THE KING WHO CHANGED NOTHING…AND EVERYTHING

palm sunday

The crowd on Palm Sunday was looking for a king who ultimately would have been just a historical footnote. Instead, they got someone who did not change their political or economic situation at all. And yet, he changed the entire history of the world.

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Matthew #72. Matthew 21:1-11

Each year, Christians celebrate and remember the last week in the life of Jesus before his resurrection. We call it “Holy Week.” For Jesus, the week began when he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, to cries of praise and celebration from the people. By Friday night of the same week, he was hanging dead on a Roman crucifix. On the very next Sunday, he rose from death; one week in total after riding into Jerusalem. Roughly one quarter of Matthew’s entire gospel is about that week, and with chapter 21, we have now entered that section of the book.

It was a kind of Holy Week for the Jews of that time too. The ancient Jewish calendar was different from ours, and sometime in March (it varies from year to year) was the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Fourteen days into the New Year, the Jews celebrated Passover – a feast commemorating their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Following Passover was a week-long celebration – the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Although you could celebrate this wherever you lived, most Jews felt the best place to spend Passover and Unleavened Bread was in Jerusalem. Then, forty days later was the Feast of Pentecost. Picture this time of year a little bit Thanksgiving and Christmas in the United States. A lot of people traveled to be with family and loved ones. There was a delicious meal (usually the same food every year) and good feelings and a lot of gratitude. Along with it was the knowledge that you were all probably going to get together again in a bit more than a month, for Pentecost. In Israel, this was the “most wonderful time of the year.”

So there was a big crowd headed into Jerusalem that day, just three days before the Passover and the start the Festival. They were probably in a good mood. They were ready for something new and exciting to happen. Then along comes Jesus, riding on a donkey. Certainly, he could not have been the only person riding a donkey into Jerusalem that day. But Luke records that his disciples started shouting and praising God joyfully. Matthew says that the people directly in front of Jesus and those behind him took up the cry. John records that many of the people there for the festival had heard about Jesus raising Lazarus. So they went out to meet him and joined in the praises. Soon, it was a kind of uproar that stirred up the whole city:

When He entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken, saying, “Who is this? ” (Matt 21:10, HCSB)

The people took up the cry of Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9, ESV2011)

That particular prophecy of Zechariah was all about salvation and deliverance. Many Jews probably felt it was fulfilled in some ways when the Maccabaeus Family led the rebellion that freed Israel from Greek rule, some hundred and sixty years before the time of Jesus. Now they were thinking that maybe God was going to do the same thing to the Romans and to king Herod, through this Jesus. They were thinking salvation all right, but political salvation.

Now the truth is, I think most of the crowd was cheering in ignorance, and for the wrong reasons. After the crucifixion, the entire number of Jesus’ followers was about 120. But this crowd sounds a lot bigger than that. It would take more than 120 people to shake up the whole city. So a lot people were cheering who didn’t know Jesus very well, or only knew of him. It was party time, and they were partying. It sounded exciting. They thought maybe they had a new Judas Maccabaeus on their hands, and maybe they were going to be free from the oppression of Rome and king Herod (Herod was not a Jew).

But why did Jesus participate in this? What Matthew records makes it sound like Jesus planned it: apparently Jesus had arranged the donkey ahead of time, and even agreed upon some sort of “password” with the owner of the animals. Luke and Mark also suggest that it was intentional on Jesus’ part. But the crowd had all the wrong reasons, so why did Jesus do it?

Matthew records one of the reasons: it fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9. Some of that prophecy certainly sounds like military deliverance from oppressing nations. In fact, it mentions war against Greece, so some of it may indeed have been fulfilled by the Maccabaeus Family. Remember, however, biblical prophecies usually have multiple layers that are not necessarily fulfilled at in one piece. And there are other clues in Zechariah 9 that show us that, whatever else it was about, it was also about Jesus.

It says that the one coming to Jerusalem on the donkey is righteous. Who else is truly righteous besides Jesus? It says he is the true king. Who has the right to claim kingship, but him? Judas Maccabaeus, more than a century before, was never a true Israelite king, because he was from the tribe of Levi, not the tribe of King David, which was Judah. The prophecy says he is bringing salvation, and that he is humble and peaceful. Zechariah 9:11-12, a few verses later, also says this:

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. (Zech 9:11-12, ESV2011)

Prisoners are set free and given hope – because of the blood of the covenant. Jesus was riding into Jerusalem to shed his blood, to create the New Covenant, sealed with his blood, brought about by his death. Certainly, at the time, no one else knew that, but Jesus did. And later, John writes, the disciples remembered it (John 12:16).

So, in this act of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, receiving the praises of the people around him, Jesus was fulfilling prophecy, and giving anyone who cared to think about it a clue that he was the promised Messiah.

I think Jesus did this for other reasons too. It was time for him to give up his life for our sins. I think he was deliberately provoking the Jewish leaders into taking the actions that would lead to his crucifixion. Up until this very last week of his earthly life, Jesus had kept a fairly low profile, and avoided popular acclaim and confrontation with the Jewish leaders. But now, I think he was deliberately antagonizing them so that they would do what had to be done.

Finally, if Jesus really is who we believe he is, he was always worthy of worship at any moment in time. So, it is only good and right that as people come to celebrate the Passover, they worshipped the true Passover lamb who would give his life so that they could be spared. It is entirely appropriate that people worship him. He said as much to the Pharisees who criticized him.

Now, as I have pointed out, even those who praised Jesus, did so with quite a bit of ignorance. Frankly, I don’t think most Christians get the point any more than the First Century Jews. The Jews got all excited about Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and I’m sure many of them forgot that it was really all about God’s deliverance. We have the same issues in America with Christmastime and Thanksgiving. We get all happy and excited, but often neglect real thankfulness or real remembrance of Jesus. And we do the same with the beginning of Christian Holy Week.

Most churches I’ve been to wave palm leaves around at some point in the Palm Sunday service. I’ve been in churches where they brought in live donkeys and camels for the occasion. People shout and jump and sing, just like the Jews did on that first Palm Sunday. Just like the Jews did in ignorance. But we should know better, now.

It reminds me of Elijah’s experience with God:

Then He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the LORD’s presence.” At that moment, the LORD passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1Kgs 19:11-13, HCSB)

We look for God in the excitement, the noise, the action. And there is some of God in that, sometimes. But Elijah found that the heart of God was something, deeper, quieter, more meaningful. It wasn’t wrong for the Palm Sunday crowd in Jerusalem to have a raucous celebration. It wasn’t wrong for them to want deliverance from the Romans. But the real thing, the most important thing, was deeper than that. Two-thousand years later, Judas Maccabaeus is sort of a footnote in the ancient history of the Greek empire; many of you may not have heard about him before today. And that’s what the Jews were looking for – another person to give them temporary relief, another person who would end up as just another historical footnote. But they got someone who would not change their local political situation at all. Instead, he changed the entire world.

I think we need to take notice of this. Too often, our vision is too small and limited. We just want Jesus to give us a better job, or more compliant kids, or to “fix” our spouse. Those aren’t necessarily bad things to want; it’s just that the vision is too small. What he wants to do inside our soul and spirit is so much bigger than a temporary situation fix. He has a permanent solution to the holes inside our hearts. He has brought us hope, and grace and love and permanent salvation; he has sealed it with his blood.

Zechariah’s prophecy says: “Behold, your king is coming to you, righteous and having salvation.” I say the same thing: Jesus is coming to us. Do you recognize him as your king, the one with the right to rule your life? Are you willing to be part of his real mission, not to temporarily change a little corner of your world, but to bring hope and salvation to all people for eternity? Are you willing to receive not just what you want, but what he chooses to do in your life and with your life?

Right after “Palm Sunday,” Jesus made this comment:

“I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop. The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me. Where I am, there My servant also will be. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:24-26, HCSB)

Jesus literally gave up his life. The result was eternal salvation for billions. He invites us to join him – not necessarily to literally lose our physical life (though he has called some to martyrdom) but to surrender our hearts and minds and wills to him, so that in return we can receive his salvation and honor.

The party is fine, as far it goes. The celebration is fun. The happiness is good and right and genuine. But let’s use this text as an opportunity to go deeper, to engage with the real mission of Jesus, and to receive him as our true king.

Step-Dad to God’s Son

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The Christmas Story in the Bible has a lot of heroes, and few villains, but one of the most overlooked heroes is the Step-Father of God’s son – Joseph. The fact is, Joseph is man of profound faith and steadfastness. His example is one that could help us.

 

 

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Christmas Eve 2015

 

Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-15; 2:19-23

The Christmas Story in the Bible has a lot of heroes, and few villains, but one of the most overlooked heroes is the Step-Father of God’s son – Joseph. The fact is, Joseph is man of profound faith and steadfastness. His example is one that could help us.

Let’s consider his situation. Back in those days, engagement was a big deal – in fact it was almost as big of a deal as marriage. So when it says Joseph was engaged to Mary, this was no casual thing. Engagement involved what we might consider marriage vows, and engagements were not usually broken off except for some very serious causes, like the discovery that one partner was unfaithful. An engaged couple still hadn’t had the ceremony and begun to live together, but in general, they were considered to be as committed to each other as a married couple. Unwed pregnancy was also a very big deal in those days. Jewish law actually provided that a woman who was unfaithful to her husband could be stoned to death. By the time of the New Testament, that didn’t happen very often any more, partly because the Romans put a stop to it, but it was still there in the Jewish law. Even without that, it was a major scandal for an unmarried woman to have a child.

So here is Joseph, engaged, and he finds out his fiancée is pregnant – and of course, it wasn’t his baby. Even in this day and age, that would be enough for most men to call off a relationship.

A few years ago, I shared what the wedding day would have meant to Mary – it would have been the biggest, best day of her life. But this was also true of Joseph. On that day – and most likely, only on that day, in his entire life – he would feel like a king, and eat like a king. Your wedding was the highlight of life in a place where the poverty was soul-crushing. I’m sure Joseph was looking forward to that day.

Everything we read about Joseph tells us he was a good, decent man. He still cares enough for Mary that he doesn’t want her to suffer public disgrace, so he plans to break of the engagement quietly and discreetly. Even so, think of the hurt and humiliation he must feel! Even before they are properly married, this woman has cheated on him. All his happy dreams for the future are shattered around him by this humiliating betrayal.

So, after making his plans, he goes to bed. He has a dream in which an angel of the Lord tells him what’s really going on with Mary. Now, I want you to consider something. They knew just as much about the birds and bees back then as we do now. It’s not like they thought, “Oh sure, every so often you’re gonna have a virgin get pregnant, even though she’s never been with a man.” And in Hebrew culture, the idea of God impregnating someone was borderline blasphemy. The ancient Greeks worshiped Gods who were sort of like really big and powerful human beings. Their gods, from time to time, would get enamored with some beautiful human woman and come down and have an affair. But this is not at all the type of God that the Jews (or we) believe in. To a Jewish man, this is a strange and almost blasphemous idea.

So here’s Joseph. In his mind, he’s already been made a fool and rejected. Now some sort of angelic being comes in a dream, and says, “don’t worry, she’s still a virgin, she hasn’t been unfaithful. God put the baby in there through his Holy Spirit.”

I think my response might have been, “Yeah, right. Whatever.” But here is Joseph, being played for an even bigger fool than before, and what is his response?

“When Joseph got up from sleeping, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her, but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named him Jesus. (Matt 1:24-25)

Joseph was confronted with a crisis of faith. He had a choice. He could follow proper social convention and save face for himself and protect his injured pride. Or he could step out into the wild abyss of faith, risking ridicule and humiliation. He chose faith. And though we don’t often make a big deal of it, he is truly one of the heroes of faith in the Bible.

There’s another thing, too. Okay, he accepts in faith that God is in this. But now, think of it: Joseph was going to be God’s step-dad. Seriously! There’s a song by Michael Card that I love. The picture is of Joseph standing there, holding Jesus as a baby, rocking him to sleep. And he’s thinking, “How can I do this? How can I be a father to the son of God?” Again, he faced the choice. He could have said, “This is ridiculous. I can’t do this!” He could have made all kinds of objections: “I can’t provide him with the education he will need. I can’t even be sure I’ll be able to feed and clothe this child. How do I raise him? How do I discipline him? Will I need to discipline him?”

But, as before, he responded in faith. The first few chapters of Matthew show us a man who relied on God, was sensitive to him, and responded quickly and obediently to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. He marries Mary, just as the angel told him, though it is almost certain that the ceremony was nothing like the celebration involved in a normal Jewish wedding.

Mary has the baby, and they stay in Bethlehem for about two years. Then, after a visit from the Magi, the Lord tells Jospeh to move the whole family down to Egypt. This is a major journey. And of course, Egypt is a whole other country. But Joseph doesn’t hesitate. The same thing happens a few years later: the Holy Spirit tells him to go back, and even which town to settle in. Joseph does it.

I think that it is no accident that Joseph was the kind of man who heard from God. God picked not only Mary, but Mary and Joseph together. Joseph was ready to hear from God. He was probably the sort of man who wanted to be closer to God, wanted to hear from him. He remained sensitive to him and willing to make the hard choices of faith over feelings, faith over conventional wisdom, faith over fear. He made the choice of faith time after time.

Joseph is great example to us. Christmas can give us sweet, warm fuzzy feelings. But when we really think about it, that little child is confronting us with a choice. Will we believe and accept that the Creator of the universe willingly joined himself to a human egg, laid aside the privileges of divinity, and became this little baby? We really believe that here, in this frail, impoverished child, with the young, inexperienced mother and the plain, ordinary step-father, is the salvation of the world? Are we willing to take action on that choice of faith?

I hope Joseph’s example will encourage us to say, “yes.” If Joseph can look that stupid, so can we. If he can marry a pregnant woman, be step-father to God’s son, move all around the world because he heard something in a dream, we can certainly give up our pride, and trust this little child Jesus with our lives now, and our eternal future.

GO FISH

Money in Fish mouth

 

Jesus is like this sometimes. Sometimes, he really does want you to do something that seems stupid and unnecessary and difficult (like paying the temple tax). Sometimes he really does invite us to just go fishing, (or whatever your personal equivalent of that is) and trust him to deal with a situation. And especially, he is like this: he was willing to pay the debt you owed, though he did not have to.

 

 

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 60

 

Matthew #60. Matthew 17:22-27

In Matthew 17:22, Jesus predicts his own death once more. We don’t need to spend a great deal of time on this verse, other than to note that Peter has learned his lesson, and this time, the disciples don’t argue, but instead, are deeply distressed. I do want to mention something interesting, however. Jesus predicts not only his own death, but also his resurrection. However, the disciples appear to only pay attention to the part about his death. Although his warning is of hardship and suffering and fear, he is also giving them something for which to have joyful hope. Even so, the disciples focus only on the bad. There is no evidence that they rejoiced in his talk of resurrection to the same degree that they were distressed about his talk of crucifixion.

Obviously, the crucifixion was horrible for Jesus, and very traumatic even for his disciples. However, even that horror turned out to be the means by which grace and salvation were brought to the world. Through this horrible thing that Jesus predicted, God conquered sin and made it possible for love to thrive. Not only that, but after the crucifixion came the resurrection, and Jesus told his disciples about that also. The resurrection was to be proof of victory, the power of God revealed. Yet the disciples, hearing about all this, were distressed.

I wonder how often I am like them. I face something difficult, utterly failing to see that God uses such things to accomplish his purposes in the world and in me. I hear the good news about what will come after the trouble, but I pay no attention to it, or I don’t even believe it. Lucky for them (and for us) human doubt does not stop God from doing what he plans to do; even so I wonder if we could have more peace and joy in the moment if we paid as much attention to the good promises of God about the resurrection as we do to the warnings of hardship and trouble.

Next, comes this little incident concerning a particular tax. Jewish men were required to pay a tax that was used to maintain the temple in Jerusalem, and keep it running; in Jesus’ day it was known as the double-drachma tax (some bible translations might simply call it the “temple tax”). The amount collected was equal to about two-days’ wages for a manual laborer. During the time of Jesus, there was a certain amount of wiggle-room in paying this tax. It was a religious tax, not a civil one, and so the Roman rulers did not require it, or enforce its collection. It was an internal matter between Jews, and a Jewish man would be safe from any official penalty if he chose not to pay it. Jewish groups like the Sadducees, who were fairly secular, typically did not pay it. On the other hand, many Jews felt it was the patriotic Jewish thing to do. After all, the temple was the heart of Judaism at the time.

Before we get into the text itself, I want to make a note about what this passage means for history. It means that when Matthew wrote his gospel, he expected that the temple-tax, and also the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, would have been of interest and concern for his readers. In addition, he makes no attempt to explain these customs, so he assumes that readers were quite familiar with all of this background. This makes it virtually certain that the gospel of Matthew was written before the temple was destroyed permanently in 70 AD. Once more, this is very strong evidence that contradicts the popular (and ignorant) idea that the bible was made up or changed long after the time of Jesus.

Now, let’s look at the passage itself.

When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the double-drachma tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn’t your Teacher pay the double-drachma tax? ”

“Yes,” he said.

When he went into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, “What do you think, Simon? Who do earthly kings collect tariffs or taxes from? From their sons or from strangers? ”

“From strangers,” he said.

“Then the sons are free,” Jesus told him. “But, so we won’t offend them, go to the sea, cast in a fishhook, and take the first fish that you catch. When you open its mouth you’ll find a coin. Take it and give it to them for Me and you.” (Matt 17:24-27, HCSB)

In the first place the tax collectors were looking for money to keep the temple running. They ask for it from Peter, but also specifically, they ask if Jesus pays the tax. Not only that, but I suspect that their question was a kind of political litmus test. The Sadducees were faithless and arrogant, and their lack of support for the temple was a symptom of those things. However, if you were Jewish, but not a Sadducee, people were quite likely to regard you with suspicion if you did not pay the temple tax. The question behind the actual words was “What kind of Jew are you? Are you a real Jew?”

It would be as if you were running for public office in America in 2015, and someone asked you, “Are you in favor of helping the poor?” Poverty in America today is a complex subject, and often the reasons for it are not strictly about economics. But the only possible answer a politician could give in such a situation is “Of course I am in favor of helping the poor.” A politician who tries to go into detail, or to tries to actually explain what that might involve, is likely to be misunderstood and attacked by large numbers of people who prefer not to think too hard. In the same way, the only possible answer Peter could give the tax collectors is “Of course we support the temple.”

Jesus knows what Peter has just encountered. Before Peter can even broach the subject, Jesus brings it up himself. His first question to Peter is one more place where Jesus reveals that he thought he was in fact, the Son of God, divine in nature. He clearly means that he himself is the Son, and should not be required to pay tax for the temple built for the glory of his Father and Himself. I want us to get the irony here: When God came to earth in human flesh, they wanted to tax him to pay for the temple that they built in his honor. But there is even more. The temple always pointed toward the nature of God. The layout, and the sacrifices, told the story of Holy God who is gracious, and yet whom cannot be approached by sinful people. The tabernacle and the temples built on its pattern were put in place to point people to Jesus Christ. The meaning of the temple, all of its symbolism, was fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

But they wanted to tax Jesus Christ himself to keep it going, even though he came to make it irrelevant.

I find Jesus’ response quite interesting. Basically he says, “Look, I don’t have to pay the tax. In fact, the tax is collected more or less on my behalf. But let’s pay it, anyway.”

In a way, this exemplifies the entire mission of Jesus on earth. He came to pay a debt that he didn’t owe. In fact, he paid the debt that was owed to himself by all people on earth. But where we should have, and yet couldn’t, atone for our own sins, he did.

There is a practical aspect to all this, also. This wasn’t a small tax. This was two days’ wages for Peter, and another two days’ worth for Jesus. But Jesus, Peter and the other disciples did not have paying jobs. Luke 8:1-3 records that Jesus and the twelve were living on what other people gave to support their ministry. Two days’ wages were tough to give up for a poor working stiff, but what about for two people who had no regular income?

So, to summarize, and put ourselves into Peter’s shoes: we do not have the money sitting around to pay for this tax. Even if we did, we don’t have to pay it, and it is almost silly to do so…and Jesus says, “Let’s pay it anyway.”

Next, comes the fun part. Jesus tells Peter to go fishing, and get the money out of the mouth of the first fish he catches. I used to read this and nod my head wisely. I am a fisherman, and I know that larger species of fish often strike at flashing pieces of metal, thinking they are struggling minnows. So, if a bright coin fell into the water, it wouldn’t be so crazy to think of a fish swallowing it.

Recently, I realized how stupid this really is. I have been fishing whenever possible for roughly forty years, and I have never caught a single fish with any amount of money its mouth, let alone four days’ wages. This isn’t a likely occurrence – it is a miracle.

As a fisherman, bear with me as we consider this in more detail; I think we might learn some interesting things. In the first place, skeptics sometimes scoff at the idea that anyone fished with a hook and line in those days. However, long before the time of Jesus, both Isaiah and Amos referred to fishing with a line and hook (Isaiah 19:8, Amos 4:2). In addition, actual fishhooks dating from ancient times have been discovered in archaeological digs in Israel. Once more, bible-skeptics seems to be lacking knowledge of the actual facts.

However, (and I think this is the important part) it would have been unusual for Peter to fish with a hook and line. Peter was a commercial fisherman before he met Jesus. The easiest way for him to catch large numbers of fish (and thus to make enough money to support himself) was with nets. Fishing with lines is pretty inefficient compared to netting. On the other hand, if you fished with a line and hook, you could choose your bait, and be more selective about what you caught. If your goal was to catch a big fish, you could improve your odds by using a hook and line. What it amounts to is this: In general, Peter would only fish with a hook and line for the fun of it. Therefore, Jesus was not telling Peter to go back to work and find the money by running the fishing business again for a while. He was telling him to take the day off and go fishing – to go do something fun. And while he relaxed in this way, the Lord would provide what they needed.

I have a friend who is a scholar. He reads a lot for his work. But he also enjoys reading “for the fun of it.” It would be like Jesus telling my friend, “Go the library and pick out a book you want to read for fun. Go ahead and read it. In the pages of that book you’ll find six $100 bills.”

So, Peter got to relax and do something fun, his taxes were paid by doing it, plus he brought dinner home for his family and Jesus.

Now, I love this story because of these things. However, we need to be careful in application. Does this mean that we should just relax and go do something fun, and God will provide for us while we do it? I bet I could build a pretty big church preaching something like that. But let’s look at this carefully. Right now, that’s what Jesus told Peter to do. This was a particular day in Peter’s life. On another day, Jesus told him to deny himself, take up his cross and follow him. On another day, Peter went to prison for the sake of Jesus. On one other day, Peter gave up his life rather than deny Jesus. In other words, Jesus did this thing for Peter. He said, go fishing, don’t worry about it. Enjoy yourself. But it was not a life direction – it was a wonderful moment, but we should not get the idea that point of following Jesus is to have only moments like this. Once more, I quote C.S. Lewis:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” — CS Lewis, the Problem of Pain

This was a refreshing, joyful time for Peter. As Lewis’ says, the Lord scatters these throughout life, and we do well to enjoy them and thank Him for them. But they are not meant to constitute all of life. We aren’t meant to forget that our real home is heaven.

You might ask, how do I know when Jesus is inviting me to relax, or when he’s calling me to do something I don’t want to do. I could give you seven steps for knowing this, but it would be a waste of everyone’s time. There isn’t  a manual. We need to follow Jesus, we need to let him tell us these things. These days, we start with reading the bible, praying conversationally, and hanging out and worshiping with other Christians who are trying to the same. Add some solid bible teaching, and then be consciously listening for what Jesus is telling you. There is no formula – it’s about following in faith.

I think the real message here is this: Jesus is like this sometimes. Sometimes, he really does want you to do something that seems stupid and unnecessary and difficult (like paying the temple tax). Sometimes he really does want us to just go fishing, (or whatever your personal equivalent of that is) and trust him to deal with a situation. And especially, he is like this: he was willing to pay the debt you owed, though he did not have to.

~

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917 Canyon Creek Drive

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM

keys

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason. – GK Chesterton

 

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Matthew #54 . Matthew 16:13-20 Part C

Jesus says something in these verses that a lot of people wish he had explained a bit more:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Many hundreds of years later, after Christianity had become legal and the church had changed from local gatherings of Jesus-followers into a centralized, power-holding institution, these verses were used to justify the position of Pope in the Roman Catholic church. The theory goes that here, Jesus is establishing the office of “Pope,” his chief representative on earth, and installs Peter as the first one. The idea is that this passage teaches that Jesus invests Peter (and his successors) with the “keys of the kingdom.” By the way, this is where we get the popular image of Saint Peter greeting people in front of the “pearly gates;” it is because Peter supposedly has the keys.

Now, I want to point out that a lot of “interpretation” must go into it to make this passage establish the Roman Catholic Papacy. In other words, it doesn’t call Peter the “Pope” or explicitly establish the institution of the Papacy in plain, unequivocal language. I am not saying this to make Roman Catholics angry. The reason I point it out is to show, once again, that clearly, the New Testament we have today is the very same one that was written by the apostles who knew Jesus Christ personally. It was not tampered with by generations who came after the apostles. Certainly, the Roman Catholic church, if it had changed or edited the bible, would have made this passage much more clearly about the Papacy.

Though I do not agree with the Roman Catholic application of this passage, it is not my intention here to attack the Papacy. I think we have more useful things to do with this passage. So may I simply suggest some other ways to understand this passage, and apply them to our lives?

First, it is somewhat interesting to know that in Greek, Jesus is making a play on words. Let me give it to you somewhat literally with the Greek words, and then I’ll explain.

“And I say to you that you are Petros and upon this petra I will build of me the church.”

The Greek word that we translate “Peter” is “petros,” and it means rock. It is the special name that Jesus gave Jesus (prior to this point, we should remember). The second word Jesus uses is petra, which means, more or less, “rock formation.” It is not the same word as the name “Peter,” and it cannot be an affectionate nickname for him, because it is in the feminine gender.

So it seems very doubtful that it is Peter personally upon whom Jesus says he will build his church. I think it is far more likely that Jesus says “upon this rock I will build my church” because he is making a play on words. Bible commentator Matthew Henry reminds us that we don’t get to see expressions and body language in the bible. He writes:

Others, by this rock, understand Christ; “Thou art Peter, thou hast the name of a stone, but upon this rock, pointing to himself, I will build my church.” Perhaps he laid his hand on his breast, as when he said, Destroy this temple (John ii. 19), when he spoke of the temple of his body.

In other words, Jesus could have pointed to himself when he said “upon this rock.” Another possibility is that Jesus meant that he would build the church on the foundation of what Peter has just said, his confession that Jesus is Messiah and son of God, with all that means. I personally favor this interpretation, because, in fact, that is what has happened. The one thing that unifies true Christians all over the world is that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, true God, true man, who died to cleanse us from sin and rose to show his power and give us new life. That is, and always has been, the foundation of the Church (and by “the church” I do not mean any particular institution, but rather, the true spiritual fellowship of those who trust Jesus Christ, no matter where they “attend church”). I am not arguing against the Papacy (though given enough provocation, I would). I am insisting however, that the foundation of the true church is not the apostle Peter, nor the Papacy, but the true confession that Jesus is Messiah and Lord. That has always been true, and I think even most Roman Catholics would agree that without this foundational belief, the Papacy itself would be meaningless.

I want to highlight another thing here. Jesus says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Virtually every time the New Testament uses the word “church” it is a Greek word, simply meaning, “the gathering of people with a common purpose .” (Greek: ekklesia; you may recognize that the English word, ecclesiastic comes from this term). In context, of course, it means “the gathering of people who have faith in Jesus.” At its most essential level, that is what a church is – a group of people who are connected to one another and gather together intentionally, and who have faith in Jesus. So the church that Jesus will build refers to the true spiritual fellowship that includes all who trust and obey Him as Lord and Messiah. We aren’t talking about a particular institution, denomination or congregation.

I love that Jesus promises He will build it. It reminds me a little of Psalm 127:1

Unless the LORD builds a house, its builders labor over it in vain; unless the LORD watches over a city, the watchman stays alert in vain. (Ps 127:1, HCSB)

Sometimes we get caught up in the future of the church on earth. Sometimes we are concerned about local congregations; at other times we worry about the whole thing. Jesus is the builder of the church. We can trust him to do it. And the gates of hell can’t withstand the onslaught of grace and truth that comes from those who trust and obey Jesus. This picture not one of the church defending itself while hell attacks – it is the reverse. The idea is that church will attack hell itself, and overcome it through the power of Jesus.

Now, Jesus says some other things also. He adds: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” I need to teach with integrity here. In Greek, “you” is singular. In other words, Jesus directed these comments specifically to Peter, not to all the disciples. However, this is not a problem for me, nor should it be for you. God directed many promises specifically to Abraham. He made the first promise of the Messiah specifically to Eve. He made many promises directly and personally to David. This is how the Lord works throughout scriptures: He speaks to specific people at specific times and places, and yet his promises also encompass all come after, those who believe. The individuals who first received them stood as representatives of those who would come after, and believe what God had said.

So Paul writes, for example:

Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, then understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and told the good news ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you. So those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith. (Gal 3:6-9, HCSB)

Matthew Henry writes of our verses in Matthew 16:

The Old Testament promises relating to the church were given immediately to particular persons, eminent for faith and holiness, as to Abraham and David; which yet gave no supremacy to them, much less to any of their successors; so the New-Testament charter is here delivered to Peter as an agent, but to the use and behoof of the church in all ages, according to the purposes therein specified and contained.

The gift and promise here is for every believer in Jesus Christ, Son of God. Paul says, if we have the faith of Abraham, we also have the promises that were given to him. I add, if we have the faith that Peter had, we also have the promises given to him. So, yes, these words (in Matthew 16) were spoken directly and specifically to Peter. However, Jesus says almost exactly the same thing a little while later, when he is teaching about how to deal with his followers who are struggling with sin:

I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. (Matt 18:18, HCSB)

The second time Jesus says it (in 18:18) the Greek “you” is plural – in other words, the next time Jesus says this, he makes it clear that he is talking to all of his disciples. John records Jesus saying something similar. John’s Greek is pretty rudimentary (though better than mine) but he makes it clear that Jesus is talking to all the disciples when he says:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23, HCSB)

So, what is this business of binding loosing that Jesus promises to Peter, the disciples and, through them, to us? To understand it, we need one more brief note about the Greek. The HCSB is the best English translation of these verses that I have found, and I have used it in this message. However, I’d like to give you the most literal rendering I can:

Whatever you might bind on earth, it shall have already been bound in heaven; whatever you might loosen on earth, it shall have already been loosened in heaven.

The point is this. It is not about us, or even Peter, telling heaven what to do. It is Peter (and us) expressing on earth what has already been decided in heaven. By the way, this is confirmed by Peter’s screw-up just a few verses later. Jesus says he has to go to Jerusalem and die. Peter, probably flush with these words of Jesus, tries to “bind” the upcoming death of Jesus.

Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, “Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to You! ”

But He turned and told Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” (Matt 16:22-23, HCSB)

To put it mildly, Peter’s “binding” of something contrary to God’s will did not work out very well. We can see from this incident that Jesus did not give Peter a blank check. Just because Peter wanted it or said it did not mean it was God’s will. Jesus tells him “you are not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” In that case, Peter has no authority to bind or loosen anything. Nor, thankfully, does anyone else. So this authority to bind or loose is simply the authority for a human being to express the will of Heaven on earth. To the extent that we express what has already been bound or loosed in heaven, we have authority. To the extent we do not, we have no authority. Whatever we “bind” isn’t actually bound unless it is also heaven’s will. But if it is, according to the scripture, according to God’s will, we puny humans have the authority to declare it done.

Jesus is saying that he will use human instruments to do his will and work in the world. When a Christian declares the good news, it is as if Jesus himself is speaking. When a Christian preaches the law, it is as if Jesus himself is speaking.

In a way this goes beyond our typical approach of “in my humble opinion.” No, if it has already been done in heaven, then it is not just my humble opinion. My words spoken in heaven’s authority do have heaven’s authority. GK Chesterton wrote:

What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason.

Saying “that’s just my opinion” makes you the important part of the equation: It’s your opinion. It asserts you, not the truth you are declaring. Instead, we might say, “I know I personally am nothing, but this is what the Bible says…” My opinion is not worth sharing. But the Truth? I don’t need to be reticent about that, because it is not my personal property.

All of this leads to a natural question: How do we know that what we are doing has already been done in heaven?

Jesus has already given us some clues. Remember how he taught the disciples (and us) to pray? “Your will be done, your kingdom come, on earth as it is heaven.” When we pray this way, the Lord often answers by helping us to get in step with his will and his kingdom. So, to “bind” or “loosen” correctly, we should learn to pray for the kingdom and will of heaven in our lives, and on earth.

Second, Jesus says all this to Peter after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, with all that means. We must make sure that what we “bind” or “loosen” is consistent with this confession, with who Jesus truly is.

Let me give you an example of “binding” and one of “loosening.”

Many years ago, a married man who professed to be a Christian began having an affair. When he was found out, he did not respond with repentance or sorrow for his sin. Instead, he tried to justify the affair. He invited the other woman to live with he and his wife, and told me that he wasn’t having an affair at all, he had just married a second wife, like Jacob or David. His wife, who had major self-esteem struggles at that point, went along with it, but it was a terrible, awful experience for her.

Finally, I had a very difficult conversation with him. I know what the Bible says about marriage and sex. I know what it says about sin generally, and repentance, and persisting in sin. I said to him, “You are trying to justify this, but I am here, in front of you, meeting your eyes, speaking with my voice and I am telling you, with the authority of Jesus, that you are living in sin. No one is perfect, and the Lord forgives all who repent, but you have not repented; instead, you keep on in a lifestyle of sin, claiming there is nothing wrong with it. The longer you wait to repent, the worse it will be for you. If you continue to refuse to repent, eventually your choice to hold on to sin will take you so far from God that you will be destroyed. You can’t get there by accident. You know what you are doing. Just in case you wonder, I am telling you, I am warning you, this sin will destroy you if you don’t repent.”

I grieve to tell you that this man never did repent. He was a good friend, and I cared about him deeply. He held on to his sin. He was thirty-five at the time this began, and though he smoked, and drank too much, he was in pretty good health. Quickly after this, however, his health failed, and he died within ten years.

I was “binding” his sins. In other words, I was communicating the biblical truth that if we do not repent, if we persist in an ongoing lifestyle of sin when we know better, if we refuse to even admit we are sinning, we are actually refusing the forgiveness that Jesus offers us. This is neither more nor less than what the bible says about it. I wasn’t “acting on my own authority.” I was saying what the bible says. Sometimes, hopefully not very often, we need somebody to confront us with physical presence (I do not mean violence I just mean simply being there) and a physical voice and say “knock it off! You are doing wrong and it needs to stop.” Sometimes we need somebody in front of us who can point out our self-deception and tear apart our self-serving justifications. Actually, this need is well known in secular addiction treatment, and it is called an “intervention.”

This “binding,” though necessary, is often a very difficult thing. But when you think about it, it is actually just one more way in which God can show grace to sinners. This man knew what the Bible said about sex and marriage. He knew when he started the affair that he was wrong. But through a fellow believer (in this case it was me) God was giving him yet one more chance. The Lord had every right to hold him accountable for what he knew, and yet God sent me to plead with him one more time. Far from being judgmental, this was the Lord doing all that he could to try and bring this man to repentance.

Now let me give you a happier example. Around that same time, a different young man came to me. He confessed that he was addicted to pornography. He was attending a local seminary to become a pastor, and he was sure that his sin had disqualified him from ministry; he wasn’t even sure, deep in his heart, that he was forgiven. The main difference between this guy and the first man was that this second young man was deeply broken up about his sin. He did not try to justify it. He did not want to do it any longer. He knew the bible pretty well, and so I reminded him of these verses, and then said, “OK, now look me in the eye. You can see my face, you can hear my voice. Jesus is speaking to you right now just as surely as I am. And what he says, and what I say, is that you are entirely forgiven. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8;1). You have been made clean by the word that is spoken to you (John 15). If you are in Christ, you are a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5;17). Your sin was absolutely destroyed on the cross. Your real life is in heaven with God (Colossians 3), your spirit is seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 1). You are dead to sin, yes really (Col 3, Romans 6). You – are – forgiven.”

Now, obviously I was quoting various Scriptures: either verbatim or repeating the gist of it. This young man could have looked in his Bible and found the same verses and read them for himself. But there is something powerful and gracious about hearing somebody else directly tell you what the Lord says in the Bible. It is vital for us to interact with the Lord alone. But it is also vital for us to be connected to each other and to sometimes hear another person declare the truth of Scripture to you.

Some of us are very suspicious of our own motives, and so we don’t easily let our own selves off the hook. For people like that, it can be a wonderful, grace-filled experience to have someone else look you in the eye and say “You are forgiven. You truly are.” This is the gift that Jesus gives Peter, and to the whole church: that we can hear flesh and blood speak the truth to us. Jesus is saying, “I am giving you authority to speak my words to each other, so that you don’t have to wonder if it is real or not; you don’t have to question your own motives.”

So when Kathy says, “I am telling you what you are doing is a sin,” you know that you need to knock it off. And when Tom says to you, “you are forgiven,” you really are forgiven.

Let the Lord speak to you today.

 

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

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Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

THE BLESSING OF FAITH

BLESSING OF FAITH

All of this should be cause for great comfort for us – our very belief is evidence of God’s work in us. If you, like Peter, believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, you are blessed! It means that God himself is at work in your heart. It means that our trials and grief and suffering in this life are not the full story.

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Matthew #53 . Matthew 16:13-20 (Part B)

Bible passages like the one we have been studying these past few weeks strike me as extremely important. As I have been working on these past few messages, I have found myself hoping and praying that more and more people can hear them.

That is one reason I deeply appreciate your partnership in prayer. It is a great joy to me to know that some of you are praying along with us that the Lord uses this ministry to get his message out to the world. We aren’t the only ministry preaching God’s word, not by a long shot; but I truly believe that we do have responsibility for one small part of what God wants to do in the world during our lifetimes. Please pray that his purposes are fulfilled in and through Clear Bible. Please pray for protection and provision for me and my family.

Another thing I’d like prayer for is the idea of getting more “space” on the internet to archive more sermons. The hosting for our sermons is relatively inexpensive, but it is also limited. I recently had to delete about a hundred old sermons in order to make room for new ones. The great thing about the internet is that someone could come along and benefit from this sermon years from now. But to make that possible, we’re going to have change some things. Pray for guidance in this process, and technical help.

We value your prayer partnership above all. We do also welcome your financial partnership, if the Lord leads you to give. Please don’t feel guilty or bad if he does not. If the Lord does lead you to give financially, you can, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

917 Canyon Creek Drive

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

~

Last time we considered the substance of Peter’s statement that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), Son of the Living God. Theologians sometimes call a statement like this a “confession.” Many people think “confessing” is the same as “admitting,” but there are subtle and important differences. To confess in a biblical sense means “to say with,” or “to agree with the truth.” So, when we confess our sins, we are agreeing with the truth that the Bible teaches about those actions: namely, that they are wrong (they are sins) and also that we have done them. You see, it isn’t just admitting that we sin, it is agreeing with what the bible says about it. Confession can also be positive. You may have been in a church service where everyone said the Apostles’ Creed together. The pastor probably said something like: “Let us confess our faith together in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.” We are agreeing with the truth – thus, confessing. So Peter is agreeing with something that was already true – the identity of Jesus.

Now Jesus tells us several very important things about this confession:

He says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! (literally, “Simon, son of Jonah”). This confession blesses those who make it. Actually, it is hard to overstate how much blessing comes from truly believing and confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. To agree with this truth, to submit to the implications of it – that is, to personally submit to Jesus Christ and put your trust in Him – this is the only path to Life, according to the Bible. Jesus says elsewhere:

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

John writes:

The one who believes in the Son of God has this testimony within him. The one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony God has given about His Son. 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 5:10-13, HCSB)

That Life starts now. Even now, before we die, through Jesus we can find increasing wholeness in our spirits and souls. Even now, we can begin to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness faithfulness and self-control in increasing measures.

But of course, it doesn’t stop when we die. The bible is pretty clear that we can’t even begin to grasp the wonder and joy and hope of the life to come, but it gives us some very exciting hints. I think this is one of the great biblical truths, one of the great Christian hopes. Our trials and grief and suffering in this life are not the full story. The Life after death – promised in Jesus alone – gives meaning and hope and joy to all things now, even the ones that seem to defy explanation. 1 Corinthians says:

What eye did not see and ear did not hear, and what never entered the human mind — God prepared this for those who love Him. (1Cor 2:9, HCSB)

Life begins now, but it continues on into eternity in a way that has “never entered the human mind.” If this is not so, says Paul:

If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. (1Cor 15:19, HCSB)

Our hope is much, much greater than simply a good life for 100 years on earth. This life we have in Jesus makes sense of things that are otherwise terrible tragedies.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18, HCSB)

Now in this hope we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:24-25, HCSB)

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28, HCSB)

All of this begins with truly confessing, along with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Those who confess it are blessed.

There is another thing. Jesus tells Peter he is blessed because “flesh and blood” did not reveal it to Peter, but rather the Father in Heaven. The only reason Peter is able to really trust and obey Jesus as Messiah and Lord, is because the Father has enabled him to do so. Paul put it like this:

Now concerning what comes from the Spirit: brothers, I do not want you to be unaware. You know that when you were pagans, you used to be led off to the idols that could not speak. Therefore I am informing you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1Cor 12:1-3, HCSB)

Obviously, anyone can pronounce the words “Jesus is Lord.” But what Paul means is that no can say it and truly believe it unless God has enabled him or her to do so. I think this is exactly what Jesus is saying to Peter. If you truly believe Jesus is Lord and Messiah, it is because God has done something in your heart. This is true of all believers. To make Peter’s confession (and believe it) is a sign that God is at work in us, and we are saved. There are many places in the bible that demonstrate that faith in Jesus as the Messiah comes about as a gift from God. I will italicize the relevant parts in the following verses:

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.  (1Cor 2:10-12, HCSB)

This is a reiteration of what Jesus said to Peter. This confession is given to us through the Holy Spirit.

For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:8-10, HCSB)

This is very clear – even our faith is “not from ourselves, it is God’s gift.”

[Jesus said]: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44, HCSB)

It’s hard to be clearer than that. If we come to Jesus, it is because the Father has drawn us.

He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure that He planned in Him for the administration of the days of fulfillment — to bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him. (Eph 1:9-10, HCSB)

The mystery of the Messiah was made known to us by God, just as it was to Peter.

For it has been given to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, (Phil 1:29, HCSB)

To believe in the Messiah was “given to us.”

For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose. (Phil 2:13, HCSB)

God is the one working in us for His good purpose.

I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil 1:3-6, HCSB)

The “good work” is salvation – and it was started in us by God Himself, and will be carried to completion by Him.

All of this should be cause for great comfort for those of us who believe – our very belief is evidence of God’s work in us. If you, like Peter, believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, you are blessed! It means, among many wonderful things, that God himself is at work in your heart.

But what about those who do not believe? Does this mean God isn’t at work in them, or doesn’t care about them? Not at all. The verses I have already shared make it clear that even faith is a gift from God. But, because God wants love to be real, the choice to receive God must also be real. Scripture shows that though we don’t create our own faith, or accomplish our own salvation, human beings can refuse and reject the gift that the Lord offers. I’ll share some more verses, again marking important parts with italics. Jesus says, later in Matthew:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing! (Matt 23:37, HCSB)

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling, and you said, “No! We will flee upon horses”; therefore you shall flee away; and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”; therefore your pursuers shall be swift. (Isa 30:15-16, ESV2011)

The Lord’s desire is always for all of us to receive the gift of grace through faith when he offers us. But some people are not willing. Some people say “No.” The negative result is their own responsibility, not the Lord’s fault.

Woe to them, for they fled from Me; destruction to them, for they rebelled against Me! Though I want to redeem them, they speak lies against Me. (Hos 7:13, HCSB)

“You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your ancestors did, so do you. (Acts 7:51, HCSB)

God does enables us to receive his grace through faith, but he does not force us to do so. Also, the fact that someone has so far resisted God’s grace does not mean he or she always will. The apostle Paul violently rejected Jesus for a number of years; but finally he repented and did receive grace and salvation through the Messiah.

Now, I want to make something clear. Jesus’ words to Peter are also words to us. We don’t need to go around wondering if we have rejected God or not. Although we are called to continue trusting and obeying Jesus, we don’t need to do it perfectly, and we don’t need to fear that we will somehow accidentally reject him in the future. As we trusted him to save us, we can trust him to continue to keep us. Your very faith is evidence that God has got you. You don’t have to worry.

Let’s close by meditating on one of my favorite passages of scripture:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the One who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us.

Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered.

No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Rom 8:31-39, HCSB)

WHO DO *YOU* SAY JESUS IS?

Who is

Just as it was in the time of the disciples, many people have opinions about Jesus. Some of those opinions have little basis in fact. Many of them are generally positive. But the key question is: who do you say Jesus is? If you don’t know enough to answer, this may be a good place to start.

 

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 52

 

Matthew #52 . Matthew 16:13-20 (Part A)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matt 16:13-20, ESV2011)

It is worth taking a long look at these eight verses, because there is so much packed into this one small passage. First, Jesus asks, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” I hope you have noticed by now, that sometimes Jesus referred to himself as “the Son of Man.” We considered this briefly before, but I will add some information here. The prophet Ezekiel, when he records God speaking, says something like this: “He said to me, ‘Son of man, speak to the people of Israel and say…’” Ninety-three times Ezekiel records God calling him “son of man,” in this way. The significance of this is that in the case of Ezekiel God chose human flesh to speak his words. I think sometimes that Jesus called himself “son of man” to remind those around him (who would have been familiar with the prophecies of Ezekiel) that he was speaking God’s words to them.

I also believe that at a certain level Jesus found it unique that he was not just “God-the-Son” as he was before he came into the world, but now he was also “son of man,” like Ezekiel, a human instrument of God speaking. You might say, humanity was a kind of new identity for Jesus, and so he often called himself by that name.

There is further significance. Two particular passages in the Old Testament which prophesy about the coming Messiah call him “a son of man.”

I continued watching in the night visions, and I saw One like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14, HCSB)

So, by this phrase Jesus is reminding others that he is a messenger from God, embracing his human nature (new since his birth from Mary) and also embracing and reminding others of his identity as the Messiah.

He asks the disciples what others say about him. The answers are interesting. Every one of them is someone who has already died. John the Baptist had already been beheaded at this point, and obviously, many people did not hear anything about Jesus until after John’s death. Hearing his preaching and seeing miracles, perhaps they supposed that John had somehow been resurrected. At the very least, they assumed that spirit of John was somehow manifesting in Jesus.

Elijah, Jeremiah and the other prophets had all died centuries before. Again, the people are either believing that one of the prophets has come back to life, or that Jesus is somehow manifesting the spirit of such a person. All the answers share this in common: the people believed that Jesus was either the physical or spiritual embodiment of some great godly person from the past.

What it amounts to is this: In the general opinion of the people, there was something special about Jesus. However, the answers reveal something else. Though they are willing to give Jesus special honor, they are not willing to grant him the status of being the Messiah, the Lord and savior.

I think this is significant, because most of the world still views Jesus with a similar attitude. Like the people who were alive during his time on earth, many people throughout history and even today, agree that Jesus was something special. The prophet Mohammed attributed many miracles to Jesus, and even said that Jesus lived a sinless life. But Mohammed and Muslims will not grant Jesus the status of Messiah and Lord. They call him only a prophet, no more. Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses have a special honor for Jesus also. Hindu religious leaders often praise Jesus for his teachings, as do many Buddhists, and even some atheists. Even Jews respect Jesus as an important Rabbi. But all of them stop short of Peter’s confession.

Peter said: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” What does this mean, exactly?

“Christ” is simply the Greek word for the Hebrew “Messiah,” which literally means, “anointed one.” That may or may not be not be helpful. The basic meaning of “Messiah/Christ” is: God’s unique, Holy-Spirit-empowered servant by whom He will save His people and accomplish His purposes in the world. Though many people “foreshadowed” what the Messiah would be like (like David), the Old and New Testaments teach that there is only one true Messiah.

What about: “Son of the Living God?” This means more than meets the eye at first. John, who present at the time, wrote this about Jesus’ son-ship:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created. Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-4)….

The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning Him and exclaimed, “This was the One of whom I said, ‘The One coming after me has surpassed me, because He existed before me.’ ”) Indeed, we have all received grace after grace from His fullness, for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The One and Only Son — the One who is at the Father’s side — He has revealed Him. (John 1:14-18, HCSB)

Here John, teaches us that the “Son-ship” of Jesus means that he shares the same essence with God the Father. There is one God, not three, and yet he is revealed to us in three persons (not three gods): Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One human being = one person. But God is greater than human beings. For God (and God alone) one God = three persons. This is not something we can understand entirely. It is not the type of thing that human beings would ever make up. If you were creating a religion, or even just refining one, you would either go with polytheism (many separate Gods) or single monotheism (just one God, with one “person”), or monism (everything in the universe is just a part of one big whole). All of those are easy to understand and easy to explain. In a man-made religion, these types of verses I am sharing right now would end up in the trash can. On the other hand, if, as we claim, God is infinite and we are not, it stands to reason that we would not be able to fully understand His nature, which gives the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (that is what we are talking about here) a ring of truth that is missing from polytheism, single-monotheism and monism.

To get back to the main point, we know that “Son of God” means that Jesus shared the same essence with God the Father, and directly manifested the glory and purpose of God in a specific time in the history of our planet.

Paul says similar things. In the following passage, he also connects the Son-ship of Jesus (and his shared essence with God) to his work as the Messiah/Christ:

[God the Father] has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves. We have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, in Him. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He might come to have first place in everything. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile everything to Himself by making peace through the blood of His cross — whether things on earth or things in heaven. (Col 1:13-20, HCSB)

So “Messiah/Christ” and “Son of God,” go together. Jesus was fully God (one “person” of the One true, three-person God) before the creation of the world. Nothing was created apart from Him doing the creating. Yet he came to earth and took on human flesh, and became not only God the Son, but also “the son of man,” having human nature as we do. He did this because he was the Messiah, the one who ultimately defeated sin and evil through his death on the cross.

Peter may not have understood every single nuance of this at the moment of his confession in Matthew 16:16, but this is what he was saying, this was his confession; this is what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

There are many opinions about Jesus. Our world today is no different in this respect than that of the first disciples. Only the very ignorant refuse to believe that he was a real historical person. Many people recognize the influence he has had on the world, and explain it by calling him a prophet, a great teacher, an angel or something else.

But I believe Jesus asks us the same question that he put to his disciples: “Who do you say I am?”

I don’t want to be overdramatic, but this question is the key question in all of life. Who do you say Jesus is?

The world says all sorts of things about Jesus. Ultimately, however, we each have to grapple personally with what we believe about him. I have a friend who isn’t a Christian. Once, at the end of an email, he said: “Maybe you could put in a good word for me at the pearly gates.”

I responded with this: “My word is no good in heaven. But I can introduce you to the Guy that I’m counting on to get me in.”

It isn’t enough that our friends or relatives know who Jesus is. It isn’t enough to rely on the opinions of educated people about Jesus, or the opinions of religious people, or of wonderful people, or of someone you met at a party. We are all confronted with the same question as the disciples: who do you say Jesus is?

Hopefully, as you have followed along with these sermons, you have learned a thing or two about Jesus. Matthew has recorded that up to this point, Jesus has fulfilled more than a dozen different Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, including things Jesus couldn’t manipulate, like the manner and place of his birth, and his early life in Egypt. John the Baptist testified that Jesus was the Messiah. At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven said “This is my beloved son. I take delight in him!”

In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus claims greater authority than Moses. He claims to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament. He says that he is the narrow gate. He prophesies that people will call him “Lord,” and drive out demons in his name and do good works in his name.

So far from Matthew we have seen Jesus heal lepers, and blind people, and lame people, and sick people, and a dead girl. He has healed by touching, and also by simply speaking a word. He has driven out demons. He has miraculously fed 18,000 people or more. We have seen him claim the authority to forgive sins, and then prove that claim by healing a paralyzed man. We have seen him calm a storm and walk on water.

We have heard Jesus say that following him will bring persecution – but that we should follow him anyway. He claims that if we acknowledge him publicly, he will recognize us before the Father in Heaven – he seems to assume that his recognition in this way is all-important. Jesus has called himself the Lord of the Sabbath, and said that the Father in heaven has entrusted all things to him. We have heard him tell the followers of John the Baptist that he is fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. He has claimed to have authority over all demonic powers because his power comes from Heaven. He promises to give us rest for our souls, and he did not stop people from worshiping him.

We have spent fifty-two weeks getting to this point in Matthew; there are many more claims and miracles by Jesus than those I have referenced here, and we are only a little more than halfway through Matthew’s gospel. I think when you look at them all together like this, it makes an impact. Clearly, Jesus is not a great teacher, or a great man in any way, if all these claims are false. But if they are true…?

I think sometimes in my own walk of faith, I get caught up in me. I think and pray about what I want God to do in my life. At other times, I am into intercessory prayer: I want God to do something in the lives of others, or the world at large. But today I want us to remember: it is all about Jesus. Jesus is who he is, whether we believe it or not, whether we even think about it or not. And the foundation of our faith should be recognizing Jesus for who is, and worshipping him. This confession of Peter is the great foundational truth of all people who call themselves Christians. It is worth contemplating.

So, I ask you today: who do you say Jesus is?

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

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Lebanon, TN 37087

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Thank for your prayers, and your support!

GRACE FROM HARSH WORDS

Canaanite Woman

When we recognize that we are sinners, that we are in desperate need of Jesus, but with no right to ask anything of him, then we can receive the only grace that will save us. I don’t mean that we should spend a lot of time feeling guilty. But the truth is, we cannot receive grace until we believe that we are in desperate need, and yet we deserve nothing. And in this situation, faith inspires us to ask anyway, assures us that there is grace for the humble and repentant.

 

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 49

 

 

Matthew #49 . Matthew 15:21-28

This is one of those places in scripture that is very troubling when you read it through quickly. It just doesn’t sound like Jesus, at least, not until we stop and consider it more carefully.

Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, the area, where long ago, Elijah healed the dead son of a Gentile woman, while the nation of Israel suffered under famine. A Gentile woman comes to Jesus, asking for help for her demon possessed daughter. Now, I would think this would be right up Jesus’ alley. He has delivered people from demons before and there is no question that he has the power to do what she asks. It is in the tradition of the great prophet, Elijah. In addition, demonization represents the one power that all Christians would call “the enemy.” It seems obvious that Jesus would want to strike a blow against this sort of thing. Not only that, but we have come to see Jesus as a person of great compassion, and this is an opportunity to combine that gracious mercy with a blow against the enemy.

And yet, when this Canaanite woman comes to Jesus, he flat-out ignores her. And when he finally does pay attention to her, his words are almost insulting, and appear to be designed to send her away in shame. But I do not think that what we see on the surface truly reflects the heart of Jesus. In fact, in this incident I believe, we have again an example of how he sees into the heart of each one, and endeavors to give each person what they truly need.

The woman continues her pleading until the disciples are so distracted that they ask Jesus to do something. Jesus’ reply, when it finally comes, sounds harsh: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Somehow, the woman gains admittance into Jesus’ presence and again she begs him to heal her daughter. Again Jesus’ reply is appears unsympathetic, quoting what some commentators believe was probably a common proverb. In any case, it certainly sounds severe. The woman replies, comparing herself with a dog licking the crumbs from the children’s table. Jesus, apparently satisfied, grants her request.

How shall we understand this incident? Is Jesus truly so uncaring? Why did he deal with woman as he did? Ole Hallesby offers some insightful words about this incident:

Every time Jesus sees that there is a possibility of giving us more than we know how to ask, He does so. And in order to do so He often has to deal with us in ways which are past our finding out……

Jesus had somewhat the same thing in mind with the Canaanitish woman when He delayed and postponed the answer to her prayer, first by remaining painfully silent and then by using some sharp, harsh words. he wanted to give her more than a healed daughter. He wanted to give her something for herself besides.

Jesus is seeing something here that we don’t initially see: the heart-need of the Canaanite woman. In his response, he is seeking to address that need. I’m not sure the woman herself was aware of the need in her heart until Jesus got her attention by responding so strangely.

She comes to him initially because she has an obvious external problem: her daughter is tormented by a demon. I think most sensible people understand her position. She has a problem. It’s a serious one; a spiritual one, and here is Jesus who has shown himself willing and able to deal with issues like this. That’s all she wants from him: to heal her daughter. To her (and, I suspect, to us) this seems fairly simple and straightforward.

But Jesus wants to do more than simply fix her problem. This is another aspect of something Jesus said earlier:

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21, HCSB)

The woman is looking at the here and now. What she wants is not bad, but it is not eternal. The healing of her daughter is not a treasure that would last forever; in fact, we know this for certain, because both the woman and her daughter are now dead. Jesus wants to give her something that will last forever, a treasure that will neither spoil nor fade.

Let’s look at the progression. I admit, I am reading between the lines a little bit here, but when we are done, I think you’ll agree that looking at the passage in this way gives us a satisfactory understanding of why Jesus would behave like this.

At first, the woman is upset about her daughter. Her mind is focused almost entirely on her daughter’s situation. When she comes to Jesus at first, she is not interested in him for his own sake; she simply wants her daughter to be healed.

When Jesus does not respond at all to her request, it creates tension for the woman. Now, for the first time, she is thinking about something besides her daughter’s condition. She is now also wondering why Jesus won’t even speak to her. In this way, by ignoring her, Jesus is beginning to get her attention. She was upset about her daughter; now she is also upset about Jesus. He has started the process of moving her focus away from her problem and toward himself.

As I believe Jesus had hoped, the woman does not give up, and keeps asking for help. I think, however, that now she was interested not only in the help of Jesus, but also in his behavior. The disciples appear to have less patience than Jesus, and finally they plead with him to respond to her, if for no other reason than to simply get her off their backs.

Jesus’ response, when it finally comes, must have been very unsatisfactory to the woman:

He replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

However, this does not deter her. She kneels before him, and says simply, “Lord help me.” Again, this is reading between the lines, but this is not the same as her initial request. She does not mention her daughter this time. She simply asks him to help her. I think she is beginning to see that she has a bigger need than simply the healing of her daughter.

I think Jesus sees the change in her. However, he wants to make sure she really understands, so his response is still apparently very callous:

He answered, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.”

Jesus is trying to help her understand grace. She has no more right to ask anything of him than the dogs have to the food of children. The first lesson of grace is that we desperately need it; the second lesson is that we do not deserve it, cannot demand it, and could never earn it. Her response shows that she gets it:

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table! ”

She understands that she has nowhere to turn but Jesus, and no hope apart from him. She understands also that Jesus owes her nothing, and she has no right to ask. The greatness of her faith is that with this understanding, she asks anyway.

When she acknowledged that she was indeed in the position of “the dogs” – completely dependent on the grace and favor of the Master – then she received the very unmerited grace and blessing that she desired. And because Jesus had brought her to this place by her harsh words, she received God’s grace not only in the healing of her daughter, but in the healing of her soul, as a helpless, needy sinner. Though his response seemed harsh, he succeeded in giving her not only what she wanted, but what her deepest need required.

This is one of the reasons it is so important for Christians to remember the seriousness of sin. If we do not recognize that we are sinners, that we are in desperate need of Jesus, but with no right to ask anything of him, then we cannot receive the only grace that will save us. I don’t mean that we should spend a lot of time trying to make people feel guilty. But the truth is, we cannot receive grace until we understand that we are in exactly the same position as that Canaanite woman: we are in desperate need, and yet we deserve nothing. And in this situation, faith inspires us to ask anyway, assures us that even though our Savior sometimes gets our attention with harsh words, there is grace for the humble and repentant.

There’s something else about this passage that I think is quite important. If we walk with Jesus long enough, sooner or later he will appear to us in the same way that he appeared to this Canaanite woman: unresponsive, distant, and even harsh. We might want something from him that appears to be simple, straightforward and like something he would obviously want to do for us. And yet, sometimes he doesn’t seem to respond at all, and at other times he appears to respond with a harsh or callous answer. When this happens, I want us to remember this Canaanite woman. From Jesus’ response she learned and acknowledged her true position of dependency upon grace; and yet her faith led her to keep seeking Jesus, in spite of the disappointment with how he was initially.

I think it may help for us to remember that sometimes Jesus has a vision that is bigger than our vision, that he often wants to give us much more than the small things that we ask for. The Canaanite woman was not looking for saving faith. She wasn’t looking for eternal life, even though that was so much better than the temporary healing she sought for her daughter. However, because she persisted in faith, she received both things. Sometimes, the Lord appears distant, or even harsh, because he is trying to get our attention. Our focus is so often on present things that will not last, while He wants to give us something eternal. He’s trying to get our eyes off of our problems and onto himself.

Will you allow him to do that in your life today? Allow him to remind you of your desperate need, and the fact that you deserve nothing from him. Allow the Scripture to strengthen your faith however that even when we have no standing, the Lord is gracious, and his heart goes out to those who seek him in humility and repentance.

Hallesby is a source of rich application for this text. How many times have we stormed heaven with an unanswered prayer request, crying out again and again, in distress, because the Lord says not a word to us? How often the Lord’s response to our prayers seems delayed so long, or harsh when it comes. Yet, we see in the way he dealt with the Syro-phoenician woman that his intent is always to give us more than what we ask for. He desires not only that are needs are met, but that we live in greater and closer reliance on Him and His promises. He wants us to see that we have no other hope.

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

WHAT DO YOU GET WHEN YOU FOLLOW YOUR HEART?

wickedheart

Jesus says our hearts are full of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies and blasphemies.” Jeremiah calls the human heart “deceitful” and “desperately sick.”  If this is true, is it really a good idea to follow your heart?

All this is pointing towards one important thing. Jesus doesn’t say in these verses, but I read ahead, and it says that Jesus came to give us new hearts.

 

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 48

 

 

Matthew #48 . Matthew 15:1-20

Thanks for making use of Clear Bible. Messages like this one, about what Jesus has done for our hearts, are so very important for many people. This is why we deeply appreciate your prayers. We believe that prayer is the cutting edge of this ministry, that prayer is where it all begins. So we ask you to consider praying for us regularly. Your prayers help in preparing, preaching and promoting these messages.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ. Pray for Tom’s family and for his local church, New Joy Fellowship. Ask the Lord to keep them close to Him and each other. Pray for protection from evil, and for safety.

Please also pray for our finances. We operate week-to-week with this ministry. That is absolutely fine – the Lord has always provided; but we believe that your prayers are an important part of that provision. We value your prayers even more than your financial giving, because we believe that asking God for what we need is more effective than asking only people. So we’d love it if you would ask God to provide for us.

If, as you pray, the Lord leads you to give us a financial gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank you again for your prayers, and your support!

~

Now to the text. In order to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 15, we need to remember a few things about the Jewish religion at the time of Jesus. Let’s start by comparing it to Christianity. Properly speaking, Christianity is based upon understanding and applying the Bible to daily life. Many traditions have grown up during the history of Christianity, but these traditions do not carry the same sort of authority that Christians claim for the Bible alone. For instance, many Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. This can be a meaningful way for believers to reconnect with the need to live in humility and repentance. However, Ash Wednesday and Lent are entirely optional for true Christians; one can observe them and be a good Christian, or one can ignore them and still be a good Christian. This is because Ash Wednesday and Lent are neither commanded nor taught by the Bible. If they help us in following Jesus, that’s great, on the other hand, it is not necessary to observe them.

What is necessary for followers of Jesus is to learn what the Bible says and to learn how to apply it to our daily lives. So for instance, it says in Hebrews chapter 10

Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:22-25, ESV2011)

This teaches us to hold on to the truth we have learned about Jesus, and to continue to meet regularly with other believers for worship and encouragement. Reasonable interpretation leads us to conclude that it is talking about regular involvement in a church community. This is a passage directly from the New Testament, and it is something that all Christians should practice, and most Christians agree that according to the Bible we should be regularly involved in some sort of Christian church.

You see the difference? Ash Wednesday and Lent are traditions that may or may not be useful. They are optional. Regular meeting together with other Christians for the purpose of encouraging and equipping each other in faith is not a tradition, but a biblical command. Churches have not always been completely successful in distinguishing traditions from essential biblical teaching, but officially speaking, true Christianity is based upon Scripture alone.

The Jews in the days of Jesus were little bit different. Jews, of course, share common Scriptures with Christians: the Old Testament. But even by the time of Jesus, Jewish religion involved more than simply understanding and applying the Old Testament. Over time, various Jewish teachers had taught and written about different Old Testament texts, and various traditions had developed. In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees insisted that these traditions were just as important as the Old Testament itself.

So, when some Pharisees came from Jerusalem to see Jesus, they notice that he is not observing all of the traditions taught by rabbis. In this particular instance, they see that Jesus does not engage in the ceremonial hand washing that most Jews thought was proper.

It would be a little bit like someone coming to me and saying, “How can you call yourself a Christian? You don’t even celebrate Lent!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Lent. It can be a very useful season for entering into true repentance and humility. In the same way, I don’t think Jesus was completely against ceremonial hand washing. But what did bother him was the fact that the Jews found such things more important than the essential truths of Scripture, and in fact, had replaced scripture with traditions.

To go back to our Lent analogy, it would be as if there were some people who felt like if you went to Ash Wednesday service and got smeared with ashes, and then avoided meat on Fridays, that’s all you had to do to be truly repentant and humble. You could act and think arrogantly, you could continue in a pattern of willful and deliberate sin, but as long as you observed Ash Wednesday and Lent, you were all good. That was more or less the attitude of the Pharisees – if you dipped your fingers in water in the proper ceremonial fashion, then it didn’t matter what happened in your heart. You were clean.

So, essentially, these Pharisees, who came from Jerusalem to check out Jesus, said, “Look, you and your disciples are not following the traditions, therefore you are not spiritually clean.”

One very important thing that we get from Jesus’ response is the understanding that the Bible trumps our own desires, as well as tradition. The Pharisees had a way of twisting biblical texts. Jesus points this out in the example of “honor your father and mother.” The Pharisees had found a “greater principle” in Scripture, namely, honoring God. And so they created a tradition that said if you are “honoring God,” you do not have to honor your father and mother. Jesus calls them hypocrites, whose hearts were far from God.

I think that this is very important for Christians today, because we have modern-day Pharisees who do the same thing, albeit with different topics. For instance, there are people who teach that the overall point of Jesus’ message was to love one another. Therefore, they say, you can do whatever you like in terms of sexual activity, as long as you are acting in a loving manner. In fact, some of these folks would say that anyone like me, (and also Jesus, truth be told) who repeats what the Bible says, that sex outside of marriage is a sin, is not acting in a loving manner, and therefore we are the ones who are sinning. In the same way as the Pharisees, these people are completely distorting the message of Scripture. They have replaced what the Scripture actually says with their own tradition, and their own desire. Jesus’ rebuke falls upon them just as surely as it did the Pharisees.

Jesus said something very important to his disciples:

But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” (Matt 15:18-20, HCSB)

Part of my responsibility as a teacher of the bible is to point out and rebuke errors and false teachings. This is more important than ever in these days of the Internet when all kinds of false ideas about Jesus and his teachings are easily spread. I have read some theologians who use this verse to say that your external behavior does not matter – all that matters is what is in your heart. In other words, for example, you can commit sexual immorality as long as your heart is pure (!). You can lie or steal, as long as you do it for the right reason. They do not say it, but if they are right, it also means that you could commit murder without sinning, as long as you were not angry or hateful about it. But clearly, that is not what Jesus means here. Jesus is saying that the heart is the source of sinful actions, and fixing the outside won’t fix the heart. His point is not that external things do not matter; it is that external things come from the heart, and to deal with them we have to address the heart.

This may be surprising to some people. One of the persistent messages in our culture is “follow your heart.” I love how Rich Mullins captured this in a song:

They said boy you just follow your heart; But my heart just led me into my chest;

They said follow your nose, But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head.

And they said boy you just follow your dreams, But my dreams were only misty notions.

But the Father of hearts and the Maker of noses And the Giver of dreams He’s the one I have chosen

And I will follow Him.– Rich Mullins, “The Maker of Noses”

Jesus says here that your heart is the source of all kinds of sin; it is the center of your separation from God. Jeremiah wrote:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? ​

“I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jer 17:9-10, ESV2011)

If your heart is deceitful and desperately sick, is it really a good idea to follow it? If our hearts are full of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies and blasphemies,” then maybe we should not simply “follow our hearts.”

All this is pointing towards one important thing. Jesus doesn’t say in these verses, but I read ahead, and it says that Jesus came to give us new hearts. We can’t fix our hearts by washing our hands, like the Pharisees. We can’t fix our hearts by attending Ash Wednesday services, or giving up meat for Lent. We can’t make sin go away by creating new traditions that change what the Scripture says in order to make it easier on us. Not even open-heart surgery can help us – we need an entirely new heart – a transplant. Jesus came to kill our sinful hearts, to bury them. And in that same transaction, he replaces those old sin-filled hearts with new, redeemed, holy ones.

But it all starts with the understanding and acceptance that our old hearts are indeed filled with the things that Jesus says they are filled with, here in this passage. Without the work of Jesus, our hearts are full of sin; our hearts are the problem, they are deceitful and desperately sick. I can’t follow my heart, and I can’t even reform it. Instead, I have to let Jesus kill it.

Once we let Jesus crucify our old hearts, he replaces them with new ones, hearts like his. That heart trusts the Father, and obeys. With that heart, I can follow not myself, but Jesus.

For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over Him. For in light of the fact that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in light of the fact that He lives, He lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:6-11, HCSB)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come. (2Cor 5:17, HCSB)

True purity starts in the heart. External behavior is important, but it starts with a new heart. There are several places to go with this. First, have you agreed with God that your natural heart is full of deceit, wickedness and rebellion against God? If not, that is where to begin. Next, have you asked Jesus to take that old heart and crucify it along with him? That’s the next step. Third, we need to agree with Jesus that we need a new heart, and receive the one he gives us. And with that new heart, we can (and should) trust the Lord, listen to him, and follow him.

Maybe you’ve been through the whole transaction with Jesus, but you feel like you are still full of sin and evil. To pursue the analogy, after we get our new hearts, we still have some blood left in our veins that is used to doing what the old heart wanted to do. Our bodies and minds are still sometimes influenced by the way we were with that old, wicked heart. We still sometimes fail to trust and obey. But our sins and failings are no longer central to who we are. We don’t have to live like that anymore. It is no longer who you are.

The bottom line? Jesus Christ came to clean us from the inside out. Actually, not just to clean, but to replace what was wrong. To receive it, we simply need to trust him, to believe it is true. Sometimes we have to believe in spite of what seems to be evidence to the contrary. In such cases, we make a deliberate choice to trust God’s word over our own experience. Over time, we will act more and more in accordance with what we believe.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.

Good and Evil grow together in the Real world

 

wheatandweeds

We should be comforted by these words, knowing that it is okay to be honestly ignorant, and to ask Jesus for help understanding. We should be blessed in knowing that our real life experience of seeing good and evil jumbled together is normal. We should rejoice in the word promises that through Jesus we are made righteous and shall shine like the sun in our Father’s kingdom.

 

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Matthew #43 . Matthew 13;24-58

24 He presented another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while people were sleeping, his enemy came, sowed weeds among the wheat, and left. 26 When the plants sprouted and produced grain, then the weeds also appeared. 27 The landowner’s slaves came to him and said, ‘Master, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then where did the weeds come from? ’

28 “ ‘An enemy did this! ’ he told them.

“ ‘So, do you want us to go and gather them up? ’ the slaves asked him.

29 “ ‘No,’ he said. ‘When you gather up the weeds, you might also uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At harvest time I’ll tell the reapers: Gather the weeds first and tie them in bundles to burn them, but store the wheat in my barn.’ ”

At the beginning of Matthew 13, Jesus told a somewhat long parable, and then there is some discussion of why he spoke in parables, and after that, the parable is explained. This next section, Matthew 13:24-43 is similar in structure. Jesus tells one long parable and then two short ones, and then Matthew describes his manner of teaching as a fulfilment of prophecy. After that, the long parable is explained to the disciples. I’m not sure why Matthew took that approach, but obviously he did.

In fact there is something interesting about the entire section of Matthew 13:24-58. There are six parables in total in this passage. Two of them (the wheat and weeds, and the fishing net) appear to be about the idea that the visible kingdom of heaven here on earth is flawed; it contains many individuals who do not truly belong to God.

There is another set of two parables which seem to be related to each other. The illustration of the mustard seed, and also the story of the yeast seem to be about the same theme, which is that the kingdom of heaven starts small and often works secretly and unnoticed.

Finally a third pair of parables describes a third thing: the idea of the extreme value of the kingdom of God, and of sacrificing much in order to gain it.

Let’s begin with the first theme, as expressed in the parable of the wheat and weeds, and reiterated in the parable of the fishing net. Before we jump into this, I want us to notice something. Matthew has told us in several different ways in this chapter that Jesus spoke in parables because the people were hardhearted and did not want to understand. It could be that the parables were a way to keep them from understanding; but it might also be that he spoke in parables in order to try and help them see things from a different perspective so that they might become receptive to him. I know that some people in our groups were concerned about this, wondering if perhaps they themselves didn’t understand. But pay close attention to the disciples in verse 36. They didn’t understand. So what did they do? They asked Jesus. And Jesus was happy to explain it to them. The fact that we follow Jesus does not mean that we automatically understand everything he teaches. We are not in trouble if we don’t. I think we should be encouraged by the disciples here to admit it when we don’t get it, and to go to Jesus seeking wisdom. The only problem with lack of comprehension is when it occurs because our hearts are spiritually hardened against the Holy Spirit. In other words, some people don’t understand because, frankly, they don’t care. Their lack of understanding is a symptom of spiritual insensitivity. But there is another kind of ignorance, and that is an honest lack of comprehension. The Lord delights to help us when we come to him admitting our need for wisdom and instruction:

The LORD is good and upright; therefore He shows sinners the way. He leads the humble in what is right and teaches them His way. (Ps 25:8-9, HCSB)

Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him. (Jas 1:5, HCSB)

So the disciples asked Jesus about the meaning of the story of the wheat and weeds.

37 He replied: “The One who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world; and the good seed — these are the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. 40 Therefore, just as the weeds are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Anyone who has ears should listen!

I find this parable tremendously comforting because it affirms my experience of being a Christian, and of being part of the kingdom of God on earth. In the real world, good and bad are often all jumbled together. Let me share a few examples:

  • In these days, there are famous television preachers who are clearly preaching things that are biblically incorrect. It is almost certain that they are leading some people astray; and yet at the same time it is almost certain that the Lord is using their ministries to bring some people closer to himself.
  • I personally know someone who has been used by the Lord to bring actual, physical healing to others; yet he also believes that he should be a preacher, and he preaches things that I would call heresy.
  • Kari and I have friends who were led to Jesus by a group that those same friends would now call a cult. Our friends affirm that this group is a cult, and they reject their cultish beliefs; but they also affirm that they were led to Jesus by those people.

It is obvious that there are many good people who call themselves Christians; it is equally obvious that there are many bad people who call themselves Christians. Our churches are full of both kinds.

In this parable, Jesus describes exactly this type of world, the real world that we encounter every day. Good and evil are growing together, sometimes even found in the same groups, the same individuals.

When we encounter this sort of thing, many times our reaction is to try and do something about it. Jesus included this idea in the parable: the servants wanted to uproot the weeds right away. I find myself often with the same attitude. But the master tells the servants: “No. You might destroy the good plants with the weeds. Instead, let them grow together until harvest, and the reapers will sort it out then.”

I think it is important for Christians to understand the difference between good and evil. The rest of the New Testament clearly affirms the idea that we should distinguish between false teaching and the true word of God.

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock that the Holy Spirit has appointed you to as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. And men will rise up from your own number with deviant doctrines to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. (Acts 20:28-31, HCSB)

To Timothy, my true son in the faith. Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach different doctrine or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith. Now the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. (1Tim 1:2-5, HCSB)

Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who lives in us, that good thing entrusted to you. (2Tim 1:13-14, HCSB)

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth. (2Tim 2:15, HCSB)

I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom: Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2Tim 4:1-4, HCSB)

But in another sense, it is not our job to sort it all out here and now. For instance, I think it is good and proper for me to point out the errors of what we call the “prosperity gospel.” It is part of my job as a teaching elder to keep those under my care from being led astray. But it is not my job to stop the prosperity preachers. I don’t know what to make of some their ministries. I suspect that it will go hard with them when Jesus returns. But I don’t have to sort it all out – that is the Lord’s job, on the last day.

I want to make a few more points, some of which are reiterated by the parable of the fish in the net:

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a large net thrown into the sea. It collected every kind of fish, 48 and when it was full, they dragged it ashore, sat down, and gathered the good fish into containers, but threw out the worthless ones. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out, separate the evil people from the righteous, 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Both the parable of the net, and of the wheat and weeds describe a situation where good is mixed with evil until the end of time. But they both clearly also describe an “end time” when good will be separated from evil, and evil will be entirely destroyed, while good is preserved forever. This is important in several ways:

First, there are many people, some even claiming to be Christians, who say that there is no such place as hell, and all people go to heaven. However, clearly, Jesus did not think that was true. He teaches us right here that there will be a time when evil, and evil people, will be punished and cast away from his presence forever. You cannot claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, and that same time, believe that all people go to heaven. For many, this is one of the big negatives about Christianity. I understand why people think this is negative. But you might just as well say that falling is one of the big negatives about gravity. It is what it is. And if gravity were different, we wouldn’t exist. In the same way, the spiritual universe has absolute truths, and if they were different, we couldn’t exist.

Second, there is a positive side to the punishment of wickedness and evil. Most people can still recognize some things as evil. Beheading innocent women, children and men is evil. Making girls, boys and young women into sex-slaves is evil. Rape is evil. At least our culture still agrees with those statements. So do we want those kinds of evil to take place with no justice? What kind of universe would it be if the strong can do these things to the weak with no accountability, ever? Jesus, through these stories, tells us that there is justice. Evil cannot have its way forever. There will be accountability.

I do not want to close without pointing out the grace inherent in these things. We may be thinking, “well, yes, I can see that punishment for the wicked is a good thing, but what if that means me?” It does mean you. It means me, also. But it doesn’t have to. Jesus came precisely to save us from ourselves, from the eternal separation from God that we deserve because of our sins. Hear the end of Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and weeds:

Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Anyone who has ears should listen!

I know I’m not righteous. I know you aren’t, either. But Jesus is! And Jesus offers us his own righteousness. That’s one of the amazing things he accomplished in his death and resurrection. Our wickedness and evil were punished, and we were given his righteousness. If we simply trust that he has done this for us, we have the righteousness of Jesus. In this parable, those of us who trust Jesus are “the righteous.” We will shine like the sun in our Father’s kingdom. Jesus meant this to be a comfort to his disciples, and we are his disciples if we trust him and allow him to be ruler of our lives.

We should be comforted by these words, knowing that it is okay to be honestly ignorant, and to ask Jesus for help understanding. We should be blessed in knowing that our real life experience of seeing good and evil jumbled together is normal. We should rejoice in the word promises the righteous – those who trust and surrender to Jesus – shall shine like the sun in our Father’s kingdom.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

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USING THE NEW YEAR

newyear

 

These witnesses who have gone before us have experienced everything this life has to throw at them. They have lost loved ones to war, natural disaster, distance and sickness. They’ve been strangers in a strange land, they’ve had rebellious children and tragic love affairs and trouble at work. In all these things, they are witnesses to God’s grace and faithfulness.

 

 

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New Year’s Eve 2014

Hebrews 12:1-2

In certain parts of the world, they use a very unique method to catch monkeys. The hunters will create a sturdy container with a narrow opening. The opening is just big enough for a monkey to fit its hand through. Inside the container, the hunters and trappers put many nuts of the varieties that monkeys enjoy. Then they fasten these containers securely to trees in the jungle. The monkeys smell the nuts and come to the containers. They put their hands in the containers to get the nuts. But when they are holding on to the nuts, the hands of the monkeys are in a larger, fist shape, and they can’t withdraw the hand from the container. In order to get its hand out, the monkey must drop the nuts, leaving them in the container, and then withdraw its hand, without any nuts. The amazing thing is, most monkeys won’t drop the nuts. They’ll sit there, holding the nuts, and because of that, stuck in the container which is fastened to the tree. They will continue holding the nuts, even when the hunters return to capture them. To get away, all they would have to do is let go of the nuts and run, but they rarely do.

As we consider what has transpired this past year, and look toward the future, ask yourself this questions: “what are the ‘nuts’ that I’m holding on to?” I am not referring here to your family. What I mean is this: As you face the new year, what are you holding on to that keeps you from going where God wants you? I don’t mean necessarily that God wants you to move physically. But is there some step he wants you take or some relationship he wants you to heal? Is there something that you know you should do, but other things get in the way? Is there a change he would like to make in your life, but you can’t let him because you’re holding on to something else?

Hebrews 12:1-2 is a great passage of scripture, especially for New Year’s Eve. Please turn to it and keep it handy while you read these notes. One reason this passage is so appropriate to New Year’s is because it is a point at which the writer completes the process of looking at the past, and then directs our attention to the present and the future. In Hebrews chapter 11, the author of the book has us consider the lives and events of many of the Biblical heroes of faith. He writes about Noah; Abraham and Sarah; Isaac; Jacob; Joseph; Moses’ parents and Moses himself; Rahab; Gideon; Barak; Samson and many more. All those people lived in the past and experienced joy and suffering, victory and defeat. But they all faced their circumstances with faith in God and in his promises.

Now, the writer says this:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Let’s break this down piece by piece. First, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I think this means essentially two things. It means, for one thing, that those who have gone before us have confirmed and established the truth of what we believe. Their lives were used by God to prove that He is reliable, and that his promises and actions in this world are real. We’re aren’t out here making up a new religion. We aren’t crazy people. What we believe has been proved over and over again in the lives of those who have gone before us. Also, what we have faced in the past and what we will face in the future has been experienced before us by those who trust the Lord – and the Lord proved himself faithful. The text says, in chapter eleven:

Some men were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection, and others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. (Heb 11:35-38, HCSB)

These witnesses who have gone before us have experienced everything this life has to throw at them. They have lost loved ones to war, natural disaster, distance and sickness. They’ve been strangers in a strange land, they’ve had rebellious children and tragic love affairs and trouble at work. In all these things, they are witnesses to God’s grace and faithfulness.

The second thing about this great cloud of witnesses, is that we aren’t alone in our “race.” I don’t mean that the saints who have gone before, pray for us or give us help.[1] There is only one person who intercedes on our behalf – and that is God himself as the Son and as the Holy Spirit (1 Timothy 2:5; Romans 8:26-27). But there is a sense given by this passage that these faithful people who have gone before are also there, cheering us on, so to speak. Certainly they cheer us on and inspire us by the examples that their lives were.

Now we come to the nuts in the jar. We are told to “throw off everything that hinders.” Something that often goes unrecognized is that many times, good things can hinder us from what is best and most important. Satisfying work that pays well is a good thing. And yet millions of people allow this good thing (that is, a job/career) to hinder them from effectively following Jesus. Many folks put in hours they don’t need to, to make money that they don’t really need, to buy things that they don’t really need. Many people dedicate their lives to the pursuit of career and fortune. Family – and even following Jesus — become things that have only the bits of time which are left over.

I’ve known people who don’t have a problem letting their careers control them, but other good things get in the way. I knew a couple once that went to so many church conferences and special events that they didn’t have time to plug into any Christian community. They didn’t develop real relationships with other Christians, or become humbly vulnerable and when they began to struggle in their marriage there was no one to help.

I’ve known pastors who spend so much time trying to help their denomination or association that they neglect their own church. Sometimes something is as simple as television. It’s not inherently evil, but if you don’t control it, TV can hinder you as you seek to follow Jesus. The same is true of computer games, or facebook, or any one of a thousand things you might do on the internet. What good or neutral things might be hindering you right now? Now, use your common sense here. It is not legitimate to say, “My marriage is hindering me, so I’ll get a divorce.” We know from other scripture passages that to God there is only one acceptable reason for divorce, and even then, it may not have to occur. Likewise this is not necessarily an excuse to quit working altogether, or to evade your responsibilities.

We are also told to get rid of “the sin that so easily entangles.” These are bad things. Things like drunkenness or adultery or rage or bitterness or un-forgiveness or addiction. Usually they’re pretty obvious. Don’t waste time lying to yourself here. Is there a sin that keeps recurring in your life? Are you addicted to the computer, or porn, or alcohol or pain killers or anything?

The writer of Hebrews tells us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” That seems to indicate that it is a somewhat long race and it will require a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness to finish it. It isn’t a sprint – it’s a marathon. It means we need to pace ourselves, be patient and stay with it. By inspiring the writer to describe the life of faith as a race, I think the Holy Spirit had something in mind. Our Christian life has a definite beginning, standards for qualifying, and a definite goal in mind, with a prize and rest at the end. We aren’t wandering aimlessly through life. We are moving toward a goal, a finish line, and a reward awaits us.

Now, how are we do get rid of what hinders, and get rid of sin and then run the race well? By fixing our eyes on Jesus. How did you forget your High School algebra? Not by saying “whatever happens, I will not remember that x+y=a.” You also didn’t go around thinking “x+y=rabbit.” No, you forgot it because you quit using it, and your mind became occupied with other things. That’s kind of the idea of fixing our eyes on Jesus. Don’t concentrate on not sinning – focus instead on Jesus. Don’t fixate on what might be hindering you. Instead, whole-heartedly pursue a closer relationship with Jesus. Don’t get caught up by other things – get caught up by Jesus.

Another thing that helps us as we focus on Jesus is to realize that he has already endured and gone through this life. He knew he would have some trials and struggles that probably none of us will ever have. But his focus was on the end. I don’t know what 2015 will bring for us. It may be a good year. It may not be. But I do know what the end will bring for us.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!

Do you want to lose weight next year? Get rich? Learn to play the banjo? My prayer for you is that you first submit that goal or desire to the Lord. And then, leaving that in his hands, make only one resolution: to simply fix your eyes on Jesus, to endure whatever may come for the sake of the joy that awaits us. Happy New Year!

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

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New Joy Fellowship

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Thank for your prayers, and your support!


[1] This is one of the verses the Roman Catholic Church uses to suggest that we should ask the saints to pray for us.