WHICH WAY UP?

January 27

Bible Reading: Matthew 20

Matthew 20:25-28, “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’.”

The book, Hope for the Flowers, is a children’s novel first published in 1972 by Trina Paulus. It tells the story of Yellow and Stripe, two caterpillars who search for meaning by attempting to climb to the top of a caterpillar pillar, only to eventually discover another destiny. Stripe begins his life by eating the leaf he was born on, but then realizes that there must be more to life than just eating leaves. He yearns for a way to get up to the sky and ultimately finds himself at the base of a pillar made up of caterpillars. They are all struggling to get up to the sky also, stepping over each other along the way. Though the top of the pillar is shrouded by a cloud, they all climb. Stripe meets Yellow, who feels bad about what must be done to reach the top—stepping on and climbing over others—so the two retreat back down the pillar. Stripe and Yellow live happily together for a while, but Stripe’s curiosity compels him to return to the pillar and attempt to reach the top. Stripe says goodbye to Yellow. He focuses and, with much effort, finally makes it to where he can see the top of the pillar. Shockingly, he realizes that there’s no doorway to the sky and instead the caterpillars are driven from the top over the side, where they then fall to the depths below. Yellow, however, following her better instincts, continues to eat and then spins a cocoon. She eventually emerges from the cocoon, transformed into a butterfly, and flies effortlessly into the sky. Stripe returns and Yellow reveals the empty cocoon that birthed her anew. He then realizes what he needs to do. He makes a cocoon. Yellow waits for him until he too emerges as a butterfly, and they fly off together. In the pursuit of success and meaning, most in this world are prone to climb such a pillar. But there is a better way…

Jesus had just reaffirmed to his disciples His future destiny.  He was to be delivered up, condemned, abused, and crucified.  Three days later, He would be raised up (Matthew 20:17-19).  It was “then (that) the mother of the sons of Zebedee” came to Him with her request: “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left” (Matthew 20:20-21).

The question and Jesus’ response led to a discussion regarding Christ’s future suffering and the ability of the two sons to endure the same.  That discussion then caused the other ten disciples to become indignant with the two (Matthew 20:24).  This was not the only instance in which the disciples disagreed about such matters.  On a day to come, after Jesus had washed their feet and shared the last supper with them (partaking together of elements symbolic of His future sacrifice), “there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest” (John 13:5-15; Luke 22:15-22).  While their leader was making His way down (to suffer on the cross), they were arguing as to who was to be on top!

The world has its own definition of greatness.  It highly esteems the rich and powerful.  Famous movie stars; great athletes; powerful politicians; multi-billionaires–they are deemed “great” by this world.  And the desire for greatness lies in heart of man.  The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life are ever active and yearning for more.  It’s a “dog eat dog” world, and according to the world’s way of thinking, it is okay to do whatever it takes (“to eat whomever you have to eat”) in order to make one’s way to the top.  To be “king of the hill” is what matters.  The disciples had some of that in them.  Jesus speaks of dying on a cross.  The disciples argue over who is the greatest.  Jesus washes their feet.  They kick dirt at each other.

Jesus differentiated between the two different ways by which greatness is defined.  “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).  The rulers of the Gentiles “lord” it over them.  The word translated “lord,” means “to bring under one’s power, to subject one’s self, to subdue, to master.”  That is the role that the world esteems.  To be a position to be able to tell others what to do; to boss them around; to be served—that is what most people yearn for.

“It is not so among you.”  God’s way is different than the man’s.  The world esteems the master.  God esteems the servant.  If you want to be great, as God defines greatness, then you must learn to serve.  Jesus exemplified servanthood.  He walked on an alternative and better path.  We have been called to “follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).  At a later date, all of the disciples, except Judas, would undergo a Spirit-empowered transformation.  And, by the Spirit, they were then led to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.  They became “great” not by aspiring to greatness, but by living a life of self-sacrifice.  They ultimately realized that which Jesus taught them—the way up is down.

A humble attitude that is exemplified in a readiness to serve others is highly esteemed by God (Philippians 2:3-11).  The song says, “If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom learn to be the servant of all.”  A lot of voices out there say otherwise, so let’s be careful to not be deceived or dissuaded.  The way up is down.

There is a sinful, self-serving way to this world in which men are driven by various lusts to pursue fame and fortune at all costs. Stepping over one another in the search for meaning and purpose, we are prone to behave in hurtful ways that sometimes offend even those whom we love. We can be like those caterpillars on that caterpillar pillar—striving for success on a path that leads to destruction. But Jesus has marked out a better path. In dying to self, we find true life in Him. We can be born again of His love to a life in which we find true purpose and meaning. The way up is down. That’s the path Jesus took.

The world is enamored with fame and fortune and equates such things with greatness and success.  In God’s economy true greatness is measured in terms of humility and servanthood.

Make me a servant
Humble and meek
Lord let me lift up
Those who are weak
And may the prayer
Of my heart always be
Make me a servant
Make me a servant
Make me a servant today

POSSIBLE WITH GOD

January 26

Bible Reading: Matthew 19

Matthew 19:23-26, “And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’.”

He was young, wealthy, and powerful, but spiritually impoverished.  Aware of a deficiency he made his way to Jesus.  His question?  “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?”  (Matthew 19:16).  He desired “eternal life”—his youth, possessions, and power still left him hungering for something more.

His question was problematic.  The man was on the wrong course.  No doings of man, no matter how impressive, can ever measure up to God’s holy standard.  God alone is good (Luke 18:19; Romans 3:12).  The best of man’s religious efforts fall short (Romans 3:23).

Jesus worked to reveal the man’s shortcomings by issuing a challenge.  “Keep the commandments,” He said (Matthew 19:17).  “Which ones?” asked the man?  Jesus recited for him the second half of the Decalogue—the social division of the Ten Commandments—and added the Leviticus 19:18 requirement to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:18-19).

The young man responded by claiming that he had kept all these.  Did he really think so?  He must have.  But he was mistaken.  Jesus knew the truth and responded: “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” (Matthew 19:21).  “Do you really love your neighbor as yourself?”  Are you willing to sacrifice all that you have for their sake?  Salvation by good works will demand this and more.  Jesus was not suggesting that salvation can be earned, he was revealing to the man the hopelessness of his condition.  The young man had much property—he was unwilling to give that up.  The demands of salvation by works were too great.  Man has neither the will or ability to do all that is required by the Law.

He did not do what Jesus demanded, but instead went away “grieving” (Matthew 19:22).  The course he had chosen came to a bad end.  It would have been better if he had come to Jesus in humility and in faith (in the one alone who is good) –as a child would have come (Matthew 19:13-15; 18:3-4; Mark 10:15).  But he came attesting to his good works, and they were inadequate.  It was a sad end to the story, at least as far as the rich young ruler was concerned.  But Jesus used the occasion to teach His disciples some important things.  He said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24).

The Jews of Jesus’ day perceived riches to be indicative of a man’s piety and God’s blessing upon him.  So, the disciples were no doubt surprised by what they heard.  The reality is that the rich and poor alike must come to God as spiritual paupers.  But it is harder for the rich to do that, inasmuch as wealth deceives as to sense of need (Proverbs 30:7-9; 1 Timothy 6:17).

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!  How hard is it for a camel to go through the eye of a needle?  I’ve seen camels.  They are really large and have big humps.  The eye of a needle is incredibly small.  To get a camel through the eye of a needle is not just difficult, it’s impossible.

Thank God that what is impossible with man is possible with God (Matthew 19:26).  The Spirit is able to make us aware of our need and true condition before Him (i.e., spiritual bankruptcy; John 16:8; Matthew 5:3).  It is only then that we realize that there is nothing that we can do— “not the labor of my hands can fulfill the law’s demands.”  Helpless and contrite we are directed to the one who became poor, that we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).  True and lasting riches—bound up in Him alone– are then bestowed on those who sincerely trust in Him (1 Timothy 6:17-19).  Thank God that He is able to do the impossible.  Salvation is a miracle of God’s grace for rich and poor alike—but especially for the rich. 

“By His doing you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

My Father is omnipotent, and that you can´t deny;
A God of might and miracles, ´tis written in the sky.

It took a miracle to put the stars in place;
It took a miracle to hang the world in space.
But when he saved my soul,
Cleansed and made me whole,
It took a miracle of love and grace.

SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN

January 25

Bible Reading: Matthew 18

Matthew 18:21-22, “Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’  Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”

It was a tragic mistake that cost the life of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old accountant in Dallas. He was unarmed and watching television in his living room when police officer Amber Guyger walked in. Having mistakenly entered the wrong apartment, and thinking Botham to be an intruder, Amber fired and shot and killed Botham. She was white. He was black. The case garnered much attention. Ultimately she was convicted of murder and sentenced to ten years in prison. It’s what happened after her sentencing that was so surprising. Botham’s brother, Brandt, asked for permission from the court to hug the woman who had killed his brother. The teenage brother hugged her and told her, “if you truly are sorry — I know I can speak for myself — I forgive you.” He later explained during an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America that it is what his brother would have wanted for him to do. Then when asked about how some people are slower to forgive, Brandt said that “each and everyone has steps to get towards actually forgiving. I probably went through those faster than other people. … If you are trying to forgive her, understand that she is a human being.” Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. A God thing.

The slaves were aghast at what they had witnessed. Their fellow slave had amassed an enormous debt of 10,000 talents towards their master (Matthew 18:24). A debt so large that it would have taken a couple of centuries’ worth of wages to pay it off.  The master, wishing to settle accounts, brought the slave to himself and demanded payment.  Since he had no means to repay, the master commanded that he be sold, along with his wife and children and belongings, so that payment could be made.  Helpless to rectify his situation, the slave fell to the ground and begged that the master show patience towards him.  In an incredible and unprecedented display of compassion, the master forgave him for the massive debt.  The other slaves were astounded.  What kind of master would show such compassion?

How did the slave respond?  He went and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a debt.  The debt was small by comparison—a mere one hundred denarii.  An amount that could be earned in 100 days or so.  The forgiven slave seized the man and began to choke him.  He too, begged for patience.  But the forgiven slave showed no compassion and instead threw the slave into prison.  The other slaves were “deeply grieved” and reported to the master what had happened.  Oh, the incongruity of it all!  An unpayable debt forgiven by a compassionate master.  Forgiveness of the far smaller debt withheld by a fellow servant.  And so, it goes in this world.

The rabbis had taught that a repeated offense might be forgiven three times, but on the fourth there could be no forgiveness.  Peter questioned Jesus regarding the extent to which forgiveness should be demonstrated, asking, “Up to seven times?”  (Matthew 18:21).  Jesus’ response was not up to seven times, “but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).  Jesus used this parable to illustrate the truth about forgiveness.

It is altogether human to seek revenge. The Devil cheers us on in our anger, bitterness, and vengeance. He would have us to believe that some sort of victory is won in retaliating. The flesh is eager to take part. A deadly and turbulent concoction is brewed when vengeful thoughts are enjoined to the dreaded injustice. The poisonous elixir, having been simmered on the back burner of the mind, is then gladly guzzled down, only to be vomited up, emitting a foul and noxious odor. Revenge yields no genuine or lasting triumph. Temporary gratification is a high price to pay in view of the emotional, physical, and spiritual damage done.

Forgiveness is a God thing.  Were there no God, there would be no such things as forgiveness.  To forgive someone is to release them from liability to suffer punishment or penalty.  It is to make a decision about an injustice suffered: to not think about it, to not bring it up, to not talk about it, and to not allow it to stand between us and the other person.  That kind of response is not always easy.  It is by God’s grace and by the Spirit alone that we can lovingly respond to others in this manner (Galatians 5:20 vs. 5:22; 1 Corinthians 13:5).

Seventy times seven.  God has forgiven much.  It is His nature to forgive (Psalm 103:8-11).  My certificate of debt was of infinite measure (Colossians 2:14).  He “cancelled it out” by nailing it to the cross.  He who knew no sin was made to be sin that I might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

It is reasonable to expect that those who have been much forgiven should readily forgive.  That’s the point of the parable.  Anything less is unreasonable and deeply distressing.  Those who have been much forgiven, “as God in Christ has forgiven” (Ephesians 4:32b), should always be “forgiving each other” (Ephesians 4:32a). 

The fount of forgiveness is the cross.  When we forgive, we bear witness to its power to save and transform!

God forgave my sin in Jesus’ name.
I’ve been born again in Jesus’ name
And in Jesus’ name I come to you
To share his love as he told me to.

He said ‘Freely, freely you have received; freely, freely give.
Go in my name, and because you believe others will know that I live.

A GLIMPSE OF HIS GLORY

January 24

Bible Reading: Matthew 17

Matthew 17:1-2, “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”

Six days following Jesus’ revelation to His disciples of His pending death, He led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain where He was “transfigured” before them (Matthew 17:1).  Perhaps it was to reassure them—in light of the revelation of His pending suffering and death—as to His true identity and therefore encourage them in their faith.  Whatever the reason, it was a privileged viewing for only three disciples.

He was transfigured before them (Matthew 17:2).  The Greek word, metamorphoo, is related to our English metamorphis and means to “change into another form.”  The result of this was that “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matthew 17:3).  They were privileged to see what others were not—Christ transfigured before them.  His face shone with a light unrivaled on planet earth.  His garments were made whiter than white, “as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3).

Moses and Elijah, representing both the Law and prophets, appeared and talked with Jesus (Matthew 17:3).  A bright cloud overshadowed them all.  A voice declared: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!”  (Matthew 17:5).  What are we to make of this occurrence?

The full manifestation of the “incarnate Deity” was “veiled in flesh.”  His preincarnate state was that of sharing in the glory of the Father “from before the world was” (John 17:5).  In His incarnation He took “the form of a bondservant, and (was) made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7).  He divulged Himself of His glorious array.  The King of Kings and Lord of Lords put aside His glorious robe and dressed down for the occasion (2 Corinthians 8:9; Isaiah 53:2).

Christ’s incarnation is a matter of great mystery and wonder!  Martin Luther said that it represents a matter “which is beyond all human comprehension.”  To hear of suffering and death on one day, and to behold Jesus in glorious array on another was quite the dichotomy of experience for the disciples.  And the dichotomy remains difficult to comprehend.  “He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace!  Emptied Himself of all but love, And bled for Adam’s helpless race, Amazing Love!  How can it Be, That Thou, My God, shouldst die for me!”

The experience stuck with Peter.  Years later, he wrote about it: “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).  They were eyewitnesses of His majesty!  They saw Jesus in all of His glorious splendor on that day.  Peter never forgot that experience.  It was a foretaste of what we will all experience when “the day dawns and the morning star arises in (our hearts)” (2 Peter 1:19).

John experienced a similar encounter with Jesus on the island of Patmos.  He saw Jesus.  “His face was like the sun shining in its strength” (Revelation 1:16).  When he saw him, he “fell at His feet like a dead man” (Revelation 1:17; Matthew 17:6).

Only Peter, James, and John were privileged to behold Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration on that day.  But just as they beheld His glory, the believer in Christ is one who has been Spirit-led to gain a vision of the majesty of the Savior (2 Corinthians 4:6).  There will come a day when every believer will “see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2), “when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). 

“And we shall behold Him, We shall behold Him, Face to face in all of His glory!”  What a glorious day that will be!

Great things He hath taught us, great things He hath done,
And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
But purer, and higher, and greater will be
Our wonder, our transport when Jesus we see.

CHRISTOLOGY 101

January 23

Bible Reading: Matthew 16

Matthew 16:13-16, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’.”

It was and is an extremely important question that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is (Matthew 16:13)?”  The disciples responded, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:14).  Such were the opinions of that day.

How would people answer that same question in our day: “Who do people say that Jesus is?”  Some would deny His existence, others would acknowledge Him to have been a good man, still others would parrot the false teachings of their various false religions.  Few would give a correct response.  In that day and this there were/are a myriad of ideas concerning the identity and nature of the person of Jesus.

Jesus had another question for His disciples: “But who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16:15)?  This question is more personal, not what do people say, but what do you say?  It is more than an academic or theological matter.  The question has to do with a matter having direct relevance to a person’s eternal destiny (John 20:30-31; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9; 1 John 4:2).

Peter was ready with an answer.  “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” he said (Matthew 16:16).  It was the right answer, and Jesus commended him for it.  But how did he know it?  It was not something that Peter figured out.  Neither was it something that someone else told him.  It was, instead, truth revealed to him from the Father: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17)?  The Father made the truth about Jesus known to Peter!  Indeed, how blessed are those who have had the truth about Jesus Spirit-revealed to them!  They are privileged beyond measure and possess priceless treasure: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:6-7a).”

Peter was commended (called “blessed”) because he knew the right answer.  In Christology 101 (The Person of Christ) he got an “A+”.  But he didn’t fare so well in Christology 102 (The work of Christ).  Jesus began speaking to His disciples about His pending sufferings and sacrifice and resurrection (Matthew 16:21-23).  Though “He was stating the matter plainly,” Peter didn’t understand.  None of the disciples understood (Mark 9:31-32).  But Peter, was even argumentative: “Far be it from you, Lord!  This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 26:22).  Jesus’ response was immediate and direct: “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a hindrance to me.  For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).  In short order, in one conversation, Peter had plummeted from the heights of commendation to the depths of condemnation.  What an incredible reversal of fortune!  Peter’s report card: “A+” in Christology 101; “F- “in Christology 102.  Things would get even worse for him—the day would come when he would deny even knowing Jesus, even as Jesus was making His way to the cross.

There are some who know something of the facts of who Jesus is but fail to comprehend the nature of His work.  Incumbent in His warning to His disciples was the truth that Jesus’ death was according to God’s plan (Matthew 16:21-23; Acts 2:23).  Some think of the cross as the tragic and premature end to a good man’s life.  That’s not what happened.  God sent His only begotten Son to die (John 3:16).  Jesus purposed to die: “For the Son of Man came to serve and give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  The cross was no accident.  And though it (the cross) be counted foolish by some, and a cause for stumbling to others—it is gloried in by those who have experienced its power (1 Corinthians 1:23-24; Galatians 6:14).

Things changed for Peter after the resurrection.  By the Spirit he was given a new understanding of the truth he previously rebuked Jesus for.  With a changed perspective regarding the cross, He faithfully and powerfully bore witness to the power of the cross to save.  Who is Jesus?  Why did He die on a cross?  Blessed are those who have been Spirit-led to gain an understanding of these truths that they might trust in God’s provision!

If you know Jesus as your Savior and Lord, then you have had an experience similar to Peter’s revelation (John 6:44; 2 Corinthians 4:6-7a). How thankful we should be to God for opening our eyes to the truth!

O happy day that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Savior and my God!
Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
And tell its raptures all abroad.

Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!
He taught me how to watch and pray,
And live rejoicing every day;
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!

LITTLE IS MUCH WHEN GOD IS IN IT

Been thinking of the wonderful words of this old hymn in preparing for tomorrow’s message.

In the harvest field now ripened
There’s a work for all to do;
Hark! the voice of God is calling
To the harvest calling you.

Refrain:
Little is much when God is in it,
Labor not for wealth or fame;
There’s a crown, and you can win it,
If you go in Jesus’ name.

Does the place you’re called to labor
Seem too small and little known?
It is great if God is in it,
And He’ll not forget His own. [Refrain]

When the conflict here is ended
And our race on earth is run,
He will say, if we are faithful,
“Welcome home, My child, well done!” [Refrain]

THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM

January 20

Bible Reading: Matthew 15

Above the sink in the business restroom was a sign with illustrations and instructions on how to properly wash your hands.  There were 12 steps!  I’m not sure I actually did all twelve, but it’s a good idea to wash your hands—before you eat, after you visit the restroom, before and after you visit the hospital, etc.  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day practiced handwashing too.  It was one of their most important religious practices.  They did it in a certain manner.  They would wash one hand with the other fist, then raise the hand so that the water might run off just at the wrists.  An exact amount of water was specified.  They would do so before eating, and even between courses.  They washed their hands when coming home from the market and on numerous other occasions.  Very particular rules were also established regarding the washing of dishes and other eating utensils.  But their observance of these rules was not primarily about cleanliness.  As with their other traditions, it was all about establishing their own self-righteousness through religious rule-keeping.

The disciples failed to observe the practice (Matthew 15:2).  The Pharisees asked “Why?”  Jesus Himself neglected it (Luke 11:37-39).  A Pharisee was surprised (Luke 11:38).  Both occasions gave opportunity for Jesus to communicate an important truth: the heart of man is the heart of the problem (Matthew 15:18-20).

The heart of man is the heart of the problem.  Religious practice has no power to deal with it.  The heart of man is sinful by nature.  How is it to be changed?  There is a scene in Shakespeare’s MacBeth which illustrates the problem.  Lady Macbeth encouraged Lord Macbeth to slay the king.  But when he returned his hand was covered with blood.  So, she said to him, “Go, wash thy hand,” a little clean water will clear us of this deed.”  So, he went, but then looked at his hand and declared, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?  No; rather this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”  The heart of man is the heart of the problem.  The Great Physician is alone qualified to make a proper diagnosis as Jeremiah 17:10 makes clear: “I, the Lord, search the heart.”  The Spirit of God convicts of sin and reveals to man the gravity of the problem (John 16:8-9).  The condition is dire—rule keeping, self-improvement, or behavior modification deal only with the symptoms.  A total heart transformation is what’s necessary.

At the moment of saving faith, a person is forgiven and changed.  “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).  Having been identified with Christ—in His death, burial, and resurrection—the believer in Christ is inalterably changed (Romans 6:1-7).  He is made to be a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), empowered “to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

The transforming work of the Spirit of God is an inside-out process.  The work He intends is to transform us into the very image of Christ (Romans 8:29).  His desire is that we be Christ-like in every way—heart, head, hands.  He patiently reveals to us our sins that they might be put off (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 8:13).  His presence in our lives is revealed by those wonderful Christlike virtues: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Religious rule-keeping is no substitute for the inside-out transformation that Christ alone can do.  It’s a good idea to wash our hands—for many reasons–but Jesus alone can work to cleanse us from all sin.

Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole;
I want Thee forever to live in my soul,
Break down every idol, cast out every foe;
Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
Refrain:
Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow,
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

KEEP LOOKING TO JESUS

January 19

Bible Reading: Matthew 14

Matthew 14:28-33, “And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.  But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’  And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.”

I’ve come close to drowning a couple of times in my life.  Once, as a child when I fell into the Little Deschutes River and was being swept downstream by the current.  My Mom cried out and my dad rushed into the waters to save me.  On a future occasion, my drift boat flipped and tossed my friend and I into the cold November waters of the Necanicum River.  I remember looking up to the surface, wondering how long I’d be underwater.  Fortunately, I survived that ordeal as well.  Peter had his own near-drowning experience.  What can we learn from his experience?

Mere men cannot walk on water.  The laws of gravity and surface tension prohibit such a thing.  But Jesus, the Son of God, is not bound by such laws.  The Disciples saw Jesus walking on water and were frightened.  But bold and impetuous Peter ventured by faith to do the impossible.  At the Lord’s command, he got out of the boat and walked on water to His Lord.  By faith, he did what is not possible for a man to do.  Of course, it was not his own doing, for it was Jesus who worked that miracle. 

But then Peter looked away from the Lord to the wind and the threat it posed.  He began to sink.  At this point many might suppose that Peter had made a mistake in ever getting out of the boat. But it is as Adrian Rogers noted, “Now listen to me, I’d rather walk a little way on the water with Jesus than not to get out of the boat at all. You may have a sinking spell, but you will not drown.”  And Peter didn’t drown.  He once again looked to Jesus and cried out, “Lord save me.”  And Jesus saved him.  What are we to make of all this?  We are elsewhere exhorted to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.  Amidst the storms of life that threaten to sometimes sink us, there’s One who can work to keep us above water.  We’ve a choice to make.  To be tossed here and there by the winds of circumstances and doubt, or to live by faith in the One who not only walked on water but rose victorious over death.  He is able!  And, as Charles Spurgeon, our great need is to look to Him:

“Remember Christian, it is not your hold of Christ that saves thee—it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee—it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ (though that is the instrument)—it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not to thy hope, but to Christ, the source of they hope; look not to thy faith, but to Christ, the author and finisher of thy faith. And if thou doest that, ten thousand devils cannot throw thee down. There is one thing which all of us too much becloud in our preaching, though I believe we do it very unintentionally; namely, the great truth that it is not prayer, it is not faith, it is not our doings, it is not our feelings upon which we must rest, but upon Christ and on Christ alone!  Let me beseech thee, look only to Christ; never expect deliverance from self, from ministers, nor from any means of any kind apart from Christ; keep thine eye simply on Him; let His death, His merits, His glories, His intercession be fresh upon thy mind. When thou wakest in the morning, look for Him; when thou liest down at night, look for Him.”

Charles Spurgeon

The key to faith is looking to Jesus.  Peter saw that everything that threatened to be over his head was already under Jesus’ feet. — Adrian Rogers

May this be our trusting prayer today.
Above the tempest’s roar, faith hears His voice;
And with its hand in His, it can rejoice.
It fears no cloud, or wind that it can bring;
Faith looks across the storm, and still can sing!

HAPPY EYES AND EARS

January 18

Bible Reading: Matthew 13

Helen Keller was only two years old when an illness struck her blind and deaf.  Unable to communicate with the outside world, her life was filled with a hopeless despair so great that one can only imagine.  Miss Anne Sullivan was brought to assist her and worked patiently to break through the darkness.  One day she and “Teacher”—as Helen always called her—went to the outdoor pump.  Miss Sullivan started to draw water and put Helen’s hand under the spout.  As the cool water gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other hand the word “w-a-t-e-r” first slowly, then rapidly.  Suddenly, the signals had meaning in Helen’s mind.  She knew that “water” meant the wonderful cool substance flowing over her hand.  Quickly, she stopped and touched the earth and demanded its letter name and by nightfall she had learned 30 words.  Helen later wrote of the experiences of that day: “As we continued to the house every object which I touched quivered with life.  That was because I saw everything with a strange, new sight that had come to me.  It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib… and for the first time longed for a new day to come.”  Such is the spiritual experience of every newly born child of God when eyes and ears are opened to behold the Truth!

Matthew chapter 13 records several parables Jesus taught regarding the nature of the Kingdom.  The disciples asked him why he taught in parables, and Jesus explained (Matthew 13:10-17).  He told them that those having ears to hear would understand, but those without wouldn’t.  This was to fulfill what was prophesied by Isaiah: “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; and you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive” (Matthew 13:14; Isaiah 6:9).  “But blessed are your eyes,” he said to His disciples, “because they see, and your ears, because they hear” (Matthew 13:16).  The term “blessed” can otherwise be translated as “happy.”  What makes for happy eyes and ears?  Eyes that see and ears that hear!

Most do not understand the things of God.  “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:14).  Most are blind to the truth: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).  The context of our passage speaks to this.  The sower went out to sow, but more often than not, the seed fell on unfruitful soil (Matthew 13:3-9; 19-23).  Jesus spoke in parables, but most did not understand.  And even the prophets and righteous men of old were not privileged to see (ESV, “longed to see”), the truths that we as believers are now given to understand (Matthew 13:17).

The ability to comprehend truth is a privilege that has been granted to you by God.  Remember the day when the Spirit first opened your eyes to the truth (2 Corinthians 4:6)!  Words that had previously lacked meaning and import were made precious (1 Corinthians 2:12).  A longing for the truth was Spirit-borne into your heart (1 Peter 2:2)!  How glorious the day when your eyes and ears were made happy by God!  “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see!”

You have happy eyes and ears!  You’ve been privileged in a way that most on earth are not.  Others long for Bibles, you have many.  Other believers around the world meet in secret and risk persecution and arrest to meet together, you have the freedom to openly gather to fellowship and hear God’s word.  Don’t take for granted that which God has so graciously given.  Happy eyes are made happier still as they are fixed upon the Savior (Hebrews 12:2).  Happy ears rejoice to hear Him speak through His Word (John 10:27; Colossians 3:16).  He has many more things to show you and to tell you about (1 Corinthians 2:9).  Be glad for your Spirit-borne keen sight and good hearing!

How blessed the day when God worked a miracle to open your eyes and ears to the Truth!  Happy eyes and ears are those that keep on looking and listening to hear from God in His Word.

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see

MAD AT THE MIRACLE WORKER

January 17

Bible Reading: Matthew 12

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day lived according to an extensive set of rules.  This was nowhere more evident than in their religious efforts associated with keeping of the Sabbath, as Alfred Edersheim explained in his book, “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,”: “On no other subject is Rabbinic teaching more minute and more manifestly incongruous to its professed object.”  There were laws that dealt with how far a person could travel, how much weight a person could lift, and what could and could not be done to deal with a medical need or injury.  These smaller traditions worked to cloud the original intent of the setting aside of the Sabbath—weightier concerns of the Law were lost in the minutia of petty rules (Matthew 15:3, 6-9; 23:23-24).  Jesus perfectly upheld the law (2 Corinthians 5:21), but He refused to be bound by the man-made traditions of the Pharisees.

After one Sabbath-breaking controversy (Matthew 12:1-8), Jesus entered “their” synagogue and caused another (Matthew 12:9).  A man with a “withered hand” was there, along with the people, Jesus’ disciples, and the Pharisees.  We are given no history and few details regarding the man, though Luke’s gospel records that it was the man’s right hand (Luke 6:6).  It is possible that the Pharisees had deliberately brought the man—to see what Jesus would do.  Alfred Edersheim comments regarding the scene:

“We can now imagine the scene in the Synagogue.  The place is crowded.  Christ probably occupies a prominent position as leading the prayers or teaching: a position whence He can see and be seen by all.  Here, eagerly bending forward, are the dark faces of the Pharisees, expressive of curiosity, malice, cunning.  They are looking round at a man whose right hand is withered, perhaps putting him forward, drawing attention to him, loudly whispering, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath-day?’  The Lord takes up the challenge.”

Alfred Edersheim

Jesus had the man come forward.  He asked the Pharisees, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill (Mark 3:4)?”  “But they kept silent.”  “And after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5), the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8), healed the man on the Sabbath.  “Then He said to the man ‘stretch out your hand!’  And he stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other” (Matthew 12:13).  As with Jesus’ other miracles, this one revealed His Divine authority and identity (John 20:30-31).  We are not told of the reaction of the people, though a future miracle caused the people to ask, ‘This man cannot be the Son of David, can He?’  (Matthew 12:23).  The reaction of the Pharisees was both sad and predictable: “But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11).

They were, after all, nothing but white-washed tombs, filled with dead men’s bones and all uncleanness (Matthew 23:27).  A lively faith and love for God that would have responded to the Spirit’s clear testimony regarding Jesus was absent (Matthew 12:31-32).  A genuine love for man that would have delighted in the restoration of this man’s health was missing.  In its place was a violent disdain for the One who was working to reveal the true nature of their puffed-up religiosity (Matthew 12:34-35).  Henceforth, they would not rest until the Light was extinguished.

Religious rule-keeping is no substitute for right relationship with God.  It is the nature of “self-made religions” to invent “commandments and teachings of men” (Colossians 2:22-23).  But the inferiority of anyone’s self-righteousness is readily exposed in the presence of the Light.  In response to Jesus there are but two choices, hate the light or come to it (John 3:20-21) —stand with Jesus or against Him (Matthew 12:30).  The Sabbath-day healing of the man with the withered hand enraged the Pharisees, but I’m thinking that the man with the withered hand probably had a different opinion.

Religious rule-keeping is no substitute for a right relationship with Jesus.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s demands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.