Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Luke 9:46-50 The Greatness of the Least

46 An argument started among them as to which of them might be the greatest. 

Luke presented this statement in contrast to what Jesus had said to his disciples in verses 44, 45. Jesus, in submission to his Father, agreed to set aside his supernatural powers, permitting the 'natural' powers of evil men to arrest and crucify him. Love for his Father meant trusting his Father in all things. Though Jesus was infinitely more powerful than any man or army of men, true 'greatness' is not measured by how much physical power you have access to, but by how much the power of love moves you.

When I feel inclined to compare myself to my peers it is pretty clear evidence I have lost my way (2 Cor 10:12,13). Christian discipleship is all about how my relationship with Jesus shapes the way I interact with others. If I understand Jesus correctly, I will not be in competition with others for his attention nor seek a place above others. My objective will be to know Jesus better and better each day and to be satisfied with whatever task and/or place in life he has led me to. What matters most is my surrender to his leadership, regardless of what others may think.

My calling is not to be the greatest among my peers, but to be obedient to the One who alone is greatest. This is a counter intuitive perspective and one that underscores the idea of being in the world, but not of the world. Even competing with myself may be wrong headed since we are called to be content with what God has given to us (Phil 4:11-13). Far too much of the self-help, self-actualization programs focus on 'self'. This does not mean that we cease striving to be godly (1 Tim 4:6-9), yet again, only as the Spirit leads us.

47 But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, took a child and stood him by His side, 

These words have always elicited a wonderful picture not only in the minds of readers, but also as rendered by many artists over the centuries.

Contrast is often a powerful way to convey the truth. The response is usually, 'oh. Now I see what you mean.' On the other hand, it is a sad commentary on a society when the response is, 'I don't care. I'll believe what I want to believe.' Maybe those were the kind of people Jesus was referring to when he said, 'you unbelieving and perverted generation' (Lk 9:41). They see the truth, yet choose not to believe it (Rom 1:25).

The objective of each of the twelve was to win the top position in the kingdom they supposed Jesus was creating. In fact, they were so distracted by their self-concerns, they neglected to see the child in their midst. Jesus' again interrupted their worldly orientation, reminding them that to follow him was not about striving for position, power, prestige, or possessions. It was about loving and caring for the person right in front of you. While they debated over which of them was the greatest disciple, Jesus had chosen a little child to stand at his side rather than one of the twelve.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to attend to the person right in front of you. There is no time to waste in vying for some position in within the kingdom of men. Unless and until we grasp the true nature of God's kingdom, we will be found clinging to that which only brings suffering. Sadly, the religious worldview of the twelve had been so deeply installed that it often and easily usurped their thinking. They had a difficult time 'seeing' like Jesus, mostly because they still possessed insufficient insight into his worldview.

Later in Luke's gospel (Lk 18:17) he quotes Jesus as saying, "truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." Those words take this chapter's contrast to the next level. The disciples were not only to notice and care for the most helpless around them, but they were to have a childlike openness to and desire for the kingdom of God rather than the mercenary attitude of advancing their own self-interests.  
What occupies most of your thinking? Do you filter all your thoughts through the Spirit?

48a and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me; 

48b for the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great.” 

49 John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us.” 

50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.”

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Luke 9:37-45 The Paradox of Love

37 On the next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met Him. 38 And a man from the crowd shouted, saying, “Teacher, I beg You to look at my son, for he is my only boy, 39 and a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams, and it throws him into a convulsion with foaming at the mouth; and only with difficulty does it leave him, mauling him as it leaves. 

This story clues us in to what the 9 were doing while Jesus, Peter, James, and John were up in the mountain overnight. They were surrounded by a crowd of people who needed help. Perhaps Jesus didn't want the people to remain unserved while he was led to meet with Moses, Elijah, and his Father.

The full truth about Jesus had not been fully discerned by the people. God, of course, sent Jesus to 'teach' the truth about God, yet not to tell them the truth. Paradoxical, right? Jesus did not want the people to know the exact truth about him or God - yet. He wanted them to experience him first and then come to their own conclusions. As said earlier, we tend to place more value on a truth we discover for ourselves than a truth we are told we must believe. This was not only an issue for the people at large, but continued to be an issue for the twelve disciples. 

Did the fact this was the man's only son make his case more pressing than anyone else's or had it been the driving force behind this father's demand for attention above any other needs present? When should our need be pushed ahead of the needs of others?

There is an interesting pattern among those whose stories got recorded in the gospels. Thousands had been healed by Jesus, yet few of their stories were told. The stories we are most familiar with are those where someone either pushed themselves to the front of the line, cried loudest out of a sea of others also vying for Jesus' attention, attempted to steal power from him, etc. In each case, as we've noticed, Jesus overlooked their method and ministered to their need. The implication is these particular people had a stronger faith than others within the crowd which drove them to assert themselves. Might the authors of the gospel also be suggesting persistent solicitation of the throne is valued more by heaven than mature, yet silent faith?

Here is another curious question. Why did 'this' child get singled out for demon possession, but not the child's parent? Why had God permitted this child to be possessed?

Furthermore, if - as the text suggests - the 'spirit' already would enter then leave the child, what difference would it make if Jesus cast the spirit out? Wouldn't 'it' simply return unless whatever had permitted the child to be possessed was itself changed (Mk 9:25)? If so, what could possibly have created an 'open' door for an unclean spirit in a child? How could that happen? Or was this the best first century explanation for what we know today as a psychiatric disorder?

40 I begged Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not.” 

Oops. The disciples had been empowered to 'cast out' unclean spirits, and had been casting out unclean spirits, yet this one was able to resist their attempts. Why?

The father of the child begged them, so their failure was not because the man hadn't given them permission. Also, if the problem had been the insufficiency of the father's faith, would Jesus have been any more successful than his disciples?

As noted, the disciples had cast out evil spirits before, maybe even many times before. We may assume they proceeded to do this for this man's child exactly as they had in the past with other demon-possessed people. Yet this time they were surprisingly unsuccessful.

Had their faith somehow decreased since their mission? Had they actually forgotten a step in the process of casting out an evil spirit? Was there a specific set of words they had to say correctly and/or a particular ritual that was required for the disciples to successfully cast out demons? 

It seemed that the disciples couldn't understand how they could have the power to cast out other demons, yet they could not cast out this particular demon? Had Jesus only given them limited power to cast out demons? Were there different orders of demons and they had only been given power to cast out demons in category 'B', but not from category 'A'? Are some demons simply more difficult to cast out than others? (Mk 9:29; Mt 17:21)

Or, was this not a demon, but a physical disorder that required a different kind of approach. In other words, rather than casting out an alien being, they needed to heal the mind of the child.

41 And Jesus answered and said, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” 

These was an unusually severe comment from Jesus. It lacked his usual grace, patience, and kindness.

To whom, though, were these words directed? Was he speaking to the disciples about their lack of faith (Mt 17:20; Mk 9:29) or to the crowd? The context that Luke provides does not make it clear. Regardless, in what way were they 'unbelieving and perverted' as a generation of people?

Had the man simply demanded a cure for his child, yet had no actual faith in Jesus as Lord? Was this father, and many others in the crowd, simply miracle seekers rather than salvation seekers? Was Jesus effectively viewed as a vending machine or as their 'Santa Claus', but quickly dismissed when they didn't have a need? Were their hearts actually 'perverse'? Were they wolves in sheep's clothing rather than truly the chosen people of God?

'Unbelieving' means what it says, those Jesus addressed did not believe in the gospel he proclaimed. They only believed in what they could see and touch - miracles. They did not believe in the invisible kingdom of God's grace. Truth be told, they could not believe in what he said until they realized they needed to cease believing in what they had always believed. That was the paradox.

'Perverted' means they had taken something true and massaged it into something that was not true, not necessarily by intention. The teachings of scripture had undergone an interpretive evolution until their notion of Messiah and the Kingdom of God became the antithesis of what the scriptures actually taught. In his sermon on the mount Jesus basically said, 'I know what you've been told to believe about what the ancients once said, but let me tell you what they really meant by what they wrote' (Mt 5:21-22; 27-28; 31-32; 33-34; 38-39; 43-44).

What would Jesus say about Christianity today? If he found us fearful because we walk by sight and not by faith, unwilling to be 'good Samaritans' because it was too risky, turning to politics as our hope for a more peaceful life on earth, and depending on our nation's military to keep us safe, how would he label our generation? What scriptures would he remind us of and show how we've so perverted their intended meaning that we've effectively created an unbelieving generation of 'believers'? Paradox.

42 While he was still approaching, the demon slammed him to the ground and threw him into a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and healed the boy and gave him back to his father. 43a And they were all amazed at the greatness of God. 

As already noted, verse 39 suggests that the boy was not always possessed and controlled by the 'unclean spirit'. Rather, the 'unclean spirit' could, at will, 'seize' the boy and cause violent convulsions. It would then 'leave' the boy. 

We are not told whether or not the unclean spirit was in possession of the boy when the father first brought him to the disciples. If not, then what was the father actually requesting from the disciples? If the unclean spirit was not possessing the boy at that time, of course the disciples couldn't have 'cast it out'. Clearly, though, the unclean spirit made a spectacular show of his power, again possessing the boy just as Jesus approached.

According to Luke, Jesus 'rebuked the unclean spirit' AND 'healed the boy'. What exactly does that mean? Was the 'unclean spirit' a psychiatric condition? Was the boy's brain healed, curing him of his disorder rather than casting out an alien being and then closing whatever 'door' that had existed into the boy's brain? In other words, the 'unclean spirit' came and left at will prior to this 'healing'. If all Jesus did was to cast the 'unclean spirit' out, what would have kept it from returning later, after Jesus journeyed elsewhere? Luke implied that Jesus did more than to merely kick out the 'unclean spirit'. Something was wrong with the boy himself, something that needed to be healed.

On the other hand, in Mark 9:25 we are told that Jesus not only cast the unclean spirit (demon) out of the boy, he then forbade the demon from returning. The cure had nothing to do with something wrong in the boy, but in a boundary overstepped by the demon. Yet, that doesn't answer our earlier question as to 'why' the demon was permitted to enter this child to begin with.

Could we say, whatever possesses you, controls you. Whatever possesses you is an 'unclean spirit' within you. Our unclean spirit could be the 'demon' of hate, impatience, unkindness, anger, revenge, anxiety, or fear? God is love. There is no fear in love (1 Jn 4:7-21).

43b But while everyone was marveling at all that He was doing, 43c He said to His disciples, 44 “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” 

Perhaps Luke's segue between verse 43a,b and verses 43c-44 somehow got left out by those who copied the original manuscript, because the jump in thoughts doesn't seem to make sense, or does it? The people were focused on the greatness of God, yet Jesus turned to his disciples and spoke about being arrested. What was going on here? Are we missing something?

It seems that Jesus was pointing out a contrast. Though the people marveled at the greatness of God, these same people would soon be among those who cried out, 'crucify him'. In other words, Jesus saw that their talk didn't manifest in their walk. They were superficial in their words of praise. They hadn't permitted God to be Lord of their hearts. For them God existed, but as a miracle working being, not as the deliverer of souls from their self-centered existence. Yet, that had been the way they were taught.

For instance, when a Christian professes faith in God, yet runs in fear every time his/her faith is tested, does that Christian actually live by faith or does s/he merely like the story 'about' Christ? If we live in fear, we don't really know (Gk. 'oikeios') Jesus personally and intimately, we just know (Gk. 'ginosko') about him as a historical religious figure. We may 'marvel' at something Jesus did without surrendering our life to him - trusting in his presence and power no matter what we face in life. That, of course, does not mean that Jesus rejects us, but that we have not accepted him and thus cannot experience 'joy and peace in believing'.

Jesus was going to be 'delivered into the hands of men'. The very One who amazed them with his supernatural power was going to be arrested by men with simply natural powers. How could that be true? If he could control the weather, cast out demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead, how could he ever come under the control of men? That was exactly the issue Jesus wanted his disciples to wrestle with.

In order for Jesus to be 'delivered into the hand of men' he would have to 'choose' to allow that to happen. Why would he do so? Why would he not protect himself from his enemies? Why would he not exercise his obvious powers and destroy all those who were evil in the world and then set up his kingdom of peace - once and for all? There is also the question of our day: 'why did he instead choose to permit evil to rule on earth for the last two millennia?'

Far more awe inspiring than victory over an enemy, is the miracle of loving an enemy, day after day, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia. Jesus chose to be defeated by the kingdom of men because he was inaugurating the new covenant kingdom of God, a kingdom built on love. God is love. Love casts out fears. By telling his disciples he was going to be arrested, he was inviting them to reevaluate their whole notion of Messiah and God's kingdom.  

45 But they did not understand this statement, and it was concealed from them so that they would not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this statement.

The Phillips translation of this verse presents it this way:  "But they made no sense of this saying—something made it impossible for them to understand it, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant."  The Message Bible renders it: "They didn’t get what he was saying. It was like he was speaking a foreign language and they couldn’t make heads or tails of it. But they were embarrassed to ask him what he meant."

My point in sharing these other translations is to suggest that God wasn't intentionally keeping the disciples from understanding the words of Jesus. The last phrase of this verse helps us to understand the first phrase. They simply could not reconcile what Jesus said with what they still believed about Messiah. Their lack of understanding was not because they refused to accept the truth nor because God refused to allow them to grasp the truth. Rather it was their inability to make sense of what Jesus said. 

This is the paradox we all face. We can't see what we can't see, even when we want to see it and make efforts to see it. Seeing the truth is not always a matter of will.

This happens in religion all the time. How we see the world around us depends on the lens we were taught to see through and have seen through each day of our life since then. That lens is as much a part of who we are as is breathing. We don't 'see' our lens, we merely see through it without realizing it. Yet it is there and it shapes what and how we see. Changing it is not as simple as suddenly deciding it is wrong and replacing it. We've seen through our particular worldview for years. 

All our memories have been shaped by the way our lens received them and planted them in our mind. Even when we grasp a truth, we seldom realize how much of who we are has been shaped by our previous belief. The paradox is that we often say one thing, yet do another, which indicates that simply learning something new doesn't immediately change the influence of what remains (Rom 7:14-24).

This, I believe, is why Jesus sent the Spirit. Even when his disciples finally grasped the truth, they would not be able to walk the truth - unless the Spirit intervened. When we give full control over to the Spirit we follow his lead even when other voices within and around us command us otherwise. That's faith working by love (Gal 5:6), rather than by sight.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Luke 9:28-36 Hello? Is Anyone Listening?

28 Some eight days after these sayings, He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 

Luke has been leading Theophilus, step by step, to a genuine faith in Christ. First, he carefully differentiated Jesus from the typical Jewish leaders. He presented Jesus as a compassionate miracle worker who always gave his full attention to the person right in front of him, rather than being like the usual law-obsessed leaders of Israel. Second, Luke led Theophilus into a discussion about who Jesus really was. He did this by telling the story where Jesus asked his disciples who 'they' believed he was. The disciples responded with the label 'Messiah'. Third, Luke  followed up with an account of Jesus challenging their more conventional understanding of what the word 'Messiah' meant, just as he had previously challenged their use of the word 'master'. Words mean something. The word 'master' should mean something. The word 'Messiah' also means something, something different from what they had been taught.

In this next section Luke further develops the idea that 'words mean something', by relating a story in which God commands an action based on their stated belief. This is where belief is differentiated from faith. Faith is trusting in that which you say you believe.  

But first, Jesus chose three of the twelve to go with him, not all twelve. That must have been a tad hard to take for some of the others. This wasn't and isn't uncommon, of course. There are times when God appears to have chosen someone else for a position we thought we were better qualified for. Yet, if we have done our best to prepare for a job, but are not chosen, we accept the results by faith as the will of God.

What were the other nine supposed to be doing while Jesus and the chosen three went up the mountain to pray? We are not told if Jesus left the nine with any instructions. Were they expected to just catch up on sleep, prepare a meal for when Jesus returned, spend the time in prayer and meditation, and/or continue ministering to the people?

Why did Jesus separate out the three from the twelve? Was their faith greater than the others, or were they selected because their faith needed more work than the others? Had he chosen them because he was intentionally designating them to be the primary leaders of the 'church' after his ascension? Or were the 'three' selected for some other less inspiring reason?

For instance, the scriptures teach, 'in the mouth of two or three witnesses we are to establish the facts' (Mt 18:16). Maybe he brought the 'two or three' simply to be witnesses to what he knew would transpire on the mountain. Only the 'three' would be witnesses to his transfiguration. The other nine would have to take their word for what was witnessed.

This, though, may have been of more significance than simply having a few witnesses on hand while he prayed. The basis for belief in Christianity has been in our acceptance of what eye witnesses observed more than 2000 years ago. None of us witnessed the resurrection of Jesus. We accept as true the word of those who claimed to have witnessed it, along with everything else that Jesus did. Westerners generally choose to believe the word of those who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus rather than the word of those who witnessed, say, the works and teachings of Mohamed or Buddha. Why? Is our belief in the stories about Jesus merely an accident of our birth?

Back to the three disciples who were chosen to accompany Jesus. Sometimes when we think we ought to be the teacher, God requires us to be the student. Humility is required. Sometimes when we imagine that we are best qualified to be the leader, we are placed in the position of a follower. 'The first shall be last and the last shall be first', is an important lesson in humility for Christians. In neither of these cases does it mean we would have been a poor teacher or a failure as a leader. It simply means that every good teacher needs to also be a good student and every good leader needs to know by experience how to be a good follower.

29 And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming. 

Why was Jesus 'transfigured', yet not Peter, James, and John? Was it because he was praying and they were not? Was it because his faith in the Father was perfect and theirs was not? Was it because God selected him and not them?

What was the purpose for this experience? Surely Jesus didn't need a change in appearance or clothing that glistened in order to pursue his mission. The disciples already believed he was the Messiah. Or, was this story intended to confirm the fact that Jesus really had come directly into the presence of God just as Moses had (Ex 34:29-35)? Was Luke attempting to suggest to Theophilus that Jesus was at least as important as Moses?

It is essential to remember that even having been in the very presence of our perfect God does not render us forever perfect. Adam sinned in the perfection of Eden, having been created perfect, and as one who walked with God in the garden. Moses 'sinned' after his mountaintop, face-radiating experience with God. Lucifer's whole prior existence was in the presence of God, yet he became the devil (Ez 28:13-15). Judas was a chosen disciple who walked beside Jesus for several years, had been empowered to cast out demons and to heal the sick, yet he betrayed Jesus. Then there was Peter. He proclaimed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus, yet later denied even knowing Jesus.

In other words, being a recipient of a divine miracle, having been endowed with supernatural gifts, blessed as an eye-witness to the works of Jesus, and/or even having lived in the very presence of God and his angels, does not guarantee anything. Our confidence can only be based on our choice to place our faith in God's grace, moment by moment. That being said, if offered the privilege to be in the very presence of God - without being instantly destroyed by his glory - I wouldn't hesitate to say yes. 

Christian confidence is through faith alone. Faith is trusting in the unseen. Whenever our confidence is riveted in what can be 'seen' and/or touched, it is not the kind of faith that the scriptures speak about (Heb 11:1). Jesus didn't concern himself with fighting the Romans, trying to change Roman laws, or in social justice motivated picketing in front of Roman courts. Social justice, as understood through the life of Jesus, meant 'being' the change he hoped others would embrace. He walked his talk. True social justice is feeding the poor, healing the sick, clothing the naked, and ministering to those in bondage. Faith in the unseen God leads us to love the person right in front of us, as Jesus did. It is a diversion from faith to place our hope in things 'seen' - in political change and forming better religious programs, etc. We are, in essence, 'transfigured' when we live each day for the glory of Christ. 

30 And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, 31 who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

If these three disciples still harbored any doubts about who Jesus really was, they could now rule out the possibility that he was the resurrected Elijah nor Moses. That being said, it seems unlikely Jesus suspected this as an issue among his twelve.

The presence of both Moses and Elijah as 'alive' certainly has some theological significance. The OT scriptures report Elijah having been taken to heaven without ever dying (2 Kgs 2:10-12). The scriptures also tell us Moses died (Dt 34:5,6; Jude 9). The former, perhaps, is a 'type' of those who will be taken into eternity having never seen death (1 Th 4:17), while the latter is a 'type' of those who will pass through the first death and be raised to life at the second coming of Christ (1 Th 4:13-16). Whichever the case, the scriptures tell us that both must first be changed (1 Cor 15:50-54).

If both Moses and Elijah were already in heaven, had they both already experienced this 'change'? Does the presence of Moses in heaven suggest that all who have died are in heaven as is Moses? If so, in what manner? If bodily, as Peter seemed to have perceived Moses' presence, then what would be the purpose for the resurrection at the second coming? My point is, were Elijah and Moses given as examples of what God intended to do for all humanity or were they proof of what God has already performed for all who have died?

Another question comes to mind. Why Moses and Elijah? Why not the original man - Adam, the great man of faith - Abraham, the man after God's own heart - King David, or even the fearless prophet - Daniel?

Moses may have been chosen because he represented the Law. Elijah may have been selected because his reappearance had been prophesied as a harbinger of the Messiah (Mal 4:5,6) and/or because he was considered the most prominent OT prophet. To the Law and the Prophets, if a person does not speak in accordance with them, there is no light in them (Is 8:20). Here were the two historical men who represented the Law and the Prophets.  'All the Law and the Prophets can be summed up in two commandments', said Jesus. 'To love God and to love your neighbor' (Mt 22:40). It seems that the presence of Moses and Elijah confirmed Jesus as the one to whom all the Law and the Prophets pointed (Mt 5:17; Lk 24:44).

If the twelve had any doubts about Jesus' relationship to the Law of Moses, Moses presence totally nixed that notion. If the twelve hesitated in their belief that Jesus was the fulfillment of messianic prophecies, the presence of Elijah set that concern to rest as well. If they had even the slightest doubt that Jesus was the chosen of God, God's presence and voice (Lk 9:34,35) should have dispelled all lingering questions.

32 Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him. 33 And as these were leaving Him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not realizing what he was saying. 

Peter referred to the two men speaking with Jesus as Moses and Elijah. We are not told how he came to identify them. Had Jesus previously introduced the two ancient men to the three disciples? No living being in the first century had ever personally met either Moses or Elijah. Whatever the case, Jesus did not challenge Peter's conclusion. Nor did Luke, who informed us that Peter, James, and John were 'fully awake', as if to say, Peter was not dreaming, delusional, or misseeing through 'morning eyes'. Assuming Peter identified the two men accurately, he then proceeded to think about how to best provide room and board for the two honored guests as soon as he noticed they were about to leave. Curiously, at this point, Luke unhesitantly stated Peter did 'not realize what he was saying.' I suppose a person could be 'fully awake', yet still sleep deprived and thus irrational. Or was Peter merely being quintessential Peter?

Though these two verses focus on Peter, we should not neglect to note something Luke may have unintentionally glossed over. It is his phrase, 'they saw His glory' (Gk. doxa). Peter, James, and John actually 'saw' the glory of Jesus and survived the experience without ending up with shining faces and glistening clothing? But, what did Luke mean when he used the word 'doxa'?

Doxa, at least in the Septuagint, was the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew term for 'glory' (Heb. kabowd). Curiously, the Hebrew, 'glory' means 'honor' and 'praise', yet the Greek word, 'doxa', as used pre-Christ, meant 'belief' or 'opinion'. Thus we have the terms orthodoxy (opinion accepted as normative, thus 'true belief') and heterodoxy (opinion viewed as non-normative). 'Doxa' did not seem like an appropriate Greek translation of of the Hebrew word 'kabowd'. On the other hand, by the time of Christ, 'doxa' had taken on a variety of meanings that included the notions of 'glory' and 'honor' and 'splendor'.  

In verse 31 Luke wrote that Moses and Elijah appeared in glory. Luke was not suggesting that they appeared only in Peter's 'opinion'. In verse 32 Luke wrote that the disciples saw Jesus' glory. We assume he is using the Greek word 'doxa' as splendor. Case closed.

34 While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” 

When is Christianity just another religiously oriented philosophy and when is it much more than that? When does Jesus move from being an interesting historical figure in our thinkng to being the Lord of our life? When does Christianity shift from being merely the culture you grew up with (an accident of birth), to being the source for divinely given principles you choose to live by? Finally, when does all this belief actually become trust? Or has it?

While enveloped both by cloud and by fear, the disciple's confidence in Jesus as the Messiah shifted into a new gear. God himself audibly confirmed to them that Jesus was the Chosen One, the Son of God. God then commanded them to listen to him. They had already invested time and effort into knowing Jesus, but they needed to fully trust him. He was about to do some things that didn't match up with their expectations for the Messiah. They would have to trust what he said to them, even when every fiber of their being had been educated to think otherwise. They had often called him Master, but more out of cultural respect than as God incarnate.

Note, if Peter had experienced hearing God while all alone on a mountain top, we might suspect he had become delusional. We often hear people claim they have audibly heard the voice of God. But in this case, Jesus brought three men with him to establish heaven's Voice as a fact. It is unlikely that all three disciples experienced the identical delusion at the very same time, unless they were all drugged or all had agreed to concoct this story.

What does it mean to have heard the authoritative voice of God Almighty speaking directly to you, commanding you to do something? Is that an experience that is possible even today? If so, is it a rarity? Is it something that happens only on mountain tops? Or is 'hearing the voice of God something a Christian should expect at all times?

Again note, God did not give them a specific command to do a specific, 'one time' thing. In other words, God didn't say, 'stop and help that needy person over there.' Rather, God was commanding the disciples of Jesus to listen to him - not just once, not just for things they agreed with, and not just on religious topics. It was a command that began at that moment and was to be the way they lived as long as they lived. Listening to the voice of Jesus was to be their whole way of life.

God's command to the disciples of Jesus didn't take Jesus by surprise. Jesus had also defined discipleship as 'listening to him' as sheep listen and obey a shepherd. "...the sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow...because they do no know the voice..." (Jn 10:4,5). In preparation for his death and resurrection Jesus promised to send the Spirit who would be their guide. Though the Spirit they would continue to hear his voice (Jn 16:12-14; Rom 8:9-17).

The followers of Christ have learned to discern the voice of Jesus from every other voice. They know Jesus' voice because they have spent time knowing him. Because they know him, they put their trust in him, so that when he speaks, they accept his word as truth and immediately obey. The question for each of us is, do we know him well enough to know his voice?     

36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and reported to no one in those days any of the things which they had seen.

The 'Voice' had spoken, but had anyone listened? Is anyone listening today?

Last week we examined Jesus' question to his disciples. He asked them, 'who do you say that I am?' They answered, 'the Messiah'. But, what did that answer mean to them? Words mean something. To say you believe Jesus is the Messiah is very different than believing he was simply Mary's son from Nazareth. Once we identify Jesus as the Messiah we need to think about what the word 'Messiah' means - or at least what it really means to us.

In this week's study Luke presents the next step. In other words, if you agree with Peter that Jesus is the Christ, then 'listen to him'. To proclaim belief that Jesus is the Christ, yet to refuse to listen and obey what he says, is to deny your own belief.

Of course we have to ask, what is your operational definition of 'Messiah'? That makes a difference. If you define Messiah simply as a gifted person among many such persons throughout history, then your response to your belief will naturally differ from someone who defines Messiah as God incarnate, the one and only Savior of all mankind.

A similar decision must be made when we use the word 'God'. What do you mean when you talk about God? Does God mean the Creator and Sustainer of all things, therefore deserving our complete devotion and unquestioning obedience? Or, when you use the word 'god' do you define it as some yet unknown, non-being force or principle implicit in the fabric of universe? In other words, depending on your definition of a term, your behavior should necessarily change. If the former definition of God is your professed belief, yet you regularly live as if the latter definition is your actual definition, then it probably is (1 Jn 2:4-6).

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Luke 9:18-27 Who Am I

18 And it happened that while He was praying alone, the disciples were with Him, and He questioned them, saying, “Who do the people say that I am?” 

The obvious question many folks have after reading verse 18 is, 'why did Jesus even ask this question?' Didn't he already know the answer? If he didn't know, shouldn't he have asked the Father? Or, was this not about what Jesus did or didn't know, but about what his disciples believed? In other words, was this a question to learn or a question to teach?

First, Jesus was both the Son of God and the son of man. As the Son of God he chose to live by faith in the Father as every son of man is invited to do. Thus, as we have noted before in Luke's gospel, he chose to set aside his omniscience and to depend upon the Father. 

Second, Jesus had just been praying. In other words, he was already talking to and listening to the Father. Jesus trusted the Father to guide him in all that he said and did (Jn 5:19; 12:50). With that in mind we may rightly assume two things, (1) if God wanted Jesus to know what others were saying about him, He could have informed him during prayer. On the other hand, (2) God may have chosen to have Jesus informed by asking his disciples what the people believed.

Third, if God had directed Jesus to ask this question of his disciples, what was God's purpose? (1) Did God want Jesus to be partially dependent upon his disciples? (2) Was it to confirm to the disciples that Jesus was not omniscient in his humanity? (3) Was the question designed as another teachable moment for the disciples? If the latter, what might God have been up to?

19 They answered and said, “John the Baptist, and others say Elijah; but others, that one of the prophets of old has risen again.” 

The Pharisees believed in a future resurrection. The disciples of Jesus had actually witnessed Jesus miraculously bringing the dead to life again. It would therefore not have been outside the realm of possibilities for them to imagine Jesus was a God resurrected ancient prophet like Elijah. Only those who had not known Jesus before John was beheaded would have imagined Jesus was the return of John.

We are all called to live in the world, but to not be of the same spirit as the world. Yet, since we are surrounded by the kingdoms of men we can't help but be confronted by a myriad of opinions, many of which may seem plausible to us either because they resonate with our internal biases and/or because they present as reasonable ideas.

Recall that the disciples had previously asked Jesus to send the crowd away so that the multitude could find sufficient room and board before nightfall. The disciple's request was reasonable and nicely reflected their growing compassion for others. Yet Jesus told them 'no'. Instead, he showed them a better way to serve, a way that required imaginative faith thinking way outside their rather small box of mere common sense reasoning.

In this case Jesus wanted the disciples to recall all the various explanations they had heard regarding his identity. He then invited them to think carefully about each belief and then to express their own conclusions. In other words, he invited them to be 'critical thinkers'.

If we walk with Jesus in this world we will be continually bombarded with a plethora of ideas. We need to learn how to think through each belief in order to discern which ones are based on the best facts available and which ideas are not. Even more importantly, we need to discern the difference between what is factual for this world and what is eternal kingdom truth. Our Christian faith will have far more credibility if we meet others where they are by dealing in empirical evidence rather than privately held opinions. Once that foundation has been laid, we can then suggest a 'better way' - the way of truth.

So, Jesus taught his disciples both to (1) think outside the box by faith as Kingdom citizens, and to (2) use critical thinking skills when dealing with the kingdom of men.

20 And He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered and said, “The Christ of God.” 

Was it more plausible to believe that Jesus was a resurrected ancient prophet than to imagine he was the long promised Messiah? Curiously, for many, the answer was 'yes'. Recall that the religious leaders had taught the people a very different picture of the coming Messiah than what was being witnessed in Jesus. Thus it truly was natural to believe Jesus was a resurrected former prophet than the long-awaited, supremely powerful, Roman clobbering Messiah.

Various notions of Messiah existed among the Jews prior to the time of Jesus. Common Messianic beliefs included that he would be (1) a mighty Abraham-like advocate for the rights of God's chosen people, (2) a Moses-like deliverer from bondage, (3) a no nonsense Samuel-like judge, (4) a wise Solomon-like guide to Israel, (5) a conquering David-like king, and (6) Elijah-like executioner of any non-repentant enemies of the Jews.

No matter what most people believed, Peter didn't hesitate to immediately state his own belief. He had, even from the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, believed He was the God-sent Christ. That being true, we need to ask another question. When Peter said that he believed Jesus was the Messiah, what exactly did that mean to Peter? What was 'his' operational definition for 'the Christ of God'? We need to be careful not to anachronistically assume and then substitute our 21st century, Protestant Christian definition of 'the Christ' for Peter's 1st century definition.

The scriptures capture Peter's beliefs about Jesus. Peter believed Jesus was: a God sent/empowered, compassionate miracle worker (Mt 16:16; Lk 5:7-9), a wise, but not always reasonable leader (Mt 15:15; Lk 8:45; Jn 6:68), uniquely greatly favored by God (9:33), a gifted and insightful teacher (Lk 11:1), one who could never die (Mt 16:22), and Peter apparently believed Jesus was willing to destroy anyone who rejected His gospel message (Lk 9:54). Implicit in Peter's beliefs about Jesus are several contradictions and certainly notions that differ from our modern views about Jesus as the Messiah.

21 But He warned them and instructed them not to tell this to anyone, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day.” 

Jesus periodically told others 'not to tell anyone about: some eternal truth they (demons) were privy to (Lk 4:41), about some miracle (healing lepers, raising the dead) he had performed (Lk 8:56) or, in this case, some conclusion (Jesus was the Christ) they had come to (Lk 9:21). Why?

Does heaven not place much importance on transparency? Did Jesus prefer to retain a certain level of mystery about his identity? Was he using reverse psychology - i.e. by saying 'no' he knew people would naturally be even more inclined to disobey? Or were there good, practical, and valid reasons behind his desire to keep certain facts secret?

Should we always tell the truth? Should we always be transparent? Perhaps not. Here are some reasons why:

(1) Facts prematurely revealed can become insurmountable obstacles to any eventual understanding of the truth. The truth can scar people who aren't prepared for it.

(2) When people are desperate and/or suffering they often use facts self-indulgently, without seeing the larger picture, unwittingly placing innocent others in danger.

(3) We often place more value on the beliefs we have discovered through personal experience than on the beliefs shared with us from another's experience. It is often better to give others the opportunity to discover the truth themselves.

(4) Malicious and/or narrow-minded people often use facts out of context as a pretext to gain an advantage over other people. Sometimes our free speech rights only give our enemies more useful ammunition against us. This is made abundantly clear during an election process.

In this particular case, as intimated by Jesus in verse 22, if the disciples revealed to the world their own beliefs about the identity of Jesus, the crowds may have created a scene eliciting a severe Roman response. Additionally, if the people became convinced by the truth, that Jesus was the Messiah, they would have tried to keep him from doing the very thing he was sent to accomplish - to demonstrate a life of faith in God, even to death.

23 And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. 24 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. 25 For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 

Yikes, according to Luke, Jesus had cleverly led his disciples into some deep soul searching. First, he asked them who they believed he was. Second, Jesus told them he knew he would be rejected by the leadership of his religion and executed, Finally, Jesus asked them, 'if you know who I am and the path I have chosen, do you still want to follow me?

In other words, if you truly know who Jesus is, you must also know that he conquered his enemies through love rather than by a sword. If you know his most powerful weapon was love, yet you still insist on being his disciple, you must realize that the cost of discipleship is everything - loving others, including enemies, even to the point of death. 

In a modern, democratic, 'Christian' country in which religious freedom is protected by law, it is natural to assume being a follower of Christ is as easy as breathing. American 'Christians' largely believe, say, and do whatever they choose and still label themselves disciples of Jesus. Yet Jesus described discipleship in contrary terms: (1) you must deny yourself, (2) take up your cross, and to (3) follow wherever He leads.

If his wannabe followers still didn't get it, he added more criteria: (4) whoever wishes to save his life, is not a disciple, (5) whoever seeks to gain this world, is not a disciple, and (6) whoever is ashamed of Jesus and his teachings, is not a disciple. Oops.

In other words, discipleship isn't about how much bible you know, but about how much you love and trust Jesus. Discipleship isn't about finding peace and safety in this world, but about having peace and joy despite suffering in this world. Discipleship isn't about having religious and economic freedom, but about giving up all your rights so that the only voice you respond to is His. Discipleship isn't about doing everything possible to live a long and healthy life, but about living a Christ-centered, self-sacrificing life even if everyone hates you and even if it leads to death. Discipleship isn't having a membership in a Christian organization, faithfully going to church every week, saying your prayers each morning and evening, regularly studying your bible lessons, or choosing to only listening to Christian music and/or read Christian literature.

The Christian penchant for political power is, in many cases, an attempt to evade the 'cost of discipleship. If we can force the world to adopt Christian principles we won't have to sacrifice anything. Interestingly, Christian men and women are actually willing to kill enemies and to even sacrifice their own lives in war in order to create and preserve an earthly kingdom where their loved ones will not have to sacrifice anything. This is, according to Luke's gospel, a misguided perspective.  

Christ-centered discipleship is a decision to know, listen to, and to follow Jesus as your first and best impulse and choice each moment of each day. That is a choice you make, not to earn salvation, but in response to God's gift of grace. Christians are called to set an example of faith in God. We are not called to create a world that does not require faith.

The next reasonable question is, can a person be a 'saved' recipient of God's grace, yet not be a disciple of Christ? 

27 But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”

Clearly, the 'kingdom of God' Jesus proclaimed would not be some end time creation, but was already a first century reality. It was not something that would take centuries before it would be understood, but 'some' who were with Jesus long before his crucifixion would enter into God's kingdom before 'tasting death'. This is, said Jesus, the 'truth'.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Luke 9:12-17 Unexpected Supper Guests

12 Now the day was ending, and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.” 

Last week we examined Jesus' instructions regarding 'the kingdom of God'. Luke summed it up in three points. (1) Proclaim the Kingdom of God - belief, (2) Walk your Kingdom talk - trust, (3) Do not insist others see and/or accept your belief - love.

When the disciples returned from their mission trip Jesus took them aside to debrief them. Unfortunately, they were prematurely interrupted by a crowd of folks who were seeking to be healed. Jesus chose to deal with the needs of the crowd rather than to pursue his own personal wants (Rom 15:1).

As evening arrived the twelve compassionately urged Jesus to send the crowd home, but Jesus had another lesson planned for the twelve. He wanted to deepen their spiritual experience of living by faith alone. Though their suggestion to Jesus was rational, practical, and compassionate, it lacked a 'faith in God' perspective. In other words, the twelve proposed the best 'human' solution, but had not taken the time to imagine the alternative possibility of a 'God' solution.

Faith in the living God is not merely a useful tool the Christian pulls out only when faced with difficult circumstances. The NT invites us to 'live by faith' at all times, 24/7 (2 Cor 5:17). As with Jesus, God is communicating and guiding us continually (Jn 5:19, 30; 6:38; 8:38; 12:49,50; 14:10). The Christian accepts by faith that God's thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways, our ways (Is 55:8,9; Jer 29:11,12). To pray unceasingly (1 Thes 5:17) is to be always anticipating and therefore listening for God's idea moment by moment, both in good times as well as during bad times. 

So, instead of first seeking a good and just human solution to a problem, Jesus wanted them to always first seek the wisdom from above (Mt 6:33; Jas 3:17). Our best human solution may fall far short of God's far better solution. God may, of course, commend the best human solution rather than providing a miracle, yet knowing his will should always be our first choice, not an after thought.

It was one thing for the twelve to know they were authorized and empowered to effect healing for every leper they met, to cast out unclean spirits from anyone possessed, and to restore sight to each blind person encountered. But Jesus hadn't restricted his empowerment. He had empowered them to love their neighbor no matter what the situation they were in. Through God they were enabled to do the impossible, if only they could imagine the possibilities. Jesus invites us to always live with our hearts open to the divine imagination, rather than stifled my self-imposed, human limits.

The twelve had received and used their empowerment in a formulaic manner - thinking only concretely, taking Jesus' words literally, to the letter. I.e. he 'gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases' (Lk 9:1). Yet Jesus had actually intended to wet their appetite, not confine it. He was constantly leading them to always keep in mind, in all circumstances, 'what is impossible with man is possible with God' (Lk 18:27). They were being taught to confidently and relentlessly imagine outside the box of common human expectations. In fact, the scriptures invite all of us to imagine 'outside the box' - in the Spirit. How far 'outside the box' we imagine is something between each individual and God.   

13 But He said to them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and buy food for all these people.” (For there were about five thousand men.) 

This was Jesus' surprise move. 'You feed them', he said. Yet, the disciples were still stuck in their self-imposed, religious confinement. I imagine some of them were thinking, 'but you only told us to cast out demons and to heal sick people. You didn't say that we could miraculously feed over 5K people.' Such is the narrow, legalistic mind of many Christians even today.

Recently someone wrote a tongue and cheek article claiming that Jesus was a 'plant' rather than a human being. It was a spoof on those who claim to only follow what the bible explicitly says. With that in mind the article's author cleverly pointed out various OT prophecies that referred to the coming Messiah as the 'branch', a 'root', and a 'tender plant'. Jesus himself also claimed to be the 'vine'. So, if we restricted ourselves only to the literalist hermeneutic, we can only conclude that Jesus truly was a 'plant'. The point in all this is that we need to be careful that we don't anachronistically impose our personal or even our denomination's interpretive preferences onto what Bible authors may have intended.

Alternatively, Bible scholars encourage us to assume that each bible text has the possibility of being interpreted in at least four ways - literally, symbolically, ethically, and mystically. It would be unwise to confine our hermeneutic to only one of these methods, as the illustration above well illustrates. The disciples had unwittingly restricted themselves to a more concrete understanding of what Jesus taught. Nicodemus, as every Bible class student recalls, was also given to literal thinking (Jn 3:4). Are we?

14 And He said to His disciples, “Have them sit down to eat in groups of about fifty each.” 

The disciples were still drawing a blank. Even their combined brain power couldn't imagine beyond the tangible five loaves and two fish. How was it possible to feed 5000 plus people? They didn't even have sufficient cash on hand to purchase the amount of food that would be necessary to feed this crowd. They weren't even sure if all the food establishments in all the surrounding villages could provided the required amount of food for this large group.

This problem proved to be yet another teachable moment for the disciples.

Jesus hadn't, at least up to this point, performed a group miracle. He had always healed folks one by one, tailoring his interventions to the specific need of each individual. In this instance there would be one miracle from which all present would be served. He could have, of course, simply rained down upon the crowd an abundance of heavenly manna - or wild caught salmon from the north Atlantic and loaves of freshly baked multi-grain bread. Yet, instead, Jesus personalized even this group miracle by (1) having the twelve divide the 5000 into small groups of 50, (2) taking the 5 loaves and 2 fish and blessing what he did have in order to create more, then (3) involved his disciples in serving the people.

Jesus personally touched each fish and loaf before giving it to his disciples. They, in turn, gave them to the people. In effect, each disciple acted as the hand of Jesus. We all are the feet, hands, and mouth of God serving in our world each moment.

Because so many children starve to death in today's world, many have asked, 'is this a true story or an allegory?' If the latter, what was it's purpose? Some scholars suggest that the narrative underscores the teaching that Jesus is a never-ending source of joy and peace to all who believe - thus the story nicely reveals this 'truth'. Yet, they also reason that the story is not 'factual' because if God could, but refuses to miraculously feed starving children today, then God would not be a very good God. If every life matters, why then does God permit thousands of children to die of starvation/malnutrition every day without ever having heard of Christ? In fact, if every life matters, why does the miracle-working Son of God allow suffering to continue in our world millennia after millennia?

In response, Christian 'theodicy' suggests that a good God does coexist despite the prevalence of evil, simply because our God respects human free will. The bible account is therefore both a fact and a truth. Christ came to introduce us to the compassionate nature of God, yet does not insist that humanity receive the love of God. Jesus patiently ministers from heaven on our behalf enduring human suffering not because he won't or can't remove evil, but because humanity persistently chooses to embrace evil. Meanwhile, in light of this world's reality, Jesus has taught believers how to 'defect in place' - how to have joy and peace in this world despite the suffering that not only surrounds us, but even when we ourselves experience suffering.  

15 They did so, and had them all sit down. 

The disciples did not know how to successfully obey Jesus' command. He had said to them, 'YOU give them something to eat.' They lacked the ability to imagine beyond their small box thinking, even though they had just been given the opportunity to personally work miracles. They still clung to a worldview that unfortunately came with a stifling set of rules effectively obfuscating kingdom of God possibilities. Jesus, even as a great teacher, made persistent efforts to break the fetters of their minds, yet had not completely uprooted their many false notions.

To their credit though, the twelve were open to learn. Though they didn't know how to obey Jesus' command to feed the multitude, they did know how to humbly obey his subsequent command to have the people sit down in groups of 50. They didn't whine about being asked to do the seemingly impossible. Instead, they all seemed to possess an increasing sense of anticipation that Jesus was about to 'blow their minds' once again.

One lesson in all this is, when we can't discern what God may be saying to us nor understand how to obey something we believe God has commanded us to do, we can at least do what we know to do, expecting that heaven will meet us at the point of what we can understand and work to bring us up to speed at the pace we can follow - if we are willing.

Jesus presented them with a command he had already equipped them to obey, yet knew they were unprepared to understand how to obey. He was not trying to publicly humiliate them, nor was actually expecting them to be able to accomplish his command. Rather, Jesus used their concern for the needs of the people as an opportunity to "do far more abundantly beyond all that they asked or thought.." (Eph 3:20).

Having set his seemingly insane, impossible objective before them, he then backed off, accepted them as sincere, but imagination-poor, and showed them how faith in God can lead them into 'something better'. Because the twelve respected and trusted Jesus, they were humble and teachable. Jesus didn't berate them for being dumb. They had not resisted his initial command out of fear or laziness, but only because they genuinely couldn't see what they couldn't see. He not only demonstrated what could be done through faith, but also how to release their imagination by faith. 

16 Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them, and broke them, and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the people. 

Spirituality, as defined in it's most general form, is an act of creation. More specifically, it is taking responsibility for whatever exists in front of you, knowing you have a choice to either destroy it or to add to it's beauty. Refusing to make a choice is, of course, always a choice. When your choice is to enhance, encourage, invite, permit, restore, reframe, or rebuild something, you have chosen to 'create'. That impulse is spiritual. In the Christian sense whenever - because of our faith in God - we intentionally choose to build up rather than to destroy, it is considered 'rational worship', or as some versions translate it, 'our spiritual service of worship' (Rom 12:1 NASB).

In this case the disciples laid before Jesus five loaves and two fish. In response to the love of God, Jesus chose to 'make something beautiful' from the little that was set in front of him. Through the power of God he multiplied what he was given in order to feed the multitude. In this situation the act of beauty was in increasing the number of the objects - fish and loaves - in front of him in order to feed every mouth.

There was another spiritual act involved in this story. Jesus invited his twelve disciples to participate by taking what he gave them and going forth to serve the people. In other words, he took the men who helplessly stood in front of him and gave them a task that made them more 'beautiful' in character.

Spirituality, in it's most profound and delicate form, is simply choosing beauty. Sometimes that requires a choice to 'do' something to add beauty, yet many times it is simply to choose to give room for existing beauty to be revealed. Spirituality is common to our humanity, yet not always recognized as such because we often equate spirituality with religion. Yet, what may make spirituality 'Christian' is when our spiritual acts are made in response to our faith in God.   

17 And they all ate and were satisfied; and the broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.

As our spirituality matures, the world around us benefits. I like the way the NASB translates verse 17. 'They all ate and were satisfied'. It wasn't a 5 star restaurant dining experience. Rather, it was just 'something better' than the hunger they felt only moments before. Miracles are often just simple things that make life a little better.

It would have been obvious to all that a convoy of food trucks hadn't followed Jesus to this location. The crowd hadn't come expecting Jesus to provide a meal or even a snack to tide them over until they could return home. Yet, to their joy, Jesus had observed the situation as it was and determined to offer 'something better', to take what was present in front of him - the crowd, his twelve disciples, and five loaves and two fish - and create something even more beautiful. In doing so he offered worship to his heavenly Father.

The people sat in small groups of 50. The disciples served each small group. Everyone, rich and poor, male and female, old and young, partook of the same meal - fish and bread. When it was all over, everyone was full and thus satisfied. Each of the twelve disciples had a basket full of left-overs, underscoring that no one went away hungry. This was a 'beautiful thing'. I wonder, though, did Jesus stop to eat too?

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Luke 9:1-11 It's All About God's Kingdom

1 And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. 2 And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing. 

The 'twelve'. Should we take that number literally or figuratively or both?

1. The 'twelve' refers to twelve specific men, at least initially, which, of course, included Judas.
2. These twelve men were called together and given power and authority to cast out demons, heal diseases, and were - in a sense - 'licensed' by Jesus to preach the kingdom of God.
3. Though other men traveled with Jesus from the very beginning (Acts 1:21,22), they were not 'called', nor given this same 'power and authority' - at this particular time (Lk 9:1,2). Yet, later seventy men were sent out with similar authority (Luke 10:1,2; 19). In other words, the twelve seemed to serve as a template for what Christ would perform through others who followed him.
4. Though various women also traveled with Jesus (Luke 8:1,2; 23:49), none of them were called and given 'power and authority' as part of the twelve or even the seventy. Yet, maybe even that may have changed in time. Jesus promised that all who believe in him will have the power to cast out demons (Mk 16:17; Act 2:14-19) and Paul wrote that in Christ there is no longer a distinction based on gender (Gal 3:23-29).
5. Though the 'twelve' did originally refer to the specific twelve men chosen by Jesus, it later applied to the twelve men that included Matthias, who had been chosen to replace Judas (Act 1:24-26). This indicates that the 'twelve' was not meant to always and only apply to the original twelve chosen men. With that in mind, post Pentecost, could the 'twelve' be used figuratively (i.e. Rev 21:12-21) - referring to anyone God has 'called' by his Spirit and empowered to go forth in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to make disciples (Mt 28:19)?

When Jesus sent out the 'twelve' their primary task was to proclaim the kingdom of God. But, what exactly is the 'kingdom of God' they were to proclaim? Were they to present the GPS coordinates specifying where believers were to gather together to construct God's kingdom? Had Jesus also given them an architectural blueprint from which the saints were  expected to build a brick and mortar kingdom? Did the 'twelve' proclaim the 'kingdom of God' as a first century or future reality?

Jesus rhetorically asked, 'what is the kingdom of God like?' (Lk 13:18). Here are some answers from scripture:

1. Jesus said to the poor in spirit, 'yours is the kingdom of God' (Lk 6:20).
2. Jesus said, some present would not die until they saw the kingdom of God (Lk 9:27).
3. Jesus wanted the world to know that the kingdom of God was near to them (Lk 10:9).
4. That Jesus acted by the power of God meant, according to Jesus, the kingdom of God had already come (Lk 11:20).
5. When asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he told them it was already in their midst, yet it could not be seen by mere human sight (Lk 17:21).
6. In fact, Jesus told Nicodemus only those who were born of the Spirit could 'see' the kingdom of God (Jn 3:1-8).
7. The kingdom of God, according to Paul, was and will never be a physical place inherited by flesh and blood (1 Cor. 15:50). Why?
8. Because Paul, as did Jesus, said the kingdom of God is about having righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit (Rom 14:17).

In other words, the twelve were sent out to proclaim a kingdom that anyone could enter at any time, simply by chosing to place their faith in God. Whenever we choose to walk by sight and not by faith, we live outside the kingdom of God. Whenever we choose to walk by faith and not by sight, we experience the peace and joy of God's kingdom.

Can we be imperfect wishy-washy citizens of heaven who have regular lapses of faith? The fact that Christ inaugurated the new covenant of grace assumes that no believer will walk without stumbling. Citizenship in the kingdom of God is not conditional - based upon on our own righteousness, but by faith in Christ's righteousness. That being said, the degree of genuine peace and joy we experience as followers of Christ is dependent upon the degree to which we walk in the Spirit rather than in the flesh.    

By faith we know that all our sins (past, present, and future) have been forgiven and we are treated as having the righteousness of Christ. The Spirit calms the soul, giving us peace and joy, despite the craziness of this world. It is not a peace and joy achievable through human power, prestige, possessions, or privilege. It is a 'joy and peace in believing' (Rom 15:13). It is a renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2) as we mature from 'faith to faith'. Remember, the kingdom of God is not some divine, 'bait and switch', 'gotcha' scheme where God invites you in then threatens you with hell every time you fall short of some heaven-imposed faith threshold. The kingdom of God is 'peace and joy'. Why? Because of God's grace. The love of God encourages growth in faith.

3 And He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece. 

Luke's logic appears to follow the understanding of Paul, his spiritual mentor. In other words, if the kingdom of God is about joy and peace in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17), and that joy and peace in the Holy Spirit comes from believing in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:13), then a kingdom person will be ever learning how to trust the Spirit more and more consistently, moment by moment. Paul, of course, was not really saying anything different from what Jesus himself taught, as Luke nicely reminds us: 'take nothing for your journey..' Trust Me. That level of trust doesn't usually happen on the first day we meet Christ, nor do we achieve a perfect walk in the Spirit in a few months - as the stories of the disciples reveals. 

It is one thing to be sent to proclaim the gospel, but something entirely different to actually live out the gospel. Knowing (Gk. ginosko) 'about' the gospel is infinitely different from intimately knowing (Gk. oikeios) the gospel as a practitioner of the faith. Faith in God is more than mere belief in the existence of God. The scriptures remind us that even the devil believes in the existence of God. Christian 'faith' differs from mere 'belief' because to live by faith requires actually trusting in God regardless of our circumstances. Again, that kind of faith grows with time as we learn to cease clinging so tightly to the things of this world as a source of our security.

Apostles are called and sent out when they have sufficiently matured in their faith-walk. In other words, they have pretty much learned to walk their talk. They are led by the Spirit moment by moment, rather than by 'sight'. Yet few kingdom people have apostle-level faith, which is why grace must exist. We may need mature faith to be apostles, but we need precious little faith to enter the kingdom of God. Sadly, though, for many Christians doctrinal belief and religious membership are often confused with saving faith. In religion we trust, rather than in God we trust, certainly described me for many years. Yet, God met me as I lived 'under the law', until the Spirit guided me into a life 'under grace'. 
4 Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that city. 5 And as for those who do not receive you, as you go out from that city, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” 6 Departing, they began going throughout the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. 

What has Luke said thus far in chapter 9? First, his disciples were to proclaim the present, first century reality of the kingdom of God. Second, they were to walk their talk, to demonstrate that they actually trusted the God they proclaimed. Third, trusting in God as a kingdom person does not require forcing others to live as you live.

Many run with verse 1 and 2, yet completely ignore verse 3. They proclaim the kingdom, but do not trust in the God of the kingdom. When actual trust in the God of the kingdom is absent, only the  methods of the kingdoms of men are available for daily use. When God's love for man is not trusted, insisting on our own way (the antithesis of love - 1 Cor 13:5) becomes our method of choice. Whenever we believe that our sense of righteousness, peace, and joy can only be experienced by forcing others around us to conform to our standards, then we have only created a pseudo kingdom - something Christendom has often majored in.

When we live by faith as citizens of the kingdom of God we live in the world, but choose not to depend upon the common worldly methods for gaining peace and joy. We have learned that genuine righteousness, peace, and joy are Spirit-gifted attributes that never require the world around us to be any different than it is. Believing that nothing can separate us from God's love for us (Rom 8:35-39), we live by faith rather than by sight.

If others choose not to receive our message, we leave them free to continue under the principles of the kingdom of men. Love for neighbor manifests in respect for the choices made by our neighbor. As soon as we insist that 'our' beliefs must be their beliefs, we demonstrate that we do not know God very well. The love that comes from God doesn't insist on it's own way. "The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere" (Jas 3:17). God never forces or attempts to scare people into his kingdom. Rather, he loves them in - loving them just as they are.  

7 Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was happening; and he was greatly perplexed, because it was said by some that John had risen from the dead, 8 and by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen again. 9 Herod said, “I myself had John beheaded; but who is this man about whom I hear such things?” And he kept trying to see Him. 

Luke followed up his primer on the kingdom of God - i.e. proclaim the truth; walk your kingdom talk: and don't insist that others see as you see - with a contrasting example of what not to do, who not to emulate.

The life of Herod the tetrarch was a powerful example of an unsavory religious leader living under the principles of the kingdom of men, eschewing the ways of heaven. He kept trying to force the world around him to conform to his own will, his own ideas of success. He didn't allow for any opinion other than his own. He eliminated anyone who challenged his will. He believed his way was the only right way.

In contrast to Herod's 'kingdom', our American democracy has established freedom on the basis of respect for diversity of opinions. We carefully maintain a unity in diversity and thus protect both religious freedom and free speech. Sadly, there are many, even Christians, who believe America's future can only be successful if we eliminate divergent opinions. In other words, like Herod, they believe there is only one right way to do everything and that right way is 'their' way. They believe in unity in uniformity and insist that is the only way to 'save' America. Yet, wherever respect for diverse opinions is lost, tyranny begins. Or as written long ago, "intolerance is the mother of tyranny" (Westminster Review, Vol. 149, 1898).

Christian faith operates independently of any government policies and/or social norms. As citizens of the kingdom of God we live under grace and find righteousness, peace, and joy through the Spirit, not through anything provided by the kingdoms of men. Whenever being a faithful Christian becomes dependent upon external cultural values or government policies we are not actually living by faith in God, but in man. This is not to say that Christians don't appreciate religious liberty or social values that reflect Christian values, but only to remind ourselves that faith is not sight. Christian faith operates successfully under any circumstance this world presents. We certainly vote for freedom for all citizens, but realize that the absence of government freedom doesn't mean the absence of our freedom in Christ.

Herod thought he had eliminated his critic, John the Baptist. Yet, One more powerful had appeared upon the scene, confusing him. Tyrants always have a skewed view of reality, thus the inexplicable predictably elicits a response that is irrational.  

10 When the apostles returned, they gave an account to Him of all that they had done. Taking them with Him, He withdrew by Himself to a city called Bethsaida. 

A good teacher gives students assignments that challenge them, gives them time to thoroughly wrestle with the assignment, then debriefs them on their experience, encouraging the learning 'process'. Successfully arriving at the 'one and only one' correct answer is the objective of a narcissistic professor. A real teacher is generally far more interested in the development of thinking skills among his students, since life never presents us with a closed set of problems to solve. Success in life requires thinking skills, not a list of set answers.

The study of scripture offers this kind of problem solving instruction. The issues are myriad. The solutions variable. The wisdom needed comes from above and is always adapted to a specific individual in a specific time and place. While the scriptures offer a few broad principles for living by faith, the most important principle is placing faith in God. If there was a one-size-fit-all set of principles to live by, living by faith would clearly be unnecessary. We would merely live by the list. The invitation to live by faith and to walk in the Spirit assumes the believer will require moment by moment guidance from the all-wise, living God rather than to merely carry around a guide book. The former is dynamic while the latter is dead letter (2 Cor 3:6).

11 But the crowds were aware of this and followed Him; and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing.

The best laid plans of men are often overthrown by the realities of life. Often it is difficult if not impossible to do what you know is the best thing to do. Circumstances change things. Circumstances frequently place us between a hard place and a rock, forcing us to choose between bad or worse. An idealist increasingly removes himself from reality in order to live out his ideology. Many churches operate in this manner. Jesus, though, took a different tact. He made sure that his disciples were confronted with every day reality. They were to be in the world, but not of the world in heart.

The only useful ideology is a Spirit-led life under grace that can maintain an abiding sense of peace and joy no matter what the circumstance. Any religion that requires a specific type of government, political party, or culture in order to function, falls far short of being useful to the human race. Jesus presented a spirituality that promised a life of peace and joy for anyone, under any government, political party system, or culture, for all generations of mankind. If our version of Christianity can only function in the United States, then we need to question our belief, rather than our government and culture.   

The 'kingdom of God' is entered simply by faith. As a citizen of God's kingdom of grace we enter into an ongoing transformation of our mind that effectually matures our faith. Thus, rather than living by 'sight', a kingdom person increasingly lives by faith. There is a joy and peace in believing and trusting in God, no matter what one's earthly circumstance. There is less and less attachment to and dependence upon religion as we explore the height, depth, length, and breath of spirituality. The result is witnessed by the way we love our fellow man.

The role of the church is to protect and guide people as they mature in faith, rather than to hold them hostage in one particular stage of faith development. People seldom rise to a higher spirituality than their chosen leader, which is why we should seek spiritual mentors who are also always growing in their faith.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Luke 8:40-56 The Healing Touch

40 And as Jesus returned, the people welcomed Him, for they had all been waiting for Him.

We have all waited for someone at some time or another, but why did we wait for that person? Were you waiting simply because you liked the person or because that person had something you wanted? Turning this question around, have you ever met up with someone who was waiting for you, but realized they were not so much interested in you, but in what you had for them?

When Jesus left Galilee with his disciples to sail to the other side of the lake, the Jews waited for his return. Were they waiting for Jesus the Person or for what Jesus could do for them? I wonder how often the humanity of Jesus was disappointed by those who waited for him when it was clear they only desires his miracles, but not him? How many times did he watch people walk away from him immediately after being healed, without so much as a thank you?

In this story, we are told that Jesus had intentionally left one side of the lake in order to take his disciples to 'the other side' where they encountered people who believed and lived differently. He may have chosen to do this for a variety of reasons, but maybe his primary objective was to use an extreme circumstance to teach them that differences do not make another person any less human. Each person - regardless of gender, culture, social status, religion, political persuasion, or abilities - is as equally valued by God as every other human being. For God so love the world...not merely Galilean Jews. Learning this important lesson would help them, upon their return, to serve their own Jewish people far more compassionately. He wanted the twelve to look at each person as loved by God, not as a commodity to be used, and not to be distracted by external differences and/or sins.

So, why were the people actually waiting for the return of Jesus? Did they gather along the shore of the Lake of Galilee to hear more of his teaching? Were they wondering if he and his disciples had survived the storm? Had the 'other' boats returned to Capernaum after encountering the storm, yet the boat with Jesus and his disciples had not? Or, were they worried because they believed he had traveled to a hostile region where his life may have been threatened?

The simplest answer to these questions, from the context of this chapter, is there were a whole lot more folks who needed his healing power and they had gathered at the shore for that reason alone. They hoped Jesus would return because they needed his 'touch'. So, when he did return, they welcomed him as if he was a 21st century 'rock star' physician. 

41 And there came a man named Jairus, and he was an official of the synagogue; and he fell at Jesus’ feet, and began to implore Him to come to his house; 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, and she was dying. But as He went, the crowds were pressing against Him. 

Sometimes, even when led to do the right thing, obstacles are encountered along the way. In other words, simply because something may be the right thing to do does not guarantee that it will be a simple thing to do. More, even if you are obeying the call of God, that does not mean heaven will remove all obstacles. The obstacles may even serve as God's 'Hazaels' (2 Kgs 8), anointed to refine our faith.

Without question, Jairus loved his only daughter. He did the right thing, he went to see Jesus and fell humbly at the Healer's feet, pleading her case. Whether or not he had taken her illness as seriously as he should have in the beginning, had waited too long to seek help once he realized the severity of her illness, had stubbornly depended too much upon local physicians, or had initially resisted going to Jesus due to some prejudice against the Healer - he did finally go to Jesus. Jesus, as was his usual practice of grace, did not raise any of these questions.

43 And a woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and could not be healed by anyone, 44 came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His cloak, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45 And Jesus said, “Who is the one who touched Me?” And while they were all denying it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing in on You.” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone did touch Me, for I was aware that power had gone out of Me.” 

This woman must have noticed that many folks had brushed by Jesus without being cured of their diseases. She also must have witnessed that all those who had been healed had been specifically blessed by merely a word or a touch from Jesus. He didn't heal everyone in the surrounding crowd with some impersonal, generic, one-time curative prayer.

Yet, somehow, this woman became convinced that if she could just touch the fringe of Jesus' cloak she would be healed. Had she heard rumors about others who had 'stolen' a healing from Jesus by simply touching his cloak? Had she overheard her neighbors debating the means through which Jesus healed? Or had something in her cultural background, perhaps a superstitious tradition, primed her to singularly imagine that by simply touching his cloak she would be healed?

Whatever the case, she carefully weaved her way through the crowd to test out her conclusion. When she was within reach she intentionally touched just the fringe of his cloak and instantly received the response she had hoped for. She was healed.

What was that like? Did the power that flowed from his body to hers feel like an electric shock or did she simply receive a warm, embracing sensation?

I doubt if she subsequently wondered why her touch had effected an immediate cure while others who were also in contact with Jesus were not healed. Was the 'trick' in her intentionality as opposed to their careless contacts? Was it possible for someone to intentionally touch the cloak of Jesus 'just to see' what would happen, yet not experience a his healing power? Was there something unique to her purposeful touch that permitted it to be successful? Verse 48 of this pericope answers this question.

47 When the woman saw that she had not escaped notice, she came trembling and fell down before Him, and declared in the presence of all the people the reason why she had touched Him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

Consider what may have been going on in this women's head at that moment immediately have she was cured. Imagine the internal conflict between the sensing the rightness of her faith and the wrongness of her method. Jesus felt power leaving his body? Now he was looking for the 'power' thief? Was this really some sort of clandestine, contrarian, act of mixed up faith? Was this an oxymoronic, 'self-centered faith'?

The woman's own conscience brought a prompt accusation of theft against her. She feared being publicly exposed as a self-centered, impatient crook. Though she wanted to run and hide her perceived 'sin', escaping the consequences was quickly discerned as an impossibility. She chose, under the duress of ineluctable circumstance, to confess her wrong and accept whatever punishment Jesus might inflict upon her. Would he remove her healing? Would he have her stoned? Would he require her to be banished from Israel?

Have you ever chosen to achieve a good, yet through knowingly wrong methods? Or have you ever chosen to do something bad, yet justified it because you did it for a good reason? If so, what went on in your mind while doing this? What thoughts did you have after the fact? If it all turned out for the best, did you still feel some guilt?

As we've repeatedly encountered throughout Luke's gospel, Jesus often chose to overlook weaknesses common to human nature - in this case the woman's choice to act surreptitiously - and chose to reveal and encourage the good that she had in her heart - her 'faith' - rather than her choice of method.

There is another element to this story that shouldn't be overlooked. Recall when Jesus chose to heal the leper, he also warned him to not tell others. He knew that if the word got out other lepers would ignore the prohibitions and enter any city where Jesus was known to be ministering. Yet, despite the risk that the leper might brush off Jesus' warning as unnecessary humility, He took the risk anyways. The same was true in this case. Jesus knew that if He publicly commended this woman's faith in secretly touching his cloak for a healing that many others would henceforth simply attempt to touch him without permission. Healing would eventually be viewed less as a loving act of God through His servant, Jesus, and more as something intrinsically magical to the robe Jesus wore - which actually became the theme of a famous 1953 Hollywood movie. Again, despite the risks, Jesus would not permit this woman's faith to remain hidden. He chose to do whatever it took to encourage her faith, rather than to let her go feeling as though she had stolen from God, and regardless of the precedent it may have set for others.      

49 While He was still speaking, someone came from the house of the synagogue official, saying, “Your daughter has died; do not trouble the Teacher anymore.” 50 But when Jesus heard this, He answered him, “Do not be afraid any longer; only believe, and she will be made well.” 51 When He came to the house, He did not allow anyone to enter with Him, except Peter and John and James, and the girl’s father and mother. 52 Now they were all weeping and lamenting for her; but He said, “Stop weeping, for she has not died, but is asleep.” 53 And they began laughing at Him, knowing that she had died. 

Though we should value facts, believers in God must be cautious. Facts should not be permitted to exceed the truth. Yes, it was a fact that the child had died. Yes, it is a fact that once a person is truly dead, they are 'dead' - at least until the great day of resurrection. End of story, right? Yet for a person of faith, this fact is not the truth. Not only do believers look forward to the day when all the dead in Christ shall arise, but they accept that God sometimes chooses to raise the dead back to life in the here and now. Through faith, as with Abraham, Christians embrace the truth about death, rather than the fact (Heb. 11:17-19).

If folks aren't laughing at you because of your faith, perhaps your faith is more in facts than in truth. Luke insisted that the child was indeed dead, not merely unconscious. When Jesus said that she was merely asleep, the mourners laughed at him. They knew that she wasn't 'factually' asleep, but 'factually' dead. Yet Jesus looked at the fact of death as a sleep because he believed in the truth - that God has the power to raise the dead back to life. When Jesus said that the girl had not died, but was asleep, he wasn't denying the 'fact' that she was dead, but was challenging the facts as known by men with the truth as taught by God. His divine truth exceeded our human facts. 

54 He, however, took her by the hand and called, saying, “Child, arise!” 55 And her spirit returned, and she got up immediately; and He gave orders for something to be given her to eat. 56 Her parents were amazed; but He instructed them to tell no one what had happened.

When we live by faith in the truths of the infinite eternal God, rather than merely in the facts of life as known by finite mortal men, 'nothing is impossible' (Lk 1:37).

Why were her parents instructed not to tell anyone what happened? Maybe for the same reasons the leper was told to not share his story. Everyone would begin to bring their dead loved ones to Jesus and ask Him to restore them back to life. Imagine that scene.

Why then did Jesus tell the demoniac to remain in his city and to 'tell' everyone who would listen about what God had done for him?