Monthly Archives: September 2013

Matthew 8.14-17

14And Jesus went to Peter’s house and saw his mother-in-law laying down, sick with fever. 15And He touched her hand, and fever left her, and she got up and began to serve them. 16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:“He took up our infirmities
and bore our diseases.”

 

 

When Jesus went to visit Peter’s mother-in-law, He saw that she was lying in bed with a fever. Upon reaching out to touch her, she was healed of her fever. Many more were subsequently brought to Him, and He healed them, too. Those who were demon-possessed were brought to Him, and with a word from Him they were cast out. As His fame spread, those who were imprisoned by disease, sickness or spiritual slavery sought Him out and He freed them. Matthew even interprets Isaiah’s messianic prophecy as associating the atonement with healing.

 

We hold that there IS healing in the atonement. We affirm that Christ still sets the captives free. He still releases people from the dungeons of spiritual slavery, disease, sickness and sin. He takes great delight in opening these prison doors and leading out His brothers and sisters into the freedom of God. Just like then, there are many going about their own business, unaware that they need not live in the slavery to which they’ve been chained. Upon hearing of Jesus, people flocked to receive this deliverance, and He still provides it today.

 

Are you enslaved today—by sin, disease, or spiritual chains? Jesus Christ is still reaching out and touching the lives of those who are in prison. He’s still setting them free. I don’t know exactly how or under what circumstances He does it—that’s His purview—but I know that He does it. He still takes great delight in seeing His people brought out of slavery. He’s reaching out to you now; He’ll set you free. And if you, like me, can testify to the liberty that He’s brought you, then perhaps you can tell others so that many may be brought to Him, today as yesterday.

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Matthew 8.5-13

My son has a pellet gun. It is powered by air that is manually pumped into the chamber—a task that he is not yet strong enough to accomplish at 8 years of age. Typically, we’ll head out to the backyard together, where he will hand me the rifle and I’ll pump it for him—after which he’ll shoot at the target and hand the rifle back to me again. Although the entire process of firing this weapon entails pumping it, he still gives himself credit for firing this weapon—even though he had little to do with it. He overestimates his own involvement. Sometimes we Christians have similar tendencies when it comes to our treatment of others.

 

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

 

 

The ultimate authority in Rome was the emperor, which would have been Tiberias Caesar during Jesus’ ministry. There was no more republic, which had dissolved in 30 B.C.. Tiberias had delegated his authority to others—specifically, the military—and anyone who disobeyed any of these was also guilty of disobeying the emperor. Closer to the bottom of the ladder of authority were the centurions, who commanded platoons of 100. The centurion in this story understood this chain of command, and did something that the leper in yesterday’s readings did: he believed in Christ. Both were openly acknowledging Christ’s authority to heal and rectify wrong—the office of the Messiah. The centurion, of course, was a Gentile, so less schooled in the prophecies of a coming Deliverer. But he receives what he asks of Jesus on the basis of faith, just like the Jewish leper. This is a very interesting and powerful scene, inasmuch as Jesus responds to faith in both cases. It is interesting that the centurion recognizes Tiberias’ authority over the political realm in the Roman empire, but Jesus’ authority in the spiritual. Jesus responds to this faith by referencing the messianic banquet from Isaiah 25.6-9, and drawing attention to the fact that Jews had developed a sense of entitlement on the basis of the Patriarchs. This is why they viewed Gentiles as unable to enter the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus points out that those Gentiles who come to worship are the true receivers of the kingdom, while those who are more interested in being higher in the pecking order do NOT receive the kingdom.

 

I recognize Jesus’ authority today. I may go to the polls to vote for my leader; I may go to the doctor when I’m sick. But it is Jesus Christ Who has total authority over my life and over all realms. Part of being a Christian is being able to make this admission. The ramification of this submission to His authority is that I am not any better than anyone else down here. We are all answerable to His authority, and He has modeled for us the correct behavior in this story: reaching out to both Jews and Gentiles alike. We are saved by faith, not pedigree. How I treat others—in the grocery store, in the gas station, at my son’s football game—should be a reflection of my submission to His authority. If my behavior reflects instead a notion that I’m smarter or faster or more efficient or somehow better than others, I am disdaining Christ’s authority and asserting my own. This is Eden all over again.

 

The leper and the centurion provide not only an interesting contrast in the narrative of Matthew, but also provide a model for Christian behavior. Two more different characters you will not meet in the gospel, but Jesus treats them alike, responding to them on the basis of their faith. To see yourself as “better” than another is to overestimate your own place in the kingdom. Let’s treat others with consistent acceptance and love today, remembering these two men and how their wholeness depended on faith, not themselves.

Matthew 7.28-8.4

It was 28 Dec 1975. The Dallas Cowboys were playing the Minnesota Vikings in an N.F.C. Divisional playoff game at brutal Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota. There were 32 seconds left on the clock, and the Cowboys were down 14-10. In a desperation play, quarterback Roger Staubach dropped back to pass, faked a short throw to the left to confuse safety Paul Krause, then heaved a 50-yard bomb to wide receiver Drew Pearson. As he let the ball loose, he said a Hail Mary prayer he had learned as a child in Catholic school. Pearson caught the ball and raced into the end zone for the game-winning score, stunning the Minnesota crowd. It is a play that has lived on in legend for many years—still a magical moment in Cowboys’ lore. It is the moment that Captain America himself, Staubach, had no tricks left up his sleeve but a prayer. You don’t have to be a football player to understand desperation.

 

28When Jesus had finished saying these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; 29for He taught as one having authority and not like the scribes. 1And when He came down from the mountain, large crowds followed Him. 2And behold: a leper came and bowed down to Him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you are able to make me clean.” 3And He reached out His hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be made clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4And Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one, but go show yourself in the temple and give a gift as Moses commanded, as evidence to them.”

 

Matthew has introduced the Messiah, being careful to link Him with significant Old Testament passages. He has recorded the Sermon on the Mount in detail; now he moves to present the King to His people. This will be the main focus in chapters 8-11. He begins this broader section by showing demonstrations of the King’s power. The first is the cleansing of the leper. It is worth noting that Matthew did not present these narratives in a strict chronological order—a perusal of the other gospels will readily reveal that he is presenting these stories in a thematic order. Leprosy, in biblical times, was a term that could have referred to any skin disease. Jewish people regarded leprosy as a curse from God (Nu 12.10-12), so even if what this man had was simple eczema he would have still be regarded as accursed. This would have barred him from contact with the community and from temple worship, so it was a very serious matter. The man knows that only God can rectify this situation, and in desperation he approaches the God-Man Jesus and expresses his faith in Him: “if you feel like it, you are able to heal me” (8.2). Jesus responds in a powerful way: he stretches out His hand and touches this unclean man. The crowd must have been startled by this move, but Jesus wasn’t seeking their approval—only the man’s healing. Since Jesus came to provide more than just physical healing, this may be a likely reason that He told the man not to publicize the healing. Most important is what Jesus told the man to do: obey the Mosaic Law and send an important message to the religious authorities in the realm. As Constable puts it: “by sending him there to do that Jesus was notifying the religious authorities in Israel that someone with messianic power was ministering in Galilee.”

 

Imagine being in this man’s shoes. You are isolated; all alone. You are hopeless. Doctors can’t help you. Money is tight, if existent at all. Desperation sets in. Only One can help you, and you have an inkling that this Man you seek is that One. Augustine said of faith that it is “giving assent to something one is still thinking about.” And so you approach Him, quite literally stepping out in faith. You announce to Him that you believe Him, and in Him. You only hope He wills the provision that you desperately need. In response to you, He does. He reaches for you, touches you. He initiates real communion with you. He provides what you need. And He sends you to be a witness of His provision.

 

On so many levels, this man IS you and me. All that we have is provided by God. How are we any better off than this leper? We are entirely dependent on the good mercy and provision of this One. And He responds—continuously—with real touch, real community, real provision. Perhaps it’s healing that you need, like this leper. Perhaps it’s love from others. Perhaps it’s financial provision or professional direction. This One reaches for you, even today, and desires to provide for you and send you as a powerful testimony of His provision.

Matthew 7.24-27

One of the great comedic patterns of my life was the distinction between mine and my little brother’s definitions of a “clean room.” When our parents told us to clean our rooms, I would make some attempt—lame though it may have been—to actually put clothes where they belong. I would put my shoes where they went, and pick up trash. I would vacuum (if specifically told to), and make sure my desk was organized. My little brother, on the other hand, would simply pick all random items off the floor and either sweep them under his bed or stack them in his closet. In theory, his room was “clean,” though if the parents cared to conduct a closer inspection they would have been well advised to wear a HAZMAT suit. When they said, “clean your room,” they MEANT something underneath the words. What was important to THEM was an objective, specified picture of “clean.” What my brother subjectively argued was “clean” was not the same picture. The difference between these two notions provided much comedy in the 1970’s. If we were to please our parents, our definition of “clean” must match up with theirs.

 

24Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them, is like a wise man who built his house on a rock; 25and the rain came down and the river came and the wind blew against that house, and it did not fall, because it had been built upon a rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand; 27and the rain poured down and the river came and the wind beat against that house, and its fall was great.

 

Jesus prepares to close His Sermon on the Mount with a powerful rubric: a contrast between wise people (those who hear His words AND do them) and foolish people (those who hear His words AND DO NOT do them). What, exactly, have His words been in this sermon? He has passionately argued that sin is endemic to the human condition, and that righteousness is not. He has demonstrated that all the Law-obeying in the world can never be counted as righteousness. He has contended that self-sufficiency is a myth, and that all provision truly comes from God. In the same breath, He explicitly told His disciples to stop worrying about their provision, but to seek the righteousness of God as a first priority, and trust Him to provide for them. He taught them that relationships with God and with others are more important than rituals, and that true righteousness is marked by humility and a refusal to see the self as superior to the other. Those who trust God can count on His provision when they ask—and even when they don’t—and that among the provision that God has granted the most significant is the giving of the Messiah, in Whose name alone man might enter heaven. Though the only way man may be saved is by trusting Christ for that rescue and the resultant righteousness, there is no question that Christ intended for His disciples to live a certain way as a result of that faith. They were to treat one another a certain way, and they were to love one another and provide for one another. They were to see their relationships with each other as sacrosanct, and they were to leave judgment to the only One Who may do that. To hear His words and dismiss them as irrelevant would be the very definition of foolishness.

 

So how did we get to a place where we tend to do exactly that? We hear the Word, and we affirm it. We nod approvingly and store it in our hearts—and then go about our business as though we are capable of the Christian walk by ourselves. Go back and review how much of chapters 5,6, and 7 had to do specifically with relationships—and you will quickly get a sense of how important it was to Jesus that you NOT attempt this alone. He designed you to be in community. And if you don’t like that, there’s something wrong with YOU, not them. You cannot grow spiritually by sitting at home, reading some scriptures, listening to some internet preachers, and trying harder. That sort of moralism is exactly what Jesus was passionately decrying in the Pharisees. If He has truly saved you, then you are on a new road—a road that must be traveled with others. You cannot take seriously any part of the New Testament and fail to connect with others. To attempt to do so is to “hear” His words and then to fail to do them.

 

Gathering in community seems, at first blush, to be somewhat easier in our modern technology-driven world. I would argue, though, that it’s actually harder. Chat rooms, blogs, and interactive websites are frequently seen as replacements for actual interaction. You simply can’t love and serve one another online. If your pastor is just a moving image on a video screen, he’s not a pastor—he’s just a preacher. So your first step in “doing” these words you hear from the Lord is to get to church. The Church was founded by Jesus Christ, and belongs to Him. Your objections to the Church and the multitudinous ways you’ve been offended in the past are immaterial, irrelevant, and yet another reflection of the Self in the face of God’s own selflessness. Quit crying about the past and go fellowship with the community of the saints. You need it—trust Jesus on this one. The next step is to nurture your regular devotional life with interaction with a small group of those saints. Get some friends together and hold one another accountable. Email, text, or call one another regularly and help one another grow. You’ll defeat spiritual enemies this way, and you’ll grow by leaps and bounds. A Christian without friends is likely not a Christian at all, since so much of Christian theology is predicated on friendship. Finally, in your interactions with others, remember that you’re not as important as you think you are.  The needs of others outweigh your own—and your resolution of interpersonal conflict is necessary to your spiritual growth.

 

His idea of the spiritual life is the correct one, regardless of how you have been defining it. Don’t just read His words, close the book and hope for the best. If you REALLY read His words, then you can see what’s important to Him. Make it important to you, too.

Matthew 7.21-23

When I was growing up with my brothers, we would run outside and play (shocking, I know) all day long. We would pretend to be at work, or on a spaceship, or fighting crime. Invariably, understanding the narrative nature of life, we would have to delineate who was The Bad Guy and who was The Good Guy. One of the great advantages of being the oldest child was that I got dictate to the other two what they could be. This, of course, didn’t bode well for my younger brothers—neither of whom relished the notion of being The Bad Guy. The real irony is that we three youngsters simply didn’t have a good hold on the one incontrovertible truth that governed us all: we were all The Bad Guys. 

 

21Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord” will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father Who is in heaven. 22Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not proclaim God’s message in Your name, and did we not cast out demons in Your name, and did we not do many miracles in Your name?” 23And I will say plainly to them, “I never know you; go away from Me, you workers of evil [practicers of lawlessness].”

 

Matthew 7.15-20 (yesterday’s readings) dealt with the topic of false leaders; today’s readings deal with the topic of false followers. It is a disturbing passage of scripture that should be treated with care. The significance of “knowing” Jesus is obvious from His own statement. However, some other important elements are also present in this passage. For one, it is worth noting that simple admiration of Jesus does not gain a human being entrance in the kingdom of heaven. This would appear to eliminate the Jesus Seminar and other folks who claim that Jesus was Just A Nice Guy…but not the Messiah. When Jesus refers to God as “My Father” (7.21)—the first time in this gospel in which He does so—He is explicitly claiming not only deity but an identity as the official revealer of God. This is an overt reference to His task as Messiah. Those who claim to operate in His name, yet do not trust in this basic identity of His as Messiah are merely play-actors who don’t know Him. The coming eschatological kingdom referenced in this passage is not yet present; hence Jesus’ use of the future tense in His verbs. What’s more, we may rightly deduce from His words that judgment precedes the “kingdom,” and that He Himself is the judge. One who fails to confess that Jesus is the Messiah—the Savior of the world—will ultimately have to stand judgment based on his or her “good” versus “bad” deeds. This will not bode well for any human being—since none of us has any righteousness in us. It is only by the grace of God through Jesus Christ that any of us are saved; hence, trusting in Christ as Savior is the only method by which a person can enter the kingdom of heaven. To fail to recognize Christ’s identity is to invite Him to not recognize you at the judgment.

 

In our natural state, we are lawless. We are in direct violation of God’s law, because we are born sinful. If we simply wait for our time of adjudication to arrive, and attempt to stand or fall on our own works, we will fall. If, however, we accept and affirm that we are fallen and unrighteous—and trust in Christ for our righteousness—then God imputes that righteousness to us. We are known of God, and we know God. We are adopted as members of His family—brothers and sisters to His Son, Jesus Christ. We need His righteousness in order to be righteous. Without the divine rescue of the Messiah, we are not saved.

 

False followers are everywhere. Many claim Christ’s name over their lives by calling themselves Christians—yet do not accept that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. Many believe that they can mix a hodge-podge of different religions that include the Nice Guy Jesus, and that ultimately their good and enlightened path will lead them to heaven. Others play-act at righteousness, but would rather depend on themselves than Christ for righteousness. The truth is simple, yet many reject it:

 

There are no Good Guys among us. We are all The Bad Guys, and we’d better get used to the concept. Only the Messiah can refer to God as His Father. And only the Messiah can judge your good works versus your evil or lawless ones. But without His righteousness, you will be denied entrance in the kingdom of heaven. If you’re still trusting in your ability to obey rules or be enlightened, you’re in deep trouble. Rethink this doctrine while you still have time. If you have already trusted Christ for your salvation, note well how Jesus views play-actors. See that it does not apply to you.

Matthew 7.15-20

I have a peach tree in my back yard that has never produced even a single peach. It is a tree that is taking up space—completely worthless, and apparently beyond rescue. It is only a matter of time before I have to cut it down and use it for firewood—all because it is officially worthless.

 

15Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but are ravenous wolves within. 16You will know them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles, are they? 17Similarly, every good tree bears good fruit, but every rotten tree bears evil fruit. 18A good tree is not able to bear evil fruit, and a rotten tree is not able to bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. 20So then, by their fruit you will know them.

 

Jesus warns His disciples of religious shepherds who are more interested in themselves than they are the flock. These false shepherds will be so self-serving that they will prey on those whom they were called to serve. They can be easily spotted, because the fruit that they bear reflects the darkness of their own character. A shepherd who does not bear good fruit is to be avoided, then.

 

This is a humbling passage of scripture. I recognize, all too willingly, my propensity to be self-serving and self-protecting. I know I’m called to server and guide others, but I am susceptible to being a rotten tree myself. I’m not impressed with the fruit that’s typically growing from my life. I trust that God will work in me so that I may bear good fruit. Without the influence of His Holy Spirit, I am simply a rotten tree—waiting to be cut down and thrown into the fire.

 

What kind of fruit are you bearing today? Is it the kind that loves and serves others, or the kind that is interested in the Self?

Matthew 7.13-14

The year was 1976. “Saturday Night Fever” had just come out at the local theater, and it seemed that every second grader at Edison Elementary School in Gainesville, Texas, had seen it. Within a week of its arrival in our little burg, most of the male population at the school had purchased and begun wearing the signature silk shirts worn by the lead character, played by John Travolta. Within a few weeks, it seemed I was the only person in the school to not have a silk shirt. But I didn’t feel bad about it; I didn’t even want one. I thought that everyone else’s silk shirt looked objectively stupid, and I couldn’t imagine wearing one. History has proven me right, of course, but in 1976 I was quite the noncomformist. It was practice for a life that would be led OFF the bandwagon.

 

13Go in through the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and spacious is the way that leads to destruction, and many there be that enter therein. 14But the gate is narrow and the way is not spacious that leads into life, and there are few who find it. 

 

Jesus tells His disciples that the true Way to heaven is not as populated as many people think. This is a terrible offense to many people; how could the way to heaven be so exclusive? How could it be so difficult? How could it be so statistically impossible? The basic human sense of fairness is offended at the notion that the only way to God is narrow and uncomfortable. To the human mind, God should somehow pave it with ease and comfort and ensure that everyone is on it.

 

At the heart of this thinking is a logical fallacy: the bandwagon argument. The assumption that most of us can be right about anything is as prideful as the human mind can get. History has demonstrated the impossibility of this, yet we are still offended when we read Jesus pointing out the obvious. At the heart of Jesus’ theology is an absolute comfort level with being OFF the bandwagon. He was as effective a societal noncomformist as there ever has been, and He dares us to be the same. Jesus wasn’t a “go-along-and-get-along” kind of guy. He challenged His disciples to break off from the thinking of “everyone else.”

 

We don’t have to BE the world to be IN the world. Nor do have to ape the rest of the people in church to be in the Church. If Jesus Himself pointed out how sparsely populated the Way really is, when are we going to be comfortable enough following Him instead of “everyone else?”