Day 354: Hebrews 11-13; By Faith (Israel's Hall of Fame)

Keeping in mind that the whole of this book was written as an encouragement to those believers who were facing persecution, especially from the Jews, and to those who were believers but may have been backsliding into Judaism.  With that in mind, there isn’t much else to say that isn’t eloquently spoken about in chapters 11 and 12.  So, I encourage you to read them again and remember all that we have covered over the last year.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.  By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.  And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.  By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.  Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.  By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau.  By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.  By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.  By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.  He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.  By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.  By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.  By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.  By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of GideonBarakSamsonJephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,  quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”



Day 351: Hebrews 1-4; Introduction to Hebrews

Today we make a transition out of the Pauline Epistles and into what is known as the “general epistles.”  These books, Hebrews – 2 Peter, and Jude, are books that are written not to a specific church or person, but rather to the general audience of the Church throughout the Roman empire as it continued to grow and address a variety of issues and subjects, which compliment Paul’s writings well.  Paul is not considered to be the author of any of the general epistles either.  Most of the authors’ names show up in the title, with the exception of the book of Hebrews, whose author is anonymous.

The book of Hebrews is the first and longest of the general epistles.  There has a been a great deal of debate throughout the years about the authorship of this book.  Dr. Robert VanVoorst, in his book Reading the New Testament, points out that there have been many suggestions as to who Hebrews was written by.  Some, though this is not generally accepted anymore, suggest that Paul wrote this book.  This has been largely dismissed due to the major grammatical and stylistic differences between the writing in Hebrews and that of the Pauline letters.  VanVoorst writes, “The first author to cite this epistle was Clement of Rome (around 96 C.E.), although he does not say who wrote it… From the Earliest times in church history, whenever Hebrews’ authorship was mentions there has been great dispute about it.  Tertullian (in the second century) was the first to suggest Barnabas as its author.  The Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the sixteenth was the first to suggest Apollos, and this is a common conclusion today.  Adolf von Harnack, the greatest church historian of the nineteenth century, proposed that Priscilla was the author, which if true would make Hebrews the only NT book to be written by a woman.  (This makes an intriguing explanation for Hebrews’ anonymity.)   All in All, the argument about authorship is full of conjectures.”

While the author may not be known, it is very clear that this letter is written to the Church in general, and especially to Jewish converts to Christianity that might have been backsliding into Judaism.  It could also be that Jewish pressure on the Christian Church was on the rise and this was a letter written by one of the leaders of the Church to encourage those who were facing persecution from the Jews.  Many people think this letter was written in the mid 60’s A.D. because of its many references to the Temple which was destroyed when the Romans put down a Jewish revolt in A.D. 70 and destroyed for the final time, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.  However, it isn’t abnormal for those writing after A.D. 70 to write as if the Temple of God is still standing, something common because of the beliefs that the Jewish people held about the house of God and the deeper nature of God’s existence and presence.

Though it is fun to know the context in which the letter is written, it is the content which is significantly more important and to which we turn now and for the next couple of days.  In some ways, Hebrews could be seen as an exposition on the speech that Stephen gave in Acts 7, when he was before the counsel of Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Remember how he walked through the story of the people of Israel and God’s faithfulness, how it all led up to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, their Messiah?  Well, we see a great deal reference to the Jewish religious systems here in the book of Hebrews as the writer references God’s work in the past and how it points to Jesus as the Messiah and then continues on into what that means for the believers, the Church, and the world.

You can see this general trend even in the beginning chapters of this book, our reading for today.  The author begins by making the point that God isn’t doing something new here, He has always been speaking through various means.  Whether Abraham, Isaiah, Moses, David, or any of the priests that Israel had, God used them to reveal Himself.  Yet now “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”  It is not as though God is doing something different here, He continues to speak and reveal Himself, the truest revelation of which comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Word made Flesh.

We see also that the author is making tons of references to Old Testament Scriptures and again, to Jewish religious systems.  He talks about the high priests, the prophets, Israel’s rejection of God, Joshua, Moses, and Abraham in the first four chapters.  Obviously, whoever was writing this was very acquainted with the Scriptures.  In many ways, one of the messages of the book of Hebrews is the understanding that we can’t fully know or understand Jesus without understanding all that God had been doing in redemptive history to work up to His coming.  As we have said time and time again, the who religious cult of Judaism and the sacrificial rites, the religious structures, the providence of God in their lives, and even the giving of the law all point towards this greater event in the coming of the Messiah.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.



Day 328: Romans 8-10; New Life in the Spirit

Keeping in mind all that we have talked about over the last two days in the intro to Romans and our talk on faith yesterday,  today’s reading is quite simply the next step along this “Romans Road” that we have been walking.  Paul’s writing in the book of Romans is meant to lay out the whole story of redemptive history in a way that is both logical and systematic.  We have walked with him from the death of our old lives without Christ, when we did not know God and did not have faith, into a new life of faith in Christ Jesus in which we are Justified and made Righteous in Him!  All of this happens because of the faith that God gives us through the working of the Holy Spirit on our hearts.  Yes, even faith is a gift of God.  We often like to think of faith as being something that we produce in ourselves… we want to take some active part in our own salvation.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that it is difficult for people to accept that they can’t do anything to better themselves.  In some ways this is a particularly North American issue.  In the United States especially, we have this notion of “pulling yourself up by your own boot straps” and “working to better your own life.”  Our culture of individualism and “win at all costs” mentality has made it difficult for us to accept salvation as something that we take no active role in.  If we could only work up our own faith and discover for ourselves the way of salvation, then we would “save ourselves.”  But this is not reality.  God has searched us out, the Holy Spirit who has been at work in our hearts since the beginning, drawing us to God and bringing us to faith.  It is also through the Holy Spirit that we are united to Christ when we come to faith!  Our Triune God is at work throughout the salvation process.

So where does Paul go from here?  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the Law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”  This is great news for us!  More than this though, we are not only set free, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God and made to be fellow heirs to the Kingdom of God.  Moreover, we are future heirs of the resurrection and the glory that will be revealed in Christ Jesus, and now in us because we are united to Him.  It is here that we begin to move from the topic of what God has done in us and the grace that we have received toward what it is that we are to do with this new life that we have found ourselves in.  Paul talks a great deal about perseverance here, without actually naming it, and how we need to rest in the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.  While life may be difficult, there is nothing at all in this world that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We will talk more about turning this corner tomorrow, but for now Paul goes back into another discussion about election (which is a topic that will come up again and again, so once again we will forego a deeper discussion on election until a later time) and then faith vs. works.  It is clear that he is in anguish of his Jewish brothers and sisters who have really gotten the law wrong.  He points out to us once again that it is by faith that we receive salvation and that it was faith that was the ultimate goal of the Law as well.  Paul echoes the words of the Shema here as well, talking about having the Word of God “in your mouth and in your heart.”  Sadly many of the people of Israel didn’t pick up on this.

This is something that we need to always have before us as we live out our lives of faith.  It isn’t about actions, not about doing all the right things in the right order.  In fact, living for Christ isn’t about that at all.  As we will see tomorrow, we are called to live lives of gratitude for all that we have received in Christ Jesus, but never thinking that what we do somehow makes us more or less saved.  Once we are saved, we are saved forever.  I wonder if that was what C.S. Lewis was getting at when he wrote “Once a King or Queen in Narnia, always a King or Queen in Narnia.”



Day 316: John 20-21; The Purpose of This Book

The last two chapters of the book of John cover the Resurrection and post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus.  Apart from the narrative of the road to Emmaus and the accounts of Jesus’ ascension in the other Gospels, the Gospel of John records the most post-Resurrection appearance accounts of Jesus.  Nestled within these appearances is John’s overall conclusion to his Gospel writing, a section that we have labeled as “the Purpose of this Book.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

He also writes at the end of chapter 21:

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

It is from these two statements that we can read through all of the rest of these two chapters.  John had been writing His account of Jesus’ life to show that He was indeed the divine Son of God.  Now this has been proven in Jesus’ resurrection, John’s focus is both on showing everyone that this is true by virtue of what Jesus had said about Himself and the witnesses of Jesus after His death.  More than this though, John is writing that those who are reading this account would believe the good news of Jesus and, as we have just read, that by believing you may have life in His name.

So in Matthew 28, we read the narrative of the two women going to the tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning.  Here we pick up that story seeing Mary Magdalene at the tomb early in the morning and finding that the stone had been rolled away.  She runs and gets the other disciples and Peter and “the other disciple” who was likely John run to the tomb.  After going in and not being sure about what was going on, they head home and Mary remains in the garden.  She runs into Jesus but doesn’t recognize Him, thinking He is the gardener.  This is a huge point that John is trying to make, something that I don’t think we often pick up on.  Jesus had just recently called God the “vine dresser” or the “gardener,” so Mary’s saying this really isn’t that far off.  Here she is in a garden, talking to the creator of the world without even knowing it… it is a beautiful image that has major symbolic echoes of the Garden of Eden.  John is subtly communicating what Jesus has done here, and he is very carefully drawing us back to the very beginning… a return to Eden.

All of what has taken place has been to undo what has been done to the earth that He created.  Isaiah foresaw this as well in His vision in Isaiah 2.  From Eden, sin entered the world.  People had been cast out of God’s presence.  The relationship between God and humanity had been broken.  Later tools that were used for being productive were used to kill in the narrative of Cain and Abel.  From there evil increased until finally God scattered the nations of the earth, confusing their languages.  What we begin to see here as we look at the whole picture of the resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost is a systematic undoing of all these things.  The languages of the world would be brought back together as the Holy Spirit is given (more on this tomorrow), Isaiah sees that all would once again flow into the presence of the Lord AND they would turn their weapons of war back into instruments of production, and now once again we see one standing in the garden, weeping at the loss of her Lord, at the broken relationship and Jesus (God) speaks directly to her and says her very name “Mary!”  At once this relationship is healed, the “Gardener” has been reunited with humanity once again!

Apart from this very moving scene, we see Jesus appearing to many people.  The emphasis here is on believing and sending.  When Jesus appears to the disciples they believed and were given the Holy Spirit, a bit of a precursor to Pentecost (again, more on this tomorrow), yet the one who was not there would not believe.  Jesus appears to Thomas later and points out his doubt, even though Thomas believes at that point, but also blesses those who have not seen Jesus and still believe.  That phrase is addressed specifically to John’s audience I think, being that they would be reading this towards the end of the 1st century.

The final thing that I want to talk about is the interaction between Peter and Jesus at the end of the book.  Remember that Peter denied Jesus three times just as Jesus had foretold.  Remember also that Peter deeply regretted this, the “mightiest” of the disciples was certainly humbled.  I can only imagine the awkwardness that Peter felt that morning at breakfast.  This narrative is commonly called the “reinstatement of Peter,” but really serves to show Jesus’ love and forgiveness to His disciple.  I think that we can draw from this interaction as well.  Peter messed up, most definitely, but Jesus doesn’t change His charge to Peter nor does He withhold love and forgiveness from him.  Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.”

These words are written that you may believe and that in believing you may have life in His name.  Do you love God?  Feed His sheep!



Day 310: John 8-9; Darkness and Light

As we talked about a couple days ago when we began the book of John, one of the things that John masterfully weaves into his writing is the interplay between darkness and light as it pertains to Jesus’ and His incarnation in the world.  John writes in the first chapter:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

John is also, no doubt, drawing from some of the prophecies that come from Isaiah as well.  There is one in particular, from Isaiah chapter 9, that I can think of right away that contains the theme of darkness and light, one that we is often looked to during the Christmas season, a passage that Matthew also picks up in Chapter 4:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

Jesus bears witness to Himself in our reading for today, saying that He is the “Light of the world” and that all who believe in Him will have “Light of life.”  In this small discourse, Jesus relates what He says to His status as the Son, pointing to the fact that it is through Him, and only through Him that we can know the Father.  He also uses the same wording here as yesterday, the I AM “ἐγώ εἰμί statement.  Jesus is the Light, the Truth that sets us free!

Reading these two chapters more carefully, we see that John is relating darkness, the slavery to sin, and even physical ailments as being part of the darkness that we are seeing here.  In contrast, Jesus says that He is the light, He is the truth that sets us free from slavery, and He is the one who heals the blind man.  I love the narrative of chapter 9 here, when Jesus heals the blind man and he is hauled before the religious leaders.  They ask him all sorts of questions about his blindness and the man that healed him.  They simply cannot put it together that Jesus could possibly be someone sent from God.  The man’s response?  “Whether he [Jesus] is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light… I was blind but now I see.  Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has a light shone… The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  Remember that in the past we have talked about God’s dwelling being in darkness.  From the very beginning, when the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters and darkness was over the face of the deep.  Even in the Tabernacle and the Temple we noted that the place that God dwells is in complete darkness.  While this is true, I think that we can see this darkness in a couple of different ways.  First and foremost, darkness is the natural habitat of God and most definitely not for humans.  In the darkness we stumble, we cannot see, we are compelled to sleep, and we are vulnerable.  For us darkness separates, alienates… it is even dangerous.  We are light dwellers.  John’s Jewish readers would have picked up on this almost immediately… the Gentile readers wouldn’t have been far behind.

Yet, in Jesus Christ, those walking in darkness have seen a great light.  Though God has been with us in this dark world, the world that God created but that has been marred with sin.  We are not able to effectively be in relationship with God because of our sin.  It is only in Jesus Christ that our world has been illuminated, that in the presence of God we can now see!  We were blind, lost in darkness, and now we can see.



Day 297: Luke 4-5; Jesus' Ministry Begins

Yesterday we talked about Jesus’ birth and the preparation for ministry that took place before Jesus in the work of John the Baptist.  Today we look at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as He is baptized by John and then proceeds into the wilderness to be tempted.  As we talked about in Matthew, Jesus life in many ways parallels the journey that the people of Israel took to get to the promised land and to be the people that God called them to be.  While they never actually realized this calling, or at least never fully actualized it, they did follow this same path of “baptism,” wilderness wandering, and eventual entrance into ministry in the promised land.  We don’t often equate Israel’s presence in the promised land as being that of ministry.  They killed, or were supposed to kill all the inhabitants of Canaan and then occupy it as an inheritance.  However, remember that Israel was also called to be a light to the nations, a community that was to represent the world to God and God to the world.  Sadly, like I just said, this was never fully realized… at least not until Jesus came to earth.

I think its funny that most of the crown that has gathered to hear John’s teaching really have no idea what is transpiring before them.  Jesus shows up and John recognizes Him, yet it is the greater of the two who requests baptism from the lesser.  Upon protest though, which we see in the account of Matthew, John baptizes Jesus and we see heaven open.  The Spirit descends onto Jesus in the form of a dove and a voice speaks, affirming Jesus as the Son of God to all the people gathered.  This happening is one of the fundamental ways in which we understand baptism.  Baptism has to do with identity.  As a member of the Reformed Church in America, we practice infant baptism where we acknowledge God’s claim on the child’s life, that they are a member of God’s people and an heir to the covenant promises of God.  In this, we acknowledge the child’s true identity.  While John’s baptism was one for the forgiveness of sins, which in many ways is also a change in identity from sinner to forgiven, when Jesus was baptized, He too was given a specific identity.  Perhaps it would be more apt to say that Jesus’ baptism confirmed the identity that was already present… much like we believe infant baptism does to the child of believing parents.

From here Jesus is led by the Spirit that has just descended on to Him into the desert in which we learn that He both fasts and is tempted by the devil.  We don’t know much about the 40 days that Jesus spends in the wilderness apart from the fact that we are told He was tempted and didn’t eat.  It is at the end of this time that the Devil comes to Jesus and tempts Him directly.  There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between this experience and that of Moses at Mount Sinai while Israel in the wilderness.  He too was away for 40 days and there comes a point with the people are tempted as well.  Unlike the people of Israel though, Jesus doesn’t succumb to temptation but refutes the Devil not only with the Word of God, but with the heart of its true meaning.  In some ways I think Jesus is demonstrating the true and right use of the Scriptures as He is not just quoting random verses of the Bible to Satan but is speaking the true meaning of the Word, especially when the devil uses the words of Scripture against Jesus.

Finally, after Jesus returns from the wilderness, He goes to His hometown of Nazareth and teaches in the synagogue.  His first Scripture lesson comes from the prophet Isaiah, a teaching about the day of the Lord and the coming of the Messiah.  After reading it, Jesus tells them that the Scripture is fulfilled by His reading it.  Isaiah often talked about the joy and restoration that would come after the time of exile in Babylon saying that things would be different upon the return of God’s people to their land.  However, it wasn’t.  The people of Israel fell back into their old sins.  They were still not the light that they were called to be and still didn’t care for the least, last, and lost that they were called to.  Jesus’ coming signals the dramatic in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven on this earth.  He comes and the Spirit of God is on Him to be the true Israel, the true human in the face of evil.  Not only does Jesus proclaim these things, but He enacts them as well, fulfilling all that is written about Him throughout Scripture.



Day 296: Luke 2-3; The Birth of Jesus

The Gospel of Luke contains the highest degree of detail surrounding the account of Jesus’ birth.  Like we talked about yesterday, Luke’s whole goal and purpose in writing this Gospel was to “compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us”  as he writes in his intro to Theophilus.  Luke wants to know the facts, which is why there is so much detail surrounding His birth and also why there is very little mention of the Scriptures that these events are fulfilling.  Unlike Matthew, this is not the emphasis of Luke’s writing.  Yet if we read the Old Testament and Luke’s account of Jesus’ life carefully, it becomes quite clear that He is familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and is showing that there are definite similarities and much fulfillment that are taking place.

Luke’s account of the immediate details of Jesus birth are probably the most familiar of all four Gospel narratives.  Of the Scriptures that are read on Christmas day in my experience, Luke 2:1-20 was probably there over 75% of the time.  Very often we get caught up in the commercialized version of Jesus’ birth, focusing on the star and the three wise men (Magi) that come to visit Him, which is recorded in Matthew.  Yet today I notice that this particular detail is left out of the passage in Luke.  As a matter of fact, Luke records something that would be considered the exact opposite of Magi as he tells of the visit of the shepherds.  Rather than being honored by the highest of the high, baby Jesus is worshiped by the lowest of the low.  Only the diseased would have been considered lower in Jewish society.  Yet these are the people that God chose to reveal the “good news of great joy.”  I think this difference in the two Gospels marks both the significance of Jesus’ birth and the broad scope of who it would impact.  As the angels say, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people!”  Both the high and the low from Israel and abroad were drawn to worship Him.  More than that, even the priests and prophets of that time are moved by God’s ‘invasion’ of planet earth.  Truly Christ’s incarnation is for “all the people.

In today’s reading, we also get the account of Jesus’ interactions with the priests at the Temple during the Passover.  We are seeing that Jesus is not just some ordinary kid, but that He is growing up as the Son of God and even at this young age He is “being about His Father’s business.”  It is clear that His parents do not quite fully understand all that is going on in Jesus’ life.  They are astonished that He would act like this, making them worry and search for Him, yet Jesus seems relatively un-phased by the whole thing as if it were only natural for Him to be in the Temple.

Finally today, we see John the Baptist come on to the scene.  Luke makes a point to link John’s ministry in the desert to the passage of Isaiah 52, talking about the one who would come to prepare the way for the Lord.  There is much to be talked about that has to do with Jesus’ preparation for ministry, including His baptism and wilderness experience, however I think today it is important to recognize the preparation that John is doing in the name of the Lord.  We read that “the Word of the Lord came to John” in much the same language that is used to talk about the prophets in the Old Testament.  Though Luke doesn’t always make a point to link what he is writing to the Old Testament Scriptures, in chapter 3 He does it several times making sure that the reader knows that this isn’t something entirely new that is happening, but instead is a continuation of what has already been foretold.  John is preparing the way by calling people to repentance, a voice calling in the desert after several hundred years of what seemed like silence from God.  This direct link along with Luke’s linking Jesus to all of Israel’s history all the way back to Adam is a very specific attempt to show that God has been at work throughout history to bring all of this to fruition in the person of Jesus Christ.



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 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 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.