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Stacking the Deck Against Jesus

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

If there is anything we should take away from reading through the gospels this year, it is a deeper understanding of the skill with which the Evangelists crafted their narratives.  Nothing in any of the gospels is there just because Jesus did it.  As John observes in John 21:25, all four writers had a nearly limitless amount of material to choose from.  From this great mass of teachings and stories, each selected the small portion that best suited their purposes and those of the Holy Spirit.

This recognition should inform our understanding of the story of Jesus casting out the legion of demons in Mark 5:1-20.  This is a story that many of us can remember learning about as children, jokes about pork soup and all.  Even a surface reading leaves us awed by the supernatural power of Jesus.

However, there’s much more going on here than merely that.  This isn’t only a story about Jesus' power.  It’s a story about Jesus’ power in the midst of uncleanness.  Practically everything in the narrative except Jesus and His disciples is unclean.  It takes place in the region of the Gerasenes—an unclean, Gentile people.  The man (presumably a Gentile himself) has an unclean spirit.  He lives in the tombs—in an unclean place (Numbers 19:16).  The legion enters into a herd of swine, unclean animals.  Even the pigs die an unclean death (for a couple of different reasons provided in Leviticus 17:10-16). 

To put things another way, this is a story in which everything has been ritually defiled.  This fact pattern is as hostile to the Son of God on earth as it possibly can be.  However, even with the deck stacked against Jesus, He still triumphs.  The demons are banished, the unclean animals are destroyed, the demon-possessed man is freed, the power of God is demonstrated among the nations, and the good news of the kingdom is proclaimed to the Gentiles.

To the Jews of Jesus’ day, Mark’s account would have read like a horror story, and the victory of God would have been shocking.  As Haggai points out in Haggai 2:10-14, the unclean can defile the clean, but the clean cannot consecrate the unclean.  However, the power of Jesus was so unprecedented, so overwhelming, that it rewrote the old rules.

For us, then, this narrative is extraordinarily hopeful.  We know the defilement of sin all too well.  We understand what it is like to feel unclean to the very core of our being.  Indeed, some feel their sinfulness so strongly that they doubt that even Christ can help.

This is nonsense, and, among other things, Mark 5:1-20 is recorded to prove that it is nonsense.  No matter how dramatically we have stacked the deck against Jesus in our own lives, if we come to Him, He will be able to cleanse and save.  Nothing can stand against the purifying power of His grace.  It will scour away all the uncleanness in our lives.  Then, like the demon-possessed man, clothed in Christ, renewed in our minds, we will be able to proclaim to everyone what the Lord has done for us. 

When the Tree Is Dry

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Like many, I’ve been devoting a lot of thought recently to the Ahmaud Arbery shooting.  I suppose it’s possible that exculpatory evidence might emerge from somewhere, but the video (recorded by a friend of the shooters, incidentally) appears damning.  Based on what we know right now, it seems that an innocent man was murdered because he was black.

Is this where we are, in the year of our Lord 2020?  20 years ago, I would have told you that racism was on its way out in the United States.  As soon as the last of the old segregationist coots died, it would rightly be consigned to history’s trash heap.  That’s not the way that things have gone.  Instead, American society seems to be becoming more tribal with each day, with the members of each race growing increasingly suspicious and afraid of each other.

Tragically, for the past decade, all of this has played out against a backdrop of steadily increasing prosperity.  For the past 10 years, crime has been way, way down from the levels of previous decades.  Unemployment has been way, way down.  And yet, even in the midst of peace and plenty, far too many ears have been open to the divisive whispers of Satan. 

No, I don’t think that most white Americans, and certainly not most white Christians, would do what the McMichaels did.  However, you don’t have to spend too much time reading comments on self-defense forums and YouTube videos before you run across some that are subtly, snidely racist.  Honest question for those who concealed-carry:  when you think about the unthinkable, when you imagine a situation in which you have to use your weapon to defend yourself, in your mind’s eye, is your assailant black?

I don’t know what the answer is for you, but I know what the answer is for many because of what they’ve said online.  Note again that this fear has arisen in a time of prosperity and low crime rates.

In Luke 23, as Jesus is carrying His cross to Golgotha, He stops to converse with a group of women who are weeping at His impending death.  He tells them that they should be weeping for themselves, not Him, because of the tragedy that is coming upon Jerusalem.  In v. 31, He wraps up His discourse with a rhetorical question:  “For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (CSB)

Various translations are all over the map about how to render this text, but the point appears to be this:  If the Romans are willing to do this to an innocent man now, what will they be willing to do in a time of rebellion and lawlessness?  Forty years later, during the Great Jewish Revolt, the Romans answered the question.  Crucify Jews on the hills around Jerusalem until they ran out of wood, that’s what.

Times have been good.  They are not likely to be good in future, and recessions are hard for everybody.  Lots of folks out of work.  Alcohol and drug problems way up.  Crime rates through the roof.  Politicians with extreme solutions suddenly getting a serious hearing.

If Ahmaud Arbery happens when the tree is green, what is going to happen when it is dry? 

None of us can change the course of our country by ourselves, but we can change our own course.  We can honestly examine our own hearts for ugliness and hatred aimed at somebody who was created in the image of God.  We can be real with ourselves about the suspicion and fear we nurture, whoever we are, whomever we fear.  We can be people who show the love of Christ to everybody, because Christ loves everybody.

The days may be growing increasingly dark, but that’s when Christians are supposed to shine brightest.

Jesus Washing Feet

Thursday, May 07, 2020

The Bible contains many truly revolutionary ideas, but of them all the strangest may be the concept that the greatest should be the servant.  This was alien to the people of Jesus’ day.  Back then, people uniformly believed that the greatest should be. . . the greatest.  Even today, 2000 years after Jesus’ ministry, in a country in which most people claim to be Christians, most people consistently put their own interests ahead of the interests of others.

This year, our theme is “Living for Jesus”, which is why Clay and I have been doing so much preaching, teaching, and writing about Jesus.  If we truly want to live for the Lord, though, that means that we cannot be living for ourselves.  If we want to eradicate the disease of selfishness from our lives, only Christ can show us the way.  With this in mind, then, let’s turn to an episode from the final evening of His ministry.  Let’s consider what we can learn from Jesus washing feet.

We’re going to spend most of our time this morning in John 13, and the first section of the foot-washing story is about JESUS’ MOTIVATIONS.  Let’s read from John 13:1-5.  The first thing that we see here is that Jesus acted out of love.  Washing feet was usually the responsibility of the lowest-ranking slave of a household, but here, the Son of God on earth lowers Himself to do the task.  Why?  For the same reason that the Son of God came to earth in the first place—His love for every member of the human race. 

Even today, love does not exalt itself.  Love does not boast.  Love does not insist on getting its own way.  Instead, love serves.  If we are like Jesus, we too will serve others, even in the most humble ways possible.  It’s not demeaning for a Christian to bring a meal to somebody, clean their house, mow their lawn, or even scrub their toilet.  Instead, when we act from love, we make even the lowest task noble.

Second, we see that Jesus acted because He knew who He was.  He came from God, and He was going back to God.  Washing the disciples’ feet didn’t change His value or His worth.  Today, I think the people often refuse to be humble and serve because they’re afraid of losing who they are.  They’re worried that if they give in to somebody else, that will lessen or diminish them. 

That might be true for people in the world, but it’s not true for Christians.  Like Jesus, we’re children of the King.  Our lives are hidden in Him.  So long as we remain righteous, there is nothing we can do or that anyone can do to us that will alter that truth.  If I don’t insist on my own way, guess what?  I still have an eternal inheritance waiting for me that makes any earthly squabble look insignificant.  Jesus has given us everything, and that frees us to serve like Him.

In the second section of this story, PETER MISSES THE POINT.  Look at John 13:6-11.  When Jesus gets around to Peter with His basin and towel, Peter pitches a fit.  Then, when Jesus explains to him that anyone who doesn’t let Jesus serve them isn’t Jesus’ disciple, Peter goes to the other extreme.  He sees what Jesus is doing, but he doesn’t see the lesson.

In this, I think there are two lessons for us.  First, we need to learn to let others serve us.  Many Christians, myself certainly included, have real trouble with this.  We will be first in line to help somebody else, but when the time comes to be helped ourselves, we make that as hard for other Christians as possible.  I know sisters in Christ who would haul themselves up out of their deathbed and crawl around the kitchen making a meal rather than letting themselves be put on a meal train!

Brethren, this is something we need to work on.  First, when we don’t allow others to serve us, we are denying them an opportunity to imitate Christ, and that’s a cruel thing to do to a disciple.  Second, we need to be aware of the seductive illusion of self-reliance.  Who are we to think that we don’t need help from anybody?  Deep down, do we believe that we ought to be able to manage our sin problem on our own too?  Fundamentally, being a Christian means being honest and admitting we can’t.  When others want to help us, we have to be honest about our need for that too.

Second, notice that Peter also goes astray here in wanting to turn Jesus’ service into a ritual.  He wanted Jesus to wash all of him, even though only his feet were dirty.  Jesus refuses because there wouldn’t be any point to that.

So too, we need to be careful about turning Jesus’ actions here into a ritual.  There are, of course, religious groups who engage in ritual foot-washing.  However, they’re missing the point just like Peter did.  It’s not serving anybody to go around with a basin and wash a bunch of clean feet!  This is a text about meeting needs, not going through the motions, and we need to keep our focus on that.

Finally, we see JESUS’ APPLICATION.  It appears in John 13:12-16.  The first thing to notice here is His call for His apostles, and indeed for us, to imitate Him.  This is one of the places, I think, where it really helps us to look at the other gospels.  John doesn’t tell the story, but according to Luke 22, during the Last Supper, the apostles returned to one of their favorite pastimes—arguing about who was the greatest.  One can well imagine the argument raging until Jesus, who is greater than all of them, rises from the table without a word and does something for them that none of them would have lowered themselves to do.

Hopefully, we usually have the good sense not to argue that we’re the greatest, but all of us struggle with that attitude from time to time.  We think that other Christians ought to listen to our opinions.  We think that things ought to be done in the church according to our preferences.  We might not say that we are the greatest, but maybe we want to be treated like it.

Jesus’ example here shows how foolish that is.  He really was the greatest, but He served like the lowliest.  If the Lord Himself didn’t insist on His place, that doesn’t leave much room for any of the rest of us to do so, does it?

That’s where the power of this story lies.  It’s not a call for us to scrub feet that don’t need scrubbing, and then to go on putting ourselves first.  It’s a call for us to adopt the spirit of our foot-washing Lord.  If there are feet that need washing, we’ll wash them.  If there are toilets that need plunging, we’ll plunge them.  For the disciple of Jesus, no act of service is too low, because we know that the lowliest service makes us more like Him.

Church Growth or Kingdom Growth?

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

As was the case for many Christians, when I was growing up, I was taught that the kingdom of heaven/the kingdom of God was the church.  When I got older, I learned (first and most notably from a sermon that David Maravilla preached in Columbia, MO nearly 25 years ago now) that the truth is more nuanced.  It’s better to define the kingdom as the rule or dominion of God.  When we do so, many of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom take on a deeper meaning.

This is the case in Matthew 13:31-33.  In this text, Jesus compares the kingdom to two things:  a mustard seed and leaven.  The “mustard seed” parable is very churchy.  The church starts out little and gets big.  Its growth is obvious to all.

However, the church doesn’t fit quite so neatly into the parable of the leaven.  In that parable, the kingdom is invisible and exerts an invisible influence that only can be detected indirectly.  Only when we understand the kingdom in a broader sense does this begin to make sense.  Sometimes, the growth of God’s dominion in the human heart is not obvious at all.  You can only see it by the changes it produces in the lives of the converted.

In our increasingly secular age, there is a great emphasis on church growth.  Americans love things that can be measured and counted, so to us, it seems reasonable that the best measure of the health of a church is the increasing numbers of those in attendance on Sunday morning.  There is truth to this—after all, the mustard seed is supposed to grow and become a tree. 

However, we need to pay as much attention to the invisible growth of the kingdom too.  Many times, brethren take this kind of growth for granted.  The church has assembled, its members have heard the word, so perforce they must have been edified, right?

Not necessarily.  As the Lord points out in the parable, inward change begets outward change.  If Christians aren’t living differently than they were five years ago, or ten years ago, they have not given more of their hearts over to God’s dominion either.  Church cliché to the contrary, they have not, in fact, been built up.  This is a dismayingly common problem.  Though we love to bemoan the difficulties of evangelism, true edification is every bit as difficult.

In our work, then, we must be concerned not merely with church growth, but with kingdom growth.  The goal of our assemblies must be to increase the dominion of God in the heart of every member through exposure to the gospel, and every element of our assemblies must be calculated to achieve that goal. 

It’s not enough for our hymns to be fun to sing.  They must enlighten and inspire.  It’s not enough for our sermons to be easily digestible and amusing.  They must remind us of our calling and our hope.

Kingdom growth isn’t easy, any more than training for a marathon is, and for much the same reasons.  It demands a great deal from church leaders and church members alike.  However, its consequences will be profound, and they will make themselves known in any number of unexpected ways.  Not least, once we get kingdom growth down, it’s likely that we will start to see more church growth too.

The 50 Greatest Hymns of All Time, Revised

Monday, May 04, 2020

Based on input from various readers, I’ve removed four hymns and added four others.  The changes are below.  Also, it’s likely that I will offer a “lessons learned” post later in the week.


Abide with Me (1847)

All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name (1779)

All People That on Earth Do Dwell (1560)

IN:  Amazing Grace (1779)

Be Still, My Soul (1752)

Be with Me, Lord (1935)

OUT:  Footprints of Jesus (1871)

For the Beauty of the Earth (1864)

Give Me the Bible (1883)

Great Is Thy Faithfulness (1923)

Hallelujah!  Praise Jehovah! (1893?)

Hallelujah!  What a Savior (1875)

He Hideth My Soul (1890)

Higher Ground (1892)

OUT:  How Deep the Father’s Love (1995)

How Firm a Foundation (1787)

I Am Thine, O Lord (1875)

I Need Thee Every Hour (1872)

In Christ Alone (2001)

In the Hour of Trial (1834)

It Is Well with My Soul (1873)

Jesus, Draw Me Ever Nearer (2001)

IN:  Jesus Loves Me! (1860)

Just As I Am (1834)

Lord, We Come Before Thee Now (1745)

My Jesus, I Love Thee (1862)

Nearer, My God, to Thee (1840)

Nearer, Still Nearer (1898)

IN:  O Thou Fount of Every Blessing (1758)

O Worship the King (1833)

On Zion’s Glorious Summit (1803)

Only in Thee (1905)

Our God, He Is Alive (1966)

Purer in Heart, O God (1877)

IN:  Rock of Ages (1776)

OUT:  Something for Thee (1862)

Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus (1858)

Sun of My Soul (1820)

Sweet By and By (1867)

Sweet Hour of Prayer! (1845)

Take Time to Be Holy (1874)

OUT:  Teach Me Thy Way (1919)

The Battle Belongs to the Lord (1985)

The Last Mile of the Way (1908)

The Solid Rock (1836)

There Is a Habitation (1882)

This World Is Not My Home (1919)

Though Your Sins Be as Scarlet (1887)

‘Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow (1822)

Trust and Obey (1887)

Victory in Jesus (1939)

We Saw Thee Not (1834)

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (1707)

Why Did My Savior Come to Earth? (1892)

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