Psalm 91 "Lead us not into temptation…"

We all struggle through trials and hardships in life and, though God is not responsible for causing them, He does allow us to go through them and faithfully walks alongside us during them.  Praying that God would “save us from the times of trial” creates space for the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts that we may listen better to what God teaching us and trust more in God’s faithful and steadfast protection.

Acts 1 – Ascension

Read Acts 1

The beginning of the book of Acts contains within it a number of “housekeeping” things.  Luke covers and introduction and explanation of why he continues to write.  He also talks about the replacement of Judas Iscariot, who went out and hanged himself after betraying Jesus and unsuccessfully trying to take it back.

In the middle of all of this, however, is an event that is of paramount importance to the Christian faith: Jesus’ ascension.  Christ’s human presence in heaven is important for many reasons and the event of His ascension, sadly, receives little fanfare or remembrance in the Church.

So why is this so important and how does it benefit us?  How is this even possible if we talk about Christ always being with us, yet we know that He is in heaven?  The answers to this can be found in Creeds and Confessions of the Church.  Of particular interest today is the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 18.

Christ’s presence in heaven is a comfort for us because we know that He is seated at the right hand of God the Father, ruling and reigning with Him and the Holy Spirit, one God, for all eternity.  At the same time, we also know that we have an advocate in heaven who is interceding for His people all the time.

Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, so we have confidence also that “we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.”

Finally, Jesus promises in John 16, that, though He was going away, His departure would signal the sending of the Holy Spirit, something He promises His followers here.  The Holy Spirit’s presence unifies us with Christ to be His body here on earth.

Introduction to Acts

The book of Acts is the first book following the Gospels but is also linked very closely to them, particularly the book of Luke.  Acts is Luke’s second volume, a companion book the Gospel of Luke, that follows the expansion of the Church after Jesus ascends into heaven.

At the beginning, Jesus gives a charge to His followers before He returns to heaven.  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  This is effectively the “thesis statement” for the book of Acts.  Luke follows the work of Peter and the apostles, and then the work of Paul as the message of Christ spreads in ever expanding circles throughout the Roman Empire.

Acts is the only book deemed “historical” as a writing genre.  What this means is that there is less teaching associated with it and more recording that takes place.  We will see more narratives of things that happened and less of the teaching that we have seen Jesus doing in the course of His ministry.  That said, there is still plenty that God’s Word will teach us in this book.

Finally, a note about the language of the “early church” that refers to Acts and is used in our contemporary church today.  We will observe a number of ways that the Church functioned in the setting of the first century under Roman rule.  The book of Acts is by no means “prescriptive” of the “ideal” church, but rather a record of God’s faithfulness in building the Church.  Rather than trying to copy what they did, something incredibly difficult for us in the 21st century, it is important that our focus is drawn to the One who provided for, empowered, and sustained the Church in these difficult times.

John 21 – Feed My Sheep

Read John 21

John records Peter’s denial of Jesus in chapter 18.  Unlike the other Gospels, though, Peter is not left in the miserable state that we leave him.  In fact, the interaction between Jesus and Peter after Jesus’ resurrection shows us the very nature of the restoration that takes place in our hearts and lives when we turn to (or back to) Christ.

It’s hard to imagine being in Peter’s place, knowing what he did and knowing that Jesus knew what he did.  I’m sure Peter felt a bit awkward here, unsure of what to say.  But Jesus doesn’t hesitate as all; they enjoy a meal together and Jesus wastes no time restoring He and Peter’s relationship.

The significance of the number of times Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him cannot be understated.  While it may seem like an obvious thing, Peter’s triple denial coupled with His triple affirmation, the repetition is important as we have talked about.  Jesus, knowing of Peter’s guilt, not only reinstates Peter, restoring their relationship but shows him that He is still able, and in fact called to the ministry that Jesus Himself was about.  No greater image of trust can be seen than here, an image of the Master charging the one who denied Him with testifying to His Name once again.

Jesus also has a difficult word for Peter, a prophecy of the trials that Peter would face.  I wonder if Peter felt a bit overwhelmed as if his future was unfair, and so he asks about John, Jesus’ beloved disciple.  The response he receives is an important lesson for us: what others deal with in life, the paths they have to walk and why is not our business; what is important is that we remain faithful to God’s calling for our lives.

John 20 – Peace Be With You

Read John 20

The celebration of Easter Sunday is marked in the Church by great celebrations.  We often have lively music, rousing sermons, and well-dressed individuals present to hear them.  More people than normal come out for this particular Sunday because of its perceived importance in life and faith, and rightly so.  Jesus’ resurrection is the pinnacle of the Christian faith, the zenith of the Church year, and the most transformative event of all time.

While much of this celebration is focused on conquering death and the new life that we have in Christ, which isn’t wrong, John’s Gospel offers another theme that doesn’t readily come to mind when we think of Easter: Peace.

At every event in which Jesus appears to someone after His resurrection and His chat with Mary in the Garden, Jesus offers the peace.  “Peace be with you,” He says.  Earlier, in John 14, Jesus also comments on that peace, a peace that He leaves with them, one that He now gives to them again.

This peace is an important element of one of John’s themes, pitting Jesus as the light the world who hate Him and loves the darkness.  Now, once all has taken place and Jesus accomplished all He was sent to do, true peace once again reigns.  Through Christ we have peace with God; we can have a relationship with Him once again, which leads to a subtle yet powerful image that John places at the end of His Gospel: God in the garden once again.

When the world was created, God walked with Adam and Eve in His garden.  After Jesus was raised, He too walked in the garden, but instead of asking “where are you,” as the Father did to Adam and Eve, Jesus calls her by name and she is not afraid.

John 19 – Behold Your King

Read John 19

After Jesus has been with Pilot and the people are shouting over and over that He should die, Pilot does something quite unique.  He takes Jesus out and sits Him down in the “Judgement Seat.”  What beautiful irony.  Jesus is sitting in the very seat that will be His for eternity, at the right hand of the Father, and yet no one recognizes it.  In fact, that shout all the louder to have in crucified!

The Pilot says something that I’m sure they didn’t want to hear: “Behold your King.”  Interesting… hundreds of years earlier, as recorded in 1 Samuel 8, the people of Israel cried out to God for a king, someone that would lead them.  God’s own people rejected God as their true King for the sake of an earthly one that would lead them.  Here, once again, the people stand before God the Son, the descendant of King David Himself, and reject Him.  “We have no King but Ceasar,” they say.  Once again, what beautiful irony.

More important than this, though, is the truth Jesus speaks to Pilot before all of this: “You have no authority over me at all unless it had been given to you from above.”  Jesus speaks once again to the reality that all of this was taking place because it had to.  In the face of Israel’s rejection of God and the Jewish rejection of Jesus, God continues to show His steadfast, faithful love to humankind, sending His Son to die so that they might find light and life in Him.

All of this took place to fulfill Scripture, which, ultimately, is the purpose of John’s writing.  Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, John’s Gospel reveals to us the prophesied Messiah, the Divine Son of God, the one true Savior.

John 18 – Denial

Read John 18

The narratives of the denial of Simon Peter, arguably the “second in command” of Jesus’ disciples, is one that gets little fanfare in the Synoptic Gospels.  Though Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the event, it passes by with no comment and ends with the bitter weeping of Peter when the rooster crows.  It is clear that Peter knows what He has done, the depths to which he has fallen.

There is a purpose for Peter’s threefold denial, though, and it is not just because people wanted to make sure that he meant it the first two times.  In the Semitic language, the way that emotion is truly expressed is through the repetition of words.  When someone says something more than once, it means that there was some passion or emotion behind it.

Think about the narrative of Jesus with Mary and Martha.  Mary is sitting and listening to Jesus while Martha is busy doing housework.  When she confronts Jesus he says, “Martha, Martha.”  There was emotion in Jesus’ voice when He spoke to her.

Another example would be the vision of Isaiah.  The angels around the throne don’t just call God holy, He is Holy, Holy, Holy!  This threefold acclamation of God’s holiness, for the reader, means God is truly holy.

So what about Peter?  Well, the triple denial that He gives communicates the depth of his own self-interest and hypocrisy.  “I will lay down my life for you,” Peter had said only hours earlier.  And now, he is truly alone.  A denial like this would have cost him his position among the disciples and any status he had with the one he followed.

Yet, in John’s Gospel, this isn’t the end of the narrative because there is grace, even for someone as stubborn as Simon Peter.

Psalm 51 "Forgive us our debts…"

As we look at the 4th phrase of the Lord’s Prayer we are both reminded of our need for forgiveness and that we need to also be forgiving.  Christ’s love and forgiveness for us allow for the cultivation of a forgiving heart, a work that done in us by the Holy Spirit.

John 17 – My Prayer for You

Read John 17

Jesus concludes the Passover celebration, His Last Supper with His disciples with a prayer for Himself, His disciples, and for all those who will believe in Him.  In this prayer, Jesus hits three major points: God’s glorification (His and the Father), the protection of His disciples, and the unity of believers.

Glorification: Ultimately, Jesus’ glorification through the cross.  As we have talked about, the ultimate purpose of Jesus was to bring light into the darkness, life into a world of death.  All that Jesus did was meant to bring glory to the Father (remember the blind man?)  Now God’s glory would be revealed again as Jesus finishes His work and goes to the cross.  Jesus’ glory too would be revealed, in both His death and resurrection.

Protection:  As He has prepared them for His departure, Jesus now prays for His disciples knowing that there are trying times ahead for them.  This is an echo of His words in John 13: “In this world you will face trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”  He also points out that, while He is leaving, it is important for them to stay.  Though they would face many trials, it was part of their sanctification.

Unity: Jesus prays for what we consider the Church universal.  Yet He doesn’t pray for protection for us but instead for unity.  When the Church is one as He and the Father are one, Jesus says that people will know and believe in Him.

Part of this unity comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.  God has made this possible for us; the question is whether we will live into this unity or not.  It seems that, at least on some level, the message of the Gospel depends on it.

John 16 – Farewell

Read John 16

In the Gospel of John, chapters 13-17 are known as Jesus’ farewell address to the disciples.  All of the discourse during this time takes place while Jesus and His disciples celebrating the Passover, the Last Supper.  As Jesus spends His last hours on earth with His disciples, He imparts to words of comfort and reassurance for the future, particularly after He is gone.

The apex of Jesus’ words here is found in chapter 15, imploring His followers to abide in Him that they may bear fruit.  Chapters 14 and 16, however, reveal the way in which God makes that possible: through the sending of the advocate, the Holy Spirit.  Jesus tells them all of this that His followers would not fall away.

As the gravity of Jesus’ words begins to sink in, Jesus comforts them by pointing to a time when the disciples will receive both truth and power when the Holy Spirit comes on them.  At that time, things will be made clear and they will begin to understand more fully what is happening and will happen in the coming hours.

All of this is a precursor of things to come.  Yes, the disciples grief will turn to joy.  Yes, they will understand more fully what God is doing through Jesus.  But that doesn’t mean that life will be a breeze forever them.  In fact, a time will come when persecution will come and the followers of Jesus would be scattered.  (Dating would indicate that this was happening in the time that John wrote this Gospel)

Jesus’ point in all of this, though, was not the happiness, the sadness, the ease or the hardship, but the fact that God would be present with them through it all.  The Holy Spirit continues to be present with the people of God daily too.

John 15 – Abide

Read John 15

Depending on the translation of Scripture that you are reading you either encountered the word “abide” or the word “remain.”  These words come from a Greek word that has the conotations of “existing in” or “being present to” whatever subject, in this case, God’s love.  This is a deep and intimate word because it cannot be passive, it has to be a conscious, active decision.

John’s recording of this conversation echoes Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount, emphasizing that the fruit we bear is how we will be identified.  Here, however, He takes it a step further to impress upon them both the need to bear fruit and the way in which that will happen.

If we are to bear fruit we cannot do it under our own power or by our own works.  Only through a deep abiding in Jesus Christ, being present to His love in our lives, living into the grace that He offers, do we have any hope of this.  For some this can be very comforting; we are glad that we don’t have to do it on our own.

However, for others this teaching of Jesus can be very tough.  America is the place in which we do things on our own, pull ourselves up by our boot straps, and earn our way forward.  Being told that we cannot earn our way toward bearing fruit, and that there are consequences for those that bear no fruit, can be unsettling to say the least.

But the simple fact is that Jesus has already spoken to this, 6 other times in fact.  Each of the I AM statements is a claim and a promise: that He is the only way to a relationship with God and that He will open that way for us.

John 14 – The Only Way

Read John 14

In the last several decades there has been a considerable push towards “tolerance” in society.  As western culture moves away from Christianity, much effort has been made to move everyone towards an ideal that says “all roads lead to God.”  Whatever you believe, if you follow it with a true heart, you will reach some sort of “greater” being at life’s end.

Christians especially have been targeted in this, being called  “intolerant” for claiming to have the only way to God and Heaven.  The ridiculousness of targeting one of the world’s three major religions (all claim to possess the only way to God) notwithstanding, what Jesus says here not only predicts that this will happen, it speaks to the truest and deepest nature of who Jesus is.

While this conversation, this I AM statement, may seem like one among many, it really is a focal point in Jesus’ claim of who He is.  Making the statement “I AM” in the way that He does is a claim that He is God, yet here Jesus amplifies it by making sure His disciples know exactly what that means.  Only through belief in Him (because He is God) can one find the path to God.

No one else, in any religion, can make this claim.  God became human to create a way, the only way for humans to have a relationship with God.  His claim is exclusive, even if society and culture frown upon such exclusivity.

Does believing that Jesus is the only way to God make us intolerant?  No.  Trying to force someone to renounce their beliefs because you don’t like them does.  It seems culture doesn’t like to follow its own claims of tolerance when it comes to Christianity.  This, however, does not change our calling… or our faith.

John 13 – Embodiment

Read John 13

The narrative of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is one of the most meaningful and beautiful pictures we get of Jesus’ love and humility.  Honestly, the longer that you think about it and read it, the more beautiful it becomes as it is the embodiment of everything that Jesus has been teaching.

Though not necessarily recorded in John until now, Jesus talks at length in the three synoptic Gospels about “greatness” in the Kingdom of God.  The one who would be great (read: a leader) among you must be a servant.  Here Jesus lives into that teaching in a very tangible way, taking the lowest of household jobs as an act of love.

Also not recorded in John is Jesus’ teaching about the treatment of others, especially our “enemies.”  John makes a special note here that Judas, the disciple who would betray Jesus, was also sitting at the table and had his feet washed by Jesus.  We know that Jesus knows what is about to transpire; He would not be surprised later in the garden by Judas’ kiss.  Yet in this moment, Jesus washes Judas’ feet as well which takes servanthood and humility to a totally new level.

Still more interesting in this chapter are Jesus’ interactions with Peter.  First, at the table, Peter’s reaction of indignance that such a thing would happen, and later Peter’s unwitting commitment to follow Jesus and even lay down his life for Jesus.  Both times Jesus lovingly puts Peter in his place, working to show him that there are much deeper things happening.

We too can be like Peter, and even like Judas at times, outwardly showing our commitment while inwardly scheming for our own gain.  Thanks be to God that Jesus went to the cross to show us His grace too.

Psalm 136 "Give Us this Day…"

As we look at the third phrase of the Lord’s prayer “Give us this day our daily bread,” we couple it with a Psalm of Thanksgiving, a reminder of God’s faithfulness throughout all of history.  When our focus is shifted in this way, we can move forward in faith, knowing God will continue to be faithful, providing all that His people need.

John 12 – Coronation

Read John 12

The first major section of the book of John, the “Book of Signs,” comes to a close with several aspects of the coronation of Jesus Christ as King.  John uses these events and discussions to both draw from Jewish history and to foreshadow what is about to take place.

In Israel’s history, whenever a someone was chosen by God to be king, that person would be ceremonially anointed with oil.  Remember back to the stories of Saul and then David, both anointed by Samuel after God chose them to be Israel’s King.  Here Jesus is anointed by Mary which, when linked to the triumphal entry narrative, sees Jesus as Israel’s saving king.

It must have been quite a moment for Jesus’ disciples as they saw Him riding into Jerusalem with the throngs of people crowding around Him and praising Him.  We again get the sense of a king’s return to the city of David.  They even shout Scripture, fulfilling it as He rides by.

But it isn’t until later in this chapter when Jesus directs their attention to the true coronation event that is to take place, one that no one expects.

Until now, Jesus has been saying that His “hour” had not yet come.  Yet in this moment, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, a pivotal transition is taking place.  The anointed Son of God had now come and the hour of His glorification is at hand.  His coronation, however, would not be filled with the expected pomp and circumstance typically given to a King.  There would be crowds, a parade, a crowning, and a final “lifting up” that would take place, all as the Lamb of God takes on the deepest nature of a servant, lovingly giving His life so that others may truly find theirs once again.