Saturday, May 23, 2015

Luke 5:17-26 Proof or Truth of God?

17 One day He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing. 

18 And some men were carrying on a bed a man who was paralyzed; and they were trying to bring him in and to set him down in front of Him. 19 But not finding any way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down through the tiles with his stretcher, into the middle of the crowd, in front of Jesus. 

20 Seeing their faith, He said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” 

21 The scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” 


22 But Jesus, aware of their reasonings, answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins have been forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—He said to the paralytic—“I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home.” 

25 Immediately he got up before them, and picked up what he had been lying on, and went home glorifying God. 26 They were all struck with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

Friday, May 22, 2015

Luke 5:12-16 Compassion's Downside

12 While He was in one of the cities, behold, there was a man covered with leprosy; and when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and implored Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” 

In our previous studies in Luke we have learned that it is nearly impossible to help those who don't want to be helped (4:21-30), that even among those who want help we must not move any faster than can be accepted (4:31-37), that we don't permit momentary needs to distract us from our larger purpose (4:38-44), that we can best help some people by removing ourselves a short distance from them (5:1-3), and that the best way to help folks is to inspire trust in God no matter what this life throws at them (5:4-11). In this study we will discuss the consequences for doing good - in other words, compassion's downside.  

The news about Jesus had spread far and wide. That was both a good thing and a bad thing. It was good in that people were being drawn to him, enabling him to share the gospel with them in both word and practice. It was a 'bad' thing for at least three reasons. First, it drew attention away from the religious leaders who wanted to be the only legitimate source of 'truth' to the people - an authority issue. Second, the miracles of Jesus revealed an inexplicable creative ability that scared Jewish leadership - a power issue. Third, among the throng of sick people gathering around Jesus were many with infectious diseases - a health issue.

As the Spirit leads us, we are to do good to those around us. Yet, we need to be cognizant of the oft quoted truism that 'no good deed goes unpunished'. I don't say that in order to suggest Christians should always be looking over their shoulder, but to say we need to be realists in all we do. Many people don't see 'people' in need, but only see a set of rules that need to be protected for the good of all. In other words, they will be on your case if you apply grace outside set lines.

Grace, though, is always radical in that it joyfully exceeds the rules when it comes to people in need. In fact, even God's own rules are broken by God Himself. This is a paradox that many people, particularly those who live along the more legalistic portion of the religious continuum, can't live with. That being said, while helping others don't be surprised is someone calls foul. On the other hand, if you make compassion a generic 'rule' - without being Spirit-led in time, place, and person - you have become a 'gate-keeper' of compassion rules as verily as others are 'gate-keepers' of orderly rules.There are, of course, fundies on both ends of the continuum.

The leper believed that Jesus 'could' heal him, yet he also knew 'could' did not mean 'would'. Thus he said, 'if you are willing.' This remark suggests several possible motivations. The leper only knew about Jesus ability, but may not have known anything about Jesus' character. Did he suspect Jesus might have prejudices against certain people groups? Had he assumed Jesus would be a stickler for Jewish law and would keep distant from those with leprosy? Did he imagine Jesus might see his leprosy as a judgment from God and therefore opt not to remove God's curse? Had he thought that God might prohibit Jesus from healing him for a reason only heaven knew? Was he aware that Jesus might choose not to heal him because in doing so many other lepers would ignore social prohibitions in order to seek Jesus out?

13 And He stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” And immediately the leprosy left him. 

This passage begs us to wrestle with it. In it Jesus pushed forward, yet held back. That is part and parcel of living gracefully in the world.  We want to promote truth, but know we must present it gently and in a timely manner. We can share truth compassionately or maliciously, wisely or recklessly, as a rule or only as Spirit-led. The truth is always both good news and bad news - depending on the context in which it is given. Luke has already presented this notion several times.

In this passage Jesus approached the fact that the Law is obsolete (Heb 8:13), yet - at the same time - he upholds that very same Law. At first blush it appears as if Jesus spoke out of two sides of his mouth. The truth is that the Law is a curse (Gal 3:13), yet holy (Rom 7:12). The people of God were, at the time still living under the Law, yet were soon to be released from the Law. Shortly, at the cross, Jesus would be inaugurating the new covenant of grace. In other words, at this point in Luke's gospel, Jesus was preparing the people for what was to come, yet honoring what currently existed.

The Law taught that the leper was forbidden to enter the camp (Lev 13:45,46; 22:3) and that anyone who intentionally touched what God has declared as unclean sinned against God (Lev. 5:1-6; 22:6-9). In this story, the leper had broken the Law even by approaching Jesus. Also, Jesus himself broke the law by intentionally touching the leper. Even though the leper wrongfully approached Jesus, Jesus could have simply spoken the word and the leper would have been healed. Yet, instead, Jesus intentionally touched the leper, defying the Law of Moses - for a clear reason.

Jesus understood the purpose for the Law. The whole Law, including the ten commandments (Dt 4:10-13; 5:3; Gal 3:17), not just the Sabbath (Mk 2:27,28), were made for man's good - to keep him headed in the the right direction, until they could come to faith in Christ (Gal 3:19-28). The Law was not God, but God's tool to lead his people to faith in Him. The Law was not a good thing that went bad (Rom 7:7), but a good thing that served it's purpose (Gal 3:23-25). Obedience to the Law was never God's ultimate objective for mankind (Heb 7:19,22; 8:6-13; 10:1-9; Rom 7:4-6), rather it was a heaven ordained means to another end - life indwelt by the Spirit. Jesus knew this difference, yet could not fully explain it to anyone, including his own disciples, at this point in time.

The truth about the Law, that it really wasn't God's ultimate objective, could only be revealed slowly, at the rate the people could receive it. Yet, to approach this important truth, Jesus occasionally, intentionally, 'colored outside the lines' in order to awaken people to the coming change. The people witnessed his miracles, which convinced them that Jesus had God's blessing, yet they also witnessed him breaking the law. That paradox created questions - just as Jesus had hoped.

The scripture itself teaches, if you believe you must keep the law, then you are obligated to keep the whole law. You cannot pick and choose. (James 2:10; Gal 3:12; 5:3). Yet, taught Jesus, living under the Law required a person to be as perfect as God is (Mt 5:20, 48). The NT scriptures also say that the Law made nothing perfect (Heb 7:19). 

Sadly, many Christians claim to live under grace by faith, yet pick what they want from the OT Law to clobber others and even themselves. In doing so they effectively blaspheme Christ by rejecting his gospel of grace. To place ourselves under law in any form is to fall from grace (Gal 2:16-3:14; 5:1-6). 

14 And He ordered him to tell no one, “But go and show yourself to the priest and make an offering for your cleansing, just as Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 

Jesus basically said, 'come, let me miraculously heal you of leprosy, but don't tell anyone who did this or how it came about.' The predictable response to this prohibition was described by Paul in his letter to the Romans (7:8). Until the heart is fully surrendered to the Lord, our human needs exceed even God wisest commands.

If we assume that Jesus understood the nature of man, why then did he bother to tell the leper not to reveal the facts? Maybe it was not so much because he expected the man to conform to his word, but because he knew the man wouldn't, yet that he would learn from his mistakes. Often we must permit others to fail so that they may eventually succeed.

It is nearly impossible to look at a foundation and discern what kind of building will eventually be constructed upon it. Nevertheless, the foundation needs to be put in place before the building can take shape. In other words, Jesus often taught things that he knew could not be understood at the moment, yet would make sense later on (Jn 14:29). As there are many things we teach our children that they can't understand, and even disregard at times, they come to understand their parent's teachings at a future time - especially when they themselves become parents. So, rather than to question Jesus' wisdom in expecting this leper to understand and to obey his command not to tell anyone, we should look beyond the obvious and anticipate the building he would construct upon the foundation he was laying.

Another point about this verse. The leper had disregarded the teachings of Moses, just as he would disregard the command of Jesus. We could easily blame him as a hopeless lawbreaker or quickly excuse him, understanding that his natural human hope exceeded the law. Again, Jesus had himself set aside the teachings of Moses when he touched this leper, which begs the question as to why Jesus would then tell this man to conform to the teachings of Moses. Maybe the following quotation from Barbara Brown Taylor gives us the answer.

To be a priest is to know that things are not as they should be and yet to care for them the way they are.

15 But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 

The devil's temptations in the wilderness were parochial in contrast with the temptations associated with Jesus' own successes. Every religious leader faces this exacting moment when a choice must be made between channeling Nebuchadnezzar or Jesus.

As has often been said, the seeds of failure are found in our successes. This is true for several reasons.

First, when we have success we are inclined to stick with whatever methods led to our success - long after they no longer work. We oddly forget that circumstances change things.

Second, when we have success we are also inclined to become self-congratulatory. We believe that our success is all about 'us', which obscures our ability to see the larger picture, guaranteeing our eventual fall.

Third, when success is something we can measure, numbers enslave us.

Life confronts us with many choices. We all need to decide how we will live in this world. Is life all about exploiting everything and everyone around us in order to obtain/retain personal happiness? Or, is life about withdrawing from anything that might cost you the promise of eternal life? Or, is life about being a blessing to your fellow man in the here and now? Our particular worldview will shape our posture in the world. How we then orient ourselves in this world will determine what we call 'success' and how we manage that success.

The key is to realize that even a good success can easily become a miserable failure if the good becomes the tail that wags the dog.

16 But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.

Jesus, aware of the dangers of success, did what most leaders find impossible to do. He walked away. Notice where he went. He 'slipped away into the wilderness' - the very kind of place where the Devil had tempted him. Did he feel safer around the Devil than around his own successes?

Jesus didn't go into the wilderness to hide. He went there to talk to his Father. When we sit with our spiritual Mentor we obtain course corrections. All the rubbish that has accumulated and obscured his purpose for us gets swept away. In discussions with God we reconfirm, yet also refine his purpose for us. The distractions of this life are exposed for what they really are. The things we thought would make us happy are abandoned for the things of God that deliver true joy and peace. The notions of others that have cluttered and confused our thinking are excised, bringing us back to the clarity of the gospel of grace. The meaning of true success is re-established.

Jesus not only slipped away for a few hours to get his act together. He usually moved on to another location. Success was not in being well-liked and/or being actively sought after. Success was in keeping his purpose clearly in mind and in making the decisions that achieved his purpose - which was to preach the gospel of the kingdom to all people (Lk 4:43). That gospel would help countless others learn how to truly live.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Luke 5:1-11 Left (everything) Behind

1 Now it happened that while the crowd was pressing around Him and listening to the word of God, He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret; 2 and He saw two boats lying at the edge of the lake; but the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. 

Lake Gennesaret, or the Sea of Galilee, is the largest freshwater lake in Israel and the lowest freshwater lake on earth. It is 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. The Jordon river flows through it, yet it is also fed by underground springs. It was along the shore of this lake that Jesus taught the crowd about the ways of God.

As the people pressed closer and closer to Jesus, he retreated to the water's edge and eventually onto a nearby boat. It was natural for the crowd to press in closer so that they could more clearly hear what Jesus had to say. He did not, though, rebuke the people even as they made it increasingly difficult for him to stand his ground. Jesus chose to adjust his ways to better serve their need. It was all about them, not Him - the curious thing about grace.

Those who had followed Jesus to the lake had left behind their homes, their jobs, and all their things. They wanted to hear what he had to say. The 'word of God' was more important than anything else. They didn't want to miss a syllable. He didn't want to miss the opportunity.

How willing are we, today, to make 'listening to the word of God' our top priority? What are we willing to leave behind in order to hear the word? Or, do we chose to give other things a greater priority in our life? This isn't to suggest that we need to be a consistent attendee at church just because it is the right thing to do as a Christian (Heb 10:25). Rather, it ought to become a regular practice because we personally value the opportunity to learn more and more about God. In other words, when we reflect on our 'church attendance' pattern, what does it reveal about 'Who' or 'what' really has our heart? What can we do to correct the problem? What might be keeping you from making a commitment to 'press closer to Jesus'?

3 And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the people from the boat. 

Often, in order to really help others, we need to withdraw from them 'a little way'. This notion is often illustrated when a person attempts to save someone who is drowning. The drowning person is so scared that they fiercely grab onto the rescuer causing both of them to drown. The wise rescuer knows how to approach the fearful person in such a manner that the person can be saved without leading both of them to death.

Jesus wisely withdrew from the crowd so that he could serve them better (Jn 16:7). He sat down in Simon's boat, unmolested by the people, and taught them. He was present, but not enmeshed. He helped them, but from a compassionate, workable distance.

How might this notion of 'compassionate distance' be applied today in our own ministry to others?

4 When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered and said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.” 

Simon and his friends had been unsuccessful during their night of fishing. They had come back to shore and were washing their nets. They were done. All the evidence they had pointed to one fact - the fish just weren't there. But Jesus had a different view.

To their credit, the disciples listened to Jesus, picked up their nets, got back into their boats, and went out into the lake. It was totally unreasonable from their perspective, yet on the basis of faith alone, they obeyed. Clearly, already, they trusted the word of this carpenter from Nazareth about fishing, more than their own experience as fishermen.

Surely, we are to reason things out. We are to gather all possible facts about an issue and then make a decision. That is 'living in the world'. Yet, sometimes, the Spirit speaks, directing us to go against all that appears reasonable, and invites us to step forward by faith alone - to 'be not of this world'. It won't always make sense to us. It won't always make sense to anyone else around us. Yet, if we know the voice of the Spirit and we act on His word, we will find success where even the 'experts' did not expect it.

Why does the Spirit work in this manner? This is, it seems, God's method for maturing our faith. Faith is not opposed to reason. God designed us with the ability to reason things out. But we are also designed to be people of faith. Faith takes us beyond the point where reason ends. If we take that step, we walk with God alone. We have our faith confirmed. We have our belief in a living God confirmed. If we assume that God will only lead us along a path that makes sense to our finite minds, then we've missed the point of this story and have misunderstood the nature of faith. 

6 When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break; 7 so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. 

Each time I read this story I think of Paul's words to the Ephesians (3:20): "to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think..." The story illustrates that after we have given up, God gives. Humanly speaking, we are all inclined to pursue this life in our own strength and we only tend to call upon God in our lack, if we call upon him at all. The disciples had assumed that all they had done was all that could be done. They didn't think about asking God to do for them what they could not do for themselves. Jesus stepped in to teach them to imagine beyond their own abilities.

The lesson, though, isn't that we should first try to do things in our own strength and only after we have failed and/or have exhausted all our resources to then call upon God. Rather, Jesus was suggesting that if the men had invited God to guide them in the beginning of their fishing trip they would have had a successful night.  In all things, and at all times, we should ask for God's guidance, strength, and blessing.

Yes, Jesus can do for us far more than we can imagine, but the rest of the story is that the men in Jesus' boat also invited those in the other nearby boats to participate in their blessing. In other words, this story nicely illustrates the two great commandments. The fishermen trusted Jesus enough to take a risk in which they experienced a miracle. Then they exhibited a love for their fellow man by sharing the miracle with their neighbors.

When God blesses us with abundance it is His expectation that we will share our plenty with those who lack. When we hoard God's blessings, we have effectively 'channeled' 'Nebuchadnezzar'. Recall how he looked over his kingdom and declared, 'Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty' (Dan 4:30)? It is far better for me to pay forward grace than to keep paying only myself. What about you?

8 But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” 

That would be a strange response after experiencing his luckiest day as a fisherman, unless Peter realized that luck had nothing to do with it. The disciples of Jesus were repeatedly witnessing the creative power of Jesus over every element of this world. It was clear that he was no ordinary human being. In the presence of such a being they were understandably humbled and even scared.

Jesus intentionally performed miracles that exceeded their wildest imagination so that he could confirm and establish the truth of who he was in their minds and hearts. He was calling them into a new role. They would have to trust him completely in order to leave behind the jobs that fed their families and to endure the persecution that they would face. He gave them the evidence that he loved them, chose them, could provide for all their needs, and could protect them from all dangers. Notice, I wrote 'could', not 'would'. They not only had to accept that he 'could' do all this, but when he didn't they would accept it as a part of his larger plan. Faith does not require the Lord to be a vending machine instantly responsive to our requests. Faith does not require that we understand all that God is doing or why he doesn't do what we know he can do. Faith is built upon trust.

These fishermen were being discipled to present a way of life that would elicit faith, hope, and love among others who had never met Jesus. The faithfulness of the twelve for the rest of their lives, because of the life of Jesus, would inspire others to place their faith in Jesus. In other words, if what the twelve witnessed in Jesus transformed their lives in such a sustainable manner over many decades, then what they had witnessed must have been true. The story of Jesus would not have survived the first few decades after the cross had it not produced transformed lives among the men and women who personally knew and walked with Jesus.

11 When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him.

The men didn't need to know anything more. They knew that Jesus was who he claimed to be. They trusted him. Thus they could leave behind the life they knew and follow him into a life they could not foresee. In this manner, they did as Abraham - the founding father of the Jews - had done (Heb 11:8-10). If we don't want to be 'left behind' we need to be willing to leave everything behind - without looking back - as did the wife of Abraham's nephew.

Luke's rendering of this story requires a response from each of us. Do we merely 'believe' that God exists, or do we step forward as the Spirit directs us, fully trusting God? Do we simply sing the song, 'where you lead me, I will follow', or do we actually get up and go where God leads us? The Lord knows those who are his, those who trust him enough to listen for his voice and then to immediately follow wherever he leads.

One last, but important point. The life of Peter illustrates an imperfect following of God. The safety net of grace enabled Peter to keep moving forward even after many stumbles along the way.

The disciples were only human. Their faith and trust inspired by the miracle of the moment would be challenged by the length of time they would have to endure living by faith long after Jesus' ascension. It is much easier to live by faith when we believe our 'reward' is nigh, but it becomes far more difficult when the promise of a 'quick' return exceeds decades, then centuries, then even millennia. The fierceness of a situational temptation fades in comparison to the devastating effects of 'time' on our choice to live by faith.

We will all fail in faith as we wait upon the Lord. Yet, because of our faith, we get up after every failure and keep moving forward. Our human weaknesses are more than matched by divine grace.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Luke 4:38-44 An Inconvenient Truth

38 Then He got up and left the synagogue, and entered Simon’s home. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Him to help her. 39 And standing over her, He rebuked the fever, and it left her; and she immediately got up and waited on them. 

Simon had a home in Capernaum which, it seems, was near the synagogue where Jesus taught (Mk 1:29). Clearly, if one has a mother-in-law, one must have, or once had, a wife (1 Cor 9:5) - contra the teachings of some. Simon Peter not only had a mother-in-law, but she was a person who had a sense of gratitude. Immediately after being healed, she served. Her gratitude reflected that she had not only been physically healed, but that her heart had also been healed. A sense of entitlement to that which is received, undermines an appropriate response of gratitude, which may explain why we see so little of it today. 

According to the gospels of Matthew and Mark, prior to the synagogue incident, Jesus had already invited Simon, Andrew, James, and John to follow him, having found them fishing at the sea of Galilee (Mt. 4:18-22; Mk 1:14-21). Luke, though, placed the calling of these four men 'after' the healing of Peter's mother-in-law (Lk 5:1-11). There are varied explanations for this discrepancy, but that particular issue really isn't important to the larger story Luke was attempting to present.

What if healthcare had remained this simple since the time of Jesus? What if the followers of Jesus, beyond the twelve, could have continued healing others in this same miraculous manner - with just a word? Wouldn't the whole world have become a better, much happier place? Imagine a world that didn't need hospitals, vaccines, cancer treatment centers, or doctors. Imagine a world where those who became ill only needed to call upon a believer in Jesus. Imagine a world where even a wounded soldier could be instantly healed - as the high priest's servant was healed after Peter lopped off his ear. Imagine a world where those who died before old age, could be resurrected like Lazarus? Sin wouldn't necessarily end, but surely there would be fewer wars and a lot less suffering.

So, why didn't Jesus leave this gift of 'healing' with his church - at least in a manner that is more prominent than what we now see? Was the purpose of his healing ministry only to bring attention to himself as the true Messiah and to his first generation disciples as the leaders of a new faith? Since God can heal all manner of illness, why has God permitted illness, suffering, and death to continue for two millennia since the cross? If we are to learn from suffering, how can the multitude of those who have already suffered and died before us learn anything from our suffering today? Similarly, if mankind is able to learn something from those who suffered and died before us, why, then, has God continued to let mankind suffer?

From the perspective of man, there isn't any point to all this. Yet, just because 'we' cannot discern a purpose, doesn't necessarily mean that the all-wise, all-knowing, eternal One does not have a purpose in mind. Take a few minutes this morning and look up each of these texts: Job 11:7,8; Eccl 8:16,17; Is 40:12-14; 55:8-11; Rom 11:33,34; 1 Cor 2:16. Though we are invited to 'reason together' with God regarding his grace (Is 1:18), we are also counseled to trust God's wisdom in areas that we cannot grasp (Prov 3:5). See Theodicy.

40 While the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and laying His hands on each one of them, He was healing them. 

It used to be that a person could go straight to their doctor and ask for help for any medical condition. The doctor would do the best he could to find a cure for whatever ailment he was presented with by a patient. That was the model that Jesus set. Yet, today, there is a vast bureaucratic machine between the sick and the doctor - beginning with the questions, 'do you have health insurance', 'does your policy allow you to see this doctor', etc. Doctors used to be treated as if they were gods because they worked in the manner of the Son of God. Having now fully abandoned the Jesus model of medicine, a growing number of people quote Jesus to the medical profession, 'physician, heal thyself'.

Luke presented the ministry of Jesus as a demonstration of grace. Anyone who came to him with an illness would not be turned away, no questions asked, and would receive his personal touch. He didn't heal all people at once with a simple command, though he could have. He didn't treat everyone with some generic approach, but applied a healing hand to each individual, as an individual. If you were sick, you came, you were healed. Because you were sick, no other burdens were placed upon you. No money was needed. No identification was required. That was, and is, grace. That was Jesus' medical model. Healing others is a ministry, not a business. 

41 Demons also were coming out of many, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But rebuking them, He would not allow them to speak, because they knew Him to be the Christ. 

It seems that 'demon possession' was as common a phenomenon in the first century as a cup of coffee each morning is today. That is, of course, a strange conclusion to arrive at.

Why would there be more demon possession then, than now? Or was it? Was demon possession just more common around the time of Jesus, because of Jesus, or had it always been a problem within human societies? Was demon possession more frequent among the Jews than among the Gentiles? Did the cross/resurrection limit demon possess so dramatically that it has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist? Or, is modern society just not able to discern demon possession? Do we, today, wrongly label demon possession as mental illness? If so, is it actually as common today as in Jesus' time? Or, did the people in Jesus' day mess with 'stuff' that opened them up to demon possession far more frequently and easily than occurs in our 21st century cultural practices?

The other possibility is that what the scriptures labeled as 'demon possession' then, is what we know to be 'mental illness' today. Yet, if that is true, then how do we explain all the descriptive language Luke used regarding demon possession? Why would Jesus forbid the demons from speaking, if it was simply 'mental illness'? Why would a supposedly demon possessed man speak as the spokesman for all demons? Though the behavior of those who were considered 'demon possessed' may be identified as mental illness today, that wouldn't explain Jesus' conversations with the 'demons'. How would a mentally ill person have better insight into who Jesus truly was than would non-'possessed' others?

Jesus wanted the demon to be quiet. This gives new meaning to the words of Emily Dickinson, "tell it slant". 

42 When day came, Jesus left and went to a secluded place; and the crowds were searching for Him, and came to Him and tried to keep Him from going away from them. 

The implications of this verse raise more questions than answers. (1) Jesus left, even though the people wanted him to stay? (2) Had he not finished healing those who wanted and needed healing? (3) Why didn't he remain in one place and disciple the whole community? (4) Was Jesus' ministry limited to 'taste and see' opportunities, yet ours is to develop awakened spiritual interests? (5) Why did Jesus seek out a secluded place? Did he need alone time? Didn't he pray without ceasing, being constantly in communion with his Father? (6) Was his ministry exhausting? Didn't God give Jesus the necessary, additional strength to accomplish the work He had called him to do?

43 But He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.” 

According to Luke's research on Jesus, His prime directive was not healing, but preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. His healing ministry was an act of compassion and a useful tool to draw people to him, but he did not permit that aspect of his ministry to distract him from his primary calling (Lk 3:18, 4:18, 7:22, 8:1, 9:6, 16:16, 20:1).

The people in Capernaum were beginning to miss the point. They were concluding that Jesus' prime directive was 'healing'. Because of his compassion he did heal many people, but also because of his compassion he had to correct their misunderstanding. The only way he could do that was to leave, informing them that his job was to preach the gospel. What might be the lesson in this for us today?

As followers of Jesus, what do we see as our 'prime directive'? Is it the same as his and those who followed him in the first century (Acts 8:12; Rom 15:20)? Do we tell others the good news about the kingdom of God? Is that what we are mostly known for as 21st century Christians or have we become known for something else? Have we become distracted from our primary mission as followers of Jesus?

Joseph Campbell once said, "If you want to change the world, change the metaphor." That was exactly what Jesus was attempting to do as a preacher. He was inviting people into a new metaphor. Sadly, as Campbell also said, we often get "stuck in our metaphors and begin interpreting them as facts." Is the church of the 21st century misunderstanding Jesus' metaphors?

The gospel of the kingdom helped people reframe their existence in this world. It gave them a new worldview, a heavenly perspective, one that permitted them to transcend the usual sadness generated by life in our chaotic world. Inviting people into this worldview 'is' the primary mission of the church. Sure, we also must act in the world in a manner that is consistent with the gospel, as Jesus did in his healing ministry. Yet our good works are temporary fixes to real needs. The good news of the kingdom changes a culture for a generation or more. Though a mere heavenly worldview does not, in itself, feed the hungry or clothe the naked, if a community receives the heavenly worldview it will lead to behaviors that will lessen the number of folks who would otherwise become hungry and naked. In other words, if we only think about the needs of today, we have unwittingly increased the needs of tomorrow. Our ministry must be two-fold. We must implant a new vision for the future while also meeting the needs of the present. The latter prepares hearts for the former. One without the other is not the way of Jesus.

Many folks, like Esau, exchanged lifelong peace for a moment's satisfaction. Curiously, many folks today are well fed and nicely clothed, yet live in the bondage of fear. Others are in jail, hungry, and naked, yet are at peace. They are truly free because they know the good news of the kingdom of God. 

44 So He kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.

A synagogue refers to a place of assembly. The origin of the synagogue is disputed among scholars. The fact that they existed during the second temple period suggests that they were not designed as a substitute for the first temple after it had been destroyed by Babylon, but were used alongside the temple. Evidence suggests that the synagogues were not merely used for worship, but were designed to meet the varied needs of a group of local Jews. The synagogues were not located only in cities that were distant from Jerusalem, but within Jerusalem itself. Even those who lived near the Temple in Jerusalem also met at their synagogues. There were between 250 - 500 synagogues in Jerusalem at the time when the temple was destroyed in 70 AD.

Notice the emphasis that Luke placed on Jesus' preaching ministry. Yes, he healed and he sat down and taught. Yet, he continued to proclaim the good news - that the kingdom of God had come. There was the visible kingdom of Rome, but there was also the spiritual kingdom of God. Believers were citizens of Rome, but they were also citizens of the heavenly kingdom. As citizens of the kingdom of God their thoughts and behaviors as citizens of Rome were transformed. They were 'in the world', but no longer 'of the world'. They saw their purpose in the world from a new, cosmic perspective. The apostle Paul described the new, transformed (Rom 12:1,2) worldview of the Christian in his letter to the Romans (Rom 8:26-39).  

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Luke 4:31-37 We Know You

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

The people from the synagogue in Nazareth made it abundantly clear that they did not want to see Jesus ever again. So, Jesus, without a word, moved on and taught at other synagogues in Galilee. Jesus did not force himself on people who did not want him. He did not shout over their objections. He did not take revenge on them because they tried to kill him. Love does not use force, which is a good reminder for all of us. If someone says, 'don't bother me', then we should not bother them. Sadly, many who peddle their religion door-to-do have not learned this lesson from Jesus. They ignore 'No Trespassing and No Soliciting' signs, unwittingly and quite effectively preaching an 'anti-Christ' message through their non-Christlike, coercive behavior.

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

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

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

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

We could, from our modern perspective, conclude that the man had simply shouted something inappropriate for the setting, as a congressman recently did when he shouted out 'liar' in reference to President Obama. The congressman 'held' onto a strongly motivating idea that he believed arouse from a righteous source. Strongly held ideas can motivate us to act. If our idea is wrong, then our action will be wrong. To those who held the same worldview as the congressman they may have considered his shout as bravely honest or at worst, 'mildly inappropriate'. To those who did not see the world as the congressman did, his remark was viewed as rude and even 'crazy'. Perspective and circumstance make a difference in our interpretations.

That being said, from Luke's cultural perspective the man in the synagogue was not merely inappropriate, nor crazy. Luke concluded that an evil spirit had entered into the man and had controlled the man's speaking. The remainder of this account exploits that belief. For us, we need to remember that Luke wrote decades after the experience, and took this story from compilations made by others. In other words, what Luke presented was an accurate account of the event, 'factual' according to how folks understood life through their first century cultural beliefs.

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

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

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

In this verse Luke described the beliefs of his contemporaries regarding demon possession. Clearly, in their understanding, this was not a psychological issue. 'Let us alone', suggests that many 'unclean spirits' were at work in the world, though, apparently, only one demon 'possessed' this man.

This one demon spoke for all demons, asking, 'have You come to destroy us?' The implication is that the demons knew that their time was short, that there would be a judgment day, but they hadn't expected it to come so soon, before the set time (Mt. 8:29). In other words, what Luke was relating to his reader(s) was that demons are fallen angels who know exactly who Jesus really is (Rev. 12:7-9). They don't, of course, know the exact day and hour of judgment (Mt. 24:36), but they have a sense that it was not for that time, thus their question to Jesus.

Curiously, the fallen angels, demons, believed that Jesus was not permitted to interfere with them at that time. They were under the impression that their reign on earth had not yet come to a close. Satan had usurped rulership over the earth (Lk 4:6) from Adam. It was understood that he would continue to rule this world until conquered by the second Adam (1 Cor 15:45). Jesus had not yet, at this point in the story, won the war against Satan, but had merely won a battle. The war would not be totally won until the end of time. Yet, at the cross, Jesus would win back the title as the true king of this world. At the cross Satan and his angels would be far more restricted in their activities, especially among believers - yet even then God would permit the devil to 'test' the hearts of believers (Rev. 2:10).

When Jesus cast the demon from this man He was revealing His power and announcing His intentions. Casting the demon out of the man was a harbinger of what was to come when Satan would, initially, be cast out of heaven at the cross (Rev. 12:9) and then finally cast into the lake of fire at the end of this world (Rev. 20:10).

Even though I believe this is an accurate rendering of Luke's personal belief regarding Satan and the demons, that does not necessarily establish it as factual. The beliefs of two thousand years ago did not have the benefit of our modern day understanding of mental illness nor our current knowledge of the universe. Today we know the etiology of belief in the devil. We accept that 1st century folks could only interpret the world through what they knew about the world at that time. Of course, many bible scholars today understand these things very differently. That doesn't necessarily mean that today's scholarly understandings of the devil and prophecy are factually correct. Each individual must determine what s/he will believe on this issue.

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

Is this an accurate description of what actually occurred? Would everyone present have understood and reported it similarly? Was it a 'common' happening? Or is this description of the event coded so that only a few would grasp what really happened (it's esoteric meaning)?

There are four aspects to rabbinic interpretation of scripture - (1) the simple, contextual, exegetical meaning (be it literal or figurative), (2) the implied, deeper meaning, hinting at something more (3) the creative meaning (i.e. eisegetical), and (4) the hidden, esoteric mystery. Modern western readers of the Bible tend to prefer the first approach. Yet the scriptures were written with all four interpretive methods in mind. We therefore miss the full picture if we limit ourselves to one or two interpretive methods.

Curiously, even the US Constitution is interpreted differently, with each group accusing another for not being true constitutionalists. One group believes our constitution should only be interpreted as originally intended by those who wrote it. Another group, modernists, believe it should be interpreted only by what it means to us today (modern relativist). A third group ignores the 'intent' of the framers and merely seeks to know the 18th century meaning of the words used and then interprets the Constitution literally (historical literal). Another group sets aside both the original intent of the framers as well as the 18th century meaning of the words used and interpret the Constitution based on what the words mean today (contemporary literal). The last group considers the Constitution as a document of principles rather than specifics, and is interpreted based on the democratic norms of today, making it a living document rather than a static one.

Obviously, the method we choose to interpret an event, our Constitution, and/or the scriptures will dramatically influence how we think and behave in the world. So, back to Luke 4:33. was Luke's rendering of what happened factually accurate or a decades later, fanciful elaboration of what occurred? Was this a figurative account of the actual event, hinting at some other meaning? Can we know for sure what Luke's 'intent' was when he wrote it? Should we understand the story from only our modern perspective and assume it is fanciful because we don't see this kind of demon possession happening in our day?

When Jesus told the demon to 'be quiet' and to 'leave' the man, was Luke using this rendering of the story to hint at Jesus' pre-existence as the Creator as well as the true Messiah - 'the Holy One of God' (v. 34)? In other words, was Luke creatively using the idea of a demon to confirm belief in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God?

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

Jesus had the attention of everyone who saw and heard what he did. Their response basically asked, 'what's going on here? How could anyone do that? Who, really, is this person?' What they had witnessed represented a power that was greater than anything they had ever witnessed before. If Jesus had power (Gk. 'dunamai') over 'evil spirits', could there be any question about his power over their Roman oppressors? If Jesus had been given such unique power, his authority must have come from the all-powerful God.

Could there be any end to his ability to clean up our world? Could anyone, any government, or any demonic spirit stand against Jesus? Who would not want to have someone like Jesus as their leader? Who would not want to follow someone with access to ultimate power? Who would not want to be discipled by someone with gold-lettered authority from God Himself?

More, if Jesus could merely speak and things happened, his power and authority did not require swords or armies. If he could come face-to-face with a demon without fear, he did not need armor or a fortress. If he could just speak an all-powerful, authoritative word, then he could, presumably, speak all evil out of existence with just a word - right then and there.

Sadly, they missed the point. Though they recognized that God had given Jesus power and authority, it was token evidence of His identity as the Messiah, not as confirmation of their misconceived nationalistic hopes. What Jesus 'could' do, did not make him a tool of their will, but grabbed their attention so that they would seek God's will. Humanly, as soon as we identify a source of power and authority we naturally attempt to co-opt it to fulfill our own desires. Whether our desires are good or bad, the more important issue is what is God's desire? 

One test of faith is in having all power and authority in our hands, yet never using it without God's permission - despite seeing how it might help others. If we assume that doing good is always God's will, we deny our need for the Spirit. Good works can be a denial of faith. The Christian faith is not focused on a set of principles, but on a living, day by day relationship with a risen Christ, and the moment by moment guidance of the indwelling Spirit.

Christianity is more than just being a good person and doing good things in the world. That would be humanism. The scriptures teach us that only God is good. Thus, only as God dwells in us and guides us are our good works truly good.

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

Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth worse than a 'persona non grata'. Then, while still in Galilee yet in the city of Capernaum, he was welcomed with open arms. He freely preached the good news and healed those who were sick. While the folks in Nazareth told everyone that Jesus was an evil person, the people of Capernaum told everyone that Jesus was the wonderful Messiah. In other words, complete failure in one area doesn't necessarily mean failure in all places. Different people, for many and varied reasons, can see the exact same thing yet see it differently, perhaps oppositely.

Human beings, even sincere, spiritual, educated people, continue to view things differently in 21st century America. For example, a large percentage of Americans view President Obama as God's gift to our country, while to another large group of Americans he is viewed as the devil incarnate. Is he one or the other, or a little bit of both? Then, was Jesus one or the other, or a little bit of both? Can good, sane, intelligent, educated, and spiritual people simply be wrong? How can that be true?

Sometimes, as I believe happened in Nazareth, people can be 'dumb smart'. In other words, they can be good, sane, intelligent, educated, and spiritual, yet have had a skewed world view installed since their childhood through which they continue see all things. When we look at the distribution of human beliefs in our world today we notice that there are many good, sane, intelligent, educated, and mature folks who identify as either Muslim, Communist, Christian, Socialist, Buddhist, Democrat, atheist, Republican, Mormon, or one of a host of other labels. Through those worldview lens they interpret the same happenings of life and arrive at differing conclusions. It is not a matter of intelligence, integrity, spirituality, academic opportunity, or psychological health.

This week, as I read the various trending Twitter responses to the earthquake in Nepal, I was confronted by viewpoint on the event that entirely differed from my own. Some believed the earthquake was a result of God's judgment against the Nepalese people. Some wrote that it was another proof that God doesn't really exist. Others expressed belief that God ordered it to call forth the compassion of people worldwide. Since Sunday is a work day in Nepal, Christians of all denominations worship on Saturday - the day of the earthquake. Thus, for some, the 11 am earthquake, which destroyed many churches, killing many Christians, was a judgment against Saturday worship and/or against Christianity itself. Lastly, many believe it was just another tragic earthquake unrelated to anything else.

Clearly, good, sane, intelligent, and educated people see the earthquake differently and there will be little chance of ever changing their perspective. How we 'see' is not only deeply embedded in our minds from childhood, but is so thoroughly integrated in every aspect of our lives that it is nearly impossible to change - sans a miracle.

Jesus was viewed through a variety of lens - the lens of demons, the lens of those who lived in Nazareth, and the lens of those who met him in Capernaum. Each group believed that they knew who he really was.  

Saturday, April 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Luke 4:1-13 Devil Tested

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

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

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

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

Suffering exposes faith wrongly placed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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