After 2.5 years of dabbling in pseudo-hipster evangelicalism (Acts29 which has no spiritual governing oversight; therefore many problems with leadership abuse and lack of transparency), I’ve returned to my local, relatively small, mostly older Anglican congregation. It’s great being back; the people, liturgy, and history feed me Christ. The sermons themselves lack though, so I’ll be returning to theological writing to fill that void. If anyone is reading this, I hope these essays point you as well towards the Center, Jesus Christ.
Good, Better, and Best: A Meal with Martha, Mary, and Jesus
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself ? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Usually when we hear about Mary and Martha, we hear human-centered moralisms that exhort us to be more like Mary, because it says Mary chose the wiser. But that misses the more transcendent point. Ultimately, this text isn’t really about Mary or Martha, but is instead mostly about Jesus: The most overlooked aspect of this text is the astonishing fact that God himself is WITH them there in their home. The creator and sustainer of the entire universe (Col 1:15-20) is sitting in their humble Bethany home WITH Mary and Martha; and enjoying their company no less. Astounding!
In this devotional, we will take a look at these three main characters: The good (Martha), the better (Mary), and the best (Jesus).
1. The GOOD: Martha
Martha typically gets a bad rap in this story as an overly-anxious worker bee, but Jesus doesn’t admonish her for her service. He’s not angry or critical at all; in fact, his tone is quite empathetic and his emphasis focuses on the internal anyway.
So to roll up our sleeves, put on an apron, unlock a homeless shelter or soup kitchen door, or grab a Bible and to get to work for Christ is not a bad thing at all. Of course not. On the contrary, each of us is an integral part of the spiritual body of Christ (1 Cor 12), and we are each given spiritual gifts at the point of our regeneration (Eph 2:10) for the building up of and service to the community, in Christ’s name. It’s our calling as Christians.
It’s not that Martha chose a bad thing, it’s that she just didn’t choose the better thing; the better option available at the time. Instead she became annoyed and resentful about her sister Mary who was sitting at the feet of Jesus.
2. The BETTER: Mary
Mary adored Jesus from the depths of her soul. She had much to be thankful for because she had much which was forgiven.
Case in point: Let’s rewind a few chapters in the gospel of Luke. Back in chapter 7, there is a different account about another meal where once again Martha was serving (especially noted in John 12:2) and Mary* was at Jesus’ feet. And in this earlier text, Mary the ex-prostitute (“woman who lived a sinful life” 7:37), is seen pouring out her alabaster jar of expensive perfume, mixing it with the sobbing tears of repentant joy, and figuratively anointing Jesus for (future) burial. That she would even be allowed to worship Jesus in that extravagant way, in the presence of men, in the home of a Pharisee (one who made decisions based on clean and unclean; staying AWAY from religiously unclean people), and using the tainted perfume a prostitute uses to mask the odors of her male customers is nothing short of amazing; an unabashed exhibit of new life.
And now to return to our meal in Bethany (ch.10), the biographer Dr. Luke describes that Mary was sitting “at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (vs.39 logos = λόγος). Let’s stop for a moment and make it clear that Mary isn’t merely sitting and looking up at Jesus’ face all doe-eyed while he smiled on. No! Jesus was talking, it says. As per usual, he was always teaching about himself; the Kingdom of God, and here was Mary listening, learning, and worshiping.
There are some who would say that “being” with Jesus means just to sit blankly and meditate quietly and while there is certainly the place for that type of contemplative prayer, this is NOT what’s going on here in our story. Instead, Mary is listening intently to Jesus’ Words.
We who also follow Christ would do well, when we sit prayerfully with Him (either in group or individual worship settings), to have the focal point also be his words; the Word of God: The scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments which all testify to Jesus; from beginning to end: To talk less and listen more.**
Any more about this story, we just don’t know. We aren’t privy to the behind the scenes about whether Mary ever helped serve or whether the sisters took turns serving and listening; the gospels don’t tell us. But what they do tell us is that God himself, Jesus Christ, was in their home, in their midst, enjoying their company. Wow!
3. The BEST: Jesus
The simplistic and moralistic message of “Mary chose better… go and do likewise” completely misses the opulent and vital theme of grace. This story, and all of the Bible, is really not about them, you, me, or us at all. It’s all about HIM.
The takeaway of this narrative is that we have a Lord who adores his people so much that he was willing to leave his comforts and throne (as well as his pre-existing intimacy with his Father) and let all those things go (for a time) in order to draw Mary, Martha, you, and me into that similar sweet place of intimacy with himself. That is a life-changing notion.
The most important lesson to learn from this narrative is that the God of the universe loved his people so deeply that at a historic place and time, he became a man and was (and is) content to sit in our midst and enjoy our company as we worship him with our repentance, thankfulness, and attentiveness.
Our Lord Jesus is worthy of all our sincere service and our worshipful adoration.
From the gospel reading for July 29th, “The Feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany”.
*Not all commentators agree that the “sinful woman” in chapter 7 is the Mary of Bethany of chapter 10. To me, there are enough clues across all the gospels to make that significant connection. The John 12 account that has Martha again serving is one piece of strong evidence. The Luke 8:1-2 passage following immediately on the heels of Lk 7 which starts off “after that” (though not necessarily immediate and chronological) and lists Mary continuing as traveling companion in Jesus’ entourage is another piece. Ultimately, I like to stay close to the text and let the text speak. With this issue, I’m playing analytic detective a bit.
**Martha was the more vocal sister (seen also in the death of Lazarus narrative in John 11) and wanted Jesus to listen to HER words where Mary was the more quiet sister and listened to HIS words instead. Today, in our devotional lives, we often give God our complaints and requests far more than we let his Word (the scriptures of both the OT and NT) speak powerfully into our minds and hearts. There should be a balance.
***vs.40 “help me”, the Greek συναντιλαμβάνομαι is only used one other time in the NT. In Romans 8:26 “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness ; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words ”. Interesting and spiritually uplifting to ponder the connection between Martha’s request for help and the Holy Spirit’s intercessory help in our time of weakness and need.
Jesus: Our True Rest
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Our exhausted and stressed-out society is overworked, sleep-deprived, and even our technology depletes us. We are truly a culture that desperately needs rest and yet when we attempt to find that rest, it backfires.
In our passage Jesus speaks of a “yoke”, referring to the bar which fastens two oxen together tightly at the neck in order that they could work more effectively. Weights are attached to that bar in order to maintain constant pressure. In speaking this way, Jesus guides his audience to conclude that there are two choices: The default yoke of idols (leading to exhaustion) and the yoke of Christ (the true sabbath rest).
1. The Yoke of Idols
The yoke that harnesses each and every one of us destructively to our idols is one that always crushes us over time; choking us with an ever-increasing pressure that won’t let up. Lest we limit our thinking, consider some obvious modern examples of idols:
Physical appearance; endlessly shopping for new trends or fashions, but never satisfied.
Health and fitness; running and exercising our bodies down to a grinding bone-on-bone pain, but never content with what stares back in the mirror.
Career and recognition; perpetually climbing the stairs of ambition, only to find out that our loved ones and friends (even ourselves) were left in the dust.
Striving for success, reputation, intelligence, being liked, or being seen as cool or hip.
Personal freedom; but finding that more sex with more partners or manipulating more people to make more money merely brings emptiness.
And what about those things we perceive as GOOD things like family, friends, community, church? The problem here is that any time we tether our identity, self-worth, and inner peace to something added onto Jesus Christ, we turn that “good” thing into an “ultimate” thing1 thereby converting it into an idol.
And ironically, the rest we seek cannot be found in church or religion either. Paradoxical as this initially sounds, it is true that people can get far more burned and washed out by church and religion than by all other realms of life. Think of our context here in Matthew 11.
Jesus came to a culture that was extremely religious and yet very far from God. The religious systems and structures, as exemplified and directed by the Pharisees (the religious leaders of that day), had been crushing the common people. So near the middle of this long multi-chapter section in the gospel of Matthew confronting those Pharisees, we find our strategically placed verses in 11:28-30 (about coming to Jesus for rest) immediately followed by chapter 12 regarding Sabbath rest. The context speaks of rest from religious striving.
The word “weary” in vs.28, translated from the Greek kopiao, speaks of being tired and exhausted from toil, burdens, and even grief; more than physical tiredness, it’s an emotional and spiritual exhaustion. Also in vs.28 is the word “heavy-laden” phortizo. This word only appears twice in the New Testament; once here and then in Lk.11:46 where Jesus condemns the Pharisees for weighing down people with religious burdens. The context is important.
Even up til today, the rank and file in the pew have become guilted and shackled by man-made religious rules, traditions, and expectations. The underlying (and lying) message is that if we somehow can get our act together better, then we would please God; as if our righteousness was tied to our religious performance. But it’s not.
In fact, any time we say to ourselves, “If only I could ______, then I would be ok” (regardless what we fill in that blank), we have dangerously put onto ourselves the yoke of idolatry and will never be able to find the rest we so desperately need. However, there’s good news.
2. The Yoke of Christ
Jesus offers a whole other way; the true rest that our human condition yearns for: Rest from striving, rest from trying to measure up, rest from trying to better ourselves for recognition or self-respect, rest from trying to improve in order to be okay with God, others, and ourselves. True rest.
In vs.28, Jesus invites us to “come”, the Greek deute, which has the meaning of “coming with and following”. We see it in Mt 4:19 where Christ solicits the new disciples to “Come, follow me … and I will make you fishers of men”. Jesus is not referring to a one-time event but rather an active and continual relationship of following; that we would find our rest in Him.
This is a deep and refreshing spiritual rest. It’s the same word used in Revelation 14:13 regarding the rest of the saints who have died after all their labors are complete.
Gospel writer Matthew immediately follows this discourse about Jesus’ rest with chapter 12 about the Sabbath. The connection is that Jesus is saying that it is HE himself, not a day of the week or activity in an assembly, who is the Sabbath rest for the people of God.
In this way, we have yet another example of Jesus Christ being the absolute fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures: In this example, he is the embodiment of the Old Testament Sabbath.
But we must come to him in weakness, humility, and dependence, like little children (vs.25) with hands and hearts opened wide to receive; for children are helpless and needy. For when we come to Jesus in this way, he figuratively removes the default yoke of our idolatry that weighs down and crushes, and places onto our necks His yoke which is “easy” (vs.30; the Greek chrestos which interestingly sounds very similar to Christos, which translates as Christ!).
The yoke Jesus gives his followers is not something that is separate from him (that he places on our necks and then walks away), but rather the yoke IS Jesus. He is the easy yoke that binds us together with him, and in whom we can truly find the eternal rest for our hearts and souls, both now and forevermore.
NOTES: The gospel reading for July 19, Feast of Macrina, Monastic and Teacher 379
1. Ultimate things is a phrase I’m borrowing from Dr. Timothy Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan NYC.
Moving Beyond Mockery
1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. 4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
Our American society revels in its ability to poke fun at itself and others. We have a reputation as a sarcastic, condescending, and sneering culture. From Stephen Colbert to Rush Limbaugh to South Park (with multiple sitcoms, celebrities, pundits, and bloggers wedged in between), we are a society that laughingly embraces mockery as if it was art. But it’s not; far from it.
Following in the genre of Wisdom Literature, Psalm 1 (the “Introduction” to the entire psalter) lays out two opposing choices: Sinfulness versus righteousness. This contrasting between two options occurs often in the the Old Testament and is seen also in the New Testament. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has a very strong Wisdom tone and structure to it as well, as it also begins the same way with “Blessed are…”
Though the Bible often lays out these opposites of sinful -vs- righteous within its stories and lessons, scripture is not naive about the fuller complexity of human nature. Look carefully at the venerated “heroes of the faith” (Heb.11) and you’ll find complicated humans who exemplify a messy mix of both good and bad; Abraham with his lying, Moses with his murder, and David with his adultery prove that obvious point.
But even so, the Bible still sets forth the plumbline of righteousness to guide us. Cue Psalm 1.
In Psalm 1:1, there is a fascinating ramp-up of evil: It’s a threefold layer of sin beginning with a lingering “walk”, followed by stopping for a curious “stand”, and ending with a comfortable “sit”. In that order God warns his people. And then in the verses that follow (vs.2-6), he lays out the good news within the construct of His righteous alternative.
1. PROBLEM: The Man-Centered Life.
Without God’s active intervention, each of us will gravitate towards living a life apart from God, centered on self. We see this negative progression playing out in verse 1, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers”. Notice the use of action verbs in this threefold evolution.
First, walking in the “counsel” (the Hebrew ‘etsah also translates as “advice”) of the wicked; actively listening to, and living according to, the guidance or opinion of those with man-centered philosophies that steer us away from the full life Christ offers. The psalmist continues.
Second, standing (the word ‘amad can have a militant tone; “remain, take a stand”) in the way of sinners. This is the same word used of Ruth who stood firm in fields all day long gleaning grain (Rt 2:7). Within this paradigm, the standing progresses beyond mere listening into joining in the chorus of evil; swaying others away from the pure path of God by our own example. Again, the psalmist continues.
Third, sitting (yashab is also used of stubborn Jonah sitting in the shade; Jon. 4:5) in the seat of mockers. The word for “seat”, mowshab, translates “dwelling place” and is also used in Ezekiel 34 to signify the location where the true good shepherd will bring his sheep (vs.13). The word is used to describe a place of resting and remaining; a parking spot for the soul.
To dig even deeper, we discover that this Hebrew word for mockers (also scoffers), lê·ṣîm, only appears in the Bible one time (here in Psalm 1), but that a variety of forms of the word appear elsewhere, rounding out our understanding: In Job 16:20, Job’s friends are called scoffers and in one of the Proverbs (1:22), Wisdom personified cries out in the street, “How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?”. Even more incriminating is elsewhere in Proverbs (14:9) where it translates, “fools mock at the guilt offering” (NRS & ESV) or “fools mock at making amends for sin” (NIV).
The progression of sin is easy to see. It begins with being open to, listening to, and letting bad advice (contrary to God’s Word and ways) shape our thinking. Then it transitions into more of an active participation. And lastly, it settles comfortably into the place of mocking at righteousness; even mocking at the need for God and the guilt offering that Christ provides on the cross.
2. SOLUTION: The God-Centered Life.
There are many etymological tidbits related to the word roots and usages in this Psalm, but let’s not lose the forest for all those trees. The solution to the problem of verse 1 is found in the verses immediately afterwards and it’s all about prayerfully and humbly letting the Word of Christ (the scriptures) transform us from the inside out, by the power of His Holy Spirit.
Notice the significance that the three-fold problem of verse 1 are all action verbs, yet the righteous alternative that follows are all cognitive or being verbs. This because the solution is not something we do, but something that’s done to us, that we allow to refocus our lives. Not a passive “being”, but an active “being”.
First, one who becomes blessed is one who delights in the law of the LORD (vs.2). Here “law” (elsewhere, “law and prophets”) is a synecdoche, a part standing in for the entire whole, and signifies the entire scriptures. The psalmist here isn’t suggesting a delight or pleasure in the Ten Commandments, per se (though that is part of it), but in the full revelation of God across the entire Old Testament. Also, the strong case can be made to include that which was to be encapsulated in future writings (the coming prophets along with the gospels and epistles, the New Testament).
Second, he/she is also described as one who meditates on the scriptures day and night (vs.2). The Hebrew hagah, translates as “moan, meditate, speak, and imagine”. This isn’t describing brief and shallow morning devotions, but a deep and ongoing relationship with the Word of God. There is a purposeful, vocal, and creative element here; engaging the many senses and the fullness of thought. Much like in Joshua 1:8, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success”. A continuous cognition of and transformation by His Word.
Third, he/she is compared to a “tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (vs.3). The word “planted” (shathal) means to be deliberately transplanted. That the tree is there by the water is not by accident. See also Psalm 92:13, “planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God”. When we are delighting and meditating on the Word, we are like trees that drink in deeply of the streams (notice the plural) of living water, referring forward to Christ himself (John 7:38, Rev 7:17). In and through us He yields His good fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) to bless all of his creation.
That the leaf doesn’t wither (vs.3) speaks to the constancy, consistency, and reliable growth of a garden. If the proper nutrients are present (sun, rain, soil), the plant will organically grow and bear fruit. And there’s an intimation of quietness and longevity as well: We don’t hear or see a tree grow when we are watching it; but rather we see the growth in retrospect over the passing of time. This because the LORD himself (vs.6) is the master gardener who directs the spiritual health and growth of all his plantings.
In case we miss the obvious, the psalmist is ultimately pointing forward to Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is both the complete fulfillment of the “law” of God and He is the living stream(s) of water which flow from God.
As followers of Christ, we too become truly blessed when we allow His Spirit to transform us beyond the progressing paradigm of the default man-centered life (manifested by mockery) and towards the refreshing and refreshed God-centered life which is only found in Jesus Christ.
NOTE: Lectionary Calendar for July 11: “Benedict of Nursia” (Abbot of Monte Cassino c.540)
Raising The Bar
Matthew 5:43-48 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
If loving our neighbor wasn’t a difficult enough challenge, Jesus expands the definition of neighbor here in what we call his “Sermon on the Mount” to include our enemies (vs.44), and murder to include every angry thought (vs.22) as well as adultery to include even our most private lustful thoughts (vs.28). And then the unrealistic expectations rise higher and higher up into a wounding crescendo, a painful stabbing point, where in vs.48 the bar has now been raised beyond any conceivable reach. At precisely this point Jesus divulges to his hearers the necessary standard of righteousness that God requires of all: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This text describes a standard of righteousness which God does require, per Jesus, but that is utterly absurdly impossible for anyone to be able to reach. The result is that every single thinking person who hears or reads those words should be stopped dead in our tracks. We know intuitively it is not even within our DNA to come close.
So if Jesus knows we can’t do it, why does he command it?
To answer that question, let’s be reminded of the socio-historical and religious context of first century Palestine. The Israelites, the people of God, had yet again missed grace and embraced works; the human nature defaulting to circumvent the grace of God by attempting to be good in our own strength and efforts. For the Pharisees of the day, this was done by observing the commandments (Ex.20, Dt.5), the Old Testament “Law” in general, plus the midrash; those many additional human religious rules, rites, and traditions layered on top of it all. But it didn’t work. Those hearers were obviously far from the Kingdom of God when Jesus came.
So how can imperfect human beings achieve this perfection that God requires?
The Greek teleios, translated “perfect” in vs.48, is defined as perfect, perfection, and also as complete or finished. It appears seventeen times in the New Testament and is the same word Jesus uses when admonishing the rich young ruler in Mt 19:21, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”. Those were very hard words to hear, even when spoken with compassion, for that earnest young man walked away downcast.
So this all seems so impossibly hopeless, and Jesus really does leave us hanging on verse 48 waiting for a resolution that doesn’t immediately come as it’s not spoken right afterwards. Instead we’re stuck in a conundrum; yearning for a perfection and completeness exceeding that of the Pharisees, but unable to muster it on our own.
But for those who rely on Christ, there is hope and here’s the key: While we do need to be perfect, perfected, holy and righteous, it won’t come from anything inside us at all. None of our attempts or efforts will even make a dent. Instead, what is given to us by the finished work of Christ on the cross is an external righteousness which comes from outside of ourselves; it is HIS righteousness, applied to us on our behalf.
Theologians speak of a double imputation that occurred on the cross and what they mean is simply this: When Jesus took our sin upon himself, he simultaneously applied his perfect righteousness onto us. It’s a big switch and this is exactly how we become perfect in God’s eyes; not by anything we do or don’t do, but by what Jesus did on our behalf. Very simple and yet extremely profound.
Jesus himself IS our perfection and our completeness as he lives his eternal life in and through us by his Holy Spirit. So when he calls us to “be perfect” (vs.48), in essence he is calling us to rest completely in Him. And that is good news.
Ezekiel 34:11-16 11 For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
People have mistakenly tried to construct a false dichotomy between a wrathful Old Testament God who judges and a loving New Testament God who saves, but that thinking is revealed as flawed in multiple places. Case in point: This chapter 34 of Ezekiel.
In the context of this prophetical book, pronouncing judgment upon sin, we encounter here in this chapter astonishing imagery describing our Lord shepherding his flock with compassion. So it becomes obvious again that God has revealed his depth of character in a profound “both-and” way. He is both sovereign Lord who provides justice AND he is also nurturing shepherd who loves tenderly.
The prophet-priest Ezekiel was called by God during Israel’s history right around the time of the Babylonian exile of 597 BC when Nebuchadnezzar swept through and destroyed all of Jerusalem including the Temple; the center of religious ritual. It was within this historical context that Ezekiel prophesied; enacting many of his proclamations symbolically and speaking others verbally.
The initial focus of Ezekiel’s prophecies were about God’s judgment on sin and idolatry; initially first against Israel, and then against the surrounding seven nations. But once Jerusalem fell, Ezekiel switched towards a message of consolation; foretelling of a restored people awaiting a glorious future where the Lord himself will shepherd his flock by gathering, caring for, and feeding them in deep and profound ways.
1. The Lord GATHERS his flock
The imagery of the Lord as a shepherd who actively seeks and saves those who are lost brings to mind the deliberate recounting of this metaphor in parabolic form by Jesus himself in Luke 15:1-7. Even though the flock had been scattered and exiled to Babylon (due to the sinful neglect by the “shepherds”; the religious leaders), the glorious day will come when the Lord will gather his sheep who are easily in view, but will also actively pursue those who are far off; those who are weak, hurt, injured, scared, from every nation on earth.
And imagine how comforting the message that they would be gathered “out from the nations” (vs.13) would have been to the scattered remnant captured into foreign lands. It would have brought hope to those exiles trapped there in Babylon.
In verse 16, the word translated “lost”, the Hebrew ‘abad, means scattered but also annihilated/destroyed and the word translated “scattered”, nadach, is even more insidious; meaning to be thrust away, banished, outcast! These sheep were lost to the point of desperately needing divine rescue (vs.12).
To expand our context to the entire chapter 34, we read that the Lord’s gathering of his flock is in stark contrast to the human shepherds (signifying the religious leaders) who only care about themselves and therefore don’t even bother to go out looking for missing sheep. They “have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost” (vs.4). A very strong indictment.
2. The Lord CARES FOR his flock.
The Lord as shepherd not only gathers his sheep together safely into his fold, he also cares for their every need; making sure they feel safe and treasured. Listen to the power of the nurturing words used in our text such as “look after” (vs.11,12), “bring them out” and “into their own land” (vs.13), “tend” them (vs.14,15), as well as “bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (vs.16). All of these activities would be expected of a normal shepherd watching over his sheep, but evidently those religious leaders, identified as shepherds of the people Israel, were preoccupied with other priorities; namely themselves.
Ezekiel draws the obvious contrast between the Lord as good shepherd (in vs.11-16) against all those who tended to their own comforts and privileges. Not only were they not caring for their own flocks (vs.2-3), they were actually plundering and exploiting them for their own comfort, gain, and well-being. Meanwhile, as they were not watching guard, many of the sheep were figuratively carried off (or scared off) by rampaging wild animals.
3. The Lord FEEDS his flock.
Ezekiel paints a beautiful portrait of the Lord as shepherd who gathers and cares for his beloved sheep, but also as one who feeds his flock in nourishing ways. To get the full sense of this concept, we must go back to the original language and notice the multitude of times the Hebrew word ra’ah is used in describing the pasturing and feeding of the sheep. This word ra’ah describes what shepherds do; pasturing, shepherding, feeding and even teaching (which is enormously significant for ministry application).
In the book of Ezekiel itself, this word ra’ah is used sixteen times and all but one of those times shows up here in this chapter 34. It’s as if Ezekiel is overstating again and again the obvious; shepherd the lost and needy sheep, and he communicates this within the agricultural imagery where the shepherd will bring his sheep to verdant pastures where they can feed without fear or anxiety.
Again we must contrast God’s divine shepherd to the human religious leaders who fed themselves without caring about their flock. Verse 2 is condemning, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves!”. This can also be properly translated as “Woe to the feeders of Israel who have been feeding themselves” (rather than their appointed flocks). Verse 3 goes on to explain that they feast on the choicest parts of their own sheep; on the delicious animal fatty meats. The picture is unmistakable: They were betraying their calling as shepherds and were gorging on the very animals supposedly under their care.
But the Lord turns the tables in verse 10, “I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them”. There is hope: He will reject those shepherds and will replace them with one who is far superior.
Note that the sheep themselves are not innocent in the text. Throughout verses 18-21, many of the neglected sheep are judged as selfish and vindictive to the remainder of their flock. They stamp down the pastures after they have eaten, making it inedible for others, and they pollute/muddy the water after drinking, making water unavailable to the others. Verse 21 adds that the stronger sheep are guilty of bullying and pushing the weak ones around. It’s an absolute mess and needs divine intervention.
The True Good Shepherd
Jesus himself explained on the Road to Emmaus (Lk.24) that all of the Old Testament was about him, and this text is yet another example. Even though a partial fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy did take place during the Old Testament period (the exile eventually ended, the people did return to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple), it was never completely fulfilled. Something was always still missing, and there continued to be false shepherds leading the sheep of Israel astray. Why was that?
This was because though partially fulfilled in the old covenant, this prophecy was not completely fulfilled until the new covenant in Jesus Christ. That word ra’ah which was used fifteen out of sixteen times in chapter 34 (about pasturing the sheep) takes a beautiful turn the final time used by Ezekiel three chapters later, in 37:24, pointing towards the true and coming shepherd of Israel, “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd ; and they will walk in My ordinances and keep My statutes and observe them”. Obviously this is not referring to King David who was already dead and gone, but to the true Davidic king to come, Jesus Christ himself.
As foreshadowed in Ezekiel 34:23, Jesus is the one who is the true shepherd. He will give the true rest (vs.15) to his flock where they can experience peace like sheep laying safely on a guarded field. In fulfillment of Ezekiel 34, along with Psalm 23 (with many other instances), Jesus Christ is the good shepherd who gathers, cares for, and feeds his flock with divine compassion.
In the New Testament, Jesus used the same imagery of himself shepherding his sheep (John 10). Those who belong to him will finally be gathered and secured into his flock, and will experience a banquet feast of spiritual food along with living waters as he will institute, per vs. 25, a “covenant of peace” forever.
We who have been gathered by Christ as his sheep can experience this partially now and then completely at the end of the age when the fulfillment of his Kingdom will have been fully accomplished .
Jesus Christ Crucified is Center
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
Without Jesus as Center, it is impossible to remain on the right path. It doesn’t matter the good intentions, rich history and traditions, well-meaning followers or leaders. Without Jesus as Center, the route traveled will quickly deviate off the appointed path to the right or to the left; even at some point spinning off to the degree of necessitating intervention.
This occurred in the Corinthian Church very early on and St. Paul’s “First Letter to the Corinthians” is his targeted attempt to repair it.
A few years earlier, Paul came to Corinth and found a thriving commercial center; a hub of money, influence, thought, and immorality. Basically Corinth was a power-center much like a New York City or Los Angeles is today. And Paul, per his typical method, preached, evangelized, discipled, delegated, and then moved on to the next region to do the same; letting the newly placed local elders and leaders continue to shepherd, teach, and guide the newly converted Christians. This was the pattern.
There were problems with Corinth, however. Idolatries were very entrenched there and the new church became too influenced by its surrounding culture.
The result was twofold: A growing over-emphasis on human reason and on religious zealotry. Those two categorical issues were (and still continue to be) deadly in luring disciples away from experiencing the true life that Christ offers.
So reenter the Apostle Paul: Having heard about these concerns from afar, he sat down and penned this letter (1 Corinthians) to plead the message that Jesus Christ Crucified is the Center; anything else is foolishness and powerlessness!
1. The Foolishness of REASON
It might seem odd, at first glance, that the highly educated Apostle Paul would minimize the importance of human reason for he was known to persuade, debate, and engage the human mind in synagogues and in public squares alike. And we modern Westerners, children of the Enlightenment, might miss the gist of this text because when Paul quotes the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah (in vs.19) he is not suggesting a devaluation of truth. Instead, Paul is directly attacking the Greek philosophy that had so heavily influenced the Corinthian Church after his departure; it had been veering those new disciples away from Jesus as Center.
The Greek Philosophers taught that there was a dualism in life — The spirit being good and pure and the body/earth being impure or nonessential. Even as Paul was evangelizing, and later penning letters, this Greek philosophy was crystallizing more and more into an intense “Gnostic” strain (meaning “knowledge”). Scholars call this early appearance “proto-Gnosticism”, but I’ll simply refer to it as Gnosticism as it has changed so little at its core.
Those Gnostics argued much about all the latest ideas and perspectives but it was all “head” knowledge. There was deadness to all the philosophizing and opinionating about their points of view: All head but no heart.
It was within this context that Paul admonished the (Gnostic-influenced) Corinthian Christians that they had gotten it backwards. All of the head-knowledge philosophizing and disputing was utter foolishness. Instead of arriving at Jesus as Center, all that speculative human reasoning ended up instead at themselves as center.
And so then it became anthropocentric, not christocentric; worthless and foolish. That word “foolish”, the Greek moraino, is the same used of the salt that became tasteless and worthless thereby needing to be tossed out (Mt 5:13, Lk 14:34) as well as the description of the idolatry of the Gentiles in Romans 1 who “claimed to be wise” (Rom 1:22) but who were really fools about spiritual truth.
Fast forward to today where the Gnostic error continues to hold sway. There are many current dialogues and conversations about how to “do life” and even “do church” according to the philosophies and progressive trends of the ever-changing culture, and there is also the inundation of the “principles for success” pragmatism as well, but these are not based on the centrality of Christ and Him crucified.
And let’s not miss the important point: The “crucified” adjective is crucial. In verse 23, Paul drives home this point, “but we preach Christ crucified” and then elaborates that this is where true wisdom originates.
Let’s be clear: Even though there can be layers of church, religion, and even Jesus placed on top to give an appearance of authenticity, it’s still NOT the gospel unless Christ Crucified is Center. All else is utter foolishness.
2. The Powerlessness of RELIGION
The other destructive fallacy contaminating the Corinthians was religious zealotry. In verse 22, Paul writes that the “Jews demand miraculous signs”. What Paul meant was that the Jews had elevated the importance of religious power, signs and miracles; in essence they were awaiting a Messiah who would fulfill their national hopes and accomplish their socio-political goals by ousting the Roman Empire in a show of power.
They wanted a Messiah to validate their self-centered interpretations, religious rites and traditions. So by interpreting the scriptures through the lens of their own religious traditions and culture, they had created a god in their own image, and thereby missed the real power of God in Christ.
For God’s true Messiah was not a commanding warrior for the Jews only but quite the opposite; a crucified suffering servant for ALL nations, in the vein of Isaiah 52-53.
To the Jews this concept was mind-blowingly offensive; much like if Osama Bin Laden’s head was carved onto Mt. Rushmore in the prominent place where George Washington’s head used to be. Unarguably offensive.
Case in point: The Apostle Paul himself. He describes his religious pedigree in Acts 22 as one thoroughly trained and zealous, persecuting Christians, even to the point of murder (Acts 8: The stoning of Stephen).
That the Messiah would be crucified (let alone worshiped as divine) was absolutely disgraceful to Paul (before his conversion) as well as to the Jewish people in general. This is because the Jewish religion held that anyone who was hung on a “tree” was accursed (Gal 1:13-14, 3:13) and they could not wrap their minds around the fact that the God-Man Jesus so loved his people that he went willingly to the accursed cross; dying a criminal’s death, paying the penalty for sin and brokenness, thereby redeeming mankind and creation.
This was a massive “stumbling block” as religious Jews could not get past the offensiveness of the cross. Here in verse 23 is the Greek scandalon where we get our word “scandal”. It was an indignity to religiously zealous people that they could not try harder, self-improve, do or be anything in order to become right in God’s eyes. The message of the cross was an absolute outrage!
In response, Paul is direct, using that word scandalon; echoing back to Jesus words in the gospel where our Lord accused Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Mt 16:23).
Within the Corinthian Church, those old religious beliefs and traditions were so insidiously formidable that they began to creep in and undercut the gospel. The religious zealots (much like the Judaizers of Galatians) were followers of Jesus within the church but they layered on top all the legalistic rules and self-righteousness from their traditions. But by doing so, by adding anything to Christ Crucified, they subtracted Him away. There cannot be Jesus Christ as Center plus any other stipulations or addendums. To do so deflates the power of the gospel.
A note about belief: The Greek word used in verse 21 for “belief”, pisteuo, carries a far weightier meaning than simple intellectual assent. To truly believe in Jesus Christ, in the scriptural sense, means to fully entrust and place confidence in him and his work on the cross on our behalf.
Fast forward to today where self-righteous religious zealotry (both fundamentalist AND progressivist) continue to be pervasive within the Christian community. Where religious rules, denominational (and non-denominational) traditions, and overwhelming focus on what they are doing (or not doing) continues to sweep away the grace of God infused into the centrality of Jesus Christ Crucified.
So, what does God think about all this?
God’s grace is revealed remarkably in verse 21 where the text reads that, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe”. This word “pleased” (well-pleased), the Greek eudokeo, is the exact word God spoke to vocalize his complete delight in His Son Jesus at his Baptism (Mt 3/Mk1/Lk 3) and later at the Transfiguration (Mt/Mk/Lk 9).
Imagine that! The same pleasure and delight the Father has for his beloved Son is the exact same he has in saving to himself (through the message of his gospel; the cross) people adopted as His sons and daughters.
What might have appeared like foolishness to some or scandalous to others is exactly what we all need. The message of the gospel leads us directly to Jesus Christ Crucified as Center.
Acts 2:1-13 When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs– in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Pentecost, the 50th day after Easter, celebrates the sending and indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit. Luke writes in Acts 2 that tongues of fire descended upon the disciples and they began to speak the gospel in a variety of comprehensible languages. Many call this event the “birthday of the Church”.
A few of the many items of note in Acts 2 are as follows:
1. Pentecost shows that every believer, regenerated by the Spirit of God, becomes a symbol of holiness himself/herself. In past times, God displayed his glory to Moses in the burning bush, led his people Israel by a towering traveling fire, and spoke of holiness in terms like a refiner’s fire. At Pentecost, that holiness of God was bestowed on these disciples; as representatives of all followers of Jesus. We too are now, in a sense, “burning bushes” that display God’s glory and holiness because of the Spirit of Jesus’ work in our hearts.
2. Pentecost shows that the message of the Church is to always bring glory to Jesus Christ by effectively communicating the gospel. In Acts 2, the miraculous and cacophonous tongues of fire were not to bring acclamation or glory to those disciples, but rather to work through them to speak of the glorious gospel of Jesus; suffering, crucified, dead, then risen… Our Redeemer. When the disciples received the pentecostal filling, they could not help but speak the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ.
3. Pentecost shows proof of the reversing of the curse of The Fall (Genesis 3). In this instance, it reversed the curse of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) where people tried to reach God’s level in their own self-absorbed and idolatrous ways. As a result, God confused their communication by mixing out the multitude of languages that could not be understood by most of the others; and therefore they abandoned the tower building project. Pentecost, on the other hand, shows the opposite: A unification takes place by way of the language of the preaching of the gospel of Jesus.
4. Pentecost shows that Jesus is still actively at work in his Church. As promised on the mountain previous to his ascension, he would send his Holy Spirit; the power of God amidst upcoming tasks, trials, persecutions, and martyrdom. Pentecost proves Jesus is both gloriously at the right hand of God the Father and also indwelling and active in our hearts.
5. Pentecost shows that the Word of God always comes true, in God’s perfect timing. The Old Testament prophet Joel foresaw the day when God would “pour out his Spirit on all people” (Joel 2:28-32, quoted in Acts 2). During past times, only some people of God were filled with the Spirit and often only for a short period in order to speak a prophetic word or accomplish an important task. Pentecost shows that ALL followers are now filled with the Spirit of God.
6. Pentecost shows that not one culture or language is to be elevated above any of the others. When the Spirit descended in Acts 2, the disciples spoke the gospel in many other languages simulataneously. Not the primary biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, but the languages of the very people that were in Jerusalem on pilgrimage from many other far off lands. When the Spirit-filled and Spirit-fueled gospel went forth, it then became heard and understood by all these other language-speakers, cultures, and nations all at the same time. This event both made culture less important as the gospel was heard simultaneously by the differing peoples, and it also made culture more important as the gospel went forth to them all regardless their national or linguistic backgrounds.
May the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, our redeemer, continue to fill both our hearts and our mouths that we too may be used to speak of this wonderful good news of salvation; the forgiveness of sins, the reversing of the curse upon mankind and the earth, and the going forward as his people with great joy, grace, and power.
Luke 24:44-53 44 Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
There has been a renewed emphasis recently about the descent of Jesus (and what that means both theologically and practically) and while that is vital, the ascent of Jesus, that returning back to where he originally came from, back to the Father’s side, back to the heavenly throne, that ascent is just as crucial as well. It informs us about essential things we absolutely must know.
The ascension story only occurs in the Luke gospel (and in his companion book “Acts of the Apostles”) and is curiously succinct. It has been noted that the book of Luke is lengthy for the typical papyrus writings of his day so we can almost imagine Luke running out of room on that particular gospel scroll. What a quandary! He had interviewed so many witnesses, had personally traveled with the Apostle Paul on many journeys, and therefore had so much to say and yet precious little room left to say it; so here Luke finds himself, at the very end, running out of papyrus to write on. Consequently, Dr. Luke’s telling of this story is very brief.
Despite being so concise, however, this Ascension of Jesus narrative is dense and packed with details for us to learn both about Jesus and also about us. In this devotional, we will break down this passage into seven segments (as they occur in order in this storyline) and we will see why this passage is so important.
1. The Resurrected Lord (v44).
The first item to notice, right away in verse 44, is that Jesus has indeed been resurrected as he had promised: This Jesus here talking to his disciples has a changed body that can now walk through walls and yet also eat fish. Ultimately what we should notice is that Jesus is undeniably alive; thusly confirming the authenticity of his life, ministry, and teachings, and he is now appearing to his friends a final time with something very important to say before he ascends to the Father.
This is not the first post-resurrection appearance; other apostles have spoken and written about other group appearances (the women at the tomb, the two men on the road to Emmaus, the disciples on the boat, the crowd of over 500, to Saul/Paul, etc) but this is the last time they see him in his post-resurrection pre-glorified state.
Jesus is Lord, the power of God has been majestically displayed in the reality of his resurrection, and that which he said would occur has already taken place: He is now ready to ascend to the Father.
2. The Revealed WORD (v44-46)
In verses 44-46, Jesus continues the theme found earlier in this Luke chapter 24 where on the Road to Emmaus the newly risen (and unrecognized) Christ walked beside two disheartened disciples, teaching them a compacted Master’s level “Messianic Survey of the Old Testament” course (so to speak) as he explained how all of those scriptures in the Old Testament were about HIM. They didn’t get it at first.
Here in this narrative, much like earlier in the Emmaus episode, Jesus speaks of the major categories of Old Testament scripture (Law, Prophets, and Psalms) and this is a synecdoche; where one part stands in for the entire whole. Our Lord Jesus has a high view of scripture, quoting it with the prefatory “it is written” (64 times), and his gist is that the Bible isn’t so much about the Jews or even mankind in general, holy or otherwise. Instead it is all about him.
It is not about us, nor about them. It is all about HIM!
Where this teaching may have been initially misunderstood (or at least not fully comprehended) by his disciples before his death, now they’re starting to get it. After the resurrection there comes a spiritual clarity that is bestowed upon them. How does this happen? Verse 45: “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures”.
This word “opened”, the Greek dianoigo, refers to a thorough opening of something that had been previously closed (never before opened). It is used 8 times in the all the New Testament where 7 of those 8 times is by Luke in his gospel or Acts. Some enlightening instances are found in Mark 7:34 (the ephphatha healing) where he opens the ears of the mute, and in Luke 24:31 in Emmaus where he opened the two men’s eyes so that they could recognize him. Then also in Acts 7:56 where Stephen being stoned saw the heavens opened as he was being martyred. And then additionally in Acts 16:14 where the Lord opened up Lydia’s heart to believe Apostle Paul’s evangelistic message.
The Apostle John writes that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). Jesus is the revealed word of God and these disciples are now starting to get it as their minds have now been opened.
3. The Repentant Heart (v47)
Jesus connects repentance with forgiveness of sins in the next verse 47. In all honesty, this concept of repentance makes our modern (and postmodern) minds uncomfortable, so we like to sweep it under the rug. Why? Because repentance, the Greek word metanoia, means a changed mind, attitude, and behavior: We are called to be changed.
This distresses us as we don’t really want to change. Our self-centeredness kicks in here. We want everyone else to change, just not ourselves; but in order to be formed more and more into the image of Christ, we must.
This repentance, this internal (and ongoing) change, is intricately linked with the forgiveness here in this passage. Not that we work it or earn it in any way, but that instead we receive it; for our repentance signifies and proves that the Spirit is sanctifying us; changing us more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. All by grace and fueled by his love.
This speaks to a major aspect why Christ died on the cross: To forgive sins. Not simply our individual pet sin actions and behaviors, but our comprehensive foundational sin nature that works itself out (often at inopportune times) into regrettable sin actions.
And lest we fool ourselves that sin only signifies the large obvious negative categories like murder, war, adultery, and robbery, we must be aware that it also denotes the small subtle positive categories like family, church work, community involvement and acceptance; basically every way (especially these positive “good” ways) where we link our identity to anything outside of Jesus Christ.
4. The Responsibility of Witness (v47-49)
The good news of God’s love was never meant to be hidden or selfishly contained; it was always meant to be generously shared with all peoples everywhere. It is for every nation, tribe, tongue, and generation; everyone. To both the religious and to the irreligious; to the self-important and to the humble; to the leadership and to the outcasts: To all nations.
Because of this, his disciples are others-centered. We are called to be evangelizers; sharers of the great news of new life in the risen and ascended Christ; both in word and deed. This witness must proceed to the easy crowds who accept the message quickly, and also to the difficult crowds who do not; those who persecute and attempt to destroy the life of Christ within us.
Since the initial disciples were with Jesus as he walked the streets, teaching and healing, there is a double meaning in the word witness here in that they were not only called to go as witnesses (Great Commission), but they were also received as eyewitnesses; of his life, death, and resurrection. Luke himself gives us a peek into how he gathered the reports to include in his gospel (and Acts) in the first two sentences of his gospel: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (Lk 1:1-2)
To Dr. Luke, the historian, these accounts are historically accurate in that he has investigated and interviewed eyewitnesses who have testified to their experiences. So these initial eyewitnesses are also the witnesses who are called to propel the message forward: To Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) and they did go on to do exactly that: To witness to the reality that the Messiah did suffer and rise from the dead on the third day (v46).
This was a great responsibility culminating in the martyrdom of many of those early apostles and disciples; the story of the early church is the story of the good news going forward despite the dangers and bloodshed that awaited them. This too is our responsibility and our joy.
5. The Remaining for Power (v49)
What the disciples were called to do would be absolutely impossible without God’s active intervention so Jesus instructed those disciples (verse 49) to wait in the city for what was promised; that they would become clothed with power from on high. This concept becomes clearer a bit later in Acts 2:33; Pentecost: The powerful arrival of the promised Holy Spirit who would rest upon and live inside each believer.
But all this would have to wait until Jesus ascended back to the Father, and then together they would send the Spirit to fill and empower the disciples for life and ministry.
What does this mean? That this life of the Spirit of Christ who is active inside our hearts is both a seal and stamp of our adoption as sons/daughters of God, but is also the energizing force for life and ministry.
So as promised, this power would indeed come at Pentecost and would then propel the disciples to spread across the known world (Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and beyond) sharing the good news of the suffered and risen Christ.
But as for now, in verse 49, Jesus called the disciples to wait. They could not carry on without this gift. Earlier, they had tried to heal diseases and perform miracles in his name and often failed (Mt 17:16); they needed to be empowered by the Spirit first before going forward.
6. The Rising to the Father (v50-51)
Upon blessing his disciples, and after teaching them what he had wanted them to know, it was now time. Jesus’ earthly work had come to a conclusion and he was ready to return to the Father; back to heaven. He had accomplished redemption on the cross (for both mankind and the cosmos) and with his resurrection had proven that his kingdom had indeed arrived.
Interestingly, this short text tells us very little about this ascension event. Luke simply says in verse 51 that Jesus “withdrew from them” and then that he was “carried up into heaven”. Very little description or detail accompanies it.
We do read a bit more about the ascension in the book of Acts where Luke launches into his second volume with a quick recap: In Acts 1:1-11 it is recorded that Jesus was “taken up to heaven”, that “he was taken up before their very eyes”, and a “cloud hid them from their sight”. Not much detail beyond that. Why might that be?
Perhaps there is a reason for this lack of detail. Perhaps it’s because it’s less important that future readers see an exciting Hollywood screen-reel in our minds and more important that we see the significance of the reality of what the ascension truly means.
And the ascension means that Jesus’ work on earth is done:
- Jesus could now send the Holy Spirit to empower us and would no longer be limited in location anymore.
- As Great High Priest, he performed the once-only perfect sacrifice for sins that all of the previous atonements from past millennia only partially accomplished and pointed towards; he had fully atoned for the sin and brokenness of both mankind and our world.
- As the spotless Lamb of God, he was sacrificed for sins, shedding his innocent blood for our redemption.
- As Advocate/Lawyer extraordinaire, he argued the case for justice (as it were) before the judgment seat of God and won; his case was airtight because the penalty had already been paid for, by Jesus himself.
- As Supreme Ruler, Jesus returned to and now sits on the very throne of God in heaven. He holds together all things in the cosmos and is king and ruler of every realm.
The most quoted text in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1, “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’.” Jesus is Lord and King over all.
Jesus had to ascend in order for this redemptive chapter to come to its final conclusion (from God’s perspective) and it allowed for his presence to be spread abroad in all our hearts and not just remain proximally with that small group of disciples there in Judea.
7. The Repetition of Praise (v52-53)
The narrative (and Luke’s gospel) ends with the disciples in perpetual praise. As Jesus has ascended back to the heavenly throne to be with the Father, ruling and reigning over all things forever, the disciples responded in the only way they could: They worshiped him, they were filled with great joy, and they stayed in the Temple blessing and praising (Greek word eulogeo) God.
If the resurrection and ascension are true, then it changes everything. It validates Jesus’ teachings and his atoning death and proves that our redemption has indeed been accomplished. This is not only good news but fantastic news and should change every aspect of our lives.
To go forward rather with a lukewarm attitude towards Jesus (and the cross) would be absolute nonsense. To go forward with continued self-reliance, self-centeredness, and all accompanying idolatry would also be a ridiculous response.
Those initial disciples knew all these events to be true, as they were eyewitnesses (having been with Jesus from the beginning), and it changed them completely. They were propelled forward with joyful and repeated praise in spite of the dangers, persecution, and martyrdom that awaited them.
To summarize, the understanding about the ascension of Jesus Christ is vital and therefore should be given the rightful place in our minds and hearts. In a figurative sense, Jesus’ ascension was the very spark that ignited the towering timber pile: The logs had been chosen, cut, then placed in array, the tinder has been perfectly and strategically situated, and that spark initiated the brilliant and glorious fireworks of the next chapter in the life and growth of the Church. The ascension was the event that proved to be the accelerant.