Posts Tagged With: Centrality of Christ

Sheep and Goats

Sheep and Goats
Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37″Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46″Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

———————-

One of the more esoteric and potentially frightening texts in the New Testament is this Matthew 25 recounting of Jesus’ “The Sheep and Goats” narrative. Who exactly are these sheep? Or these goats? How best do we interpret this passage given the historic and religious contexts in which Jesus taught?

The gospel of Matthew, a biography of Jesus written from a Jewish perspective, builds on the theme of final judgment across chapters 23-25; culminating in crescendo in this agrarian/shepherd metaphor with its intended message aimed primarily at its religious Jewish audience.

Intentionally, this passage is intricately linked with the preceding parable of the ten virgins (vs.1-13) and the parable of the talents (vs.14-30). When these are taken altogether, the core message is unmistakable: Be prepared, get ready, the bridegroom/master/shepherd/king is coming!

In this devotional, we will look at the sheep and goats as well as the shepherd-king who tends them.

1. SHEEP and GOATS

Sheep & Goats Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Sheep & Goats
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

The simile used by Jesus would make perfect sense to his hearers in 1st century Palestine agrarian society.  While sheep and goats have many similarities, they do diverge within scientific classification: Each is a specific species and genus with a differing amount of chromosomes. All that to say that shepherds would tend them together, but at a certain point would separate them for whatever their final destination or use might be.

But who is Jesus speaking of? Who are these sheep and goats? This passage can be somewhat obscure in that there have historically been a couple different ways it has been interpreted.

  • One way this passage has been interpreted is in a social-justice framework:  That Jesus is speaking about how they, the religious Jews, treat the poor and disadvantaged in their midst.  The scholars who come to this conclusion do so in taking the terms food, drink, clothes, sick, and prison in a mostly literal sense while defining the “least of these” (vs.40,45) as being the needy within the community. Therefore, the application to today would be that the Church must take care of the poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized in our society (and across the globe); delivering loving care and justice in Jesus’ name.

  • Another way this passage has been interpreted is in a disciple-specific framework: That Jesus is speaking about the way the outsiders (nations and individuals) welcome and treat his disciples, including those who would become his followers generations later.  The scholars who interpret the text this way come to this conclusion by taking the terms food, drink, etc as mostly figurative (think Jesus’ statements such as Jn 6:35, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”). They also emphasize the definition of the word “brothers” (adelphos ἀδελφός) in vs.40 to mean Christian believers; especially those who are marginalized and even persecuted for their faith in Christ.

So which is it? Treat the poor and disadvantaged well? Or treat the followers of Christ (with their message) well?  Certainly both explanations of this text have validity and, in a strong sense, both are true.

Goats Be Sayin'

Goats Be Sayin’

But if we step further and take into account other parables of Jesus such as the “Wheat and the Tares” (Mt 13:24-30) as well as “A Tree and its Fruit” (Mt 7:21-23) with it’s “Depart from me, I never knew you” climax, it becomes more clear that Jesus is explaining that within the Church (what theologians call the “Visible Church”; those inside the community, claiming to be participants), there is a subset of true regenerated followers of Christ side-by-side with a subset of others who are not.  Whether these others are “playing church” or deeply in denial about their relationship with Jesus (or any other reason) we simply don’t know.

Here is what we do know: In the Church of Jesus Christ, there are both sheep and goats who share a similar outward appearance and yet possess a completely different makeup in their internal spiritual DNA.

To restate it another way, the contrast that Jesus makes is between those who are focused and centered primarily on Him, with a resulting concern for others (sheep) -vs- those who are focused and centered primarily on themselves with a resulting self-focus on their own well-being, reputation, approval, and comfort (goats).

And Jesus communicates that the final outcome (and proof) per verse 46 is eternal life for the sheep and eternal punishment for the goats.  Since our text doesn’t give us any more particulars on what that punishment entails, suffice it to say as per C.S. Lewis’ famous quote from The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” (Chap. 9, pp 72-73).

This topic may be uncomfortable to many.  We’re typically not used to considering that those who are sitting side-by-side with us in pews (and especially those up on platforms preaching and leading) might not be truly “sheep” after all.  It’s a very sobering thought but the bottom line is that we are not to look at others and ask whether they are sheep or goats (or wheat or tares), but instead to look at ourselves; to take spiritual stock of the work of God’s Holy Spirit within our own hearts.

Christ the King Icon

Christ the King Icon

Is Jesus Christ living his life internally within our hearts to the degree where his love flows out in care, compassion, and service to others? Are we enthralled with the King to the point that the good works we perform are so innate and inherent to our Christ-filled souls that we’re not always even aware of performing them? If we are asking those questions with sincerity, that’s a good sign. And, as always, we’re called to a continual life of repentance; receiving grace where we continually fall short.

2. The Shepherd-King

Jesus’ message of warning across the entire gospel of Matthew is clear:  Get ready and be prepared, for the Lord is coming. Though he initially came to Bethlehem in incarnational humility and poverty, he will return in full divine glory (doxa δόξα) to “sit on his throne ” (vs 31), where he will rule and reign over everyone and everything forever.

Therefore Jesus is not only the absolute fulfillment of the shepherd metaphor in all of scripture, but of the kingly imagery as well. He is everything that matters.

So we can trust and rely that his judgments are good and perfect because he sees beyond the externals into the deep internal place in our hearts where he resides by the power of His Holy Spirit.

#Wade S

—————————

From the gospel reading for the “Feast of William Wilberforce, 1833”.  Wilberforce was leader of British abolition movement to eradicate race-based slavery.
(the end)

Advertisements
Categories: Christian Service, Devotional, Final Judgment, Good Shepherd, Sheep and Goats, Social Justice | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Good, Better, and Best: A Meal with Martha, Mary, and Jesus

Good, Better, and Best: A Meal with Martha, Mary, and Jesus
Luke 10:38-42

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.

"Martha"; Velazquez

“Martha”; Velazquez

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.

"Christ With Martha and Mary"; Vermeer 1654-55

“Christ With Martha and Mary”; Vermeer 1654-55

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.

~Wade

———————–

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.

Categories: Bible, Blessed Life, Christian Service, Devotional, Mary & Martha, Repentance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jesus: Our True Rest

Jesus: Our True Rest
Matthew 11:28-30

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.

  • Yoked Oxen

    Yoked Oxen

    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.

Van Gogh, 1890 Rest, Work (After Millet)

Van Gogh, 1890
Rest, Work (After Millet)

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.

#Wade

——————–

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.

Categories: Blessed Life, Devotional, Sabbath Rest, Spiritual Rest | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moving Beyond Mockery

Moving Beyond Mockery
Psalm 1

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.

mockers

Mockers Mocking

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.

Mockery of Christ Duccio 1311

Mockery of Christ –Duccio 1311

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.

Van Gogh: Les Alpilles avec Olive Trees 1889

Van Gogh: Les Alpilles avec Olive Trees 1889

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.

#Wade

[the end]

NOTE: Lectionary Calendar for July 11:  “Benedict of Nursia” (Abbot of Monte Cassino c.540)

Categories: Blessed Life, Devotional, Living Water, Psalms, Sermon On The Mount | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Raising The Bar

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.”

Wait… what?

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?

Sermon-on-the-Mount

Sermon On The Mount

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.

sermon on the mount

Sermon On The Mount

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.

#Wade

Categories: Death on Cross, Devotional, Sanctification, Sermon On The Mount | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Lord Is Our Good Shepherd

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.

Prophet Ezekiel

Prophet Ezekiel

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.

Good Shepherd

Good Shepherd

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?

Caring & Feeding His Sheep

Caring & Feeding His Sheep

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 .

#Wade

Categories: Devotional, Ezekiel, Good Shepherd | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Foolishness To The Greeks

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.

1Corinthians

Corinth

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.

Apostle Paul Writing

Apostle Paul Writing

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).

3-elders-judging-church-discipline

Religious Zealots Self-Righteously Judging and Imposing Rules

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.

#Wade

Categories: Apostle Paul, Death on Cross, Devotional, Gnosticism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.