Monday, February 28, 2022

Unpacking the Parables: God's Love

A parable applied is a Word supplied.  God’s Word will meet you where you are and provide guidance. 

A parable unapplied?  It’s a Word from God denied.

We need God’s Word every day of our lives.  Denying it by not applying it is like sitting on a rollercoaster not strapped in.  When all is good and still, God’s Word is just there.  As soon as life gets going, however, we need all the strength and wisdom only He can provide to hang on and not go flying out, only to splat on the pavement.  First, let’s explore the idea of God’s covenant with humanity and how this expresses His boundless love for His creation. Then we’ll explore the parables and how they reinforce His covenantal love for us.  Ready?  Strap in.  Let’s go.

God’s Love Expressed in His Covenant (I)

The Lord spoke the world into existence: “And God said…”
The results? “And it was good.” (Gen. 1:1)

He then created us in His image. He saw all that He had made. The results?

“And it was very good.” (Gen. 1:2)

We were created from “the dust of the ground” and once God breathed His Spirit into our bodies, we became “a living being.” (Gen. 2:7)

We are animated dust. We are clay inclosing the very image of God.

Our purpose? “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Gen. 2:15)

We were given dominion over this Earth. God walked “in the garden in the cool of the day.” (Gen. 3:8). So, we here we are: we are stewards of our Lord and Creator’s property, and we had unlimited access to our loving Creator.

Satan then launched an assault on the Garden. He couldn’t attack God Himself, so he went after God’s most prized possession: us. Ground Zero was where he made Adam and Eve doubt the Lord’s very words: “Did God really say…” (Gen. 3:1). Satan encouraged them to walk according to their own prideful understanding. They could utilize their own knowledge, and when they weighed that against the desire to obey God’s words, pride won out.

Satan’s seductive logic worked. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and were ousted from the Garden.

But they left with a promise, hidden in a curse hurled at Satan by God: “And I will enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Gen. 3:15)

Do you see it? This is tucked away for centuries until the work of the Messiah Jesus: He would be born of a woman’s “seed” (the virgin birth) and He would triumph over Satan’s reign on Earth. Jesus’ heel will be struck with a Roman nail but the crushing of Satan’s head will come from His triumphal victory over sin and death. His blood will cleanse humanity from its sin and give humanity new life.

John the Baptist put it succinctly when he saw Jesus for the first time: “Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29)

But until the arrival of this Messiah, Whose work will put “PAID” on humanity’s account, what will our Heavenly Father do in the meantime? How can a sinful man fellowship with a holy God?

Imperfect cannot satisfy Perfect. Sinful human beings cannot please God or do enough the bridge the gap.

People will try for sure, with all kinds of religious practices done throughout our history. Life-giving blood from human sacrifice will flow to instruct the gods that they need to send life-giving rain to the Earth. Men will couple with sacred prostitutes to show the gods that they must couple their seed (rain) with Mother Earth. Fertility for survival and power against a hostile world will dominate the agenda of man’s religious practices for centuries to come. Man wants a way to appease the forces all around him, so he won’t be destroyed. Each aspect of the natural world—wind, rain, heat, water, fertility—all will have an assigned god, with assigned practices to ensure that the god/goddess does his or her part and man succeeds.

Humanity is one famine, one flood, one epidemic, one frightful spell of weather away from chaos. In order to survive in the natural world, the supernatural world must be understood by human beings, and kept in some kind of order by strict adherence to religious practice. Humanity’s very survival is at stake.

Man, after his expulsion from the Garden, grew confused in his beliefs and practices. Without the guidance from God Himself, man had only his own logic. He lived without wisdom for he no longer walked with God, and so, hemmed in by fear, he sought to control the world by his reasoning, his methods, and his increasingly darkened understanding:

For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse. Because, knowing God, they didn’t glorify him as God, neither gave thanks, but became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and traded the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed animals, and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonored among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. (Rom. 1:20-25 WEB)

The result of man’s attempt to appease God/gods? Utter moral ugliness and alienation from humanity’s true Creator:

For this reason, God gave them up to vile passions. For their women changed the natural function into that which is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural function of the woman, burned in their lust toward one another, men doing what is inappropriate with men, and receiving in themselves the due penalty of their error. Even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil habits, secret slanderers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1: 26-32 WEB)

We are so in need of a Savior.  Join me next week for the next lesson.  Blessings!

Saturday, February 19, 2022

I Gotta Say This

I am currently writing about the parables, but deep inside, I am still sick at heart over the modern American church.  I have written extensively about it; I thought a change of direction was needed, so I turned to looking into the parables. 

Then, this morning, it hit me. I have been so down-hearted because of so many Christian leaders have fallen and giving the world all the more reasons to be scornful of Christianity.  If we say our faith is the only way, then that way is littered with people who appear to be not much different than anyone else:  They abuse others, they watch pornography, they commit adultery, they act as if they are the only ones who understand God, and everyone needs to listen to them alone. 

They have built big churches, big followings, big budgets and then surprise, surprise:  They have addictions that ultimately destroy everything they have worked for, and the people who have followed them are utterly taken aback at how utterly human their leaders are.

The world continues to laugh and mock us, for we have ample and seemingly unlimited quantities of  hypocrisy. 

But here's my epiphany, as it were:  Go back to Jesus' time and the exact same thing was happening.  Jesus turned on the religious leaders of His day and gave them no quarter:  They were hypocrites and were making the lives of His fellow Jews miserable with all of their rules, regulations and dismissive behavior towards the unwashed masses. Jesus' criticism of them was direct, powerful and non-compromising: 

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:

The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.

They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. 5 Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels for everyone to see. They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.

But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters.  Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven.  None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader.  Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others.  If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.

Then Jesus turned to the Pharisees in the crowd, and listed the ways in which they were debasing Judaism:  

You Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. You won’t go in yourselves, and you keep others from going in.

You Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You travel over land and sea to win one follower. And when you have done so, you make that person twice as fit for hell as you are.

You are in for trouble! You are supposed to lead others, but you are blind. You teach that it doesn’t matter if a person swears by the temple. But you say that it does matter if someone swears by the gold in the temple.  You blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred?

You also teach that it doesn’t matter if a person swears by the altar. But you say that it does matter if someone swears by the gift on the altar.  Are you blind? Which is more important, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?  Anyone who swears by the altar also swears by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple also swears by God, who lives there. To swear by heaven is the same as swearing by God’s throne and by the one who sits on that throne.

You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your garden, such as mint, dill, and cumin. Yet you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These are the important things you should have done, though you should not have left the others undone either. You blind leaders! You strain out a small fly but swallow a camel.

You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You wash the outside of your cups and dishes, while inside there is nothing but greed and selfishness. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of a cup, and then the outside will also be clean.

You Pharisees and teachers are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You’re like tombs that have been whitewashed. On the outside they are beautiful, but inside they are full of bones and filth. That’s what you are like. Outside you look good, but inside you are evil and only pretend to be good. (Matthew 23:1-28)

Now, these actions of the Pharisees were done amongst their own people, but also in front of the Romans--the stand-ins for modern secular Americans. 

The Pharisees' actions weren't just in the Temple or in the local synagogue; they went into public places (to be seen and admired) and the Jewish people were not the only ones who saw them--the Romans did and I am sure they mocked them.  The Pharisees' holier-than-thou attitude, their contempt, scornful gazes and their fancy clothes were in stark contrast to all of the unwashed masses that the Romans were watching for any signs of rebellion.  

The Romans, like many Americans today, were perplexed by the utter disconnect between what these leaders said and how they behaved.  (If they were that hypocritical in public, I can't imagine what these men did in private. People who are seduced by power are liable to be seduced by anything they think they deserve.)

Yes, there were God-fearing Romans, and that is why they were attracted to Jesus--we only need to think of the Roman centurion and his faith that brought deep praise from Jesus.

But the Romans had contempt for the religious leaders of Jesus' day.

In fact, at Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion, you see this animosity play out, as Jesus is shuttled back and forth between the leaders of both camps.

So, as I fall away from church, in a manner of speaking, I am falling more into Jesus.  People, even good people, will be disappointing, hypocritical, sinful, greedy, arrogant, sincere, insightful, blind and well, just plain human.  Like me.  

But Jesus is never that.  Ever.  

Jesus was God's love operating on earth in human flesh. People were drawn to Him because He was utterly authentic, available and looked upon them as children, not to be punished, but to be lovingly called back into the sheepfold of His Father, the Good Shepherd:

Like a shepherd He will tend His flock,
In His arm He will gather the lambs
And carry them in His bosom;
He will gently lead the nursing ewes. (Isaiah 40:11)

Then Jesus went a step further and called Himself the Good Shepherd:  

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. (John 10:11). 

He would not only gather us, He would die for us. 

God is love.  His love never fails. 

The Light of a New Day

Here is another reason why Jesus taught in parables, and it coincides with the verses we read earlier:

Jesus spoke all these things in parables to the multitudes; and without a parable, he didn’t speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet, saying,

“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 13:34-5 WEB)

Jesus was quoting Psalm 78:2. The whole psalm recounts the mighty ways in which God has delivered His people throughout their history. Now the greatest One of all is speaking to them: the ultimate Deliverer and Shepherd, the Messiah.

Jesus was revealing this greatest work of God to date: the Kingdom of God was being established before their very eyes. The crowds came to Jesus for many reasons: to see someone healed, to be healed, to hear a positive word, to be amazed or entertained, to be a part of something new and exciting. Good reasons? Maybe. But a deeper purpose exists. Jesus says:

From the days of John the Baptizer until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. If you are willing to receive it, this is Elijah, who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matt. 11:12-15 WEB)

The New International Version puts it this way:

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.

Do you see what Jesus is saying to the disciples?

The Law and the Prophets’ purpose was to advance God’s retaking of this planet. The sin of Adam and Eve handed this planet over to Satan; he is called the “prince of this world.” God, in Jesus, has invaded battlefield Earth and is reestablishing His rule over it. All of the creation groans under the yoke of sin:

"We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:22)

Ever since man was driven from the Garden, God has sought to reestablish His relationship with His errant children. He instituted a covenantal relationship with mankind. He revealed Himself through His commandments on how a sinful man is to approach a holy God. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way:

God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds. His Son is the radiance of his glory, the very image of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purified us of our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high… (Heb. 1:1-3 WEB)

Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is advancing, and those who are eager and willing to really seek, ask and knock will see the very heart of God. Those who are relentless will see His purposes and love for mankind, and will gain a deeper insight as to Who God is. How so? Because Jesus, standing before the crowds and the disciples, is God Himself wrapped in frail, human flesh.

The disciples are on the front lines, so to speak, of this final and most powerful advancement God has made into this Earth: The disciples are seeing God Himself. The General has become a Soldier.

What are those things “which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world”? Here it is: God Himself will walk amongst us and write His Law upon our hearts:

Behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was a husband to them, says Yahweh. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Yahweh: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Yahweh; for they shall all know me, from their least to their greatest, says Yahweh: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more. (Jer. 31:31-4 WEB)

God has never forgotten His covenant with His people. Each phase of His covenant continued the relationship with His children. God’s redemptive history culminated at this moment when Jesus appeared, pointing the way to the New Covenant: God Himself would pay the price for our sins upon the cross. God Himself would redeem us to walk as sons and daughters under His amazing grace and power. God Himself would dwell in us.

Jesus explained the parables to the disciples once the crowds dispersed. But even after a while, He grew weary with their constant questioning. Why? He wanted them to ponder the stories themselves and to allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate their thoughts.

He also wanted them to understand He was the fulfillment of the Father’s covenant with mankind. He was and still is the New Covenant.

He did want the disciples to simply walk off with a quick and easy, “Oh, That’s what it means!” in their heads. He wanted them to go deeper, beyond the stories into what was being revealed in Him.

He wants no different for you and I.

Jesus wants us to spend time at His feet. We are not to run off to read some commentary or ask someone else. He is faithful to show us if we are faithful to show up.

Jesus says, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." (Matt. 7:7)

Those are very active verbs: “ask,” “seek,” “knock.”

We engage and He will respond. If we really want to know the heart of God, we must get off our spiritual duffs and put our mental to the metal.

Let’s lay hold of the Kingdom forcefully by knowing even better Who God is, what He expects from us and how much He loves us.

He also wants us to understand how He has never stopped honoring His covenant with mankind. He is always seeking reconciliation with us, and expects us to honor our side of the agreement: to accept His Son into our hearts and walk in obedience to His precepts.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Not Just a Story, But THE Story

 Jesus told stories that ring true to experience, because He understood how life and human beings collide.       

Jesus’ stories are part of a tradition of Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament.  Profound truths are presented in simple packages.  Solomon had his proverbs, and Jesus has (present tense) the parables. 

The parables are relational.  They are stories about us and God, and about us and others.  Just as the Ten Commandments boiled righteous living down into how we conduct ourselves before God and our fellow man, these parables enrich our thinking in the same way. 

They answer some fundamental questions:  What am I to do with this person, in this situation, and how does God see this?  

The parables of Jesus are a great “stop light” to our speeding pace through our lives.  They cause us to stop, think and now consider that we may need a change of direction in how we are handling challenging situations.

Why did Jesus use this teaching method?  A parable is:

A parable is, literally, something ‘cast alongside’ something else. Jesus’ parables were stories that were ‘cast alongside’ a truth in order to illustrate that truth. His parables were teaching aids and can be thought of as extended analogies or inspired comparisons. A common description of a parable is that it is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.[1]

Jesus' parables were indeed that, but they went deeper.  Jesus used parables that demanded that His listeners ponder what they were listening to, and then later, ponder the meaning again, looking to His Father for illumination of its truth.  If you really wanted to know what the meaning was, you would pursue it:

So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10)

Yes, these verses from Luke then go on to say the result of such a heartfelt search would be receiving the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit does reveal Jesus and so do the parables. He didn’t want His listeners to just passively hear His words.  He wanted them to listen with an earnest desire to understand. Even the disciples were curious as to His teaching method:

The disciples came, and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”

He answered them, “To you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not given to them. For whoever has, to him will be given, and he will have abundance, but whoever doesn’t have, from him will be taken away even that which he has. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they don’t see, and hearing, they don’t hear, neither do they understand. In them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says,

‘By hearing you will hear,
    and will in no way understand;
Seeing you will see,
    and will in no way perceive:
for this people’s heart has grown callous,
    their ears are dull of hearing,
    they have closed their eyes;
or else perhaps they might perceive with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their heart,
and would turn again;
    and I would heal them.’

“But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. For most certainly I tell you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things which you see, and didn’t see them; and to hear the things which you hear, and didn’t hear them.”                                                                                                                                                                                                 (Matt. 13:10-17 WEB)

Huh?  Is Jesus purposely trying to be unclear as He teaches?  Ask yourself first:  Why do hearts become calloused?   Answer?  It is the hardening effect of sin.  A life lived rebelliously against God is another way of defining sin.  No, it doesn't mean you are running around killing people, or deliberately stealing tomatoes out of the produce section at your favorite store. 

Our heart hardens under our arrogance: I can do it myself, Lord! 

It hardens under our insensitivity: I don’t have time for meeting everyone’s needs! 

It hardens under our neglect: I just don’t have time for You, today, Lord.  I’m just too busy!

We stop listening to God's voice and close our eyes to His grace.  We grow blind to our need for Him.  Our sin isn’t really sin anymore—it’s our genetics, our lifestyles, our poor choices.  We downplay sin so we can continue to do whatever our flesh cries out for us to do.

God wants us to listen to Jesus’ parables and instead of saying, "Oh brother.  I don't get it.  It must not be all that important or I'd get it right off.  Never mind."

He wants us to say:  "Lord:  I don't get it.  Help me understand.  If You said it, it must be important for me to understand."

Bingo!  A parable separates those who care enough to ponder what it means from those who don't care and won't take the time to understand.  We all like to be entertained, and the parables as stories do just that.  But if we want to know more of God, His love for us and His wisdom, we will go beyond listening to the story and delve into its meaning.

God will never invade our thoughts.  He wants us to ask Him in and seek His face.  “Tell me what it means, Father,” should be our reaction to Jesus’ teaching. 

Parables take time to understand, and if our hearts are hardened, we won't take the time and we will lose out on what He has for us.  But if we seek Him, we will find a richness that will enhance our lives and our walk in Him.

[1] “What is a Parable?”

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