Day 288: Matthew 25-26; The Lord's Supper – Passover Rebooted

Today’s reading is likely a familiar narrative for many people.  The story of Jesus’ death is likely the most told story of Christianity, rivaled I think only by the story of His birth.  While there is a lot to cover, and we will cover it, I think this time through I would like to look a bit deeper into the Lord’s supper.  To do this, I would like to offer some thoughts and then I am going to include some writing I have done for our Church recently regarding Communion.  I hope that this writing helps to locate this celebration of the Sacrament a bit more in the context and also give a bit of light to all that we do to celebrate it.  We will talk more about this again too as this is one of the most important parts of Christian Worship.

It is important to remember that the Lord’s Supper is actually an extension of the Passover celebration that has taken place since the time that the Hebrew people were in Egypt.  They were charged to celebrate this feast in remembrance of the night that the Lord “passed over” the people of Israel when He killed all the first born of Egypt.  There is a great deal of symbolic action that takes place here that has to do with sacrifice of a lamb, the use of blood as a marker for exemption from punishment, and even a communal meal together.  All of these things are shadows of what was to come, the fulfillment that would be found in Jesus Christ!  Remember that, especially in the early church, the Passover meal would have been the context in which the Lord’s Supper would have been understood; none of it really made sense to them without this historical fact.  Keep in mind too that, though we live in a different context, this “greatest of sacraments” has a lot deeper meaning than just taking a bread cube or reciting a liturgy.  I hope that the following helps a little.  We will talk more about this in coming posts.  I think it is also important to remember and recognize, as we read today, the different places where Matthew says “to fulfill Scripture” and such.  Again this is important because of the audience that Matthew is writing to and the point he is trying to make.

The Table, part of our response to God, is a very unique time for Christians in the Church.  I would like to take a moment to talk through this time, though I must admit that a moment will hardly do it justice.  Often in the Church, especially the reformed churches we have focused in on one very particular meaning of the Lord’s Supper, and have kept its practice well in check.  Yet in doing this, sometimes we lose the much fuller, richer, and deeper meanings behind our practice of going to the Table.  It is appropriate that we talk about Communion in this week as we prepare for the Church’s celebration of Worldwide Communion Sunday on October 6.

As we approach the Table on our communion Sundays, we often read the same liturgy which talks about the meaning of the sacrament and we say that the Supper which we are about to eat is a feast of “remembrance, communion, and hope.”  Following this, we often explain what it means to remember, to commune, and what we have hope for.  Some liturgies specifically state that the Lord’s Supper is a feast of “Remembrance, Celebration, and Anticipation” for many of the same reasons.  When we come to the Table, we remember the night that Jesus was betrayed as well as His death on the cross through which we receive atonement in His blood.  In this supper we also celebrate, because Christ did not only die, but He has risen from the dead and is ascended into heaven from which He sits and reigns!  We celebrate because our sins our forgiven and we have received grace upon grace!  We also anticipate, and our anticipation comes from the hope that we have that we are not left to struggle on our own, but Christ is with us Spiritually and will one day again be with us on this earth when He comes again in glory!

Along with these three main thematic elements, the Church in the New Testament used several different terms for this sacramental celebration, though they wouldn’t have called it a sacrament back then as the word sacrament actually comes from the Latin word for mystery.  Each of these four terms comes with different Scriptural references and emphasizes different elements of the Table.  The first of these and probably the most familiar to us is “The Lord’s Supper.”  This is referenced in 1 Corinthians 11:20 and points to communion as being the Lord’s Supper.  Here we see an emphasis placed on unity and equality as we come to the Table, reminding us that this Table, this feast is not ours but God’s.  The reference to 1 Corinthians 11 is also one of the foundational texts that were used in writing the Belhar Confession, the RCA’s newest confession emphasizing unity within the Church.  We need to remember this as we come to the Table, that Christ welcomes sinners (including ourselves) at His table to fellowship with Him.

Communion is also a familiar reference to the sacrament of the Table that we celebrate.  The ESV Bible that we now use here at ORC, in 1 Corinthians 10, has substituted the word “communion” for “participation” which only helps us to better understand this particular emphasis.  When we partake of the bread and the cup we are communing with and participating in the Body of Christ.  In this we touch Christ and Christ touches us, not in a manner in which these elements actually are Christ’s physical body, but in a spiritual sense in that at the Table, for these brief moments, Heaven and earth meet and we actually come to the Table of our Lord and sit with Him.  The liturgies of the earth church, and the great prayer of thanksgiving that is included on the next page, held this view as well.  As we approach the table we are lifted up and the barriers between heaven and earth are broken down and we are welcomed at the Table of our Lord.  This isn’t often how we think about Communion, especially as we sit in our seats and receive the elements from a tray, but it is a greater vision of what is happening in this time.  We are both communing with our Lord, but we are also participating as part of His Body.  Augustine said of this, when you take the elements, “Be what you see, receive what you are.”

The final two terms for the sacrament that we use a bit less are the terms “Breaking of the Bread” and “Eucharist.”  These terms come from Acts 2 and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark respectively.  The emphases of these are both fellowship and thanksgiving.  Acts 2 gives us a vision of the early church in which the believers celebrated “the breaking of bread” whenever they were together.  Jesus Himself gives us a vision of giving thanks when He breaks the bread and when He passes the cup as He explains these things to His disciples.

On the next page, you will see the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, a prayer that has been used before communion for many years.  See if you can find elements of what we just talked about in this prayer.



Day 287: Matthew 23-24; Teaching on the "End Times"

With the release of the “Left Behind Series” and other associated books, the craze of thoughts and speculation about the end of the world has been at an all time high.  Associated with this, the amount of theories about the end of the world has also been on the rise leading to a great deal of Christian bickering and generalized disagreements about the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the second coming of Christ.   I would dare say that, though the fad that these books were is dissipating into the cultural abyss, the continual talk of war, the seeming increase in catastrophic natural disasters, and the decline of morality in culture have all spurred on these conversations as well.  Often times we see these discussions get heated and passionate as people try to defend their understanding of the end of time.  On the other hand, some people in churches have opted for a don’t ask/don’t tell policy.  I don’t necessarily think that this is a good idea either.  As we see in our reading today, this isn’t necessarily something that Jesus avoids due to its controversial nature, but rather tackles head on in His teaching before the Passover.

I really do not think that a single blog post that is meant to cover the reading of Scripture for a day is a good place to start a debate around the differences in millennial kingdom views or the reasoning behind why dispensationalism as theology is a very poor reading of the whole of Scripture.  However, as a person of the Reformed Denomination of Christianity, my views are colored by how I have been taught and what I (and a great many others) feel is a more dutiful and faithful reading and interpretation of the whole of Scripture, not just certain verses here and there.  As I have said before, this is not a code that we are to decipher with some hidden meaning that God only wants us to have if we look hard enough.  Scripture is God’s REVELATION of Himself and His work throughout history which means that He is revealing it to us; it is an open book and we need to make sure that we read Scripture within the context of itself.

Anyway, enough of that soap box.  Perhaps we can take up that discussion some other time.  Jesus’ teaching today primarily covers the end of time when Jesus will return and the restoration and consummation of creation will be complete.  If I were to venture an opinion here, I would say that for as often as we talk about the end of time, we so often get the focus of Jesus’ teaching here and in other places wrong.  Jesus doesn’t necessarily talk about the exact events leading up to it.  Yes, he says that there will be natural disasters and wars, but all this, He says, is “the beginning of birth pains.”  To say that any one war or disaster is what Jesus was talking about would be foolish.  There have been hundreds of wars and even more natural disasters since the time that Jesus was taken to heaven.  We cannot be so egocentric, ethnocentric, geocentric, or even temporal-centric to think that our time, place, and people are more important somehow than any others.  We cannot assume that Jesus was talking about America or the Nuclear bomb.  What we have to understand here is that Jesus is saying that these things are the beginning of the end… and the end has been beginning since the beginning.

So what is Jesus’ main point here?  Perseverance.  Jesus says that His followers will be persecuted, even unto death.  He says that many will come claiming to be ‘the Christ’ but will not be.  Times will be hard, wickedness will increase, but those “who stand firm to the end will be saved.”  Jesus is saying to His followers, to all believers, “Keep the Faith!  Don’t turn from me just because its difficult.  By this you will be a testimony to me throughout the whole world.”  He goes on to quote from Daniel, referencing again a great evil that will destroy much.  Some say this was fulfilled by the son of Emperor Vespasian, Titus, who erected an idol over the destroyed Temple in 70 AD.  Some would say that Jesus was offering this reference to the Jewish people because they would recognize it as the event when Antiochus Epiphanes IV sacrificed a pig on the alter of God.  Yet there are many that would argue that this is something yet to be fulfilled.  I wonder if all three of these could be right.  These two events represent a great evil in our world, the unfettered, unhindered rebellion against God.  Perhaps there have been many more of these events?  Could Hitler be an abomination that causes desolation?  I think he certainly fits the bill.  But does that mean that Jesus is coming soon?  Well… Jesus has been coming soon since the book of Revelation was written, since He left this earth… so… yes, Jesus is coming soon.

The truth of the matter, however, is just as Jesus states it:

“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark,  and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.  Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

 



Day 286: Matthew 21-22; Jesus Enters Jerusalem

We turn now our attention to what the Christian Faith considers “Holy Week,” the final week of Jesus’ life.  Matthew chronicles all of the teachings and events of Jesus during this week in particular detail.  Other Gospels place a great deal more emphasis on the last couple days of Jesus life, but Matthew continually covers the whole of the week.  I think there is a very specific reason for his doing this as well.  Remember that Matthew’s point in writing is to show the Jewish people that Jesus is indeed the Messiah that they had been waiting for.  For Him to do this, He needs to show Jesus as such, contrasting Him with the image that they had set up for themselves.  Matthew is making the point over and over and over again that Jesus is the fulfillment of Scripture, even if He wasn’t exactly what the people expected.

In many ways this is seen more clearly in the paradox that surrounds Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  As Jesus entered the city, going up to Jerusalem for the Passover feast and ultimately His death, He did so in the manner that was foretold about the Messiah.  Matthew mentions this here:

Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt,the foal of a beast of burden.’

Once again Jesus’ actions are so clearly and distinctly following Scripture.  Yet, as we have talked about the last couple of days, the religious leaders still just don’t get it.  These are people that would have memorized the Torah and would have been intimately familiar with the writings of the prophets, yet they still do not understand.  Jesus even points this out to them later when He is in the Temple:

Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise’?

I keep wondering about this.  How is it possible that these pharisees missed all of these blatant signs that were before them?  I guess it really does boil down to their hearts being dull so that they really did not see or hear any of what was happening before them.

Jesus continues His ministry and teaching throughout this week in the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding towns.  Every time the pharisees come before Jesus, He quotes Scripture to them and sends them on their way looking foolish.  This is the strange paradox of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the whole of this last week of His life.  If there was ever a time that we can clearly see His true nature out in the open, it is here.  He has even directed those who would challenge Him back to the very Scriptures that speak of His coming, and yet they still do not believe.

Interestingly enough, Jesus brings His teaching full circle, all the way back around in all that He has talked about and shown the people and the religious leaders.  He does so at the end of our reading today when asked about the “greatest commandment.”  What does Jesus reference?  The Shema.  I encourage you to look at this again because it really brings to light what Jesus is talking about in all of the Gospels, and in our reading today.  All these things that have happened, all the challenging of the religious leaders takes place because at the end of the day they have not lived into this commandment.  The goal, the point and purpose was to love God in a way that would transform the whole life, keeping it in the front of one’s mind all the time and everywhere.  I wonder if we miss this point from time to time in the Church as well?  Do we see Jesus for who He is, or are we too busy looking for what we think He looks like?



Day 285: Matthew 18-20; Jesus Continues Teaching

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, which we will continue to read about and see in the next three Gospels, Jesus is continually teaching his disciples and the myriad of crowds that are following Him.  The subject of these teachings ranges across the spectrum of the human experience.  However, Jesus was not simply a man of many words, talking a good talk, but He is also one who walks the walk as well.  As we have continued to talk about the life and ministry of Jesus we have continued to talk about this in different ways as well.  Jesus’ teaching has a lot to do with actions and interactions, the way we are with those that are around us.  We, along with Jesus, have criticized the pharisees for their “works based righteousness” mentality, and we have seen very clearly what Jesus says about them and how that is related to the Old Testament Scriptures.

Sometimes I think that it seems like, and we interpret the teachings of Jesus in a very similar fashion to that of the pharisees.  Quite often in the contemporary church we hear sermons about how we need to try hard to be good so that God will be happy with us and bless us.  We are told that if we give enough money or if we do enough good deeds we will meet a certain quota of goodness and we will get rewarded.  Perhaps we even make it sound a bit more spiritual than this too.  We use words like “servant” and “humility” because they are words that we hear Jesus using in the Bible.  We are told that we need to follow Jesus’ example even unto death to do good things which will help God to be happy with us.  However, we are careful to avoid the phrase “righteousness” because we wouldn’t want people to think that they can make themselves righteous, we just basically insinuate it and push people to live up to an impossible ideal.

Sadly, this is so completely contrary to the teachings and actions of Jesus in His life, and this infringes on and violates so many doctrines that if it were closely examined, the Christian faith would fall apart.  We, like the disciples and the people of Israel, are called by God not of our own merit, elected by Him and predestined to be believers in Jesus Christ (which is where we are different than the Jews).  We believe that we are sinners, sinful by nature and that there is nothing we can do to bring ourselves to redemption.  Yet we live as though we have to do everything right to earn our salvation for ourselves.  We teach others as if this is the reality of our life and faith too.  Friends, these things are mutually exclusive.  What is the difference?  The place that our heart is in.

As believers we are indeed called to “life a life worthy of the calling we have received.”  However, the purpose of living this life is not out of necessity for righteousness or out of some quest to make ourselves perfect, but out of gratitude for the grace that is shown us.  This is the true calling of Israel and it is the true calling of the people of God.  We were chosen when we deserved not to be!  We have been redeemed through no work of our own!  We have been shown abundant grace and mercy, redemption in the face of sin and condemnation!  We have been blessed to be a blessing; given light for a dark world!  Knowing what we know, seeing what we’ve seen, how can we not live a life of love and gratitude?  What’s the difference?  Where our heart is!  When our hearts are focused on God, all the things that Jesus teaches about here like forgiveness, having a servant’s heart, loving one another, mercy, grace, and even healing all flow out of us naturally.  Ultimately though it is about the heart, it flows out of our hearts and lives not as an attempt at righteousness, but because we have already been made righteous.



Day 284: Matthew 15-17; Contrast of Faiths

There are a lot of things that happen in today’s reading; a great deal of different mini-stories that are seemingly disconnected.  Jesus is talking to different people, healing different people, and doing miracles for many.  Though they kind of seem like a disconnected bunch of micro-narratives, these are actually quite connected as a continuing contrast of those who think that they have faith, and those who actually do.

Our reading starts out with a question from the Pharisees regarding the breaking of tradition.  They were concerned with the fact that Jesus’ disciples were not doing the ritual washing before they eat.  This was one of the “laws” that we talked about when we discussed Jesus’ sermon on the mount.  They considered this as being something akin to faith, showing that they followed the rituals as a way of obedience.  Jesus’ response?  He calls them hypocrites and points them to the real Law that they are actually breaking.  More than that though, He again quotes Isaiah:

This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

Matthew then contrasts this story, the faith of the “righteous,” religious leaders of the day with that of an outcast.  In that day it would have been completely inappropriate for a woman to approach a male teacher like Jesus.  Moreover, it would have been absolutely out of the question for a Gentile to approach a Jewish person in that day.  Yet despite Jesus seeming to ignore her (Matthew’s point being that Jesus was saying that He is the Messiah sent to Israel, not that He is heartless and cruel) she shows her faith in Jesus through her words and her persistence, knowing that she was unworthy but also that Jesus was the only one who could help her.  Jesus even points out her great faith and what happens?  Her son is healed.

A few verses later we see the narrative of Jesus feeding four thousand people.  Because of His compassion, Jesus asks his disciples to feed the crowds.  I can only imagine the look on their faces when he said that.  Each of them could have worked their entire life and not made enough money to feed 4,000 men (plus women and children).  Jesus doesn’t chastise this question, neither does he tell them how it will happen, He just sends them to feed them with the few loaves and fish.  The disciples obey and what happens?  They feed the people and there are seven baskets of leftovers!  Now, there are a bunch of different themes here including the abundance of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Lord’s Supper, etc. We will talk about these, and the Transfiguration at another time.  However, I want to point out that the disciples listened to Jesus and obeyed even though the didn’t understand, and in that things happened!

So this brings together three narratives, all having to do (on some level) with faith.  As we proceed in our reading today we see (in some ways) the results of these interactions.  The Pharisees have connected their “faith” with the traditions, believing that what they do and how they follow the “law” is the same as belief.  Like we talked about, they even set up laws to protect the laws, just to make sure that they didn’t transgress any of them.  For them obedience to the law was an end in itself and the result of their “faith” was that they came back to Jesus asking for more signs.  Though it was clearly in front of them, the could not see it with their eyes, or hear it with their ears, because their heart was dull.  They wanted to see it their way and hear it their way… and it wound up with them being lost in their “faith.”

We also saw the example of the Gentile woman, whom we don’t hear from again, but we saw the contrast of her and the pharisees in that healing touched her because of her faith.

The final contrast comes in the story of Peter’s declaration of faith.  After the feeding of the Four Thousand, and the return and dismissal of the pharisees, Jesus asks His disciples who people say He is.  While it is a bit of a leap to say that the event of the feeding was the turning point of Peter’s faith, it is not so much of a leap to say that Peter’s accumulated experiences with Jesus had helped to bring him to the point of this declaration.  Though he may have not understood all that was going on at the time, Peter followed and listened, he was open and obedient to Jesus and his faith grew.  Now we see Peter declaring, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, at which point Jesus says that it is on him (and presumably a faith like his) that the church (the Greek word ἐκκλησία) will be built and the powers of hell will not be able to shake it.  This is the kind of faith that Matthew is setting up as the right faith for the Jews.  Their hope does not rest on the law, the land, or their traditions, but in the coming Messiah whom he is showing us in Jesus Christ.



Day 283: Matthew 13-14; Parables and Miracles

Today we come to a section of Matthew that covers many of the well known parables of Jesus and some of the better known miracles as well.  In sermons we tend to hear bits and pieces of today’s reading so I thought it was very interesting to read them together as a united whole.  One thing that struck me right off the bat was Jesus’ explanation of the parable and the reasoning for it.  Immediately Jesus quotes the passage from Isaiah 6, when God commissions and sends Isaiah out to the people of Israel.

You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.

This is an interesting and hard teaching that Jesus quotes, and it is no less difficult in His day.  Jesus has been sent, bringing with Him the Kingdom of Heaven which we see breaking into this fallen world in practically every place Jesus goes.  So why is it that there are some people that just don’t seem to get it?  Why, when all these amazing things are happening, do the “religious leaders” question and criticize Jesus’ actions rather than seeing them as a sign from God as Scripture said?  It might have something to do with what God said to Isaiah and what Jesus quotes here.

These leaders, the “righteous” people have heard the message of Jesus, but they do not understand it.  They have seen with their eyes the works of Jesus by they do not perceive it.  Why is this?  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that their hearts have “grown dull” trying to follow all the laws that they have set up for themselves.  They have become so consumed with their own righteousness that they have actually closed their eyes and ears to the reality of the Scriptures in front of them.  Sadly this was the story of Israel at the time of Isaiah and it is the story of many during the time of Jesus as well.

I have to admit that I am reflecting on this passage today in the midst of conversations about Classis Examinations and some of the dysfunction that comes along with them.  Often times, at least in some exams, candidates are grilled on certain topics because some pastors have decided to use that time to get on their soapbox about particular issues.  While the names and the issues are irrelevant, the point I am reflecting on is whether the Church, or perhaps parts of it have become a lot like these religious leaders.  We have the Gospel laid out before us and we have seen the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those that God has drawn to Himself, and yet we spend more time questioning people’s faith, making sure that they believe the same way that we do, than speaking the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven.  I wonder if we have become so engrossed in our culture, in the “hot-button issues” of the day, that we are failing to God’s work in the world right now.  Are we at risk of our hearts becoming dull?  It’s time for us to open our eyes to the work of God and open our ears to the message of the Gospel once again!



Day 282: Matthew 10-12; Go and Tell What You Hear and See

While there are many different themes that present themselves in today’s reading, the one that sticks out most to me is that of those being sent out by Jesus.  As we pick up the narrative of Jesus’ ministry today we see Jesus preparing the disciples and then sending them out to the towns and villages of Israel, to the “lost sheep” spreading the news of the Kingdom of heaven.  He gives them specific instructions about how to prepare and what to expect, though we hear very little about the message that they are to give apart from the fact that “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”    Apart from that they are to heal the sick, raise the dead, and even cast out demons.  Generally speaking they are called to be and do what the people of Israel were called to be and do.  What we are seeing here is the beginnings of the “Kingdom of Heaven” or “the day of the Lord” as the prophets put it.  We don’t get a report back here, but in the book of Luke chapter 10 we hear the return of the 72 that Jesus sends out after He sends out the Twelve Disciples and the reports are astonishing.  All that they were sent to do was done and in each instance we see an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God here on earth.

Later in today’s reading we see the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus to ask questions of Him.  I love Jesus’ response here: “God and tell John what you hear and see.”  It’s as if Jesus is asking them if what they have experienced meant nothing… they needed confirmation still even in the midst of all these miracles.  The advance of the Kingdom of God on this world is well underway, yet still there are doubts.

I wonder if we too think in these manners.  I wonder if we have any experience that can share with others.  As many of the Christians I know discuss how to best do evangelism and reach out to “the lost” in their different churches, it seems as though we always come back to the question of “how inviting are we as a church” as if the call of God is to be the warmest, most comfortable church in town so that people will come to us.  Yet that’s not what we see as an example here.  Jesus hasn’t set Himself in a local synagogue to preach and teach and make it warm and welcoming, He is out in the neighborhoods and towns, and sending people out into other neighborhoods and towns to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven.  What is that proclamation?  It is the very thing that He sent His disciples to do: heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and preach the good news to the poor!  This is what Jesus is doing and this is what He sends His disciples to do.  They are a “sent community.”  This is a theme that will come back time and again in the Gospels and in the whole of the New Testament and it is not a new one either.  The people of Israel were not given the land of Canaan so they could build walls and keep the people of the world out, they were placed there because they were GUARANTEED to have interactions with the nations around them.  Have you received Jesus into your life?  Have you experienced the grace of God and the redemption that He offers?  Go and tell the world what you experience in the love of God!



Day 281: Matthew 8-9; Jesus Heals Many

This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Honestly, I think that we could just stop with that for today, reading through all of the different healing that Jesus did throughout the beginning of his ministry, we just remember that this is indeed the culmination of the many promises of what was to come when the Messiah came.  Think back to all the different prophets that we have so recently read, all the times that they would say “In that day…” or talk about “the day of the Lord…”  The incarnation of Jesus, God putting on human flesh, it the very fulfillment of those words.

What we are seeing in Jesus’ ministry is an intentionally counter-cultural movement in which Jesus challenges all the norms that had been set up in the Jewish faith community, turns them on their head, and then demonstrates the true meaning of what is written about them in the Law.  Like we talked about yesterday, the purpose of the Law was not strictly moral living for its own sake and the message of the Law as not exclusion for the sake of “purity.”  Jesus challenges this directly in all that he does.  We see the lame, the sick, the blind, and the demon possessed all as outcasts in this society.  The lame and the blind are beggars, the sick are shunned for their impurity, but Jesus does what now Jewish person would even dream of… He touches them… and they are healed.  Here we see revealed to us the true mission of God’s people: healing and reconciliation.  Yes they were to be holy as God is holy, but not at the cost of loving their neighbor.  Not at the cost of caring for the poor.  They were given cleansing rituals to clean themselves when they went before God not so they could never use them because they didn’t associate with “unclean” persons.

I think Jesus makes this abundantly clear in chapter 9 when He is questioned as to why it is that He is eating with the “sinners and tax collectors.”

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

This really is contrary to everything that the religious leaders were teaching at the time.  They had set up the Law and the sacrificial system as an end to itself; moral living for the sake of moral living.  But that was never what the sacrificial system or the Law was about.  Israel was called to be a light to the nations, a place that people could come and encounter the love of God displayed through His people.  Yet that calling was twisted into something that was never meant to be, and Jesus challenges that in front of the very people that were being excluded.

I wonder if Jesus were to talk into our churches today if he would say the same thing.  Are we all about our programming?  Our preference of worship?  Our style of sermon?  The friend group we hang out with?  Do we welcome the “sinners and tax collectors” into our midst?  Or are we so focused on trying to do our own thing that we have lost sight of the true calling of the Body of Christ?  I wonder this about my own church as well… it is definitely food for thought this morning.



Day 280: Matthew 5-7; The Sermon on the Mount

Matthew is home to what many would consider the most popular Gospel passages of the four.  Apart from chapters 1 and possible 3 of John and the second chapter of Luke, the section of Matthew known as the Sermon on the mount is likely one of the most used passages of the Gospels.  The actual passages though, Matthew 5 – 7 are more likely a conglomeration of a majority of the teachings of Jesus brought together by Matthew.  Whether or not Jesus actually sat down and taught all of this in one sitting is indeed debatable, however that debate largely misses the point of what Jesus is teaching here.  As we look through this passage and look into the context in which He delivers this, or these messages, we see that Jesus is openly challenging much of the religious teaching of the day and showing the people the true intent of the Law and the many commandments that were given to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

Many people have said that Jesus came to turn the Law on its head, to show the true way of God.  However, even Jesus Himself challenges that statement in chapter 5.  He says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

So, if Jesus isn’t challenging the Law, what is he challenging?  Well, this is where context comes in.  Over the course of the history of Israel, and especially after the time of the exile, the Jewish religious leaders developed a system of laws to help protect the Law, like putting a fence around your fence so that you can be doubly sure that no one gets into a forbidden yard.  In doing this, the Jewish religious leaders wanted to make extra sure that the people of God did not transgress the Law once again thus causing the Lord to pass Judgment upon them.  However, what this really did was place the emphasis on an impossible standard of moral living for its own sake rather than living a life of gratitude, honor, praise, and worship to God.  It is into this context and understanding of the Law that Jesus speaks, rehashing what God truly meant when the Law was given.

Does this remind you of anything?  For me is screams “SHEMA!!!”  Why do I say this?  Well… because as Jesus will point out in Matthew 22, this really is the essence of the Law and if we read it with the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Leveticus 19:18 in mind, the teachings of Jesus here make sense.  What we are called to is not a set of laws and regulations for moral living, but to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus even mentions this in chapter 5:43-48 as well.  Out of these things flow naturally all that which Christ teaches about here and God calls us to in our everyday living.  The challenge is also given to us in the Church today.  For a very long time we have equated Christianity with knowing rightly and living rightly.  While these two are indeed important for the life of believers, they are not an end in themselves, but part of the natural overflow of the life of faith lived out in loving God and loving neighbor.  Indeed all of the law and prophets hang on those two commands.



Day 279: Matthew 1-4; Intro to the New Testament, The Gospels, and Matthew

The New Testament Photo Credit: www.thinktheology.org

The New Testament
Photo Credit: www.thinktheology.org

And so we come to it at last, the New Testament, the fulfillment of God’s promises to send a Messiah, the fulfillment/expansion of the covenant that God made with His people.  In the New Testament, the term “God’s People” also takes on a new meaning as the promise of reconciliation and redemption extends outward from the people of Israel to encompass the whole world!  In addition to this, we see the culmination of God’s work throughout the whole of the Old Testament to bring about the coming of Jesus in the New Testament and the fulfillment of hundreds of prophecies and covenantal promises that had been spoken of for over 1000 years, all coming to fruition in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

The Gospels are the first books of the Old Testament, four books that recount the life and work of Jesus Christ from His birth all the way to His ascension.  Each book is written by a different person, two Apostles, Mark who was an associate of Paul, and Luke (also the author of Acts) who was a doctor and one of the first gentile Christians.  Each of the Gospels is written to a different audience with a different purpose.  This will become apparent as we read through each of these books, however here is some basic information about each of the four Gospels, taken from both the NIV Life Application Study Bible (Tyndale House Publishing, 1991) and Reading the New Testament Today by Robert E. VanVoorst (Wadsworth, 2005).

Wordle of the Gospels Photo Credit: www.petergalenmassey.com

Wordle of the Gospels
Photo Credit: www.petergalenmassey.com

Matthew: Written specifically to the Jews in an effort to prove that Jesus was indeed the Messiah that the prophets foretold and was the eternal King in the line of David.

Mark: Written to Christians in Rome to encourage the Christians who were undergoing persecutions by relating the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Mark is said to be the first of the Gospels written.

Luke: Written to “Theophilus” which mean one who loves God, but also to Gentiles and people everywhere in an effort to present an accurate account of the life of Christ and also to present Christ as the perfect human and Savior.  Luke also makes an effort here and in Acts to challenge believers to be more devoted to the faith, especially its growth and defense.

John: Written to Christians and searching Non-Christians to prove that Jesus is the divine Son of God, the Word of God incarnate, and also to deepen faith in Jesus as Son of God and the giver of life, and to encourage readers to confess this faith  openly in the face of threats from synagogue authorities.

The Gospel of Matthew Photo Credit: www.spreadjesus.org

The Gospel of Matthew
Photo Credit: www.spreadjesus.org

As I said, the book of Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience, which is apparent right from the beginning of the book.  If you remember some of the culture we learned about the Hebrews, which are now referred to as “the Jews,” the orientation of their lives was towards God, which for them meant looking backward to creation and backing into the future.  This is a bit different than contemporary orientation of looking toward the future.  So naturally we being with a genealogy, a way of linking Jesus Christ with the ancestors of Israel, all the way back to Abraham and the original calling of the people of God by God Himself.  In effect, Matthew is proving right off the bat the Jesus is a decedent of Abraham and from the house and line of King David, two prerequisites for the coming Messiah which, as was said earlier, was one of the purposes of Matthew: to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, the predicted King that was to come, in the line of David, to set up God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Saint Matthew Icon Photo Credit: www.internetmonk.com

Saint Matthew Icon
Photo Credit: www.internetmonk.com

Matthew does a great deal of linking the Old Testament Scriptures to the person and work of Jesus Christ.  There are multiple ways in which he does this.  The genealogy which we just talked about is just one way.  Matthew’s account of the angel visiting Joseph also signifies a divine happening, a message directly from God.  Matthew points to this as well, something he does throughout his book.  He writes, “All this took place to fulfill…” In this case, the happening of Mary’s conception took place to fulfill with Isaiah wrote about in Isaiah 7, “The virgin will be with child…”  Interestingly enough, the course of Jesus’ life in the book of Matthew actually mirrors that of the course of Israel’s life as well going to Egypt to escape death while he was very young, a wilderness experience which lasted for 40 days (a mirror of Israel’s wilderness wanderings), and a Baptism before he began His ministry (which is reminiscent of Israel crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan before entering the promised land).  This too, we see was “to fulfill all righteousness” as Jesus says.

Today we also see a taste of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as well.  The very route the Jesus took, Matthew says, was to fulfill what is written in Isaiah 9 about those being in darkness who have seen a great light.  From there he begins calling disciples, preaching and healing the sick.  For one reason of another, the work of Jesus as it has been preached in the Church is often boiled down to His work on the cross to die for our sins.  While this is a very major part of the work of Jesus, we also need to remember that His work was also with the sick, the poor, the homeless, and all those who were downtrodden.  As we will see in the coming chapters of books, Jesus work in the world is the very embodiment of what Israel was suppose to be, an assault on the powers of darkness in the world.   In many ways, Jesus too is an example of the outpouring of the wrath of God against sin, disease, and all forms of injustice.  He has come to bring healing, forgiveness, and restoration… the true nature of the Kingdom of heaven.



Day 278: Malachi 1-4; The Broken Covenant

Well friends, we have come to it at last.  The end of the Old Testament.  I have to say, I’m shocked that it has taken this long.  We emphasize the New Testament so much in contemporary Christianity that I guess I thought it was larger.  But in all honesty, its taken 3/4 of a year to get through the Old Testament, leaving less than 1/4 of the year to get from Matthew to Revelation.  Today though, we come to the final writing but canonically and chronologically in the Old Testament.  Malachi is the punctuation of the Old Testament, showing the people of Israel that have returned to Jerusalem and Judah that they cannot continue to break the covenant even after returning from exile.  Whether Malachi was actually one of the returned exiles or a post-exilic child is not known, but what is known is that he spoke to the people around the time that Nehemiah was dealing with the controversy of intermarriage with other nations that was going on in Judah, many years after the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.

If you remember back to that section of Nehemiah, when he arrived in Jerusalem from Babylon, he faced a great deal of challenges from both outside and in.  People resisted as he and the returned exiles sought to rebuild the wall.  Also, he was approached many times with issues concerning their faith and practices, which included the intermarriage of Hebrews with foreign women.  It is into this climate that Malachi speaks.  To be honest though, I think that at least 90% of what he had to say is completely applicable to us today as well.

Malachi (ortodox icon)

Malachi (ortodox icon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Malachi was facing down an already unfaithful people.  They had just endured 70 years of exile as punishment for their sins and yet upon returning to their homeland, the started right back up with their sinful actions.  The religious leaders had once again become corrupt, neglecting worship by offering sacrifices of blemished animals.  This was a direct contradiction to the Law.  The people had also become corrupt in their worship, saying they will offer their best and then bringing their worst.  Malachi points out that they brought blind and debilitated animals for sacrifice, giving to the Lord that which they didn’t want anymore.  Sound familiar?  In my dealings with Churches, I’ve found that most abide by the 80/20 rule… 80% of the giving from 20% of the people.  We don’t give out of joy or even out of gratitude, but because our pulpit has shamed us into it for another year.  This reveals not only a lack of faith and trust, but a lack of understanding the true nature of giving to which we are called.  We follow the “give when you want to, or when you can” pattern, something Jesus will address in a rather harsh manner for us in the coming days.

The message of Malachi then turns to the people.  Apart from the sacrifices that they were offering inappropriately, an act that was unfaithful to God, they were also being unfaithful to their wives.  While the intermarriage controversy was one that Nehemiah had to deal with, it seems as though the people were dealing with the problem of marriage on the whole.  Men were getting divorced whenever they wanted to, not on account of marital unfaithfulness but by reason of marital boredom.  Sound familiar?  Divorce rates both in and out of the church are hovering around 50%.  Pastors and priests are caught day after day in sexual sin and marital infidelity.  Marriage itself is a pillar of society that has fallen by the wayside.  Why?  Are people being more unfaithful?  Maybe in some cases… But for the most part people are just being more selfish.  Rather than working on a relationship, they simply throw it away and get a new one.  Much like appliances in our culture, it is just easier (and often cheaper) to get a new one rather than work to fix the old.  And what of our faith?  It seems as though, with the rise of “spirituality” and the idea that there is no absolute truth, that faith too is simply a throwaway item.  Bored with your church?  Find another one.  Bored with God?  Try Hinduism for a while.  Bored with the truth that is right for you?  Try something different on for size.  We are shaped by the things that are around us, the culture in which we live.  Rather than being strong in our faith and then addressing culture, we have settled for being strong in our culture and then addressing faith.  And then we wonder where God has gone and why He is seemingly silent in our day to day lives.

But thank goodness for the covenant.  Thank God that He does not change.  Even when we turn away and do not keep the way of the Lord He still invites us back.  “Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.  Malachi speaks to this in chapter 4:

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.  But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.  Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Bible Timeline Photo Credit: www.relevancy22.blogspot.com

Bible Timeline
Photo Credit: www.relevancy22.blogspot.com

These are the last writings of the Old Testament.  From here we enter the “inter-testamental period,” a time of over 400 years when God was seemingly silent.  Much happened during this time, some of which is included in the Apocrypha, the deutero-canonical books of the Bible that the Nicene Father’s considered somewhat helpful, but not inspired in the way that the Canonical Books of the Bible are.  Some day we may work through them, but in the mean time we wait… fortunately not for 400 years but roughly 24 hours until we enter Matthew and the Word of God becomes flesh!



Day 277: Zechariah 11-14; The Lord Comes and Reigns

The final chapters of Zechariah the coming of the Messiah and the time when He will set up his reign on earth.  There are a lot of varying images that come from this reading.  Zechariah is attempting to describe something here that is completely incomprehensible by human standards.  While the first coming of Jesus did indeed usher in a new age and a new time when the relationship between God and humanity is restored, the restoration of all creation has only begun to take place.  We cannot possibly comprehend what it will be like when Christ comes again in His glory and sets up His reign here on heart, so Zechariah, seeing these images from God, puts them into words used by common people.

We have seen some of this reality described for us in Isaiah 2 and in the book of Micah as well,  a vision of what the world will be like when the final consummation happens.  God will be raised up above all other powers and gods.  He will reign on high from His city, which is referred to here at Jerusalem, and all of the nations will either come to Him or be cast out forever.  Zechariah describes it quite uniquely in chapter 14,

On that day there will be neither sunlight nor cold, frosty darkness.  It will be a unique day—a day known only to the Lord—with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light. 
On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.

Some of this makes no sense to us.  Why does it matter where the water flows and when?  How can their be light in the evening?  The water if a vision of provision and plenty to the people of Israel.  Their planting and agriculture were dependent heavily on the rivers and the rains.  This river flows both to the East and to the West, which is seemingly impossible, and covers the whole land with the water needed for life.  The description of no need for lights and the days/nights being the same shows up in multiple places, many of which describe the presence of God and His glory being the only “light” we will need.

Finally, Zechariah talks about the words “Holy to the Lord” being inscribed on seemingly normal, everyday things.  This is actually a really cool image of what the world will be like when all things are made right.  When Christ comes again, everyday objects will become holy, an amplification of its former self.  What we are seeing here is a foreshadowing of the “already/not yet” reality in which we live.  Through Christ’s work on the cross, we find redemption and reconciliation, a foretaste of the glory that is to come.  We put on this cloak of righteousness after shedding our old self.  In the same way, all of creation will be glorified, transformed into its true self.  In eternity, all things will be holy.  As Zechariah says, “cooking posts in the Lord’s house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the alter.  Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord.”  All things will be made right, reconciled, and transformed to the glory of of God!



Day 276: Zechariah 7-10; Who Are You Doing it For?

In chapter seven of Zechariah, God poses an rather pointed question to the people in response to their inquiry about fasting at certain times throughout the year.  When I read it, the words almost stung in my heart, their sharp truthfulness cutting to the very core of my being.  The Lord asked,

“When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?  And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?”

Ouch…

Not sure if I am having a guilty conscience issue, or if my worship leader training is just rushing back into my head, but it seriously made me stop and think about what it is that I do as a worship leader on Sunday morning… and what we do as we worship God corporately and individually.  Is it really for God that we come to worship?  Or are we more concerned with out we look to our neighbors and friends?

Is it really God we are singing to?  Or are we more concerned with the style of music?

Are we really listening for God’s voice?  Or do we get caught up looking around at other people or critiquing the sermon?

These are difficult questions for us because their penetrate deeper than the skin.  They literally get at the heart of the issue… and that is our hearts.  This is, once again, what the prophets have been saying all along.  Worship of God isn’t so much about what we do but the heart in which we do it.  Honoring God with our lives is not about what we do but the heart in which we do it.  God has no room for fake and/or false piety.

Yet even after posing these tough questions, God goes on to more prophecies about the coming glory of Jerusalem, the time when He will return to the city and dwell within it again, and the time when things will be made right and God will “care” for Judah once again.  It seems strange that these things would proceed from such difficult questions as those raised in chapter seven.  However, if we think about God and the covenantal relationship He has with His people, it makes perfect sense.  While there are still questions about faith, personal piety, and even the nature of our worship, none of these have any baring on the work that God is doing.  Sure, these are important questions to ask ourselves, and we are indeed called to live lives that are “worthy of the calling that we have received,” salvation, redemption, and God’s work towards the ultimately reconciliation are not effected by our inability to live up to God’s standards.  And really… THANK GOD for that!  We do not believe in a God that has set out a system of works righteousness in which we have to earn our way into heaven.  NO!  God has opened that door for us through the work of Jesus in His life, death, and resurrection.  God is working to bring about the reconciliation and consumation of all things regardless of our selfish natures.  This is the beauty of grace… and of the covenant.  God has formed a covenant with His people in which, no matter how many time and how badly they mess up, He is still working for them, still their God, and still the same loving and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love God that He always was.  Where we fail, God does not.  Hallelujah!



Day 275: Zechariah 1-6; Intro to Zechariah

Zechariah is the second of the three prophets that correspond with the final three books of the Old Testament Scriptures.  He, like Haggai and Malachi was one of the remnant of people that returned to Judah from the exile in Babylon during the reign of King Darius.  While Haggai’s message centered greatly on the rebuilding of the Temple and less on the glory of what was to come, Zechariah’s turns sharply from the rebuilding of the Temple to the coming of the Messiah.  In fact, apart from Isaiah, Zechariah holds the title as being the prophet that speaks most about the coming of the Messiah, speaking some 500 years before the prophecies would be fulfilled.

A great deal of Zechariah’s messages in the first eight chapters come while the Temple is being rebuilt and, while Haggai was also delivering messages to the Jewish remnant, Zechariah’s messages focused in on remaining faithful, casting out sin, and being purified while continuing their work on the Temple.  These messages were also filled with hope for the people.  If you remember back to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, everything was in ruins and there was a great deal of opposition from the locals as well.  People that lived in the land once the Hebrews were forcibly removed had absolutely no interest in the Temple or the walls of Jerusalem being rebuilt so they harassed and caused trouble for the Jews.  The message that Zechariah brought to the people gave them hope not only for completing the Temple, but for the future when their King would come and rule them again.  We also see pictures of the priesthood, which before the exile had become unbelievably corrupt, functioning in the way that it was meant to as a mediator between God and the people.  Zechariah also sets forth images of Israel as it was meant to be, with great prosperity and blessing as the people of God.

Zechariah is a very important book when it comes to understanding the coming of the Messiah.  He speaks God’s message to the people of Israel time and again about the coming of the true king that will reign over His people with justice and righteousness.  This message holds true for us as well.  While the hope that Zechariah first refers to is that of the coming of Jesus, the coming of which ushered in the Messianic age in which we can find salvation in Christ’s blood, we too look forward with anticipation to the second coming of Jesus.  When He comes again, we will see the truest and deepest fulfillment of these prophecies when all will be consumated to Him and made right for all eternity.  In our time of waiting, we too are called to cast off sin and continue to try and remain pure in all that we do, working each day in anticipation for Christ’s coming again.



Day 274: Haggai 1-2; Priorities

The prophet Haggai was a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah, one of the many returned exiles from Babylon under the reign of King Darius.  In fact, Haggai and his are mentioned in the book of Ezra.  Haggai returned with the first wave of exiles from Babylon.  After a few years of being in Jerusalem, the people had rebuilt their own houses and some of the city while the Temple, God’s house, stood in ruins.  Haggai’s message to the people was that they needed to get their priorities straight.  It was by the will of God that the people even returned to their homeland and to the city of God, yet right away they started in their bad habits again, thinking of themselves first.  Unlike some of the other prophets that had come before him, well accepted  by the people living in Jerusalem and they got right to work on rebuilding God’s house.

After the people had rebuilt the temple, we read in Ezra 3, that many of the old people, those who had seen the first Temple, wept at the sight of the second one because it was not as good.  These folks didn’t weep for themselves, but because they felt as though the second Temple had done an injustice to the Lord.  However, God spoke through Haggai again to remind them that it wasn’t the physical building, nor was it the things they adorned it with that made the Temple glorious, but it was the presence of God almighty there that fills the Temple with glory.  Here too we see a promise from God of a future glory, when all things will be made right again and the House of God will be in its fullest glory.

I think that one of the main themes in this story is that of priorities.  Too often we get our priorities completely mixed up, putting the things that we want over the things that God wants for us to do.  I’m sure that there wasn’t a sinister plot to not rebuild God’s house when the people returned.  They probably just got caught up in things like… surviving.  But Haggai points out that, once they had build their own houses, they needed to refocus their priorities and get to work on the things that were important.  This was one of the main reasons why they had returned to Jerusalem in the first place!  More important that the priorities here though is the reaction of the people to Haggai’s message.  They don’t hem and haw, they don’t call a consistory meeting or a town hall meeting, they don’t hire consultants to consider costs to see whether its worth it or not… THEY RESPOND and get to work!  This is what God wants from us when He speaks to us… when He shows us where we are mixed up in our priorities… He wants us to RESPOND.  I think that too often we try to think it through and see what we need to do rather than listen and do.  A great many movements from  God have been cut down in consistory meetings due to “lack of available funds.”  If God is calling us to do something, HE WILL PROVIDE all that we need to make it happen.  It may not be glorious.  It may not even be glamorous.  It might not look like the work of the Mega-Church a couple blocks away, but it will what God wants it to be: work for His Kingdom.