Saturday, October 3, 2015

Luke 8:22-31 Storm Tamer - Pt 1

22 Now on one of those days Jesus and His disciples got into a boat, and He said to them, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they launched out. 23 But as they were sailing along He fell asleep; and a fierce gale of wind descended on the lake, and they began to be swamped and to be in danger. 

Luke indicated that he didn't have exact details regarding the time, the day, or the year, but he did have documents that confirmed, to his satisfaction, the basic facts regarding this incident. Mark, though, wrote that this incident occurred 'in the evening of the same day' that he told the parable of the sower (Mk 4:35)

Many of the disciples of Jesus, as fishermen, were certainly comfortable and familiar with  being out on the lake. Jesus, who was raised as a carpenter and not as a fisherman, also felt secure on the water, but for different reasons. He must have sufficiently trusted the fishermen in his group to have felt free to close his weary eyes during the trip across the lake and to permit himself to quickly fall asleep while in their care. Yet, did he really put his trust in them or did he first and foremost trust his heavenly Father to watch over all of them?

Shortly after launch a 'fierce gale of wind' suddenly erupted. The storm soon challenged the confidence of the fishermen. Their expertise on the water and their faith in Jesus were put to the test. 

The obvious perennial questions arise. Did Jesus know this would happen ahead of time? Had there been any signs that a storm was brewing before they set sail? If so, had the disciples warned Jesus, yet set sail anyways at his command? Did God intentionally cause or merely permit this storm to happen? Would Jesus have awakened if the disciples hadn't brought the situation to his attention? Would God have intervened if Jesus had soundly slept through the whole drama or would God have let them all, including Jesus, perish if the disciples hadn't awakened him? 

24 They came to Jesus and woke Him up, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And He got up and rebuked the wind and the surging waves, and they stopped, and it became calm. 

Whatever the answers to yesterday's questions, the disciples did wake Jesus up. The context suggests that they initially relied upon their own competencies until they had exhausted all their resources. It was at the point of imminent death that they finally cried out to him, 'Master, we are perishing!' Or as Mark phrased their cry, 'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing' (Mk 4:38)?

In the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans he presents an unnatural attitude toward life and death. "..for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's' (Rom 14:8). Paul shared a similar sentiment in his letter to the Philippians (Phil 1:20,21).

The picture Luke presented in his portrayal of this event was that Jesus nonchalantly awoke, saw their predicament, 'rebuked the wind and waves' for disturbing his rest, and reestablished environmental calmness. He then proceeded to calm the hearts of his disciples - in which an even more dangerous 'storm' had brewed.

25 And He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were fearful and amazed, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?” 26 Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.

In this story, as told by Luke, Jesus asked, 'where is your faith'. When Matthew related this same incident he quoted Jesus as stating, 'you men of little faith' (Mt 8:26). Mark penned Jesus' rebuke to his twelve as, 'how is it that you have no faith' (Mk 4:40)? What was Jesus saying to his disciples? Was he suggesting, as per Mark, that they had developed a faith in him, but had never yet developed any faith in God? Or, was he saying, as per Luke, that their faith in God had lapsed? Or, as Matthew implied, that the disciples had faith in God but it was still an immature faith?

Maybe your first conclusion after reading this was, if the disciples had sufficient faith they could have calmed the storm just as Jesus did. Another possible conclusion might be, if the disciples had sufficient faith they would not have been anxious about dying. They would have simply done their best and surrendered their lives to God's will. The former doesn't seem to be correct, since when attempted it doesn't lead to the same weather-controlling results - ever. The latter appears to be the only legitimate interpretation we can make from Jesus' words. In fact, the response of the disciples implies that they understood Jesus' words to mean the latter as well.

'Who' is this person who commands the weather. Notice, they didn't say, 'Yikes, we'll be able to do that someday too - when our faith matures?' Jesus had not only tamed the weather related storm, he had calmed the storm withing their hearts. Their anxiety dissipated in the light of his mighty presence. They then continued their journey to the other side of the lake rather than to remain fear-driven and insist on returning back to shore.

27 And when He came out onto the land, He was met by a man from the city who was possessed with demons; and who had not put on any clothing for a long time, and was not living in a house, but in the tombs. 

Jesus took his twelve to 'the other side'. He apparently wanted them to expand their thinking about who was 'neighbor'. If our Christianity only works in the specialized environment of our own creation, then it isn't worth much. Genuine faith, as it matures, should operate in all places, among all people groups, throughout all time. Note, I said 'mature' faith. We cannot expect new faith to cope well in novel environments, but as our knowledge/experience grows, our faith usually grows. Thus our ability to be in any place, with any people, at any time will be increasingly successful - faith-wise.

When we place all our efforts in protecting our immature faith by creating and maintaining the kind of environment that is safe for us, we will not grow from faith to faith. Rather, our efforts ought to be in challenging and maturing our faith. It is essential that we leave our spiritual cocoons and visit the 'other side' - mixing with those who are different from us.

People on the 'other side', to use this story more metaphorically, often have worldviews and lifestyle practices that vary greatly from our own. We may, at first blush, label it pejoratively, because difference scares us. Yet, if we spend any amount of time actually trying to build a relationship with folks on 'the other side' we will see that they are just as human as we are and there is much to learn from them. Rather than to 'demonize' others because of their dress or choice of housing, we should look beyond these exterior things and get to know their hearts. 

28 Seeing Jesus, he cried out and fell before Him, and said in a loud voice, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me.” 29a For He had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. 

As the Christian story goes, Lucifer deceived a third of the angels to follow him in rebellion against God on the pretext that God was not the good, compassionate, fair Being that he pretended to be. Lucifer's conspiratorial thinking was insane. Lucifer was projecting all of his own thinking upon God. This 'demon' was possessed by the same thinking as his 'boss'. 'Do not torment me'. Huh? The demon was tormenting the naked man he possessed. Jesus simply cast him out of the man. He didn't hurt, torment, or kill the demon. Yet, the demon twisted everything around because he was himself possessed by conspiratorial thinking.

Is there a message in this for us today?

If we live in fear, sensing a conspiracy forming against us at every turn, we effectively become 'possessed' by our fear(s). The gospel sets us free from all fear by inviting us to trust in a Being that is greater than anything or anyone we fear. Realizing that we can lose all things in this life, yet have the gift of eternal life, nicely undermines any enticement to fear. Don't be possessed by the demon of fear.

29b For it had seized him many times; and he was bound with chains and shackles and kept under guard, and yet he would break his bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert. 30 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They were imploring Him not to command them to go away into the abyss.

In Mark's rendering of this account, he wrote that this demoniac could not be held by any chains or shackles. In fact, this man could even break the shackles to pieces. (Mk 5:3,4). Nothing could stop this man. But wait, how did they get shackles and chains on him to begin with? Was he only periodically 'possessed'? Did he have latency periods?

Regardless what drives us, aren't we still flesh and blood? In other words, if we accept that a 'demon' can possess a human being, can that demon(s) render a human body less vulnerable to destruction simply because it is in command of the body? Is the body of a demon-possessed person less vulnerable to the normal laws of flesh and blood? The fact that this man would cut himself suggests not (Mk 5:5). Yet, does his superhuman strength suggest that we all have the power to 'break bonds' without breaking our bones, if we just put our mind to the task? We have, of course, witnessed incredible feats by expertly trained human beings as well as untrained people under certain conditions.

Whatever the case, after an initial display of feigned reverence and then loud bravado (Mk 5:6,7), the demoniac became docile, even afraid merely by being in the presence of Jesus. Another 'storm' had been calmed. The demon then pleaded with the Lord out of a sense of foreboding. He seemed to know his (their?) sins and the eventuality of judgment because of his evil. The abyss awaited him and his fellow demons.

The demon knew exactly who Jesus was. In fact, the demon apparently knew far more about Jesus than did the disciples of Jesus. How? What were the gospels implying as they related this story? Were they confirmed the story of a rebellion in heaven, that demons really are fallen angels, angels who used to serve God?

Interestingly, Jesus ignored all the fanfare and protests of this demon and simply asked for his name. Why? What difference would it make to know the name of the demon? Was Jesus treating even his enemies with respect as God-created beings? Was he asking for a name in order to identify which fallen angel he had previously known as a friend, yet was now possessing this man as an enemy?

Do we name our demons? Should we personify them? Would naming our demons be helpful in our efforts to calm their voices? If we name our demons do we unwittingly empower them or do we separate them from us in a manner that gives us more authority over them? 

From another perspective, because we believe that Jesus was God in human flesh we often assume that Jesus retained his God omniscience in his humanity incarnation, despite his denials (Heb 2:9-11; Mt 24:36). If Jesus had been omniscient he would have known the name of each fallen angel within this poor man and would not have asked. Yet, for the moment, the demons knew more about Jesus than Jesus knew about them. Jesus could only fearlessly respond to daily circumstances with the degree of delegated authority and knowledge granted him by the Father in whom he fully trusted.

Why would a legion of demons dwell in one man? Or, have we misunderstood what the demon reportedly was saying? Was the demon merely saying that many demons had possessed this one man at one time or another, rather than all being within him at one time? No explanation or clarification was given in the gospels.

We will continue our study of this incident next week.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Luke 8:16-21 Who Has Your Heart

16 “Now no one after lighting a lamp covers it over with a container, or puts it under a bed; but he puts it on a lampstand, so that those who come in may see the light. 

At first glance, this statement's lack of profundity is rather humorous. Yet, with a tad more thought it may be seen as a fierce indictment of the Jewish people at worse and a sad commentary on all humanity at best. Beautiful, soul transforming truths had been obscured by self-serving religious leaders. The Jews were the chosen depositary of the oracles of God, yet had acted more like a depository (Is 42:6; 49:6).

Similarly, though there has been an exponential growth in human ingenuity, mankind's creativity has effectively cloaked an unholy reality - the persistent and pervasive barbarism of our human nature. In other words, we have either neglected or kept hidden the key to our potential transformation, choosing instead to leverage our cleverness in service of our base nature.

Many do not want to see the truth about themselves nor permit the world to discern the actual motives behind their inventive genius. Darkness is the friend of those who prefer to live at the more barbaric end of human potential. Our 'lamp' is either not lit at all and/or those who have the 'Light' are relegated to a place 'under the bed'. If the human race would honestly grasp their true potential in Christ everything in our world could be turned upside down.

Instead, the relatively few who have 'seen the Light' are quickly dismissed and/or 'covered over with the container' of ecclesiastical restraints or dismissed as religious miscreants. The Spirit-led are often considered demon-driven. Though our tremendous growth in knowledge and our subsequent scientific advancements present as indisputable evidence of human development, that growth is seldom viewed as it really is - as over compensation for our actual lack in spiritual maturation.

The way to spiritual enlightenment, as revealed by Jesus, has been perversely interpreted through the lens of human kingdom thinking and not through the eyes of the One who proclaimed the Kingdom of God. The truth of transforming grace has been hijacked and thoroughly massaged so that it's message is the antithesis of it's original meaning (Is 5:20,21). The gospel of the Kingdom is, instead, read as the good news of man's accomplishments, rather than the good news of God's unbounded grace. 

17 For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light. 

The previous verse spoke about how irrational it would be to hide a light under a bed. If you have a lamp it needs to be placed where it's light can shine. In Jesus' day that meant a brightly shining lamp would be placed on a lampstand. Verse 17 isn't necessarily suggesting that hidden light will eventually be revealed, but that evil hidden in darkness will eventually come to light. The point may be that God is light and His light cannot be restrained from revealing all that attempts to hide under the shadow of darkness. The Light will eventually penetrate every dark place in and around us, if not in this life, then in the day of judgment. All that is hidden will be revealed.

Recently in the news, we learned that Volkswagen has allegedly been manipulating the software in their vehicles so that their diesel cars would pass smog testing with flying colors. Yet the smog equipment would automatically turn off when the vehicle was not being tested. VW intentionally, and secretly, tried to game the system, yet their illegal scheme became 'known' and 'came to light'. Someone(s) had figured that the potential financial gains from cheating the system would outweigh the financial penalties if caught. We'll see if their misguided calculations prove to be accurate once the courts have determined the penalty.

We see this self-serving behavior happening around us every day. People often cut corners to save time, money, and 'face'. Many times these 'cut corners' are illegal and may even be dangerous, especially when it manifests as people running red lights, dismantling safety features in their homes or vehicles, and/or when cheating customers. The momentary gain is seldom worth the eventual loss. Sadly, gaming the system has become a national sport edging society ever more closely toward the precipice of anarchy, driven by the age old 'love of money'.

Alternatively, the life of a Christian is supposed to be transparent. We obey the laws of the land we live in (Mt 22:21; Rom 13).  If we live in the light, we have nothing to fear. In fact, the peace we have by living in the Light strongly recommends itself to those who live in darkness.

18 So take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.” 

Be careful 'how' one listens? Yes. There are many ways to listen. We often listen only for what we want to hear. For instance, we listen for evidence against the person who is speaking, listen without actually hearing anything that is said, listen for that which confirms our self-condemnation or only for that which feels good to hear, listen simply to pass a quiz on what we heard, listen for facts but not the truth, listen with the mind but not the heart, or listen without processing what is heard. We may, of course, listen in order to grow spiritually.

'How' do you listen? How well do you listen?

If we don't listen with a heart that seeks to know the truth and to continually grow in the Spirit (Lk 2:52; Jn 4:23,24), we will eventually lose all that we think we have. In other words, if we are not growing, we are dying. If we are not constantly challenging ourselves to mature in knowledge, wisdom, and spirit we begin to lose our grip on reality. If we remain satisfied with the status quo, we lose many opportunities in life that could have brought great joy and peace. Opportunities not grasped by us, will be grasped by others.  

19 And His mother and brothers came to Him, and they were unable to get to Him because of the crowd. 

These next three verses need to be understood both in the context in which Luke has set them as well as in the context for whom Luke has written them.

First, recall the literary context. Luke has just reminded us that it is silly to hide light and foolish to think we can hide our wrong doings. Instead, Jesus then spoke about 'how' to listen so that we don't lose opportunities. Living in the Light actually increases our options.

Second, remember that Luke was writing to Theophilus. He wanted this man to understand who Jesus really was and the nature of the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel of grace is the good news that God's love is an unmerited gift.

With these two considerations in mind, why would Luke insert this account of Jesus' mother and brothers coming to him, yet were not able to see him?

It seems to me that Luke wanted to convey to Theophilus that Jesus showed no favoritism. Neither religious nor biological pedigree was advantageous in regard to entering the kingdom of God. Becoming a citizen of the Kingdom of God is all about who has your heart, not about your personal merits. In other words, Mary was not given any spiritual privileges merely because she was the mother of Jesus.  The fact that she had been chosen by God to be the mother of the Lord, that she had been faithful in her calling, and that Jesus loved her dearly, were not automatic keys into the Kingdom of God.

Far too many times the truth of the kingdom is obscured because of favoritism. Wherever there is favoritism there is oppression (Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11). Whenever someone attempts to leverage their wealth, position of power, pedigree, system of beliefs, or anything else as entitling them to kingdom privileges, they have unwittingly placed their 'lamp under the bed'. They have heard, but have not understood the gospel of Christ. They effectively cry out, 'Lord, Lord, haven't we done such and such in your name? Surely we have earned privilege. But Jesus replied, I don't know you' (Lk 6:20-46; Mt 7).

20 And it was reported to Him, “Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wishing to see You.” 

In the kingdom of men we tend to be celebrity driven. We place more importance upon those who are popular in society rather than on their heart for God. Our usual metrics for determining who will earn our heart's affections include a person's worldly accomplishments, level of education, the ranking of the university they attended, degree of wealth, blood relationship, political and/or denominational affiliation, social class, etc.

Jesus, as noted, didn't have favorites based on any of these criteria. Rather, he was overjoyed any time he met a person - male or female, Jew or Gentile, free or bond - who not only believed in and received God's grace, but also extended grace to others. Those who live under grace are the most delightful people to be around. 

21 But He answered and said to them, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.”

Jesus, according to scripture, loved and respected his mother. This verse wasn't included to deny that fact. As mentioned earlier, Luke presented these verses in order to underscore an important truth that sadly continues to be ignored even in our 21st century churches. Our metrics for evaluating the spiritual suitability of others are often based on 'kingdom of men' thinking rather than 'Kingdom of God' thinking.

In the Kingdom of God 'family' is redefined as anyone who has put their faith in God rather than in man. Kingdom citizenship eschews metrics based on blood, denominational pedigree, gender, wealth, education, and theology. Yikes. Even theology? Yes. Look at the number of folks Jesus received without asking questions about their theology, sexual preference, nationality, political affiliation, employment, criminal record, or degree of morality. He always looked beyond the obvious to see who had their heart. Only a grace-oriented person has the ability to embrace others in this manner.

What would one look for in order to discern the affections of the heart? In answer, Jesus pointed to those 'who hear the word of God and do it'. Recall that the NT uses this phrase, 'the word of God', as a synonym for the gospel of the Kingdom or the gospel of grace. In other words, Jesus was saying that those who grasp (hear and understand) grace and extend (do) grace to others are his family. They have his heart and He has their heart.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Luke 8:1-15 Mysteries Revealed

1 Soon afterwards, He began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.

This must have been quite a sight to behold. Jesus had become unquestionably popular. Not only did large crowds come out to see him wherever he traveled, but wherever he went he was accompanied by a small retinue of disciples - his twelve male disciples as well as a group of appreciative, well-to-do women.

Unlike the male disciples of Jesus, the women both had and used their financial resources to 'contribute to the support' of Jesus' ministry. My first thought was, why? Why would Jesus need contributions? Why didn't he miraculously care for each of their daily needs? With just a word he could have provided the best food and beverages, kept their clothes from getting soiled, and have created safe places to sleep each night. Did he have a rule that forbade him from using miracles to support the personal, daily needs of his own team? Or, did he refuse to apply the supernatural when other more natural means were available?

It seems that Jesus intentionally gave his followers opportunities to use what they had for they own and others needs, rather than to simply depend on him to do everything miraculously. Maybe the lesson is, just because we are skilled at a particular task, we should give others the opportunity to apply their abilities as well - even if their competencies are less than our own. In this manner they become apprentices of compassion.

The most famous of the women who followed Jesus was Mary Magdalene. The age old question has been, was she the sinful woman from the previous pericope? Was it Mary Magdalen who entered Simon's house with perfume in response to having previously had seven (probably a symbol for many rather than an exact number) demons cast from her by Jesus? How did she become a woman of means? Were her financial contributions earned from her life as a prostitute? Or, was this a different woman of wealth who had been healed of unclean spirits? Why do many commentators so vehemently deny the possibility that these two women were one and the same? Are they reluctant to accept the fact that Jesus would permit a former prostitute to be one of his closest friends, yet they accept the fact that a former tax collector could be chosen as one of the twelve?

Then there was Joanna, the wife of Herod Antipas' steward, Chuza. How might Herod have responded to the fact that his steward's wife had left to follow Jesus? How did the people of Galilee react when the word spread that Chuza's wife had left him to devote her life to another man? Joanna was a steadfast follower of Jesus until the end. She was one of the women, along with Mary Magdalene, at the tomb of Jesus on resurrection morning.

Also, notice what Luke mentioned as the topic of Jesus' proclamation and preaching. It was all about the 'kingdom of God'. It was not about insisting that the kingdom of men enforce social justice. It was not about 'fixing' the 'kingdoms of men' - in which there has always been a division between men from women, rich and poor, free and bond, religious and heathen, and/or educated and uneducated. In contrast, as in the previous story at Simon's house, Jesus drew together both the wealthy Pharisee and the immoral woman. He practiced and illustrated 'social justice' in all that 'he' did without expecting or insisting that the government of Rome do the same. He prayed for the Kingdom of God to come, not as some 'end of time' force that would fix the kingdoms of men, but for Kingdom men and women to live out the principles of God's kingdom in their daily lives. May 'that' Kingdom come into reality.

If the mission of the church is to fix this world in order for God's Kingdom to exist and/or to wait for God to come with force to replace all the kingdoms of this world with his own, then the church has missed the point. The 'church' is not the Kingdom of God, but it is called to live out the principles of the Kingdom as a witness to those who have only known the kingdom of men.

4 When a large crowd was coming together, and those from the various cities were journeying to Him, He spoke by way of a parable: 5 “The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. 7 Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. 8 Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

In this parable Jesus explains how the Kingdom of God works within this world. The grace of God, the seed sown, is available to all, just as they are. God's grace has always existed and been the gift of God to all mankind from before the foundations of this world. But most have not understood this truth and/or have erroneous notions about this it. Moreover, though the truth of grace has always existed, it is a truth that cannot be instantly grasped by everyone at once, and when grasped it must be nurtured in order for it to grow.

Some trample on the notion either unwittingly or with aggressive ignorance - not truly grasping the nature of the gift. Some immediately embrace the gift of grace, yet neglect to nurture the gift. Others truly appreciate God's grace, yet they permit themselves to be distracted by the evils of this world until they cease believing in or just forget about grace. Finally, there are those who have had their hearts prepared to know and to receive the gift of grace, intentionally grow in their lives under grace, intentionally dismiss anything that tempts them to doubt the grace of God, and thus become mature citizens of the Kingdom of God defecting in place among the kingdoms of men.

'Hello?', Jesus said. 'Is anyone listening?'

God's message to those in the kingdoms of men is that a far superior Kingdom exists in the here and now. The citizens of the Kingdom of God live under grace. Though they live among those in the kingdoms of men, they live with 'peace' in their hearts. They live to compassionately serve each next person they meet. They are not motivated by some vain hope that the church will some day fix this world, but they are motivated by the love of God to introduce others in this world to the grace of God. In other words, this world isn't changed, but the way 'we' see and live in this world is changed. 

9 His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant. 10 And He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.

So, what are the 'mysteries of the Kingdom of God' that the disciple were 'granted' the privilege of 'knowing' (Gk. 'ginosko'), but others were not? 

The kingdoms of man manipulate the masses by leveraging the lowest elements of human nature: self-indulgent sexual drives, the plethora of real and imagined fears, the desire for heavy-handed revenge, and our insidious drive to satisfy any sense of lack.

Alternatively, the Kingdom of God intentionally appeals to the higher desires of the heart: mutuality in love, compassionately serving others, the non-judgmental way of grace, forgiving the debts of others, living in genuine peace, and taking responsibility for growing in knowledge, wisdom, and spirit.

In other words, the mysteries of God's Kingdom have to do with understanding the nature of man. We are not always 'able' to grasp a truth - even a truth that would benefit us. Our choices in life are almost always made because of preconceived notions - right or wrong. We are contrarian, self-protective, self-indulgent, impatient, fearful, divisive, and vengeful by nature. On the other hand, we have the ability to imagine and to aspire to something better. It is that higher, nobler element of our nature that the Kingdom of God invites us to explore and develop under the expert, indwelling guidance of the Spirit.   

11 “Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. 12 Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved.

The seed 'is the word of God' which, as distilled by Jesus, is the good news of the Kingdom of God's grace (Mt 9:35; Acts 20:24).

We read earlier (Lk 5:1) that the people came out to listen to the 'word of God' as Jesus taught it. In the book of Acts the apostles obediently went forth to preach the 'word of God' (Mk 16:15; Acts 4:31, 6:2,7; 8:14; 11:1; 13:5,7,46; 17:13; 18:11). It shouldn't surprise us, then, that the apostles understood the 'word of God' to be the gospel of the kingdom (Acts 15:7; Col 1:5), which is the gospel of grace (Acts 20:24).  

Notice what Heb 4:12 says about the 'word of God'. "The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." The target of the 'word of God' - the gospel of the kingdom of God's grace - is the 'heart'. 

Whenever the gospel is preached there are always those - satans - who intentionally attempt to obstruct the impact of the 'word of God' upon the heart of those who hear it. These 'satans' have a vested interest in keeping people blind to the grace of God. In doing so they are able to keep people dependent upon the ways of the kingdoms of men. They play upon the fears of men, blocking the way to genuine peace. We should only fear that which obstructs the way to peace. Be forewarned, we all - like Peter - play the role of satan at times (Mt 16:23).    

13 Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. 14 The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity.

Imagine the story of two people who meet, fall in love, and get married. Imagine that they are perfectly compatible soul mates in every measurable way. Their love for one another is genuine, palpable, enviable, and rock solid. Yet also imagine that they unwittingly assume that nothing could undo their affection for each other. Their love is real, but they lack the knowledge about how to maintain and grow their relationship. Their love for one another is genuine, yet they don't understand human nature or the nature of the world. Then, several years into their marriage they acknowledge to one another that they have both 'fallen out of love' - they no longer love each other - and decide to get a divorce. What happened?

To love wisely is to not depend on the emotions of love alone, however real and strong. We need to be prepared for love so that when love happens we know how to both nurture and protect it. If we don't understand the nature of man nor the nature of the world, we set ourselves up for painful loss.

The same is true with the gospel of grace. If we are not prepared for it, we may likely resist every opportunity to embrace it when it is presented to us. If we are not knowledgeable about how to receive, nurture, and protect the gift of grace we will soon find ourselves distracted by the common temptations and problems of life and 'fall from grace' (Gal 5:4). That which once brought us great joy is lost to us. God's grace still exists and is still there for us, but we have fallen out of love.    

15 But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.

There is a grand purpose for the scriptural counsel to 'not forsake the assembling of ourselves together' (Heb 10:25). The role of a healthy church is not to think for us, but to teach us how to think and - as the Baptist did for Jesus - to prepare the way for us. Effective churches prepare us for a life of grace, teach us how to receive and nurture the grace of God, and continually mentor us throughout our life under grace. Fellowship with other Kingdom people strengthens us against and protects us from the diversions and temptations of this world so that we may continue to grow in grace (2 Pet 3:18).

The 'good soil' refers to the necessity of having appropriate knowledge and wisdom as kingdom people. If we are not willing to subject our worldviews to close scrutiny under the guidance of the Spirit, in deep daily bible study, we may reject the very things we are searching for, calling evil good, and error truth. Assuming that what we currently believe is sufficient is insufficient. Believing that your love for God could never grow cold, that there are no temptations that could entice you to deny God, or life events that could distract you from an intentional existence under God's grace - is to live foolishly.

A good heart is a smart heart. An honest heart does everything possible to grow in grace. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Luke 7:40-50 The Rest of the Story

40 Jesus answered, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 

Despite having reservations about Jesus, Simon was respectful enough to hear Him out. Again, this suggests that Simon's heart had been touched by something Jesus had either previously preached or done. Yet, Simon was still a bit confused. Jesus presented as a wise teacher and a mighty healer, but he also said and did things that didn't 'fit' with Simon's expectations for a prophet, never mind as the Messiah.

Perhaps Luke used Simon as another illustration of the larger point he has been flirting with throughout this chapter - that we should not 'judge a book by it's cover'. Even though Simon was weighing whether or not Jesus could actually be a fraud, he chose to look beyond what appeared, past his preconceived expectations, and listened to what Jesus wanted to say to him.

Are we as open minded? Are we willing to hear what someone else wants to say without interrupting them? 

Far too often we quickly dismiss as rabble-rousers the very people God has sent to help us grow in faith and grace. We disregard all that they have to say simply because something about them rubs us the wrong way. Maybe we don't like their personality, the way they dress, who they associate with, their political and/or religious affiliation, or even their social status. It is very human to say to ourselves, 'can anything good come out of....'

The whole notion of 'faith' is that it 'sees' beyond what is 'seen'.

41 “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” 

Notice that their debts were forgiven, not paid in full by some wealthy benefactor. No one stepped forward to pay the debt so that the money lender would not experience any loss. Grace was exhibited by the moneylender when he forgave the debt and took the loss himself. He chose to have less than was rightly his, so the two debtors could have more than they deserved. Grace is like that.

It is one thing to forgive a debt of a few bucks, but what if the debt is $100, $1,000, or $1,000,000? It is one thing to forgive someone who has stolen your car, but what if he has stolen the life of your child? The point is that because some debts can never be 'paid' back in full, God has chosen to forgive all debts and asks us to do the same as Christians.

On what basis does God forgive our debts? Is it based on having paid back our debts? No. that would be contrary to grace. Jesus didn't pay back our debts. Rather, he announced that God had forgiven all our debts. They no longer exist. Jesus didn't die to 'pay' back our debt to God. Instead, he died because he placed his faith in God who had forgiven all debts.

God, rather than having 'paid' our debts in sacrificing his Son, promised to give even more to those whose debts he had forgiven. Incredibly, having forgiven our 'debt' - all our sins - He then went on to promise us eternal life. God treats us as if we had never had a debt. This is, for instance, like having a $100,000 medical debt forgiven, yet then be immediately given a one trillion dollars gift card. Grace is grace. Grace is generous.

44 Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. 

Jesus wasn't so much criticizing Simon as he was inviting Simon to see the woman in front of him through a different set of lens. He wanted Simon to take a moment to try to see her heart. Up till then, only the obvious 'facts about' this woman were all that Simon had permitted himself to see. But Jesus helped Simon see beyond the obvious and to see the inner 'truth' about her. She was not merely a despised sinner, but a precious soul. Simon had viewed each of these acts by the woman as evidence of her sinfulness - her tremendous, unpardonable debt to God. Jesus, as he had done with the disciples of the Baptist, invited Simon to take a second look.

Recently, a Hungarian camerawoman was caught intentionally tripping a man. What she saw was an illegal, migrant male fleeing the authorities. Based on what she permitted herself to see, she acted to stop the alien's escape from the restrictions imposed upon him by the authorities in her country. Others, though, saw an older man carrying a young child, escaping a war torn country and desperately seeking a safer place for his family. She saw a criminal. Others saw a caring man. What would you have 'seen' - the immediate facts or the compassionate truth?  

47 For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” 

The facts are the facts. This woman's sins were 'many'. Yet, more importantly, this woman's truth is that she 'loved much'. The church is often so distracted by the facts, that we miss the truth about others. 

So, what did Jesus do to drive this point home to Simon? He forgave the sinful woman's sins. He didn't do anything to compensate for her sins. He didn't enumerate and give sensational, salacious details about her many sins. He didn't wag his finger at her. He simply forgave her. No fanfare. Nor any self-congratulatory public proclamations about his own goodness in forgiving her. Even more, he didn't confirm the prophetic word saying, 'your sins will some day be forgiven'. Rather, he said her sins 'have been' forgiven.

Her sinful thoughts, words, and behaviors were totally removed from consideration. Why? Because Jesus wanted Simon to take a second look at this woman, to see 'her', not her sins, to see the inner, beautiful truth about soul without being distracted by her obvious external sins. That's the 'good news'. All the sins, of all people, for all time, past, present, and future, have been forgiven by God. Again, why? Because God wants us to look at each other and see the person Jesus loves. Any fool can see another's sins. It takes a spiritually awakened person to wisely see another's heart truth.

But, if this is the case, then what was the cross all about? If Jesus could forgive sins even before his crucifixion, why did he die? Also, why did Moses set up a sacrificial system that supposedly pointed forward to what God would eventually do when Jesus became our sacrificial Lamb?

The cross was not the point at which grace was created, it was the evidence that grace has always existed. The cross revealed the nature of genuine love - which was the willingness to die for us, rather than to cease loving us. 

Sadly, the church has fatally misspent the last two millennia trying to force people to be 'good' by aligning the church with and then leveraging the power of secular government, creating a theology of fear to scare people into obedience, cruelly torturing those who would not conform, and forever crafting increasingly precise and burdensome rules and policies in order to mold the church into what it should look like. Yet it has failed. It's long past time for the church to love folks unto death, or to cease the charade.   

49 Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” 

The first thing to notice, is that there were more than three people in the room. Besides Simon, the woman, and Jesus, there were 'those' others who were also 'reclining at the table with Jesus. They were the ones who raised this question, not Simon - as far as we know - nor the woman, of course.

Also, the question was not just 'who is this man', rather who is this man who 'even forgives sins'? On what basis did Jesus have the right to forgive sins? From the Jewish perspective only God could forgive sin (Mk 2:7), and that could only happen after following a carefully prescribe ritual sacrifice. Yet, here was Jesus not only forgiving one particular sin, but all the sins of this woman. Again, this was way out of order. There was no confession, no repentance, no sacrifice(s) made, and no ecclesiastical authority had - if even possible - given Jesus such authority.

In other words, if we cannot understand the basis of forgiveness, we cannot understand 'who' this man was. What, then is forgiveness? What does it mean to forgive? Why would we need to be forgiven? On what basis could Jesus forgive this woman's sins? If only God can forgive sins, then what does that tell us about the nature of forgiveness as well as the nature of Jesus?

First, when we forgive we assume there has been something to forgive - such as a sin(s). Second, when the Jews said that only God can forgive sins, they assumed that all sin was ultimately against God. Third, Jesus was not forgiving this woman's sin against him, rather he was forgiving her sins in general against whomever, yet particularly against God. In other words, her sins had 'separated her from God', supposedly because sin is contrary to God's will and ways. Sinning is not God-like. When we sin we effectively dismiss God, and according to the OT, God then turns away from us (Is 59:2). Fourth, the Jews had been taught that God required a sacrifice before he would be willing to forgive sin. Sin created a debt that had to be paid. Once we accept responsibility for our sin, we must seek for God, to ask for his forgiveness. Payment required the sacrifice of something precious. Forgiveness cost the sinner something. That was the OT way to a clear conscience - maybe (Heb 10:1-20).

With all that in mind, we find Jesus forgiving the woman without requiring anything in return. To have the assurance of this forgiveness, she merely needed to have faith in him - faith that what he said was true.

50 And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

The phraseology in these verses can be a bit confusing, raising several questions.

(1) Did Jesus forgive all her sins because she loved him or did Jesus forgive all her sins in order to elicit her love (v. 44-47a)?

(2) Did the woman love (Gk. agape) Jesus so much because she was acutely aware of how many sins he had forgiven, or because Jesus received her just as she was regardless of how sinful she was and even before being forgiven (v. 47b, 48)?

(3) Did this woman seek out Jesus because she already had faith in him or did she come to him because she hoped that he would forgive her (v. 50).

(4) Did Jesus forgive her many sins because she loved him (v. 47), because of grace - whether or not she had love for or faith in him (v. 48), or because she had faith in him (v. 50)?

(5) Was the woman 'saved by grace' (Eph 2:8) at the very moment in which she expressed faith in Jesus' love for her, or had her faith in Jesus simply expressed her awareness that she had always been 'saved by grace'? In other words, did she 'merit' grace or is grace still 'unmerited favor'?

Jesus told her that her faith had saved her, but was he suggesting that she had finally earned God's grace because of either her great love for him and/or her faith in him? Or did he mean that she had just come into awareness of God's infinite and eternal grace, which would finally permit her to experience the 'peace' that God had always wanted for her? How can we experience true peace until we grasp true grace (v. 50b)?

Her life hadn't been, wasn't, nor would be perfect. She, like all people of faith, would continue to 'sin' even after being 'saved by faith'. Her faith had just begun to grow and would, hopefully, continue to mature. She had expressed her faith in Jesus in an unusual, even erotic way, the only way she knew to express it at that time - which was received by Jesus as the best revelation of the truth of her heart, not the best way to express love for God. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Luke 7:31-39 Between the Lines

31 “To what then shall I compare the men of this generation, and what are they like? 

Last week we mentioned that the spiritually wise discern beautiful truths between the lines of scriptural fact. Our next two studies will pursue this notion in more detail. The Centurion read the truth about Jesus between the lines. Jesus saw the truth between the lines at Nain. The Baptist was missing the truth between the lines until Jesus invited the two disciples of John to take another, more careful look and to 'read between the lines'.

In these verses Jesus exposes the character of those who are not spiritually wise. They judge by what they observe externally and either neglect or refuse to look any deeper. When we read the scriptures merely for academic knowledge we may get the 'facts', but miss the 'truth'. Similarly, when we look at the external behavior of others we may correctly identify their sin, but miss their heart. How we look, and with what expectations we look, determine what we will see.

The people of Jesus' generation, and every generation since then, tend to think superficially. We can rightly label an adulterer, a thief, and any other sinner by their behavior, yet miss the heart of the person. Jesus looked beyond the sin and apprehended the heart of each person he met. He forgave sin, which was his invitation for all generations to also look past an individual's behavior and words and to seek to know their heart.

32 They are like children who sit in the market place and call to one another, and they say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’ 33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ 34 The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

The analogy highlights how the people of his generation were unreasonable in their expectations. They wanted others to conform to their expectations. They never accepted others just as they were. They viewed everyone in a negative light. They could always find something to complain about. No one around them could please them whether they did what was asked or did not. The people of that generation were self-centered, judgmental, and thus their hearts were closed to the grace of God. Has anything changed 2000 years later?

The Baptist didn't mix with people, didn't attend their parties, and didn't eat their food or indulge in their drink. Surely the religious elite would have honored such a person. But no. Instead they said he was demon-led. Then Jesus came around and he mixed with the people, attended their parties, ate their food, and drank their beverages. Yet the religious elite didn't like that either. They labeled Jesus a sinner. Was the problem that the religious leadership simply shunned extremes or that they jettisoned anything that varied from their religiously narrow view of 'righteousness'?

On the other hand, perhaps this passage, rather than dismissing the extremes, instead confirms that those embraced by Jesus run the gamut between super-conservatives to super-liberals - John being far right and Jesus far left. Apparently Jesus was suggesting that the grace of God embraces all people - from one end of the social continuum to the other. Of course, that is what 'grace' really means. 

But that was then, right? What about now, in our generation?

Are we content? Are we at peace? Do we see the proverbial cup half full? Do we love others 'just as they are' - whether they are conservative or liberal in their life orientation? Do we look beyond another's failings and see the heart? Do we temper our expectations by reality? Are we reasonable and open-minded in our expectations of others? In other words, are we patient, kind, gentle, self-controlled, joyful, and compassionate in all our dealings with other people?

35 Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” 

As rendered in the Message Bible, 'the proof is in the pudding'. In other words, the truth about a person is not so much about whether or not they eat certain foods or drink a particular beverage. The truth about a person cannot be quantified by how they dress, where they live, whether they are an introvert or an extrovert, or if they present with a serious or fun-loving attitude. Personality type does not reveal the heart of a person. 

The truth about a person's heart is found in how they love other people. Yet, Luke has already clarified that true love is not revealed by merely loving those who love us, but in loving even those who are our enemies (Luke 6:32-37). The wisdom that vindicates is not revealed in measures of religiosity, or by social pedigree, or in the prestige often gained by great wealth, power, and/or talent. The wisdom that vindicates is found in the love - a love for others that matures over time as we wrestle with life and plumb the meaning of 'grace'.

36 Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 

The vindicating wisdom revealed in love for neighbors is now illustrated in this story. For whatever reason a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner. Jesus accepted the invitation just as he had accepted the invitation to dine with the tax collectors.

Did this Pharisee invite Jesus into his house in order to find more evidence to hate him or because he truly was attracted to the teachings and works of Jesus? Jesus, as was his practice, looked beyond all the erroneous beliefs, misguided suspicions, and persistent doubts of this man and graciously reclined at the Pharisee's table for a meal. The 'fact' that Jesus did this indicates, perhaps, that Jesus discerned goodness in this Pharisee's heart, that this particular Pharisee was open to the truth - at least to some degree. I suggest this conclusion because at other times, when Jesus discerned only a wicked heart, he called it out (Lk 11:39).

Clearly, as we will observe in the remainder of this story, this Pharisee - Simon - was wrestling with whether or not to believe in Jesus. Jesus taught and did many things that went against every 'expectation' of the Pharisees. On the other hand, Jesus taught and did many things that actually resonated with the heart of this particular Pharisee. He seemingly wanted to believe in Jesus, yet at the same time he looked for reasons 'not' to believe - perhaps because he knew the cost for believing in Jesus. Like most people, he was willing to believe a lie if that lie resonated with what he preferred to believe. On the other hand, his conscience apparently kept nagging him.

37 And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38 and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. 

'Sinners', I assume, probably would not have willingly walked into the home of a typical, first-century Pharisee - unless there to rob him. Yet, if a 'sinner' had been observing the way Jesus compassionately received all kinds of people, she might have totally ignored the noxious context of the Pharisee's home as she single mindedly pursued the Person of her new, unfettered devotion.

Have you ever lost sight of context in your pursuit of some cherished object? The words of an old song came to mind as I asked myself this question: "Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace."

The contrast was stark. Jesus had simultaneously accepted the dinner invitation of a Pharisee AND the attentions of a woman of ill-repute. Yet, she was not pleasurable entertainment wickedly provided by the host for his popular guest. And, she had not forcibly inserted herself into Jesus' presence in order to exotically seduce him into being her next deep-pocketed customer.

Both individuals were attracted to the goodness of Jesus, yet both Simon and the woman were drawn to Jesus from opposite ends of the social ladder. One was male, the other female. One was a religious leader, one was a leader in sin. One met Jesus with food and wine, the other met Jesus with perfume and kissing. One welcomed him while embracing doubts, while the other welcomed him with an unquestioning embrace.

Is the place of your fellowship a mix of those with questions and those with complete devotion. Would a visitor sense this same spirit of Jesus in your church by the way it wholeheartedly receives the mix of both wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated, men and women, the emotionally reserved and the emotionally unfettered, the liberal and the conservative? If not, has your church unwittingly attempt to claim Jesus all for themselves? Is your church casting Jesus as the Christ of their own creation?

39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”

It seems that the Pharisee invited Jesus to his house in order to have Jesus all to himself, apart from anyone or anything else he didn't like. In effect he was saying, 'he is my Jesus'.  In other words, he wanted the Jesus of his own making, a pseudo-Jesus, but not the real Jesus.

In what ways to we claim Jesus only for ourselves? In what ways do we attempt to isolate Jesus from all others so that we may experience him without any disagreeable interruptions? In what ways to we insist on seeing Jesus only the way we prefer to see him? In what ways have we re-created the Good Shepherd?

The Pharisee evaluated Jesus through his preconceived notions. Then, instead of questioning his own assumptions, he predictably chose to believe that his expectations were sacrosanct, which led him to conclude that Jesus may actually be a fraud. No matter how much we want it to work, if we're trying to understand the stars with a microscope rather than a telescope, our choice of instrument will obscure our vision and lead us to an erroneous conclusion.

Luke had an intentional point in sharing this story. He wanted Theophilus to questions his preconceived notions about the Jews, about reality, and about God.

Jesus went on to reframe the situation for his host - which we will take a look at in our next week's study.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Luke 7:18-30 When Less Is More

18 The disciples of John reported to him about all these things. 19 Summoning two of his disciples, John sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?” 20 When the men came to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to You, to ask, ‘Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?’” 

The OT stories of Elijah and Elisha apparently primed the people of Nain to conclude Jesus was a great prophet rather than the Messiah. On the other hand, the Baptist's skewed expectations for the Messiah led him to question his previous belief - that Jesus was the promised One. The people of Nain were unwittingly blinded by the incomplete truths of scripture, while the John was blinded by inaccurate interpretations of scripture.

As usual, our beliefs shape our understanding of current events. Our culture, experiences, and education unwittingly incline us to see 'dimly'. Add to this the recent discovery that the way we 'see' may also have a genetic basis, and we begin to wonder if anyone can ever see all things as they really are - whatever that means. Yet, all this makes the notion of grace all that more precious.

Next question, why would Luke place this particular incident at this point in his gospel? Was this simply what he understood to be the next major chronological event? The question is raised because the previous pericope is not found in other gospels, yet the conclusion arrived at by the people of Nain was that Jesus must be a 'great prophet', rather than the expected Messiah. Then, Luke followed up with a discussion of the Baptist as a truly 'great prophet'. So again, is this merely coincidental in the chronology of events or does it suggest that Luke had another purpose in mind?

Recall that Luke was leading Theophilus away from simply gathering facts 'about' Jesus and/or jumping to conclusions about Jesus because of any amazing abilities. He did not want Theophilus to become excited about Jesus only as a famous miracle worker, a great healer, an eloquent preacher, nor even as a wise teacher, but to look beyond what Jesus did and to see his compassionate heart for all people. In fact, this is exactly what Jesus tried to teach everyone - don't get distracted by a person's sins, idiosyncrasies, talents, intelligence, or appearance - but look past all this to see their heart. In other words, behold with grace.

If I have rightly discerned the intent behind Luke's choice of stories, we would expect Jesus to value something beyond the fact that the Baptist was his promised forerunner and a great prophet. In other words, Jesus would dismiss any desire to place value on someone merely because they were the son of a priest, a descendant of Abraham, popular among the people, a great miracle worker, or even an individual prophesied centuries before. For Jesus, the greatness of a person is always about their heart. First, who has their heart? Second, does grace rule their heart?

'If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And, if I give all my possessions to feed the poor and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing' (1Cor 13:1-3).

If Luke worked side by side with Paul, perhaps the apostle's words to the Corinthians influenced Luke's thinking and objective in writing his gospel. In other words, this story about the Baptist was inserted because it is not about being a 'great prophet', but about who has your heart.

21 At that very time He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He gave sight to many who were blind. 22 And He answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them. 23 Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” 

These three verses appear to contradict our conclusion from the first three verses of this week's study. Jesus appears to have pointed to his 'works' as evidence that he is the Messiah, just as the Baptist originally believed. Yet, is that really what he was saying?

It is not unusual to be so focused on a particular question that we don't see the obvious answer sitting immediately in front of us. For instance, in the well known story where Mary Magdalene searched for Jesus after finding his tomb empty, she couldn't 'see' that it was Jesus right there talking to her (Jn 20:11-15). Her question blinded her to the answer.

On the other hand, it is not unusual to be so focused on what is right in front of us that we can't see the true answer to our question. For instance, the disciples of the Baptist were well acquainted with the miracles performed by Jesus, yet Jesus invited them to look at his 'works' differently - to see past his 'works' and to glean his heart behind each of his miracles. They had only seen the 'fact' that he was a miracle worker, yet had missed the 'truth' - the heart - behind each healing.

Yes, it was a 'fact' that Jesus could cure disease, cast out evil spirits, and heal broken bodies, but the Baptist was looking for a Messiah who would use his power to conquer all the enemies of God's people. Jesus wanted John's disciples to see that Jesus actually was conquering the enemy of His people, but that their greatest enemy was not what they had always believed. Our greatest enemy is 'us' - the choice we've made regarding who rules our heart. Jesus wasn't merely healing bodies, but he was healing hearts. Jesus was in 'fact' a miracle worker, but more importantly he was a compassionate heart healer.

The scriptures have often been interpreted in such a manner that they effectively obfuscate the truth, rather than to reveal it. Often the 'truth' of scripture lies between the lines of the the 'facts' of scripture. The Jews looked forward to the coming of their promised Messiah. He arrived. He healed all who came to him. He preached the good news. He taught the gospel of the kingdom. Many liked him for what he did, but didn't really 'see' him. They saw a miracle worker who could do wonderful things for them. They saw him only as a 'great prophet', a notion Jesus didn't correct - at least at first.

The disciples of John came to Jesus with John's question. Jesus wasn't acting as John assumed the Messiah would/should act. John, like most Jews during this time, believed that the Messiah would appear as a conquering king, not as a gentle shepherd. Jesus didn't take time to explain the difference to John's disciples. He merely invited them to open mindedly observe what he was doing and report back to the Baptist.

Why did Jesus refuse to publicly proclaim that he was the Messiah? Why did he keep the demons from telling this truth? Why, as we'll see later in Luke, did he tell his disciples not to share with others their conclusion - that Jesus was the Messiah? Why didn't Jesus confirm for the disciples of the Baptist that he was indeed the Messiah, just as John originally believed? Why his reluctance to give a straight forward answer to a legitimate question?

Verse 23 offers a hint. 'Blessed is he who does not stumble (Gk. skandalizo) because of me.' Why would anyone stumble because of the miracle working Jesus? At least two reasons come to mind. They would only stumble if they discovered that (1) Jesus had done bad things that undermined belief in him, or stumble because Jesus (2) said/did unexpected things that didn't fit into their worldview. Obviously the former would not have been the reason for Jesus' words in verse 23. So we can assume that Jesus was referring to the possibility that folks might stumble because he fell short of their expectations. This frequently happens in human relationships when we get excited about another person based on what we imagine they are like, only to discover that they are not everything we had hoped for. We often set ourselves up for disappointment because we initially 'like' someone else without having taken the time to get to know their heart.

Perhaps verse 23 was Jesus' invitation to John to rethink his expectations, to re-examine scripture to see if he had been misled by religious traditions regarding the Messiah. This is an important message to all of us. We are only human. We all have hopes and dreams. But, are they realistic?

The next 3 verses explores the nature of our expectations.

24 When the messengers of John had left, He began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who are splendidly clothed and live in luxury are found in royal palaces! 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. 

'What did you expect?' Whenever we step into a new situation with expectations we have already put blinders on. Of course, this is natural. It is human to have expectations. Yet, we are better served by understanding that our expectations may cause unnecessary pain. How can we move forward more maturely, more intelligently?

In what ways have your expectations - either positively or negatively imagined - blinded you from seeing all that was there to see? This is not to suggest that we shouldn't have expectations, but that we need to hold our expectations lightly. We are better served when we enter each moment with an openness to learn. But, as mentioned earlier, it would be well if we not only engaged new experiences with an openness to learn whatever facts come to light, but to also discover truths behind the facts.

Based on reports, the Jews 'expected' to see a prophet in the wilderness. Then, expecting to see a prophet, they naturally expected to see the kind of prophet they had learned about from their religious training. Jesus' point was that their expectations blinded them from seeing that the Baptist was 'more than a prophet', that his mission involved much more than their expectation. If they clung to their expectations, they would miss so much 'more'. 

27 This is the one about whom it is written, ’Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, Who will prepare Your way before You.’ 

The Baptist was more than a prophet in several ways. First, he was 'the one' that the prophet Malachi said would be sent (Mal. 3:1; Mt 11:14). Scripture does not prophesy about the coming of any specific prophet, except - according to Jesus - in this case. Second, he would not only speak directly to the people about their sins, but he would be 'the one' who would introduce them to Jesus as their Messiah. In other words, while most prophets warn of things to come, John told them about 'the one' who had come. This was unique.

The word we translate as 'messenger' (Heb. mal'ak; Gk. aggelos) is most often translated as 'angel', both in the OT and the NT. The Baptist was not, in the literal sense, an 'angel', yet metaphorically his role was so much like that of the angel Gabriel that he was referred to by the same term, yet the English translation, 'messenger', was applied to him perhaps to differentiate him from an actual angel. He was, in fact, a relative and contemporary of Jesus. Again, we see in this that John was 'more than a prophet'.

In what manner did the Baptist 'prepare the way for Jesus'? There is another verse in Malachi's prophecy that may shed some light on this question as well. 'He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers' (Mal. 4:6). In other words, John was not merely a baptizer, but a 'heart-changer'. His role was to speak to the heart of the Jewish people so that they would be prepared to 'see' Jesus and be ready to enter the kingdom of God. The fact that several of his disciples 'saw' that Jesus was the Messiah and then left John to follow Jesus, speaks to John's success. Few others, after John's ministry, despite the miracles of Jesus, discerned that Jesus was the Messiah. They could only see him as a miracle worker, a healer, or even a great prophet. Yet, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had come to see Jesus as the promised one.

Curiously, as great as John was and as important his role, there was something even much better prepared for those who would follow Jesus.

28 I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 

How can someone 'not be greater than', yet at the same time 'be greater than' the Baptist?

It all has to do with birth (Jn 3:1-21).

'Among those born of women' refers to our first birth. Yet those who are least in the 'kingdom of God' refers to the second birth. In other words, John was not a born again person since the Spirit had not yet been poured out. Yet, despite that, he was unique among men for his faith in God. No one else had walked with God as faithfully as had John - not Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, or even Daniel. Among all those born of women, no one is greater than John in terms of faithfully fulfilling the will of God in so great a mission.

On the other hand, those who have been born of the Spirit and have entered into the kingdom of God 'are' greater than John. This is true in the sense that they are Spirit-led. John lived under the Law. God spoke to him and he obeyed, fulfilling the OT prophecies about him. Yet Christians, hopefully, have been born again, born of the Spirit, and live under grace. Though we may not have as much faith as John, we have the Spirit abiding within us. In this sense those who walk in the Spirit are greater than those who walk according to the Law. The former hear God's voice from the indwelling Spirit moment by moment, while the latter obey God's will as stated in scripture and/or from a vision. 

It is one thing to imagine God as someplace 'up there', someone we speak to and One who speaks to us through scripture or epiphany. It is another thing altogether to know God personally, to know that God is in us, prompting us moment by moment. It is somewhat like the difference between being the only child in the world who is pen pals with the President of the United States and actually being one of several adopted children of the President.

29 When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. 30 But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John.

We've all heard the idiom, 'he cut off his nose to spite his face'. It seems to fit here when applied to the Pharisees and lawyers. Rather than to acknowledge the amazing grace of God for all people, the Pharisees and lawyers turned away from the very Person who wanted to bless them. Those we 'scapegoat' are often the solution to our problem, the answer to our question, the actual way forward, rather than an obstacle to moving forward. Our stubborn unwillingness to plumb the depths of God's grace leads us away from God and to vilify the very individuals being used by God to open up our hearts to 'something better'. Beware, stubbornness, according to scripture, is a sign that we may be clinging to an idol (1 Sam 15:23; Ps 81:12; Jer 7:24; 13:10).

Luke presented the kingdom of God as the 'justice of God'. Jesus was sent as the great 'equalizer'. In Christ there is no longer a distinction between Jew and Gentile, free and bond, male and female (Gal 3:28). All lives matter. In the kingdom of God we are all one in Christ. Some folks oppose that notion. They must see themselves as better than others in order to feel good about themselves (Lk 18:11).

Paradoxically, living under grace increasingly enables us to see ourselves in every other sinner, yet also to see Christ in every other sinner. The 'least' in the kingdom of God know that they are accepted by Christ 'just as they are', yet may still have a difficult time paying grace forward to everyone else they meet. This is often labeled the 'first naivete'. On the other hand, the 'greatest' in the kingdom of God see Christ in everyone they meet, including those still in the first naivete. They have matured into a stage of spiritual growth that has been called the 'second naivete'.

Kingdom people are never perfectly mature in their knowledge and faith, but they (at least) know whatever their personal sin, their debt has been entirely forgiven through faith in God's grace (Eph 2:8). Those who have not yet entered the kingdom of God still believe they must merit God's acceptance - either by what they do or who they are in pedigree or position. The former leads to an ever more regular Spirit-led life, while the latter leads to a repressive judgmental posture.

Perhaps we should all ask ourselves the question, are we kingdom people? Are we moving from the least to the greatest? Or, are we still, stubbornly, living under the Law instead of living in the Spirit?    

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Luke 7:11-17 From Death to Life

11 Soon afterwards He went to a city called Nain; and His disciples were going along with Him, accompanied by a large crowd. 

Nain is a small Arab village, almost 9 miles southeast of Nazareth, in the province of Galilee. It became a famous place not only because Jesus visited this village, but because this is where, possibly for the first time, he raised a dead man back to life. That being said, this was not the first time the dead were miraculously brought back to life.

Nearby, in the town of Shunem, the prophet Elisha had also raised to life the son of a prominent woman (2 Kgs 4). Later, the double-blessed bones of the deceased Elisha, when touched, reportedly restored life to a dead person (2 Kgs 13). Yet even before Elisha, the prophet Elijah had returned life to the son of a widow from Zarephath - which is a city west of Damascus, now called Sarafand, in Lebanon (1 Kgs 17).

Jesus not only raised the widow's son back to life in Nain, but later, in Galilee, he raised to life the daughter of Jairus (Lk 8), and then Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha from Bethany (Jn 11). Matthew reported that many of the saints were resurrected when Jesus rose himself from the dead (Mt 27). Then, after Christ's ascension, his disciple, Peter, raised Tabitha to life (Acts 9). Finally, the apostle Paul reportedly raised Eutychus to life (Acts 20; 19:11; 2 Cor 12:12).

At first, Jesus' success at raising the dead to life in Nain astonished the people. But, was this a common happening during the time of Jesus' public ministry (Mt 11:5)? Did Jesus as regularly return life to the dead as often as he healed the sick?

Even before his own resurrection, pre-Pentecost, Jesus gave his disciples the authority and power to raise the dead when he sent them out to the surrounding villages (Mt 10:1-8; Lk 9:1-6). Had returning life to the dead become 'old hat' for the disciples as well (Lk 10:17-20)?

All these stories present us with various conundrums. Were these truly resurrections? Is there a difference between restoring life to someone who has died and being resurrected? Were the 'dead' truly dead or had they only experienced near death and had simply been resuscitated (see Jn 11:39)? If they had actually died and were brought back to life, did they all have to die again or were they taken to heaven, like Elijah, at a later time, never experiencing death a second time? The scriptures also tell us that people are destined to 'die once' (Heb 9:27), so when these people were brought back to life, were they given their reward of immortality and incorruptibility at that time (1 Cor 15:54; Mk 12:25) or would they have to die again in order to be resurrected into the spiritual body?

12 Now as He approached the gate of the city, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” 

A woman had already lost both her husband and had then lost her only son. Jesus had surely witnessed scenes like this many times before. Why did this particular case catch his attention and prompt him to respond even though his help was not solicited?

First, we don't know how many times Jesus had previously intervened in such situations. The scriptures tell us that Jesus healed everyone who came to him - sometimes he healed everyone in a particular village (Mt 9:35). Though we assume this was the first time he had restored life to a dead individual since it is the first time such an event was recorded, we actually have no idea if Jesus had done this before or not.

Second, Jesus had just entered this particular city when he encountered the funeral. Did he go to Nain because he knew about this young man's illness? Had the widow sent out friends to look for Jesus to heal her son, but they had no idea where to find him, or by the time they found Jesus it was already too late? On the other hand, had this woman never thought about requesting an intervention from Jesus? Had she ever heard about him before this time?

None of the other gospels include this miracle story. Why did Luke select it? Why did Mark and Matthew not see it as an important story to include? Did they know about it? Surely Levi Matthew, one of the disciples, had been present at the time (Lk 5:27; 6:15).

Remember that Luke wrote this gospel in order to help Theophilus understand who Jesus was. Theophilus probably knew 'about' Jesus, but didn't really 'know' Jesus. Luke seemed to prefer to tell stories that invited Theophilus to capture the heart of Jesus rather than to merely accumulate more facts 'about' him. Thus Luke often revealed the compassionate (Gk. splagchnizomai) heart of Jesus through what Jesus said and did without forcing a conclusion. This, curiously, was the first and only time Luke actually labeled what Jesus felt - 'he felt compassion for her'. Jesus choose to change her sorrow into joy. 

There may be an another reason for Luke's selection of this story. Many people think it is 'too late' for them, and/or that they've done too many bad things to be forgiven. This story screams out - it is never too late. Jesus reached into death and brought this young man back to life. Grace knows no boundaries. It is never too late to know peace and joy.

14 And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” 

While immersed in mourning the loss of her only son, a man walked up to those bearing his coffin and stretched out his hand to touch it. Was this something that was common in their culture? Would family, friends, and neighbors typically reach out to 'touch' a coffin as it was being carried down the street? Or, was this unexpected and even unacceptable behavior?
If the latter, and you were the grieving widow or one of the coffin bearers, what would you have been thinking? How would you have responded?

On on the other hand, they may well have recognized, and as noted above, even anticipated the approaching man as Jesus. If so, they may have halted the procession in order to observe, maybe with hopeful expectation, what Jesus would do. If they had heard that Jesus had raised others from death to life they would certainly have desired the same grace. If they had only heard that Jesus was a great healer, would they have hoped he could do much more, as had both Elijah and Elisha?

I imagine that a hush came over the crowd. Then they heard the Healer say, 'arise'. Did he really have the power to resurrect the dead? If so, had God given him the authority to raise her specific deceased son to life?

Hadn't the Lord promised through both the prophet Jeremiah that He would to 'turn their mourning into joy', and through the prophet Isaiah that He would 'comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting' (Jer 31:13; Is 61:2,3)? 

Note: there are many promises in the scriptures that we love to cling to, but soon discover that they are not automatically fulfilled for every person, in every time of need. To have faith in God is to not only believe in 'what' he can do, but to trust in his wisdom to do things in his time and way. 

15 The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. 

As mentioned in the previous story (Lk 7:1-10), Jesus merely needed to 'say the word' and whatever he commanded, immediately and obediently took place. The weather obeyed. The demons obeyed. Sickness obeyed. Even the dead obeyed. Clearly this was not about physically being able to hear the voice of Jesus. Weather, viruses, and deceased human being do not 'hear'. Jesus, as did Elijah and Elisha, spoke to something else. They all spoke to the that which creates life. We could say that they spoke to the Creator, but Jesus himself was the Creator (Col 1:16,17). So, Elijah and Elisha may have spoken to the Son of God. Then who did Jesus speak to? Perhaps he spoke to the whatever creative force or energy that operates in the universe and commanded it to operated in the way he designed.

Of course man folks do not accept these miracle stories. Do you believe that these miracles actually occurred or do you think these stories are simply legends that developed decades after Jesus? Let's pause for a moment and imagine this miracle, of raising the dead to life, as falling into the legend category. How might this story have served the early church as a metaphor, rather than as having literally happened? What if first century Christians intentionally created these stories as vehicles to transmit an important truth? Is the truth that Jesus could restore life to the dead, or is it something else?

What if we are 'dead' to the world around us? What if our loved ones grieve over us - over the fact that we have given up hope in this life? What if we have become so depressed that we no longer care about anything or anybody? Then, what if someone comes into your presence and 'touches' you - speaking words that restore hope into your heart and embraces you 'just as you are'? What if the love you experience is so amazing that you feel 'born anew'? Is the point of this story that people like Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, and the apostles could restore life to the dead, or is the main point that followers of God have great compassion for people who are suffering loss?

Love for others restores life to those who are 'dead' in spirit.

16 Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” 

If you have been following along in Luke's self-described, chronological gospel, you might have been surprised at the response noted here in verse 16. Jesus had already been healing folks throughout Galilee (Lk 4:36,37; 40; 5:15-17, 24-26; 6:17-19; 7:10). His ability to heal was not something newly discovered by the people. They had, as Luke wrote, already been 'amazed' at his 'remarkable' power. They had, as noted again in this verse, previously glorified God because of Jesus. They had even been struck with fear once before when Jesus healed the paralytic (Lk 5:26). In other words, the people in Galilee were familiar with the works of Jesus.

Was the raising of the young man back to life that singularly awesome to them? If so, why did they consider Jesus a 'great prophet' rather than the Messiah, as had his twelve chosen disciples? Why didn't the disciples of Jesus also just assume Jesus was a 'great prophet'? How did they so quickly conclude he was the Messiah, even before he had effected great miracles? What had they noticed about Jesus? Had the miracles of Jesus become a distraction from the heart of Jesus?

The Jews knew the stories about the two 'great prophets' - Elijah and Elisha - both of whom had also restored life to dead people. Perhaps the ancient stories had primed them to label Jesus as a 'great prophet', distracting them from imagining any further - that Jesus could be the Messiah. God had, they assumed,  again 'visited His people' just as He had through Elijah and Elisha centuries before. No more, no less. In other words, sometimes what we know can blind us from seeing what is (Jn 4:48; Mt 24:24).

As asked previously, why did Luke add this story to his gospel? It is not found in any of the other gospel accounts. This miracle did not prove that Jesus was the Messiah, but merely convinced the people of Galilee that Jesus was possibly a 'great prophet'. Was Luke, cleverly suggesting that Jesus' power to work great miracles was not proof that he was the Messiah, that maybe there was something more important about Jesus that Theophilus should see?

If ancient prophets, and later the apostles of Jesus, could perform these same miracles - including raising the dead back to life - then, obviously, miracle working is not specific to the Messiah. In other words, was Luke instructing Theophilus not to jump to conclusions simply because he may witness supernatural manifestations of power. This is a good lesson for all of us (Rev 13:13,14; Lk 17:20,21). 

Why didn't Jesus simply confess from the beginning of his public ministry that he was, in fact, the long awaited Messiah? Luke had already revealed to Theophilus his belief that Jesus was the Messiah (Lk 2:11). He had also mentioned that the people in Jerusalem had wondered if John the Baptist was the Messiah, which tells us that the people - at least in Judea - had Messianic expectations (Lk 3:15). In fact, according to John's gospel, Andrew had told his brother Peter that he had found the Messiah - specifically that Jesus was the Messiah (Jn 1:41). Even so, Jesus had forbidden the demons from revealing that he was the Christ (Lk 4:41). Curiously, it isn't until later that Luke tell us Jesus asked his disciples who they believed him to be. They responded by confessing their belief that he was the promised Messiah. Yet, even then, Luke told Theophilus that Jesus forbade his twelve disciples from telling others this truth (Lk 9:20,21).

What was Luke up to in all this? Why was he, as did Mark, presenting Jesus as one who chose to keep secret the fact that he was the promised Messiah?

17 This report concerning Him went out all over Judea and in all the surrounding district.

Good news travels fast. Bad new seems to travel even faster. But news about the supernatural travels like lightning.

How likely are you to report bad news vs good news? Are your more or less likely to publicly share a supernatural experience? How long does it take for all your friends and family to learn something new about you? How has the internet and the cell phone influenced the kind of things that you share with others? Are you more or less likely to share an experience now than, say, before the internet existed? If less inclined, why? Do the things people present on social media help you know their heart or are they distractions from the person you know them to really be? In other words, are the things we post projections of who we are or are they defensive in nature, obscuring (intentionally or not) who we are?

In what way were Luke's story selections not only chosen to inform Theophilus about what Jesus did, but also to help him to know the heart of Jesus?

It is interesting that this incident occurred in Nain which was in the province of Galilee, yet Luke noted that the report traveled all over Judea. In this case, note that Judea refers to all the land of the Jews, not merely the province of Judea (Lk 23:5).