CHECK YOUR SOURCE

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

columbineBroken people were drawn to Jesus but Mary Magdalene was not as broken as many people think. Magdalene was not her last name; it simply means “from Magdala” and the Gospels’ writers added it to distinguish her from the many others Marys: Jesus’ mother, Martha’s sister, the wife of Clopas, and the mother of James and Joseph.

When we first meet Mary Magdalene in Luke 8, her name is linked both with women “who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases” and those who “were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and the disciples.” Luke then elaborates that Jesus cast seven demons from her. Nowhere does he (or any other gospel writer) say anything about Mary’s immorality. In fact, since she was one of the women helping to financially support Jesus’s ministry, it appears that she was an upstanding, respectable and wealthy woman.

Whether it was because Luke’s first reference to Mary Magdalene follows the story of the nameless sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet or that Mary had been cured of seven demons but the idea developed through the centuries that she was immoral and probably a prostitute. Mental illness in 1st century Palestine was attributed to evil spirits and those demons probably were a mental illness of some kind. While we don’t know if her disorder was epilepsy, depression, paranoia, psychosis, or something else, Scripture gives us no reason to question her morals. We must never make the error of confusing mental illness with immorality.

It didn’t help Mary’s reputation when, in 1324, the Roman Catholic Church established a home for “the rescue and maintenance of fallen women” and called it the “Magdalen House.” Her reputation suffered further harm when, in 1591, Pope Gregory I gave a sermon associating her seven demons with the seven vices and then fused her with both the sinful woman and Mary of Bethany (both of whom washed Jesus’s feet). When monks and priests read Gregory’s sermons rather than Scripture, the erroneous story of Mary continued to be told.

It was not until 1969 that the Roman Catholic Church declared that Mary Magdalene was not the fallen woman who washed Jesus’ feet. Unfortunately, people seem to love a juicy story and Mary’s undeserved reputation still lingers. She continues to be portrayed as a repentant prostitute, the nameless woman caught in adultery, or even as Jesus’ lover or wife. There is absolutely no Scriptural basis for any of those assumptions.

Mary Magdalene appears in all four Gospels and is mentioned thirteen times. We are given no reason to think that she was anything other than a once ill woman who helped financially support Jesus and the disciples. In fact, when she’s mentioned with other women, her name usually comes first, implying that she was their respected leader. It is only when she is standing at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ family (His mother and aunt) that her name follows those of others. What we do know from Scripture is that, when others fled, Mary Magdalene was there. She was present at the Crucifixion, sat across from the tomb with the mother of James and Joseph as Christ’s body was laid in the sepulcher, was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection, and was the first to preach the news of His resurrection.

While I wanted to restore a good woman’s reputation with this devotion, its main purpose is to caution us as to where we get our Biblical knowledge. While it’s tempting (and often easier) to get it second-hand—from sermons, devotions, commentaries, conversations, books, websites, movies and other media—those never should be our sole source of information. God’s word is our spiritual nourishment and, just as a vitamin pill is no substitute for eating real food, there is no substitute for reading Scripture first-hand. After all, to discern between opinion, fact, and fiction, we must know the truth and the gospel truth is found only in the Gospel!

Just because it’s in print doesn’t mean it’s the Gospel. [Michael Jackson]

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. [2 Timothy 2:15-16 (NLT)]

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COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS

I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. [Mark 10:29-30 (NLT)]

mockingbird dangerLast year, Forbes magazine published a list of the most and least trusted professionals. It should come as no surprise that, with only an 8% approval rating, members of Congress and car salesmen were at the bottom of the list. Nurses were at the list’s top but, even then, only 84% of the public thought them honest and ethical. After all, too many nurses have promised, “This won’t hurt,” when it really did. Jesus, however, was brutally honest about life—it would hurt and life wouldn’t be trouble-free when people took up their crosses and followed Him.

After the rich young man who was unwilling to give up his possessions and follow Jesus departed, Peter reminded the Lord that His disciples had given up everything to be His followers. Having met the requirements of discipleship given to the rich man, implicit in Peter’s statement was the question, “What’s in it for us?”

In His answer, Jesus promised blessings both in this life and in the next. Whatever His disciples had sacrificed would be returned one hundredfold. Getting back 100% would be getting back exactly what had been forsaken but a return of a hundredfold is one hundred times better! This, however, is not a prosperity promise; while Jesus tells his disciples their lives will be richer, He never promises they’ll be wealthier. The people and things they lose are literal but the people and possessions gained are spiritual. After all, while not of substance, a soul is irreplaceable and its worth is incalculable. When adopted as one of God’s children, Christ’s followers get a new family in His church, a home in His Kingdom, and eternal life.

But then Jesus got brutally honest; tacked smack dab in the middle of those blessings and the promise of eternal life is His promise of persecution. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus reiterated that the cost of discipleship would be sacrifice, persecution, suffering and trials. Unlike nurses, He told us that it would hurt. Life doesn’t necessarily get easier when we follow Jesus, but He promises it will become better (and the two are not the same thing).

Living in Florida, like being a disciple of Christ, comes at a cost. A cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost includes dangers like venomous snakes, black bears, poisonous cane toads, toxic plants, hurricanes, feral pigs, alligators, sink holes, fire ants, panthers, and even stinging caterpillars. Other negatives include the expense of air conditioning, seasonal traffic, and mosquitoes! That cost, however, is more than offset by the benefits of living in a tropical paradise of forever summer, beautiful birds, beaches, colorful flowers, ocean breezes, early-bird specials and no state income tax!

A cost-benefit analysis of discipleship tells us the price we pay is our lives but the benefits of God’s Kingdom and eternal life outweigh the cost a hundredfold! There certainly are times serving Jesus and His church with our time, talents, and money seems a heavy price to pay but true discipleship (and all of the sacrifice, trials and even persecution that arise from it) comes with the territory just as learning to live with hurricanes comes with Florida! In both cases, it’s more than worth it.

Not one man has ever sacrificed for his Lord without being richly repaid. If the cross is only contrasted with earthly pleasures lost, it may seem hard and threatening. But when the cross is weighed in the balances with the glorious treasures to be had through it, even the cross seems sweet. [Walter J. Chantry]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? [Mark 8:34-36 (NLT)]

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THE RICH YOUNG MAN

The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:26-27 (NLT)]

great blue heronThe book of Daniel makes reference to the resurrection of both the wicked and righteous, with the destiny of the one being shame and disgrace and the other being everlasting life. By the time of Jesus, many Jews believed in some sort of eternal life and that it would come by obedience to the Law. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell of the rich young man who asked Jesus what good deed he must do to have eternal life. He wanted Jesus to check his resume of good works and, if found lacking, to give him a task that would assure his immortality.

Before answering, Jesus clarified that goodness only comes from God rather than things or actions and then told the man to keep the commandments. As if some were more important than others, the man asked which ones. After listing several commandments dealing with man’s relationship with man, Jesus summarized with the command to love your neighbor as yourself. The man proudly responded that he obeyed them all. Had he been truly honest about himself, he would have admitted his inability to keep the law perfectly and acknowledged that he couldn’t attain eternal life on his own merit. But, sure his ticket to eternity was safe in hand, the man asked what else he should do. When Jesus told him what needed to be done to be “perfect,” He didn’t mean faultless; the Greek word translated as “perfect” means goal or end. So, to achieve or perfect his goal of eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Him. Hearing this, the rich young man departed. In spite of his claims, he clearly didn’t love his neighbor as himself.

At first, it seems odd that Jesus didn’t mention the first four commandments—the ones having to do with man’s relationship to God. But Jesus could see into the man’s heart and knew the man loved his wealth far more than God or his neighbor. So, after he claimed to love his neighbor, Jesus asked him to put his money where his mouth was by giving his wealth to his neighbor!

That Jesus gave the rich man a requirement wasn’t unusual for a rabbi. When prospective students came to study with rabbis, the teachers often gave them a condition as a way of weeding out those students who really weren’t serious. The young man, however, hadn’t come to our Lord to learn; he’d come to be commended for his righteousness!

When people read this story, they often fear that it means Christians must live a life of poverty, but Jesus wasn’t setting financial requirements for salvation. His demand merely revealed what was in that rich man’s heart. He loved himself and his possessions far more than God or his neighbor. Although this encounter demonstrates the implications of discipleship, it never demands that we sell our possessions or live a life of asceticism. Jesus wasn’t teaching salvation through philanthropy; He was demanding that God be first place in our hearts.

Obedience to the commandments does not qualify any of us for eternal life; there is nothing we can do to merit the gift of salvation and eternal life. That only comes by grace through faith. Nevertheless, obedience to the commandments—loving God and loving our neighbor—is evidence of our faith. Is there something more important to you than loving God? What would Jesus ask you to relinquish? Do you love Him enough to do it?

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-39 (NLT)]

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GOATS AND SHEEP

Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other. [John 13:34-35 (MSG)]

goatsIn Matthew 25, Jesus uses a long simile to describe the final judgment. As for whether this occurs at the beginning or the end of Christ’s millennial kingdom, is unclear; that it will occur, is not! When it happens, God will separate people the way a shepherd does his goats and sheep.

Sheep are known to be docile, quiet, gentle and easily handled by the shepherd. Throughout Scripture, we find them representing God’s people: the righteous. While sheep will follow the shepherd, goats are far more independent and tend to wander off. With a tendency to be unruly, aggressive, and poor followers, they represent those who are not true disciples of Christ. During the day, both kinds of animals intermingled in the pasture, as do believers and unbelievers (and pretenders) in the world. At night, the shepherd separated his flock. Less tolerant of the cool night air and having a tendency to stray and butt heads, goats were herded tightly behind a secure fence. Sheep, with their heavy coats of wool, welcomed chilly nights and, less belligerent than their horned relatives, weren’t crowded into their sheepfold. Like the shepherd, God will separate his flock—the righteous from the unrighteous—at Judgment.

The shepherd easily separates his herd by looking at their tails: a sheep’s tail hangs down and a goat’s points up. The King uses a different criteria; he looks at our tales: how we have treated our neighbors! The people to His right, the sheep, are those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners. The people on His left, the goats, did none of that! The King informs them that by doing (or failing to do) any of those things for those who suffered, they had done (or failed to do) those same things for Him! Those who did for the least will inherit the Kingdom and those who refused will face eternal punishment.

At first reading, this begins to sound like salvation through works rather than by grace through faith. A closer look, however, tells us otherwise. The righteous weren’t surprised by the King’s reward but rather by His reason. Their behavior hadn’t been motivated by ulterior motives as a way to buy their way into the Kingdom; their behavior was the natural result of their love for the King. Works aren’t necessary for salvation and won’t earn the keys to the Kingdom; works, however, are evidence of that salvation and confirmation that the person holds the key!

Rather than looking at our tails, God looks at our works—not because they produce righteousness, but because they are proof of that righteousness. We can’t love our neighbor if we don’t love God and, if we truly love God, loving our neighbor naturally follows! How we treat others reveals whether our tails humbly hang down or self-righteously point up!

With an estimated 2.5 billion people who claim to be Christians [Fact & Trends], I wonder why the world isn’t a kinder gentler place. Perhaps it’s because there are way too many goats who think they are sheep!

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove. [James 2:18 (MSG)]

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ADMIT IT

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” [Luke 18:11-13 (NIV)]

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes that he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

snowy egretA.W. Tozer’s words remind me of Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and tax collector who prayed in the Temple. Acting as if God should feel grateful to receive his prayers, the Pharisee didn’t understand that he should be grateful that God listens! Rather than express thanks for God’s righteousness, power and majesty, the proud Pharisee thanked God for his own righteousness and then listed his virtues! Although it wasn’t required, he fasted twice weekly and was so fastidious about tithing that he tithed not just what was earned but also anything he acquired. If he were unsure that a farmer had tithed his produce, the Pharisee would tithe it again! Standing before God and proclaiming both his good works and his contempt for others (like the tax collector), the Pharisee is a perfect illustration of a man “who believes that he is worthy of heaven.” How wrong he was! Perhaps the Pharisee’s refusal to recognize his own self-righteousness was his biggest sin of all.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector. Standing apart, beating his breast in repentance, and feeling so contemptible that he couldn’t even look up, we find a man who clearly knew he was a sinner. Recognizing exactly who and what he was, the tax collector humbly came before God and, with a repentant heart, admitted his sin and begged for mercy.

When Jesus told this parable, He must have shocked his listeners. The Pharisee was considered the epitome of pious living and the tax collector of sinfulness. Jesus turned that comparison upside down when He said that it was the humble tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home with his sins forgiven.

It’s only when we’re sick that we see the need for a physician and only when we see our sinfulness that we see the need for a Savior. We must approach God as did the tax collector: by understanding our wickedness and the need for His mercy. The Pharisee didn’t understand that nobody deserves salvation and it can’t be secured by fasting, tithing or other good deeds. It is out of God’s love for his children that He generously saves those who repent of their sins. It is only when we know we’re sinners, deserving of hell and undeserving of God’s grace, that we are likely to find our way to heaven.

Don’t say that a loving God is going to send you to hell – He’s not. The thing that’s going to send you to hell is that you’re a sinner and you don’t want to admit it. [J. Vernon McGee]

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. [Luke 18:14 (NIV)]

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THE FEAST OF EPIPHANY – JANUARY 6

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2:1-2 (NLT)]

magi

Assuming you don’t worship in the Orthodox Church, today is known as the Feast of Three Kings or Epiphany. Since the church year for Orthodox Christians follows the Julian calendar, tonight is their Christmas Eve and Epiphany won’t be until January 19th. For those of us using the Gregorian calendar, however, today often is the day the Christmas tree is taken down, the nativity sets boxed up, and the holiday decorations are tucked away until next December.

Epiphany, however, isn’t about decorations or eating the last of the Christmas cookies. The word “epiphany” means to show, make known, or reveal. Those “ah-ha” moments when we have a flash of insight or understanding are often called epiphanies. (I frequently prayed for epiphanies when studying algebra and geometry.) When the travelers to Emmaus (in the gospel of John) suddenly recognized the resurrected Jesus, they had an epiphany as did Saul when Jesus revealed Himself on the road to Damascus. Today’s Epiphany celebration is about the coming of the wise men with gifts to visit the Christ child. Their visit revealed Jesus to the world as Lord and King, not just to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

When the long awaited Messiah was born, angels sent the birth announcement to lowly shepherds rather than religious leaders. The king was born, not in a palace, but in a stable. The newspaper didn’t list His birth but a star led the way. The baby gifts were brought not by Jews but by Gentiles: pagans who traveled from Persia, Arabia or India for several months to find this newborn king. They didn’t present the family with typical baby gifts and their offerings certainly weren’t what a poor carpenter’s family would expect to receive. Their offerings, however, were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world. Gold, the metal of royalty, symbolized His kingship and acknowledged His right to rule. Frankincense, used in worship and the anointing of priests, symbolized the role Jesus would take as our High Priest. Myrrh, a spice used for embalming, was an odd gift for a child but the magi were familiar with the prophecies that told of the Messiah’s suffering. This was the perfect offering for the One who would be a sacrifice. Perhaps the greatest gift the magi brought was the one that didn’t come in a box: their worship!

As we put away the last of the holiday decorations, let’s not put away the message of Christmas. May the living Christ remain in our hearts: our King, God, and Savior—the One who lived and died so that we might die and live.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never Over us all to reign. …
Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising, Worship Him, God on high. …
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
[“We Three Kings” by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.]

They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. [Matthew 2:11 (NLT)]

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