Saturday, September 30, 2023

Reversal in Matthew 1: Shame Need Not Apply

Matthew chapter 1 is one of many examples where the Simple Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is the utter opposite of this world's order, values and way of thinking. 

We have looked at the genealogy and found some pretty unsavory characters among the descendants of Jesus--oh, yeah...they are like you and me. Think of it like this:  If the list of biblical predecessors in Jesus' lineage was filled with wonderful, holy people, you could argue, Why did You come, Jesus?  There's enough good people in the world--look at Your family tree--we'll (of course I am in that group!) get by. 

But no.  Everyone is fallen: people in the past, present and future: 

"None is righteous, no, not one;
    no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”
Their throat is an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    in their paths are ruin and misery,
    and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:9-20)

Paul got it--he was a murderer after all, and so to be forgiven, freed and restored to do Kingdom work, was for him (and the rest of us) beyond comprehension. But it was true. Jesus came for people like us: "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:32-34)

So, after seeing Jesus' genealogy as a rollcall of fallen humanity, let's go the next part of Matthew:  the birth of Jesus.

The reversals here jump out.  A young nondescript girl:
  • Calls herself a humble servant (in Luke) 
  • Hails from a small town ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" asks Nathaniel in John 1:46) 
  • A virgin (Physically impossible)
  • Pregnant before marriage (seriously sinful)
OK. That right there would be enough to remind us that His ways are not our ways: 

"Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God." (1 Cor. 1:26-29)

But Mary stands alongside her predecessors, Sarah and Hannah.  

Sarah was in a similar situation: She was barren due to her old age.  Perhaps, when she was younger, she could have had a child, but she didn't and now her age made this impossible. But God miraculously allowed her to conceive.  

Hannah was barren and could not have a child. She was of the right age, and prayed year after year for a child. God allowed her to miraculously conceive.

Mary was not married yet and hadn't had conjugal relations with her husband.  God allowed her to miraculously conceive. 

All three were in a world of shame.  But in the Kingdom of God, shame has no part in who we are. God allows us to become, in His power, all that we were meant to be. 

Even Joseph was filled with shame at what he perceived his wife had done (relations with another man) and was desperate to save her from "public disgrace" and so he was planning "to divorce her quietly."  Joseph's shame, however, did not blind him with such hurt or rage that he would allow Mary to be scorned or punished in her hometown--in his hurt, he still wanted to protect her.

In fact, Matthew calls Joseph, "righteous," and in the KJV, the word is "just."  That's a Kingdom word.  When the world tells you that you have every right to be angry, offended, hurt or misunderstood, and that you ought to fire all cylinders and punish those who have done this to you, a man like Joseph reminds us of the Kingdom way.  Look at the meanings of the word, "just," according to Strong's concordance: 
  • "righteous, observing divine laws" 
  • "in a wide sense, upright, righteous, virtuous, keeping the commands of God"
  • "innocent, faultless, guiltless"
  • "used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God, and who therefore needs no rectification in the heart or life"
  • "only Christ truly"
  • "approved of or acceptable of God"
Wow.  Those are Kingdom definitions and what a lovely world it would be if these qualities were operating in everyone, all the time.  But wait!  Aren't we being made to be like Jesus?
  • "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:20)
  • "And to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." (Eph. 4:24)
  • "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren." (Romans 8:29)
So, even if the Kingdom of God is here, but not in an all-pervasive way (yet!), we can still operate with its qualities in our actions.  We can be the conduit for Jesus' love that pours love on shame, forgiveness on sin and hope on despair. 


Sunday, September 24, 2023

A Walk in Matthew: Flipping the Script

We are going to tour the book of Matthew, to see where Jesus flips the script of what this world thinks is right to what His Father says is right. I chose Matthew because his gospel is aimed at primarily a Jewish audience.  He wanted to them to understand that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Deliverer of Israel, the Messiah.  Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God once more--Adam and Eve having lost the first one due to disobedience.  Think of it this way:  God told them that they could eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden, including the Tree of Life.  But I believe Satan distracted them to that other tree, because that is the one that led to sin and death--the very business he's in.  

The Fall came because they disobeyed God's command about the tree; they ate of a fruit that allowed them to not only see good (they already had this with a beautiful garden inhabited by God) but to see evil as contrary to good, making good relative, as opposed to absolute.   

If you can see evil, you can do evil.  They ran and hid from God.  That is one definition of evil: You hide from God Who embodies good and you then define it based on your own knowledge, subject to the continuous whisperings of the enemy of your soul.     

Enter Jesus.  The D-Day of Redemption hit the shores of this sinful earth, and He came to undo, one person at a time, all of the evil pervading everywhere He looked. 

But to a Jewish audience, a claim of leadership, especially of Messiahship, required sterling credentials.  Sure, anyone could claim to be king or the Messiah, but was this person fulfilling the  requirements laid down by the prophets?  Excellent question and one Matthew hopes to answer by  Jesus's genealogy.  

Several reasons existed for why the Jews kept such detailed records:

A. Identity: You are a true child of Israel, inheriting all the blessings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
B. Tribal Lands: Your tribe meant land and so who you are meant which real estate is rightfully yours.
C. Priest: You must prove descent from Aaron and the tribe of Levi; otherwise you could not serve as a priest.
D. Famous: If you were descended from one of the influential people of the Old Testament (Moses, Gideon, etc.) you were thought to receive a special blessing.
E. Family: The family was essential in Jewish culture and the parents handed down to their children their legacy and history.
F. The Messiah: The Old Testament said He would be the "Son of David," so being able to trace that lineage was crucial. Matthew places Jesus as being descended from David as well as from Abraham. Luke wrote for the Gentiles, thus tracing Jesus' lineage back to Adam. (1)

Matthew reinforces Jesus' Messianic claim by showing His direct descent from King David.  But who else is in the genealogy?  Wouldn't you expect it to be full of righteous people, noble and honorable?  The Messiah can't be descended from, well, those people!  But, guess what?  Those people are just like you and me, and the Messiah unites with us in kinship with fallen people.  He is perfect, but the people He's descended from are not. 

He reverses our notion that election comes from perfection.  Jesus makes common cause with humanity to save humanity. 

Here are just a few highlights of His predecessors:
  • Abraham:  Faithful man of God who also tried to bypass the promise of an impossible conception by sleeping with his servant girl.
  • Jacob:  Rascal, deceiver, and father of the nation of Israel, having been named as such after  fighting with God all night.
  • Judah:  Sleeps with a supposed prostitute, then wants to have her killed, until he finds out he is the father of her children. 
  • David: Great king but terrible father, adulterer and murderer.
  • Solomon: Wise guy but had to figure out that all is vanity by indulging in it. 
  • Manasseh: Brought back idol worship in Judea, undoing his father's legacy, practiced it himself and sacrificed his own son. 
See my point of reversal here?  God used ordinary, sinful, confused, conniving, immoral, well-intentioned people (like you and me) to lay the genealogical foundation for the Messiah, who would wrap Himself in our frail flesh to redeem our frail flesh.

Takeaway?  God uses us, whatever is in our past, to further His kingdom.  The perfect, the self-righteous, the I-am-no-longer-a-sinner types He passes on and looks to us: humble in our assessment of ourselves and knowing that we need a Savior. 

The Kingdom of God is made up of people just like you and me. 

(1) "Why Were Genealogies So Important to Israel?"  

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The Simple Kingdom: Reversing the Curse

 There 's a lovely song that captures my new series of blogs.  It's called "Simple Kingdom."

Your Kingdom is simple, as simple as love, You welcome the children, You stop for the one.
We wanna see people the way Jesus does; Your Kingdom is simple, Lord, teach it to us.

Your Kingdom is humble, as humble as death, this King is a Savior who gave His last breath.
So we may die daily, our pride laid to rest, His Kingdom is humble, and the broken are blessed. 

Hallelujah, hallowed be Your name!  May we live and breathe Your praise!
And hallelujah, let all creation sing!  Oh, the King of Heaven reigns!

Your Kingdom is coming, Your Kingdom is here, alive in our waiting, our work and our tears.
So come to us quickly, forever our prayer; Your Kingdom is coming, Lord Jesus, come near.

Your Kingdom is backwards, it flows in reverse; what You call a treasure, this world calls a curse.
The small become great and the last become first, Your Kingdom is backwards
Lord, teach us to serve; as it is in Your Kingdom, let it be in Your church.

What is especially impactful is the last stanza, where it talks about reversals--how Jesus' death upon a cross with all of its shame and horror becomes a symbol of life, resurrection and freedom from sin.  The last in the Kingdom do become first.  God has not ignored the cries of the poor, the lost and the oppressed.  Jesus inaugurated His ministry with these words from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

Who needs the good news the most?  Those who the world says are of no value, or who have caused their own problems and deserve the consequences.  

Who needs to be free the most?  Those who are imprisoned by their choices and habits, and those who think a cell is the only thing they deserve in life.

Who needs to see the most?  Those whose eyes cannot see themselves as part of God's household.

Who needs to be set free the most?  Those who the world's system holds back, either with a denial of opportunity or of their personhood.

Who needs to enter into the year of God's love and saving touch upon our hearts?  All of us. 

C.S. Lewis equated Jesus's arrival into this world as an invasion:

“Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have though much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side. God will invade."

I love the connection to D-Day.  The Allies land on the shores of France on June 6, 1944 to retake Europe out of the grip of evil.  

Jesus came to earth to retake earth out of the grip of evil.  

What if the Allies showed up and said to the Nazis, "You guys are doing some awful things.  You need to stop it.  Close down those camps and stop fighting.  Have a nice day!"  Then the Allies left.

No.  The evil in Europe was systemic, with its governments, resources and people all dedicated to one thing:  the takeover of the world and the annihilation of those who were deemed useless.  The Allies had to come in and fight each and every stronghold held by the Nazis and liberate those held captive in camp after camp, until not one was left operational, and the Nazis were defeated.

For years afterwards, the Allies sought to remove Nazism out of the population by reeducating them.  They needed to reframe their view of the world through the lens of freedom and democracy.  

Do you see my point?  Invasion was only the first step.  Fighting ensue so the war would cease.  The system that propagated the evil had to be dismantled and people had to be reformed, otherwise the removal of Nazism from Europe would have not succeeded.

Jesus invaded here by leaving the courts of heaven and landing on the shores of earth, ready to reverse the values of a fallen system to ones of His kingdom--the Kingdom of God, not a rubber-stamping of the kingdom already here.  He redeemed our hearts so the system of evil could be dismantled: one saved follower at a time.  

Only the return of Christ will inaugurate a complete restoration of this planet, but in the meantime, we as His followers have plenty of work to do. 

That is what I intend to explore here:  How the Kingdom of God is an utter reversal of what this world advocates.

Join me.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Spiritual Warfare, Woes #5-7: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee of Righteousness

I am going to combine the last three woes.  Jesus intensifies His condemnation of the Pharisees as He continues to levy those accusations against them.  

He reiterates that the Pharisees' hypocrisy is too egregious to ignore:   

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matt. 23:27-28). 

Whitewashing a tomb seems innocent enough, when you are trying to make it look nice for a burial. In fact, when the mourners approach, you don't them to be distracted by a tomb that is not ceremonially prepared and unacceptable.  You honor the funeral procession and the dead by presenting a tomb that is really as it appears:  ritually clean and ready.  

But whitewashing a tomb when there are bones still in it and it is utterly unclean because of that, is another matter entirely.  That's a sickening kind of fraud.  It appears one way but is really another.  And that is not due to error.  The person who presents such a tomb totally knows what it wrong, but hopes everyone will ignore it.


Jesus will not and cannot ignore this.  The Pharisees are deliberate in their hypocrisy; He is not going to let them pass off their "respectability" without a challenge.


Because that's what prophets do.  The Old Testament tradition of the prophet is one who warns, cajoles and laments over what the people are doing and not doing, and how it is an offense to God Himself. Jesus takes on the mantle of a prophet in His denunciations. In fact, the next woe mentions the prophets and how the people (like the Pharisees) responded to them: 

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against  yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!"(Matt. 23:29-32).

And they will.  They will conspire to murder Jesus, in the tradition of how many leaders in Israel responded to the prophets of old.  They are in a long line of those who listened to the prophets, not to learn how they failed God, and so repent and rededicate themselves to walking righteously, but to find a way to silence them.  

Then Jesus launches into His strongest attack.  He rails against those whose hardened hearts will only follow a god of their own creation. Their hardened hearts no longer hear the voice of God--they only hear the god of this world's voice. 

Satan rolls out his "Did God really say?" line to every generation, and sadly, many listen and believe.

In fact, Jesus equates those who listen with idolatrous snakes.  The comparison to Satan in the Garden of Eden is unmistakable:  

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation." (Matt. 23:33-36). 

It is interesting that Jesus is speaking of now, as well as a time to come.  He says that He is sending "prophets, and sages and teachers."  Who are these?  They will be of the New Covenant, washed in the blood of the Lamb and who will proclaim the Good News.  Think of Peter, Paul and the rest of the disciples, who will die in the service of this New Covenant, or people like John, who will be banished.  Why is Jesus laying the future persecution of His soon to be born church on the shoulders of these religious leaders?  

Because they refused to believe in the Messiah, the very One who stood in front of them.  Jesus' miracles were a testimony that he was not a false prophet, and they validated His ministry.  But, the religious leaders dismissed them as fakes, and refused to believe in Him.

When He raised a man from the dead, you would think that they would have reconsidered their view of Him and embraced Him wholeheartedly.  No.  They conspired to kill Him--the bitterest fruit of their hardened hearts.

I see the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem being referenced here as well, for Jesus later talked to His disciples about the End Times in Matthew 24 & 25.  The siege and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD qualified as the End, for the Jews were killed in vast numbers, their beloved Temple destroyed, and those who survived were enslaved or exiled out of Israel, not to return until 1948.  (Jesus' words to them create a blueprint for us as well.  History repeats itself, and our End Times will have similar things happen to us as it did to them.)

Why this dismantling of everything the disciples grew up with?  Because their  leaders would not say, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord."

Disbelief in the Son of God can have catastrophic consequences for a society, when leaders turn their back on the Truth--the One who is the Way and the Life as well.  It happened in Israel.

It is happening in America.

God loved Israel but allowed her to sow the seeds of her own destruction.  But He brought her back and restored her. 

God loves America but will allow her to sow the seeds of her own destruction.  Unless we say, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord," our days are numbered. God wants nothing more than to restore His people, but before restoration comes repentance. No leader, no political party, no one church, is a substitute for a personal and whole-hearted return to Him and a life that reflects such a commitment.   

Satan's deception was and will always be enticing us to trust our own hearts, our own wisdom.  

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Spiritual Warfare: Woe #4

Why am I listing all of the woes that Jesus levied at the Pharisees as "spiritual warfare"?  We tend to think of spiritual warfare happening out there--Satan prowling around, and we are minding our own business and then WHAM! Satan is upon us.  


Notice how Peter precedes his warning with an injunction.  I am using two translations to show this: 

"Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour." (1 Peter 5:8 NLT)

"Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." (1 Peter 5:8, CEB)

Other translations use the word "sober" and "clear judgment."  In other words, you need to be more active in this spiritual warfare thing--not viewing yourself as a hapless victim if something comes your way, but being alert and aware of the dangers out there.

Several years ago, I wrote a book called, Stronghold Starters:  How Satan Gets Into Our Lives. (It's on Amazon, if you are interested!)  It was my response to many good Christians I knew who viewed Satan as an all-powerful entity that could punch you in the face out of nowhere and slam you down on the mat. 

Yet, as a pastor once taught our church, don't get into the arena of sin in the first place.  Mike Tyson can't just walk up to you on the street and punch you in the face and get away with it.  But if you are in the boxing ring, the arena where punching is part of the scene, then you can expect to get walloped.  Same thing with sin's arena:  If you are sober and alert and not placing yourself at risk by going and doing those things which will cause you to sin, then Satan is far less likely to overtake you.  

Stay out of the arena by being honest with yourself and examining those areas of your vulnerability. Jesus didn't mince words on how seriously we should take sin and its eternal consequences for a momentary pleasure: 

"And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." (Matthew 5:30 NLT)

So, I listed these ways Satan gets into our lives, not because we are simply unsuspecting victims, but because we open ourselves up to his influence with these attitudes (with my quick definitions): 
  • Being apathetic and judgmental:  Why should I care?
  • Knowledge: I am a real know-it-all
  • Unforgiveness: No mercy, just justice
  • Greed & envy: I deserve more 
  • Insecurity, fear and trust: I take care of me 
  • Lust: My needs met, no matter the cost
  • Doubt and confusion: Did God really say?
  • Deeply injured:  It's who I am
  • Ticked off:  Bring it on!
  • Holier than thou:  Only my truth
These attitudes drop-kick you right into sin's arena.  These attitudes make you vulnerable to suggestions on how to proceed and Satan is never short of ideas on how to make these attitudes lead to a "fun" and "fulfilling" (not!) reality.

To make another analogy:  If you are malnourished, you are much more vulnerable to becoming ill.  What foods you eat provide the raw materials for the body to use to build up the immunological system's defenses, so when a bacteria or virous shows up, the body can respond more vigorously.  

Healthy people do get sick.  Even strong Christians get tempted, but it is our response that shows our state of spiritual health.  

This is where the Pharisees got it terribly wrong in their view of sin.  They probably thought to themselves that because they didn't do anything overtly wrong/bad/immoral/ungodly, they were good people.  But that very attitude put them in the arena of sin.  Their response was to condemn others and look away from others' suffering.    

They looked good on the outside, but those attitudes they carried with them made them vulnerable to even more evil thinking, and Satan laughed at their ignorant participation in furthering his kingdom.

But Jesus points out where we are standing:  Not to condemn us, but make us examine ourselves and ask, "Am I harboring any attitudes that are not in concert with the Kingdom of God?"

So, here is what Jesus says to the Pharisees in this woe: 

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean." (Matt. 23:25-26)

There's that "hypocrite" word again: It means "actor"--a person who put on a mask to be someone that they were not.  Jesus detested "actors" in the Kingdom of God, because they misrepresent what it really means to be a follower here.  Jesus had patience and encouragement for those who were sincere, even if they were fallible, because they weren't acting, but trying. 

Look at the attitudes that Jesus is calling out:  Greed and self-indulgence.  These people are in sin's arena for sure with those attitudes.  They cultivate a religious and godly exterior, but Jesus can see past the acting and sees what is really inside.  He also sees how such attitudes misrepresent His Father and how these leaders are neglecting the ones who need His Father the most: the poor, the weak, the widow, the orphan, the fallen woman, the lonely and the hurt.  

Greed and self-indulgence in their hearts have made them vulnerable to the whisperings of Satan: 

Would you just look at those people over there?  How can they even think of themselves as good Jews?  You are the standard.  You provide the model, and look how lacking they are compared to you!  Hey, special people deserve special treatment, now don't they?  If you use the tithes and offering for your personal benefit, why not?  You are providing the very image that these unwashed masses should aspire to, and that takes money.  It's money well spent.  And if you allow yourself a little pleasure, why not?  It takes hard work to keep the Temple running, and so what if you indulge occasionally--you've earned it!  The people out there, if truth be told, should be glad that you take what you deserve!  Without you, they'd be lost!  Keep doing what you are doing.  And especially, keep an eye on that hayseed from Nazareth.  He doesn't have a clue about how hard you work, and his interference may have to be dealt with some day--who does he think he is, with all of this Kingdom of God talk?  You represent that Kingdom and anyone who says otherwise needs to be silenced. 

Jesus saw two dire consequences of the Pharisees' thinking.  First, it led them to believe in their own perfection, with little or no humility present to temper such an assessment, and this kept them in sin's arena. 

Secondly, by staying in this arena, they continued to listen to the endless parade of whispering throughout Jesus' ministry.  This whispering would turn murderous one day, and these men would seek to kill Jesus.  

They would cozy up to the hated Romans, and partner with them to put this man to death, in the most degrading way possible.  

Jesus, as He called them out in these woes, was deeply concerned for their souls.  These woes were  warnings and a call to repentance to avoid an eternity, devoid of His Father. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

Is Good Enough Good Enough? Woe #3

I like the New Living Translation of our third woe that Jesus levies at the religious leaders of His day and how their behavior further impowers the kingdom of this world and not the Kingdom of God.

This is my definition of spiritual warfare: Whose team are you on? More importantly, whose team are you supporting by the way you act and respond to those around you? I can say I am furthering the Kingdom of God, but then act like the kingdom of this world and its values are my true coach.

Jesus never excoriates the people who acknowledge their failures and their sins, and at some level, are seeking to remedy them. His anger is directed at those who do not admit failure and scorn others who sin, thereby separating themselves away from the community. They stand alone in judgement with self-righteous contempt and uphold, whether they know it or not, the values of this world.

Think about the story told by Jesus of the publican and the religious leader:

"Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: 'I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.'But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, 'O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.' I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

In other words, to quote a Bob Dylan song: "You gotta serve somebody: It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody."

So, let's listen to this new warning:

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel." (Matthew 23:23-4) (NLT)

This is Cain and Abel all over again, isn't it?

Cain brought to the altar that which cost him nothing:"When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected." (Gen. 4:2-5)

When Cain brought his one basket of corn, wheat or barley to the altar, it was not a true sacrifice--there was still plenty of corn, wheat and barley left standing in the field. Whatever Cain brought made not the slightest dent in his overall abundance. Cain brought what he thought was a reasonable amount; he decided it was good enough.

Score: Kingdom of this World: 1. Kingdom of God: 0.

When the Pharisees knelt down to pick their tenth of herbs from their gardens, it made no dent in the overall abundance in their herb garden. They brought what just met the requirement of the Law; a tenth was good enough.

Score: Kingdom of this World: 2. Kingdom of God: 0.

Abel brought the "best portions" from his firstborn lambs and left them on the altar. When he arrived home, he noticed their absence. Lambs had tremendous value because they are hard to raise, keep safe and keep healthy. But Abel guarded them with his life. He knew each one and invested time and effort into each lamb's well-being.  He valued them. Yet, his investment of time and effort did not make him selfish, thinking all that work meant the lambs ought to stay with him. He was grateful to the Lord for this abundance and was willing to seek out what was good enough, according to the Lord.

The Lord demanded a sacrifice, and Abel complied with a grateful heart. He was not just going through the motions of obedience--he had the true motivation of obedience: love and gratitude. His good enough was the Lord's good enough.

Score: Kingdom of this World: 2. Kingdom of God: 1000.

The Pharisees were going through the motions: They knew a tenth was what God required, so voila! A tenth it is. No more, no less and there's plenty where that came from!

But God wanted a heart of sacrifice, not some baskets of corn or some spices laid upon an altar. What was the true sacrifice? One that required dependency on God to provide, not just going out into the yard, grabbing a few items and then dashing away once they hit the altar.

Jesus was very specific: "mercy, justice and faith."

Wow. Now that takes a deep relationship with God to provide: To see the world through His eyes and offer mercy even when we know we are in the right. To give justice when we believe this person doesn't deserve any. To have faith even in the darkest night of the soul. Only God can truly infuse us with His mercy, justice and faith. He then gives us the wisdom on how to bring such good gifts to others.

James puts it so beautifully:

"Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." (James 3:13-17)

James sketches out quite the contrast between someone whose heart is seeking to follow the ways of the kingdom of this word, versus following the ways of the Kingdom of God.

The Pharisees were so preoccupied with the Law's requirements, along with their own additions and interpretations of it, that they lost the true spirit of what God requires:

"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

The Pharisees thought a tenth was good enough.

Cain thought his basket of produce was good enough.

But Abel knew what God's good enough was: the sacrifice of a lamb.

So, too, did Jesus standing there, looking into the hardened hearts of the those who claimed to know His Father... He knew what God's good enough would be: a lamb, sacrificed on the altar, once and for all time.

The Son, with a heart of love and gratitude to the Father, was willing to be the Good Enough for those who sacrificed their need to be in control, and who offered a heart full of gratitude and love to the Lamb.

They were willing to walk, in faith, into the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom gates are still wide open.

Friday, July 28, 2023

Spiritual Warfare, Woe #2

This is the second of seven woes Jesus aims at the Pharisees.  These lessons are as potent today as they were then:

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’  You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?  Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it." (Matthew 23:16-22) 

It seems that the Pharisees are making a distinction between the things of God and the things of man, and that the things of man win out. Jesus takes to task the teaching that swearing by the Temple and its altar means nothing.  What gives the oath value is the human element present.  

How odd, given that the Temple was God's dwelling place on earth.  It was large, beautiful and the center of Jewish religious life and yet an oath with it as the sacred element, means nothing.  OK, Mr. Pharisee, what makes an oath with the Temple binding, important and well worth the making?  

The gold!

The gold?  What?

The gold is what man brings into the Temple as an offering or lays it on the altar. Gold is brought out of the earth by people.  People fashion it into currency (for human transactions) or for decoration (on human buildings). Gold has value to human being because of its rarity and beauty.  

The most telling thing about how the Pharisees ascribe value is because gold is essential to run the Temple and sustain their religious monopoly, its value outshines even its location, i.e., the Temple or the altar.  

Human beings have determined value based on its functionality and its role in aggrandizing people's power and status.

Kingdom of God values?


The value of the gold is not because we say it's valuable. Its placement on the altar, within the Temple sanctifies it, makes it valuable and acceptable to God.  It has no inherent value; where it is makes it what it is, because of God's anointing presence.

Makes sense, doesn't it?  The Pharisees equate their rules and regulations are holy because they say they are holy, and whether they admit it or not, what they preach gives them power and status.

Just because we make something big, expensive, awe-inspiring and valuable, doesn't make it so in God's eyes, because the Kingdom of God is not about accommodating man's standards.  It's about a revolution in thinking about what is truly important, through the lens of Jesus, His teachings and His sacrifice on the cross. 

Paul indicates that even Christians get into the "Hey!  I follow that guy!" as a way to validate their position, in the same way the Pharisees wanted the gold to validate an oath.  He says that this need comes from our sinful nature: 

"You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren’t you living like people of the world? When one of you says, 'I am a follower of Paul,' and another says, 'I follow Apollos,' aren’t you acting just like people of the world?

After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building." (1 Cor. 3:3-9)

It's about following God, not whose church we attend or who we think is so important that everyone needs to get on board. We gain prideful traction by associating ourselves with what we have determined is valuable, and then turn it into something spiritual and lofty. 

It's the double whammy of pride:  I determine something is valuable and then I elevate it to something spiritual. 

Then Paul says: 

"Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 3:10-11)

Jesus is not valuable because we say He is; He is because of His death, burial and resurrection.  We cannot add or subtract to His value.  Period.  

But we do act like the Pharisees at times with our values substituting those of the Kingdom of God's.  But Paul makes it clear that what we value will be tested as to its eternal value.  Did what we said, did and proclaimed move the Kingdom of God forward, or did it elevate us? 

"Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames." (1 Cor. 3:12-14)

We build upon the foundation of Christ.  What materials do we use?  Ones that the world values?  Or what God values?  God sanctifies what He wants us to use.  God's judgement of fire will be merciful, for even if what we used was not of His choosing, the person's salvation will allow an escape.

But what a disappointment will be had by the one watching all those materials go up in flames and by those who thought those materials were satisfactory in God's eyes. 

As Jesus will soon prophesy, even God's house, the Temple, will be brought down. The Roman army will do so 70 AD and enslave those that they don't outright kill.  The Colosseum, the very temple of this world's values, will be built by those slaves.  The Pharisees, who quibbled about what made a legitimate oath will not longer have the Temple, its altar and its gold.  All will taken away by a people who saw value in plunder, murder, mayhem and vengeance. 

The Kingdom of God still went forward in spite of that, but a tragic price was paid by His people. 

I am deeply worried that our consumerist approach about church, giving it value only if we get something out of it, instead of asking ourselves how can we further the Kingdom of God, will be tested someday, and will be terribly lacking. 

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