Monthly Archives: April 2012

Matthew 18: The Conciliatory Community

If another disciple sins against you,” Jesus continued, “go and have it out, just between the two of you alone.  If they listen to you, you’ve won back a brother or sister.  But it they won’t listen, you should take with you one or two others, so that ‘everything may be established from the mouth of two or three witnesses.’  If they won’t listen to them, tell it to the assembly.  And if they won’t listen to the assembly, you should treat such a person like you would a Gentile or tax collector. (18:15-17)

I am sick of gossip.  Sick to death of it.  I am sick of it happening in my classroom as students talk about other students right there on the other side of the room.  I am sick of it when I see their parents doing the same at church or in a school hallway.  I am sick of the hurt I see in people’s eyes when they realize people are talking about them, when they realize their “friends” are not trustworthy.  I am sick of the paranoia that comes when whispers are followed by cackles.  I am sick of the alienation it causes, and how we act like this is acceptable behavior amongst Christians.  To be genuine, I am also sick when I find in me the very same salacious desire to be “in the know” on the latest tidbit.

Gossip is killing us and it needs to be stopped.

I guess that is why this passage above from today’s reading struck a nerve with me.  Jesus proposes that we deal with conflict the exact opposite way  we normally handle it.

Jesus encourages us to go quickly and privately to a brother or sister who has offended us in some specific way.  Talk it out one-on-one.  Don’t involve anyone else.  Resolve it with “the one” and move on.  If that strategy doesn’t work, invite only a “few” close friends who are a part of the conversation with the offender as well.  Their presence still remains conciliatory; they are there to corroborate and help resolve, not throw fuel on the fire.  Only as a last resort are large numbers of people involved.  “The many” members of the assembly are called upon in the end, not for vindication but as one more attempt to forge reunion.

Jesus way of keeping matters private and only involving others if reconciliation cannot be reached privately seems to be opposite to the way we often do it in our social groups today, as the diagram above displays.  We invert the whole process.  We allow “many” people to know our business long before we ever talk to the person who has offended us.  Maybe we want vindication or moral support or allies, so we tell others what has happened and they tell others and so forth.  Then we pull in our “few” closest friends for “counsel,” which maybe more about getting up our nerve before we go and talk to the person who has done us wrong.  This does seem like a smart move, but we still haven’t talked to “the one” and we are airing our dirty laundry for others.  Last, and usually after several days or weeks have passed and far too many people have become involved, we finally go the one with whom we have an issue.  But by this time so many eyes are watching, so many unkind words have been said, so much posturing and side-taking has happened that reconciliation is much, much harder.  Reputations have been tarnished and perceptions have been formed.

My boss and friend has a simple, non-confrontational phrase she adds into conversations when it is clear people are going down the way of gossip rather than the way of Jesus: “What did he say when you talked to him?”  That is a very gracious way to correct and redirect.

May we be the people who turn the triangle back on its base.

What did you notice anew in today’s chapter?

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One-Third of the Way!

This weekend ends April, and with that we are one-third of the way through the year and the New Testament!  Good job!  May is a busy month if you are connected to schools, so don’t worry about what you miss or if you sometimes have to play catch up or get ahead on a weekend.  Any time spent in the Word is better than nothing.  

We have another two weeks in Matthew, then we are off to the majestic book of Romans. 

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Matthew 17: The Transforming Word

This chapter is maybe best known for the Transfiguration.  N. T. Wright does something nice here in his translation by avoiding the archaic word “transfigure” in 17:2 and he uses the more common word for the Greek word metamorpho here, “transformed.”  Jesus was “transformed.”  This is the same word in Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18, two popular verses.

Interestingly, the experience of the Transfiguration did not transform the apostles understanding about John the Baptist.  Jesus used the prophetic image of “Elijah” coming again in the last days (17:11-12), but maybe because Peter, James and John has just seen the real, historical Elijah they were stuck on that one.  It was not their incredible experience that changed their understanding, it was the words of Jesus that helped them realize he was really talking about John the Baptist as a “new Elijah.”

But let me tell you this. . . . Then the disciples realized that he was talking to them about John the Baptist. (17:12-13)

They were changed by words, not just an experience.

We saw this back one chapter ago, too.  Jesus had told the disciples to be careful of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:5) and they thought he was talking about bread.  They had had a lot of experience with bread around that time with the two miraculous feedings, but they didn’t realize what Jesus was really talking about until he spoke an explanation to them.

Then they understood that he wasn’t telling them to beware of the leaven you get in bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (16:12)

I am enough of a postmodernist to really appreciate experiences.  I am a Bible student by training, but I want more than just words.  I was right there in the late 1990s putting down J. I. Packer’s Knowing God and picking up Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God because I wanted more than just knowledge of God.  I experience God in special ways in praise and worship, in service to the poor, and in the laughter and intimacy of true fellowship with believers.

Still there are many times that full understanding only really comes for me from the words of Jesus.  My heart is made tender by experience, but the words are what create true transformation.  For us today, that means an open Bible.  I am so appreciative that you have decided to be a part of this reading community.  I learn from you as you share, and simply the knowledge that you read (most importantly) your Bibles and (secondarily) this blog keeps me accountable and on track.  Then, God does with His words what only He can do: He transforms you and me by the “renewing our our minds.”

What struck you in this chapter?   

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Matthew 16: Who Do You Say I Am?

“What about you?” he asked them.  “Who do you say I am?” (16:15)

This may be one of the most important questions of all time.  Maybe this is the question that all people must grapple with and answer.

For the Pharisees the answer was simple: Jesus was an ally of Beelzebub (12:24), even though all of the signs were there for them to know otherwise, Jesus says in today’s passage (16:3).

For Herod, Jesus was John the Baptist back from the dead (14:2 ;16:14).

For the masses, after two miraculous feedings, Jesus was a free meal (14:13ff; 15:29ff).

For some the disciples had talked to, Jesus was another great prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah (16:14).

For the disciples, Jesus enigmatically pushed them past the literal (16:7-12).

For Peter, Jesus was the Messiah . . . but not the right kind.  Jesus was the vanquishing savior here to whip up on the Romans, not die on one of their crosses (16:16, 22).

We grapple with the same question today.  Ask around.  Jesus is a prophet, a wise man, a great teacher, a crazed lunatic, a egomaniacal liar, a carpenter turned revolutionary, a revolutionary turned lover of Magdalene, a hippie, a homosexual, a partier, a beaten up hero in a violent bloodbath, a scapegoat for Jewish nationalism, a healer, a handsome emotionless guru, a meek milquetoast whipping boy, a misunderstood leader, a rabbi, a philosopher of love, a Republican, a Democrat, a Communist, a Capitalist, a vegetarian, a figment of Paul’s imagination, or some other permutation next week when another book, movie or YouTube video comes out.

Albert Schweitzer is famous for saying that the quest to determine who exactly Jesus was, apart from the Bible, is a futile one.  It is like looking down into a well; all we see is our own reflection looking back.  People have a tendency to mold Jesus into whatever we want him to be, and in the end he ends up looking a lot like us or at least what we would like to be.

Looking ahead to the account of the Transfiguration in the next chapter, God will weigh in on the matter:

Then there came a voice out of the cloud. ‘This is my dear son,” said the voice, “and I’m delighted with him.” (17:5)

Still, the question is before us today: “Who do you say I am?”

How do we fashion Jesus after our own image today?

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Matthew 15: What Makes One Unclean?

Today’s post is more of a question than a thought.  Even if you are not the kind to give a comment I would love your input on this one.  Please consider.

Jesus argues with the Jewish religious leaders again in today’s chapter.  Today, the issue is eating with unwashed hands, an elaborate tradition they had developed in an effort to remain a ceremonially clean people.  Notice that is ceremonially clean.  They hadn’t developed this ritual to remain a physically healthier group.  Jesus’ disciples evidently weren’t as meticulous about this tradition as the Jewish religious leaders would have liked.  Jesus points out the error in their logic:

What makes someone unclean isn’t what goes into the mouth.  It’s what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean. (15:11)

What comes out of the mouth begins in the heart, and that’s what makes someone unclean.  Out of the heart, you see, come evil plots, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and blasphemy.  These are the things that make someone unclean.  But eating with unwashed hands doesn’t make a person unclean. (15:18-20)

In fact, a tradition could make a person unclean if it caused them to nullify or trespass against God’s law.  The Pharisees were doing exactly that with their unwillingness to honor their parents by devoting money to God needed to help their parents (15:3-6).  God’s desire is for honor, not donations.

So, I am wondering today what, if any, are the “traditions” we have in our churches today that miss the point and maybe even cause us to work against what God is really looking for?  What are the “unwashed hands” that we get up in arms about even though these are not the things that really cause moral problems?  

What do you think?  

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Matthew 14: The Love Revolution

His disciples came and took away the body [of John the Baptist] and buried it.  Then they went and told Jesus.

When Jesus heard it, he went away from there in a boat to a deserted spot by himself.  The crowds heard it, and followed him on foot from the towns.  When he came out and saw the large crowd, he was sorry for them.  He healed their sick. (14:12-14)

I have always been amazed by these few verses.  How did Jesus do it?

His cousin has just been murdered.  Were Jesus and John close?  Let’s imagine they were.  A murderous tyrant has just rounded up his beloved cousin simply because John was the fly in Herod’s ointment of immorality.  Surely Jesus was sad; his next action was to go off on his own to a deserted spot.  Was Jesus also wondering if he would be next?  If Herod can round up one revolutionary, couldn’t he round up another?

What is clear is that the last thing Jesus wants to do right now is minister to the masses.  He just wants to be on his own in prayer and mourning.

But the crowds won’t allow it.  They follow after him regardless, and bring their sick in need of healing.  Jesus just can’t get a break.

It is what Jesus did next that rocks my own selfish world: “He was sorry for them.  He healed their sick.”  Jesus responded with love.  Then his compassion even drove him to do one of his most famous miracles: the feeding of the 5000.  Five thousand men and their women and children too — likely a number well over 10,000 or 15,000 — went away that day filled, healthy, and amazed.

This causes a new side to this juxtaposition of stories to jump out at me.  A sad and possibly apprehensive Jesus has just found an immediate following of 5000 men.  That could make quite a riot.  Jesus could work this crowd against Herod.  If nothing else, Jesus could find protection in the midst of such a following, but maybe he could storm a palace too.  Did vengeance for John’s death ever enter Jesus’ mind?

Instead, Jesus “dismissed the crowd” (14:22) and left the area.  There will be no armed revolt today.

Let there be no mistake: Jesus was a revolutionary, but of a different kind entirely.  Jesus brought the original Love Revolution.  The way of power and blood would be overcome by the way of love.  The hunger that exists in any kingdom run by opportunistic leaders like Herod would be overcome for a day in a most abundant way.  The self-focus of the crowds would be met with love and compassion.  Love would lead to a revolution of hearts.

My wife has a mantra that I believe she learned from her mother.  When you are sad and down, get busy helping others and you will see your own sorrows lessen.

Jesus had every reason to be alone and mourn.  Still, he was willing to be inconvenienced for love.

What did you notice in this chapter?

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Matthew 13: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like

I absolutely love the parables.  They are most certainly my favorite form of literature in the gospels.  Matthew has packed this chapter full of them.

They are wonderful word pictures, for those of us who are more visual than verbal.  They pack meaning for those of us who like a good symbol.  They are memorable and popular.  They also teach fantastic lessons about life and how to live life.  But first and foremost, parables tell us about life in God’s kingdom.

The kingdom of heaven is like . . .

  • a farmer sowing wheat on various kinds of soil with differing results
  • a field of wheat maliciously oversown by weeds that has to wait to be weeded out then harvested
  • a mustard seed that grows of a mere speck to a large, useful shrub
  • leaven that works its way throughout an entire pot of flour
  • a priceless treasure one might stumble upon in a field but then that’s worth selling everything you have to buy
  • a pearl hunter who sells off his fortune when he finds the biggest and best pearl ever
  • a net that gathers all sorts of fish that will have to be sorted out later

Some pieces of art or music or literature are just better appreciated in their original state without much explanation.  I do believe that is often true of the parables.  So, today I am running the risk of ruining great art.  Please forgive.  What is Jesus saying about the kingdom in these parables?

The kingdom of heaven is mysterious:  There is no telling when we will brush up against true Kingdom.  We might be in the middle of our everyday tasks and run upon a move of God that is unlike anything we have ever seen before.  We might simply be walking home, and over there in the corner of a yard under a tree, where we least expected it, will be something more valuable than anything we have.  We just thought it was another hum-drum day, but this is the day that changes our life.

The kingdom of heaven is valuable:  In a world that often lacks any substance or value, when we find God’s Kingdom, we will do anything to have it.  It is worth more than anything we presently have.  We know this is something real and valuable.  It might necessitate a relocation or a restructuring of our life, but we will gladly do it.  There will be sacrifices, but they are small in comparison.

The kingdom of heaven grows abundantly:  The Kingdom usually starts in humble beginnings.  We might look at it and say this won’t amount to much, but often that is exactly where God plants the seeds of His Kingdom and they grow into something that is so much bigger than what we could do ourselves.  And those pursuits bring help and nourishment to others.

The kingdom of heaven is messy:  This isn’t going to go smoothly.  God is working to advance His Kingdom in this world, but there are powers of evil and darkness that want the same soul-territory.  Right alongside Kingdom will be anti-kingdom.  There are people who will swallow up any seed of hope we might plant in another person.  “The world’s worries and the seduction of wealth” choke our devotion like thorns and strong weeds (13:22).  Purification and complete rescue won’t come until the end.

Those with ears to hear and eyes to see will know where Jesus is coming from.  Others won’t.  For some Jesus is just too familiar.  But those who do hear and see are more blessed than even the prophets of old (13:16-17).

Which parable resonates most strongly with you in this reading?  Why?

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Matthew 12: It’s What’s On The Inside That Counts

The Pharisees confront Jesus in today’s chapter:

Look here!  Your disciples are doing something that’s not permitted on the sabbath!” (12:2)

How dare they pluck corn and eat it!  That’s work!

So Jesus chastises the Pharisees on how completely they have missed the point.  Then he heals the withered hand of a man standing in the crowd.  Oh-oh!  More work on the Sabbath.  How dare Jesus disregard the Law!  So,

The Pharisees went off and plotted against him, with the intention of doing away with him.” (12:14)

I have never noticed this last verse in this way before.  The Pharisees are incensed that Jesus would disregard the Jewish laws and customs concerning the Sabbath, all the while they are making plans to murder Jesus.  

Yes, it seems they have missed the point.

Today’s chapter really drives home the saying “it’s what’s in the heart that counts,” not the rituals of our hands.

  • Our mouth speaks from the heart (12:34)
  • The fruit/deeds of our life come from the quality of our tree/heart (12:33)
  • A demon can be removed but it will only be worse later on if we don’t fill up our hearts with something good (12:45)
  • Family is defined more by faith than blood (12:50)
  • Repentance of the heart is better than experiencing miraculous signs (12:41)
  • Saving a life and restoring health is far better than getting caught up in law keeping (12:12)
  • Mercy is better than sacrifice (12:7)

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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Matthew 11: The Lighter Way

Are you having a real struggle?  Come to me!  Are you carrying a big load on your back?  Come to me — I’ll give you a rest!  Pick up my yoke and put it on; take lessons from me!  My heart is gentle, not arrogant.  You’ll find the rest you deeply need.  My yoke is easy to wear; my load is easy to bear. (11:28-30)

Today’s choice of passage is entirely emotional.  I need to hear these words.  I need to meditate on them all day long.  Some days I don’t believe the way of Jesus is easier, but he says it is.  Will I believe that?  Some times I can think of a million other things to help me find rest, long before I go to Jesus.  Will I go to him first?  Praise God in faith that he is gentle and offers us something better and lighter and more blessed.

Have you ever felt this way?

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Matthew 10: The Crown & The Cross

How will we know when God’s Kingdom has come?  What will it look like?

Jesus tells us in this passage:

As you go, declare publicly that the kingdom of heaven has arrived.  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse people with skin diseases, cast out demons. (10:7-8)

As we progressively fill out our understanding of the “kingdom” Jesus was talking about, this passage is immensely helpful.  Kingdom has very little to do with what takes place in a church building.  Here we see that “kingdom” describes a state in which a person lives.  Kingdom-life is marked by wholeness.  Kingdom-life is when all is as it should be.  When Kingdom arrives in a person’s life, oppression is ended, provision is present, cleanliness is restored, dead things others had given up on are brought back to life, and hope returns.  Now that sounds like a kind of life to preach about!

But before we can enjoy life under the Crown, we must take up our Cross:

Anyone who doesn’t pick up their cross and follow after me doesn’t deserve me.  If you find your life you’ll lose it, and if you lose your life because of me you’ll find it. (10:38-39)

There is very little in this chapter that makes sense apart from the principle in this passage.  Jesus is sending his disciples out into Judea to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6).  He warns them sternly that their mission is not an easy one.  It will be subsistence living.  Dangerous people will surround them.  They will be dragged into court on trumped-up charges.  Their work will even bring strife in their own families from those who can’t accept their new calling.

God will provide for them.  And there are worse things than suffering physically for the Kingdom.  But if the crowds can’t all accept Jesus, why do they think the crowds will accept them, his servants?

The disciple isn’t greater than the teacher; the slave isn’t greater than the master. (10:24)

Jesus wears the crown of his kingdom today.  But first he had to take up his cross at Calvary.

We his disciples will have to do the same.

What crosses must we take up today? 

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Matthew 9: Bring a Friend Along

Caravaggio, "The Calling of St. Matthew"

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting in the tax-office.

“Follow me!” he said to him.  And he rose up and followed him.

When he was at home, sitting down to a meal, there were lots of tax-collectors and sinners there who had come to have dinner with Jesus and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw it, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” (8:9-11)

Matthew wasn’t exactly the ideal candidate for a disciple to an itinerant Jewish rabbi.  He would have been a Jew, but many would have labeled him a traitor.  As a tax collector he was working for the enemy, the Romans.  Good Jews wanted out from under the Roman thumb, and Matthew was only perpetuating foreign tyranny.  Not to mention the assumption that Matthew was likely skimming a bit of the tax money off the top for himself, just like every other tax collector did.  So just the fact that Jesus would call Matthew to be a disciple was unexpected.

It is what Matthew did next that struck me today.

Matthew is leaving his life as a tax collector.  He is about to start a very different kind of life, dissimilar in ways he probably doesn’t even realize.  Still, he calls his friends to his house for one last party.  We can tell from verse 11 that this group of friends was composed of fellow tax collectors and other unsavory people.

Yes, Matthew is leaving his profession and even this town.  But he doesn’t just drop everything.  He is starting a new life, but he chooses to include his friends in this new life too.  It seems he wants his old friends to meet his new rabbi.

Did some of these friends become disciples too?  Did they come along with Jesus and Matthew?  We don’t know, but we do known that Matthew’s first act of witnessing was to his very own friends.  He wanted his friends to know Jesus too.

Good reminder.

What struck you in this active chapter?  

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Matthew 8: Amazing-Faith or Little-Faith?

Some times I have to remind myself how I probably would have been cast in the story of Jesus’ life had I been there at the time.

Matthew marches a fast parade of characters past us in this chapter.  A man with a skin disease that would have made him unclean.  A powerful Roman centurion.  An infirmed mother-in-law.  Handfuls of demon-possessed and sick people.  Two demon-possessed Gentiles from the “other side of the tracks lake” who terrorized their town.  A bunch of dirty pig-farmers.

All of these characters have two things in common.  One, they were unclean, foreign, odd, “others” who did not fit the mold of the “children of the kingdom”  (8:12) and therefore should not be those sought by Jesus.  Two, they were all filled with immense faith.  They flocked to Jesus for healing.  They pleaded dependently for help.  At the least, the pig farmers acknowledged Jesus as awe-inspiringly powerful.  It is the Roman centurion whose faith stands out the most:

“I’m telling you the truth,” he said to the people who were following.  “I haven’t found faith like this — not even in Israel!” (8:10)

But there are also three other characters.

A scribe — a religious functionary who labored with holy words all day long.

A disciple who had decided to make Jesus his “Rabbi.”

A group of disciples (maybe the apostles) who stick close to Jesus, even running to him in a storm.

These are the orthodox ones, the insiders, the chosen ones.  They are religious, clean, upstanding citizens.  These three are who you would expect to come off looking good in the chapter.  But Jesus doesn’t seem to be so sure about the scribe’s claim of commitment (8:19-20).  Jesus seems to think the disciple with a dead father is really just making excuses (8:21-22).  The disciples with Jesus in the boat that stormy day are sure they are about to die.  In contrast to the amazing faith of the Roman centurion, Jesus chastises his own disciples:

“Why are you so scared, you little-faith lot?” (8:26)

The religious don’t come off looking so good in this chapter.

 

I was born to religious parents.  I have been in a church most Sundays of my life.  My family went to church every time the doors were open, and other times too to take care of church matters.  My father was an elder.  My mother a president of a woman’s auxiliary for a Christian school.  I went to Christian camp.  I graduated from a Christian high school.  I have two degrees from Christian colleges.  I work for a Christian high school.  I am a deacon in a large church.  I teach adult Sunday school.  I read Christian books and listen to Christian music.  My wonderful Christian wife and I named both of our kids biblical names.  My blogs are religious.  And if I had enough guts to get a tattoo, it would be a cross.

I am thoroughly religious.

But do I have any faith?

What did you notice as you read this chapter?

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Matthew 7: Kingdom Is As Kingdom Does

There is just too much “doing” in this chapter for this sermon to be nothing more than pie-in-the-sky idealism.

  • The word “do” (or “don’t,” “does,” “doesn’t,” “didn’t”) occurs 15 times in this one chapter.
  • Jesus encourages his audience to “ask,” “seek,” and “knock” (7:7), all very active verbs.
  • Jesus summarizes all that the Law and Prophets were teaching using the very active Golden Rule: “So whatever you want people to do to you, do just that to them” (7:12).
  • The calling card of genuine Christians is “the fruit they bear” or “produce” (7:16-19; “produce” is used 5 times in 3 verses).

Clearly, the Kingdom will come into existence by doing.  Granted, the Kingdom is not of our doing, as if it is the work of our hands.  But we are disregarding the activity in Matthew 7 if we think God will bring His Kingdom while we sit back passively waiting.

"The Wise and Foolish Builders" by Danny Halbohm

Don’t get me wrong.  I am no legalist who glories in my good works.  People who sit in my classes hopefully will tell you that is not the focus on my teaching.  People who know me the best will also tell you I don’t have enough good works to glory in!  We don’t “do” in order to get; we “do” because of what we’ve got.  But the world needs more than a Church that offers cheap grace that neither changes anything within us nor demands anything from us.  This world needs wise builders who hear and do.  The skeptical around us need to investigate the vines of our lives and find abundant fruit.  They need people who have actually found the gate that leads through the “tight squeeze” (7:14) to the narrow path and have turned around to show others the way.

This is the sort of thing Jesus meant when he said “Follow me!” (4:19)

A rhetorical question (if you wish): who in your life needs you to “do” this Sermon?

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Matthew 6: Kingdom Priorities

If the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ manifesto about this new kingdom he is bringing, what is truly important in this new way of seeing life?  Jesus answers that question with as many explanations of what is not important as he does the affirmative.

The praise of your fellow man is not top priority.  Do your religious acts like tithing, prayer and fasting but if you are doing those to get praise from your neighbors and friends you have missed the point.  That momentary praise is all you will get.  Kingdom-people seek the praise of the Father who sees what is done without fan-fare or the spotlight (6:1-18).

The treasures of this earth are not top priority.  Nice clothes get moth-eaten.  Piles of coins get rusty.  Houses fall apart.  Cars get dented.  Jewelry gets stolen.  Investment portfolios crash.  Educational degrees become out-of-date.  Power and status are lost.  Beauty fades.  All these treasures broadcast to the world what is truly valuable to us, and this may not be complimentary.  Kingdom-people store up treasures in heaven.  These will never fade away, lose value or be lost.  And don’t tell yourself you can actually have them both; you can’t (6:19-24).

The needs of this world are not top priority either.  Food, drink and clothing might be at the top of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” and we do need these, but we don’t get them by seeking after them.  God knows what we need and he will provide.  The worry that comes from a preoccupation with these physical needs will only detract from our occupation of advancing the Kingdom.  Kingdom people focus with faith on the needs of the world to come (6:25-34).

So don’t worry away with your “What’ll we eat?” and “What’ll we drink?” and “What’ll we wear?”  Those are all the kinds of things the Gentiles fuss about, and your heavenly father knows you need them all.  Instead, make your top priority God’s kingdom and his way of life, and all these things will be given to you as well. (6:31-33)

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Matthew 5: The Blessed Kingdom Life

There are some chapters that are just daunting to write about; the next three are some of those.  What can be said about the Sermon on the Mount that has not already been said and said better or is really worth saying?  Like James, these are chapters that will meet us where we are, somewhere different each time we read them.  Do share how God speaks to you this time around.

There are many different theories on what exactly Jesus was trying to do in the Sermon on the Mount.  Was he, the new Moses, giving a new law on a new mountain?  Was he setting out the moral code of the Church?  Was he giving the “impossible dream,” a perfectionistic dare that only punctuates how God’s Kingdom is only attainable by the power of God?  Or something else?

No doubt the parallels between Moses and Jesus are no accident, but 5:17-20 discount a view of the Sermon that diminishes or reverses the role of the Old Testament law.  No doubt the Church has turned the Sermon into its moral code, though we haven’t done so well, have we?  Consider how successful Christians are doing with lust, hatred, divorce, and love for our “enemies.”  Sayings like the following one do sound like they are “impossible” reminders of our own frailty,

Well then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect. (5:48)

But why does the sermon end with the declaration that we are as “foolish” as a man who builds a house on a sandy seashore if we do not do what has been said in this sermon (7:24-27)?

I would like to advance a different idea, one that is certainly not my own and has been gathered from many different places, none of which I remember off hand.  The Sermon on the Mount is a picture of life when you come into the Kingdom and when the Kingdom comes into you.  Partly idealistic but also partly practical and doable, this snapshot of Kingdom-life was Jesus’ invitation to a whole new way of life, here and now, a worldview (beliefs and actions) that if accepted would revolutionize the follower and those in his sphere of influence.

The Beatitudes

With this idea in mind, consider the Beatitudes (5:3-10).  Eight character traits or positions in life are put forward as “blessed” or fortune or happy — humility, the need to mourn, meekness, longing for divine justice, merciful, purity, peaceableness, and persecution.  Most of us would look at this list and say there is little blessing or happiness in most of these.  But these are exactly the kinds of people who will find God’s Kingdom to be an answered prayer.  These sorts of people will find what our present world’s system cannot or does not afford.  These marginalized, downtrodden, and sad people will find this new way of life that Jesus is bringing to be truly blessed.  These are the kinds of people who need a new system and they will find it if they will truly follow Jesus.  On the other hand, there are others who at the exact same time cannot embrace this way of life as anything other than a curse.  As an interpretive key that this is a plausible reading of the Beatitudes, I appeal to the “inclusio” or enveloping structure of the Beatitudes: both the first and last Beatitudes mention the “kingdom of heaven.”  In other words, all the falls between is the blessed Kingdom-life.

Old Testament Law and the Kingdom

Or consider what Jesus was doing in the long “you have heard it was said/but I say” section at the end of this chapter (5:21-48).  Jesus is not taking on the Old Testament law as 5:17-20 won’t allow it:

Don’t suppose that I come to destroy the law or the prophets.  I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them! (5:17)

Jesus has come as a restorationist.  He is the rabbi who does not wish to start a new religion, rather has come to return God’s people to what they were called to in the beginning.  Jesus is not saying to ignore the Old Testament laws not to murder, commit adultery, divorce, swear falsely, reattribute justice fairly, or love your neighbor.  Kingdom people respect and keep God’s law (5:19).  Instead, Jesus is attacking the reductionistic legalism of the Judaism all around him that settled for the letter of the law and ignored the underlying attitudes that cause sin in the first place.  In so doing, he was in fact calling Kingdom-people to a “covenant behavior [that] is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).  Life in the blessed Kingdom is obedient life, but of a deeper kind than had become the norm in the world — even the religious world — around them.

Matthew 5 is a majestic start to a truly magnificent sermon!

What do you think?

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Matthew 4: The Kingdom Arrives

In the last chapter, we saw John preach about a kingdom that was coming.  Now with Jesus’ arrival that message changes slightly:

“Repent!” he would say.  “The kingdom of heaven is arriving.” (4:17)

Matthew then summarizes the message Jesus preached in the synagogues of Galilee as “the good news of the kingdom” (4:23).

We are still trying to determine what exactly this “kingdom” is but one thing we can know for sure is that Jesus is central to it.  As Jesus comes, so too does the kingdom.  Maybe at this point we can tentatively say that the kingdom is what one experiences when Jesus comes into one’s life.

"Follow Me, Satan (Temptation of Jesus Christ)" by Ilya Repin

I have always thought the way Satan decides to phrase his temptations is interesting, given what had just happened at the end of Matthew 3.  There we saw God’s Spirit alight on Jesus and a voice (presumably God’s) say,

This is my son, my beloved one,” said the voice.  “I am delighted with him.” (3:17)

Many others have noted that these three sentiments are three of the most basic affirmations a human needs to hear and be sure of in his life:

  • This is my son” — I claim you.  You are mine.  You belong to me, and I am glad to make that known.
  • My beloved one” — I love you.  I have deep affection and concern for you.  My emotions about you are positive.
  • I am delighted with him” — I am proud of you.  I approve of you.  I see what you do and it makes me happy.

It is interesting to me that Satan decides to attack Jesus at this most basic level: “If you really are God’s son . . .” (4:3, 6).  It is as if Satan is saying, “I know what you just heard, but are you sure?”  Maybe you need to test this.  Let’s put this to a test.  Make some bread.  Take a jump.

How often are our doubts and failures attached at a deep, even unconscious level to an uncertainty of divine acceptance, love and belonging?

Jesus’ path to victory is also instructive.  In the midst of this attack intended to produce doubt, Jesus hangs on to God’s words.  For Jesus the answer to the doubt and accusations of Satan was found in what God had already said.

We can learn from Jesus’ commitment to Scripture.

What grabbed your eye in this chapter?

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Matthew 3: The Kingdom of Heaven is Coming

I hope your Easter was a truly blessed one!  I spent much of the weekend in solitude and with family (in part, because I was sick on Sunday), but it was a very good weekend of reminders of frailty and new life.  I did spend time with Henri Nouwen, one of my favorites especially on Easter.  If you would like to read my Easter mediations click here to go to my personal blog.

We have just made a huge jump in time in Matthew 3.  Kids have grown up to be adults.  The time for ministry has come.

"John baptizing Christ" by Guido Reni

This is the first mention of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, in Matthew.  He is one unorthodox bloke, to put it mildly.  He must have failed his seminary class on seeker-sensitive preaching:

He saw several Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized by him.  “You brood of vipers!” he said to them.  “Who warned you to escape from the coming wrath?  You better prove your repentance by bearing the right sort of fruit!” (3:7-8)

His first words are what strike me in this chapter:

Repent!” he was saying.  “The kingdom of heaven is coming!” (3:2)

John’s first words introduce us to what will be a major theme in Matthew, actually the biggest idea Jesus and his followers ever talked about.  What is this kingdom?  It is coming here?  When?  One’s understanding of the Gospels is sadly deficient if one does not come to understand what the “kingdom” is.

What struck you in this chapter?

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Matthew 2: As The Prophets Said

Blessed Good Friday!

Today is a truly somber day, yet “good” nonetheless because of what it means and what comes on Sunday.  It is an interesting juxtaposition to be reading about the birth of Christ on the day we remember his death.  Though, I wonder if death didn’t remain in the back of Jesus’ mind everyday of his earthly life.  Praise God for his faithfulness!

Four times in this chapter we are told that the events of Jesus’ early life are unfolding as the prophets of old foretold:

  • Jesus was born in Bethlehem because “that’s what it says in the prophet.” (2:5)
  • Joseph took his family to Egypt to flee from the murderous Herod in order to “fulfill what the lord said through the prophet.” (2:15)
  • The “murder of the innocents” in Bethlehem was even foretold: “That was when the word that came through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled.” (2:17)
  • Joseph took his family to Nazareth to settle once Herod the Great had died because “this was to fulfill what the prophet had spoken.” (2:23)

Scholars opine that each of the gospels was probably written to a specific audience, just like the letters were.  Many experts see much in Matthew to suggest that it was intend for a Jewish audience.  The emphasis on fulfilled Jewish prophecy about the Messiah is a key piece of evidence for a Jewish background.

Regardless of theory, this chapter reminds us that Jesus didn’t come out of nowhere as a self-styled Messiah.  He is the one talked about long ago.  He isn’t “new” as much as he is “very old.”  Jesus was no after-thought.  He is the long-desired one.  And he is here.  Now.  God with us.

What struck you about this chapter?

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Matthew 1: God With Us

Today we return to the life of Jesus.  Jesus is the center of our religion and very life, so it is fitting to return to the gospels every quarter.  In fact, that would be a great rhythm for life long after this year.  As a former student of Chris Dahlberg’s likes to say, as we age maybe it becomes second nature to concentrate on the red words.

Matthew starts his gospel very differently from Mark.  Mark got right down to business; from beginning to end of his gospel Jesus was a very active adult.  Matthew, though, spends two chapters just getting Jesus to adulthood and ministry.  There is very little action in Matthew 1 at all.  Mark chose to keep us guessing about Jesus throughout much of his book.  Like his disciples in the gospel, we really had to work to get that Jesus was divine.

Matthew, on the other hand, makes everything very clear right from this first chapter;

“Look: the virgin is pregnant, and will have a son, and they shall give him the name Emmanuel” — which means, in translation, “God with us.” (1:23)

From the beginning we are introduced to Jesus as God Himself, come to be with us once again.  Remember that if a person were reading the Bible page by page, they have just flipped from Malachi, over 400 years of divine silence where God’s presence was much more hidden.  That is no longer the case.  God is with us again, but in a new, strange, embodied way.

And we are introduced to the gospel right off:

She is going to have a son.  You are to give him the name Jesus; he is the one who will save his people from their sins. (1:21)

God has come in the form of Jesus to save us from our greatest oppressor of all: sin.  Already, in the first chapter Matthew has made it clear what kind of Savior this Jesus is too.  We are off to a very straightforward beginning.

What did you notice in this chapter that you had not noticed before?

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James 5: But God Does Redemption

I am intrigued how James ends this letter that has focused so much on what we are to do in our faith.

So be patient, my brothers and sisters, for the appearing of the Lord. . . . the appearing of the Lord is near at hand. (5:7-8)

Three more times in four verses James uses the words “patient” or “patience.”

All letter long James has focused on our actions — all the while avoiding the legalism and self-reliance of the Judaizers — and at the end he closes by drawing the readers’ attention back to Jesus.  And not just Jesus, but the return of Jesus to this world to set it right with judgment and re-creation.

Waiting for Jesus

Lest we turn the book of James into justification for salvation by works, he reminds us that the most important work of all comes solely from God, not us. All we can do is be patient as we wait for God through Christ to restore this world to the just, loving, and faithful kingdom it was meant to be.  As we do faith and do love and do wisdom, James reminds us it is God’s role to do the redemption of this world and our very souls.

James has many, diverse messages, but did one overall point really hit home with you this week?

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James 4: Give God Control

I am a recovering control freak, and sometimes the recovery is put on hold.  That is why this chapter really hit home with me today, and not always comfortably.

Where do wars come from?  Why do people among you fight?  It all comes from within, doesn’t it — from your desires for pleasure which make war in your members?  You want something and you haven’t got it, so you murder someone.  You long to possess something but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war. (4:1-2a)

James claims that the root of conflict is a desire to have something.  He mentions murder and maybe in his time that was more prevalent than it is today. We definitely do have people who will take others’ lives for money, a car, drugs, an inheritance, or even pleasure, but that is not the norm.

But are we willing to “kill” a person’s reputation, image or authority so as to advance our own?  Are we willing to take away a person’s freedom so as to get our own way?  These are much more real temptations in our culture, and what drives these?  Maybe a desire for control over our life?

James gives the answer in the next sentence:

The reason you don’t have it is because you don’t ask for it! (4:2b)

James encourages us to simply ask for what we truly need and trust God to supply what is best.  Of course, God has no interest in meeting our selfish desires (4:3), still we might find that some of the conflict in our life is removed if we are willing to trust God to provide for us instead of using our own force and control to make a way.  Trust is hard for a control freak, but it is the path to recovery.

Later in the chapter James returns to remind those of us who like to plan out every detail of our life that we simply do not have that much control.

Now look here, you people who say, “Today or tomorrow, we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, and trade, and make money.” You have no idea what the next day will bring. (4:13-14a)

The issue is certainly not planning or even an enterprising spirit.  Again, the issue is control and the pride that comes from it (4:16).  The ugly side of control is the temptation it brings to think we are our own gods.  And God loves us too much and longs too jealously for our souls to let us becomes His enemies (4:4-5).  Lord, help us to trust.

What verse spoke to you in this chapter?

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James 3: Doing Wisdom

When we think of wisdom, we usually think of the mind.  We might see wisdom as more practical and everyday than knowledge.  I once was taught this simple definition: wisdom is knowledge applied.  Still, in this way of thinking wisdom is a matter of the mind.

I am struck by how earthy and everyday James’ description of wisdom is in today’s passage:

Who is wise and discerning among you?  Such a person should, by their upright behavior, display their works in the humility of wisdom.  But if you have bitter jealousy and contention in your hearts, don’t boast and tell lies against the truth.  This isn’t the wisdom that comes from above. . . . The wisdom that comes from above is first holy, then, peaceful, gentle, compliant, filled with mercy and good fruits, unbiased, sincere.  (3:13-15a, 17)

Chock full of action words, James describes wisdom in 3:13-18 as much as a matter of the hands as a matter of the mind.  Much like faith and love in chapter 2, wisdom is what one does and does not do.  Wisdom is seen and identifiable.  As practical as it can be, wisdom is how we treat others.  It is behavioral.

What struck you from today’s chapter?

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