Though we modern people laugh at the idea of worshipping a statue, we often have idols in our lives without knowing about it. Sometimes we think, “If I only had [fill in this space] then I know everything would be fine.” Or, when we are in trouble, we run to [fill in this space] for comfort. Anything in which we place our hope (other than God) is an idol. Anything we feel we must have (other than God) is an idol. Anything we look to in crisis (other than God) is an idol. One of the messages of Jonah is that idols will always fail us, and our only true hope must be in God alone.

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 Jonah Part

Jonah #2.  Jonah 1:1-17

Last time in the book of Jonah we learned a bit about Jonah, and what motivated him to run away when God told him to go to the capital city of Israel’s enemies.

At that point in history, like every time in history, people had certain assumptions about religious things. In those days, each nation or people-group worshipped their own gods. So the Ammonites worshipped Molech, and the Canaanites bowed to Baal, and the Philistines had a god called Dagon. Everyone assumed that there were many gods, and they assumed also that each god was in charge of certain people, and not others. In other words, the Ammonites would have utterly rejected the idea that they should worship Dagon, because Dagon was the god of the Philistines, not the Ammonites.

When nations fought one another, most people also thought of it as also a contest between the gods of the two peoples. So if the Ammonites fought the Canaanites and won, they would take this to mean that Molech was stronger than Baal, at least on that occasion. To put it another way, they believed in territorial gods.

If we are to understand the book of Jonah, it is very important for us to realize that this was how almost everyone in the world thought. No one even argued about it – they thought that this was obviously the way things were. People believed in territorial gods in those days the same way we believe that the world is a sphere. Almost no one has actually been far enough into space to actually see that the world is spherical (fewer than 600, out of almost 8 billion people). But we trust that scientists have discovered it. We take it for granted. So too, in Jonah’s time, they took for granted the existence of territorial gods.

However, from the beginning, the God of the Bible insisted that He was the only actual God, and that his God-ship was over the entire world, not just the Israelites. This was the official doctrinal position of the people of Israel. Even so, the people of Israel were deeply affected by the cultures that surrounded them. To believe in just one god felt a little silly. It was like being the only people today who believe the world is flat. So, although officially they believed God was the God of the entire earth, practically speaking, what they really felt was something more like this: “Our God is the best god of them all.” Again, they did know what they were supposed to believe: that God is the only God. But the history recorded in the Bible shows that again and again, they failed to act like that is what they believed.

Jonah is a perfect example. As a prophet, of course he knew the right doctrine. God is the only God in the universe. Even so, when push came to shove, he acted on his real belief. Deep in his heart, he wondered, maybe if he ran far enough, he might be able to get out of God’s “territory.”

Remember, in verse 1,God said, “Get up,” and Jonah started “getting down.” He went down from the mountains to the sea, and then down onto a ship, and then down into the deeper parts of the ship. He was clearly trying to hide from God. The ship left port with Jonah sleeping in the lowest part of the vessel.

Have you ever wondered why God waited until Jonah was on the ship and out at sea to try and stop him? If God could send a horrific storm onto the ship at sea, certainly he could have stopped Jonah in some way before he even reached the coast. So, why wait?

For reasons we shall soon see, God did indeed wait until the ship was far from land to send a storm. It was one that threatened to destroy the ship. The text says:

 “The sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his god. They threw the ship’s cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down to the lowest part of the vessel and had stretched out and fallen into a deep sleep (Jonah 1:5, CSB).”

“Each cried out to his god.” This is an important detail. Only someone from that time in history would write that without explaining further. But, as I detailed earlier, everyone took it for granted that each nation had its own god. Also, this has another subtle ring of truth. Throughout history, sailors have tended to be an international bunch, with each ship employing mariners from various nations. Even today, on any given cargo ship you will find people from several different countries. So, the book of Jonah also takes it for granted that the sailors would be from several different nations, having several different gods. If someone was making up the story of Jonah, this detail would probably have been overlooked.

The sailors started throwing cargo overboard. This means that the ship was in danger of sinking, and they were trying to lighten the load. Since their cargo was the basis for how they got paid, the sailors would not have done this unless they were in extreme danger. Next, the crosshairs line up on Jonah:

6 The captain approached him and said, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up! Call to your god. Maybe this god will consider us, and we won’t perish.”
7 “Come on!” the sailors said to each other. “Let’s cast lots. Then we’ll know who is to blame for this trouble we’re in.” So they cast lots, and the lot singled out Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we’re in. What is your business, and where are you from? What is your country, and what people are you from?” Jonah 1:6-8

The captain found Jonah belowdecks, sleeping. He woke him and urged Jonah to add his God to the list of those receiving petitions for help. In the meantime, the sailors decided that the storm must be supernatural. They cast lots to determine who was at fault. Casting lots was a bit like drawing straws, throwing dice, or flipping a coin. Basically, they would ask a question, and then, in essence, throw special dice to determine the answer. In our “scientific” viewpoint today, the answer should be determined by pure chance. But the people then believed that the gods would determine what happened when they cast lots. In either case, what happened is that that the lot pointed to Jonah.

Once Jonah was identified as the problem, they started questioning him closely. They didn’t start out assuming that he himself was the problem, only that he knew what the issue was. Notice that the questions about where he is from were connected to which God he worships.

9 He answered them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the LORD, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 Then the men were seized by a great fear and said to him, “What have you done?” The men knew he was fleeing from the LORD’s presence because he had told them. 11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you so that the sea will calm down for us?” For the sea was getting worse and worse. Jonah 1:9-11

Jonah’s answer would have been stunning to the sailors. Many of them had never heard of such a thing as a God of everything. Yet, that is what Jonah meant: God was in charge in the heavens, which were, at the moment, blasting them with a great storm. He was in charge of the sea, which was endangering their lives more and more while they shouted at one another through the raging wind. He was in charge of the dry land, which was the place of safety they all wanted to reach. I can see the sailors saying to Jonah: “You mean, there’s a God who is in charge of the atmosphere, the sea and the land – in other words, everything? And you’re telling me that you have provoked that God to anger? Are you nuts? What have you gotten us into?!”

It’s interesting to note that Jonah’s experience has now become aligned with his official theology. Before, though he technically believed God was the ruler of all things, practically speaking, he thought maybe that was a stretch. The Israelites had never, since before Abraham, been involved much with the sea. Jonah probably thought, “In our history, I never hear about God at work out in the ocean. Chances are, if I get out to sea, I’ll be out of his territory.” But now he is realizing, in a very concrete way, that God is indeed Lord of all things.

12 He answered them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea so that it will calm down for you, for I know that I’m to blame for this great storm that is against you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they couldn’t because the sea was raging against them more and more.
14 So they called out to the LORD, “Please, LORD, don’t let us perish because of this man’s life, and don’t charge us with innocent blood! For you, LORD, have done just as you pleased.” 15 Then they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 The men were seized by great fear of the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
17 The LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 1:11-17

Another reason I think it would be wrong to read the book of Jonah as if it was a parable or allegory is because Jonah is clearly portrayed like a real human being. In some moments, he is a coward, running from God, rather than losing his standing as a hero in his own country. Later on, we’ll see him act like a spoiled child. But here, he has a moment of heroism. Jonah is a complex person, as most real people are. Once he realizes his mistake, he faces the consequences of his actions with true courage – at least this time. He could have lied to the sailors about what was going on between him and the Lord. He could have threatened to them that God would be even more angry if they threw him overboard (which they were inclined to think anyway). Instead, he calmly accepts the blame, and tells them that they must throw him into the raging sea.

The sailors decide to try and make it back to land, rather than do what Jonah says. Before we think too highly of them, verse 14 makes it obvious that at least part of their motivation is that they didn’t want to make God even angrier. Even so, they can’t get to safety. So, with a prayer to God, trying to exonerate themselves, they throw Jonah overboard. Very shortly after, the waves become calm and the wind dies down.

Now we get the next lesson from the book of Jonah: God is indeed Lord of all things, and he desires that all people, not just the Israelites, know who he is, and come into right relationship with himself. The result of the storm and then the calm is that the sailors recognize the God of Israel as the God of all things, and they begin to worship him.

Meanwhile, Jonah is swallowed by a fish. It does say “fish,” not whale. On the other hand, ancient Hebrew had no word for “whale,” so who really knows? The main fact is this: the Lord was the one who directed the fish to be there, and to save Jonah. Now, obviously this was a miracle. The text does not present it as something that happens to people from time to time. The whole incident was arranged and carried out by God’s intervention. If someone were to say: “No one can survive being swallowed by a fish or whale,” I would agree entirely. The only reason Jonah survived is because God superseded the normal laws of nature to make it happen. That is what a miracle is.

In fact, the entire first chapter of Jonah is presenting one major theme: God is in control of everything that happens. That is why he let Jonah get out to sea before stopping him. By allowing Jonah to get to sea, God could show that he can control the weather, the outcome of throwing a pair of dice (casting lots), the movements of living creatures, and the very laws of nature. There is nothing that is outside of God’s control.

I think we have enough to begin to apply to our own lives right now. When we read about the people having different gods, and turning to those “gods” for help, we might be inclined to laugh at them, and consider them ignorant and foolish. But the truth is, people still have many gods today; it is just that they don’t call them “gods” anymore.

Think about the following questions:

“If only I could have _______, then I know everything will be fine.”

“If only [some set of circumstances] were true, I could be at peace.”

“If I could just achieve ____________, then everything would be all right.”

For instance, you might think like this: “If only I had a million dollars in investments returning 10% income, then everything would be fine.”

Or, “If only my daughter married the right kind of man, I could be at peace.”

Or, “If only I could own my own business, then I wouldn’t worry.”

Anything that we put in those “blanks,” other than God, is a false god. Anything that we think of as ultimately good; any person, thing or achievement that we would give up anything that was asked of us in order to have, is a god to us. The message of Jonah is that all such gods are false. There is only one true God, and even if you somehow manage to get that thing or situation you think you need, it won’t save you when the big storm comes. So, what are the false gods that tempt you? Use the “fill in the blank” questions above to think about that.

Second, Jonah was learning that God really is in control of everything. God sent the storm. Nowadays, now that we know how complex weather patterns truly are, it is even more amazing to realize that God sent that storm to that place, and ended it right after Jonah was tossed overboard. His power is truly awesome and incredible.

Yet today, this is a lesson we often forget. On Wednesday, August 19th 2009, at 2:00pm, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA, which is not really evangelical, or Lutheran…) was voting to overturn a historic Christian, Biblical understanding of human sexuality. At that exact time, a tornado ripped through downtown Minneapolis, where they were meeting. Their main meeting place was across the street from Central Lutheran Church, a large ELCA congregation, playing host to the conference. The metal cross on top of the church steeple was wrenched downwards by the wind. You can see a picture of it here:

Now for a loaded question: Did God do that? According to the book of Jonah, we ought to say yes. He is God of sky, wind, earth and sea. Nothing happens that he does not allow. Yet most of the ELCA conference members scoffed at the idea that God sent the storm. No wonder they did not have enough faith to trust what the Bible says about human sexuality.

This doctrine, sometimes called “The Providence and Sovereignty of God,” comes from more places in the bible than just the book of Jonah. It can be difficult to think that God is in control of everything when much of what happens appears to be terrible, tragic, and evil. There is room for complexity here. The biggest thing to realize is that we can’t understand how it all works. We will never truly be able to comprehend how God can be good, and yet allow some terrible things. However, God is not asking us to understand it all, but rather to trust him, and trust that He is in control, even when it doesn’t look like it.

Spend a few moments during the next day or two, asking God where he would like you to give up your need to understand, and instead, to trust him.

Remember Jonah had an “official belief” but practically speaking, he had embraced the belief system of everyone around him. Are there any areas where your Christian belief has given way to the sort of things everyone around believes?

Are there any “false gods” in your life that the Holy Spirit is bringing to your mind? If so, reject them in the name of Jesus, and turn to Him alone.



G.K. Chesterton writes about miracles that those who believe in them, do so because there is evidence for them, and those who reject miracles do so because they already have a belief against them. Jesus clearly knew that a miracle will never convince someone who demands it as proof.

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 40


Matthew #40 . Matthew 12:35-50

Remember that the overall theme of chapter twelve is Jesus’ growing conflict with the Pharisees. We’ve covered Jesus’ staggering claims that he is the “Son of Man” who has all authority, and also “Lord of Sabbath” which is a claim to Divinity, and we saw how this was unacceptable to the Pharisees. We considered how some of the Pharisees, by rejecting Jesus, committed to utterly rejecting the work of God’s Holy Spirit, putting themselves in a place where God could not help them. Matthew closes chapter twelve with three more thoughts centered in this conflict.

First, some of the Scribes and Pharisees said to him: “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

Presumably, these are some of the same people with whom Jesus has been speaking. What they are saying is, “Show us a miracle to prove that you have authority to say these things.”

At one level, this is a staggering request. The whole conflict came about first because Jesus healed the crippled hand of a man on the Sabbath. The present conversation was started because he delivered a man from a demon. Before Jesus did that, the man could not speak or see, and afterwards, he was perfectly normal. Matthew has recorded numerous miracles done by Jesus even before those things, and surely the Pharisees had heard of them. Now, it is barely possible that this particular group of Pharisees did not include anyone who had personally seen him do any of his miracles. In this case, their request is, “Do one for us, so that we can see it for ourselves and judge that you are from God.”

This demand for the “sign” was essentially the very same thing the devil had tempted Jesus to do in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2-3). They are saying, just as Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, prove it!” Satan tempted Jesus to prove it by making bread out of rocks and satisfying his hunger. Through the Pharisees, Satan is bringing the same type of temptation: “Prove it! Just do a miracle.” No wonder Jesus calls them “an evil and adulterous generation.” He recognized that they were doing the work of the devil.

Now, why couldn’t Jesus just prove it? I taught about this a little bit in our sermon series: Matthew #7 (Chapter 4:1-11). Remember, part of the sacrifice Jesus made was to set aside the use of his own divine power, and rely entirely upon the Father through the Holy Spirit. Jesus, in taking on human nature, committed himself to live in complete dependence upon the Father, even as we humans are called to live in dependence upon him. To live as a human, to fulfill his mission, he had to trust in the Father to take care of him. He had to trust in the Father to do his work through him when and where he wanted. The Pharisees said, “If you are Divine, you can easily show us.” But that would have ruined his mission. He would no longer be living, as we must, in complete dependence upon the Father. If the Father didn’t want to do a miracle right then and there, then Jesus chose to trust and obey him, rather than “prove” himself.

There is another thing. Jesus clearly knew that a miracle will never convince someone who demands it as proof. Luke records a parable that Jesus told about an unrighteous rich man, and a faithful poor man named Lazarus. After they die, the rich man finds himself in hell, and sees Lazarus sitting with Abraham in heaven. He calls across the void, pleading with Abraham to send the spirit of Lazarus back to earth to warn his family:

“ ‘Father,’ he said, ‘then I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house — because I have five brothers — to warn them, so they won’t also come to this place of torment.’

“But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

“ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said. ‘But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:27-31, HCSB)

Remember, when the New Testament says “Moses and the Prophets” or “The Law and the Prophets” what it means is “the bible.” The moral of this story is that if we do not believe the words of scripture, even a miracle will not be enough. This story of course is also a veiled reference to the fact that Jesus would die and come back from the dead, and even then, most of these Pharisees refused to believe it.

So, Jesus knows that even if he produced a miracle on demand, it wouldn’t be enough. The Pharisees have already convinced themselves that Jesus can’t be from God. They have already decided in their hearts, they have already ignored the scriptures about the Messiah. The truth is, anything can be explained away. G.K. Chesterton writes about miracles that those who believe in them, do so because there is evidence for them, and those who reject miracles do so because they already have a belief against them. This was certainly true of the Pharisees. They have rejected the testimony of those who saw Jesus heal and deliver others. They have rejected the testimony of the people themselves who said they were healed and delivered by Jesus. It is clear that even if Jesus were to perform a miracle in front of their faces, they would find a way to discount it. In fact, we know that Jesus healed the man with the crippled hand in front of some of the Pharisees, and obviously, they rejected it, saying it couldn’t be a miracle from God because it was done on the Sabbath.

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

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

The only reason not to believe her, is that you have already decided miracles do not happen. If that was the case, you might attribute good motives to your friend, but you would be ready with a host of alternative explanations for her healing.

It’s a simple fact: miracles won’t convince people who have already made up their minds.

Jesus does tell the Pharisees that they will get one sign/miracle: the sign of Jonah.

For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation; and look — something greater than Jonah is here! (Matt 12:40-41, HCSB)

This, of course, is a prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is the first time in Matthew that Jesus has overtly mentioned such a thing. In dependence upon the Father, Jesus can’t decide when and where to do a miracle – he waits for the Father to act. But the Father has shown him his mission: his coming death and resurrection. So that’s the only miracle Jesus can guarantee that they will get to witness. In fact, the resurrection is the main sign that Jesus has the authority to say the things he has been saying. Even so, the Father has revealed to Jesus that most of the Pharisees will reject that sign also.

Jesus continues by chastising the Pharisees and their generation. He calls them evil and adulterous. He says that the people of Nineveh, and the Queen of Sheba will stand in judgment on them on the last day. The point of that is that the people of Nineveh were particularly evil, yet when confronted with the preaching of Jonah they repented and were saved. The queen of the South (Sheba) was a pagan; but she sought the word of God from Solomon, repented and was saved. He is comparing his generation to those people, and pointing out that the main difference is that his generation has not repented. Then he tells a little parable, and basically suggests that they are like a man who was once possessed by a demon which left for a time, and then brought back more demons into the man’s life.

I think sometimes we would get so much more from the scripture when we just pause and think about it for bit, and ask the questions that arise for us. Here’s what strikes me: this is Jesus talking. Jesus is calling people evil and adulterous. He is saying they are going from bad to worse. He is saying they will be judged by previous generations who were considered evil, but repented.

We are inclined to think of Jesus as being loving, and never being judgmental or unkind, so what is going on here?

First, of course, often our idea of Jesus is not much like what the scripture actually tells us about him. We need to let the scripture correct that. Second, I think Jesus says these things because they are true. Third, he says them because it might possibly save a few of these people.

Think of a surgeon performing a heart procedure on a patient. If it is possible, doctors often try to fix blockages to the heart by running a tiny tube through the blood vessels of the patient. Using this method they can clear arteries and insert tiny “stents” which keep the blood vessels open and flowing properly. These types of procedures are best for most patients, because they are minimally invasive. Recovery time after such a procedure is relatively short. Imagine a surgeon doing this, and suddenly the patient goes into cardiac arrest. Nothing the surgical team tries is working. They will progress through a series of procedures that are more and more invasive and dangerous to the patient. The more the patient continues to fail, the more desperate and dangerous the interventions become. If necessary, they may have to cut open the patient’s chest and do open heart surgery. A surgeon may even have to reach in and massage the heart with his own hand.

These difficult and dangerous procedures are not usually recommended, but sometimes, it becomes the only chance the patient has for survival. It may be extreme, but it is done when hope is failing, when all measures are being used to try and save the dying patient.

I think that is exactly what is going on here. The Pharisees are in danger of rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit. A kind, gentle word is not sufficient to save them anymore. That “procedure” has become ineffective on them. Jesus speaks to them so harshly to try and get their attention, to warn them, to save them, if possible. Make no mistake, these harsh words are spoken in love, as Jesus tries everything possible to bring them back to repentance and faith.

Matthew adds a final incident here.

Someone told Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to You.”

We know that Jesus had a least two half-brothers: James, who became a leader in the early church and wrote the Epistle of James, and Jude, who wrote the second-last book of the New Testament, a short letter. Imagine being the younger brother of Jesus! Your teachers at school would never let you hear the end of it. Matthew doesn’t record why they wanted to see him. But Jesus takes the moment to teach those around him.

But He replied to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? ” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12:47-50, HCSB)

Jesus is putting into action his own words that the kingdom of God is even more important than family relationships. This is also a final word aimed at the Pharisees. True fellowship is found in doing the will of the Father. I want to point out here that in the Greek, Jesus does, in fact, says “sisters” as well as “brothers.” This would have been a bit surprising to the Jews. Jesus is including women as equals members of the kingdom of Heaven.

I have a tremendous spiritual heritage in my earthly family. The first Hilperts that we know about were French Huguenots, who stood up for their faith. They were persecuted for it, and lost land and home and all they owned, but they continued to remain faithful. They had to leave France, and flee to Germany. The next we know of them, the first Hilperts in America came as Lutheran missionaries. Since coming to America, the record is fairly well known, and every generation of my family has had at least one individual who served the Lord full time as a pastor or missionary.

My wife has none of this spiritual heritage in her family. She was the first in her family to follow Jesus. When she was in Bible school, she would meet missionary families like mine, and feel like she was some sort of second-class Christian.

But you know what? As much as I am grateful for the spiritual heritage of my family, it doesn’t do me any good unless I myself trust Jesus and obey. I don’t mean I have to be perfect at it. Jesus knew we weren’t perfect – he knew that’s why he was here on earth, to address our inability to perfectly do the will of the Father. But what he wants is for that to be our orientation, our direction. When we fall, we get back up, and continue in the direction of trust and obedience. In any case, my point is, I have to trust and obey for myself. I am not “born” into Christianity – I enter in faith and obedience, like everyone else. My wife Kari, with no spiritual ancestors, is just as much part of the family of God as I am. He welcomes us all on the same basis.

So, what do we do with all this?

I think the piece about miracles is worth considering. Do we demand that God act in order to satisfy us before we will trust him? Jesus had some harsh words for the Pharisees who were like that. Sometimes, this is a comfort to me. I think, “If only God would do ________, my friend would believe and trust!” But God doesn’t do it. However, this passage shows that my thinking isn’t necessarily right. Miracles do not always help a person in their relationship with God. I suppose it depends on the person and the situation, because clearly, Jesus continued to do miracles after this.

Speaking of Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees, I think it is far more difficult for us to judge when harsh words might be needed. Too often, we use harsh words because we are angry, not because it is the extreme act of love in trying to help someone turn back to the Lord. I think great caution is required here. We are not Jesus. It isn’t easy for us to tell when this approach is needed. But I do think it is important for us to understand that sometimes, telling the truth without sugar-coating it is necessary, and it might possibly lead someone to repentance and faith.

I think it’s also important for us to see Jesus’ harshness here for what it is: love, doing everything it possibly can to bring people into reconciliation with God.

Likewise, I love the picture of Jesus looking at his disciples and saying, “You are my family. You are my brothers and sisters. We’re bound more closely than family, because we all trust and obey the Father.”

Listen to what the Lord is saying to you today.

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Jesus’ miracles also show us spiritual truth; they tell us something about Jesus, and point the way toward eternal life. He offers the same miracle to us in our souls. He is not dismayed by your sin and your failings. He knows your ugliness, but it won’t stop him. He knows your sin.The holiness of Jesus is so powerful, and his sacrifice on the cross so profound, that when we invite him in, it doesn’t make him dirty – it makes us clean.


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Download Matthew Part 25

Matthew #25 . 8:1-4

When He came down from the mountain, large crowds followed Him. Right away a man with a serious skin disease came up and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Reaching out His hand He touched him, saying, “I am willing; be made clean.” Immediately his disease was healed. Then Jesus told him, “See that you don’t tell anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed, as a testimony to them.” (Matt 8:1-4, HCSB)

Let’s do this a little differently this week. I want you to imagine yourself into the story. Play along with me. Sometimes really getting into the sights, sounds and feelings of the bible can be very helpful. Sometimes we need to disconnect the analytical thinking for a little while in order to get at a heart-and-soul truth.

So, imagine you are a Jew living in ancient Roman Palestine. When you were twenty years old, just a year or two after you got married, you noticed some spots on your skin. They didn’t hurt, but they looked ugly and scaly and white on your olive-tinged deeply tan skin. Your spouse was very concerned (make it husband or wife, depending on your gender). You both suspected what it might be, but you both knew what it would mean if it was what you thought it was, so you waited. However, the white patches grew, and you had a little toddler and there was no way you wanted to put your child at risk. So you and your family went to the priest. The priest looked at you carefully, and then said, sternly, “You have leprosy. You are a leper. Unclean!”

You couldn’t even hug your spouse or your child goodbye. Immediately, you were banished from contact with any healthy person. That was twenty years ago now. You’ve only seen your spouse at a distance since that time. You little baby has grown into lovely woman who was married five years ago. You could not be at the wedding. You haven’t even met her husband. You don’t even know your own grandchildren.

Most of the time, you live in a kind of rough camp with other lepers. Though you can be around them, you generally avoid contact with each other, because one of you might make the other one worse. You can’t work in the fields, or raise animals because no one wants food touched by a leper. The same goes for any kind of craftsmanship. You can’t even be a common laborer, because you would be too close to healthy people. This means you are dependent upon your relatives and kind strangers. They place food and water and other necessary goods for you and the other lepers at a place several hundred yards from the camp. Sometimes people go out and beg by the roadside. They get contempt and insults about as often as they get food or some other necessary item. Money is useless, since merchants would refuse to touch coins that had been handled by a leper.

When you leave the camp, whenever you come within earshot of another person, you need to scream “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn them that a leper is near. It feels like you are swearing at yourself. Children run away when they hear it. Others back off. Sometimes adolescent boys throw stones at you, like you’re a rabid dog or something. Everyone reacts with revulsion at the sight of you. Leprosy has no cure, and it is your fate to live like this for the rest of your life.

One beautiful spring day, some rumors come into the camp about a Rabbi, Jesus, who seems to have miraculous powers. You go out into the countryside looking for him, and then you see a big group of people going up a steep, tall hill. You follow at a distance, and circle away from the people until you are behind the man, away from his followers, but you can hear him speak. What he says makes a deep impact upon you. This is no ordinary man. Desperation rises within you and combines with a tiny seed of faith.

When he leaves, you run ahead, and with your heart in your throat, you kneel on the ground and call out to him. Many lepers do this while they beg, but you call out something different. You don’t ask for food. Instead, you say “Lord, if you want to, you can make me clean.”

The sun is warm and the breeze is fresh on your diseased skin. A moment passes and seems like forever while Jesus pauses and looks at you. He doesn’t turn his face away like everyone else. There is no revulsion or disgust or contempt in his eyes. It’s something else, something your remember from long ago. It looks almost like…love; compassion. He starts walking towards you. You tremble. No healthy person has knowingly approached you for two decades.

What is he doing? He is reaching out his hand. Is he insane? You can’t help shrinking back a little. No one touches you. No one is supposed to touch you. What is he thinking? He might catch the disease himself. Even if he doesn’t, he’s going to make himself unclean, and he’ll have to go through a huge rigmarole before he can eat or associate with other people. But his hand grasps your shoulder. There are tears in his eyes.

“I do want to,” he says. “Be clean.”

He steps back a minute with a little half-smile on his face, like he’s waiting for something. You stare at him a minute, and then he jerks his head a little, as if he’s saying “take a look.” You slowly look down at your arms. They are clean and brown, with no leprosy on them anywhere you can see. You pull up your sleeves. Also clean. You turn back to Jesus, and then he is here, lifting you to your feet, hugging you, and both of you are crying and laughing at the same time. Behind Jesus, hanging back several yards, some of his followers are staring at him.

“Now go on,” he says. “Go to the priest, according to the Torah, so that you can be officially and properly welcomed back into your community. And do me a favor – don’t tell anyone that I did this.”

Now come back to yourself, but not quite all the way. Picture this – we all have a kind of leprosy called sin. It eats away at us in various ways. It separates us from God and from each other. It might help you to name a specific sin or weakness to yourself, to admit some of the things that you fail at pretty often. Picture how that sin keeps you from really being close to others. Imagine that damage it does to your soul, like the damage leprosy does to your body. Acknowledge how because of this, you are actually distant from God in some ways. You’ve tried to get rid of it, but there’s really no cure.

Now picture Jesus. If it helps, form a picture of him physically walking by. He’s the only hope of a cure. Call out to him. You know he can take care of this. Ask him directly to take care of it. Pause, as he turns to look at you. He is not disgusted or revolted. He does not turn away in contempt or fear. He sees who you are, what you are, and he keeps coming toward you. He reaches out his hand, and lays it on your head.

And now, hear his words. “I do want to make you clean. Be clean!”

And now look at your sin-riddled soul. See what Jesus sees – YOU ARE CLEAN!

Feel him lift you up, feel him hugging you, laughing in delight at you. Know his love for you. He says, “Now go and check with the Bible, and see for yourself that what I have done here is real and true. (“You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” – John 15:3. Also 1 John 1:7-9, Titus 3:4-7, and many, many more!)

“Also, tell some other followers of mine about this,” he says, “so that they can help you continue in faith, and you can help them, and you all can be in close community together.”

Brothers and sisters, this is real. Jesus truly and really healed the leper. But his miracle was about so much more than that. John calls Jesus’ miracles “signs.” They are true miracles that actually happened, but their purpose was greater than simply the healing of a body that eventually died. His miracles also show us spiritual truth; they tell us something about Jesus, and point the way toward eternal life; that is one reason he did so many miracles. I believe the leper was healed of leprosy. But I also believe that this text in the bible is an invitation to us. Jesus offers the same miracle to us in our souls. He is not dismayed by your sin and your failings. He knows your ugliness, but it won’t stop him. He knows your sin. But the holiness of Jesus is so powerful, and his sacrifice on the cross so profound, that when we invite him in, it doesn’t make him dirty – it makes us clean.

Jesus looks at our condition the same way he looked at the leper. He has the power to make us clean. He is willing to make us clean. Do you want him to do it? If so, be like the leper, and ask him to. Picture Jesus physically reaching out and touching you, lifting you to your feet and embracing you. In Him, you are clean. Receive that in your soul, right now.

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

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Download Understanding the Bible Part
Understanding the Bible #5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Read it in Context with the Surrounding Verses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the Bible in Cultural/Historical Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Acts 2:43 “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.”

We have examined the four things that the first Church was devoted to. I hope you’ll agree that any church and even any Christian ought to be growing in devotion to the Word, Fellowship, Intimacy with Jesus (characterized by the Lord’s Supper) and Prayer. These things are essential to what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. They are therefore also central to the community life of those who know Jesus. The first Church was also characterized by living for a single purpose. This too is part of the core of Christian discipleship. In addition to these, however, there are a few other things that characterized that very first Christian church. These other things are also meant to be characteristic of all Christians and all churches. The first of these that the text mentions is a sense of awe, which is accompanied by “wonders and miraculous signs.”

The word translated as “awe” in the NIV Bible is actually the Greek word “phobos” from which we get the English “phobia.” In other words, the word means fear. I think that we in modern American culture are afraid (no pun intended!) to use this word in connection with our experience of God. It sounds like the dark ages somehow – “they were filled with fear.” However, it is a Biblical word, and it is used many times to describe people’s relationship with God. A God we fear is not an altogether comfortable God. He is not the kind of God we can control. Now I don’t believe that this whole concept of “fear of God” is meant to be negative. Perhaps the best rendering of the concept I ever heard comes through the children’s books written by C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia. In these stories there is a character called Aslan, the Son of the Great Emperor-over-the-Sea. Aslan was intended by Lewis to be a picture of what Jesus is like. And one more thing – Aslan is a lion. In the stories, people who haven’t met Aslan want to know what he’s like. Upon hearing that he is lion, one character asks about him:

“Then, isn’t he safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I think that Lewis has really captured what the fear of God is about. God is out of our control. He is powerful, and, dare I say, even a little wild, like a lion. He isn’t quite safe because of his great power and his complete otherness. But he is good. This was the kind of “fear” that everyone was filled with in Acts 2:43 – the fear of God who is not quite safe, but is good. We Americans are not usually comfortable with this (which is sort of the point). We like to think that we can respect anyone who is worthy of it, but that we fear no one. But when we try to reduce the fear of God to mere “respect” we have lost part of the true Biblical understanding of who God is. Now the “fear of God” is not the same as being afraid of Him. We do not need to fear that He won’t love us or forgive us. But at some level the thought of what God can really do – how completely at His mercy we are – ought to give us a kind of thrilled fear. He is God and we are truly nothing in comparison.

The first Christian church was characterized by this sort of “fear.” I think it probably influenced how they worshipped and prayed in very positive ways – they did not take God for granted. I think this sense of “fear” also made the miracle of their salvation even more wonderful and incredible to them. The fruit of their fear was altogether positive. Their fear of God only led to a greater wonder that He would consider them worth loving and dying for. Personally, I think it heightened their joy at knowing Jesus as well as their thankfulness to him.

Accompanying this very positive fear, were wonders and miraculous signs. I have no doubt that these manifestations of supernatural things helped them to continue in this positive sort of “fear-of-God.”

Perhaps three main questions can help us to dive more deeply into the question of wonders and miracles: What were the signs and wonders? And, Do signs and wonders still happen today? And, Are we meant to experience them as well?

First, what were they? There is no doubt among any serious scholars that the text is referring to God’s supernatural working. The specific things that He did supernaturally remain somewhat vague in this passage; but we can infer what they were from other passages, with a high probability of being correct. In Acts, we see two primary supernatural manifestations of Gods power: healings and exorcisms. You can bet that these two things were part of what is being referred to in Acts 2:43. In fact, in the passage immediately following this one, the apostle Peter was used by God to heal a crippled man (Acts 3:1-10. For an example of exorcism, see Acts 16;16-18). But Acts also records other things. The great outpouring of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by the miraculous sign of tongues – people from all over the world heard the apostles speaking in their own languages when they preached (Acts 2:5-12). In Acts chapter 12 Peter was miraculously freed from prison. The Holy Spirit gave a word of prophecy to the congregation at Antioch in Acts 13. Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but suffered no ill effects (Acts 28:3-5). The rest of New Testament also records other sorts of miracles, signs and supernatural workings apart from healings and the driving out of evil spirits. The important thing is not really what the specific events entailed – instead the point is that God intervened in ways that were clearly supernatural. Another significant point is the choice of the words “miraculous signs.” The effect of these things was to strengthen the faith of the believers, and to help in bringing unbelievers to faith. Even today, the fastest growing churches worldwide are those where God is doing supernatural things. The first Church clearly viewed the miracles and wonders as portents of God’s presence. The supernatural events gave them opportunities to preach (Acts 3) and often helped convince unbelievers (Acts 8:9-13).

Now, do these things still happen today? I must be fair and tell you that there are people who genuinely know and love Jesus, who believe that God no longer does miracles like these. For theological support, they point out that in this passage, it only mentions the apostles as those who did the miracles, and since the apostles are now with the Lord, there are no more miracles. They claim that these supernatural actions were merely intended to help the very first church establish itself. Now that the church worldwide is no longer in danger of not being established, miracles aren’t needed. I believe that these people are sincerely misled. There are plenty of other New Testament passages (including some in Acts) that demonstrate that supernatural things are done by God through people other than the apostles. In 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul clearly expects non-apostolic, ordinary Corinthian house-church members to exhibit miraculous gifts of various sorts. In John, Jesus said this:

“I assure you: The one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. (John 14:12-14, HCSB)

Jesus expected that the kinds of things he did, would also be done by his Holy Spirit-empowered disciples. The truth is, the church needs to be re-established in every generation. The Christian message is no more secure now than it was in the time of the apostles – the gospel needs to be communicated again and again to each generation, or it will be lost. There are plenty of local churches that are closing their doors, precisely because they have not done this. We are certainly not in any less need than the first Christians for supernatural power to assist us in our efforts to introduce people to Jesus.

In addition, the evidence demands that we take seriously the premise that God still works supernaturally. As G.K. Chesterton points out,

There is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.

The fact is… the believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you would believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder.

Recent studies have even confirmed that hospital patients recover more quickly, with fewer complications and have an better overall chance of recovery, when they are prayed for. The studies included people who were being prayed for, but were not aware of that fact. They included people who do not believe in the power of prayer. It is indeed accurate to say that God’s supernatural power is alive and still active in our world.

I think part of the difficulty that many people have with miracles is that they seem so unreliable. Let’s be honest. Sometimes, it seems like the perfect situation for God to do a miracle, and yet, he does not. Other times, he may do something that even seems almost unnecessary. I mean, Jesus didn’t have to feed the five thousand. They might have gone hungry that day, but no one was going to starve to death. They would have made it home and found something to eat the next day at the latest. Also, He certainly didn’t have to walk on water. So we hear about miracles that happen for others, and think, “I need a miracle even more than that.” And yet, we don’t get one.

This problem of miracles being unreliable is hangover from our scientific world view. We think if anything is real, we should be able to reliably duplicate the results. But if you think about it, this lack of “reliability” is exactly what makes a miracle miraculous. It can’t be duplicated, because it is an instance of God’s intervention – it isn’t “normal.” In addition, we can’t duplicate it, because we cannot control God, who is the main variable in the experiment.

I suffer from chronic kidney stones. They are extraordinarily painful, and usually, they do not pass for many days. One time, I developed a kidney stone just as I was about to start speaking at a retreat. The people there prayed for me, and within seconds, the pain disappeared. The kidney stone was gone, as quickly as that. I’ve never personally experienced anything like it, before or since. I feel like I sound foolish, sharing this. But it really happened. About six months later, I developed another stone. This time it was a Sunday morning, right before I was about to preach. It was basically the same situation as before. The same group of people prayed for me, and nothing happened. I went home and spent three days of misery until that stone passed. There is no doubt that God healed me from the one stone. There is no doubt that he did not deliver me from the next one. To this day I don’t know why. What I do know, is that God does do miracles, and also that we cannot control when and where he does them.

So, what is our part in all this? Does God want us to be involved in these kinds of things? If you feel a little thrill of fear at that thought, then you’re on the right track! The answer is of course, YES! God wants to do incredible things through us. Of course sometimes we want to “move in the supernatural” all the time and never “come back to earth” – that is not God’s plan either. God uses the supernatural for three main purposes: to set people free (either from sickness, emotional pain or demonization); to strengthen the faith of believers; and to help unbelievers come to faith. He doesn’t work supernaturally simply to give us another cool experience. He wants his children to grow to the point where we walk by faith and not by sight. So the first part of allowing God to work miracles is to release control to Him. Many of us who have had some supernatural experience try to control Him by attempting to arrange things so he’ll come do it again. But we can’t make Him do a miracle. At the same time, we should not try to prevent his working because we are afraid. Primarily what he wants from us in the arena of miracles is an openness, a willingness to be used (or not used), and a sense of fear and awe, that at any time He can come and do whatever He wants.

If we are willing for God to work in ways that might inspire holy fear, what is our part in making that happen? We need to ask him to act, invite him to work. Do we want him to set people free, to strengthen and encourage our faith, and to bring unbelievers to faith? Well, then ask him for a miracle. Ask him to physically heal someone. Ask him to deliver your friend from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Ask him to encourage someone who is struggling. Ask him to find a job for someone who has lost his. The result is up to God, not to us. He is not a machine that we can manipulate. Sometimes he WILL do a miracle. Sometimes he won’t. But, for whatever reason, God has chosen work through us as we are open and as we ask. he best way I know of to PREVENT miracles, is to not ask God for them. So go ahead and ask.

If you are in a house-church, I want to remind you that you are in the perfect context for God to do awe-inspiring things. It was a house church that prayed for the release of Peter when he was imprisoned by Herod. Even so, they did not believe at first the miraculous release that occurred. It was in a house church where a young boy fell out of a high window and died, and Paul prayed and he was made alive again. Prophecies, and the Lord speaking, came often in those first New Testament house-churches. I personally know a man who was instantly delivered from addiction to cigarettes when his house-church prayed for him. I was there when it happened, and frankly, I didn’t believe it at first, but the man hasn’t had a smoke since that night, fourteen years ago.

I encourage you to be open to these types of things that the Lord does. If the thought brings a little thrill of fear, then you are probably on the right track.


1 CORINTHIANS #26 (1 Corinthians 14:35-15:11)


There is something 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that I want to deal with briefly. Paul writes:

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

We have already covered the overall topic of gender relationships in depth when we looked for two weeks at the first part of chapter 11. If you missed that, please go back and read or listen to those two messages. You won’t get the full understanding by only reading this sermon. Even so, I want to cover this passage briefly, because it causes trouble for many modern readers of the bible, especially in Western culture. It also gives us a good practical example of how to interpret the bible, especially when you don’t understand something, or when the bible appears to contradict itself.

Paul has already acknowledged that is appropriate for women to pray and prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 11:1-16). Now he says they should keep silent. What is going on here? First, when we interpret the bible, we give the Holy Spirit the benefit of the doubt. In any other book we read, we start with the assumption that the author will try not to contradict himself. So in general, if a statement appears contradictory, in order to understand it, we try first to see if there is a way to interpret it that is not at odds with what has already been said. Not only should we give the Holy Spirit a chance, but we ought to also give Paul (the human instrument of the Spirit in this case), some credit for being the obviously intelligent person he is. Is he likely to contradict himself so blatantly just a page or so later in the same letter?

Therefore, plain common sense shows us that “women must keep silent” does not apply to absolutely every situation in church. We already know it doesn’t apply to women prophesying and praying. So there must be some specific context that Paul is talking about here, where women should keep silent. What would that context be? (Men, insert the joke of your choice here, but you laugh at your own risk…)

In all seriousness, the context of this statement is Paul’s description of an orderly worship service. We already know that women can pray and prophesy, so it isn’t the worship service in general where women must keep silent. Paul describes a few different people speaking, and then he says: “let the others evaluate what is said.” Remember, at that time, there was no New Testament yet. So it was a more difficult thing to determine if a prophecy or word was really from the Holy Spirit or not. Therefore, after someone spoke, Paul wanted the Corinthians to discuss what was said, and evaluate whether or not it seemed to really come from the Lord.

Reading this statement in context, it seems that this “evaluation discussion” is where Paul would like the women to keep quiet. From chapter 11 we learned that God created men and women to fulfill different roles: like dancers have different parts in a couples’ dance, or players have different positions on a football team. Paul describes those roles in terms of submission (for women) and headship (for men). We already covered what this means in our study of 1 Corinthians 11, but I simply want to remind us that biblical submission doesn’t mean subservience or devaluation, and biblical headship does not mean domination or control.

Paul connects this idea of women being quiet during the “evaluation discussion” to biblical submission. If you remember from chapter 11, God holds men uniquely accountable for the spiritual direction of their churches and families. Even though Eve was the one who took the apple and committed the first sin, Adam was the one who was held responsible for leading the human race into sin. So, when the church was basically deciding theology, it made sense that the ones who would be held responsible (the men) were the ones who ought to make the decision, and provide the final evaluation. When we also consider the word “to keep silent” might also be translated “hold your peace” our picture is more complete. Women indeed may have something to say about doctrine, but men are the ones who will be held responsible. So when it comes to a discussion of doctrine, women should hold their peace. Paul adds that if they have questions or concerns, they should share them with their husband at home. Once again the picture here is of a gender-dance, or a team. Everyone has something to contribute, but it is all done in order and with a recognition of how God made us to be, and what our roles are.


Let’s move on now, to chapter fifteen. This is one of the longest sections in the whole letter, and Paul devotes it all to discussing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Apparently, some of the Christians at Corinth were suggesting that there was no resurrection from the dead. Paul says this in verse 12:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

It isn’t clear exactly what these skeptics were saying. They may not have been denying that Jesus rose – but at the very least they were claiming that there was no resurrection for anyone else. And it is possible that they even scoffed at the idea of Jesus rising from the dead. Remember, these are people who claim to be Christians. Paul spent more time with this church than any other church he started, except in Ephesus. Sometimes when I read his letters to them, I wonder what went wrong.

By the way, this kind of weird heresy has been repeated at various times in history by those who claimed to be Christians. Karl Baarth, one of the most influential Lutheran Theologians of the 20th Century, believed in the resurrection, but claimed it didn’t matter whether or not Jesus was actually raised. His protege, Rudolf Bultman, went the whole way, and claimed that Jesus was not. I always wanted to meet them and ask them, “So why do you call yourself a Christian and what is the point of your faith?”

So Paul goes back to basic Christian doctrine. This is it in a nutshell – Jesus Christ died for our sins. He was buried. And then he was raised from the dead. This is the message given by Paul and all the apostles. It is the bedrock of the Christian faith. Without the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, there is no such thing as Christianity. So he writes to the Corinthians, that this is:

…the gospel I proclaimed to you; you received it and have taken your stand on it. You are also saved by it, if you hold to the message I proclaimed to you — unless you believed for no purpose. (verse 1-2)

Paul is writing to them maybe twenty-five or thirty years after Jesus was raised from the dead. Today (in 2011) it would be as if I wrote to you about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Many of us were alive, and we remember hearing about it right after it happened. We could certainly still find and talk to many of the people who were there when it occurred. The man who shot Reagan is still alive. Many of the secret service agents and other government workers who were there, are still alive.

At the time of Paul’s letter, the resurrection of Jesus was similarly recent. Paul says, besides himself, there were more than five hundred people who saw Jesus alive after his death, burial and resurrection. Most of those eye-witnesses to the resurrection were still alive when Paul wrote. The Corinthians had apparently met Peter, who was one of the witnesses.

I think we forget that we have this kind of evidence for the resurrection. Yes, it was a long time ago. But so was Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra, and Alexander the Great – and we believe the events we are told about in their lives.

Jesus’ resurrection changed everything – for us, as well as for those first-century Christians. There is a real hope beyond this world. Our entire faith is based upon it. Any meaning in life depends upon it.


Faith Healing? Miracles? 1 Corinthians #21

Download 1 Corinthians Part 21



To another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers…” (1Cor 12:9-10)



We have been looking at “spiritual things.” Paul tells the Corinthians he does not want them to be ignorant of them. I think it is safe to say that we should not be ignorant of them either. Because the goal of this passage is to alleviate our ignorance, these next two messages or so will seem very informational in style. Even so, as you read this, pray that the Lord not only informs you, but also inspires you and fills you. We don’t want to only know about spiritual things – we want these things of the Holy Spirit to be active and real in our own lives.

A gift of faith. When Paul includes faith among his examples of the workings of the Holy Spirit, he clearly does not mean saving faith in Jesus Christ. The faith we place in Jesus, the faith we exercise in giving Jesus control of our entire life, is indeed a gift of God, and it is a gift which is given to all who will receive it. In other words, if you are a Christian, you already have the gift of saving faith – faith that trusts everything to Jesus alone. The point Paul is illustrating is that God gives many different kinds of gifts, and they are all given to the church as whole. No single individual exhibits every possible gift of God for touching lives. Therefore, here, Paul is speaking about a gift of faith that some Christians do not possess – a faith that blesses the Church in a unique way beyond the faith that entrusts one’s life to Jesus. Perhaps the best way to describe this gift of faith is to offer some examples of Christians who possessed it.

James Hudson Taylor was a missionary to China in the nineteenth century, who clearly possessed the gift of faith. Hudson Taylor founded one of the world’s largest and most effective missionary societies in the face of a complete absence of financial backing, while holding to a principle that forbade members of the society to ask for any kind of material support. Taylor had only a firm conviction (a gift of faith) about God’s desire for the China Inland Mission to be formed – while all of common sense, and past history suggested that his goal was impossible. The gift of faith through J. Hudson Taylor was used by God to bless the church at large in mighty ways. Many Chinese met Jesus through the work of the China Inland Mission (CIM); many new missionary organizations were formed, inspired by God’s provision for CIM; glory was given to God as He was given opportunity to show how He provides for his children. The work of the China Inland Mission continues today, though under a different name. The gift God gave the church was one of faith to lay hold of something beyond human vision, and the result was that lives were touched!

George Müller was another through whom God gave the church at large the gift of faith. Müller founded and maintained a large orphanage, depending on God in prayer alone, for the resources to build buildings, maintain facilities and operate from day to day. The orphanages he founded, provided for and ministered to literally thousands of children in Müller’s lifetime, and the work has been continued (albeit in different form) to this day.

We can see then, that the gift of faith is given by God to his Church, to touch lives by trusting God for things that may seem impossible, perhaps even things that have never been done before. The gift of faith may be given to someone in the church for the salvation of someone who seems absolutely beyond hope. The gift of faith is exercised in starting new churches and ministries. It is a powerful gift.

Graces of healings”. The next “grace” mentioned is healing. It is interesting to note that in the Greek, both “graces” and “healings” are plural. The implication is that rather than giving one individual a certain “gift of healing,” God considers each time a person is miraculously healed to be a gift. There are some individuals through whom the gift of healing seems to be given fairly often. However the emphasis seems to be on the incidence the healing itself, rather than the person through whom it comes. Though some people clearly have “healing ministries,” any Christian might be used to bring this gift to another as they lay hands on, and pray for, a sick person.

When I pray for others to be healed, I usually do it in a small group. The Lord has healed a few of people I have prayed for in this way. Once we prayed for a lady with Crohn’s disease, the night before she was to have surgery. The next day, the doctors sent her home, saying she didn’t need surgery any more. I once prayed for a friend who was trying to quit smoking, but couldn’t seem to do it. That was 15 years ago, and he hasn’t had a cigarette since that prayer.

There is just one time in my life when I am positive I experienced miraculous healing myself. Some of you were there – it was at a church retreat a few years ago, and I was immediately healed from a kidney stone.

But quite often, when I pray for people to be healed, I don’t see anything happen. The same is usually true when others pray for healing for me. I am not alone in my mixed experiences. You could fill a library with books written about this subject. Some people claim that the problem is lack of faith. I don’t buy it. I had no faith that my friend would quit smoking when I prayed for him. I didn’t even ask for prayer about my kidney stone – I asked for pain meds (some of you can testify to this). At other times I have felt tremendous faith, either in praying for others, or in being prayed for – and nothing has happened.

I don’t think we can boil it down to a formula that always works. That is the nature of our faith-relationship with Jesus. If we had a formula for healing, then who needs Jesus? Jesus told us many times to keep praying and not give up. So I keep praying, and though sometimes people are not healed, sometimes they are.

It is important also to remember that any healing that takes place during our life on earth, (whether supernatural or “normal”) is always temporary. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but eventually, years later, Lazarus died again. The judgment of sin on our physical bodies is death, and death’s effects will always be manifested sooner or later. There is no such thing as truly complete physical healing until Jesus gives us new bodies when he comes again. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Jesus did not devote his full energy to healing while he was on earth.

Miraculous powers. The Greek term describing this action of the Holy Spirit conveys the sense of dynamic power in operation. Since the term is distinguished from healing, we must assume that Paul is speaking of supernatural power manifested in some way other than healing. The New Testament brings to mind several incidences of such power. After a shipwreck, Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake and suffered no ill effects. On the island of Cyprus, Paul caused the “magician” Elymas to be struck blind. But the most pervasive New Testament example of the Spirit’s dynamic power (apart from healings and conversions) is exorcism. Jesus dramatically and unequivocally demonstrated his power by casting out evil spirits. He himself connects the exorcism of demons with the life changing activity of the Holy Spirit saying, “But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). The apostles, at Jesus’ command, made exorcism a significant part of their ministry, both before and after his death and resurrection. There can be no doubt that the Lord wants to continue the offensive against the powers of evil, and that he wants to do so by power of the Holy Spirit through His Church. He may indeed want to bless us with miracles of many kinds, but it is also safe to say that he wants gifts of exorcism (power) to be part of the pattern of a church that touches lives.

My former professor and mentor, Dr. Eugene Bunkowske, was a missionary in Nigeria for 22 years. When he first went there, he moved in among a tribe which had no Christians. The most prominent witch doctor of the area heard they were coming. He said, “I will put a curse on this man’s wife and his children, they will get sick and they will die, and then the missionary will go back to where he came from.”

Shortly after Bunkowske arrived, the witch doctor got sick; and then he died. Many people came to Jesus as a result of seeing the power of God manifested in this way. My friend only found out about the witch-doctor’s words later, but he believes firmly that it was the Lord, demonstrating his power and relevance to people who had been trapped in animistic religion.

More needs to be said about using the gift of powers, particularly exorcism. Jesus gives all of those who know him, spiritual authority over evil spirits. The principle is simply that Jesus is in us, and His power is greater than that of the devil (1 John 4:4). Our power is not sufficient to drive out Satan or demons, as the sons of Sceva found out (Acts 19:13-16). Jesus does promise us the power to overcome evil (Luke 10:18-20), but he cautions that if we simply drive out an evil spirit and do not see that the Holy Spirit enters in afterward, the individual will be no better off than before (Luke 11:24-26). We must also use discernment (that gift will be discussed later) in determining whether the problem is truly caused by the presence of demonic power, or something else.

There are some individuals who have a special calling to help others address demonic strongholds. It is an exhausting ministry, but also intensely rewarding. Our neighbors a few years ago were people with that calling. Some other friends of ours were struggling with their adopted son. He was diagnosed with reactive-detachment disorder, a traumatic and violent psychological syndrome that is very difficult to treat. Our friends were in despair over their son, and were on the verge of placing him permanently in an institution. I suggested that before they did that, we should take him to our neighbors who had the gift of dealing with demonic issues. We spent about three hours with boy. I can’t say it was a comfortable time. But when we were done, he no longer had the disorder. A psychaitrist later confirmed that he no longer had it. The boy’s life, and the lives of his parents, were completely changed. This is a wonderful gift for the body of Christ!

Years ago, I preached through this passage of 1 Corinthians with the goal that the church I was leading at that time should learn about these “things of the Holy Spirit.” The church was full of ordinary people. They weren’t super-Christians. They had jobs, and rent payments and car trouble and kids, just like most people. But we all agreed that we wanted the Lord to be doing these “spiritual things” among us, just as he did in the early church. And so, when someone wondered once if just maybe God wanted to say something, he spoke up, and it turned out to be a message of wisdom from the Lord. Another person was physically ill, and we laid hands on him, and prayed for him, and he was healed. Over time, the Lord did all kinds of amazing things in that church because the people were informed about these spiritual things, and they asked God to do them among us, and they were willing to take risks and possibly look foolish in order to learn.

The Lord can do that anywhere, if he has people who are willing. I pray that you are willing.