Posts Tagged With: death

Revelation 15: Victorious by Death

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Today’s short chapter is largely a preparatory one.  Seven angels come forward to the heavenly temple to receive bowls filled with the final acts of judgment from God.  These will be poured out in the next chapter.  Also in the scene is a collection of people standing beside a glassy sea.

There, by the glassy sea, stood the people who had won the victory over the monster and over its image, and over the number of its name. (14:2)

What strikes me is that this group are those who have won.  But remember this is a heavenly scene.  They have won but they won by dying.  Death is what brought them victory.  Being willing to die is how they won.  The battle was for their souls.  Would they give up their integrity and faith to stay alive through compromise or would they show the forces of evil that God has greater power over their souls than that.  Every time a person is willing to suffer rather than give in to compromise another victory is won for the Lamb.

What did you notice today?

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Revelation 11: A Turning Point

The-turning-point-in-relationships-signTurning points.  We love them.  Or hate them, depending on which way things turn.  When things start turning in a favorable way, they are the dawning light of a new day.  They possess hope enough to fight on.

D-Day was one such turning point.  Thursday, June 6, 1944.  Tides turned for the Allied Forces on that day.  That Hitler and the Axis Powers had gone from the hunters to the hunted was becoming clear.  However, there was still fighting to be done.  V-E Day would not be for another eleven months, Wednesday, May 8, 1945.

In many ways I read this chapter, seemingly the contents of the bittersweet “little scroll” of chapter 10, as a similar turning point.

John receives a vision of two witnesses guarded safely through a period of persecution (42 months = 1260 days = 3.5 years = time, times, half a time → were all symbolic ways to depict an indefinite period of trial, based on Daniel 8).  However, when that time period is over and their message has been faithfully delivered, protection is lifted and the people of the “great city” of “Sodom” or “Egypt” kill them and leave them for public disgrace.  After 3.5 days, the two are resurrected and whisked away to the heavens.  At this point the angelic chorus of God’s throne-room breaks into unmatched praise and announcement of a decisive turning point.  Now is the time “to destroy the destroyers of the earth” (11:18).

Who exactly are the “two witnesses”?  There are many, many interpretations.  This may be one of the most contested passages in the book.  Almost all see that the two witnesses are described as Elijah (fire devouring enemies, shut up the sky from raining, v.5-6) and Moses (water turned to blood, calling down plagues, v.6), but who or what is being referred to by these figures?  If this vision is talking about actual people, I am most drawn to the suggestion that this would be Peter and Paul, both of whom died during the reign of Nero in public ways in Rome (always the “great city” in Revelation, and understandably like the immoral Sodom and tyrannical Egypt, v.8).

Now, fifteen years later, the Jesus movement did not in fact die as one might have expected it to after the persecutions of Nero.  Almost as if it were “back from the dead,” as strong as ever before, the tables have turned.  There are dark days ahead for the seven churches addressed in this book as Domitian brings a second wave of persecution in Asia Minor, but God will see them safely through this as he did before, at least safely through the second death of martyrdom to the great reward of new life.  Rome dealt its death-blow to those brought to Christ by the apostle to the Jews (Peter) and the apostle to the Gentiles (Paul), but death could not keep her down.  The fate of the kingdoms of the world is sealed at this point.  Victory is in sight.  Rome is going down.  Rome is now the hunted.  Justice is coming.  In many ways, what we will see as we keep on reading will be the undoing of the forces of evil opposed to God.

Verse 15 may be one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible:

The seventh angel blew his trumpet, and loud voices were heard from heaven.  “Now the kingdom of the world has passed to our Lord and his Messiah,” said the voices, “and he will reign forever and ever.”

There is nothing that God is after more than the redemption of His creation — people and place.  This is the New Creation, when this world is rescued from the forces of evil and it becomes the domain of God once again.  Here in the middle of the book we are given a glimmer of the glory to come.

What do you think?

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Revelation 6: The Great Reversal Begins

4Horseman

Yesterday we were introduced to the scroll of destiny.  Today the lamb begins to open the seals one by one.  As each seal is broken some monumental event takes place.  The first four seals launch a horseman — yes, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  Off they go on white, red, black and pale horses bringing death in various ways as they go.  Whether battle, disease, famine, or even wild animals, when the time comes for the seals to be broken Death personified will ride into the lives of those who have oppressed God’s people.  If we look at the history of the Roman Empire in the three hundred years after John’s vision, that is exactly what we see happen.  And so often since then, we have seen Death have his way with the godless regimes of human history.

But why is this happening?  We might wonder.  Some may bristle at passages like this one.  There is no escaping that in this passage God is orchestrating the death of at least the fourth of the world’s population (6:8), if we are to take that number literally.  Some might object that this sort of action is beneath God.

how-long-o-lordBut this is not just violence for violence sake.  God doesn’t go on a tear for no reason at all.  Here we get a stark look at the justice of God.  We must remember that justice is on the other side of the coin from the forgiveness and mercy we like to focus on.  When people are seeking forgiveness, the good news is that it is available.  But when there are powers afoot that desire only their own will and have no regard for God or moral living, good news for those oppressed can only be the punishment of the tyrants of this world.

The fifth seal reveals the cause of the first four.  The “witnesses” who have died because of their faith are now revealed shouting at the top of their voices:

How much longer are you going to put off giving judgment, and avenging our blood on the earth-dwellers? (6:10)

As the sixth seal is broken and the world as we know begins to melt (highly poetic language borrowing all the standard apocalyptic symbols for cataclysmic change), the oppressors of the righteous know they will be made to pay for their transgressions and hope that hiding will save them:

Hide us from the face of the One who sits on the throne, and from the anger of the lamb!  The great day of their anger has come, and who can stand upright? (6:16-17)

Some who read Revelation are turned off because of its violence.  This is a picture of God they deem unbecoming.  However, as anyone who has ever been persecuted for their faith can tell us, there are some situations in life where justice is the only way to rectify a situation.  To not bring evil to an end would, in fact, be unjust and erode the very fabric of life.  Revelation is dark in many places, but always in vindication of the faithful who have suffered even unto death.

The times, they are a-changin’.  The balance is shifting.

What did you notice in this chapter?  

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Revelation 5: Worthy is the Lamb!

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God is on His throne in magnificent light.  He is at the center of all things.  He is given the praise that is due him from the twenty-four elders, a symbol of all of God’s people signified by the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Church.  The powerful beasts bow before him.  If this is a concert or a show, the house is pumpin’ now.  There is lots of energy.  The stage lights are high and hot, and we the masses are in the dark watching this unfold.  The hall is loud as those gathered on stage pour all of their spirit into praising God.

Then someone new is introduced and, though it is hard to imagine, the scene erupts with even more praise.  The volume increases.  The back lights of the stage light up to reveal a chorus of angels more than can be numbered that join the elders in praise.  The strings of harps fill the air with melodious sound, and the air is rich with the smell of incense.  The Lamb has just stepped into the circle of praise.

We were expecting a lion because of what one of the elders had said:

Don’t cry.  Look!  The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory!  He can open the scroll and its seven seals. (5:5)

But in a poignant bit of irony, the Lion has become the Lamb.  Let there be no mistake, the Lamb is powerful like a lion, but his work up until now has always been more like a lamb.  One must be a lamb before they can be a lion.

As the Lamb strides up to the throne to take the sealed scroll from God, song after song of praise is sung in his honor.  Sometimes the best thing to do in life is just to stop and praise before the moment gets away.

We do not yet know what is on this scroll, though we can see that it has writing on both the front and back indicating this is a full message.  We can tell from the seven seals that the writer of this scroll wants to keep its contents well guarded.  John was told at the beginning of chapter 4 that he would be shown what would be coming in the future (4:1), so we assume this scroll contains the future destiny of someone or even the whole world.

There has not been a lot of talking during this scene.  Singing has dominated.  However, all of the conversation up until now has focused on one thought: who is worthy to open this scroll?  The one who takes this scroll must be deserving (5:2).  As the Lamb walks onto the stage, the worthiness of the Lamb is their greatest point of praise:

You are worthy to take the scroll; You are worthy to open its seals; For you were slaughtered and with your own blood you purchased a people for God. (5:9)

The slaughtered lamb has now deserved to take the riches and the power. (5:12)

As the Lamb comes into the light emanating from God we see it possesses all power (horns) and wisdom (eyes) but that it also has the wounds of death on it.  As surreal as it seems, the Lamb has died and is now lamb-that-was_slainalive again.  In fact, this is precisely what has made the Lamb worthy to take the scroll.  If it were only power that made one deserving, maybe one of the four creatures could have done it.  It was the Lamb who “won the victory” by being “slaughtered” (5:5, 9).  A people were purchased for God “with [his] own blood” (5:9).  The Lamb is “now” deserving because it has been “slaughtered” (5:12).  The Lamb is worthy because it has died.

This is a big theme in the book of Revelation.  Suffering comes before praise.  Power is purchased with blood.  The way to overcome is by laying down one’s life.  Victory comes through sacrifice, not battle.  We will see this idea come back often this month.  The recipients of this book needed to hear this.  And we do too.

What element of this chapter really captured your imagination?

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1 Thessalonians 4: Basic Ethical Teachings

You should continue more and more to behave in the manner that you received from us as the appropriate way of behaving and of pleasing God. (4:1)

Paul only had a short time with the Thessalonians before he was chased out-of-town.  Still, he had discussed how they should behave as Christians.  For Paul, ethics were fundamental to the way of Christ.

In this chapter’s discussion of basic ethics and beliefs, it is interesting what Paul discusses: sexuality, money, and death.

This is God’s will, you see: he wants you to be holy, to keep well away from fornication.  Each of you should know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not in the madness of lust like Gentiles who don’t know God. (4:3-5)

Now, about charitable concern for the whole family: I don’t really need to write to you, because you yourselves have been taught by God to show loving care for one another. . . . Work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you may behave in a way which outsiders will respect, and so that none of you may be in financial difficulties. (4:9, 11b-12)

Now concerning those who have fallen asleep . . . We don’t want you to have the kind of grief that other people do, people who don’t have any hope. (4:13)

Think about it: aren’t inappropriate thinking and behaviors related to sexuality, money, and death especially dangerous?  Each can significantly alter the course of one’s life.  A life lived in immorality and licentiousness degrades and endangers others and oneself.  Greed makes the turning of a buck the most important goal and people who stand in the way a target for removal.  Laziness is contagious and makes many other vices necessary. Unchristian thinking about death may be the least obvious, but consider how life is lived when one believes the grave is the end.  There is also a common element in these three: each makes one live in the here and now with no gratification delayed and no thought to the future.

One more thought: is western society not obsessed with sex, money, and a terminal view of death?  How important it still is for us to believe that contrasting views about these three topics must be fundamental teachings for young Christians.

What caught your eye in this chapter?

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John 19: The King Takes His Throne

I like how as we have read through the four accounts of Jesus’ death from the various gospels each of the authors has emphasized something different.  Today I have seen John emphasize kingship.

The word “king” is used eight times in this chapter.  Jesus receives a crown and a thorn.  A crowd shouts for him.  He is even enthroned in a significant way.

But this is a king of a very different sort.  He wears a crown of thorns.  He wears the purple robe only long enough to be mocked.  He is slapped not saluted.  People shout for him, but for his death not his glory.  Let there be no mistake, Jesus is a king.  Pilate says it several times, even when the people object.  As he dies, Jesus hangs beneath a sign declaring it too:

Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (19:19)

With this in mind, John paints the picture of this chapter as a paradoxical enthronement.  This is Jesus the King, and the King has taken his throne.

Jesus is the king of sacrifice.  His is a kingdom of selfless service where love is the power that changes the world.  In this kingdom, victory comes through death.  His subjects will follow his example.  On this day the King is crowned and seated on his throne.

Do you see this too?

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John 18: Jesus’ Special Place

My favorite place in Memphis, TN, where I live, is a large park in the middle of the metroplex called Shelby Farms.  Once a penal farm where the detainees would produce their own food (hence the name), now this 4000-acre park is home to fields, trails, lakes, a river to canoe, a state-of-the-art playground, equestrian area, dog park, disc golf course, community gardens, agricultural land, and natural woodlands.  There is more than enough room for one to get lost from the cares and concerns of life and be distracted by the beauty and order of nature.  This is why I love Shelby Farms most.  A hike in the woods is the best therapy I know.  What a great way to get away from the stress of a week of work or to blow off the steam that comes from parenting adolescents.  This is my special place, because it is a getaway.

Sunset in Shelby Farms by my 13-year-old son

John tells us today that Jesus also had a special place:

With these words, Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley to a place where there was a garden.  He and his disciples went in.  Judas, his betrayer, knew the place, because Jesus often used it as a meeting place with his disciples. (18:1-2)

Maybe it was just a meeting place.  Or maybe it was Jesus’ meeting place because this was a that place Jesus liked to be.  We know Jesus would often withdraw from the masses for times of prayer and meditation.  We know Jesus would often go to mountainsides and wilderness places at these times.  I think it is possible that this was that sort of place for Jesus.  What a logical place to go on this night.

“The Betrayal of Jesus” by Duccio Di Buoninsegna

Here is the kicker.  Jesus’ special place is the very place where he will be betrayed, where he will pray with desperation to not drink the cup of God’s wrath, where he will sweat drops of blood.  This is the place where Jesus’ will last experience freedom.  Even more startling is that Jesus knew all of this about his garden, long before it ever happened:

Jesus knew everything that was going to happen to him. (18:4a)

Jesus’ special place was the very place he would be betrayed.  Jesus has made regular pilgrimages to the very spot where everything will begin to be unraveled for him.  This is anything but a getaway.  Jesus wasn’t escaping the reality of life; he was immersing himself in it.  He was reminding himself of how this is supposed to end.  How amazing!

What did you see in today’s passage?

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John 12: Life through Death

Today, we return to one of the most foundational teachings of Jesus.  As countercultural as this message is, we need a regular booster of this message:

I’m telling you the solemn truth: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains all by itself.  If it dies, though, it will produce lots of fruit.  If you love your life, you’ll lose it.  It you hate your life in this world, you’ll keep it for the life of the coming age.  If anyone serves me, they must follow me.  Where I am, my servant will be too.  If anyone serves me, the father will honor them. (12:24-26)

Before a fire

Two summers ago, my family took an incredible trip to the western United States.  We hit six national parks, the Rockies, and terrain unlike anything we had ever seen before.  Beautiful!  While in Yellowstone National Park, we learned much about the fires of 1988 that ravaged 36% percentage of that 2-million-plus-acre wilderness park.  I was especially intrigued by the fact that the pine seeds in the cones of the lodgepole pines that are especially numerous in Yellowstone can only be released from the cones when subjected to intense heat, like the kind found in a forest fire.  This is the very warp and woof of nature: as one tree is destroyed it is releasing the seeds of many others in its stead.  Jesus — the creator of those trees — knew, taught and exemplified this truth as well.

After a fire

Far too often we want the honor in verse 26 without the service and loss mentioned in the rest of this verse above.  We want fruit, but don’t want the wheat to die.  We want life in the coming age, but we also want to keep it right here and now too, instead of laying it down.

New life after a fiery death (Yellowstone National Park)

But here is Jesus reminding us that nothing of spiritual worth, nothing that brings life, nothing that lasts in the coming age will come without sacrifice and self-denial.  In our relationships.  In our careers.  In our families and churches.  In our souls.  In our communities.  Everywhere.  This truth is tied into the very flow of nature.

When did you last see “life” come from “death”?    

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2 Timothy 4: Paul’s Last Words

If it is true that 2 Timothy is Paul’s last preserved letter, today we read Paul’s last recorded words.  This passage especially captures the moment:

For I am already being poured out as a drink-offering; my departure time as arrived.  I have fought the good fight; I have completed the course; I have kept the faith.  What do I still have to look for?  The crown of righteousness!  The Lord, the righteous judge, will give it to me as my reward on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. (4:6-8)

What hit home with you as you read the letters to Timothy?

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BONUS: An Introduction to the Pastoral Epistles

We come now to three books that are typically called the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus — because they are addressed to two men who were leading churches Paul had started and because of the attention given in these letters to ministry issues.

Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles toward the end of his life.  As we read through the letters we will likely get the sense that these are the letters of a man who is about to hand his life’s work over to his protégés.  He is reflective and slightly anxious.  He pours every ounce of cautionary wisdom into his words.  Paul wants to push westward past Rome and on to Spain, however Paul seems to know with prescience that he may not even get that far.  Either way, it is time to entrust his work in Ephesus to Timothy and his work on the island of Crete to Titus.  By the time 2 Timothy, Paul’s last preserved letter, is being written Paul is, in fact, imprisonment in Rome in a cold dungeon (2 Tim. 4:13) unable to be visited by friends.  Tradition says Paul is killed by the Romans within a year.

The Pastoral Epistles are highly instructive.  So much of these letters rotation around instructions about what makes a good leader, the threat of false teaching, the corruption that can easily come to church leaders when money is involved, and how to live as Christians in a decadent and immoral culture (idolatry in Ephesus, and sexual immorality and raucousness in Crete).

This Timothy was the same young Jewish man mentioned in Acts 16 who became Paul’s traveling companion and “son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2).  Six of Paul’s letters were co-authored by Timothy (2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon).  Titus is never mentioned in Acts, yet he does show up in various other places in the Letters as a loyal companion to Paul.  He evidently was an uncircumcised Gentile who Paul proudly took with him to the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) to support his stand against attaching law observance to faith in Jesus (Gal. 2:1-3).  Titus was especially important to Paul in Crete and he is left there to ensure the churches stayed strong.

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2 Corinthians 7: Godly Sadness

If I did make you sad by my letter, I don’t regret it; and, if I did regret it, it was because I saw that I made you sad for a while by what I had written.  Anyway, I’m celebrating now, not because you were saddened, but because your sadness brought you to repentance.  It was sadness from God, you see, and it did you no harm at all on our account; because God’s way of sadness is designed to produce a repentance which leads to salvation, and there is nothing to regret there!  But the world’s way of sadness produces death. (7:8-10)

We don’t like sadness in our culture.  Life is supposed to be happy all of the time.  Nothing but butterflies and rainbows.

Of course, you can’t have rainbows without rain clouds and butterflies emerge from a strenuous battle with a cocoon.

I am afraid that this “happy-all-the-time” mentality has seeped into American Christianity too.  We expect God to smooth every road before us.  Life with Jesus is supposed to be a charmed life.  Surely, hard times are punishment.  And those who bring hard words of correction are not welcomed people at all.

At some point prior to 2 Corinthians, Paul has written a “sad letter” to this church.  This description doesn’t really fit the tone of 1 Corinthians, so many scholars think Paul is referring to another, lost letter to the Corinthians.  Clearly, Paul had hard things to say.  Things the church did not want to hear.  Things that made them ashamed of themselves.  Those are uncomfortable letters to write and conversations to have, and Paul confesses he regretted having to write such a letter.  Yet, the sadness the letter produced was exactly what the Corinthians needed.  It woke them up and they acknowledged in repentance that Paul was right.  A momentary spate of sadness created a wholesale change of direction.  Truly, “there is nothing to regret there!”

This sort of godly sadness is absolutely necessary, and it reminds us that not all we greet as bad is necessarily so.  Godly sadness created changes and results in salvation and redemption of that which is lost, broken and dying in our lives.  Godly sadness is what makes rainbows and butterflies possible.  There is always hope underlying the sadness.

There is a worldly sadness that is rightly undesirable.  Worldly sadness is nothing but rain and there are no silver linings.  Worldly sadness sweeps the cocoon away in a torrent and butterflies never emerge.  Worldly sadness offers nothing but death.  Hope is nowhere to be found.

When was a rebuke the most appropriate word you have ever received?  

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2 Corinthians 5: Ministers of Reconciliation

In every one of his letters we have read thus far, we have seen Paul state the gospel in some form or fashion, usually in a way that fits the context of the people he is addressing.  2 Corinthians 5 is the “gospel chapter” in this book.

If anyone is in the Messiah, there is a new creation!  Old things have gone, and look — everything has become new! . . . God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah, not counting their transgressions against them. . . . The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant. (5:17,  19, 21)

Personally, I love this version of the gospel message.

Now, it is our job, given by God, to be God’s “ambassadors, speaking on behalf of the Messiah, as though God were making his appeal through us” (5:20).  We have been given this “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18).

What motivates us to do this?  Paul mentions two things in this chapter:

So we know the fear of the Lord: and that’s why we are persuading people. (5:11)

For the Messiah’s love makes us press on. (5:14)

If we choose to believe the words of the Bible, the reality is that there are people who do not know Jesus, yet will come before God in judgment (5:10).  We share the gospel out of fear of what will happen to people if we do not.  We are also “beside ourselves” (5:13) with gratitude and honor because of the reality that the Messiah loved with such a depth that he died in our place so that we would be reunited with God.  That is an astounding message that needs to be shared.

What is your favorite verse in this chapter?

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2 Corinthians 4: Fragile Strength

This is one of my favorite chapters in the whole Bible.  I am finding these are the hardest chapters of all to write much about.

Most of my life I have not felt good enough or strong enough.  The comparison game starts early in life and I usually felt and sometimes still feel like a middle-of-the-road kind of guy.  Furthermore, I see the magnitude of the mission of God and I feel especially incapable, weak, and overwhelmed.

That is probably why I am so drawn to this chapter.  Paul understands what I feel, and he found a better perspective.  I read these lines praying for these to be my true words as well.

We have this treasure in earthenware pots, so that the extraordinary quality of the power may belong to God, not to us.  We are under all kinds of pressure, but we are not crushed completely; we are at a loss, but not at our wit’s end; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are cast down, but not destroyed.  We always carry the deadness of Jesus about in the body, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body.  Although we are still alive, you see, we are always being given over to death because of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our mortal humanity.  So this is how it is: death is at work in us — but life in you! . . . We know that the God who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us with Jesus and present us with you. . . . For this reason we don’t lose heart.  Even if our outer humanity is decaying, our inner humanity is being renewed day by day.  This slight momentary trouble of ours is working to produce a weight of glory, passing everything, lasting forever; for we don’t look at the things that can be seen, but at the things that can’t be seen.  After all, the things you can see are here today and gone tomorrow; but the things you can’t see are everlasting. (4:7, 10-12, 14, 16-18)

What line resonated with you today?

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2 Corinthians 2: What’s That Smell?

Much of this new letter from Paul to the Corinthians revolves around a need Paul felt to defend his authority and reputation as an apostle.  We saw some of this in 1 Corinthians too.  It would appear there were other self-proclaimed apostles who had come to the Corinthian church after Paul who were discrediting Paul and trumpeting their own reputations.  In Paul’s response, we find some of the clearest teachings on what it means to be a minister of Christ, what our goal is for ministry, and from where our power comes (and we are all ministers if we choose to be, even if we don’t receive a paycheck from a church).  As much as possible, as we make our way through 2 Corinthians I am going to focus my posts on these ideas.

Today’s passage is a familiar one:

But thanks be to God — the God who always leads us in his triumphal procession in the Messiah, and through us reveals everywhere the sweet smell of knowing him.  We are the Messiah’s fragrance before God, you see, to those who are being saved and to those who are being lost.  To the latter, it’s a smell which comes from death and leads to death; but to the former it’s the smell of life which leads to life. (2:14-16)

It is not our job to save.  Our job is to witness, to live, to smell.  In fact we can’t help but smell.  That is just what happens when we live the way of Christ in this world.  People will sense something from our lives about what it means to know and be known by God.  Whether they like the aroma of our life is also out of our control.  Some will, some won’t.  And in the context of this passage, it has nothing to do with our level of sincerity.  Lost people can’t appreciate the smell of life.  But saved people find it as comforting as the smell of home-made brownies.  Our job is to walk, and even this is out of our control.  Prisoners of war were paraded, often in chains, through cities like Corinth in a “triumphal procession.”  God is even in control of where we walk.  Yet, we walk, and as we do a smell is emitted.  That is our job: to smell.

What did you notice about ministry in this chapter?

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1 Corinthians 15: YOLO?

“YOLO!”

Have you heard this slogan?

“You only live once!”  YOLO, in short form.

I am hearing it more and more.  The younger the person I talk to the more likely I am to hear it.  I hear it used to encourage doing something great with one’s life, and also to justify immense stupidity.  What troubles me is that I am also hearing the same thinking coming from some of the Christians I know.  It is not always said outright, but the implications are often there.

You only live once — so we better live it up now.

You only live once — so you better be happy now.

You only live once — so you only get one chance to do it right.

You only live once — so do all you have to do to stay alive.

You only live once — so death is worst of all fates.

The problem, of course, is that it is not true.  It is not biblical.  It is not congruent with the gospel of Jesus.  We live twice.  And the second life goes on forever.  That’s a pretty big difference!  (So would that be YOLT?)

Oddly, in this very religious (though not very loving) Corinthian church, there existed some Christians who also believed you only lived once.

How can some of you say that there is no such thing as resurrection of the dead? (15:12b)

Paul is beside himself.  How can a Christian believe that?  The entire worldview of Christianity hinges on resurrection.  It doesn’t make sense and is a colossal waste of time if there is no resurrection of the dead.

For if the dead aren’t raised, the Messiah wasn’t raised either; and if the Messiah wasn’t raised, your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins.  What’s more, people who have fallen asleep in the Messiah have perished for good.  If it’s only for this present life that we have put our hope in the Messiah, we are the most pitiable members of the human race. (15:16-19)

If dead people stay dead, then Jesus was not resurrected.  If Jesus was not resurrected, sin was not fully conquered and death was not dealt with at all.  There is a force greater than God — death.  If these are true, the entire gospel is a farce.  The system of beliefs is nonsense.  We are living on false hope, and deserve the labels of “ignorant” we sometimes receive.  We are missing out and ought to say instead, “Let’s eat and drink, because tomorrow we’re going to die!” (15:32)

A study for “The Resurrection” by Michelangelo

But death is not the end.  Read that again, if you need to.  That is a core belief.  We are headed to death.  We cannot live this life forever.  Cancer and heart attacks and horrible accidents are a reality of the “decaying” life, as Paul calls it in this chapter. But whatever happens that ends this life is not the end.  Do we really believe it?  It is fundamental.

Death is swallowed up in victory!  Death, where’s your victory gone?  Death, where’s your sting gone? (15:54b-55)

Thank God!  He gives us the victory, through our Lord Jesus the Messiah. (15:57)

What caught your eye in this long chapter?

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Luke 23: Evil Won The Day

There is no mistaking Luke in this chapter.  Jesus was innocent.  He did nothing wrong.

“I find no fault in this man,” said Pilate to the chief priests and the crowds. (23:4)

“I [Pilate] examined him in your presence and I found no evidence in him of the charges you’re bringing against him.  Nor did Herod.” (23:14-15a)

“There is no sign that he’s done anything to deserve death.” (23:15b)

“What’s he done wrong?  I [Pilate] can’t find anything he’s done that deserves death.” (23:22)

“We’re [the criminals crucified with Jesus] getting exactly what we asked for.  But this fellow hasn’t done anything out of order.” (23:41)

“This fellow,” he [the centurion] said, “really was in the right.” (23:47)

Remember Luke is writing to the Gentile world where it might have been easy to write Jesus off as another rabble-rouser who got himself killed.  Maybe some said Jesus just got what was coming to him.  Luke makes it clear: he was an innocent man.  Pilate thought so.  Herod said as much.  Soldiers and bystanders saw it.  One of the criminals crucified beside him realized it.  Even one of the Jewish rulers, Joseph of Arimathea, wouldn’t go along with the court’s decision (23:51).  This was unjust, plain and simple.

And yet, Jesus was killed.  Pilate caved to the pressure of the crowd.  The conniving, power-hording Jewish leaders got their way.  Herod sat by and watched his people nail an innocent man to a cross like it was just another sideshow in the circus that was his kingdom.  Wright phrases the tragic reality of the situation well:

But they [the Jewish rulers and people] went on shouting at the top of their voices, demanding that he be crucified; and eventually their shouts won the day. (23:23)

Some days those who can shout the loudest win.  Some days wicked things are done.  Some days innocent bystanders are struck by gangbangers’ bullets.  Some days desperate meth heads break into houses and hurt the homeowners if they stand in the way.  Some days drug cartels take over whole parts of countries making them unsafe for virtuous people.  Some days angry citizens bomb their own federal buildings.  Some days terrorists fly planes into crowded office buildings.  Some days high school graduates are carted halfway across the globe to fight wars generals are not sure can be won.  Some days delusional loners cut down good people while they watch movies or shop in malls.  Some times evil wins the day. . . .

What injustice or act of evil do you lament today?

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Romans 6: Free at Last!

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed all slaves living in America.  He was the president, he said they were free, and that is that.

Well, it wasn’t really that easy.  The Confederates were no longer acknowledging Lincoln as their president so his words weren’t worth much to them anymore.  At least until the Union won the Civil War and asserted their power and laws.

So at the point of the Emancipation Proclamation were the slaves free or not?

You are only free to the degree people (including yourself) let you be free.

There were pockets of slave owners in Texas that got together and conspired to keep the word of the Emancipation Proclamation from their slaves.  It wasn’t that hard to do.  Many slaves could not read.  The slave owners would also run abolitionists out of town or even in rare cases kill them lest they stir up the slaves into dissension.  When rumors of freedom did get through to the slaves, all the slave owners had to do was tell them to look at their situation.  How could these rumors be true?  They don’t appear to be free, do they?  In the end, in these pockets of Texas, even though slavery had been abolished, freedom was denied to the slaves for another two years.

The Roman Christians were at a crossroads.  Theologically they had to decide how free they would allow themselves to be.  Their slave masters were not flesh and blood though.  They had to decide how free from law and sin they would be.

Paul has been painting a picture of Law that is not pretty.  There is within fallen humanity a propensity to sin (5:12-13), but until a command comes along declaring what we should and should not do the sinful desires inside of us do not know how to tempt us (3:20).  Think of children: as soon as you say don’t do something, what do they want to do?  The very thing prohibited.  Likewise our sinful desires.  The law was not intended to be a way to salvation, rather it showed us how depraved we truly are (5:20).  To hang on to law as a way to get right with God is nonsensical.  Law leads to sin which produces guilt and ultimately death (6:23), whether spiritual death or the metaphorical death of hope and love and goodness.

In this chapter, Paul sketches out an alternative.  He tells the Roman Christians: “you have been freed from sin” (6:7, 18, 22). Sin is no longer their master, because they have been freed from an obligation to follow the Jewish Law.  Law played its role and now it is time for another option: the cross and the grace that is freely offered there.  As we identify ourselves with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through baptism (6:3-5) we choose a new cycle.  The cross brings freedom which produces gratitude and ultimately life.

The wages paid by sin, you see, are death; but God’s free gift is the life of the age to come, in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. (6:23)

Paul, though, leaves these two opposing options as exactly that: choices.  The Roman Christians can choose to go the way of law or the way of the cross.  He argues one will lead to death and one to life.  They have been freed from sin by the power of the cross.  Through Christ’s resurrection God showed this truly is His world and life and death, freedom and slavery truly are His to determine.  But they still have to choose to not let sin have that power over them by going the way of grace through the cross, not the way of law and sin (6:12-14).  They would only be as free in the Roman church as they allowed themselves to be.

Nobody is encouraging us to follow the Jewish Law these days, but we can still give our freedom away to a works-oriented religion.  Again, this only leads to inevitable failure, overwhelming guilt, and the death of hope.  But the cross still stands before us today offering grace and freedom, propelling us into a grateful and abundant life of service to God and others.

The choice is ours.  How free will we allow ourselves to be?

What struck you in this chapter?

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Matthew 27: Let His Blood Be On Us!

I am struck by the utter irony of this passage:

“So what shall I do with Jesus the so-called Messiah?” asked Pilate.

“Let him be crucified!” they all said.

“Why?” asked Pilate. “What’s he done wrong?”

But they shouted all the louder, “Let him be crucified!”

Pilate saw that it was no good.  In fact, there was a riot brewing.  So he took some water and washed his hands in front of the crowd.  “I’m not guilty of this man’s blood,” he said.  “It’s your problem.”

Let his blood be on us!” answered all the people, “and on our children!”  (27:22-25)

Of course, the crowd means they will gladly take the guilt of killing Jesus.  His death is justified.  He is a law-breaker and blasphemer.  He incites riots and disturbs the peace.  Look at the company he keeps: he likely has some hidden sin.   If he really is God’s son then he can save himself.  But he won’t.  This guy is a ruffian.  We’ll answer for spilling his blood.

The irony is that by the end of the day that is exactly what happened.  Jesus’ shed blood was potentially “upon them and their children,” but not at all in the way they had imagined.  That blood signified redemption and atonement.  It meant they all had the potential to be saved by the very man they had crucified.  And if they accepted that invitation that blood would wash away their sins.  Were some of these same people among the 3000 saved on Pentecost forty days later?

What an amazing reminder of the grace of God!  He gives them what they want, and so much more!

What did you notice today?

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BONUS: James 1:14-15 – Sin Strikes One DEAD

I know some of you don’t read comments so I wanted to take a snippet posted today in the comments on James 1 and move it here.  Roberta Pledge offered this great acronym for remembering how sin originates and how to avoid becoming trapped in it.  Thanks Roberta!  Very memorable.

D for DISTRACTION, sin begins by  simply taking our eyes off of God

E for EVIL DESIRE, soon this distraction becomes an evil desire

A for ADDICTION, then it totally consumes our thoughts and actions

D for DEATH, whether spiritual, physical or both, the end result of sin is death

Roberta says: “When we understand where sin begins, we can pray regularly to see the distractions in our lives and stop our sin at that point.  A weed is much easier to pull before it is deeply rooted!”

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Galatians 6: Focused on the Cross

We come to the end of our fourth book today.  These shorter books of Paul go quickly.  We are on to James tomorrow.  Good place to jump back onboard if necessary.

So much of Galatians has been anchored in the interplay between law and grace, slavery and freedom.  In the third to last paragraph of the book Paul tells us why the law is futile to make us righteous, why we are free from slavery, why we are alive in Christ, and why we can have the Spirit:

As for me, God forbid that I should boast — except in the cross of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.  Circumcision, you see, is nothing; neither is uncircumcised!  What matters is new creation.  Peace and mercy on everyone who lines up by that standard — yes, on God’s Israel. (6:14-16)

Ritual makes us focus on ourselves.  The cross of Jesus focuses us on the work of Jesus.  The law offers guidance for right living, but leaves us without the power to do it.  The cross made spiritual power available with the coming of the Spirit at the ascension of Christ.  The law was spoken into the world of the old creation.  The cross vanquished all powers set against God’s Kingdom and started a new creation.  The law enslaved us to sin, guilt, and the death that is the consequence of failure.  The cross frees us from all such tyrannies.  The center of the way of Christ is the cross.  A cross-less Christianity is just one more way to end up enslaved.

As a result, the cross becomes our focus for how we live life each day.  We “carry each other’s burdens” or crosses (6:2).  This may leave the “marks of Jesus” on our bodies (6:17), but we are okay with that because we are certainly not the ones who want to “avoid persecution for the Messiah’s cross” (6:12).  Daily, we “sow in the field of the spirit” and as a result “harvest eternal life from the spirit” (6:8).  Focused on the cross as our power we take up the cross as our service — to God and to others.

Let’s try this again because it worked well last time: please summarize in one sentence the message of Galatians as you heard it this time around.

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Acts 20: Bound by the Spirit

I would love to go to Jerusalem.  What a great trip that would be!  Maybe some day.

Interestingly, in this passage Paul isn’t as enthusiastic about his trip to Jerusalem.  Nor was Jesus in Luke’s first volume (Luke 9:51).  Both had to set their faces resolutely towards the city of David.  Jerusalem meant death.  Jerusalem is the place of loss and separation, in this context.

This is likely why Paul seems more melancholy and introspective in today’s reading.  By the middle of the chapter Paul is in Troas on his way to Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem.  The rest of his party sails from Troas to Assos but Paul, who usually surrounded himself with traveling companions, walks the 25-mile journey to Assos alone instead.  In Ephesus, Paul gathers the elders of the church together to encourage them to watch out for “fierce wolves” in sheep’s clothing and to stay strong in Christ (20:29-31).  Paul knows he is “bound by the spirit” to go to Jerusalem (20:22).  Twice he tells the Ephesian elders they will not “see my face again” (20:25, 38).  Paul’s phrase “after I am gone” (20:29) has a foreboding tone of finality.

These are last words.  The kind of things Jesus said to his apostles in John 13-17 just before he died.  The kind of things you say just before “going to Jerusalem.”

Yet, both Jesus and Paul went.  It was their mission, and they knew it.

What stood out to you?

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Acts 12: Rescued!

I have never noticed before today how similar this account of the near-death and rescue of Peter is to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

  • Both face one of the Herods
  • Both are arrested around the time of the Passover
  • The arrest of each is preceded by the killing of a previously popular leader: John the Baptist and James
  • Both Herods are motivated by placating the Jewish people
  • Jesus hung between two criminals, while Peter was chained between two soldiers
  • Jesus escaped the tomb; Peter escaped a prison and iron city gate
  • Once freed, both go to a “Mary” first
  • The reunion with friends is incomplete in both accounts: people run off to tell others, and Jesus and Peter both tell someone to tell significant disciples about their return
  • The guards in both accounts are put to death for their perceived negligence

The interesting point is that while both stories are so similar, the fate of each was quite differently: Jesus died but Peter was spared.

Nonetheless, God’s will is done in each story.  It was God’s will for Jesus to die on that day.  Presumably, it was God’s will for Peter to live another day.  Both served God’s greater goals — to die for all and to continue preaching and leading the early church — but in different ways.

We can rest in an assurance that God will bring His will to pass one way or another.  Some times we will be rescued like Peter.  Sometimes we will not, like James.  But, positive or negative outcomes, God’s desires will be done.

What verse struck you in this chapter?

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Acts 2: They Begin to Get It

This is such an incredible chapter!

I don’t say that because I have been programmed to by my religious tradition that has exalted this chapter since the beginning of the Restoration Movement almost 200 years ago.  They often championed this chapter as a blueprint for receiving Christ in a particular way.  That is certainly in here, but that kind of reductionism misses the point.

Acts 2 is a sunburst of spiritual power.  The original Great Awakening.  It is the start of something new, though it was spoken of  long ago (Acts 2:16-21).  So many things we have been seeing are coming together here, and so many things will launch out from here.  The Celts would have called this one of those “thin places” where heaven touches earth in an explosion of energy, awareness, ability, and change.  Now that is a reason to exalt a chapter!

Amongst other points, this chapter is so wonderful because the apostles finally begin to get this kingdom Jesus has been talking about.

  • They begin to see that “Death” is the real enemy that has to be vanquished not Rome, and that the battle was waged on a cross and in a tomb not in Judea (2:24, 27, 31-32)
  • They were able to grasp that Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise to David to have a descendent on the throne, but that this was a different sort of throne (2:30-31)
  • They boldly claimed that “Jesus is Lord” (2:36) instead of saying “Caesar is Lord,” a common cry by the AD 60s when Acts was written if not in the AD 30s when the actual events took place.  Somehow it was possible for Jesus to be Lord even while Caesar was on a throne.
  • They were understanding that the greatest tyranny comes at the hands of Sin, and the greatest freedom is from this enemy (2:38, 40, 47)
  • They were switching from a worldview that said Israel is our most important allegiance to seeing the fledgling collection of Jesus-followers as the Great Community (2:42-47)

Notice, they didn’t really get it in Acts 1.  Now they begin to in Acts 2.  What changed?  What happened?  The only thing that changed was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of God.  God is changing them from the inside out.

Let your Spirit come!  Fall upon us now!

What spoke to you anew in this very familiar chapter?  

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Mark 15: The King of the Jews

As a child of the 1980s, Michael Jackson has always been a fixture in my memory.  Whether it was as a child with the Jackson 5 or his “Thriller” album (was there a household in America that did not own a copy of that record?) or the sad carnival sideshow that his life became, we all knew the “King of Pop.”  He spoke and we listened.  He acted and we paid attention.  He went on tour and he commanded hundred of dollars per ticket.  That is power, freakish though it may be.

Before there was the King of Pop, there was the King of Rock and Roll.  Just about anybody over age of 65 here in Memphis has their own personal Elvis Presley stories.  He shaped an entire genre of music.  He has a street named after him.  And a trauma center too.  His end was as sad as Jackson’s, but who can deny Elvis’ royalty?

The latest king plays basketball, King LeBron James.  Love him or hate him, none can deny he elicits strong emotions.  When the Miami Heat comes to town, count on a sold out arena.  This King has had his image plastered on magazine ads encouraging us to come “witness” the works of this king.  He has been emblazoned on murals the size of buildings.  He is at the height of basketball prowess, and even Michael Jordan knows it.

I grew up in Canada where the British royalty remains an honored institution.  Life stops for a royal wedding.  My mother still has a commemorative plate from Charles and Diana’s wedding in her china cabinet and that was twenty-five years ago.  Now, simply say the name “Kate” and we know you are referring to Kate Middleton, the new Duchess of Cambridge.  Beside her always is the dashing William, the next king of Britain.  I am too young to remember the coronation of Elizabeth II, but be assured that William’s coronation will be a fete unequaled in pomp and circumstance.

Then we come to a coronation of an entirely different sort today:

The soldiers took Jesus into the courtyard–that is, the Praetorium–and called together the whole squad.  They dressed Jesus up in purple; then, weaving together a crown of thorns, they stuck it on him.  They began to salute him: “Greetings, king of the Jews!” And they hit him over the head with a staff, and spat at him, and knelt him down to do homage.  Then, when they had mocked him, they took the purple robe off him, and out his own clothes back on. (15:16-20)

This is a very different king.  Power means something very different to this king.  People respond differently to this king.  There must be different principles in this kingdom.

What affected you anew in this heart-rending chapter?  

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