Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Luke 4:31-37 I Know Who You Are

31 And He came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and He was teaching them on the Sabbath; 32 and they were amazed at His teaching, for His message was with authority. 

The people from the synagogue in Nazareth made it abundantly clear that they did not want to see him again. So, Jesus taught at other synagogues in Galilee. Jesus did not force himself on to people who did not want him. Love does not use force, which is a good reminder for all of us. If someone, or a group of people, says 'don't bother me', then we should not bother them. Sadly, many who peddle their religion door-to-do have not learned this lesson from Jesus. They ignore 'No Trespassing and No Soliciting' signs, effectively preaching an 'anti-Christ' message through their non-Christlike behavior.

Jesus spoke with authority regarding the scriptures. Notice, he was not speaking with authority against the government. Far too often Christian attempt to make government subject to the church, whereas the apostle Paul reminded Christians that we are to be in subjection to the governing authorities (Rom 13:1). Religion does not have authority over the government. That, God reminds us, is His responsibility, not the responsibility of the church. The church, following Jesus, is to speak authoritatively to 'believers' about what God is saying to the church. God's message to believers is to receive his grace and to then love your neighbors. Let's not waver on 'that' message. Let's speak authoritatively about grace, love, hope, and faith. Let's leave politics up to God.

33 In the synagogue there was a man possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 

Luke didn't include an appendix to his gospel that defined the various terms he used. As he did not precisely define the word 'devil', nor discuss how the devil came to exist, he did not define the term 'unclean demon' or the origins of demons. In other words, Luke assumed that his first century readers would have the same definitions as he did for these words/terms. But do we have the same definitions, today, in the 21st century? If we could sit down with Luke and place our definitions for the 'devil' and for 'demon' side by side, would they agree? If we discussed our beliefs on the origin of the devil and of demons, would we come to the same conclusions?

The point is that we need to be careful not to be anachronistic in our reading of scripture. We can't impose our 21st century definitions on 1st century words if we are genuinely trying to understand what the intentions of a first century author, such as Luke, had in mind. We must therefore seek to learn as much about their thinking 'then' as we can and not merely assume that our definitions are the same as theirs. (Examples

We could, from our modern perspective, conclude that the man had simply shouted something inappropriate for the setting, as a congressman recently did when he shouted out 'liar' in reference to the president. The congressman 'held' (possessed) onto an strongly motivating idea (spirit) that he believed came from a superior power (demon), yet it was inappropriate/immoral (unclean) in the circumstance he was in. Strongly held ideas can motivate us to act. If our idea is wrong, then our action will be wrong. To those who believed similarly, they may had merely considered the congressman's shout as 'inappropriate'. To those who did not believe as the congressman, his remark was viewed as 'crazy'. Perspective and circumstance make a difference in our interpretations.

That being said, from Luke's cultural perspective the man in the synagogue was not merely inappropriate, nor crazy. Luke concluded that an evil spirit had entered into the man and had controlled the man's speaking. The remainder of this account exploits that belief. For us, we need to remember that Luke wrote decades after the experience, and took this story from compilations made by others. In other words, what Luke presents next is as accurate as possible to the facts as reported at the time, 'facts' that were understood through the lens of first century cultural belief.

Why is this important? Yesterday young people in Baltimore MD burned down buildings, set cars on fire, and threw rocks at policemen. Those are the indisputable facts. Yet, different groups of people interpreted these same facts very differently. These young people were labeled by some folks as criminals, thugs. Others labeled them as justifiably angry high school students who were merely venting their frustrations at injustice. Some said, 'arrest them all and lock them up', while others said, 'let them go home to their parents'. Which interpretation of the same facts is correct? Were these merely protesters or rioters, frustrated children or gangsters? 

Was the man in the temple actually possessed or merely protesting?

34 “Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” 

35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in the midst of the people, he came out of him without doing him any harm. 

36 And amazement came upon them all, and they began talking with one another saying, “What is this message? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits and they come out.” 

37 And the report about Him was spreading into every locality in the surrounding district.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Luke 4:14-30 Home Is Where...

14 And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all. 16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 

Having settled the issue about Who had his heart, Jesus was fully ready to minister to his neighbors. He made it clear that he would rather die than to speak or act without the approval of God, his Father. That is the most important qualification of any religious teacher. In other words, book knowledge isn't adequate. We may have learned what is good, but if we trust in our own understanding we are not wise (Prv 3:5-7). Even a good act can become a wrong act if it is not a Spirit-led act. Scripture by itself isn't, Jesus revealed, a sufficient guide for the believer (Lk 4:12).

There isn't any genuine obedience to the second great commandment if we are sloppy with the first. The first great command doesn't say, 'be sure to love God with the majority of your heart...' If God has not been given 'all' your heart, you will not have a Spirit-led heart. Rather, 'in all your ways acknowledge Him'. Without being Spirit-led, our ministry to others will be wrongly motivated and will send a mixed message to the world about our belief in God.

That being said, the issue here is not perfection, but heart intent. No one knows their own heart 100 percent. We are only asked to give to God what we know to give and to be open to the Spirit who will reveal more of our heart motivations as we grow in Christ. We will always be a work in progress.

Jesus was not only Spirit-led into the wilderness to be tempted, he was then Spirit-led back to Galilee to teach the people. Note, the Spirit led him to begin his ministry among those right in front of him - 'where he had been brought up'. Also, the Spirit led him to begin his ministry within the 'customs' of his people. In other words, the ministry of Jesus met the people where the people were - in Nazareth, on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, and with the scriptures they valued. There was nothing that any member of Nazareth could do to make themselves unworthy of Jesus' love - except to reject his love.

17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed, 19 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.’ 20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 

In the city of Nazareth (Pop. 20,000?) there was at least one synagogue (assembly). A synagogue could be established wherever 10 or more men would gather. It is said that Jerusalem may have had up to 400 synagogues during the time of Jesus. The synagogue in Nazareth that Jesus attended had a written copy of the OT scroll of Isaiah. Jesus was handed a copy of at least one portion of Isaiah. He obviously was literate and familiar enough with the Septuagint version of the book of Isaiah to 'find' the text(s) he was either asked to read or the one(s) he had chosen to read.

Why does Luke's rendering of the text (Lk 4:18,19) not match up with Isaiah 61:1,2? Some have explained it by citing the Jewish practice called 'the string of pearls', where parts of several important texts are 'strung' together. In this case Jesus might have used phrases taken from several sources (Is 42:7; 58:6; 61:1,2). Whether or not this was his choice or a set reading given to him, we don't know.

It would seem odd, during that period of Jewish history, for a predetermined reading of Isaiah, to have omitted the rest of what we call verse 2 of Is. 61. "...and the day of vengeance of our God." Was that really not in the set cyclic reading or did Jesus decide not to read that part of the verse? If he chose not to, why? Did he understand the different tasks associated with his 'first' and second coming? 

Jesus identified himself as the Messiah. He therefore believed that he had been filled with the Spirit, anointed, and called to preach the 'good news'. What is the 'good news'? The text(s) from which Jesus read, spells it out. First, his preaching would be to all who suffered 'lack' (Lk 6:20). 'Lack' was not merely the absence of money, food, and/or clothing. 'Lack' included: any kind of captivity, blindness, or oppression. The subsequent ministry of Jesus reveals his interpretation of what it meant to 'preach the gospel' and what he considered a 'lack'. We might therefore conclude that 'lack' could be spiritual, emotional, or physical (Lk 4:40-44; 5:29-32; 6:39-46; 7:22).

The disciples of Jesus were to inaugurate a time of Jubilee within the world. Those who follow his teachings today are to continue their work.

21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” 

This is another odd statement. 'Today', said Jesus, 'this scripture' - (Is 61:1,2?) - 'has been fulfilled' (Gk. pleroo - accomplished, complete, filled, finished), 'in your hearing'. What, exactly, was fulfilled on that day?

If we understand Luke 4:18,19 to mean the miracles of healing that Jesus would do during his public ministry or the deliverance we all will have at his second coming, then verse 21 would not make any sense. Jesus told the Jews in the synagogue that the scripture he read to them from Isaiah was fulfilled that very same day in their hearing, yet his work was not finished that day. It just began.

The key to grasping this text is the phrase, 'in your hearing'. 'What' was it that they were hearing that day? They were hearing the words of Isaiah 61:1,2a being read to them. 'What' did Isaiah say? He said, 'The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring...'  'Who' was the one reading those words? It was, of course, Jesus. It was not what he would 'do' that was fulfilled that day, but the fact that he was the 'person' that Isaiah 61:1 was referring to. 'What' was fulfilled was the 'Who' of Isaiah 61:1.

In other words, Jesus the Person is the gospel, the One that binds up the brokenhearted, brings liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners. Our deliverance is not 'what' He does in binding and liberating, but in 'Who' He is. All that He may 'do' for us is but a token of 'Who' he must 'be' to us. If your faith is in the Person rather than in the miracles performed by the Person, then you are free indeed no matter what this existence throws at you. Trusting Him 'today' with all your heart makes all the difference in the world. If your hope is merely focused on 'what' He could 'do' for you rather than 'who' he is 'to' you, then maybe you've missed the point.

The Jews wondered, 'how could the supposed son of Joseph be the anointed One, their hope?' If you truly are the Anointed One, they said, then prove it. What we really want is 'what' you can 'do', not 'You'. That distinction lead them astray.

23 And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” 24 And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. 

Jesus knew why the worshippers at the synagogue invited him to read the scriptures. They had heard what he had 'done at Capernaum' and they wanted the same 'good works' done for them in Nazareth - his own 'hometown'. Sadly, they wanted the 'product', not the 'Person', which Jesus pointed out to them in verse 24. He, the 'Person', was not welcome in his own hometown unless he was willing to give them the same 'product' he had delivered in Capernaum. Yet, in Capernaum Jesus the Person had been received by faith.

Practically speaking, what does it mean to 'welcome the Prophet' vs to 'demand the product'? Where do you place your hope? Is your hope merely in the 'things' God can do for you, as if Jesus was a 'good works dispensing Santa Claus'? Faith in the Person of Christ means trusting in him even to the point of death. It means accepting suffering and loss if that is what you are called into. It means 'not' rejecting the existence of God simply because your current experience in life is not pleasant.

The people of Nazareth were determined to weigh Jesus in the scales of their judgment by what he did or did not 'do' for them. The saying, 'familiarity breed contempt', seems to express the point of this story. That was implicit is the quote from verse 22, 'is this not Joseph's son?' In other words they were saying, 'we already know you. We know your family. We know how you grew up. We know that you are just one of us, one like us, so we know that there isn't anything special about you. You can't really be the Messiah. On the other hand, if you can do magic for us, we are all ears.'

What are your motives for believing in God? Is the motive for your belief based on receiving a payoff - either in this life or in the life to come? That being said, are you willing to worship a God who only grants you a 'payoff' in the next life, yet permits you to suffer in this life? Or, is the motive for your worship based only on the fact that He is our Creator and deserves our worship - whatever this life or the next might present to us?

If we don't love God unconditionally, then it is unlikely that we will love our neighbors unconditionally. If we can't trust God with our whole heart, how can we ever hope others will trust our heart? If we doubt God's grace, we are far less apt to take the risk of extending grace to our neighbors. We will be afraid that associating with our neighbors might somehow taint us, which in turn might jeopardize our standing with God. Only as we have settled into trusting God with all that we are and have, are we truly free to love others as they need to be loved. 

25 But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; 26 and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 

According to Luke, Jesus presented God's grace as indiscriminately offered, yet received only by those who placed their faith in God. In other words, God loves all people, yet he does not force his love upon anyone who does not choose to receive it. Force is the antithesis of love. Both the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian leper chose to receive God's gift through faith, as had the folks in Capernaum. On the other hand, the people of Nazareth wanted the gifts without placing faith in Jesus - simply because they knew Jesus ever since he was a child. It is often easier to place faith in someone we don't know than to place our faith in someone we think we know.

Grace is always unmerited favor, yet what God seeks to offer to humanity because of his grace, can only be received through the avenue of faith. Without faith it is impossible to 'please' Him.

For example, I love my three sons unconditionally and because of my love for them I want to give them many things that I believe would really be of benefit to them. Yet, they are not always open to what I want to give them. I understand that they may not always see benefit in what I have to offer, yet I am sometimes saddened that I cannot do for them what I would like to do. There is nothing wrong with my love for them. There is nothing holding back my willingness to give everything I have to them - except for their choices not to receive what I have. Out of respect for my children I do not force them to receive my gifts. I wait for them to decide if and when they are ready to receive. Meanwhile, my gifts remain free for the taking.

The Jubilee that Jesus inaugurated was the age of grace. Grace is universal acceptance. Everyone is loved just as they are. The proverbial slate is wiped clean and kept clean (Heb 8:12; 10:10-18). As Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary without her choice and despite her imperfections, So the grace of God has been conceived in our world as the gift of God. When the apostle Paul tried to imagine the height and depth, length and breath of God's love as found in His grace, he concluded that all things must therefore be permissible (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23). Therefore Paul wrote that he 'died to the law' (Rom 7:4; Gal 2:19), that the law was 'a curse' (Gal 3:10), and that he was no longer 'under the law' (Gal 5:18). What was the foundation of the law? The ten commandments (Dt 4:13; Rom 7:7; 1 Cor 15:56). Where there is no law, there is no violation (Rom 4:15; 5:13). We have been redeemed from the curse of the law (Gal 3:13). We are no longer under law, but under grace (Rom 6:14). But the other side of this is the next phrase, 'not all things edify'. Love for others is the law of Christ. Through faith in Christ we enter the new covenant of grace and become Spirit-led. The Spirit teaches us, in every unique time and place, how to love in a manner that edifies.

28 And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; 29 and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, He went His way.

If this wasn't so sad, it might be funny. The setting is a place of worship and scripture study. The person speaking was not only one of their own, a Nazarene, but also the very One they have been hoping for, the Messiah. Jesus accurately described their hearts. They denied what he said was true, then they proceeded to behave in a manner that gave indisputable evidence that what He said was in fact true. The One they saw as their 'problem' was the 'solution' to their problem. The end of the matter was that they excommunicated, expelled, and even attempted to execute Jesus.

What happens in the human mind that causes us to reject the things we want the most, to strike the one who loves us most, and to become the character we hate the most? How does an innocent child grow into such an inhumane, closed minded, self-destructive beast? Who taught them (us?) to call evil, good; black, white; wrong, right; and fiction, fact? When and where did they begin to slide down the steep path to destruction?

Who were they saying 'no' to? Who were they actively casting out of their lives? The One they attempted to 'throw off the cliff' was the Creator, Savior, Messiah, Prophet, Priest, and King. He was a descendent of Abraham and David, a immaculately conceived child of Mary, the Son of the God of Israel, the Great Physician with the gift of healing, and a lifelong citizen of their city.

Were the brothers and sisters, his mother, and other relatives of Jesus present on that day? Were any of them participants in their hometown, wholesale rejection of their homeboy?

But all this was them, then, and not us, today - right? So, how can we avoid becoming 'them'? How can we not be what they became? Or, how can we know if we are already 'them' and if so, how can we change direction and cease being an enemy of love?

The last question is this, are you 'throwing Jesus off the cliff'?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Luke 4:1-13 Devil Tested

1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. 

Jesus was a type of Israel. He was not only sent to redeem the people of Israel from sin, but to redeem the nation of Israel from its failures. When Moses led Israel into the wilderness for 40 years, their rebellion was punished by not permitting them to cross over the Jordan and into the promised land. In these two verses we find Jesus, new Israel, in the wilderness for 40 days, yet without rebellion.

As God led Israel into the wilderness, the Spirit also led Jesus into the wilderness. As ancient Israel faced temptations in the wilderness, so did Jesus. Yet, where ancient Israel failed, Jesus succeeded.

In a similar way, each individual who is delivered from captivity through faith, is then tested in the wilderness of life. We are led by the Spirit, yet tempted by the devil. The hunger that Jesus endured in the wilderness symbolize the various sufferings we all must endure in this life. Suffering, though, is not an excuse for jettisoning faith. It is a time for greater faith. As noted with John the Baptist, faith in God is not deliverance from temptation and/or suffering. Rather, faith in God's never ceasing love for us shines most brightly when we suffer.

Suffering exposes faith wrongly placed.

3 And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” 

Luke has already given us an idea of how the Spirit speaks and acts in a believer's life. For John, enabling him to prepare people to receive Jesus (Lk 1:17), for Mary, enabling her to conceive and raise Jesus (Lk 1:35), for Zacharias, enabling him to prophesy about the coming Savior (Lk 1:67), for Simeon, enabling him to live long enough to see and to hold the Messiah (Lk 2:25-27), and for Jesus, enabling him to baptize believers with the Spirit and to demonstrate a Spirit-led life (Lk 3:16; 4:1). Our loving God knows how to lead and empower the life of a believer, thus the church is called to be a Spirit-led rather than self-led people.

Similarly, Luke spoke about how angels of God operate in a believer's life. For Zacharias, the angel delivered Good News and disciplined him (Lk 1:11-20). For Mary, the angel also delivered Good News (Lk 1:26-37). For the shepherds, the angel delivered Good News (Lk 2:9-14). The angels of God inform us that God is real, God is good, and that we find true freedom in letting God lead us through His Spirit.

Yet, in this particular passage Luke introduced us to another powerful 'force' within our mortal realm - the devil. Luke, wisely, did not explain the origin of the devil, rather he simply assumed that his readers were familiar with the existence of 'the devil' and proceeded to illustrate how the devil operated in the world in contrast to the way God works in our world.

The devil, according to Luke's account, attempts to create doubt about God's love and ability to assist believers. The devil attempts to install doubt about the Good News of Jesus and to distract believers from following the Spirit. Doubt has a healthy place in the life of a believer, yet doubt about God's love for us often leads us to think, speak, and act apart from the guidance of the Spirit. Luke had already discussed the difference between the doubt of faith, as with Mary (Lk 1:34-38), and the doubt of faithlessness, as with the Temple priest Zacharias (Lk 1:18). The believer should 'doubt' any suggestions that tempts us to not trust God. The believer should 'doubt' any invitations to act on our own apart from God.

God meets us where we are in order to build us up. The devil also meets us where we are, yet to destroy our faith in God. When the devil approached Jesus, he waited until Jesus was exhibiting a human weakness. In this case, Jesus was very hungry after 40 days of fasting. The devil tailored his first temptation to Jesus' physical weakness, yet he did not tempt Jesus with a buffet of incredible foods and drinks. Rather, he used the absence of food and drink to plant doubt in Jesus' mind about being Spirit-led. He encouraged Jesus to use his own power to satisfy his own need. 'If' you have the power to turn a stone into bread, the devil chided, do for yourself what you are fully capable of doing. The temptation wasn't so much for Jesus to doubt 'who' he was, but to doubt his need to wait upon the Spirit.

In other words, Jesus' life and teaching was all about listening to and obeying his Father's will (Jn 5:30). The devil wanted Jesus to act on his own behalf, to satisfy his own needs without consulting with the Spirit. God had announced that He was well pleased with Jesus, because Jesus always chose to be Spirit-led. The Spirit had led him into the wilderness to fast. Even though Jesus had the power to satisfy his hunger he would not utilize his own power apart from the Spirit's direction. His response to the devil's temptation was, 'man shall not life on bread alone' - which was to say, he would rather die of hunger than to act on his own apart from the Father's will as conveyed through the Spirit. This was the way Jesus had always lived, the way Jesus began his public ministry, and would be the way Jesus went to the cross. When he was invited to use his own power to remove himself from the cross, he chose to die rather than to act contrary to the will of the Father.

5 And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 And the devil said to Him, “I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. 7 Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’” 

In this second temptation, at least as Luke wrote the account, the devil presented himself as the undisputed ruler of this world. He assumed that could delegate rulership over this world to anyone he chose to. Since it was handed over to him, by Adam's failure, he could therefore hand it over to anyone else he wished. Jesus claimed to be the true ruler of this world, the One sent to redeem it from the usurper, the devil. Yet, Jesus chose not to obtain his prize by any means other than through the means determined by his Father. He would not 'gain the whole world, yet lose his own soul'. 

Though Luke did not reveal the origins of the devil, he does present us with some of the characteristics of the devil. So far we know that the devil confronts human beings, speaks to them in a way they can 'hear', is intelligent enough to tempt and deceive people, can physically move human beings to someplace other than where they were, and can give human beings a vision. He can do all that without our permission. 

It would be a really scary thought if the devil, as Luke presented him, could make me see a vision without my permission, transport me someplace against my will, and confront and deceive me any time he chose - most likely when I'm at my weakest. If he could do this with Jesus, why not with any other human being? But is that true? If it was true then, is it still true now?

Was this world really 'handed over' to the devil? If so, when and by whom? Does the devil still have the same power that he once had during Jesus' time? If not, what happened to make the change? How much changed?

The NT scriptures tell us that the devil is still the devil (Jn 8:44; 2 Tim 2:26; 1 Pet 5:8), yet he no longer has unfettered access to people of faith unless that person chooses to invite the devil into his/her life (Eph 4:27; 1 Tim 5:15), though he remains powerful (2 Cor 11:14; 1 Th 2:18). The devil is also known as the dragon, Satan, and the serpent (Rev 20:2). At the cross, the devil was defeated as the undisputed ruler of this world (Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8). Those who follow Christ are given spiritual armor that protects them from the devil and his temptations (Eph 6:11; Jas 4:7). That armor is faith and trust in God (Mk 8:33). God may, of course, in his wisdom, permit the devil to bring suffering into our life (Rev 2:10), but this is only at God's discretion, not the devil's (Lk 22:31). The devil can set traps for us to act apart from the Spirit, as he tried to do with Jesus, but he cannot give us visions or physically control us without either our permission or God's. In other words, Christ not only destroyed the work of the devil in our life (Jesus covers our sins with his blood), but also foils the devil at his game by sending his Spirit to live and guide us from the heart.

Curiously, in one sense of the word, we can say that Jesus is a 'satan' to Satan. Satan means adversary, one who obstructs the way.

9 And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here; 10 for it is written, ’He will command His angels concerning You to guard You,’ 11 and, ’On their hands they will bear You up, So that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’” 

Another 'if'. The devil wasn't trying to elicit doubt in Jesus' mind about his identity, rather to encourage Jesus to act independently from the Father. Many, like the devil in this account, encourage us to know and to be faithful to our own identity - to have self-esteem. Christians, though, value having Christ-esteem. Their decisions are not based on what may be good for their health, or useful to their career goals, or be consistent with their tribal interpretations of scripture. Instead, their decisions are based on the Spirit's 'word', timing, interpretation, and application.

The first temptation was to provide for himself, the second to take a short-cut to his purpose, and this third temptation was exercise reckless faith. These were three key areas where Jesus could be tempted to act on his own rather than to be Spirit-led. If we belong to Christ, we will be Spirit-led (Rom 8:9), not flesh-led, career-led, or culture-led. Being Spirit-led is not merely about doing good, but doing good at the right time, in the right way, in the right place, and in harmony with the right Spirit.

The devil quoted scripture in this temptation. This is another reminder that our decisions cannot be made simply by determining if something is scriptural. Obedience to scripture is not equivalent to being Spirit-led. The gestalt of scripture as a whole is to be Spirit-led. Without being Spirit-led we can only lead a proof-texted life. Jesus knew the difference. Do we?

12 And Jesus answered and said to him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

Jesus' response to the devil came from Dt 6:16. The command, 'you shall not put the Lord your God to the test', refers to a specific time and place: '...as you tested Him at Massah.' The incident at Massah can be read in Ex 17:1-7. Curiously, the 'sons of Israel' complained to Moses about not having enough water to drink. Moses' response was, 'why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord.' But the people continued to complain, because they continued to be thirsty, so Moses took their complaints to the Lord. The Lord responded to the complaints by having Moses strike the rock with his staff. Miraculously, water flowed from the rock and Israel's thirst was satisfied. Their 'testing' of God could be found in their question, 'Is the Lord among us, or not?' If so, shouldn't God be providing us with the basics required for life? In other words, if a loving, all-powerful God really exists, then we should not be suffering. Sound familiar?

Though Deuteronomy turned the very human complaint of the people into a spiritually bad thing (Dt 9:22), the Lord did 'hear' the cry of His people and responded. In other words, in Ex 17 God did not destroy or punish his people for wanting water, rather he satisfied their need. So, why did the Lord answer the request of his people, then rebuke them for making the request?

Ps 95 offers an explanation. Those who complained about being thirsty had questioned the very existence of God among them. True, they were legitimately suffering thirst, but they permitted their present suffering to become the evidence that God did not exist despite all the miracles he had performed for them earlier. The point is that God permitted suffering to 'test' the heart of His people, whether or not they would - based on their previous experience with God - trust in Him regardless of their suffering. His people, though, decided to test God's love for them based on whether or not He would keep them from all suffering at all times.

The devil tempted Jesus to use scripture apart from God's will - to turn rocks into bread. Jesus could have. And, sure, God can and did bring water from out of a rock as He did at Rephidim, but the point is not what God 'can' do. Rather, the real point is whether we will faithfully trust in God even unto death? Do we use our circumstances as proof that God does not exist or, regardless of our circumstances, do we make known our requests, yet trust in God's unfailing love for us whatever His response, even if it is to suffer?

How, then, should we understand Ps 34, especially verse 8, in the light of this discussion? How are we to 'taste and see that the Lord is good' without actually 'testing' God? If the answer is that we should not intentionally, presumptuously, place ourselves in danger merely so see if God will deliver us, then how do we square that with Dt 17:1-7? Israel had not placed themselves in a state of thirst in order to test God. They did not presume that God would protect them no matter what they chose to do. So, the issue is not merely one of presumption, as implied in Luke 4:12.

Hebrews 11:13 sheds some light on this issue. 'All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.' The point is that God may or may not deliver us from suffering in this life, but He does deliver us. By faith we 'taste and see that the Lord is good', we 'test' God, yet without questioning His love or presence, regardless of our situation. If our deliverance from suffering is not in the here and now, then we trust that it is 'distant' - in the life to come. The answer to the theodicy question (how can there be a good God AND the existence of evil) is, from the Christian perspective, faith. We will not understand many things in this life, but we trust that God has a purpose for all that we are experiencing, no matter how difficult our suffering. We cling to the promise of life after this life.

God brought Israel out of Egypt and into Rephidim, according to scripture, to 'test' their hearts, not to be tested by them. The existence of evil tests our faith in God. Do we trust in God, no matter what, or not? Israel failed God's 'test' despite the many explicit evidences He had already given to them of His presence. But, to us since the resurrection, Jesus says, 'blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed' (Jn 20:29).  

13 When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.

The end result of the account was that Jesus trusted his life in the hands of the Father 'no matter what'. Jesus knew that the Spirit had led him into the wilderness and had permitted him to be tempted by the devil after having not eaten for 40 days. He also knew that the Spirit would continue to guide him in the Father's time and manner. His trust in the Father was not shaken by his sufferings. He didn't permit the use of any particular scripture to tempt him away from the larger message of scripture - to love God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. His faith and trust in God was not determined by his circumstances. Rather, the way he handled each circumstance was determined by his faith and trust in God.

Having passed the 'test' of Who ruled his heart, Jesus went forth to reveal his heart in obedience to the second great commandment, to love his neighbor. Whenever we are undecided on who has our heart, our love for others will be compromised. When we see folks being cruel to others, it is clear that they have not yet settled the issue about 'faith in God', regardless of their professions of faith. A heart divided will always be a heart that can't love others.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Luke 3:18-38 From John to Jesus

Note: Xaris will NOT be meeting at the Good Cup this weekend (April 11th), but WILL meet at the Colburn home. Need directions, call.

18 So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people. 

What was the 'good news' that John preached to the people? From Luke's perspective the 'gospel' (good news; glad tidings) was any message that in some way pointed to Jesus. Luke used this same word, (Gk 'euaggalizo'), to describe Gabriel's message to Zechariah (1:19) and his words to the shepherds (2:10), and would use it many times regarding the teachings of Jesus as He pointed to Himself as God's solution to man's sin (4:18; 43, etc.). In other words, anything that points to Jesus - whether in part or in whole - is good news.

Luke did not record the 'many other' exhortations by which John 'preached the gospel'. John most likely had a number of things to say about the coming kingdom of God. Yet the core teachings of John included: to 'repent', be 'baptized' (3:3), and to 'bear fruit' that was consistent with having become a recipient of God's grace (3:8). In other words, the most important element of John's gospel was the preparation of the heart for the reception of the Messiah.

If John had already lead the people to repent and to live 'fruitful' lives, why was a Messiah necessary? What more could the Messiah do for the people than John appears to have accomplished?

Luke tells us that John merely 'prepared' their hearts, but he had no power to change their hearts. He 'appealed' to their hearts, offered a symbolic 'water baptism', and then described what a transformed life might look like, but that was all he could do. They needed Jesus and subsequently the gift of the Spirit in order to actually live like Kingdom people.

In other words, we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Even if we know 'what' it means to 'bear fruit in keeping with repentance', the 'knowing' is not the same as the ability to 'do'. John could only describe what needed to happen and encourage the people to be willing to 'let' it happen, but he was unequipped to effect heart transformation. He could only call attention to the problem and point to Jesus as the solution. The people could only 'do' what they were told to do (Lk 3:11-14), but this would only be incomplete, superficial, 'legal' obedience until they experienced the transformational power of the indwelling Spirit.

The Messiah was the means through which God's grace was made available. The Messiah would then send the Spirit to empower the people to live 'fruitful' lives, to lead them from conforming to an external Law-commanded righteousness, to an internally mentored Spirit-led life (Rom 8:11). The 'good news' always points away from a Law-based life to a Person-based life. The gospel points us away from a relationship with the dead letter of the Law, to a relationship with the resurrected, living Person - Jesus.

19 But when Herod the tetrarch was reprimanded by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the wicked things which Herod had done, 

'But...' No matter how faithful we are to God's calling, evil continues to confront us. Jesus came face to face with evil on numerous occasions and finally at the cross. John encountered the presence of evil as well. In other words, whether or not one follows Christ, evil will follow us and attempt to destroy us. There is no escape from evil in this world. Neither 'being' good and/or 'doing' good protects us from that which is bad.

On the other hand, we know that 'if God is for us, who can really be against us?' Moreover, 'nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:28-39). How can these promises be true when evil is part of our reality each day?

God is certainly able to keep evil away from us. In fact, God may be intervening to keep evil from hurting us many times each day in ways that we are unaware of. Yet, God does not always keep evil from touching the life of a believer. Truth be told, it is not the mortal life of a believer that is protected from the forces of evil. Rather it is the love of God for mortal man that remains untouched by the power of the evil one.

In other words, if our faith demands that God must keep us from all suffering in this world, then our faith will be shaken, since evil will strike us no matter how much faith we have. If, though, our faith is in God's love for us and his promise to never leave us regardless of the sufferings we must endure in this life, then we will remain full of hope and experience a wonderful peace despite the work of evil in and around us.

Good and faithful John confronted the evil being practiced by Herod. Herod responded with more evil. God did not protect his servant from the wrath of Herod. On the other hand, God 'did' buoy up the faith of John despite the sufferings he had to endure. God was with him to the end. There was nothing that Herod or the Devil could do to John that could break God's love for John. John was faithful to God regardless of what life threw at him. As Jesus was faithful unto death upon the cross, so was John faithful unto death.

Is that our kind of faith? Do we measure God's love for us by how well we are protected from suffering or do we simply hold to His love for us despite what we must endure in this life?

20 Herod also added this to them all: he locked John up in prison. 

As has been true throughout history, and particularly during the first century, religious freedom and freedom of speech were not valued or protected. Despite that fact, John condemned the perverse behavior of Herod. Herod dealt with John's rebuke by locking John up in prison. In contrast, today in the US, we hear wild, mean-spirited, and crazy accusations being made against our president and even against various church leaders, yet no one is arrested. No one is jailed. Why? We are, for the most part, free to believe what we want to believe and to say what we want to say. John would have wished for such a privilege in his day.

Imagine if our government leaders decided to favor one religion over another? Which religion would they choose as 'better' than all the rest? If we just considered Christianity, which brand of the Christian faith would you prefer to be chosen as our countries favored Christianity? Would we all be better off if the US government declared the Southern Baptist version of Christianity the favored 'brand'? What if, instead, the government chose the Anglican faith, or the Charismatic faith, or the Catholic faith, or the Greek Orthodox faith, or the Church of Christ faith?

American's have always feared that a sitting president would promote his 'faith' over other faiths. That fear arose when Kennedy, a Catholic, was elected as president. It was a concern when Romney, a Mormon, was the GOP candidate for president. Were our fears legitimate or do our laws protect us from having any particular religious faith given preeminence in our country? So far we have kept government out of the religion business. Once that door is opened, for whom will it be opened?

Yet, all that being said, our Tennessee legislators just voted to declare the Christian bible our state book. That may suit me just fine because it is also my favorite book. But what does that say to Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc? By selecting one book as our 'state' book what are we saying to fellow Americans who have other religious preferences? Has our legislature unwittingly declared citizens of other faiths 'second rate citizens'? Shouldn't our government leaders protect all faiths and even those without a faith, without taking sides? Herod chose a 'side' and imprisoned those who opposed him. Which direction are our legislators taking our state? What precedence have they established? Is it constitutional?

Woe to any 'John the Baptist' like folks in Tennessee. His only scriptures were the OT. Our modern 'Herods' seem to fear dissenting voices, but are setting us up for something far more fearful - a government run by someone's notion of the 'best' religion. I certainly have my idea of what is best, but my 'religion' cautions me 'not' to force my faith upon others. What about your religion? 

21 Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, 

Why did Jesus get baptized? Did he have to? Would he have been disqualified as the Messiah if he chose not to get baptized? So, why did he request John to baptize him?

He wasn't mindlessly following the crowd.
He didn't choose to get baptized because the scriptures commanded it.
He wasn't getting baptized because his mother told him he should.
He wasn't doing it because his synagogue made it a requirement for continued membership. He didn't get baptized because he realized that he needed to turn his life around.

Though people may get baptized for one or more of the above reasons, Jesus did not.

The scriptures teach us that Jesus did only what God the Father told him to do (Jn 5:19; 12:49), so we may assume that Jesus went to John, seeking to be baptized in obedience to the direct command of God to Him as an individual. If true, then the next logical question would therefore be, why would the Father command Jesus to get baptized?

Was it for Jesus to identify and align himself with sincere God seekers?
Was it to identify himself to and encourage the work of John the Baptizer?
Was it to prophetically symbolize that he would become our sin, die, and be resurrected?
Was it to prepare himself to meet those who were being prepared to meet him?
Was it simply to fulfill a Messianic prophecy?
Was it to announce his public ministry?

Jesus' request to be baptized didn't make any sense to John. Jesus never gave him a reason for his request. John just did what Jesus asked (Mt 3:13-15). Jesus simply said his baptism would 'fulfill all righteousness' - i.e. was in obedience to God's command. Is it possible that even Jesus did not fully understand why the Father commanded him to be baptized at that time?

When we 'hear' the voice of God commanding us to say or do something, do we obey whether or not we understand the reasons behind His command?

22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” 

As Luke described the event, the Spirit's descent upon Jesus was witnessed with human sight - at least the eyes of John (Jn 1:32). The Spirit had a shape that took the appearance of a dove. This isn't to say that the Spirit only has a 'dove' shape or will always appear with any kind of form. Rather, for those who were given the privilege of seeing this encounter, the Spirit descended upon Jesus with a form that was perceived to be dove-like. Why would God present the Spirit in this manner, as a dove (Gen 8:8; Mt 10:16)?

We could focus on the shape of the Spirit or we could focus on the fact that the Spirit descended upon Jesus. We could use this description in order to draw pictures of God the Spirit or we could 'get the picture' that God meets humanity where humanity is - even appearing in a form that we can see. Isn't God's willingness to meet us where we are the motivation behind the incarnation?

There was, of course, more to this incident than just witnessing the Spirit descend with a dove-like form. There was also a voice. The voice did not appear to originate from the Spirit's form, but from heaven where the Spirit presumably descended from. The voice that was heard confirmed God's love for Jesus. Sadly, even though God said it, mankind chose to ignore it. How much suffering on earth would be eliminated if mankind simply accepted this statement alone, that 'Jesus is God's beloved Son in whom He is well-pleased'?

Imagine if all the members of the Sanhedrin had witnessed the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus and had also heard the voice of God from heaven acknowledging Jesus as 'favored'. If they had, could they have assumed that their murderous plots against Jesus were God honoring? If they had truly valued the 'word of God' wouldn't they have protected Jesus even when they didn't understand all that God was doing through Jesus?

If the Spirit has genuinely convicted you that Jesus the Nazarene truly was/is God's beloved Son with whom He was/is well-pleased, wouldn't it make sense for you to get to know Jesus as thoroughly as possible? Wouldn't it be essential to learn everything he taught, to be thoroughly acquainted with everything He did, and to learn how to listen to His living voice speaking to you today? How can anyone say that they accept the truth of verse 22, yet not be immersed in Jesus 24/7/365? What Luke wrote is either true or false? Jesus is either the 'beloved Son of God' or He isn't. God was either well-pleased with Jesus or He wasn't. Jesus was either Spirit-filled or He wasn't. Jesus is either who He said he was, or He was a fraud.

Is this illogical dichotomous thinking or is it the truth of what the NT scriptures present to us? That being said, what will be our decision?

23 When He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, the son of Eli...the son of David...the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

Jesus didn't 'begin His ministry' at birth, nor at age 12, nor when he turned 18 or 21. During an age when the average person didn't live very long, to have begun his public ministry at 'about thirty years of age', seems rather late. Yet, 30 years of preparation made his 3 years of ministry extremely powerful.

In our age, though we tend to live much longer, our young people often, foolishly, expect to successfully engage their career much earlier -  even in their early 20's. Why? Having been through 16 years or more of education they become beguiled into believing that they are 'wise' enough to face the challenges of the world. Yet, God did not call Jesus to begin his ministry at the point when his mind was full of facts (Lk 2:47), but at the point when he had sufficiently advanced in wisdom (Lk 2:40, 52).

There is a difference between understanding facts and being wise. Many folks spend their who existence 'increasing in knowledge', but never become wise (1 Cor 1:24,25; 8:1; 13:2; 2 Tim 3:7). Wisdom differs from understanding, but certainly does not dismiss understanding. Wisdom reflects wrestling with life - taking what we have learned and learning how best to apply it in the real world. Wisdom is experimental knowing. From the spiritual perspective, wisdom grows from 'time' spent communing with God (Jas 3:17). The evidence of true wisdom is displayed in our love for others.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)

Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” And call understanding your intimate friend. (Proverbs 7:4)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Easter 2015

Monday (Matthew 27:38-44)The Problem Is the Solution
38 At that time two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left. 39 And those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying, 42 “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him. 43 He trusts in God; let God rescue Him now, if He delights in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words.

Often, the very thing we label as a problem, may actually be our solution.

The person we don't understand, may understand us.
The one who seems helpless, may be helping us.
The individual we perceive as cursed, may be mankind's blessing.
The person we condemn as a criminal, may be God's answer to human crime.

"Whenever we think we have God in a box, safe and sound, under control and constant watch, God blows up our categories." (Pete Enns)

"For any one group today to think it has the best grasp on the creator of the universe is a form of insanity." (Pete Enns)

Matthew exposed the myopia of self-exalting men:
"You were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days; save yourself."
"If you are the Son of God; come down from the cross."
"He saved others; He cannot save himself"
"He is the King of Israel; let him now come down from the cross."
"He trust in God; let God rescue him now."

Before rejecting anything, take some time to carefully reexamine the line of reasoning that led you to your conclusion. Is your reasoning logical? Is there another way to see what you see? Have you examined all the evidence and perspectives? Is it possible that God is at work, inviting you to color outside the lines? Are you reacting emotionally in what you are rejecting? Is fear of change behind your decision to reject? Will you be shamed and/or rejected if you don't reject someone or something?

Someone once said, 'we all err, but must we err we should prefer erring on the side of mercy rather than on judgment.'

The One who man rejected, was man's only Savior, yet in rejecting Him, He was enabled to become our Savior. Did the Jews unwittingly save mankind by crucifying Jesus? Could Jesus have saved mankind without first being rejected and crucified by those who came to save?   

Tuesday (Mark 15:33-39) - A Spiritual Gestalt
33 When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” 36 Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last. 38 And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

According to Mark, the crucifixion of Jesus presents us with three different responses.

(1) Jesus believed he had been forsaken by God.
(2) Some bystanders believed Jesus was fake messiah who couldn't even help himself.
(3) A centurion believed Jesus' death was the proof that He actually was the messiah.

Though these are three very different 'interpretations' of Jesus' last moments on the cross, they all work together to tell us an important paradoxical truth.

(1) In order to save man, the Son of God became man.
(2) In order to save man, Jesus chose not to save himself.
(3) In order to be our true Messiah, he had to become God's enemy.
(4) In order to deliver us from sin, Jesus had to embrace our sin.
(5) In order to lead us to God, Jesus had to be forsaken by God.  

In other words, Jesus, the bystanders, and the centurion each presented a part of the whole, yet the whole was other than the sum of each of these parts - a gestalt.

Wednesday (John 19:31-37) - Messiah as Sacrificial Lamb?
31 Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; 33 but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. 35 And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. 36 For these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture, “Not a bone of Him shall be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.

The Jews seemed more concerned about the requirements of the Law regarding Sabbath than about the Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:5). On the other hand, maybe they were using the Law to speed up the death of Jesus, simply because they wanted to make sure that the miracle working Nazarene was truly dead.

The two thieves who were crucified next to Jesus first mocked him, then one of them placed his faith in Jesus. Yet here is the interesting thing, though next to Jesus and despite placing his faith in Jesus, the one believing thief still suffered and died with Jesus. In other words, there isn't any magical deliverance from suffering and/or death merely by remaining close to Jesus or placing our faith in him. Jesus isn't an amulet. Wearing a cross that symbolizes our faith does not protect us. The thief's faith in Jesus gave him hope beyond the grave. Our faith in Christ isn't a guarantee that God will deliver us from the first death, but is an iron-clad guarantee that we will escape what the scriptures call the second death.

It seems that John's purpose in this text was at least two-fold. First, he wanted to make it perfectly clear that Jesus really was completely and irrevocably dead. He didn't merely appear deceased. He could not be resuscitated, he could only be resurrected.

Second, John wanted his readers to know that the death of Jesus was actually a fulfillment of scripture. This was important because John was trying to establish as fact that Jesus was the one and only true Messiah.

But what about his 'proof-texts'? John believed that the passover lamb was a symbol of Jesus - the lamb of God (Jn 1:29, 36). According to Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12 , the Jews were not to break any bones of the Passover lamb.  The lamb was to be 'sacrificed' for the forgiveness of sins (Is 53:7; Lk 22:7; 1 Cor 5:7; Heb 9:26). The NT writers had the task of connecting the Messiah with the Lamb of the Jewish temple services, thus not only being able to prove that the scriptures predicted the death of the Messiah, but that Jesus was the Messiah. The Messianic texts in the OT do not, on their own, point to Jesus.

Similarly, Zechariah 12:10  says, 'they will look on Me who they have pieced and they will mourn for him, as one mourns for an only son...'  The 'Me' that Zechariah was speaking about was the Lord, the Creator (12:1). John not only connected Jesus with the temple lamb, but also with the Creator.

Thursday  (Luke 23:50-56) - Jesus, the anti-zealot
50 And a man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a good and righteous man 51 (he had not consented to their plan and action), a man from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who was waiting for the kingdom of God; 52 this man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 And he took it down and wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid Him in a tomb cut into the rock, where no one had ever lain. 54 It was the preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. 55 Now the women who had come with Him out of Galilee followed, and saw the tomb and how His body was laid. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and perfumes.

Luke presented Joseph of Arimathea as out-of-step with the other members of the Jewish Council. This is a reminder that it is almost always a mistake to make generalizations about any particular people-group or 'tribe'. No group is made up only of people who see exactly as every other member of the group. Efforts to achieve unity in uniformity is always delusional. If unity exists, it always exists despite diversity. Diversity is the church reality (1 Cor 12). All attempts to demand uniformity is neither Christian nor American. It is, rather, fascism.

While the council, made up of Sadducees and Pharisees, agreed to eliminate Jesus, Joseph did not give his consent. Why? What did he see in Jesus? Did Joseph discern something about Jesus that other members of the Sanhedrin could not see? Or, had Joseph simply valued something about Jesus that other members of the Council also saw, yet viewed it more as a threat rather than as an asset? If Jesus was considered a threat to existence of the Jewish way of life, was it because he encouraged the violent overthrow of Rome or because he didn't?   

It is popular among many Bible scholars today to portray Jesus as a zealot, an insurrectionist, who wanted to overthrow the Roman government. If that had actually been true, Joseph would most likely not have stepped forward to request the body of Jesus. If Joseph had favored the insurrectionists, he may have acted with others to steal the body of Jesus and then used it to undermine Roman authority. Instead, we find Joseph working under both Jewish and Roman law, unlike many other members of the council who were willing to neglect several aspects of the Law in order to kill Jesus.

The women who had followed Jesus, most likely did so for the same reasons that Joseph had chosen to follow Jesus. They saw him as the 'Prince of Peace', not as a zealot. The knew him as the hope of Israel, not as a destroyer of the faith. They came to accept Jesus not as the enemy-conquering messiah that had been taught to look for, but as the one who came to teach all mankind how to achieve unity in diversity.  Jesus was 'zealous' in his love for all mankind, not a zealous activist against anyone who did not see as he saw.

Friday (Matthew 28:1-7) - Paradox and Faith 
28 Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. 2 And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. 3 And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. 4 The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. 5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. 6 He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. 7 Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.”

Think about the paradoxical statements that the angel made to Mary.

1. A bright shining angel spoke to Mary, 'do not be afraid'.
2. I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified.
3. He is not here. He has risen.

Faith grows in the context of paradox. Here are a few more paradoxical notions:

1. We were saved by grace before we existed, therefore before we sinned.
2. We were saved by grace even while under the law, before the new covenant.
3. We were saved by grace before Jesus was born.
4. We were saved by grace while Jesus was in the grave.
5. We are save by grace even when we don't know about grace.

The scriptures remind us that the Lamb was slain before the foundations of this world (Gen 3:15; Lev 17:11; Mt 25:34; 1 Cor 2:7-10; Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:18-20; Rev 13:8). In other words, our savior has always existed. He existed before our world existed, before his incarnation, while he was in the tomb, and after his ascension. From the scriptural perspective, mankind has never been without the savior. All that has happened, even his death, was part of an eternal plan. The savior has always been, because the savior is God.

Finally, the angel told Mary to tell the disciples about the savior. He was dead, but is not dead. He was here, but is not here. I have not seen him, but will see him.

That must have been the most unusual Sunday morning in the whole history of mankind.

Saturday (Luke 24:36-49) - Confirmed In Belief
36 While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. 38 And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 41 While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; 43 and He took it and ate it before them. 44 Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

The resurrection of Christ was a surprise. Why? Didn't Jesus often speak about being killed and then being risen back to life three days later (Mk 8:31)? Yes, but his words didn't make any sense, even to his twelve disciples. The disciples understood from the sanctuary system that being saved from sin came through sacrifice - even the sacrifice of an innocent lamb. What they didn't seem to understand was that the Messiah was also the Lamb. Though John the baptist had pointed to Jesus as both the Messiah AND the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29), the twelve still didn't grasp that Jesus would be killed, never mind be resurrected three days later. It was a notion that was not clear in scripture, not taught by their religious leaders, and was impossible to 'fit' within their religious worldview.

So, where did Jesus find in the OT scripture the idea that he, the Messiah, would be killed and then resurrected? Did he know that the sacrifices in the temple pointed to Him? If so, which scriptures revealed that he, the paschal Lamb, would be resurrected? There isn't such a notion in the temple services.

According to Matthew, Jesus derived that he would be resurrected from the story of Jonah (Mt 12:38-42; Jonah 1:17). Later,  'Luke' also interpreted Ps 16:9-11 as a prophecy pointing to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:29-36).

The OT and NT scriptures speak of God's everlasting love for man (Jer 31:3; Eph 1:4). But only the NT refers to the Messiah as both our Creator (John 1; Heb 1; Col 1) and as the Lamb that was slain - for us - from the foundation of the world that He created (Rev 13:8).

In hindsight we might discern from Genesis that when God killed an animal (a lamb?) to 'cover' the sinful couple (Gen 3:21) He was pointing forward to the Messiah who would die for us. The story tells us that God sacrificed one of his creatures while Adam and Eve were still in Eden. This was one of the creatures that Adam had lovingly named even before Eve had been created (Gen 2:17). Hope was found through the death of an innocent 'being'.

Yet, Paul later wrote, 'if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins" (1 Cor 15:17). The author of Hebrews also wrote that 'it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins' (Heb 10:4-10). The only hope is in the resurrected Christ, through the cross, but not in the cross. The death of an innocent Lamb did not, in itself, save us. There had to be a resurrection.

On the other hand, since the people of God lived and died without understand any of this, are we to believe that they cannot be 'saved'?

Faith in what God has 'revealed' has always been 'saving' faith. Abraham was accounted 'righteous' through faith, not in having understood that a man named Jesus was the Creator God that became incarnate, died upon a cross at the hands of the Romans and Jews, and was then resurrected three days later. Abraham's faith was not based on that kind of insight. It was based on faith in what God had revealed to him at that time, not in that which God would reveal in Christ at a much later time (Heb 11:8-19).

So, we can say that the resurrection is important to God's eternal plan of salvation, whether or not we have heard about it. Easter is a blessing to those who know the story.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Luke 3:10-17 Being Fruitful

10 And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” 

It was an honest question, considering where they were coming from. On the other hand, this question precisely revealed the problem - a problem for which Jesus was the only answer.

The Jews were accustomed to being told 'what to do' from an external source - the Law and those who administered the Law. Alternatively, God promised to give them a 'new heart and to put a new spirit within them', to release them from every external locus of control (Gal 5:23b). In fact, God said that he would put His Spirit within them and that His Spirit would cause them to 'walk in His statutes...' (Ez 36:26,27; Jer 31:31-34). The Spirit would guide them from His internal abiding place, the heart. They would not be asking someone else 'what' they should do, because they would all know what to do. How? Because God would change their hearts.

When the heart is ruled by the natural, carnal instincts, it is selfish. That selfishness requires external control by laws which include severe punishment for disobedience. The Law reigns in human nature by force. Yet, when the heart is at peace with God and has been changed to love others, the new nature is selfless and self-sacrificing. Paul wrote that 'he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law...Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law' (Rom 13:8,10; Gal 5:14). When Christ is received as Lord and Master, he doesn't coerce us to be good, rather we choose to do good because we have given our heart to him. 'Walk in the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh' (Gal 5:16).

The Law was given through Moses, yet grace and truth came to be realized through Christ (Jn 1:17). The Law was an external guide that encouraged the Jews to depend upon their religious leaders to know 'what' to do. That left believers spiritually 'weak', yet protected until they could come to faith in Christ (Gal 3:23). Jesus sent the Spirit to dwell within believers, to become integrated in the moment by moment life of each believer, so that God's thoughts became wedded with man's thoughts, as long as man chose to walk in the Spirit (Rom 8:11).

'What should we do?' The ultimate answer was to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. But, until then, since Jesus hadn't yet been introduced to the people, John 'told' the people 'what' to do, 'what' a life of love for God and neighbor would really look like.

11 And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” 

This response was more than likely unanticipated. It was one thing to say, 'be more faithful in attending the annual feast in Jerusalem', or 'be more careful in your sabbath observance', or 'pray that God would send us the Messiah to conquer all our enemies and to set our nation back on top.' Instead, John's response moved their attention from external acts of loyalty to their religion, to what it means to have a heart for God.

If we love God with all our heart, we will also love our neighbor who may be in need. Note, John did not say, 'the man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none - yet is trying his best to help himself, regularly attends the synagogue, faithfully pays his tithes and offerings, and votes along the same party lines as you do.'  In other words, John's Spirit-led response was grace oriented. Grace is exhibited as unmerited favor. There aren't any strings attached or measurements made to see if someone first qualifies. If they are lacking, them a repentant person was to fill that person's need. Also, John was not saying, 'give both your tunics and all your food to the one in need.'

Jesus taught the same lesson, according to Luke. 'Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also' (Lk 12:33,34). The early church took these teachings seriously, not metaphorically. 'And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need' (Acts 2:44,45).

Many are still searching for this kind of Christianity today.

12 And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” 

Having spoken to the crowd as a whole, a specific group of people - the 'tax collectors' - tested the preaching of John by asking, 'what about us? What should we do?' To their delight, the 'prophet' didn't condemn them for being 'tax collectors'. He didn't tell them to leave that job. Nor did he rail against them for exhorting more from people than they should have. And he didn't call them a nasty name, like 'vipers'. Instead, John accepted them as part of the family of God, yet simply commanded them to be honest. For the tax collector who repented and was baptized, collecting taxes with integrity illustrated the 'fruit of true repentance'.

John could have dug deeper into the whole idea of a Jew collecting taxes from Jews, that would then be given to their Roman oppressors. Disdain for the tax collectors was nearly universal (Mk 2:15,16). Jesus acknowledged the fact that tax collectors were often dishonest men (Mt 5:46; 18:17; Lk 19:8), yet they were people like all other people, in that they needed a Savior (Mk 2:17; Lk 15:1; Mt 21:31,32).

Which subgroups within our Christian community would we dismiss as the Pharisees dismissed the publicans? Which groups would we accept, but speak more harshly to? In other words, to we hold a hierarchy of sin, some sins being more acceptable sins than others? Should the sin of theft be considered worse than the sin of adultery or lying?

Which subgroups within our community are 'testing' the Christian church of today to see if their gospel of grace is genuine or not?

14 Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” 

Soldiers went out to the Jordan? Why? Whose soldiers? Were these Rome's Gentile soldiers or Herod's Jewish soldiers? Does it really make any difference? Luke's point is that 'some soldiers', thus not all nor just one, and regardless of why they were there, seemed to be asking a sincere question - 'what about us'?

As noted already, the crowd was made up of some distinct subgroups. Each subgroup felt a degree of alienation from the crowd as a whole. They discerned that their status was different and that they were therefore treated differently within the nation. Had they chosen their particular careers because they were first treated differently, or were they treated differently because of their chosen careers? Had both the tax collectors and the soldiers defrauded their fellow Jews as a reaction to the prejudice they experienced because of their career choices, or had the prejudice developed because they defrauded their countrymen?

Whatever the case, there at the Jordan, listening to John, both the tax collectors and some soldiers became curious if the message of John had universal significance or was he simply forming a new religious club that would also exclude them. As he welcomed the tax collectors, John also welcomed the soldiers. Neither group experienced automatic exclusion simply because of their profession. Yet no one in the crowd, except Jesus, seemed to understand the true meaning of faith in God.

John's response to the crowd as a whole and to the tax collectors and soldiers as subgroups, struck at the source of their chosen security - money, rather than God. Luke later quotes Jesus as teaching, 'No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth' (Lk 16:13). Genuine faith in God yields peace and contentment, not fear and anxiety. Jesus was the 'axe' that struck at the root of all false beliefs - false gods, false messiahs, false hopes, false religious notions, and a false sense of security.

If the people accepted the first and greatest commandment - to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength - they would not be selfishly wedded to their possessions nor be obsessed with a need for greater and greater wealth as if God did not exist. If they truly embraced the second great commandment - to love their neighbor - they would not steal from, tell lies about, or in any other manner defraud their neighbors. They would rather choose to be defrauded, than to defraud others. Paul would later apply this same understanding of faith in his letter to the Corinthians. 'Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren' (1 Cor 6:7,8).

When God is front and center in our beliefs, we will be respectful of others even though we may differ from them; we will be generous to others who are in need; and we will protect others from abuse.

15 Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, 

John's response to the 'what shall we do' requests, simply but nicely illustrated what he believed should be the 'fruit of repentance' - which was to love your neighbors. The crowd did not react to John's answers by saying, 'you've got to be kidding', or 'his ideas about sharing just won't work in the real world', or 'why should I share my hard earned possessions with lazy people.'

The Spirit, through John, must have really touched hearts because instead of moving away from John as a misguided, theological freak, the crowd 'wondered in their hearts' if John might actually be the messiah. In other words, despite the fact that the crowd had been taught to look for a Roman conquering kingly messiah, when John presented a message of 'be nice to one another', they accepted it. Though the crowd was wrong about who John was, he had successfully prepared their hearts for the true Messiah of 'nice'.  

16 John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The people have asked John what they should do. He directed them to love their neighbor. He then made it clear that his baptism was merely symbolic and that he was not the messiah they were looking for. If they really wanted to know 'what to do' they needed to received the One who was coming. The One to come would give them the Spirit to help them to love their neighbors.

Good folks, even great theologians, interpret verse 17 differently. That's not unusual. Differences of interpretation of Biblical passages has always existed and most likely always will. So, here are at least two ways to look at verses 17.

(1) This text, for many, is proof that John believed in 'hell' and 'judgment'. Since Luke added this to his gospel, Luke probably held to the same belief. Taken literally, the passage appears to say that those who are not baptized in the Spirit will be judged as 'wanting' and thrown into the fire of hell. The 'fire' is unquenchable. Those thrown into the fire are 'burned up', rather than tortured by the flames eternally. There is a dichotomous view of existence. One either accepts Christ and lives eternally or one doesn't and is rejected by Christ eternally. The Holy Spirit is primarily, in this view, the One who divides people into groups of either the saved or the lost.

(2) An alternative view of this text takes into consideration the symbolism. Baptism with water was not a magical thing, but a metaphor for being purified. Not being 'fit to untie the thong of Jesus' sandals did not mean that John literally was unable to do so, but was a metaphor about the superiority of Jesus. Jesus would not literally have a 'winnowing fork' in his hand and be literally clearing his 'threshing floor'. So, if John had been speaking metaphorically up to verse 17, why should we immediately assume that verse 17 should be interpreted literally? John had prepared the way for Jesus by opening their hearts to the real messiah. His whole focus had been the hearts of those who listened to him preach. Thus, the 'threshing floor' would be a metaphor for the heart. That which would be chaff would be selfish motives, wrong theology, and immoral practices. In other words, if the people surrendered their hearts to Jesus, he would change their hearts and enable them to live a transformed life through the indwelling of his Spirit. The Spirit would burn up all within a believer's heart that was not like Christ, not burn up unbelievers.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Luke 3:1-9 Receiving the Word

1 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 2 in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. 

Luke promised that his gospel was written only after having searched all the available documents pertaining to Jesus (Lk 1:1,2). He also said that this would be a chronological account (Lk 1:3). Unlike the other gospels, Luke was very specific about the time and place for the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus (Lk 3:1). It all began with John, the one who had been called to 'prepare the way of the Lord' (Lk 1:17).

In Luke chapter 3, verse 2, the author wrote that 'the word of God came to John'. This phrase could, of course, be understood in various ways depending on the context. It might refer to an appropriate bible verse that has been brought to his mind by the Spirit as an answer to his prayer. In this case, it seems, the 'word of God' refers to the voice of God rather than the written word. John personally 'heard' God speak to him that the time of his calling had come. The exact method in which God spoke to him was not mentioned by Luke. It could have been through a dream, an angelic visitation, a vision, an audible voice from heaven, or even a divinely given impression. The point is, as with Simeon (Lk 2:26), John did not find the timing of his public ministry from scripture, but from listening to a real, existing God.

John was in the wilderness when he was called forth to begin his ministry. Though he had been raised with the knowledge of his calling, there was much more to learn. He needed to be Godly wise about his calling. Wisdom is more than having a correct goal and/or correct knowledge. John had to spend his time preparing himself to prepare the way of the Lord.  He not only had to learn 'what' to do, but 'how' to do it, and then he had to wait for God to tell him 'when' and 'where' to begin. Many years had gone by, yet they had not been spent in idleness. In the wilderness he learned to listen for and to trust in God. When the time was right, the man was right with God.

3 And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; 4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ’Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight. 

Luke wrote that John ministered in 'all the district around the Jordan' - which implies on both the west and eastern banks. Judea was under the direct administration of Rome, while Perea - on the eastern side - was under the rule of Herod Antipas. Elijah had also worked within this same area, which seems more than a coincidence.

John's ministry called Jews to be baptized, a symbol of purification normally applied to Gentile proselytes. In other words, John was calling Jews to recognize that merely being circumcised did not mean that they were ready to meet the Messiah. They needed to acknowledge their sin and choose to live a life committed to God.

The 'way of the Lord' was going to be in the heart of each believer, rather than against the Roman rulers. John, therefore, did not call the Jews to get ready for the coming of the Messiah by arming themselves with swords and spears. Rather, the best preparation for the coming of the Messiah is to have a heart that is fully surrendered to will of God. To 'make ready the way' and to 'make His paths straight' meant exposing every idol that distracted Israel from God. If we cannot discern the real Christ from the pseudo Christ, we will crucify the 'real' while imagining we are performing the will of God.

5 ‘Every ravine will be filled, And every mountain and hill will be brought low; The crooked will become straight, And the rough roads smooth; 6 And all flesh will see the salvation of God.’” 

The work of the Spirit is to help us to 'see' clearly, to see with spiritual eyes. The OT warning, that the people of God had eyes, but they could not see (Ps 115:5), was often echoed by Jesus in numerous ways (Mt 13:15; Mk 8:18; Jn 12:40). The Jews were looking at Him, but did not see their long awaited hope. There were too many 'ravines', 'mountains', 'crooked paths', and 'bumpy roads' that obstructed their spiritual journey. The ability to clearly see the Lord had been obscured by the distractions of life. They saw what they wanted to see, but not what God had been trying to reveal to them. We all need a 'John the Baptizer' today. Our lives are replete with ravines, mountains, and crooked and rough paths. We are often far too confident that we see clearly, when we are not seeing well at all (Is 55:6-9; Jer 17:9).

John obviously did not complete this task once and for all people, for all times and places. These obstructions have always and will always exist. Yet, one by one, John filled in the ravines, took down the mountains, and straightened and smoothed out the road for those who he met at the Jordan. He prepared his particular cohort for the coming of Messiah. The point in all this is that this task can be done. People can be taught to 'see' clearly, if we are faithful in our God-given tasks today, to prepare the way for Jesus as John did.

There needs to be a 'John' in every people group, preparing folks to see Jesus. For all intents and purposes, this has always been the role of the church. Unfortunately, the church has often put its greatest efforts in helping people see the church as their savior, rather than to be the tool in the Spirit's hand that helps people to see Jesus. The church has wanted to be 'Jesus', rather than 'John', yet the church was called to be the 'body', not the 'Head'. When the church attempts to be what it cannot be, it unwittingly becomes a 'headless body', doing more damage than good in the world.

The question then becomes, what does it mean for the church, 'the body of Christ', to 'prepare the way' for Jesus? What must the church be doing to 'fill in the ravines, take down the mountains, and to straighten/smooth out the road' for those who have been blinded by the world? Does it mean placing more effort in the area of social justice? Does it mean becoming more outspoken regarding the moral/ethical issues of our day? Should the church be focused on effecting political changes?

God revealed to John the best place to begin in preparing a people ready to meet their Savior. He was not to direct their focus to the ravines, mountains, and crooked paths in the world, but within their own hearts. The work of God's people must begin within, not without. It is a work of grace upon our own hearts, rather than a work of Law upon other hearts. Our own transformation is tool that the Spirit uses to prepare others to see Jesus, since he must be seen in us.

We can only give from what we have received. If we merely give to the world what the world has given to us - power, prestige, possessions - we have only readied them for the kingdoms of this world. But, if we give to the world what the Spirit has for us - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness - then we have readied a generation to enter the kingdom of heaven.

7 So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 

This is one of the harshest statements in the New Testament. To avoid judging John too quickly, though, we need to know that Jesus also used the same phrase (Mt. 12:34; 23:33). It is rather curious that, in John's case, Luke presented this statement immediately after John had appealed to the hearts of those who came to the Jordan. In other words, he was, seemingly, telling the Jews that they were sinners who needed to repent and be baptized, yet simultaneously chastising the Jews for being sinners and coming out to be baptized. How should we understand this?

First, John was quoted as saying the same thing in Matthew's gospel, yet there John was specifically addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees that had also gone out to the Jordan (Mt 3:7). In other words, according to Matthew, John was not speaking to all who came out to be baptized, a point that maybe Luke should have also made clear. When Jesus was quoted as using the same pejorative phrase in Matthew's gospel, he was specifically said to be addressing the Pharisees (Mt 12:34) and/or the Pharisees and scribes (Mt 23:33).

Second, the phrase, 'brood of vipers', is a metaphor that may mean, 'an illegitimate generation of viciously minded people'. When understood this way, it seems to confirm the notion that both John and Jesus used it to describe religious leaders who were enemies of God, though they presented themselves as representatives of God. They were hypocrites of the worst kind. They had only come to the Jordan to find ways to condemn John and/or to deceive the people about the true motives of their hearts.

Third, although grace is defined as 'unmerited favor' and was certainly also available to those being rebuked as a 'brood of vipers', it could not be a useful gift from God if not received from the heart. Some scholars believe that both Jesus and John severely rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees with the hope that the harshness of their accusation would bring conviction and lead these religious leaders into genuine repentance. There is, according to the scriptures, a place for rebuke, at least when used correctly.

As the scriptures present faith in opposition to doubt, they similarly present righteousness in opposition to sin. These opposing pairs exist in all of us, thus we are all in need of God's grace. Since each heart is a mixed bag of both good and evil, and by nature we are most often blind to that which we don't want to see, a sharp rebuke (in love) may sometimes be a useful tool when used with the hope of redeeming a soul. Sadly, many well meaning folks major in rebuking others rather than in encouraging others. Others, like the Pharisees, rebuke folks simply to destroy rather than to redeem. A biblical rebuke should simultaneously serve two purposes, (1) to redeem the one rebuked, (2) to warn others from falling into the same evil.

John qualified his rebuke by rhetorically asking, 'who warned you to flee the wrath to come?' In other words, he assumed that they had heard the convicting voice of God, yet had ignored it. They risked facing God's judgment if they continued to ignore their conscience. 'Who warned you...?' God had spoken to them, but would they listen? Do we listen to the convictions of the Spirit?

8 Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 

Repentance doesn't result in perfection, but begins a transformative process that is accounted as perfect by the God of all. The phrase, 'we have Abraham as our father', was the Jewish version of 'cheap grace'. In other words, some Jews assumed that they 'only had to belong' to be God's chosen people, while some Christians today assume that they 'only have to believe' certain statements about Jesus to be saved. Both are erroneous. The issue is that the way we live has been in conformity to religious systems, rather than being the fruit of a healthy relationship with the God. Our choices have not been freely made with God, but either subtly or even overtly coerced by man.  

The covenant of grace wipes away all our excuses and explanations for 'why' we have chosen to live with less than spiritual integrity. It starts by declaring all people as 'forgiven'. No longer is the issue about 'belonging' to a particular religious organization or assenting to a carefully crafted set of beliefs. We are free to be honest spiritual brokers. All things are permissible, wrote Paul. That theological notion reminds us that the true locus of control for our spiritual success in life no longer lies in the realm of a religious or secular institution, nor in the hands of any other person, but in each of us as individuals. We need not conform to anyone else's notions to be accepted by God, nor can we blame anyone else for not maturing spiritually.

Each of us is responsible for our own spirituality. We don't have to earn acceptance from God, because we are already accepted. We don't have to please any religious leader, because we can freely access the throne of mercy and grace ourselves. We don't have to conform to any particular standard that someone else thinks should define us. We are free to grow spiritually or not, to mature in spirituality quickly or slowly, or to use various religious icons or none at all.

In other words, the scriptures present God as speaking to each individual in a manner that each individual can comprehend, and moving that individual forward only as fast as that individual chooses to move. There isn't any judgment based on quantity, quality, or pace of spiritual growth. John basically said, don't feel obligated to conform to anyone else's desire to measure you. God has already measured you as precious. The responsibility for spiritual integrity belongs to you. You can't blame anyone else, nor do they have a right to blame you.

Having exposed the bankruptcy inherent in all earthly powers that seek to coerce us to make choices out of fear, guilt, and shame, we are finally free to see ourselves as we really are (confession), decide if we want/need to turn our life around (repentance), and then determine to walk forward along a path that resonates with our own unfettered choices (fruit) in the power of God's Spirit.

9 Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Even before Jesus began his ministry, John preached that the 'axe (had) already (struck) the root of the trees.' How could that have been true?

In Christian theology, when God became man, the love of God was made evident, effectively displacing all other notions about God.

Mankind has always created gods to fill in the gaps of man's understanding of the world. Mankind has also created gods to excuse the behavior of man. In other words, we are far more likely to say, god told me to do such and such, than to say, the devil made me do it.  We use our gods as the source of our authority to control other people. Our gods are not usually created out of evil intentions, but by sincere people trying to make a difference in the world. The problem lies in the fact that we take our gods too seriously, which has unwittingly led mankind to do more damage than good in the world.

The story of the incarnation is an 'axe' that continues to chop down all of our false notions about god right at their roots. God is love (1 Jn 4:16). Any other idea about God is fraudulent at worse, inaccurate at best (1 Cor 13:1-10; Rom 8:26-39). For God so loved the world that he gave us his Son (Jn 3:16).

Adam and Eve sought the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What they reaped was confusion about God. They eschewed the tree of life for the tree that bore a mixed variety of good and bad fruit. In Christ, that tree - metaphorically speaking - was cut down. There is only the tree of life, the tree that only bears good fruit. That tree is Christ. If our source of knowledge is not Christ, then we are picking fruit from the wrong tree. When we eat from the wrong tree we exile ourselves from truth and the ability to live the abundant life.