don’t judge.” Jesus actually says we should examine ourselves first, and then we will be able to help someone else who has a problem. He says we should recognize that the same standards apply to us, as well as the other person. In other words, we need to be humble, and recognize our own faults before we approach someone else to help them with their problem. But Jesus’ words here (in context) assume that we should still approach the person, once we are appropriately humble.

The last sentence gives us some additional information. Jesus seems to be saying that it is pointless to “judge” where the person is not interested in receiving it. It’s like giving jewelry to pigs – you are wasting your time. Such people will not appreciate the precious words of God, and instead will get angry at you. In context then, “Do not judge,” means:

· Be humble, and willing to acknowledge your own faults before you talk to someone else about his. You should still talk to the other person, once you are appropriately humble.

· Do not bother to judge those who are proud, unwilling to admit to their faults, or uninterested in what the bible has to say. One thing I take away from this, is that is pointless to try to get people who do not want to be Christian, to stop sinning.

There is more to be said about this passage, and more we can learn from other bible-reading techniques, but merely reading the context makes this often-misused quote much more clear and understandable.

Read the Bible in Cultural/Historical Context

The most important thing, is to read the context in the bible itself, as described above. However, the historical situation and the cultural context often shed a tremendous amount of light on a given passage. Therefore, we should also read the bible in historical and cultural context.

For instance, let’s talk for a minute about when Jesus said, “Do not judge.” Would it make a difference whether the people he was speaking to were inclined to be judgmental? Would it matter what they were inclined to make their judgments on? Of course.

If we know something about 1st Century Judaism, we would realize that the Jews Jesus was speaking to were generally very religious and legalistic about silly little rules. In fact, we would find out that often times, they condemned others for not following man-made rules, rules that had nothing to do with what God actually said. For instance, Exodus 20:8-11 says to remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had made up an extensive list of rules which detailed exactly how they were supposed to keep the Sabbath holy. The problem was, those rules did not come from God, or the bible. The Jewish rules were made up by human beings, and added to the inspired word of God. So, the Jews said, you can only walk a certain number of steps on the Sabbath. You can do this, but not that. The Jews judged others based on how well they followed these kinds of rules. But those rules didn’t even come from God in the first place. It is to people like this that Jesus says “do not make judgments.” This is why Jesus talks about logs and splinters in the eye. The Jews were concerned about how well others followed man-made rules, while they ignored what the bible said about the Messiah, and faith, and real sin, forgiveness and relationship with God.

So, the “log in your own eye” that Jesus refers to is the tendency to completely ignore Jesus himself, while focusing on petty little things that aren’t even in the bible.

Knowing the cultural/historical context, we now understand that Jesus isn’t saying that we should not tell a fellow Christian that lust is sinful. He is saying that we should keep our priorities straight, and not judge others for meaningless things. Some Christians have made up rules – you must dress a certain way, or avoid certain kinds of movies, or avoid drinking even one glass of wine with dinner, or listen only to certain kinds of music. These are specks that some people try to pick out of the eyes of others. But the log in the eye is this: how do you respond to Jesus? How do you respond to his message of sin and redemption?

Do you see how the historical context can help you understand a passage more fully?

People often ask me, “Tom, where do we find out historical and cultural information like that?” The bad news is, there isn’t just one easy source for it. But the good news is, I was once asking the same question, and I over the years, I have learned a lot.

If I was starting out, the first thing I would do is get a good, high quality study bible. I highly recommend The ESV Study Bible. There are helpful notes and commentary at the bottom of each page. Not all of the commentary is about the cultural background, of course, but often there are helpful things about the culture there.

You might also google “Manners and Customs of Bible Times” there are several good resources that will show up. Unfortunately, some people create these resources with a theological axe to grind, so to speak. For example, I was personally disappointed by the Inter-Varsity Press Bible Background Commentary. Generally, the older the publishing date, the less biased one way or the other it is likely to be. “Manners and Customs of Bible Times” by Fred Wright is available online for free. I’ve used that from time to time. Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible is another good general resource, as is Halley’s Bible Handbook.

It will take time to work your way through these resources. That’s OK, you have your whole life to study the bible. It is also helpful to listen to sermons. Many pastors, like me, have spent a great deal of time learning this stuff. Pay attention to the preachers that explain the historical and cultural context, because, as I’ve been saying, it’s important. If you think you might forget it, make notes of the things you think are significant. Over time, you will build up your own body of knowledge about bible history and culture.

Remember, read the bible in context. Understand that each book within the bible was written as a whole, and read it the same way. Also, read the bible in historical and cultural context. When we do these things, the verses that people use to prove contradictions look as silly as the claim that penguins can fly.

The Main Point of The Bible: Jesus

jesus-smiling-bobby-shaw

Jesus is the main point of the entire bible. Reading the bible should help us get to know Jesus better. It should encourage us in our faith in Jesus. Reading the bible should strengthen us spiritually, from the inside out. That is what is for. So read it with that in mind.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 4

Understanding the Bible #4.

Last time, we talked about the documentary history of the New Testament. In other words, we learned that it is, without doubt, the accurately preserved teachings of those who knew Jesus Christ when he walked on the earth.

One question I did not address is about the historical accuracy of the New Testament. I’ll talk about it briefly here, and then we’ll move on.

Last time we learned that no ancient document has been as verifiably well preserved as the New Testament. Since we get a lot of our knowledge about history from ancient documents, that, in and of itself, should give us confidence that the New Testament is historically reliable. If the writings of Tacitus, or Julius Caesar are to be accepted as reliable sources of ancient history, then the New Testament should be accepted in the same way; even more so.

However, many skeptical people, including scholars, insist upon a position of assuming that the New Testament is wrong until proved right. No doubt, this is because they do not want to believe what it says about Jesus. Even so, time and time again, the New Testament has been proven right, while the skeptics have been proved wrong. Let me give you a few instances.

Luke Chapter 2 talks about a census taken by Caesar Augustus. He said that it happened while Quirnius was governor of Syria. This is a historical event. Roman records (not as well preserved as the New Testament) do indicate a census during the time of Emperor Augustus. But there has been no Roman record uncovered that mentions a governor of Syria named Quirinius. Skeptics long held out that this proved that the New Testament is unreliable. First, let’s consider the logic of that claim. Those skeptics did not have actual evidence that contradicted the New Testament. What they had was a lack of evidence to confirm it. Of course, they had an equal lack of evidence to contradict it. However, eventually, some coins were excavated in the ancient Roman province of Syria. In those days, provincial coins were stamped with the name and likeness of the governor who ruled at the time the coin was made. The coins discovered in Syria were from the reign of Caesar Augustus, right at the beginning of the “common era” and they were stamped with the name “Quirinius.” In other words, we now have positive proof that Luke wrote accurately. The skeptics were wrong.

Another place where skeptics held there was a “lack of evidence” was for the existence of a high priest named Caiaphas. Caiaphas was involved in the trial of Jesus. Archaeologists had not found any record of him outside the New Testament. Then, in the mid-1990s, excavations were made to build a water park in Jerusalem. The excavators discovered an ossuary – a “bone box.” It was labeled as holding the bones of Caiaphas, who was identified as a high priest in Jerusalem.

There are many more areas where skeptics never even had a chance. The New Testament names dozens of Roman officials, and makes references to hundreds of little cultural details that have all been affirmed by archaeology and other ancient documents. There can be no question that the New Testament is entirely historically reliable.

Let’s use the rest of our time right now to consider how the New Testament can help us understand and interpret the Old Testament. Last time, we looked at the idea that the New Testament was the unveiling of a mystery that began with the record of the Old Testament. Jesus himself, and his apostles, affirm this. The mystery, the key to the entire Bible, is Jesus himself. Jesus said to the Jews who believed the Old Testament:

The Father who sent Me has Himself testified about Me. You have not heard His voice at any time, and you haven’t seen His form. You don’t have His word living in you, because you don’t believe the One He sent. You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me. (John 5:37-39, HCSB)

Both before and after his resurrection, Jesus pointed out to his disciples how the scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) looked ahead to the Messiah, to Him:

He said to them, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory? ” Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27, HCSB)

Then He told them, “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45, HCSB)

Paul also used the Old Testament to share the good news about Jesus:

For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating through the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 18:28, HCSB)

The specifics of how Paul did that are all throughout his letters. That is one reason why it is helpful to understand the New Testament first – it gives us a guide for understanding what came before. The key is Jesus. Therefore, one very helpful trick in reading the Old Testament is to ask this question of every passage: “Where is Jesus in this passage? What part of the message about the Messiah is this? How does it teach me something about Jesus? Does one of the people in this story act in a way that reminds me what Jesus is like? Is it a prophecy about his life on earth, or what he will do at the end of time? What does it tell me about my need for a Messiah?”

Jesus is the main point of the entire bible. Reading the bible should help us get to know Jesus better. It should encourage us in our faith in Jesus. Reading the bible should strengthen us spiritually, from the inside out. That is what is for. So read it with that in mind.

There are also some secondary things. When we put our trust in Jesus, and let him lead our lives, it has enormous implications for everything in life. So the main point of the Bible is Jesus. In addition, there are many “secondary” points that flesh out what trust in Jesus means for us in hundreds of practical, emotional and spiritual ways. So Paul writes:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, and you know that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:14-17, HCSB)

Of course, Paul didn’t know that his own letter to Timothy would be included in the bible. But Christians today believe that the Holy Spirit had Paul write this, and that it is intended for both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus spoke prophetically about this:

“Therefore,” He said to them, “every student of Scripture instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who brings out of his storeroom what is new and what is old.” (Matt 13:52, HCSB)

The “old treasure” in the storehouse are the writings of the Law and the Prophets – that, is, the Old Testament. The New Treasure is the mystery, now revealed, of Jesus Christ. Peter wrote about the scripture:

First of all, you should know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2Pet 1:20-21, HCSB)

Christians have believed for almost two-thousand years that this is as true of the New Testament, as well as the Old.

So, all scripture (both Old and New Testaments) is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, training in righteousness and equipping. So, first we read in order to get to know Jesus better. And as we do, the Bible teaches, trains, corrects and so on. It gives us instruction.

Paul said it a different way in his letter to the Romans:

For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures. (Rom 15:4, HCSB)

I want to look at two examples today of how all scripture is to help us get to know Jesus, and how it is for our instruction.

First, consider these words from Isaiah:

Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains; but we in turn regarded Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the LORD has punished Him for the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth. (Isa 53:4-7, HCSB)

…My righteous servant will justify many, and he will carry their iniquities (Isa 53:11)

This was written hundreds of years before Jesus was born. There is not a scholar in the world who disputes that. And yet, it is clearly the message that someone (Isaiah doesn’t know whom) would take the sins of others upon himself, and through his suffering, bring us peace with God. That someone would not object to the suffering imposed upon him, but engage in it willingly.

This passage is in the Old Testament. But clearly, it points to Jesus. It is about Jesus, and what he did for us, though it was written long before he came into the world. So we read the Bible, even the Old Testament, and find Jesus.

Now, let me give you an example of instruction.

Deuteronomy 25:4 says “Do not Muzzle an ox while it treads out grain.” Now, not too many people who read these sermon notes own oxen. I bet none of you even own a muzzle for an ox. So what is the point of this verse for you today? Remember, it was written for your instruction. All scripture is given by God and is useful for teaching, training, correcting and encouraging. So we should not read a verse like this and say “Well, I don’t have an ox, so never mind about that one.” Instead, we should read a verse like this and pray something like this: “Holy Spirit, I’m not getting much out of this one. Please show me something about Jesus here. Or give me some instruction or teaching. Speak to me through this verse.” I have added, sometimes, “I dare you,” because, like you, I find many bible passages hard to understand at first.

In the case of the non-muzzled ox, we have it easy, because the apostle Paul showed us the way.

For it is written in the law of Moses, Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain. Is God really concerned with oxen? Or isn’t He really saying it for us? Yes, this is written for us, because he who plows ought to plow in hope, and he who threshes should do so in hope of sharing the crop. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it too much if we reap material benefits from you? If others have this right to receive benefits from you, don’t we even more?

However, we have not made use of this right; instead we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ. Don’t you know that those who perform the temple services eat the food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the offerings of the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel. (1Cor 9:9-14, HCSB)

It was written originally about oxen. It taught the people of Israel to be kind and even generous with the animals that worked for them. It taught them that the harvest was to be shared – even with the animals. Paul sees an enduring principle here that applies to preachers of the gospel. Paul writes, “Is God really concerned with oxen?” Asking questions is always a good way to begin to understand the underlying principle. I’m sure God is concerned about oxen, but if we treat our oxen well, shouldn’t we also treat people well? If we are generous with the animals who make the physical harvest possible, what should we do with the people who make the spiritual harvest possible? Paul concludes: “Those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel.”

This is not directly about Jesus. But it is instruction for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus. It tells us that we should financially support those who are called to teach the bible. You may not have oxen, but you probably have a pastor, or at least some leader or ministry from where you get spiritual leadership and solid biblical teaching. This passage about oxen doesn’t apply to oxen any more (unless you still own them, and use them to tread out grain). But it still applies to our lives as Jesus-followers. We are still supposed to share generously with those who help us spiritually.

By the way, of course I am one of those that preaches the gospel, and I know this passage applies to me and to my ministry. But I don’t share it here as a covert way of asking for money. I have no problem doing that directly: If the Lord leads you, then give. Use the donate button on the blog site, or send a check the address I used this passage because the New Testament serves it up for us on a platter. It’s a clear example of how we can use even what appear to be silly ancient laws to hear what the Lord wants to teach us.

We will look at some of these principles of bible interpretation later on in the series. For now, we need to know that that the entire bible, even the Old Testament is to help us get to know Jesus better, and to provide us with instruction, training and teaching in how to be his disciples.

What is the Historical Basis for the New Testament?

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The actual facts obliterate the claims of skeptics. We know for certain that New Testament as we have it today was actually written by the apostles and those who knew Jesus. And it did not give them control or power over others – it led to their martyrdom.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 3

Understanding the Bible #3.

Last time, we looked at the origins of the Old Testament. We will come back to the Old Testament, and talk about how to understand the various kinds of writing we find there. However, for Christians, the key to understanding the Old Testament is found in the New Testament, so we’ll look at that this week.

I’m a mystery novelist. If you haven’t already, I’d love it if you can help me become rich and famous by buying my books and then telling everyone you know about them, and posting about them online. But that’s not my point. My point is, when I write a book, the mystery is not revealed until near the end. If you read two-thirds of one of my books, and then stopped, the story-line would not make sense. You can’t fully understand the beginning until you have read the entire book.

On the other hand, if you read the last one-third of one of my books, but not the beginning, you would get the main gist of the story. You would understand the basic, underlying plot, and the mystery would be unveiled for you. However, you would miss out on many rich nuances and many enjoyable parts of the story. If you hadn’t read the beginning, you might not understand why some of the events at the end were so significant for the characters. You’d get the idea, but you would still be missing out on a lot.

The bible is not a novel. I don’t recommend reading it from beginning to end. Even so, you cannot get the whole “story” of the bible until you have read the New Testament. The Old Testament is the record of how God prepared the world. He laid the foundations of culture and history and geopolitics until the world was uniquely primed to understand and spread the message of his grace. Then he sent Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of what God was doing. He is the solution to the mystery. The New Testament writers even refer to the message about Jesus as a “mystery”:

By reading this you are able to understand my insight about the mystery of the Messiah. This was not made known to people in other generations as it is now revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: (Eph 3:4-5, HCSB)

Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1Cor 2:7-8, NET)

This idea of “mystery” is one of the keys to understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The New Testament is the revelation of the mystery. It shows us what God was ultimately aiming at, in the Old Testament. We cannot understand the Old Testament without the New Testament. You can get the basic message from the New Testament, even if you haven’t read the Old. In fact, I think it is best to read the New Testament first. It won’t “spoil the ending,” in fact, it will help you to understand the whole bible. But you won’t understand the incredible grace and wisdom and power of God unless you read both the Old and the New Testaments.

So, with that in mind, where did the New Testament come from?

The short answer is this: Jesus chose twelve people who knew him personally to be his apostles. Later, he chose another, Paul. He lived with them, taught them and trained them. He sent his Holy Spirit to reveal his truth to them. After Jesus left his earth, his apostles taught and wrote about him. The apostles wrote down their teaching in letters. These writings about Jesus became what we call the New Testament.

The apostle Paul did not know Jesus while he walked on the earth. But Jesus called him specially, and revealed things to him by his Holy Spirit. Paul wrote:

Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. (1Cor 2:10-13, HCSB)

If you studied Galatians with me, you know that the revelation Paul received was affirmed and agreed with by the apostles who had been with Jesus personally.

Besides Paul, there are four authors in the New Testament who were not in the group of original apostles. Mark (who wrote the gospel of Mark) was not in that group. However, he traveled with Paul and Barnabas, and spent extensive time with the apostle Peter. His gospel is believed to be a basic summary of the things he heard Peter say about Jesus.

The man who wrote the book of James was not James the apostle. The apostle James was beheaded within about ten years of Jesus’ death. But the James who wrote the book was the son of Mary, mother of Jesus. In other words, he was Jesus’ half-brother (Galatians 1:19). Obviously, he knew him, and James experienced a special encounter with Jesus after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). James’ brother Jude (thus, another one of Jesus’ half-brothers) wrote a short letter.

Luke was the only other person who contributed to the New Testament. He wrote the gospel of Luke, and the book of Acts. It is clear from both that he spent extensive time with the apostle Paul, and with many other Christians, including Mary, mother of Jesus.

No one knows for sure who wrote the letter to the Hebrews. Many people believe it was Paul, though it is missing Paul’s usual personal greetings. Others think it might have been James, or another of the apostles. We do know however, that it has been accepted as a genuine apostolic letter for as long as the other books in the New Testament.

That brings us to the next point. How do we know that the teachings of these people who knew Jesus are, in fact accurately preserved?

Skeptics generally criticize the New Testament with these ideas: [They say] it was created a long time after Jesus, by people who never knew him. If there was any truth to it, it has been distorted by people who changed the stories to suit their own purposes. Usually, they say the reason it was created was to give power and control to religious leaders.

The actual facts obliterate these ideas. In the first place, the idea that New Testament was created to give control to religious people, is nonsensical. We can trace many New Testament books (in their present form) back to around 150 AD. It is well established that the entire New Testament as we know it was used from 250 AD onwards. The problem for skeptics is that up until 320 AD, Christianity itself was illegal in the Roman empire (which is where it began). It is well established that during this time in history, Christians were often deprived of freedom and property. Christian leaders were sometimes tortured and martyred. Far from giving them power, the New Testament gave them the status of outcasts. If the original purpose for the present-day New Testament was power for religious leaders, it would contain verses affirming Emperor-worship and pagan gods. Instead, during the time it was supposedly “made up,” it led to the opposite of power and control.

Secondly, we can know for sure that the stories and teachings of Jesus, and the teachings about him, were not changed and distorted. Ancient documents were written by hand. Because writing materials wear out, when those documents started to degrade, new copies were made. The New Testament was the same. In addition, because Christianity is faith that is supposed to spread, numerous copies were made, and carried all over the known world. Not only that, but the New Testament was also translated into several languages, and copies were made, and recopied in those other languages, also.

If you can find numerous copies of an ancient document, you can compare them to each other, to see if they are same. It helps if they come from different places and different time periods.

Much of what we know of the history of 0-100 AD comes from just a few ancient documents. One of them is called Annals. A Roman named Tacitus wrote it in about A.D. 100. Tacitus is considered to be a very good historical source for that period. Today, twenty ancient texts of Tacitus’ writing exist. The oldest is a copy that was made in 1100 A.D. — 1000 years after Tacitus wrote the original. With regard to Annals, no historian seriously disputes that they were indeed written by Tacitus. Scholars have compared the twenty surviving ancient manuscripts, and most accept that what Tacitus originally wrote has been accurately preserved.

There is no document that old (besides the New Testament) that has even 300 ancient copies of it still in existence. There is no document that old (besides the New Testament) in which the copies date within 500 years of the original.

Compare this to the New Testament. between 50 and 100 A.D. There are more than five thousand six hundred (5,686, to be exact) ancient copies of these documents. The oldest copy of any part of the New Testament is a fragment of the book of John (known as the Rylands Manuscript) which is dated very close to the time which John actually wrote the book – certainly within forty years, but possibly even part of the original. Another fragment of Matthew is believed to be so close as to be part of the original gospel as written down by Matthew himself. Many of the books exist in copies that were made within 100 years of the original. There are complete New Testament manuscripts – i.e. all the books gathered together as part of one document – that date merely 225 years after the time of the apostles. In addition to all this, we have ancient translations of the New Testament in Latin, Coptic (an ancient Egyptian language), Arabic, Slavic, Armenian and several more languages. In fact there are 19,284 ancient copies of all or part of the New Testament in languages other than Greek. The oldest are in Latin and Syriac, and are dated around 150 AD – or, less than 100 years after the originals were written in Greek.

To put it another way, there are 284 times more copies of the Greek New Testament than there are of Tacitus. And the age of the copies is almost a thousand times better. That makes the New Testament a much better historical document (hundreds of times better) than the best other documents from that same period.

The fact that there are so many ancient copies also makes it possible to know with a good deal of certainty what the original documents said. In other words, with so many good copies out there, we can compare the texts and see if they are the same or not. If all or most of the texts show that John wrote “Jesus wept,” than we can be very sure that John did in fact write, “Jesus wept.” People have now been comparing and compiling these ancient manuscripts for some time and we can be very confident that what we read in English has been translated from a Greek text that would be probably 99% exactly the same as what was originally written. There are some differences between ancient copies, of course. Some of them are easily identified as copying errors. Some of the differences show up in only a few of the manuscripts, while all of the others agree. But there are a few differences in ancient copies of the New Testament that can’t be easily resolved. None of those textual differences have any impact on any major Christian beliefs. None of them change doctrine. The NIV Bible translation makes of a note of any major differences between ancient Greek manuscripts. One example is Luke 23:42. Luke writes that the thief on the cross said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The NIV makes a note at the bottom that there is enough evidence to note a variant manuscript reading. The variant would read like this: “Jesus remember me when you come with your kingly power.” You may say: “What’s the big deal with that? What’s so different about it? What does it change? Doesn’t it mean the same thing?” That, of course, is the point. It changes nothing significant. Nor do any of the “significant” variants. If you have an NIV Bible you can scan the bottom of the text as you flip through the pages and see all the significant variants.

Probably the biggest significant variant comes from John 7:53-8:11. The NIV makes this note: “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” In all probability this little section was not included by John when he wrote the gospel. It may have been a story told by John, that was well known to those who knew John. After his death, they might have included in the gospel so that the story would not be lost. It might have been written by John some other time, or by one of the other apostles and included in John’s gospel so the story wouldn’t get lost. But even if you take this little section out of the Bible, it doesn’t change any major doctrine.

In addition to the all the copies of the New Testament, we have surviving letters and writings of early Christian leaders. These early Christians quoted both the Old and New Testaments extensively in their writings. It is obvious from this that the books of the New Testament must have existed during the lifetimes of the people who quoted them. Since we know when these early church leaders lived, we know that the New Testament is at least as old as they are. The oldest of these is Clement of Rome, who died in 99 AD. Thus we know that books of the New Testament that he quoted had to exist before the year 99. Another early church leader was Ignatius of Antioch, who died, at latest, in 116 AD (he may have died as much as twenty years earlier).

There are other ancient writings about Jesus – writings that were not included in the New Testament. These include The Shepherd of Hermas, Didache, Apocalypse of Peter, The Gospel of Judas, The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and several more. These texts do not boast the same number of ancient copies New Testament books do, nor are they well preserved or as close to the time of the originals. These writings generally have no historical validation whatsoever, certainly none of the type enjoyed by the New Testament writings.

There were several things that caused a book to be included in the New Testament.

  1. The New Testament book had to be connected to an apostle, or someone closely connected to Jesus (we looked at this earlier). The Apocalypse of Peter, though it names an apostle in the title, was never recognized in any early writing or by any evidence as having anything to do with the real historical Peter. It was rejected because the people at the time knew that Peter had no connection to it.
  2. The New Testament book had to enjoy widespread use among churches. (for example, the Gospel of John was used and recognized in churches all over the known world by a very early date; whereas the “Gospel of Judas” was never really recognized outside of Alexandria, Egypt and that at a fairly late date, by people who weren’t even Christians.)
  3. The New Testament writings had to agree with generally accepted Christian doctrine. In the 140s AD a man named Marcion came up with his own very twisted version of Christianity and listed various writings which he thought should be considered sacred. He and his “New Testament” were rejected because they were contrary to the teachings that the churches had held since the time of the apostles.

So you see, when it comes to something like The DaVinci code, or National Geographic’s Judas Gospels there is a little bit of truth, mixed with a lot of big lies. The little bit of truth is that there are indeed ancient writings other than the New Testament, which talk about Jesus. The big lie is the idea that those other writings are validated or historical in any way. They don’t have the historical or documentary qualifications which the New Testament does. Compared side by side, the New Testament wins every time.

The point of everything we’ve learned so far is this: There are some very good reasons to believe that what the Bible says is true, accurate and important. Ultimately we do have to take a step of faith. But perhaps you haven’t realized until now, that that step of faith is not as big as many people think it is. We have sound scientific and historical reasons to believe what the Bible tells us. I don’t think we can call it absolute proof, because God does want us to trust him, and in order to trust, there has to be the possibility of doubt. But even though that possibility of doubt remains, all of the evidence points to the conclusion that the Bible is true, trustworthy and reliable.

Next time, we’ll talk more about the “mystery” of Jesus, and how that helps us to understand the whole bible.

WHERE DOES THE OLD TESTAMENT COME FROM?

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This is fact: the bible is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 2

Understanding the Bible #2 . How We Got the Bible & Can we trust it? (Old Testament)

Psalm 119

Last week we considered the Bible from a non-spiritual standpoint, evaluating it as if it were merely a system that was developed to guide human behavior (that is, a “moral” system). We found that objectively, the Bible offers a superior guide to human behavior than other “holy books” and one that is much superior to any “individual morality” that individuals choose for themselves. The next few weeks I want to dig more deeply into the origins of the Bible. This will help us to evaluate spurious claims like those of the “DaVinci Code” and the “Judas gospels” and other part-truth/mostly lies stories that have been floated about the bible for years. For now, we’ll just consider the Old Testament. We will tackle the New Testament later in the series.

Several early portions of the Old Testament were originally recited orally and passed down from generation to generation through memorization and repetition. Most of Genesis, as well as probably Ruth and Judges were all originally spoken, rather than written. How do we know this? Well, the first portions of Genesis, if accurate at all, took place before reading and writing was widespread. But even more than that, examining the Bible texts in Hebrew (which was the original language) shows several easily recognized mnemonic devices (that is, verbal cues used to help people memorize a recitation). One way to picture it this: those texts which were originally recited orally, look (at least in Hebrew) more like a play than a novel. Usually, these little memory points are lost in translation to English, but one passage in which the NIV has preserved them fairly well is Genesis 5:1-31. There are seven small sections in these verses. Each section begins with “When [somebody’s name] had lived [a number] of years…” and then some details about that person and his descendants. The section closes with “and then he died.”

If this is the first time you have heard of that, this may make you a bit uncertain about how reliable those portions of scripture could be. This is because our culture has mostly lost the art and practice of memorization. But the fact is, there used to be professional oral historians. These were people who were responsible to memorize the oral histories, word for word and teach them to the next generation. Not only that, but in the case of the Hebrew people and the Old Testament, every father had a duty to teach the spiritual history to his children. People are capable of remembering a great deal. The philosopher Socrates, who lived almost a thousand years after the time of Moses, lamented the fact that during his lifetime the Greeks started writing things down in books. He felt that if books came into widespread use, people would stop remembering things, because they would be able to simply look them up in a book. He felt memorization was a much superior way to preserve knowledge for future generations.

Even in the twentieth century, Michail Gorbachev memorized the entire text of all four gospels when he was a child. We remember more, and better, than we realize. If you have seen the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” I bet you can fill in this blank. Patsy, the trusty squire is shot by an arrow. He says: “I’m not quite ______ yet.” If you have seen the movie “The Princess Bride” I bet you know the word that the Sicilian kidnapper, Vicini, says all the time. These are things we memorize – word for word – without even trying. How much more are people capable of in a culture where oral history is valued and practiced!

Aside from the oral histories, other parts of the Old Testament were written down, more or less at the time the events occurred or the words were spoken. The first five books of the Old Testament are called the Pentateuch; they are also known by Jews as the “Torah,” or “Law.” Over time the Torah, and the writings of the scribes and prophets were compiled into what today we call the Old Testament. We don’t know the exact date at which the Old Testament was considered to be “closed,” but it is probably around 250 B.C., which is the approximate date most scholars agree that the Old Testament was first translated into Greek (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint). We don’t have any original copies of the Old Testament. Professional scribes carefully copied the originals when they became worn, and then destroyed the originals. When the copies became worn, new copies were made and the older copies destroyed. For many years, the oldest copy that had been found was made in the 800s A.D. — much newer, in fact, than many New Testament manuscripts. Because of this, many scholars assumed that if the Old Testament manuscript copies were compared to the originals, there would be many errors. However, it should be noted that later manuscripts agree very closely with these earliest texts, which shows that the scribes took great care when making copies. In 1947, the “Dead Sea Scrolls” were discovered. These are not all Biblical writings, but among them are parts of the Old Testament. The Dead Sea Scrolls date back to 1000 years before those previous Old Testament manuscripts. As it turns out, at least in the texts that are available for comparison, during those thousand years very few copying errors were made, and none were significant. Again it is an example of how carefully the Old Testament was preserved by the scribes. I have personally seen a scroll of Isaiah that was made in about 1400 AD and used in a synagogue in Germany for 400 years — until the mid-1800s, when it was taken out of use because it was “worn.” It looked cleaner, clearer and more pristine than these sermon notes. In other words, new copies were long before manuscripts became difficult to read. Taken all in all, it has been demonstrated thoroughly that the contents of the Old Testament have been preserved, largely unchanged, from when they originated.

Now, in spite of these well-preserved texts, there is a prevalent and long-standing tendency to discount the Old Testament as “religious writing” and therefore inaccurate. For many decades the trendy thing was to doubt everything the Bible said – even the “normal, historical” parts of it – unless it could be confirmed by some sort of archaeological discovery. For instance, until very recently, Skeptical scholars claimed that king David of Israel was a mythical figure who had been made up by the writers of the Bible. Unfortunately for them, archaeologists discovered a reference to David in the writings of another culture in the middle east. The reference to David matched the approximate time period that the Bible puts him in. Since that time, architecture with inscriptions referring to David has also been found.

In the Old Testament, Isaiah writes about the invasion of the Assyrian army. He describes how they laid siege to the town of Lacish, and then how they came and surrounded Jerusalem. He mentioned Sennacherib, the Assyrian emperor at the time. Over where Assyria used to be, they have uncovered some of the records and court-commissioned art from the time of Sennacherib. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Assyrians recorded some of the same events, and even mentioned the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah at the time, according to the Bible.

According to the Old Testament, the Israelites destroyed the town of Jericho in about 1400 BC. According to archaeologists, Jericho was indeed destroyed about 1400 BC. There is not enough time and space to describe all of the archaeological discoveries which have, over and over, proven that the Bible is a reliable historical source. The people it talks about were real people; the situations it describes were real. The history it records really happened. The texts were truly written or memorized when the events they record were actually happening.

Millar Burrows, a PhD graduate of Yale University, and one of the leading authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls, said this:

The Bible is supported by archaeological evidence again and again. On the whole, there can be no question that the results of excavation have increased the respect of scholars for the Bible as a collection of historical documents. The confirmation is both general and specific. The fact that the record can be soften explained or illustrated by archaeological data shows that it fits into the framework of history as only a genuine product of ancient life could do. In addition to this general authentication, however, we find the record verified repeatedly as specific points. Name of places and persons turn up at the right places and in the right periods.

What is strange is that some people persist in doubting the Bible until is proven by some non-Biblical source. The truth is, there is no non-biblical source that has been so thoroughly verified as the Bible itself. It is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.

But the bible isn’t just a history book. There are many kinds of literature in the bible: family histories, genealogies, laws, national histories, biographies, poetry, prophecy, letters and songs. All those different books, written in different times and places by people in widely varied life situations, carry message. The message is easier to understand in some places; in other parts, it takes time and patience to hear it. But it is there throughout the entire bible.

Imagine the song “Silent Night.” Like many Christmas songs it has been arranged in many different ways, and played by many different groups and performing artists. Think of it being played instrumentally, by an orchestra. You’ve probably heard it that way. Now, imagine how it sounds sung by a full choir, with no instruments at all. It’s the same song. The same music is being conveyed, and yet, it sounds very different. Now, picture Willie Nelson (a country-western singer) singing Silent Night. Now, try to imagine Barbara Streisand singing the same song. Picture it done to swing-rhythm, crooned by Harry Connick Jr. Now imagine it as “muzak” or “elevator music,” played at the mall. Think of a rendition of the song by Frank Sinatra. Hear it done by Reggae artists.

All of these are the same song, conveying the same “musical message.” And yet each style and performance conveys that same “musical message” in a very different way. We can appreciate some of those ways better than others, but it all goes back to the same composer, the same basic set of notes, the same lyrics.

This is kind of how the bible is. Sometimes, God conveyed his message through the life of an old man, or a young princess. Sometimes, he sent it through laws that helped people at that time understand him better. At other times, God’s message came through prophets, or teachers, or letter writers, kings or musicians. Sometimes, it is hard to recognize as the same message, because three-thousand year-old laws require more work to understand than clearly written letters from more than a thousand years later. But the messages about God, human beings and relationships are consistent throughout the bible. Like with Silent Night, though the “performances” are widely varied, the basic underlying message is the same. Different musicians may play the music, different instruments may create it, but at the same time, the music is, and always was, the product of the original composer.

Paul puts it this way:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, ESV2011)

The bible comes to us through various human writers and poets and kings. But it is all the work of the Holy Spirit. Another way to look at it, is like an amazing building, say a cathedral. One architect designs the cathedral. He plans it. Many builders of different types are involved in actually building the cathedral, but it all comes together under the plan and direction of the one architect. If someone asks, “who built this cathedral?” we would probably say the name of the architect, not the many and various laborers who put it together. So, many people contributed to the bible, but it was God who planned it and put it together.

The best way that I know to start understanding the bible is to start reading it. It is very difficult to understand in little bits and pieces, especially if you get those bits and pieces from other people, or the internet. I would recommend, if you have never done this, to start reading one of the books of the New Testament, say, Matthew. Read a chapter a day (or more, if you are so inclined), until you’ve read the whole book of Matthew. Then find another New Testament book (any one of them, except Revelation. Leave that until you have more understanding), and read it the same way. After you’ve read the New Testament, go back, and pick an Old Testament book, and try a few of those. I would return and read a book in the New Testament after every second or third Old Testament book. Some people, in addition to this kind of reading, also read one of the psalms every day. That’s a great reading plan. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

Psalm 119 talks about “the law.” It really means “the scripture” in general. Verses 97-103 says this:

97 Oh, how I love your law!

I meditate on it all day long.

98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,

for they are ever with me.

99 I have more insight than all my teachers,

for I meditate on your statutes.

100 I have more understanding than the elders,

for I obey your precepts.

101 I have kept my feet from every evil path

so that I might obey your word.

102 I have not departed from your laws,

for you yourself have taught me.

103 How sweet are your words to my taste,

sweeter than honey to my mouth!

Have you tasted the “sweetness” of God’s message to you through the Bible? I encourage you to start reading it, and experience that for yourself!

~

I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

 In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.

 I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

 Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support my family and me.

 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

WHY SHOULD WE LISTEN TO THE BIBLE?

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The Bible is unique among religious books. We will start to learn why, with this post.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 1

UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE #1

Someone recently liked this blog, and as I often do, I went over to his blog, to check out what he was writing about. I noticed a post with an eye-catching title, and I read it. What I found is similar to many blogs and Facebook posts that I have seen over the past few years. The basic argument went something like this:

  • Many Christians claim that, according to the bible, [enter something here that the bible says, which you don’t like].
  • But the bible also says lots of goofy things, like:
    • Rapists can pay their victims’ parents 50 shekels, and get off the hook (the writer mis-quoted Deuteronomy 21, but I think he was referring to chapter 22).
    • It’s OK to sell daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7)
    • It’s OK to marry multiple wives (21:10)
  • Since we don’t agree with these goofy things in the bible, we shouldn’t pay attention to what the bible says about sex before marriage.

I’ve seen this sort of argument before. Most commonly, it is made in order to justify sinning in whatever way you prefer to sin. But logically, if that argument was valid (it isn’t) there would be no reason to pay attention to any part of the bible at all. If that blogger is right, we ought to just ignore it altogether as irrelevant. If he’s right, we shouldn’t pay attention to what the bible says about Jesus, or  forgiveness, or love, either. To be fair, he wasn’t saying that in his blog, but it is the logical conclusion.

Here’s what I wonder: do you know why the blogger’s argument is invalid? Do you understand how to answer the questions of someone who has this attitude? Do you have a firm grasp on what the Bible is, how we got it, and how to understand it?

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, I think you’ll find this sermon series helpful, and even enjoy it. By the way, I have two helpful and reasonable answers to the guy who posted the blog entry I mentioned above. I could explain it in about five minutes. But rather than do that, what I want to do is help you learn enough about the Bible, and how to understand it, so that you can answer questions like that yourselves. You’ve heard the old proverb: “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he’ll spend all his nights and weekends in the boat, and his family will never see him anymore.”

Actually, I think the second part is “teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.”

I want to teach you to “fish.” I could give you the answers the questions posed by the blog entry I mentioned above. But then, when you encounter new questions, you’ll be dependent upon me, or someone like me, to give you answers again. I’d rather help you understand enough so that you can do some digging, and find the answers for yourselves.

It might take a little while. I’ve been studying the bible seriously for more than twenty-five years. It won’t take you that long to get started and to begin finding answers yourself, but I do hope you look on the bible as a source that you can and should continue to study for the rest of your life. I think that over the course of the next few weeks, you can learn enough about the Bible to begin.

The best place to start, as is often the case, is at the beginning. What is the Bible? Where did it come from? Who wrote it, and what is its purpose?

The bible is not actually one book. It is a collection of books. That is one reason why I never recommend starting in Genesis (the first book), and trying to read it straight through all the way to Revelation (the last book). It won’t make sense that way, because it isn’t that kind of book.

The very earliest parts of the bible were handed down as oral traditions, and later were written down. Even today Hebrew scholars of very moderate learning can see linguistic evidence that much of the first five books of the Bible were originally memorized orally. We’ll talk about what that means, next time. The oral traditions, and some new material were first written down, probably by one man named Moses, sometime around 1400 B.C.

By the way, many scholars now prefer to note dates as “BCE” and “CE” (“Before Common Era,” and “Common Era,” respectively). However, BCE is exactly the same as “BC” and “Common Era” means the same thing as AD. It is downright silly to pretend that “common era” is defined by anything other than historical life of Jesus Christ. Whether or not you believe in him as anything other than a man, whether or not you like it, the world numbers history by the life of Jesus Christ.

Back to the Bible. More history and more oral tradition were recorded by another man, probably the prophet Samuel, sometime around 1000 B.C. Samuel also recorded many of the current events of his time. As the monarchy in Israel took shape, court historians kept records of happenings, and further unknown writers recorded more of we know call the Bible. Prophets spoke, and scribes wrote down what they said. Later, the New Testament was formed from letters and writings of those associated with Jesus Christ.

All in all, the Bible was written by several dozen different people. It was written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). The people who wrote it were from all different walks of life: Farmers, shepherds, kings, court officials, prophets, fisherman, doctors, prisoners, church leaders and more. Some of them were rich, some were poor, some were in between. The writers came from different cultures, different countries and different continents. There is no sense in which one can say that the Bible was just made up by one person, or even one small group of people at one time. It does not claim that it was dictated in secret by angels.

These facts about the formation of the Bible have never been secret. Scholars have known these things for many centuries. Archeology has consistently confirmed all this. Manuscript study and comparisons also confirm it. These facts are not hidden away somewhere; they are not closely guarded secrets. They are well established.

Now, let’s look at the bible in comparison to some other ancient writings. This is not to “slam” anybody, but rather for the sake of knowledge, let’s compare the Bible to two other well-known Holy Books: The Koran, and the Book of Mormon. Hinduism and Buddhism do not have authoritative scriptures that they hold in the same way as do Christians, Jews, Muslims and Mormons. Therefore the Koran and the Book of Mormon are really the only other major books that claim the same sort of authority as the Bible.

The Koran was formed in this way: During the early 600s (AD), a man named Mohammed, a former resident of the city of Mecca in Arabia, went into a cave. He came out with the Koran, claiming that an angel had dictated it to him. Much of the Koran appears to be a copy of parts of the Old and New Testaments, although often distorted. Other parts of the Koran are quite different. It is not a very large book. Muslims also receive a lot of direction from the sayings of Mohammed (Hadith) and the biographies of Mohammed. As with the Koran, these all depend upon the words of a single man.

The Book of Mormon was “given” to Joseph Smith on golden tablets in 1823. Again, Mormonism uses Christianity as a jumping off point, but contains many things which contradict the Christian/Jewish bible.

No Muslim denies that the Koran came through just one man at one particular time in history. They do not deny that it was written in only one language, in one place and arose from one culture. The Book of Mormon is similar: by the admission of Mormons it was revealed to just one man in one time and in one place.

Now, you might ask, what difference does it make whether one person wrote the bible, or dozens did? Why does it matter if the bible was written over the course of 1500 years, or just in one lifetime? What is the significance of what we’ve just learned? Why does it matter?

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of many fiction novels set in Africa. In one of his novels, the main character has these reflections on morality (from Morality for Beautiful Girls page 77-78)

Most morality, thought Mma Ramotswe, was about doing the right thing because it had been identified as such by a long process of acceptance and observance. You simply could not create your own morality because your experience would never be enough to do so. What gives you the right to say that you know better than your ancestors? Morality is for everybody, and this means that the views of more than one person are needed to create it. That was what made the modern morality, with its emphasis on individuals, and the working out of an individual position, so weak.

If you gave people the chance to work out their morality, then they would work out the version which was easiest for them and which allowed them to do what suited them for as much of the time as possible. That, in Mma Ramotswe’s view was simple selfishness, whatever grand name one gave to it.

Mr. Smith gives us a tremendous and profound insight here. Moral authority cannot come from one person. No single human being, by himself or herself, has the breadth of experience, nor the wisdom, nor the character, to create morality. Yet in Islam, all moral and spiritual authority comes from one man. Likewise with Mormonism. The same thing is true of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

If you are agnostic or atheistic, in a very real way you are saying that you know better than everybody else. You, in your few years of life upon this earth, are claiming to have wisdom, experience and authority greater than that of the collective wisdom and experience of entire cultures of people whose lives spanned more than a millennium and a half, whose morality and wisdom still profoundly shape the world we live in.

When I was in high school, the teachers said to us kids that we needed to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. We were told to create our own morality. The very thought of such a thing is nothing less than overwhelming, towering, ugly, arrogant pride. “Hubris” is another word for it. What, in all the universe, makes us think that we, in 16 years, could match the wisdom and experience that spanned 16 centuries and survived thousands of years? What makes us think even a 90 year old person could match all that? Only ugly pride.

Remember, just for today we are trying to evaluate this from a secular position, rather than a spiritual one. Does it seem rational to suppose that one person, in one lifetime, however varied her experience, however deep her wisdom, could match the wisdom and morality and experience contained in the Bible? Of course not. It’s simple logic. And in this same respect, the Bible is logically superior to those other “holy books” which were brought into the world by single individuals.

Now some folks may say, “well, I look at what’s in the Bible, and make use of all that experience, but I still decide what is right for me.” On the one hand, of course everybody does have to decide whether or not they will accept what is written in the Bible. But nonetheless, it seems awfully arrogant to say, “I know what the Bible says, but I still think I am wiser than Moses, Isaiah, Paul, Samuel, David, Peter, John, and Jesus (plus about two dozen more) all put together.”

You see, even from a secular standpoint, the Bible is unique in history. There is no other ancient document so well preserved, so thoroughly verified as genuine by legitimate scholarly work (more on that in in the near future). There is no other source of moral and spiritual authority that has so much objective logic to back up its claim. Here is a quote from it, which seems rather fitting:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts

than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

This book, this Bible, goes far beyond the thoughts or ways of any one human being. Next week we’ll begin to see how it goes beyond even collective human morality.

SOWING THE SEED

sowingseed

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Experiencing Life Together Part 12

EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHTER #12

You are almost at the end of 15 weeks of a cell/house church experience. Hopefully this is been a positive experience. If things have gone as they often do, you might not want this experience to end; you might want this group to continue to meet together. That is generally a good thing, and our hope is that your group does continue for many months to come. In many ways a house church group that has been together for 15 weeks is only just beginning, and there might be months, or even a year or two of meeting as you are. But in the life of every house church group there comes a time when things ought to change. Your group leader has probably spoken about this already during one of the previous house church group meetings. In house church group circles this change is called “multiplication.” Generally, a healthy house church group in the United States should multiply after it has been together for between nine months and two years. So your 15 week group is probably not ready to multiply, and that’s okay. But this business of multiplication is sometimes hard to understand and even harder to accept, and so as we reach the end of this group curriculum it is an important topic to devote some time to.

Just in case anyone is still confused about what “multiplication” or “multiplying” is, let’s review it briefly. House church groups are supposed to be small groups. Technically a small group consists of 15 members or less. There is a certain dynamic in a group of this size that helps it to feel “small.” This dynamic is what facilitates the ministry of house church groups. In a small group all members are more likely to feel included. In a small group, it is easier for members to use their gifts to serve one another. In a small group sharing and praying take place on a deeper level. In a small group it is easier to recognize and welcome new visitors, and to devote the energies of the group to minister to particularly needy families. Of course the true key to house-church ministry is the Lord working in and amongst the members of the house church group. But this working is greatly facilitated by keeping the size of the group relatively small.

When the group has more than 15 members, the group dynamics change. There are so many different possible relationships, that the group no longer feels small; often, sub-groups start to form. It becomes harder to tell if someone within the group is hurting and sometimes absences may even go unnoticed; needs may go un-ministered to. When the group is large enough for people to sit back passively and not participate, they do not usually grow as disciples very much. A large group certainly has its purposes. Notably, it is often more fun to worship in a large group and it is more effective to teach a large number of people at one time. But a large group is not the most effective weekly context for making disciples. A large group does not make a good house church. Therefore when a house church group grows by reaching out to new people, eventually it becomes time to take what has become a large group and make it into two new small groups. This is what we mean when we say multiplication — the one group multiplies into two.

There are a few common objections that people offer to multiplication. Many people feel that the new group, because it is missing some of the members of the old group, could never be as close or effective in ministry as the old group was. Other people simply enjoy the group so much they don’t want anything to change. It is easy to empathize with these feelings — none of us enjoys changing things that don’t appear to need change. We all like to feel secure and have a group with whom we feel safe. Others fear that relationships will be lost without the continuity of a regular group meeting.

All these fears arise when we are focused upon ourselves, our desires, and our comfort. But Jesus calls us not to be comfortable, but to let him live his life out through us. Paul put it like this:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20, ESV2011)

We are here to let Christ live in and through us. His purpose is to make disciples. He 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 sun and of the holy spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).

The church is not on earth to please itself. If we are Christians, our purpose in life should not be to make ourselves more comfortable. Every single believer in Jesus Christ should be about at least some aspect of the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We need to be about this business even when it involves sacrifice and discomfort for ourselves. After all, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us. Jesus describes his own sacrifice, and the call to live for his purposes, like this:

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-25).

Jesus is explaining that in order to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God, God’s people must sometimes make sacrifices. A way of paraphrasing this for house church groups might be as follows:

I tell you the truth, unless the members of a house church group are willing to move out of their own comfort zones and multiply, the house church group remains only a single group and its influence for the Kingdom of God is limited to just the members of that group. But if the members are willing, and the group grows and multiplies, many more groups may be formed as a result and many more lives may be touched by Jesus. For if group wants to stay together for its own sake eventually it will become stale and stagnant and may even end. But those who are willing to multiply will find that they have fellowship with their dear friends even if they are not in the same group, and will find the reward of serving their Lord and Savior.

Over the past few months, we’ve looked a little bit at early church in Jerusalem, as described in the first few chapters of Acts. It was surely one of the most wonderful churches that anyone could be a part of. They had such sweet fellowship, and everything seemed to work together. And yet, the Lord allowed persecution to break out against that church, and it was scattered. This appeared to be a negative thing and it appeared as though their sweet fellowship had been broken. And yet, as a result of this scattering of the church, many more people in other places were given the chance to know Jesus.

On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria…

So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news…

Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them…

So there was great joy in that city (excerpts from Acts 8:1-8)

The breaking up of the sweet fellowship in Jerusalem resulted in the spreading of the good news, and the joy of salvation in other places. They were scattered, like seed, and that seed took root, and bore even more fruit.

The 12 apostles, while they had their occasional quarrels, must surely have been a tight group. And yet, once the Holy Spirit came upon them, they never were all together again — they never were the same small group that they had once been. While they could have chosen to look on this as personal tragedy, instead they accepted what the Lord was doing, and as a result, we know Jesus today. If those first Christians had not been open to multiplication, we probably would not be Christians today. Consider what results may occur years down the road if you too, are open, as they were.

The truth is, those that fear a new house-church group could never be the same as the old, overlook the fact that the power, and joy and love that they feel in a house church group comes not from the members, but really from God through the Holy Spirit as he works in and through the members of the group. And when a group multiplies, the Holy Spirit goes with each new group. Therefore the same love, the same power, and the same fellowship are all present in the new group just as they were in the old.

Some of you reading these notes may not even be in a house-church. How does this apply to you? At a personal level, these verses call all believers, wherever they are, to be ready to let Jesus work in them, and through them, even if it involves sacrifice. Some people, even today (in some areas of the world), give up their very lives for the sake of Jesus. At the very least, we should be willing to give up our personal comfort, so that someone else might be able become his disciple.

But I want to encourage each one of you, our comfort really comes from the presence of God, and his Holy Spirit goes with us, even when we leave our comfort zone. Jesus’ mission was to leave his comfort zone, and reach out to those who would receive him. Now, he lives in us, through the Holy Spirit, and he still wants to fulfill that same mission. There is joy and grace for us when we let him do that through us.