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Your Kingdom Come

Monday, March 09, 2020

Like many who were raised by Christian parents, I can remember being taught as a child that Christians today weren’t supposed to pray the prayer of Matthew 6:9-13, variously known as the Model Prayer (to brethren) and the Lord’s Prayer (to everyone else).  In support of this claim, my teachers made two main arguments. 

The first was that the entire context of Matthew 6:5-15 is a warning against vain repetition, and repeating the words of the Lord over and over again is likely to reproduce the same problem He was warning against.  I think that’s legitimate.  We’re supposed to pray from the heart rather than defaulting to the easy minimum of rote repetition and prayer clichés.

The second, though, insisted that the Lord’s Prayer was no longer appropriate because it contained the words “Your kingdom come.”  According to this way of thinking, the kingdom of God came with power on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, so we should not expect further comings of the kingdom now. 

I suspect that this argument goes back to the premillennial controversy of a century ago.  At that time, premillennialists argued (as they do now) that the millennium would begin with the beginning of Jesus’ reign as King in Jerusalem.  In response, brethren pointed out that Jesus is reigning as King now (see Colossians 1:13), so it is hardly reasonable to expect His coronation to take place in the future too!  Through the years, this argument became separated from its context and mutated into a belief in the once-and-only-once coming of the kingdom on Pentecost.

However, this understanding fails to take into account the varied nature of the Scriptural witness about God’s kingdom.  At times, Jesus speaks of the kingdom as having already come during the time of His ministry (Luke 11:20).  At others, He anticipates a distant event that only some of His followers would remain alive to see (Matthew 16:28).  At still others, He foretells a coming of the kingdom that wouldn’t be accompanied by outward signs at all (Luke 17:20-21).  None of these things line up with the events of Pentecost. 

Instead, we must understand the coming of God’s kingdom as something that happens not once, but multiply.  It occurs whenever God asserts His dominion and His sovereignty is revealed.  Thus, it is equally legitimate to speak of the kingdom coming when Jesus casts out a demon, when the Holy Spirit falls upon the apostles on Pentecost, when the Jewish nation is judged for rejecting the Messiah in 70 AD, and even when a penitent sinner first submits to Jesus.  All those things proclaim God as King.

Today, unless Christians are interested in entreating God to rise up and judge the nations (which seems like a perilous thing to do!), it is this latter sense that most concerns us.  In Matthew 13:33, Jesus compares the kingdom to leaven that is kneaded into bread dough.  It works invisibly, yet it transforms its environment.  So too, we ought to pray for the gospel to work in the hearts of those around us, until a change that we cannot see produces a life of obedience to Christ.  May Your kingdom come in this way, O God, until no hearts remain that have not yet received it!

Swearing Oaths

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

At first glance, Matthew 5:34 appears to be a simple passage to interpret.  Jesus says, “Don’t take an oath at all,” so Christians should. . . take no oath at all.  Like the Quakers, when we are asked to swear to tell the truth in a court case, we should affirm instead. 

However, this facial interpretation fails to take into account everything else we know about oath-swearing in Jewish society at the time of the New Testament.  Jesus Himself gives us more insight into the matter in Matthew 23:16-22.

This passage says a great deal about the hearts of the Jews and their purposes in swearing different kinds of oaths.  It invites us to consider the thought process of a “religious” Jew who has a deceitful heart.  He wants to be able to lie when it’s advantageous to him, but he also wants others to accept his word sometimes. 

As a result, he comes up with the idea of confirming his word with an oath when he wants to be believed.  “I’ll swear by the holy temple of God!  That’s what I’ll do!”  However, this deceitful Jew discovers that he has a problem.  Nobody believes him unless he swears an oath, and if he swears an oath, he doesn’t feel free to lie. 

He still wants to be able to trick people sometimes, so he comes up with a hierarchy of non-binding and binding oaths.  Now, he can swear by the temple and feel free to lie his head off, but if he wants people to believe him, he will swear by the gold in the temple.  He can use the impressive-sounding but meaningless oath to deceive outsiders while still being able to show insiders his good faith.

Apparently, temple/gold wasn’t the only non-binding/binding pair.  Crafty Jews would also use altar/gift and heaven/God’s throne, depending on whether they wanted to deceive or to be believed. 

Jesus points out, though, that the whole enterprise is morally bankrupt.  Regardless of whether they thought their oath by a holy thing was binding, they still were swearing by a holy thing.  Failing to keep any such oath brought dishonor on the One who made the holy things holy in the first place.

It is this corrupt hierarchy of oaths that Jesus is condemning in Matthew 5.  It’s the idea that sometimes, God’s people should feel bound to tell the truth, but at other times, they can feel free to lie.  If that’s what you’re using oaths for, Jesus says, you need to quit swearing them.

Today, Christians must tell the truth at all times and in all circumstances.  As a result, the whole question of oath/not-oath is meaningless to us, like circumcision/not-circumcision is meaningless to us (as per Paul’s point in Galatians 5:6).  Oath-swearing and circumcision simply don’t have the same significance in our cultural context as they did 2000 years ago.

Certainly, we should examine our hearts if we find ourselves feeling the need to swear oaths on our own.  I’m reminded here of a childhood acquaintance who was a notorious liar and so went around exclaiming, “I swear to God!” all the time.  If we have to swear an oath before others will believe us, we’ve got a serious spiritual problem. 

However, the Christian who is summoned to court need not feel a pang of conscience when they are asked to swear an oath (though if they do and ask to affirm instead, that’s acceptable too).  I’m going to tell the truth if asked to swear, and I’m going to tell the truth if not asked to swear.  It makes no difference to me.  The truth is what matters, and only when we speak truly is God glorified.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Monday, February 24, 2020

I’ve read the Beatitudes a time or two, but as I visited them again as part of our Bible-reading plan this year (it’s tough to write the bulletin article if you’re not a week ahead!), the one that jumped out at me was Matthew 5:9.  We don’t live in a very peacemaker-y time.  The political polarization in our country has become so obvious that mentioning it is nearly a cliché.  On both sides, increasing numbers of people believe that the other side is The Enemy, to be defeated by any means necessary, even at the cost of the dearly held principles of 20 years ago.

Of course, we are not the first to live in a time that is not very peacemaker-y.  Jesus did too.  Indeed, anger and conflict are the backdrop of the gospels.  The Jewish community of AD 30 was deeply divided by the presence of the occupying Romans.  Some, from the tax collectors to the chief priests, collaborated with them, generally as a way of acquiring wealth and power. 

Reacting to this corrupt bargain, the Pharisees demanded fidelity to a body of religious tradition that they claimed came from God but really came from them.  Still farther along the political spectrum, the Essenes withdrew from a society that they considered irredeemably wicked.  The Zealots plotted to overthrow it.

To them all, Jesus says that the peacemakers are blessed and are sons of God.  Not the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Pharisees, the Essenes, or the Zealots.  The peacemakers. 

In Jesus’ view, the peacemakers need first of all to seek peace with God, but secondarily, they need to seek peace with one another.  What matters is not somebody else’s privileged position or nit-picky moral code or contempt for the world or desire to burn it all down.  What matters is whether they have a soul.  Of Jesus’ twelve closest followers, one was a tax collector and another was a Zealot.  Hint, hint.

2000 years ago, the vast majority of Jewish society didn’t listen to Jesus.  The power brokers had Him killed because they thought He was a threat to their position, not realizing that their own actions were the greatest threat.  Over the next 35 years, tensions between Jews and Romans, and indeed between Jews and Jews, increased until they exploded in the catastrophe of the Great Jewish Revolt.

Nobody won the Great Revolt.  Not the Romans, who had an entire legion massacred by the rebels and only were able to put down the rebellion at an immense cost in treasure and blood.  Not the Jewish factions, who spilled blood in the courts of the Temple as they battled each other for dominance until the Romans arrived and killed them all.  Not the common folk of Galilee and Judea, countless thousands of whom were butchered by the contending forces.  Nobody emerged from the cataclysm better off.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who love their enemies.  Blessed are those who are able to find value and worth in the most obnoxious proclaimers of an opposing viewpoint. 

Blessed are those in our time who are willing to hear the voice of Jesus.

The Incognito Messiah

Monday, February 17, 2020

In this week’s reading, we begin to encounter what is one of the most surprising themes of the gospels.  As Mark 2:34 reports, “[Jesus] healed many who were sick with various diseases and drove out many demons.  And He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew Him.”  Lest we think that this spiritual gag order is confined to demons, consider a text that will appear in our reading in several weeks, Mark 1:44.  There, after cleansing a leper, Jesus tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone.” 

The leper ignores Him, but that’s hardly the point.  It’s clear that Jesus, who later tells His followers to preach the gospel to every creature, is doing the best He can to suppress the truth about His identity.  What on earth is going on?

In order to understand this, we need to understand the urgent nature of Jesus’ ministry.  Today, we think of someone who obeyed the gospel three years ago as a new Christian--if not a babe in Christ, at least a kindergartner in Christ!  However, the entirety of Jesus’ ministry was only about three years long. 

Some of His disciples had been disciples of John; others were observant Jews.  Still others (at least Matthew, maybe more) had been irreligious.  Regardless of where they began, though, none of His followers were prepared for the transformation in their thinking that the gospel demanded.  They spent three years trying to drink from a spiritual fire hose!

Throughout His ministry, Jesus displays a painful awareness of how much His disciples have to learn and how little time He has to teach them.  It’s not hard to hear the impatience in His voice when He says to them in Mark 8:21, “Don’t you understand yet?”  Come on, people!  We don’t have time for your hard-heartedness!

Three years proved to be enough time to get the job done, even if all the disciples crater pretty spectacularly when Jesus is arrested and crucified.  One year, though, or even two?  It seems likely that Jesus’ ministry lasted for three years because He knew that it was the minimum amount of time that it would take for Him to prepare His disciples.  Jesus could raise the dead instantaneously, but changing hearts required three years of frustrating work (which is perversely reassuring to those of us who are in the heart-changing business!).

Those three years come to an end, of course, when the leaders of the Jewish nation decide that Jesus is an existential threat to them and must be killed.  They didn’t come to this conclusion on their own.  Jesus provoked them into it by raising Lazarus and challenging their authority on the very grounds of the temple itself. 

It was vitally important for the chief priests to decide to kill Jesus, but it was just as important that they not reach that decision too early.  If they did, it would have cut into that vital time He needed to teach His disciples.  I don’t think they could have killed Jesus early, but they certainly could have made it impossible for Him to teach publicly.

However, if the chief priests are deluged with reports of a prophet whom even the demons proclaim to be the Son of God, they might well move early.  Jesus, then, forbids them to speak not because the message is wrong, but because the time isn’t right.  He doesn’t want the narrative to spin out of His control.

Rather than being irrational, then, Jesus’ desire to conceal His identity makes perfect sense.  Not surprisingly, the Man who does all things well is able to keep the leaks to a minimum, to give Himself the time He needs to accomplish His mission.  Today, we are able to hear the gospel because Jesus kept too much of it from being proclaimed too soon.

For God so Loved the World

Monday, February 10, 2020

John 3:16 is surely the most well-known verse in the Bible, with even Matthew 7:1 running a close second.  Most Christians are aware that the world’s understanding of the latter is dramatically off-base, but I think that even when it comes to the former, we miss the point a little bit. 

The problem is the word “so”.  Typically, we read that as “so much”, as an expression of the intensity of God’s love.  Thus, we come away from the verse with the idea that God’s sending of His Son reveals the depth of His love for us.

I think that’s true, but it’s not really what Jesus is saying.  The usual meaning of houtō, the Greek adverb translated as “so”, is not “so much” but “in this way”.  The first appearance of the word in the New Testament is Matthew 1:18, which begins, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” 

The KJV and all the translations that followed it weren’t wrong to translate houtō as “so”.  In English, “so” can mean “in this way”.  However, in the context of John 3:16, “so” introduces an ambiguity that usually is misunderstood.

Jesus, then, isn’t saying, “God loved the world so much that He sent Me.”  He’s saying, “God loved the world by sending Me.”  Of all the major translations, I think the CSB is alone in capturing the meaning here (“For God loved the world in this way. . .”).

This is a subtle distinction, but I think it reveals something significant about the love of God.  This cornerstone verse of Christianity is telling us not that God loves us intensely (though He does), but that God loves us by acting. 

When we are called upon to imitate the love of God, then, it is love expressed in action that we should be imitating.  By contrast, much of the self-described Christian world gets hung up on feelings here: “I just love God so, so much!” 

Well, that’s nice, I guess, but how is your love for God evident in the way you live?  For that matter, how is your love for your brother and your neighbor evident in the way you live?  There are an awful lot of folks out there who will shout their love for God to the rafters on Sunday morning then spend their week wallowing in selfishness and sin.  That is not the way in which God loved the world!

Instead, love that is like the love of God always reveals itself in service and sacrifice.  Maybe it comes from somebody who doesn’t get all teary-eyed during the Lord’s Supper every week, but every week, they’re out there tending to the needs of others.  Love that meets our criteria for emotional intensity is neither here nor there.  If you do get all teary-eyed during the Lord’s Supper, that’s fine too.  What matters is love that manifests itself in a transformed life.

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