Posts Tagged With: faith

Revelation 22: Come, Lord Jesus!

Here we are at the end.  The last chapter of the New Testament.  My last post on a reading.  I will post once more tomorrow in an effort to wrap things up.

Today’s chapter couldn’t be a better end.  It really shouldn’t be a surprise that the greatest Author of all ended His book in such a fitting way.  This is a great ending to Revelation and a great ending to the New Testament.

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John takes us back to where he started.  Back at the beginning of the book Jesus called on the seven churches of Asia Minor to decide which way they would go.  Would they become so enculturated that they compromised all that was distinctive about Jesus?  Or would they stand out as different people who serve a different Lord, even if it did mean persecution as a result?  Today, Jesus calls on his audience one more time to make that same decision:

God’s blessings on those who wash their clothes, so that they may have the right to eat from the tree of life and may enter the city by its gates.  But the dogs, the sorcerers, the fornicators, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves to invent lies — they will all be outside. (22:14-15)

Lest, we think Jesus speaks with indifference, we are also reminded of the immense love of God that wants all to come into His city:

The spirit and the bride say, “Come!”  and let anyone who hears say, “Come!” Let the thirsty come; let anyone who wants the water of life take it freely. (22:17)

Revelation has taken us from where we are, facing the many manifestations of evil that surround us, to a place of hope that life will soon be different.  Life is held in God’s hands as the true King all all things, still Revelation has never taken away our freedom.  We, the saints, must decide who we will be in this world.

And it is true.  Whether it was Jesus preaching from the Mount or defending himself before Pilate.  Whether we stood with the crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost as Peter preached the first sermon of the church.  Whether it was the teachings of Paul, James, or John.  The point was always the same: We must decide.  Who will we be?

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all. (22:21)

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John 20: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Back in college, I studied the Gospel of John with Jim Woodroof, an fantastic speaker and an even better man.  In that course, we read a book he had written about the Fourth Gospel called Between the Rock and A Hard Place.  The basic premise of the book, as I recall, was that Jesus is consistently portrayed in John as one who places people “between a rock and a hard place” so as produce a decision of faith in their life.  Jesus desired to bring people to rock solid faith in him but first they had to have reason to believe.

As was discussed in the introduction to John, one of John’s greatest goals with his book was to help people come to believe in Jesus.  This is the “gospel of belief,” as our other textbook called John.  We see a statement of this goal at the end of our chapter today, in what for many is the purpose statement of this gospel:

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which aren’t written in this book.  But these are written so that you may believe that the Messiah, the son of God is none other than Jesus; and that, with this faith, you may have life in his name. (20:30-31)

Belief, though, is easily squashed by doubt and alternate explanation.  As long as one can explain the deeds of Jesus in some other way, faith can be deferred.

My professor’s point was that over and over again we see Jesus doing things that could only be explained by him being divine.  He can tell the Samaritan woman details about her love-life.  He can heal a man born blind.  Jesus walks up and paralysis is gone.  Thousands of people eat a full meal from five loaves and two fish.  This was the “hard place.”  There people stood between the hard place of trying to explain away the inexplicable or the rock solid faith that can come through a belief in Jesus.  Either Jesus is divine as he says or there is some naturalistic explanation for what has just happened, but what that could be?  Could it be that Jesus is God is the easiest explanation?

I see this dynamic happening three times in John 20.

  1. It all comes to a head for the “other disciple” — who most people think is John — when he runs into the empty tomb and sees the grave cloths all neatly folded up.  This can’t be explained away, and it made everything else make sense for him (20:8-9)
  2. Mary sees a man she thinks is the gardener, a stranger to her. But when he can call her by name, she realizes Jesus was more than just a man. (20:16)
  3. Thomas can’t believe that Jesus could be back from the dead.  That is until he puts his fingers in Jesus’ wounds and can’t deny the facts. (20:25-28)

The best ending to this post would be these words of Jesus from today’s reading:

Is it because you’ve seen me that you believe?  God’s blessing on people who don’t see, and yet believe. (20:29)

What did you see today?

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John 11: Thomas the “Twin”

“Apostle St. Thomas” by El Greco

Other than being listed in a few lists of apostles, all that we know about the apostle Thomas comes from the Gospel of John.  Thomas is a far more complex character than some of us may have realized.  Thomas has forever been known as the “doubter,” but today we see something very different about him.

We know him as Thomas, but he was also known as Didymus, likely a Greek name.  Interestingly, Didymus means “twin.”  Maybe Thomas the apostle was a literal twin.  That would explain the name.  But as we read through John we will see, in three places, that Thomas truly is a twin within himself.

Today we see the apostles’ fear to return to anywhere in Judea (11:8).  The Judaeans want to kill Jesus.  Why would he give them another chance?  When Jesus explains that Jesus is going to use the death of Lazarus to grow their faith, Thomas is the first apostle to respond:

“Let’s go too,” he said. “We may as well die with him.” (11:16b)

This is one side of the “twin.”  The side who boldly launches off into peril.  The one who is willing to risk life and limb.  This may not be a Thomas we have always thought of.

On Thursday we will see Jesus proclaim that he is headed to his father’s house to prepare a place for them, but that he would be back to get them, though they know the way anyway.  Thomas is quick to correct Jesus:

Actually, Master, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way? (14:5)

Notice though who it is that is most interested in knowing the way so as to follow Jesus.  Thomas, once again.  This man is gung-ho to follow.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio

Last, and most famously, it is days after Jesus’ resurrection.  He has appeared to the apostles but Thomas was not there.  When Thomas is told what he has missed, he is incredulous.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” replied Thomas, “and put my finger into the nail-marks, and put my hand into his side — I’m not going to believe!” (20:25b)

This is the other side of Thomas the Twin.  He needs proof before he budges an inch.  I’ll believe it when I see it.  Is this doubt?  Maybe so.  Both an incredible faith regardless of cost and cautious doubt concerned with being duped are bound up in Didymus.  He is both.

If we are honest with each other and ourselves, we are both too.  There are days we launch out with immense faith sure all will be fine or that it won’t matter if it is not.  Other days we hold back and need proof to take another step.  We are Didymus too.

I love the last quote from the Bible attributed to Thomas.  This is how he ends.  Maybe he is ready rumble.  Maybe he needs to investigate Jesus like a doctor.  Regardless, Thomas ends with this statement.  May we as well.

“My Lord,” replied Thomas, “and my God!” (20:28)

What did you see anew today? 

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John 9: Who Has Sinned?

“Healing the Blind Man” by Edy Legrand

Jesus and his disciples come upon a man who had been blind since birth.  He appears to be a well known man in his community (9:8).  A conversation ensues concerning sin and who is at fault for this man’s condition.  However, throughout the chapter who the sinner is becomes a hotly contested question.

Conventional wisdom at the time said people like this were being punished for sin.  Maybe it was the sin of the person afflicted; maybe it was due to the sin of the parents.  The disciples are thinking like this (9:2).  Who is the sinner?  Either the blind man himself or his parents.

Then we hear the Pharisees tell us who they thought had sinned.  Simply put, they thought everyone had sinned, well, except for them.  Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, so surely he was the sinner (9:16, 24).  When the formerly blind man refuses to agree with them that Jesus was the sinner, they declare him to be a sinner too (9:34).

Ask the formerly blind man and he would tell you that it isn’t likely that Jesus is a sinner (9:25):

God doesn’t listen to sinners. (9:31a)

Could it be that this man who had been blind since birth could actually see the truth more clearly than the religious leaders of his time?

Then Jesus got the last word.  Earlier he made it clear that neither the sin of the blind man nor his parents was the cause of this man’s blindness.  Jesus said he came to bring sight to the blind, while those with sight would be blind.  The Pharisees correctly interpret this as a slight against them.  Jesus, then, says this:

If you were blind you wouldn’t be found guilty of sin.  But now, because you say, “We can see,” your sin remains. (9:41)

Who has sinned?  The Pharisees.  They know better, yet deny him nonetheless.

What did you see in this chapter? 

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John 4: Moving into The Deep End

“If only you’d known God’s gift,” replied Jesus, “and who it is that’s saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you’d have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“But sir,” replied the woman, “you haven’t got a bucket!  And the well’s deep!  So how were you thinking of getting living water?” (4:10-11)

Jesus meets a Samaritan woman of questionable character in this chapter and by the end of the chapter he has moved her from the surface of life to a place of much deeper understanding.  She is only thinking of literal water.  Not to fault her.  I would imagine we would have been thinking that too.  But Jesus seizing the opportunity to show her that her greatest need was for something much more fulfilling than the water of this well.  Or the love of a man.  She needs an eternal source of life and enduring love.  What she needs Jesus has.

I am seeing that this is a common technique for John’s Jesus.  He did the same with Nicodemus in chapter 3.  They start talking about birth and all Nicodemus can think of is physical birth.  So when Jesus talks about being “born again” or “born anew” this sounds ridiculous to the Pharisee.  How is that even possible?  But Jesus moves Nicodemus deeper into spiritual truth: babies are born but then they live and die; people who are reborn spiritually will never die.

Jesus will do the same with the crowd in chapter 6.  Early in that chapter Jesus feeds the enormous crowd with only a few fish and a handful of rolls.  Of course this crowd begins to follow Jesus closely.  There is free food wherever Jesus is.  Who wouldn’t follow?  Knowing that the crowd is using him for the food, Jesus pushes them deeper into spiritual truth.  It is not literal bread they need; they need to feast on the “bread” of his own life.  They need to “feast” on him.  They don’t just need that which sustains physical life; they need that which keeps the spirit alive.

John’s Jesus is intensely interested in taking us out into deeper waters.  There is that thing we think we need from Jesus, that thing we think we can give Jesus, that thing we think we understand already.  Jesus is interested in taking us further.

When was a time you realized you needed something much deeper than the surface object you were seeking?

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John 3: Rejection Not Ignorance

When a person wants to give the world the message that God is for people not against them, they often go to John 3:16-17 to make the point.  That is why this passage is so popular.

This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.  After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him. (3:16-17)

Nevertheless, twice this passage is also very clear that what one chooses to do with Jesus is a life or death decision.

Anyone who believes in him is not condemned.  But anyone who doesn’t believe is condemned already, because they didn’t believe in the name of God’s only, special son. (3:18)

Anyone who believes in the son shares in the life of God’s new age.  Anyone who doesn’t believe in the son won’t see life, but God’s wrath rests on him. (3:36)

I was struck, though, by the emphasis that was placed on the fact that condemnation comes to those who actively reject Jesus.

And this is the condemnation: that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because what they were doing was evil.  For everyone who does evil hates the light; people like that don’t come to the light, in case their deeds get shown up and reproved. (3:19-20)

Jesus is presented to these people in a clear fashion, they are presented with a choice to follow him or not, and they choose not to, often because an undesirable lifestyle will be necessary.  However, rejection is simply not the same as ignorance.  We are not talking about people who do not know who Jesus truly is.  That is a different matter entirely.

What caught your eye today?

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John 2: Seeing Is Believing

I see a main point developing in John’s gospel.

This event, in Cana of Galilee, was the first of Jesus’s signs.  He displayed his glory, and his disciples believed in him. (2:11)

While he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, several people came to trust in his name, because they had seen the signs he did. (2:23)

Add this verse from chapter 1:

Wait a minute,” said Jesus.  “Are you [Nathanael] telling me that you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree?  You’ll see a lot more than that!” (1:50)

For John, at least at this point and in some way, seeing is believing.  When faith is involved, we all know that is not always the case, but John seems to be asserting this truth.  As previously noted, there are not as many miracles or “signs” in John as are recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.  But John sure gets a lot of mileage out of the signs he does include.  Remember the Gospel of John has a strong evangelistic purpose; he is trying to produce faith in people, seemingly from the reading of this gospel.  He will play up the signs as evidence that Jesus is not just another wise teacher or good man.  I am sure we will see much more on this idea as we read along this month.

What did you notice in this chapter? 

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3 John: A Teacher’s Greatest Joy

Nothing gives me greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (v.4)

Third John is addressed from the “Elder” again to a man named “Gaius” in an unnamed church.  Gaius represents a contingent in this church, unlike the power-monger Diotrephes, who look to John as their teacher and spiritual father.  As he approaches the end of this life, John wants more than anything to know that his “children” are being faithful to all he has taught them and all he has worked for.

As a high school teacher of Bible, I have been known from time to time to call my students my “kids.”  They kind of are.  I spend more time with them than my own!  And by the end of any year, I really end up caring a great deal about my students.  They are funny and I love the laughs.  They are thoughtful and kind, and one positive affirmation of what we do in class can keep me going for months.  I love to see them struggle with an abstract philosophical or theological idea until they understand it and can apply it to their own lives.  But my greatest joy is when we meet up a few years after graduation and it is clear they are “walking in the truth.”  That makes the long hours, endless grading, hard conferences, and discipling disappointments all worth it in the end.

What did you notice anew in Third John?

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1 John 5: Faith is the Victory

This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith.  Who is the one who conquers the world?  Surely the one who believes that Jesus is God’s son!  (5:4b-5)

If faith is believing in what you cannot see, then a person without faith is limited only to what they can sense in some way.  A no-faith life is really a life of the here and now.  How can there be hope for something else, something better, some amazing renewal?  Imagine if this is all there is to life?  There are many great blessings to this life right now, but there are just as many set-back and heartbreaks.

Faith is what moves us beyond the worldly limitations, disappointments and darkness.  Faith is what allows us to believe that there once was a better world and there will once again be something better.  Faith allows us to rise above the boundaries of our own present realities.

And, of course, it is all possible because of Jesus.

What stood out to you in this last chapter of 1 John? 

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1 John 4: What is Love?

Love.  Everyone seeks it in some way or another.  Everyone has an idea of what it is, but we also realize it is more complicated than the platitudes we usually use.  We reduce love down to the emotions of romance or we so elevate and spiritualize the concept of love that only the superheroes of faith like Mother Teresa or Corrie ten Boom are capable of true love.

What is love?  There are several chapters in the New Testament where the focus is intently on love.  First Corinthians 13 is the most famous of these, but 1 John 4 needs to be on the short list.  The words “love,” “loves,” “loved,” or “beloved” are used 30 times in today’s twenty-one verse chapter.  What can we learn about real love from John?

  1. Love comes from God, not ourselves (4:7)
  2. Christians must especially love each other (4:7)
  3. Learning to love is one of the ways we are born anew spiritually as God’s children (4:7)
  4. Learning to love helps us come to know God (4:7)
  5. A lack of love is a fundamental block to spiritual birth and growth (4:8)
  6. God’s nature is tied to love (4:8, 16)
  7. Jesus was the supreme example of God’s love (4:9, 10)
  8. God loves us before we ever reciprocated that love, and our love is also a response to His (4:10, 19)
  9. We show the best love to others when we imitate the sacrificial love of God (4:11)
  10. Loves means laying down your own will for others (4:11)
  11. God is made visible through the love of his people (4:12)
  12. A person has to believe or have faith that God loves him or her (4:16)
  13. One can “live” or “abide” in love as if it is a state of being (4:16)
  14. Fear is antithetical to love, and true love will eliminate fear from a relationship (4:18)
  15. There are measures of love, and love can be “incomplete” (4:17, 18)
  16. A Christian can’t be hateful to others and still claim to love God (4:20, 21)
  17. Loving visible humans should be easier than loving an invisible God (4:20)

Which of these meant the most to you?  What else did you learn about love today?

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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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2 Timothy 1: Don’t Give Up!

Paul has come to the end.  Most scholars who believe that Paul wrote 2 Timothy think this is his last surviving letter.  Some date it within a year of his death, traditionally thought to have taken place around 68 AD in Rome by beheading.  Every line drips with the emotion of a man who sees the end coming and so wants his life’s work to continue on with strength after he is gone.

Sadly, most in Asia Minor — the province in which Ephesus was found — had turned on Paul (1:15).  It seems they looked to his imprisonment as evidence that he was not favored by God and they pushed on to other versions of Christianity.  Paul’s fear is that Timothy will join their ranks.  Timothy is already losing his spiritual steam (1:6), and being the spiritual son of a “prisoner” isn’t exactly a great thing to put on your resume (1:8).

A person can only make it through trying times like these by faith, and this passage drips with Paul’s faith.  He is confident of Timothy’s faith, maybe even when Timothy is not:

I have in my mind a clear picture of your sincere faith — the faith which first came to live in Lois your grandmother and Eunice your mother, and which I am confident, lives in you as well.  (1:5)

Paul has faith that the Spirit is one of power:

After all, the spirit given to us by God isn’t a fearful spirit; it’s a spirit of power, love and prudence. (1:7)

Paul trusts in God’s purpose and grace, not his or Timothy’s own power:

God saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace. (1:9)

Paul anchors his faith in the power of the resurrection:

[God] has now made it [grace] visible through the appearing of our savior King Jesus, who abolished death and, through the gospel, shone a bright light on life and immortality. (1:10)

And Paul knows God is trustworthy:

But I am not ashamed, because I know the one I have trusted, and I’m convinced that he has the power to keep safe until that day what I have entrusted to him. (1:12)

When you come to the end, when death is looming and your friends have turned against you, the only way forward is by faith.

There are several great lines in this chapter.  What was your favorite?

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1 Timothy 4: Overemphasizing the External

It is really easy to turn the way of Christ into a series of rules about external behavior.  That is not to say that the way of Christ is only internal — one does need to give attention to how one acts in this world — but there is something missing from a person’s Christianity if it entirely revolves around laws that dictate what a person does and does not do with their bodies.

We learn today that this was certainly happening in Ephesus:

They [the false teachers] will forbid marriage, and teach people to abstain from foods which God intended to be received with thanksgiving by people who believe and know the truth. (4:3)

Sometimes we do the same, especially when talking to younger Christians.  We make it seem like the task of following Jesus is all about not getting drunk, not smoking weed, and not sleeping around.  Then as people get older we talk about staying away from pornography, not speeding, and not missing church.  Of course, I am not suggesting that any of these are wholesome or appropriate; I simply beg us to remember there is more to the way of Christ than external rules, and limiting Christianity to external rules is action akin to the false teachers of Ephesus.

Like Paul was calling the Ephesian church to (1:5-7), like he was calling Timothy to (4:12), the way of Christ is all about “faith, love, and holiness” — all of which have external manifestations but all of which start as attitudes and desires of the heart first and foremost.  According to Paul today, to forget this is the beginning of false teaching.

What do you think?

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1 Timothy 2: The Topic Is Dispute, Not Women

I come from a conservative denomination.  By conservative I mean what is typically thought when that term is used.  “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” was a saying I often heard growing up.  Our denomination was founded by men who coined slogans like “We are just Christians” and “We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent.”  We didn’t dance, drink, smoke or chew, and certainly didn’t go with girls who do.  At summer camp the boys swam separate from the girls.  The college I attended, that is associated with the same denomination, has recently been called a “bastion of conservatism.”  When the long-time college president died during my time there as a student, George H. W. Bush sent a note of condolence.  Ann Coulter has spoken on campus.  You get the gist.

So you can imagine that we have also been pretty patriarchal when it comes to male and female roles in society and church.  There are certain things women are simply not free to do, and when an inquisitive child asks why, seeing that this is the 21st century and women and men are fast approaching equality in most arenas of life, he is taken to this chapter (and 1 Corinthians 14).

They [women] must study undisturbed,in full submission to God.  I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; rather, that they should be left undisturbed.  Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the women was deceived, and fell into trespass. (2:11-14)

I have no interest in tackling female roles in ministry in this post.  I recently reviewed Scott McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet on my other blog and you can read a synopsis of his defense of the full participation of women in ministry there if you are interesting.  Suffice it to say, his is a view I did not grow up with.

I would like to make note of one point about the broader context of this chapter that comes out strongly when one comes to this chapter and is reading the New Testament through without any agendas, as we are doing this year, and that impacts the topic of women’s roles in ministry.  Look back to 1:4-5 from yesterday.  The false teachers stirred up dispute.  Those influenced by their teachings likely did as well.  Yet, Paul wanted Timothy to be a person of faith, love, and purity.  Earlier in this chapter, Paul instructs Timothy to encourage the people to pray for their political leaders so that they “may lead a tranquil and peaceful life, in all godliness and holiness” (2:2).  Men are instructed in this passage too, not just women.  They are told to lift up “holy hands” in prayer, which has less to do with worship style and much more to do with a spirit between brothers and sisters in which there is “no anger or disputing” (2:8).  Women are given instruction about their dress and appearance (instructions most people see as cultural, and no longer literally binding) and the most important point is that they are to be “modest and sensible,” “decent” women who are known for their good works not their fashions (2:9-10).  In 2:11-12 women (or at least some specific women in the Ephesian church) are told to conduct themselves in times of worship and learning with “silence” (most translations) or they should be left “undisturbed” so they can study in peace (Wright’s translation, one that seems rather flavored by his Anglican position on female roles in ministry).  Last, the chapter ends with the same phrases from chapter one:

. . . if she continues in faith, love, and holiness with prudence. (2:15)

Paying attention to the context does not crack the code on this passage as it pertains to women in ministry; I think you could make this passage support any position.  What we must do is honor the Bible enough to let the main point stay the main point and not lose it in the midst of our pet issues and positions.  Paul was addressing a church in the midst of dispute, a church quick to argue, who thought that argument was in fact a badge of honor.  Paul couldn’t have disagreed more and he encouraged Timothy to adopt the same approach.  Men were arguing.  Depending on which translation you use, women were either arguing as well or were so oppressed they were not able to study without harassment.  Paul’s main point is clear, though: stop arguing.

It is kind of ironic to me that we argue about this passage so much.

What do you think?

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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 19: Belong then Believe

I grew up with the thinking that all people respond to God for the first time the same way.  I guess this came from the pattern theology that I grew up with that likes to reduce everything to simplified formulas that are binding on all.  While that is neat and tidy, I don’t tend to believe that anymore.  As I read the Bible, I see people responding to God for the first time in many different ways, often depending on who they are and what has happened and what the situation calls for.  Sure, there are general trends but it isn’t as nicely tied up with a bow as I once thought.

I am drawn today to how Zacchaeus responds to Jesus in this, their first encounter of faith.  He is “very rich” (19:2).  Think back one chapter, to Friday, and the story of the rich young ruler.  Different from that man, Zacchaeus is not told to sell everything he has and follow Jesus.  Yet, the attitude of this tax collector and the rich young ruler are quite different.  That latter went away without change while Zacchaeus is quick to make financial, concrete amends for his life of shaking down his neighbors.

We are never told why Zacchaeus is drawn to Jesus.  Is he wanting to follow Jesus as a disciple of this new rabbi who has come to town?  Is he just a bystander wanting to get a glimpse of this man in the news?  Is he drawn to the healings and exorcisms that Jesus brings about?  Is he in need of some healing we are not aware of?  We simply do not know.  He quickly responds ethically, so that might indicate he was responding with faith.

I am struck by how Jesus accepts this tax collector and is willing to dine with him at his house, no insignificant gesture in their time and place as table fellowship connoted unqualified acceptance, even before Zacchaeus has done anything more than climb a tree.  Maybe Jesus is making the first gesture here.

Then Zacchaeus does what can only be described as repentance.  He turns in a very practical way from his life of deceit:

“Look, Master,” he said, “I’m giving half my property to the poor.  And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I’m giving it back to them four times over.” (19:8)

Jesus response is unmistakable:

Today, salvation has come to this house. (19:9)

Zacchaeus has launched off in new, uncharted territory of faith.  He will follow Jesus, not his own conniving.  He will stand for righteousness and even fall over himself to make sure people around him know it.  Jesus seeing this repentance and Zacchaeus receives a new label: “saved.”

Interest ~ Acceptance ~ Repentance ~ Salvation

That is a pretty good flow.  No need to turn that into another pattern.  Not every person will respond this way, but it is a good reminder to us that for many people that we wish to reach in this world — especially those marginalized in society — acceptance from the Body of Christ often has to precede the lifestyle change and submission we wish to see in their lives.  Like many are saying these days, some have to belong before they decide to really believe.

What did you see anew in this chapter?

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Luke 7: Faith & Need

A Roman centurion, a Jewish widow, and a woman of ill repute evoke deep emotions in Jesus.  Meanwhile, the Pharisees lurk everywhere around in the shadows and they stir up Jesus’ anger.  This surely is the Gospel of Luke.

A Roman centurion believes that if Jesus just says the word his slave will be healed from afar, especially because the centurion believes he is unworthy to entertain this great rabbi in his house.  Jesus was “astonished” (7:9) by this level of faith yet to be encountered amongst the Jews and heals the slave.

Jesus walks up on a widow — about to hit one of the lowest rungs of their society — whose dead son is being carried out to be buried.  Jesus sees this and is “very sorry for her” (7:13), so he raises the boy back to life.

“Anointing Jesus’ Feet” by Frank Wesley

A woman of “a known bad character” (7:37) barges into a dinner party at a Pharisees house and anoints his feet with costly oil and her tears of repentance.  Jesus falls all over himself praising her for the hospitality she gave that Simon had not.

There are two things Jesus responds to: faith and need.  Unfortunately, the more religious you are the less you need faith.  Religion has a way of making us far too sure of our own righteousness.  Sadly, the higher up the social ladder we are, the less we need or at least sense that we need.  But when we realize how much we need, how unworthy we are of blessing, how unholy we are Jesus opens the doors of his blessings.  At these moments our hearts are open to receive great love and in response show great love.

So the conclusion I draw is this: she must have been forgiven many sins!  Her great love proves it!  But if someone has been forgiven only a little, they will love only a little. (7:47)

What caught your eye in this chapter?

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Romans 11: The Powerful, Fair Promise-Keeper

Romans 9-11 is certainly on my list of the top five most difficult passages.  Maybe top three.  So I don’t feel like I have much to offer today.  But I guess that is another benefit to a comprehensive reading plan: you can’t avoid hard passages!

Here are the two main points I gather from the chapter:

1. God can do what He wants:

Paul describes God as having at that time a “remnant” of faithful Jews that He has chosen by grace (11:5-6).  At the same time God hardens the hearts of other Jews so as to open a door for Gentiles (11:7-9, 25).  Then God uses this influx of Gentiles to drawn back Jews through jealousy (11:12).  But the Gentile Christians in Rome should bear in mind that the same God who cut off Jews because of unbelief can do the same to Gentiles who get a big head and stumble (11:20).  This is a very active, sovereign view of God.

Vincent van Gogh, “Olive Trees”

2. But God is more than fair:

This second point ameliorates any anxiety about such a high degree of divine control that the first point may bring.  The central question of the chapter is stated in the first sentence: “Has God abandoned his people [the Jews]?”  The resounding answer throughout the chapter is “no” (11:2).  Even those Jews who had “tripped up” presumably by unbelief will not have “fall[en] completely” (11:11).  God wants to use Jewish jealousy to save Gentiles (11:14), and if those Jews return to belief they can be grafted back into God’s olive tree (11:23).  In what might be the biggest statement of God’s extravagant kindness, 11:28-29 seems to suggest that God will even honor his promises to the Jewish patriarchs to Jews who were still choosing not to believe.  God will keep his promises, even if they don’t.  We can rest assured that God will assert his power in a manner that is exborinantly fair.  

What struck you in this chapter?

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Romans 10: Trust Me!

A trap very easily fallen into when reading Romans is to bypass the original context and focus solely on what Romans can teach us.  Romans 9-11 is a difficult section of Scripture, but that is especially true when we forget about the original context.

Any good Jew in Paul’s time would have been tempted to appeal to their chosen-people status as grounds for salvific confidence.  The logic would have gone something like this: Israel was chosen by God, I am a Jew, so I am good with God. That line of logic has a modern equivalent: the Church is composed of God’s elect in this world, I go to church, so I am good with God.

In Romans 10 Paul is taking on this faulty thinking.  God isn’t looking for heritage or membership, He is looking for people who truly trust Him and His faithfulness to His promises.  God isn’t looking for people who “establish a covenant status of their own” (10:3), He is looking for people who have faith in their hearts, confess that faith with their mouths, and ask with dependency for God to save them (10:10-13).  That invitation was given to the Jews and some received it, though others did not (10:21).  That invitation is also open to all because it relies upon God’s goodness not those being saved.

If the Jewish Christians in the Roman church thought that being a Jew seals the deal, they missed the boat.  If we think being a church member ensures salvation, we too are just as lost.

What were you drawn to in this chapter?

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Romans 4: Saved by Faith

In what would have been a powerful illustration to the Jewish Christians in the Romans church, Paul makes the point that just as was true in the life of Abraham, we are saved by faith not works.

Everyone has a definition of “faith.”  This chapter has a pretty good one too:

He [Abraham] didn’t waver in unbelief when faced with God’s promise [of a son even though he was approaching 100 years old].  Instead, he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God had the power to accomplish what he had promised [even though it defied logic]. (4:20-21)

Faith is believing that God can do something even though it is entirely against all odds.

When was the last time you acted on a belief in God that defied logic and was against all odds?  

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BONUS: An Introduction to Romans

Romans is a personal favorite of many people.  Paul, who almost all agree was the author, touches on almost every major theological belief in this great book, so the next three weeks are sure to be stimulating.

Rome was the center of the New Testament world.  A city of several million, it was the political and cultural center of the Roman Empire, home to the Caesars.  Rome was the ancient equivalent to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Tokyo.  Religion was big in Rome, mainly the worship of the Roman gods and the developing Emperor cult, but there was a large, vibrant, and legal Jewish population in Rome as well.  Remember that when Christianity first stated it was considered a Jewish sect so it too was a protected religious movement and not largely persecuted.  Christians would suffer severely in Rome but not for another 20 years after the writing of Romans.

Romans was most certainly written in Corinth around AD 55 and delivered to Rome and first read to the church there by the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1).

The purpose for Romans has been described in many ways.  Martin Luther read his own issues with the Roman Catholic Church into the book and saw Romans as a treatise against works-oriented religion.  It is certainly that, but that characterization has more to do with 16th Century Europe than 1st Century Rome.  Others imagine Paul sitting down and writing Romans as a theological compendium, a statement of his beliefs.  There is too much that is specific to the Roman church for that to be true, plus that would make Romans truly unique amongst New Testament letters.

Like every other letter in the New Testament, Romans is situational.  There was something going on that made Paul write this letter, to a church he had not started nor even visited.  Paul had a habit of setting up home bases for his various mission endeavors.  First it was Antioch, then Ephesus, now Corinth.  Paul’s greatest desire was to get to Spain where the Gospel had not really yet been preached widely (15:23-33).  By all appearance, Paul was preparing this Roman church to be his next launching point for that campaign.  However, this church was a divided church turned inward on itself in no condition to be involved in outward mission.  We know from the ancient Roman historian Suetonius that around AD 49 the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome because they had been rioting amongst each other concerning a person named “Chrestus” (c.f., Acts 18:2).  This likely was an argument between Jews and Christians over Christ.  So for a span of five years until Claudius’ death in AD 54 when the Jews would have returned to Rome, this largely Jewish church with a defined Jewish flavor became thoroughly Gentile.  Leadership changed.  The culture and practices of the church changed.  Now in AD 55 we have a power struggle and identity crisis in the Roman church, largely involving ethnicity and customs.  Issues like circumcision, food, holidays, a background in paganism, an Abrahamic heritage, and the like would have been hotly debated, and these will pop up a good bit in our readings.  Paul is writing a significantly divided and prejudicial Roman church attempting to help them sort out their problems for the sake of the advancing Kingdom of God.

Background aside, Romans is so popular because the Gospel that all of us needs to hear speaks freedom, hope, love, and faith into every situation, whether in ancient Rome, modern Memphis, the Philippines, Malaysia or Canada.

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Matthew 28: Terror and Great Delight

The women scurried off quickly away from the tomb, in a mixture of terror and great delight. (28:8)

This is an angel standing before us — a majestic messenger of God that strikes fear in all who see it.

The message is that Jesus has been raised from the dead — the message we long to hear, though it defies logic.

We are running off to tell the disciples Jesus has been resurrected — they will be so excited, if they don’t think we are out of our minds.

That appears to be Jesus up ahead — Hallelujah, but can I trust my eyes?

Rumors are swirling that the resurrection is a hoax we cooked up by stealing the body — that is not the truth, but it is easier to believe and the Jews are buying it.

We have hurried off to Galilee to meet Jesus — how can we help but worship, but wait a minute “Is this real?”

He is sending us out in the world, the hostile world, the one that killed him — he is with us with all authority in heaven and earth, but will they kill us like they killed him?

Faith is not easy.  It defies pure logic.  It makes you second guess what you are seeing.  It doesn’t add up.  There are always alternative theories afoot for what you are choosing to believe.  That can be terrifying.  But if it is true, if it is true . . . there will be great delight!

What does resurrection mean to you?

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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 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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James 2: Doing Faith & Love

“Talk is cheap” is what they say, and today James enthusiastically agrees.

“Love” is a lot of things, but let there be no mistake, love is active.  Love is a verb.  Love is something you do.

So too is “faith.”  We may “believe” certain things to be true.  We might give “mental ascent” to a concept.  We can even intellectualize fine sounding arguments for why something is true (like a lot of things on this very blog, right?).  But until action is added into the mix, what we have isn’t “faith.”  Faith is something you do.

You keep the royal law, as it is written, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; if you do this, you will do well. (2:8)

Supposing a brother or sister is without clothing, and is short even of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; be warm, be full!” — but doesn’t give them what their bodies need — what use is that?  In the same way, faith, all by itself and without works, is dead. (2:15-17)

Since the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God there have been people who have focused only on what one does.  This compartmentalization can be convenient.  We get to lay out the right way to live and once we have accomplished that we can pat ourselves on our self-assured backs.  There have also been people who have focused on what one believes.  One, therefore, does not have to worry about how those beliefs should shape one’s actions.  We get to go about life our way not getting too involved in other people’s problems nor letting our religious views interfere with the rest of our life.

Both of those extremes are problematic.  Focus on “doing” and it becomes easy to think you have done it all.  This becomes a religion of self-reliance and that which only God can do is forgotten.  Focus on “believing” and it becomes easy to think God has done it all.  That can easily become a religion of complacent “cheap grace” and our role is forgotten.

People have noted that the views of Paul and James seem to be at odds, especially when you talk about the role of faith and works in salvation.  But could the solution to this perception be this simple?  Paul was talking to people who overemphasized actions to the point where grace and the need for Jesus had been eliminated (like what we saw in Galatians).  James was addressing people on the other end of the spectrum who were quick to tell you about their great faith (2:18-19) but didn’t do much to show it (2:15-16).  When dealing with people holding extreme views, you play up the part they are neglecting in order that they may come back to the middle where all parts are present and appreciated.  Had we an opportunity to talk to Paul and James together and ask them about their own personal views on faith and works maybe we would find they actually held very similar views.  And both would likely remind us that over and above this whole conversation about faith and works we have to remember that the Spirit works through us, so without the Spirit our works don’t amount to much.

In today’s passage James describes “faith” as something that has to have belief (2:19) and works (2:18) in order to be alive (2:17, 20, 26), full (2:22), and justifying (2:24).  Belief by itself is not enough; works by themselves are not enough.  Maybe for too long our definition of faith has been too small.  Faith and works aren’t two separate things.  “Faith” only exists when works are present.  In other words faith is this larger idea that contains the smaller component we call works.  Belief would be another component as well.  Bottomline, James reminds us that faith is something we do.

Likewise, love is more than just a feeling that creates actions, as if love and actions are separate things.  “Love” has within it feelings, but also actions.  It is not enough to feel some sort of fellowship with people who calls themselves Christians.  One has to allow those feelings to shape our actions, for instance, in such a way that favoritism is banished from the way we deal with others (2:1-10).  We are loving when we do love to others.  Until we treat our neighbors like we would want to be treat we have no business claiming to be loving (2:8).  Love is something we do.

What do you think?  

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