Light and Momentary Troubles (November 16)

Scripture:        2 Corinthians, chapters 3-6

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV) – Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Observations: Our State Health Department issued an updated order yesterday, further restricting indoor gatherings of people who are not part of the same household.  While those orders exempt people who are gathering for “religious worship,” there are many other types of gatherings that are prohibited.  Furthermore, everyone who attends any gathering that is permitted is required to wear a mask unless they are medically exempt.  It has been eight months since the first “lockdown” restrictions took effect, and now it feels in many ways that we haven’t made any progress at all.  While there are reports that several companies are nearing production of a vaccine, many people are suspicious of vaccines and may choose not to receive it.

Why am I thinking about such things in my reflections on this Scripture?  Therefore we do not lose heart.  As I have said a number of times before, “whenever we see the word ‘therefore,’ we need to see what it’s there for.”  In this case, Paul’s therefore relates back to verses 13-15:  “It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’  Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself.  All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (emphasis added).  Because we know that God raised Jesus, and that God will also raise us, we do not lose heart.  No matter what happens, we know that God is in control, and we focus our attention on him.

That does not mean that we ignore what is happening around us, or that we act like it’s not real.  Instead, we have a correct understanding that the things of this world – whether good or bad – are temporary.

Application:  Although it’s challenging, many of us are able to keep that focus when things are not going well; we do not lose heart, because we understand that the troubles of this world are light and momentary.  What is often harder is to remember that the “good things” of this world are also temporary.  Learning to hold loosely to all the things of this world, whether good or bad, is a challenge – but it is also the way to peace.  That is what helps us to not lose heart, and to view the problems as light and momentary.  They don’t feel that way, of course, but in the light of eternity, we can remember that they are.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding me of your faithfulness, and that whatever happens in this world – for good or bad – pales in the light of eternity.  Thank you for the peace that comes from knowing You, and the knowledge that because you raised Jesus from the dead, you will also raise us when that day comes.  Bless us with your presence and your peace, that others may see the peace that only comes from you and be drawn to you.  Amen.

Many Parts, But One Body (November 12)

Scripture:        Job, chapters 37-38; 1 Corinthians, chapter 12

1 Corinthians 12:12-27 (NIV) – Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so, the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?  If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”  And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.  And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.  But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Observations: Paul begins chapter 12 by reminding us that there are many different kinds of spiritual gifts, but that they call come from the same Spirit.  That’s a good reminder to us that the fact that the Spirit may work through us in different ways does not mean that we’re at odds with each other.  The Holy Spirit does not give spiritual gifts to people who do not believe in Christ; in fact, it is impossible to believe in Christ without the Holy Spirit’s help.  “Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3, NIV, emphasis added).  

So we don’t judge each other within the body based on what our spiritual gifts are, because those gifts are given by the Spirit.  “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (vv 4-6).  What is important is not the particular way in which God is at work in us; what is important is that God is at work in us, and that His work in us is glorifying Him.

When I read this passage, I often focus on that fact – that the Spirit’s work in us is different, that he doesn’t give the same gifts to everyone, and that we shouldn’t think that one kind of gift is “better” than another.  They are all important.  But as I read this passage today, God pointed out something else to me:  God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  No part of the body can think that it is more important, and that every other part ought to be like it; no part can decide to split off on its own and ignore the rest of the body.  There are many parts, but one body. We can’t decide that someone else isn’t part of the body, and no one can decide that they’re not part of the body.  We can’t decide – or let someone else decide – that we’re not part of the body because we’re not a “hand” or an “eye.”  We have to be what God has called us to be, and use the gifts that the Spirit gives us, to lift Jesus up – and we can never forget that we are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Application:  Because we live in a time when there are many “churches” – many denominations, and many other churches that are not part of a denomination – it is easy for people to leave one “church” and find another.  But we must not forget that there are many parts, but one body.  We can get so caught up in trying to find the differences that we completely miss the fact that “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God who is at work.

I think that’s why Jesus stresses the fact that we’re not supposed to judge others.  God’s work in us may not look exactly like his work in them, and that’s okay – as long as we all agree that Jesus is Lord.  That’s where the “dividing line” is, because “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  Instead of arguing over the ways that God leads us, let’s focus on seeing the ways that the Lordship of Jesus is demonstrated in each other’s lives, and remember that there is only one body – and each one of us is a part of it!

Prayer:   Father, we know that Jesus prayed that his followers would be one just as you and he are one, so that the world would know that you sent Jesus, your Son.  Help us not to look for differences and divide ourselves over them; help us to look for the confession that Jesus is Lord, and to demonstrate that he really is Lord by the way that we live and love each other.  Amen.

“One Who Has Perfect Knowledge Is With You” (November 10)

Scripture:        Job, chapters 35-36; 1 Corinthians, chapters 7-8

Job 36:1-12 (NIV) – Elihu continued:  “Bear with me a little longer and I will show you that there is more to be said in God’s behalf.  I get my knowledge from afar; I will ascribe justice to my Maker.  Be assured that my words are not false; one who has perfect knowledge is with you.  

God is mighty, but despises no one; he is mighty, and firm in his purpose.  He does not keep the wicked alive but gives the afflicted their rights.  He does not take his eyes off the righteous; he enthrones them with kings and exalts them forever.  But if people are bound in chains, held fast by cords of affliction, he tells them what he has done – that they have sinned arrogantly.  He makes them listen to correction and commands them to repent of their evil.  If they obey and serve him, they will spend the rest of their days in prosperity and their years in contentment.  But if they do not listen, they will perish by the sword and die without knowledge.”

Observations: One who has perfect knowledge is with you.  What an incredibly arrogant thing to say!  There is only One who has perfect knowledge, and his name was not “Elihu.”  The arrogance and spiritual pride of that statement alerts us to be very careful about accepting anything else that this man says as true – and an examination of this passage shows us that while it sounds somewhat religious, it in fact misrepresents the very character of God.

First, he does not keep the wicked alive but gives the afflicted their rights.  That sounds good – it sounds like the way that we wish things were – but the fact is that God’s Word makes it clear that God does not just strike wicked people down, and there are many instances where the afflicted continue to be oppressed.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45, NIV [emphasis added]).  It is certainly God’s prerogative to judge people, and in the end, everyone will face his judgment.  But contrary to what Elihu says, God does not just strike down the wicked, nor does he immediately deliver the oppressed.

Second, If they obey and serve him, they will spend the rest of their days in prosperity and their years in contentment.  But if they do not listen, they will perish by the sword and die without knowledge.  Again, both parts of this statement are untrue.  There is no promise that people who serve God and obey him will live in “prosperity” – unless we define “prosperity” in spiritual rather than material terms.  (It’s funny that most people who talk about God giving his children “prosperity” don’t define it in spiritual terms.)  And there is also no certainty that those who disobey God will perish by the sword – because God’s judgment does not always happen in this life so that people can see it.  In Luke 16, Jesus relates a story about a rich man and a poor man.  The rich man “dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.”  The poor man, named Lazarus, was covered with sores, and had to beg for whatever food he could get.  “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.  The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, where he was in torment…” (Luke 16:19-23, NIV).  The judgment on the rich man, and his punishment, did not come in this life at all; it came after this life was over.  In the same way, Lazarus’ deliverance from his poverty and disease did not come in this life; his comfort came after he entered eternity.

The arrogance of Elihu – One who has perfect knowledge is with you – leads people to believe that they can look at the situations and circumstances of this life and determine who has sinned and who has not.  But we don’t have perfect knowledge; that’s why Jesus cautioned us time and time again not to judge others.  We can’t see what is in their hearts – but God can.  That is why he is the only one with “perfect knowledge,” and that is why we leave the judgment to him.  He will do it – in his way, in his time.

Application:  God is reminding me that it is very dangerous for us to think that we have perfect knowledge – about anything.  We are human, we are fallible, and we too often allow our own desires and feelings to cloud our judgment.  We condemn others without knowing their hearts, and we excuse our own shortcomings and failures by claiming that we’re “doing it for God.”  We need to stay away from the mistake of Elihu – thinking that God needs us to speak in his behalf.  When it’s time for us to do that, the Holy Spirit will prompt us – but I believe that God wants us to speak about what he has done for us.  We need to bear witness to the transforming power of Christ, and we need to demonstrate that transformation by our lives.

Prayer:   Father, forgive us for those times when we have claimed to speak for you, but in fact were speaking for ourselves.  Forgive us for the presumption of thinking that we have “perfect knowledge,” for “we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10, NIV).  Remind us of Jesus’ call for us to love our enemies and to pray for them, that they may experience your grace just as we have.  Amen.

“What Business Is It of Mine?” (November 9)

Scripture:        Job, chapter 34; 1 Corinthians, chapters 4-6

1 Corinthians 5:9-13 (NIV) – I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are the immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters.  In that case you would have to leave this world.  But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.  Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?  Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside.  “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

Observations: One of the most familiar phrases from Scripture is Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 7, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1, NIV).  But there are a number of other Scriptures that tell us that we are to judge each other – such as this passage.  Is this a contradiction in Scripture?

When we’re interpreting Scripture, we should never start from the idea that there is a contradiction.  Because we believe that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, NIV), we should always assume that when passages seem to contradict each other, there must be an explanation that harmonizes them.  I believe that’s true with regard to this passage and Jesus’ command for us to not judge in Matthew 7:1.  So how do we harmonize them?

First, we need to understand what the word “judge” means.  The Greek word krino is the root for the word used in both of these passages, but it is a word with a number of variations in meaning.  Those variations include:  “(I) to judge in one’s mind as to what is right, proper, expedient… (II) to judge, to form and express a judgment or opinion as to any person or thing, more commonly unfavorable… (III) To judge in a judicial sense… (IV) to let oneself be judged, i.e., to have a lawsuit…” (The Complete Word Study Dictionary, New Testament).  So this one word can mean to “consider,” “have an opinion,” or to “judge in a judicial sense.”

So as we look at this passage from 1 Corinthians 5, and consider Jesus’ command in Matthew 7, one logical way to harmonize them is to understand that when Paul talks about judging those inside the church, he is using it in the sense of “considering,” while Jesus is using it in the sense of expressing an unfavorable judgment on others.  This is consistent with what Paul says, because he states, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” – which, I believe, is what Jesus also forbids.  As Paul stated earlier in the passage, he did not mean that the Corinthian believers should not associate with people outside the church; his command related to how they dealt with someone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.

It has long been my opinion that we apply Jesus’ commands – and Paul’s teaching here – in an absolutely backwards way: we are lenient with the sins of those who are “in” the church, and harsh on those who are “outside,” while Scripture would lead us to understand that we should be more willing to correct each other and hold each other accountable inside the Church, and extend the offer of God’s grace and forgiveness to those outside.  As Paul notes earlier in chapter 5, the purpose of his command is that “his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5b, NIV).

Of course, that still doesn’t mean that we should appoint ourselves as the “morals police” inside the church, running around correcting everyone else.  “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.  We all stumble in many ways.  Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check” (James 3:1-2, NIV).

One other note:  all of this has to be seasoned with prayer and a large dose of humility.  We should not take it upon ourselves to correct others – even within the church – until God puts his thumb in our backs and says, “Go.”  We should never approach such situations with a sense of spiritual pride, that we’re “righteous enough” to tell someone else that they are wrong.  It is always the Spirit’s work, and we should join him only when he clearly compels us to do so.

Application:  The phrase “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” catches my attention today, because I fear that we’ve been doing a lot of that these days.  As Paul notes, if we refused to associate with “sinners,” we would have to leave the world – but God hasn’t called us to do that.  So we need to strive to be consistent in our faith, and to encourage each other to faithfully follow Jesus – so others may come to know him too.

Prayer:   Father, I thank you that you do not treat us as we deserve; you have forgiven our sins and cleansed us from unrighteousness.  But you have not done that so we can strut around telling others how good we are and how bad they are; you have called us to follow the example of Jesus, who humbled himself and became obedient unto death – even death on a cross!  Help us to be humble and obedient to you, that the peace and the love of Christ may be seen is us.  Amen.

Where Does Wisdom Come From? (November 5)

Scripture:        Job, chapters 28-29; Galatians, chapters 1-2

Job 28:20-28 (NIV) – Where then does wisdom come from?  Where does understanding dwell?  It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing, concealed even from the birds in the sky.  Destruction and Death say, “Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.”  God alone understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells, for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens.  When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters, when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderstorm, then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it.  And he said to the human race, “The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.”

Observations: It is our nature to hear the phrase “the fear of the Lord” and form a mental picture of someone cowering before the supreme power and majesty of God, while God revels in the fear of the one standing before him.  WRONG!  The fear of the Lord is a common Biblical phrase which means to honor and respect God, to recognize God as Sovereign.  Now, when we know that our lives do not conform to God’s standards, there might be “fear” as we think of it – but when we know God rather than just knowing something aboutGod, we recognize that we are not cowering before a capricious tyrant but standing in the presence of our heavenly Father, who loves us.

Where does wisdom come from?…The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.  I believe that it’s importance for us to understand what “evil” really is.  My concordance tells me that the word “evil” appears 454 times in the NIV translation of the Bible, and it is mentioned in 56 of the 66 books of the Bible.  That tells me that evil must be a powerful force in our world, because the Bible spends a lot of time talking about it.  But we have to recognize that “evil” originates in rebellion against God.  In the Old Testament, “evil” was “used in a moral and spiritual sense as the designation for immorality and unfaithfulness to the covenant,” while in the New Testament, “evil is the disobedience of God’s law, the preaching of Jesus, and the message of the disciples” (Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. II, p 679).

That’s why our passage from Job says that “the fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.”  To shun evil means to recognize the validity and authority of God’s commands, and to honor them.  Any understanding of “evil” in the moral sense must originate in our understanding and concept of God.  And that means that “wisdom” comes from the same place, because when we acknowledge God as Sovereign, that means that we acknowledge that his commands are good – and therefore we obey those commands.

On the other hand, when we reject God, we have nothing on which to base our understanding of what is “evil.”  One problem in our world today is that people have rejected the authority of God, so their concept of “evil” is based only on their own personal beliefs.  If there is no overriding concept of what is “good,” there can be no agreement on what is “evil.”  That leads to people calling what is good, “evil,” and what is evil, “good” – and that leads us down the wrong road.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7, NIV).

Application:  It’s easy for those of us who are followers of Jesus to look at sinful actions and call them “evil” – but we need to be careful that we’re not substituting our opinion for God’s.  The danger is that we stop thinking about the actions as evil, and start thinking of the people as evil – and then we “write them off.”  As followers of Jesus, we have to be able to “speak the truth in love”; too many times, our judgment that someone else is “evil” causes us to act toward them out of anger and bitterness rather than love.  It’s no excuse that other people may speak ill of us, or treat us badly; it’s not even an excuse that they’re doing things that we believe are evil.  Love does not mean excusing sinful behavior – we don’t excuse it in others, and we certainly don’t excuse it in ourselves.  Love means that we care enough to speak the truth, but we also care enough to act lovingly toward others.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48, NIV).

Prayer:   Father, we confess that at times it is hard for us to love our “enemies,” because it seems clear that they don’t love us.  But that wasn’t the standard that Jesus set for us; as he said, even the “pagans” do that.  Instead, he calls us to love everyone – because if we’re to love our enemies, that certainly means that we’re also to love our families and friends and neighbors. 

Your word tells us that if we lack wisdom, we should pray in faith and not doubt, and you will give it to us.  But your word shows us that a proper understanding of who you are, and living in obedience to your commands, is the beginning of wisdom – so help us to live today the way that you have called us to live.  Help us to love others as you have loved us, that they may come to know your love and the peace that only comes from you.  Amen.

Adding to the Story (November 4)

Scripture:        Job, chapters 26-27; Mark, chapters 15-16

Mark 16:9-20 (NIV) – When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons.  She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping.  When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.

Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country.  These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.

Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.  And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.  Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.

Observations: The heading at the beginning of this passage in the NIV says, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20.”  In other words, this passage was not part of the earliest copies of the Gospel that we have.  Apparently, it was added later, although no one knows for sure exactly when it was added.  Because copies of Scripture (and other writings) had to be made by hand, it was not uncommon for there to be changes to the copies.  Some of those changes happened because the person copying the text skipped a line – often because the same word appeared in two lines, and so the copyist inadvertently skipped down to the second occurrence of the word.  Other times, the copyist intentionally changed the text in an effort to “correct” what was thought to be a mistake.  And sometimes – as I believe happened in this case – the person making the copy added information which he thought had been left out, in an effort to make the writing “more complete.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that we just ignore this.  Somewhere along the way, it was included in the accepted text of the Gospel of Mark, and that means that at some point the Church decided it was part of our “Scripture.”  So what do we do with it?

Well, parts of it are consistent with what we know from other portions of the New Testament.  For example, the account of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene is also found in the Gospel of John.  The story of Jesus appearing to two disciples “while walking in the country” could very well be the story of Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, from Luke 24.  Jesus’ command to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” is a restatement of the Great Commission from Matthew 28, and some of the things that Jesus says in verses 17-18 relate to things that actually happened in the book of Acts:  Paul drove out demons, as with the servant girl in Philippi (Acts 16); the believers spoke in new languages (as at Pentecost, Acts 2); and Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but not harmed by it (Acts 28).  There are numerous accounts of the disciples healing people as well.  Verse 19 is a restatement of parts of the first chapter of Acts, and the last statement – the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it – is a pretty accurate summary of the whole story of the book of Acts.

That only leaves us with a couple of concerns, which relate to the text of verse 18:  they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.  I mentioned Paul’s encounter with a snake on Malta from Acts 28, but there is no account in the New Testament of any of the believers drinking poison.  And, to be clear, Paul didn’t pick up a snake with his hands; he was putting wood on the fire, and the snake bit him.  So those two phrases about drinking poison and handling snakes are things that are in this later ending to Mark’s Gospel but don’t really have any confirmation anywhere else in the New Testament.

Why is that important?  I bring it up because there have been small groups of believers who have made snake-handling and drinking poison part of their beliefs, thinking that because Jesus (supposedly) said this, they have to do that to demonstrate their faith.  But doesn’t it seem like doing those things for that reason is the equivalent of Satan telling Jesus to jump off the top of the temple, because the angels would catch him (see Matthew 4:5-7)?  The early church dealt with persecution, and I can easily imagine that there might have been times when believers were forced to drink poison or handle snakes in an attempt to put them to death; it certainly would be within God’s power to protect them in those circumstances.  But that’s a far cry from picking up a poisonous snake, or drinking poison, in an attempt to “prove” that we’re believers.  In the undisputed parts of the Gospels, Jesus told us that men would know that we are his disciples if we love one another, not if we handle snakes or drink poison.  It is always dangerous to take a verse or two out of its context and try to create a theology out of that one passage.  Let’s focus on living the way that Jesus told us to – faithfully loving each other, loving our neighbors, and even loving our enemies – instead of trying to “put on a show” to prove our faith, and let’s keep our focus on the whole witness of Scripture, not just a few select verses or passages.

Application:  I’m not aware of anybody in our area who handles snakes or drinks poison.  There are, however, people who try to “prove” their faith by doing other things – and ultimately that ends up as a comparison, where someone is trying to demonstrate that they are more committed to Jesus, or more faithful, or more righteous or holy, than someone else.  Whenever we get drawn into that kind of “contest,” we lose – because we’ve taken our eyes off Jesus and focused them on ourselves and other people.  The command is to make disciples; if our message needs to be confirmed in some way, God will take care of that.  Jesus made it clear that the way we make disciples is to love people, and point them toward him.  It was his love that led him to the cross; our love for him should overflow into the lives of the people we encounter, so that they might be drawn to him.  That’s the only “test” we need to pass.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for loving us so much that you sent your Son to show us how to live, and then to give his life to enable us to become part of your Kingdom.  Help us to love others so they too can come to know Jesus.  Help us not to get tricked into trying to “prove” our faith to others – not to people outside your kingdom, and not even to other people who are part of your Kingdom.  And help us to never try to put other people to the test that way, by telling them what we think they have to do to prove their faith in you.  When we bear witness to you, you will “work with us and confirm your word by the signs that accompany it” (Mark 16.20).  Help us to be faithful in our witness.  Amen.

“Leave Her Alone” (November 3)

Scripture:        Job, chapter 25; Mark, chapters 13-14

Mark 14:3-9 (NIV) – While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard.  She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.  

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?  It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.”  And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus.  “Why are you bothering her?  She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.  But you will not always have me.  She did what she could.  She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Observations: As I read this passage today, God reminded me how prone we are to judge each other’s actions and responses toward him.  I’m thinking particularly about our tendency to think that if people are “really” Christians, they will do what we think they should do, or act how we think they should act.  Unfortunately, that attitude is one of judgment: we’re acting as though we’re qualified to decide how someone else should act if they are followers of Jesus.  Jesus made in clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we’re not to judge one another.  The Apostle Paul echoed this in Romans 14:  “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.  Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?  To their own master, servants stand or fall.  And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Romans 14:3-4, NIV).

That’s the same point Jesus is making in today’s passage.  The woman comes in, breaks the jar of expensive perfume, and “wastes” it by pouring it on Jesus’ head.  The response of some of the people there was very critical:  “Why this waste of perfume?  It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.”  And the rebuked her harshly.  These unnamed people thought that they were qualified to decide the “right” way for the woman to act, and the rebuked her for not acting the way they thought she should.

Jesus, on the other hand, makes it clear that they were out of line: “Leave her alone.  Why are you bothering her?  She has done a beautiful thing to me.”  She was moved by her love for Jesus to pour that perfume on him – without knowing that she was preparing him for his burial by doing so.  But she was trying to do the best she knew to demonstrate her love for Jesus, and because of that, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.  Nobody remembers the naysayers who judged her actions; everybody knows about her.  May God help us to love him like that!

Application:  And may God help us to extend grace to one another as we seek to demonstrate our love for Christ in the ways that God directs us.  I lift up Jesus by extending his grace to others, by reminding them that he loves them and wants what is best for them.  I lift him up by talking about the way that he has shown his grace to me, and telling others that he wants them to experience that grace too.  I don’t lift him up by telling people that if they don’t think or act like me, they’re not “really” Christians.  Who am I to judge someone else’s servant?  

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding me today of your great grace to me.  When I had no hope and no expectation that you would work in my life, you reached out to me in love and welcomed me into your family and your Kingdom.  Help me to be an instrument of your grace today.  Help me to point other people toward the love and mercy that can only be found in you.  Help me not to fall into the trap of arguing and fighting with others about the way that they express their love for you; help me to keep focused on Jesus.  Amen.

“Foam on the Surface of the Water” (November 2)

Scripture:        Job, chapters 23-24; Mark, chapters 11-12

Job 24:18-25 (NIV) – “Yet they are foam on the surface of the water; their portion of the land is cursed, so that no one goes to the vineyards.  As heat and drought snatch away the melted snow, so the grave snatches away those who have sinned.  The womb forgets them, the worm feasts on them; the wicked are no longer remembered but are broken like a tree.  They prey on the barren and childless woman, and to the widow they show no kindness.  

But God drags away the mighty by his power; though they become established, they have no assurance of life.  He may let them rest in a feeling of security, but his eyes are on their ways.  For a little while they are exalted, and then they are gone; they are brought low and gathered up like all others; they are cut off like heads of grain.

If this is not so, who can prove me false and reduce my words to nothing?”

Observations: The phrase that caught my attention this morning is “they are foam on the surface of the water.”  No matter what has caused the foam to be on the water, eventually the foam disappears, engulfed by the vastness of the ocean, never to be seen again.  I think that’s important for us to keep in mind as our nation approaches Election Day.  Nationwide elections are always filled with promises of great things if the favored candidate is elected and dire predictions of doom if the ‘wrong’ candidate wins.  Those sorts of opinions surround every election, but I don’t think those opinions have ever been as vehement as they are now – and with that vehemence comes the assertion that the “other side” is not just wrong, but evil.

We need to remember a few things.  First, we need to remember that our enemy is not someone who votes differently than we do; the enemy of our souls is Satan.  As Christians, let’s keep the real enemy in focus, and recognize that people who believe differently than we do are also people whom God loves enough for Jesus to have died for them.  Second, we need to remember that just as people on the other side are not the enemy, so to people on ‘our’ side are flawed, just as we are.  When we start working our way through the political landscape, it shouldn’t take long for us to find issues where every candidate fails to promote the standards of Scripture.  On one side, it may be abortion; on the other side, it may be racism and hatred toward people from other countries and cultures.  Scripture calls us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.  And just as people on ‘the other side’ of the political divide are people whom God loves and for whom Christ died, so too are people from other races and ethnic groups, whether they live here or are seeking to come here.

But finally, we need to remember that whatever we may think, today’s passage reminds us that those who oppose God – ‘the wicked’ – are foam on the surface of the water.  God has a plan, and nothing that happens takes God by surprise.  No matter who wins this election, God’s plans are not in danger.  We can be sure that come next week, God will have something for each of us to do to help his Kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as in heaven.  Let’s not get so caught up in the results of this election that we miss what God is calling each of us to do, day by day, to help reconcile others to him.

Application:  I have friends on both sides of the political divide – friends who are believers in Jesus and followers of him.  I have to avoid the temptation to judge their spirituality by the way that they vote, just as they have to avoid judging mine.  As Paul says in Romans 14:4, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall.  And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”  We cannot miss what God is doing to further his Kingdom by fixating too much on the outcome of an election.  No matter what happens, there is work to be done to bring people together, to make peace, and God expects us to be the first ones to step up and begin that work.  If your favored candidates win, do the work of making peace with grace and humility.  If your favored candidates lose, accept the results humbly and look for ways that God wants to use you.  No matter who wins, remember the admonition of Scripture:  “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.  Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.  Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:13-17, NIV, emphasis added).  No matter how bad you think “the emperor” is, remember that the emperor when Peter wrote this was Nero – who, church tradition tells us, would later crucify Peter upside down and also put Paul to death.  God’s standards for his children haven’t changed.

Prayer:   Father, thank you for the assurance that all of the wickedness that we are so worried about is “foam on the surface of the water.”  That doesn’t mean that you don’t expect us to stand against wickedness, and to work to further your purposes; it simply means that we don’t need to despair when it seems like wickedness is “winning.”  “For a little while they are exalted, and then they are gone” – but your Kingdom endures forever.  Amen.

“What the Kingdom of God Is Like” (October 29)

Scripture:        Job, chapter 20; Mark, chapters 3-4

Mark 4:26-29 (NIV) – He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like.  A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Observations: This is what the kingdom of God is like.  What an awesome phrase that is!  Jesus, who understands the kingdom of God better than any of us ever could, explains it to us in basic terms with analogies that we can readily grasp.  Why does he do that?  Because he wants us to understand what the kingdom of God is like.

So what does this parable tell us about the kingdom of God?  First – in line with what Jesus has just said in the more familiar “Parable of the Sower” – our first responsibility is to scatter the seed.  Sometimes I fear we’re more protective of the seed than we need to be!  The image of scattering seed on the ground tells us that the sower was not particular about where the seed was going.  He wasn’t carefully looking at the ground, placing one seed into a hole then covering it up; he was just throwing seed everywhere!  And we have the opportunity to do that every day – if we are willing to make God and his kingdom a regular part of our conversation.  That doesn’t mean trying to come across as being “super-spiritual”; it means acknowledging the importance of our walk with Jesus whenever it’s appropriate. The more matter-of-fact we are in talking about Jesus, the more reasonable it will seem for us to talk about him.  Most people don’t have a “Saul on the road to Damascus” sort of experience; they see Jesus in the lives of the people they know, and they recognize his presence in them.  That’s scattering the seed.

The second thing we see is that the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  We are incapable of understanding exactly what conditions need to be for the seed to sprout and grow in an individual’s life; that’s why our first job is to scatter the seed.  When we start to think that we can micro-manage the growth of that seed, that’s when we usually kill it off.  We give it too much water, or too much fertilizer, or we do other things that we think the “seed” needs to grow – when in fact we’re doing the worst thing for it!  We scatter the seed, then allow God to direct the process of sprouting and growing.  Sometimes we’ll be involved in that process; other times we won’t.  We need to remember that God handles the sprouting and growing part; we just need to be obedient to him.

And when the time comes, the “grain” is harvested.  Again, we may or may not be involved in harvesting the seed that we scattered; what’s important is that the seed has produced grain to be harvested – and God directs the harvest, just as he directed the growing process.  “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.  The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.  For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-9, NIV).

Application:  God has been giving me the opportunity to scatter seed in some new directions lately, and I am glad for the opportunity to do that.  Some of that seed is sprouting, and it is a blessing to see it – but I need to remember that it’s not my seed, but his.  There may be times and situations where my tasks go beyond scattering the seed, and I need to be attentive and obedient in those situations, but I cannot assume that it is always my job to tend those “sprouts.”  Too many times, we do that because we want to take the credit for the plant’s growth – but it is “God who makes it grow.”

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding me that although we tend to look at the growth of the seeds as our responsibility – and we too often want to take credit for it – the fact is that “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”  Help me to be faithful to scatter the seed today, and to water and cultivate where you lead me to do that – but to remember that all the credit and glory belong to you.  Amen.

“What Do You Want With Us?” (October 28)

Scripture:        Job, chapter 19; Mark, chapters 1-2

Mark 1:21-28 (NIV) – They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.  The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.  Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”

“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly.  “Come out of him!”  The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this?  A new teaching – and with authority!  He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”  News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

Observations: I noticed something this morning as I read this passage that I had never picked up on before.  The man in the synagogue was possessed by AN impure spirit – which means “one” – yet that impure spirit asked Jesus, “What do you want with US…Have you come do destroy US?”  So who are the “us” that the spirit is talking about?

I guess I’d always just assumed that the man was possessed by a number of spirit, as the demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes was (see Mark chapter 5).  And maybe that’s the case here, since chapter 5 also says that the man had “AN impure spirit” (Mark 5:2).

But what if that’s not the way it was?  What if the “us” doesn’t refer to a bunch of spirits in that one man, but a bunch of spirits hanging around troubling other people?  After Jesus cast this demon out of the man, we read later in chapter 1, “That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.  The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases.  He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was” (Mark 1:32-34).

As far as I know, I’ve never encountered a person who was possessed by a demon, but I’ve met plenty of people who were oppressed by them.  I don’t think there are just a few demons spread out across the world; I think there are many of them, and their goal is the same:  to keep people from surrendering to God and becoming part of God’s Kingdom.  Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, and he tells us that heaven rejoices over one lost sinner who comes home.  Doesn’t that also imply that Satan and hell are defeated with every lost sinner who comes home?  If Jesus is willing to work and fight for every single person, that must mean that Satan and his demons are, too, right?

Application:  This is just a reminder to us that we are engaged in a spiritual battle.  We need to put on our armor every day, and be aware of the ways that the enemy of our souls is at work.  That doesn’t mean that we look at other people as the enemy; they are caught in the crossfire, and our job is to try to help lead them to safety, not shoot at them!

Prayer:   Father, thank you for reminding us today that Satan is the enemy.  He may be at actively at work in some areas, and working in less obvious ways in others, but we can be sure that he is at work in our world.  Of course, that’s why Jesus told us that we need to work “as long as it is day” (John 9:4).  Help us not to mistake other people for “the enemy,” and attack them; help us to love them as you have called us to do, and to try to point them toward you.  Amen.