Posts Tagged With: faith

BONUS: An Introduction to James

I can remember studying the book of James at summer camp for a week back when I was around twelve.  With James’ practical focus, it was the first time I ever realized the Bible actually did relate to everyday life.  This great little book, written most people think by Jesus’ own brother James (Gal. 1:19), will yield a week full of wonderful lessons once again so many years later.

James is typically classified as a “general epistle,” meaning it was likely written to be circulated amongst several churches and therefore had a broader focus as opposed to most of Paul’s letters which seem to have been written to address a particular situation going on in one specific church.  This does seem to be true.  James has no personal details at all.  However, as I read through the book with a group of students recently I was struck by how many times proper relationships between rich and poor Christians occurred in the book.  That has to be related to something going on in the background of this letter, though the details may be lost forever.

James was likely written to Jewish Christians.  James says their meeting place was a “synagogue” (2:2), the Jewish law is discussed with great familiarity, and the recipients are called “the twelve tribes,” probably a reference to Israel (1:1).  The recipients are said to be “scattered among the nations” (1:1).  James played a leading role in the church in Jerusalem so likely he is writing to Jewish Christians who had to flee from Judea when persecutions of Christians started (see Acts 11:19).  Ever the leader, James is pastoring his scattered flock.

James is best known for the strong argument in the second half of chapter two that faith is only real if it is active.  If one comes to James with a belief that faith is purely a matter of the mind and that good works are of no worth to God, he or she would probably join Martin Luther in disparaging the book of James; Luther called James “an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”

James 1:27 nicely puts together these ideas and serves as an appropriate theme verse:

As far as God the father is concerned, pure, unsullied devotion works like this: you should visit orphans and widows in their sorrow, and prevent the world [from] leaving its dirty smudge on you.

Over the next week we are guaranteed some very practical lessons from this part of Scripture that in my mind is closest to the teachings of Jesus or the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.  How appropriate that James would sound a lot like his brother Jesus!

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Galatians 2: Made Alive in Christ

Have you heard this riddle before?

They have not flesh nor feathers, nor scales nor bone; but they do have fingers and thumbs of their own.

How about this one?

This household object used to be alive but now is dead but can come alive again.

Answer?  A glove.  A leather glove for the second one (though leather doesn’t work with the first riddle).  A leather glove used to be a cow, and it “comes alive” when a hand is placed inside it.  Some of us who work together only have to think back to last year’s chapel theme and a friend’s use of this same glove image.

I grew up singing a song based pretty much word-for-word on verses 19-20.  Maybe you did too.  I love scripture songs.  They plant God’s word in my heart.  At the same time, they pose a problem for me, as I discovered again today.  I find a song more easily divests the words of their meaning and I forget what the passage is about.  I guess the passage just becomes too familiar.

So I enjoyed reading Wright’s rendering of 2:19b-20 because he made these words fresh again with meaning.

I have been crucified with the Messiah.  I am, however, alive — but it isn’t me any longer; it’s the Messiah who lives in me.  And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

I go back to the image of the leather glove.  I am dead, crucified.  This isn’t my life, or at least it is not supposed to be.  So whatever life one does see in me is really the life of Jesus who is in me.  My strength is not in my own power to do good (what so much of the latter half of chapter 2 is about).  My life doesn’t even rest in my own faith, rather I have my assurance because of the faithfulness of Jesus (a major theme in Wright’s theology).

Oh, to be more glove-like!

What struck you in this diverse chapter?

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Hebrews 11: We Are People of Faith

For many of us, this is a very familiar chapter.  Maybe you grew up like me calling this the “Hall of Fame of Faith.”  With its definition of faith,

What then is faith? It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see. (11:1)

and its many examples of faith, this chapter is certainly that.  But hopefully now with an increased appreciation for the context of Hebrews, we can see that these are all examples of a certain kind of faith.

If you are a Jew (now or then), the people mentioned in this chapter are heroes.  It is their kind of faith you would want to have.  That is exactly what the Hebrew author is hoping his audience will realize.

Faith is defined here as pressing forward with confidence into a rewarding but unseen future.  This definition comes in four parts:

  1. Pressing forward: Faithful people don’t sit still in a comfortable place.  And they certainly don’t go backward, reverting to a comfortable past.
      • Abel proceeded to offer what he understood to be the right kind of sacrifice
      • Actively “seek” after God like Enoch
      • Noah actually built his preposterous Ark
      • Abraham picked up his family and moved to an unseen land
      • Sarah and Abraham did what was necessary to bear a family
      • Abraham actually took Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice
      • Both Isaac and Jacob promised his descendants land that his family did not yet possess
      • Joseph saw the coming slavery but could also see the Exodus
      • Moses preferred to suffer than enjoy the luxury of a pagan king’s palace
      • Moses kept God ever before him, even as he was chased by the murderous Pharaoh
      • The Israelites carried out their ridiculous battle plan at Jericho
      • Rahab betrayed her own people by welcoming the spies “in peace”
  2. Confidence:  Faithful people are sure of better things to come.
      • Like Enoch, faithful people “must believe that he really does exist”
      • Noah “took seriously” the warning of a flood
      • Abraham “looked ahead” with expectation
      • Sarah considered God “trustworthy”
      • Abraham figured God could raise Isaac from the dead
      • Jacob was so sure of the promise that he “worshipped” God for it ahead of time
      • Joseph made plans to be buried in a land they did not have
      • Moses’ parents were not afraid of Pharaoh
      • Moses “reckoned” the promise of God was better than the “pleasures of sin”
  3. Rewarding: There is every reason in place to have this sort of faith.
      • Abel was vindicated by God.
      • Enoch was taken directly to be with God
      • Noah and his family were saved from drowning
      • Abraham’s descendants inherited Canaan
      • Sarah conceived a child though barren
      • Abraham did not lose Isaac
      • Moses was rescued from death as a baby
      • Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea on dry ground
      • The walls of Jericho fell
      • Rahab was spared death at Jericho
  4. Unseen: The unseen nature of faith is punctuated in this chapter by the many uses of “seeing” language — “seen” (11:3, 7, 13); “visible” (11:3); “bore witness” (11:4); “see” (11:5, 10, 14); “find” (11:5); “seek” (11:6); “not knowing where he was going” (11:8); “looking ahead” (11:10, 26); “looking” (11:14); “hidden” (11:23); “saw” (11:23); “invisible” (11:27); and “eyes” (11:27).  This would have been especially poignant to the Hebrew Christians who seem to be missing the tangible nature of their past Judaism.  Their heroes always pursued the unseen as well.

Maybe the astonishing thing in this chapter is how it ends:

All these people gained a reputation for their faith; but they didn’t receive the promise. (11:39)

Now, the Hebrew Christians have a chance to receive something their own heroes longed for but were never given: a true inheritance in God’s perfect city (11:10, 13-16).  What a privilege!  It is for them to simply press on as the “people of faith” (10:39) even if it stretches them past the tangible.

What struck you in this chapter?   

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Hebrews 10: Don’t Throw Away Your Confidence

Are you confident of your standing with God?

All of us are looking for wholeness and peace.  We want to know that God accepts us and His words to us should we die today would be “Well done, my good and faithful servant!”  And we want to have this assurance with an unshakeable confidence.

At the same time, we are fully aware of our own shakiness.  We know our frailty and duplicity better than anyone.  We look in a mirror and see flaws few others see.

So we try harder.  We get on the latest and greatest self-improvement plan.  We reach down deeper within ourselves to muster every ounce of self-discipline we have.  We make lists of things we should and should not do.  We grit our teeth when temptation comes, and just try to hold on.

And then we fail.  We always fail.

Really, we are trying to be justified by law.  He are relying on ourselves.  Sure, we will accept the advice of God on how to live, but really our sense of wholeness, peace, and acceptance is anchored in our own deeds.  Really, we are doing nothing different than any other works-oriented concept of salvation.  Like the Hebrew Christians were tempted to do, we are reverting back to system of holiness based on our own efforts and we make light of what Jesus has done, though usually we don’t outright reject our Savior.

As the Hebrews author winds up his ten-chapter long argument for the superiority of Jesus over the Jewish religion, he makes one last plea that his friends not let go of Jesus.  He summarizes many of his thoughts with a powerful statement that Jesus is the preeminent high priest who offers a superlative sacrifice:

Thus it comes about that every priest stands daily at his duty, offering over and over the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But Jesus offered a single sacrifice on behalf of sins, for all time, and then “sat down at the right hand of God.” . . . By a single sacrifice, you see, he has made perfect forever those who are sanctified. (10:11-12, 14)

If the Hebrew Christians — and we too — will hang on to our faith in Jesus and “not throw away our confidence” (10:35), we can have “boldness” (10:19) and a “complete assurance of faith” (10:22).  We need not worry, because God is “trustworthy” (10:24) and “our lives will be kept safe” (10:39).  We can have confidence in our wholeness, peace, and acceptance because it is anchored in the work of Jesus, not our own vacillating attempts at holiness.

But all of this will take faith.  More on that tomorrow.

Hold on with confidence!

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Hebrews 6: No Turning Back

For once people have been enlightened — when they’ve tasted the heavenly gift and have had a share in the holy spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the coming age — it’s impossible to restore them again to repentance if they fall away, since they are crucifying God’s son all over again, on their own account, and holding him up to contempt. (6:4-6)

We don’t like the word “impossible in this passage, do we?

Is this really saying if a person rejects Jesus it is impossible for them to return to Jesus?  Once lost, always lost?

One commentator argued this passage is likely the most controversial passage in the whole book of Hebrews.  Absolutely!

We need to look to verse 10 for some guidance: “God is not unjust.”  I think most of us would say a god who is unwilling to rescue a person who wants to be saved is a rather unjust god.  By that point alone, I think we need to reject any interpretation of this passage that argues a second genuine repentance would be rejected by God after apostasy.

Some commentators have argued that the word “tasted,” used twice in this passage, means the hypothetical person only tried out Jesus, like a seeker who might try on religion for a few months.  This is the person who tastes the free samples at Sam’s but then walks on without buying a box.  He never really accepted Jesus in the first place.  But verse 6 does indicate this hypothetical person has previously repented and the idea of “sharing” or partnering in verse 4 connotes active participation in the life of the Holy Spirit.  This sounds like more than a seeker.

The best explanation I have read in my limited study of this passage comes from George Guthrie (Hebrews, NIV Application Commentary) who says the Greek construction of the last part of this sentence — “since they are crucifying God’s son all over again, on their own account, and holding him up to contempt” — is best interpreted in a causal (“because they”) or temporal (“while they”) manner.  So the last clause is best read: “as long as they are crucifying God’s son all over again, on their own account, and hold ing him up to contempt.”  Thus the point is that as long as people are in the act of rejecting Jesus they could not feasibly be turned back to him.  Their hardness of heart would not allow it.  Of course, if their hearts softened and they wanted to repent again, that would be possible.  It is not that God would not allow them to return, their own hearts would not allow it.

He was the angriest, most bitter student I have ever taught.  He made no bones about it.  He hated God, hated the Bible, hated my Bible class, and I suspect he hated me by virtue of association.  At first I was perplexed by him, then hurt, then angered, and by the end I just hurt for him.  I have never met someone so unhappy with anything and everything.  His anti-religious bent made more sense to me when I learned that he had been raised by a zealously religious parent who he claimed did not treat him in a very godly manner.  He had been raised to have faith, but then he rejected all he had ever been taught.  To him, Jesus was a disgraceful fake fit only for simpletons.  God was a lunatic’s dream at best.  All of it was an object of contempt.  Try as I might to share a different view of God, religion, and Christians it was like speaking to a wall.  He had one illogical argument after another for why what I was saying could not be true.  His perception of God, Jesus, and Christians could best be described as caricatures.  Everything was black and white, and religion was purely evil.  His heart was hardened like stone.  It seemed impossible to hope that he would ever turn again to Jesus.  I would like to say he did, but I don’t believe he ever has.

Sad to say, today’s passage makes more sense when I think of him.

What do you think?

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Hebrews 4: There Is A Better Rest Coming

We are headed toward Spring Break.  Some of us will have that week off as teachers and students, others will take the week as vacation time because kids are out of school.  Some will head to the beach or Disney World or out west to ski if the man-made snow can hold out.  Others will simply sit still at home, catch up on the “honey-do list,” and truly rest.  These will be wonderful days of restoration.  Even if the week is filled with travel and fun-filled attractions, there is still a rest for the soul that is so precious.

I would guess most of us love those times of vacation and rest when they come.  We feel more sane, more centered, more whole.  Probably many of us are thankful for our jobs and feel a sense of purpose in those careers, but we love our breaks too.

The Hebrew Christians knew something about breaks too.  These thoroughly Jewish Christians would have likely still observed the Sabbath, a precious time of rest and reconnection.  In the Old Testament this idea of “rest” was also a way to talk about the kind of life that would be experienced in the Promised Land of Canaan, and this is how it is being used in today’s reading:

They will never enter my rest. (4:3, 5)

You may remember that during the forty-year Wilderness Wanderings from Egypt to Canaan, there were some Israelites who let go of their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Punishment came and they died in the desert, far shy of the promised rest.

The idea of “rest” would have been precious to the Hebrew Christians.  Each week in their Sabbaths they were experiencing a small piece of the Promised Land rest of their ancestors.  But the Hebrews author reminds them,

There is still a future sabbath “rest” for God’s people. (4:9)

There is a new Promised Land we are journeying towards.  We will cross over Jordan, led by a new Joshua, to a land overflowing with milk and honey.  Better than any Sabbath will be the endless rest we experience in the New Creation with God.  So don’t give up on Jesus:

Today, if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts. (4:7)

Personally, I plan on enjoying my Spring Break.  But I am also remembering there is a rest coming that is far longer, richer, and better.

What sorts of “rest” do we long for that pale in comparison to God’s final rest? 

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Acts 27: Shipwrecked!

Today’s chapter is immensely interesting for three reasons.

One, Luke is writing good literature.  We are coming down to the end of the book.  We have a goal we know the main character has — to get to Rome — but further, seemingly insurmountable complications come.  Luke knows how to push us along in the book!

Two, Luke is writing convincing history.  Scholars who study the book of Acts marvel at how historically accurate and detailed this chapter is.  This chapter is one of the best accounts of ancient nautical practices in all ancient literature.  This is not the kind of chapter an author makes up.  This was written by a smart researcher and eyewitness, as we know from the “we” in the first verse.

Three, Luke is ultimately writing theology.  It is not entirely correct to call Acts an historical account.  It is too theological to be pure history in genre (that is no denial of the factual nature of Acts).  Acts is selective history written for a specific theological point.  I was struck by how even this account of a shipwreck became a way for Paul to preach the gospel and also a great test of faith:

“So take heart my friends.  I believe God, that it will be as he said to me.” (27:25)

“If these men don’t stay in the ship,” he said, “there is no chance of safety.” (27:31)

What did you see in this chapter worth noting?

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Acts 7: Spirit-Filled People

Stephen amazes me.  Bloodthirsty men grab him.  The Sanhedrin is no guarantee of justice.  These proceedings can be every bit the Kangaroo Court they were with Jesus.  Yet, Stephen is firmly resolute.  He says what has to be said (v.51), knowing this will only sign his own death warrant.

How can he be this bold, this obedient?

We find the answer in verse 55:

“He, however, was filled with the holy spirit.”

“Being filled” is a major idea in Acts.  Nine times some significant character is said to be filled with the Spirit (the apostles at Pentecost, 2:4; Peter, 4:8; the believers that received Peter and John after they were rescued from prison, 4:31; the seven deacons, 6:3; Stephen, 6:5 and 7:55; the blind Saul, 9:17; Saul turned Paul, 13:9; and the disciples in Pisidian Antioch, 13:52).  To be filled with the Holy Spirit seems to mean having a deep connection to the Holy Spirit, open to the work of the Spirit, known for possessing the fruit of the Spirit, especially joy and faith.  As this Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9) we should expect that a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit will be much like Jesus.

This point is brought home in a special way in the story of the stoning of Stephen.  Stephen is being pelted by rocks.  Death is drawing closer, and Stephen says two things:

Lord Jesus,” he cried out, “receive my spirit.” (7:59b)

Lord, don’t let this sin stand against them.” (7:60b)

Sound familiar?  That’s right.  These are two of the seven things Jesus said while on the cross.  Stephen is truly a man like Jesus, filled with the Savior’s very Spirit.

Five times in Acts, though, we read of other options for “filling.”  Ananias’ heart was filled with “Satan” (5:3).  The high priest and Sadducees who arrest the apostles for preaching in Jerusalem were “filled with jealousy” (5:17).  Bitterness filled the heart of Simon the Sorcerer (8:23).  Elymas the sorcerer from Cyprus was “full of all kinds of deceit and trickery” (13:10).  Seeing the success of Paul and Barnabas, the Jews in Pisidian Antioch were “filled with jealousy” (13:45).

One way or another, we will be filled.  With what do we want it to be?

Lord, fill us up until we overflow!   

 

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Mark 16: What Will You Do With Jesus?

Blogs are an ideal place for experimental writing, so I hope you will allow me to do that today.

In just about every Bible translated since the King James Version there is a line after 16:8 that says verses 9-20 are not found in the earliest manuscripts.  Still, I have always read the chapter as a whole, trusting that the editors of whatever translation I am reading had a good reason for putting vv. 9-20 in there.

Verses 9-20 were probably not written by Mark; there is ample evidence to suggest that.  They do show up before AD 150, though, so they are early and maybe still apostolic.  Maybe a copyist thought the book was too messy if it ended at 16:8 and added an ending of his own.  Maybe someone wanted to add a truncated version of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the Great Commission and mention of miracles to be done by the apostles.  Maybe someone felt we needed to actually hear about Jesus meeting the apostles in Galilee as 16:7 mentioned.  Maybe Mark did have an ending and it was lost or destroyed (this section would have been the end of a scroll or codex) and vv. 9-20 are just a copy of the original that was rewritten later.   Maybe Mark died or was arrested before he could finish the book.  Honestly, I am not that worried about it.  It might be wise to refrain from picking up rattlesnakes thinking the Bible authorizes it, just in case.

Today I would like to experiment with ending Mark at 16:8 and seeing what message arises from that decision.  Maybe Mark wanted his gospel to end as abruptly as it started in chapter 1, no mention of his birth and now no post-resurrection appearance by Jesus.  So, the ending of Mark would be:

They [the women] went out, and fled from the tomb.  Trembling and panic had seized them.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (16:8)

That seems like a weird ending to the book.  We never see the resurrected Jesus; we must simply believe that what the angel says is true.  We never see emboldened believers: the apostles are still hiding, and even the women who were at least faithful enough to come to finish the job of anointing the body run away in a mix of awe and terror.  Is Jesus alive as the angel said?  What will become of this new movement?  What more should have been done?  These questions are all left unanswered in Mark’s awkward ending.

But maybe that is the point.  Maybe Mark, who we have repeatedly seen leave us hanging with forced vows of secrecy and people swimming in puzzlement, wants to leave us with questions.  That certainly would fit with the “messianic secret” idea we have seen already.  Remember these questions from Mark?  We are left answering these questions for ourselves:

Who do people say I am? (8:27)

Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One? (14:61)

Are you the king of the Jews? (15:2)

What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews? (Mark 15:12)

More practically, maybe Mark is intending to push us back into his book to decide for ourselves whether we can believe that Jesus really is who he says he is. Some people think Mark was intended to be used as an evangelistic tool and this sort of ending could set up quite a fruitful conversation with a spiritual seeker.  Maybe we are supposed to naturally compose the ending we think there should have been — what the women should have done, what the apostles should and will do, what needs to be done now if Jesus really is alive.  Moreover, maybe we aren’t just supposed to compose the ending, maybe be are supposed to do that ending we imagine.

I think I like that sort of ending.

As we finish Mark, please take the time to write one sentence summarizing what “big idea” has stayed with you these past three weeks as you have read.

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Mark 11: The Expected One, with a Twist

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!  Check out my other blog for some of my favorite MLK quotes if you are interested.

A conversation I had yesterday with a friend named Eddie from Bible class at Highland is running through my head as I read this chapter.  It was the end of class time and I had just taught with Trent (who is probably sorry now that I dragged him into this series) about how the kingdom Jesus so often talks about was a “kingdom-coming,” not the “going-off-to-the-kingdom” we might have been taught to expect when we were growing up.  It is a tough sell to help people see something so familiar in a new light, and I am not sure I was communicating well.  Anyway, Eddie made a perceptive connection back to a class I had taught two weeks ago on how Jesus’ followers then and now tend to turn the “kingdom” into what they want it to be.  Eddie’s point was that if the Jews of Jesus’ time struggled to fully understand the Old Testament prophecies about the kingdom well, then why do we expect that we will understand the prophecies of Jesus and John in the New Testament with perfect precision?  We at least need to be humble about our interpretations.  Nice point!

We tend to want Jesus to be what we are looking for, which is not always what he really is.

The people were expecting a war-lord who would ride into Jerusalem and drive out the Romans.  Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem in this passage (11:1), the first time in Mark, but he is riding a “colt” hardly ready for war.  That day he looked around like a tourist and rode back out of town to Bethany.  The Expected One didn’t really come as expected.

The temple is the preeminent place for purity.  It was important to the Jewish religious leaders to maintain ethnic purity and to keep pagan money stamped with the Caesar’s image out of the Lord’s Temple.  The Lord comes to the Temple in the form of Jesus and he makes a holy mess because they are pure in all the wrong ways.  Isn’t “my house to be called a house of prayer for all the world to share?” (11:17).

God rewards faith.  Have faith and don’t doubt and you will see amazing things happen (11:22-24).  They just might not be what you were expecting.

If anyone will understand the kingdom it will be the religious establishment.  Jesus should be warmly accepted by them of all people.  But he is a threat to their power.  He seems to be pitting the Jewish religious leaders against the people.  Shouldn’t the Messiah see life like the chief priests and legal experts?

Maybe more to the point today is the one point I do understand from the strange fig tree story in this chapter: it is more important what Jesus is looking for in us.  He is looking for fruit (11:13).

What were you not expecting in today’s reading?

Categories: Mark | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Mark 9: The Enigmatic Teacher

(We have just finished half of the first book.  Good job!  Keep it up!)

So Jesus calls a woman a dog.  And tells people to get ready to die.  He scolds his most loyal follower and calls him Satan.  He says the way to be first is to be last.  Today he seems to condone maiming oneself (Surely not literal, right?  Go read Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood” if you think physically blinding oneself would eliminate a spiritual problem like sin).  This Jesus is such an enigma!

I understand why it says twice in today’s chapter that his followers were confused:

They held on to this saying amount themselves, puzzling about what this “rising from the dead” might mean. (9:10)

They didn’t understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. (9:32)

I am convinced that much like the apostles were finding out, following Jesus is not as easy and clear-cut as we sometimes make it.  I think, as someone said on here last week, that is why this whole enterprise is called “faith.”

However, we know, by the end, because of the Holy Spirit most of all (contrast the apostles in Acts 1 and Acts 2 and ask yourself what is the only thing that changes), that they did get it.  The tough shell of their everyday thinking cracked open and spiritual wisdom was birthed.  Timidity gave way to boldness.  Those that ran from the cross, ran to their own crosses — sometimes literally.  A Pharisee became the greatest missionary ever.

There is hope for us still.  Because God is good.  Because today is “Friday” but “Sunday’s” coming.  Because God’s not done with us yet!

What is one thing about Jesus that you have begun to understand a whole lot better than you did before?  

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