2 Thessalonians 1 – Now and Then

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Paul holds a very interesting tension as he opens his second letter to the church in Thessalonica.  As they are facing persecution from the Roman Empire, the church is faced with a theological crisis.  What are they to do and what does faith look like in the midst of such horrible backlash and trouble.  Yet what we don’t hear from Paul is an ardent plea to “hold on to their faith,” but rather a thankful praise to God for their perseverance in the midst of all this.

He is thankful for what he has heard about the church and its work through this time, but he also wants to encourage them because he knows that the longer it goes on, the harder it becomes.  It is to this end that Paul looks to the Gospel message of strength and hope for both now and in the future.

Far too often, when we face troubles, we look to future hope for comfort.  We find solace in knowing that someday everything will be made right.  This is true; Jesus will come again and all things will be put in their rightful place.  Yet a Gospel based solely on future events actually minimizes the Gospel message.

Indeed much of the power of the Gospel message comes in the reality that the Kingdom of God is here and now!  Jesus Christ ushered in the Kingdom on earth through His life, death, and resurrection.  From that time on, the Kingdom of heaven has been expanding throughout the world.  Paul celebrates this very thing with the church in Thessalonica.  Despite all of the enemy’s attempts to stop them, the believers of that city continue to grow, adding to their number, and persevering through all the hardships the world throws at them.

We can learn from this too.  The church in North America  can face anything that comes our way, not through the power of lobbying groups and political work, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives working in and through us to expand the Kingdom of God.



1 Thessalonians 5 – The Day of the Lord

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Paul echoes Jesus’ teachings in the latter chapters of Matthew when he speaks of the coming day of the Lord and then expounds upon them.  Jesus taught His disciples that, while there would be signs of the final days, no one actually knows when they will be so we much keep watch and be alert, always being at work and ready for when the master returns.

These teachings come from Jesus by way of warning, however, Paul points out that, for those of us who are in Christ, we really don’t need to be worried about this.  Jesus’ return to earth, for those who believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, will be a time of great rejoicing!  All that we have hoped and longed for will finally come to fruition and as the former things pass away and all things are made new.  For Christians, teachings on the coming Day of the Lord is a reassurance of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

Teachings like this are also an encouragement to action.  Because we don’t know when this time will be, we need to be about the Master’s business, which is preaching the Gospel and making disciples.  While the invitation of grace is available and open to all, this message also reminds us that there will come a day when that will end, all will be accounted for, and the fullness of the Kingdom will be finally realized.

On that note, it is also important for us to remember that, while this is a message specifically directed toward a future event, that does not mean that the Kingdom has not come now.  In fact, Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom has come near through His work and the evidence of the Kingdom’s presence can be seen throughout the world.  Far too often we think about the coming Kingdom as a future thing, something we wait for, not something we participate in now.  When we do that, though, we miss out on the truth of the Gospel message that the life and work of Jesus Christ redeemed and transformed our reality now and the Kingdom of God is present and expanding here on earth each and every day!



Acts 19 – Paul in Ephesus

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Paul spends two years in Ephesus, another one of the major cities of the Roman Empire in that region and a significant place of Christianity in the early church.  As a matter of fact, the Apostle John moved to Ephesus after the church was established there and became the leader of that church after Paul died.  After his time on the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation, John returned to Ephesus where he later died.

It appears that, when Paul arrived, there were already believers present in the city.  Luke refers to them as “disciples,” indicating that they were followers of Jesus, yet they seem to have only experienced Jesus through the teachings of John the Baptist.

Highlighted here is the difference between an “old identity” and the “new identity.”  The old baptism, that of John the Baptist, was still part of the old covenant, preaching a message of repentance and preparation for the coming Kingdom.  Everything points to Jesus’ coming; all of the Old Testament points to the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world.

In contrast, the Baptism that Paul offers in the name of Jesus Christ is not about redemption so much as it is about identity.  We are no longer waiting and preparing for the Kingdom of Heaven, we are living it right now.  Notice that Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ sees the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the unleashing of spiritual gifts.

More than this, though, is the bold proclamation of the Gospel and the restorative work that is indicative of Kingdom expansion in the name of Jesus Christ.  Miraculous things are done, people are healed, evil is driven away, lives are changed, and the Gospel and glory of God are seen everywhere!



Acts 10 – Clean and Unclean

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As the Gospel continues to spread in the first century, there were many barriers to overcome.  We’ve see persecution and even language barriers be overcome through the work of the Holy Spirit.  One thing that happens here, something that is abundantly important to the rest of the world, is the Gospel going out to the gentiles.

Until now, all that we have read has been primarily a movement within Judaism itself, a sort of Jewish reformation. When the believers were scattered, they would go to the synagogues of other towns and preach the name of Jesus in those places.  They would go to the people that were familiar, keeping to tradition of Israel that encouraged avoidance of outsiders (which is completely contrary to the Law, but that is another subject for another time).

Here Peter receives a revelation of the true nature of the Gospel and its impact: God, in Jesus Christ, has taken the unclean and made it clean.  Jesus’ death was a once for all sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; the truest, deepest realization of His statements, “I AM the Light of the World,” “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father  accept through me,” and all the other I AM statements too.  Through Him, this way has been open to all people who place their faith in Jesus Christ.

In many ways, this is the beginning of the reality of freedom that comes in Christ Jesus.  Through sin, the world was made unclean, but in Christ Jesus, all of that has been reversed and true restoration has happened and is happening.  This is the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, the realization of the redemption of the whole universe through the work of Jesus Christ.



John 2 – Wine and Dine

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The story of Jesus turning water into wine is a favorite among pastors wanting to show that Jesus approves of weddings and marriages.  Some have also used it to point out the fact that Jesus approves of alcohol consumption because of what He did at this wedding.  Sadly, both of these attempts at proof-texting completely miss the point of the passage here.

Jesus’ miracle at this wedding in Cana is the first documented miracle that He performs in His public ministry.  The miracle itself is rather spectacular and compassionate, saving a poor young couple from the embarrassment of ruining their own wedding celebration by not purchasing enough alcohol.  But, as is true in the Gospel of John, there is a great deal of symbolism that is found deep in this narrative.

When the dreadful lack of wine is discovered, Jesus tells Mary that His “hour has not yet come.”  The implication is that Jesus knows who He is and what He has come for.  Interestingly, even though it was not His hour, she still believes and He still performs this miracle.

These nearby stone jars are something that every Jew would recognize; a symbol of Jewish ritualism and the Law.  The fact that they were not full is interesting in itself, and what happens to the water once they are full is even more miraculous!  He takes the empty jars of Jewish ritualism and overflows them with the abundance that is the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is one of many revelations about the Kingdom of Heaven.  In God’s economy, there is always abundance.  More than this, though, is that the best things are yet to come, and will be realized when this Kingdom comes in its fullness when Jesus returns and we celebrate together at God’s banquet table.



Luke 18 – Receive Your Sight

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At this point in His ministry, Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem for the Passover celebration and His eventual arrest, conviction, and death.  On this journey, Jesus continues to teach His disciples and those around them, seeking to help them reframe their way of thinking and seeing the world.  As He has been teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus gives practical examples about what it looks like to see things from that perspective.

In everyday culture, justice, humility, and the innocence of a child are not readily rewardable qualities.  Yet Jesus speaks parables that point to how God’s economy works, that in the Kingdom of Heaven, these things will be the norm, not the exception.  In the same way, the reception of and entrance into God’s Kingdom comes in the form of childlike faith and innocence.

This is illustrated in the parable of the rich man that follows.  He has great wealth and finds himself unable to part with it when push comes to shove.  And while it seems impossible for the very wealthy to be able to give that up for the Kingdom, Jesus also affirms this: “What is impossible for man is possible with God.”

Perhaps Jesus is making a statement here about all of what He has just taught them.  The rich man can follow the commandments to the letter, but that still does not imply faith.  Only through the work of the Holy Spirit can someone come to the saving faith in Jesus Christ.  When the Holy Spirit works in our hearts we receive a new kind of sight, seeing the world differently, through God’s eyes instead of our misguided human perception.

Maybe this is what Jesus is alluding to when He tells the blind man that his faith has made him well.



Luke 13 – Time Limit

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One of the things that I like to impress upon my congregation when we celebrate the Lord’s supper is that the invitation to the Table is always open.  When we use the traditional communion plates that have covers on them, I leave them off at the end as a symbol to this effect.  Jesus is always calling to us, desiring that we would turn to Him, declaring Him as our Lord and Savior.  John 3:16-17, the most famous verse in the Bible, speaks to this as well:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

God’s desire is that none would perish, that none would be left out of this salvation.  Yet there are three facts here that Jesus also addresses, ones that are much less popular.  The first is that we are all sinful and no one’s sin is more sinful than the others.  Jesus addresses this in his questions at the beginning of Luke 13.

The second is that, for us to be forgiven of our sin and for our relationship with God to be restored, we must place our faith in Jesus.  He is the narrow door through which we enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  There is no other way.

Finally, while this invitation is available for all, is not one that will be extended forever.  At some point, Jesus Christ will return for His people and at that point, there will be a judgment.  This too is not something that is very popular, it is a truth that Scripture teaches and therefore one that we must heed.

 



Luke 3 – What Then Shall We Do?

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Luke records the rise of John the Baptist’s ministry in great detail, similar to that of Matthew.  Here Luke is both following up on the opening narrative about John’s calling, even before he was born, but also relaying to his readers both John’s message and its impact on the people of the land.  John’s message comes straight from the prophet Isaiah, one of preparation and repentance as the Kingdom of Heaven approaches.  Everyone, it seems, asks the same question in the face of John’s message: “What then shall we do?”

John’s response to these questions is not at all complicated, though and essentially involves a return to the Biblical way of life.  There is a certain irony here, especially for the many Jews that are present here.  The call of John is a return to who they were and what they were called to from the very beginning; their identity as the people of God.

Sometimes we make the message of God so extremely complicated.  We create so many rules and regulations for ourselves, governing how we are supposed to live as people of faith.  But what does John’s message boil down to?  A very simple, familiar passage: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Don’t cheat people, give to those in need, don’t threaten; love your neighbors.

This really is, as Jesus says, the core of Scripture, and what we are called to as people of faith.  It is not complicated or complex and requires no laws or regulation.  The message of the Kingdom of Heaven is the call to love and this is seen most specifically in the life and death of Jesus Christ who is the chief example of the love of God.



Mark 6 – Abundance

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If there is one thing that we could say defines America, it would be that we pride ourselves on having more than enough.  Maybe this is not something we like to claim, but the reality of how we act, what we own, and how we eat shows this to be true.  We don’t like to rely on anyone for anything.  Americans fulfill their own destiny, provide for themselves, and create their own abundance.

Jesus, however, creates a different picture of abundance; that of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It isn’t a picture of self-help books or 3-step guides to a better life, neither is it a list of rules and regulations you must follow to earn their keep, it is an image of full and complete dependence on God who provides far more than we could ask or imagine.

Our Savior provides food, more than they could possibly eat, out of scarcity.  Yet the lesson that is meant to be taught here is not one of physical nourishment, but rather the nature of God’s Kingdom which is illustrated in the following two narratives as well.

In all three cases, Jesus provides for the needs that they have.  This, I believe, is the true nature of God’s Kingdom economy, full provision.  There is never scarcity in the Kingdom of Heaven and never need.  God provides for it all at every moment and Jesus shows this as He provides for physical nourishment, safety, and healing.

The catch, if you could call it that, is our trust and dependence.  While the feeding of the 5,000 did not depend necessarily on the disciple’s trust in Jesus’ ability, nor did the calming of the storm, but healing, like that of the women in the previous chapter, happened because of faith, trust, and dependence on Jesus.



Mark 3 – Divided Kingdom

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After healing a man with a shrivled hand, the religious leaders have trouble finding a way to accuse Jesus and destroy His ministry.  Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, they finally decide to accuse Jesus of being on the side of the enemy, working for satan himself.  Sometimes the words of the pharisees remind me of the ways that our politicians act, accusing each other of different things so as to gain the upper hand, to retain their power and status.

Jesus is not so easily swayed or overcome by these arguments.  Whereas it seems today that the accusation of anything in today’s political arena would garner a recant, reversal, or otherwise change of action or statement, Jesus stands firm in His mission, His Kingdom focus.

Sometimes it feels like the church faces this sort of division in our culture.  We desire to advance the Kingdom, to be on mission with God, and yet we fear the reprisal and accusations of those around us.

The Kingdom of Heaven in not one of timidity, it is not one of scared political correctness or middle of the road decisions.  Jesus doesn’t, in the face of questions about keeping the Sabbath or any such thing, decide to heal the shrivled hand tommorow, He takes action now.  This is the nature of God’s work of grace, healing and transformation.

This doesn’t mean biligerence.  Scripture says often to remember the “weaker brother.”  Jesus doesn’t get in their face, He doesn’t start a protest movement against the religious leaders or an “occupy the Temple” movement against the observation of the law.  Rather, calmly and consistently, He brings healing in God’s name, and teaches about the true nature of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom that above all finds it’s foundation on God’s unquenchable love and desire for reconciliation.