FORTY DAYS

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. [Matthew 4:1-2 (NLT)]

Moses Fountain - Bern SwitzerlandIn Scripture, the number forty often appeared in the context of preparation, judgment, or testing. The rain poured down upon Noah for forty days and nights. After spending forty years in Egypt and another forty as a shepherd, Moses twice spent forty days with the Lord on Mt. Sinai. The Israelite scouts spent forty days exploring the land of Canaan and, because the people lost heart and rebelled at their report, they spent an extra forty years wandering the wilderness (one year for each day the men explored). Jonah warned Nineveh their destruction would take place in forty days, Ezekiel lay on his right side for forty days because of Judah’s sins and, before being slain by David, Goliath taunted Saul’s army for forty days.

The number forty has significance in the life of Jesus, as well. After His baptism by John, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of testing and, after His resurrection, Jesus remained on earth for forty days. Just because the number forty frequently appears in the context of trials, however, does not mean that forty is merely symbolic. Remembering that God is the One who chose the time, forty days probably means forty days.

Although people like David, John the Baptist, and Moses spent a time of testing in the wilderness, we wonder why Jesus, the son of God, would have to undergo a period of testing before beginning His ministry. Moreover, we wonder how Jesus, being God in flesh, could be tempted. Although both wholly God and wholly man, it was Jesus the man who grew, walked, talked, and was crucified for our sins, and it was Jesus the man who demonstrated His humanity by undergoing temptation. Obedience really isn’t obedience if disobedience is impossible and it’s impossible for our good God to sin. As God, Jesus couldn’t be tempted to sin but, as a man, He could. The sinless Lamb of God had to remain sinless, not as God, but as man and out of obedience to God the Father.

It’s how Jesus resisted temptation that is most telling. As God, he easily could have rebuked Satan and sent him scampering with a wave of His hand. As a man, however, Jesus relied on Scripture to defeat the evil one. God has provided us with His word as a way to withstand temptation. Of course, we have to know His word before we can use it against the enemy! I suppose we could spend the next forty days doing just that!

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. [Romans 5:18-19 (NLT)]

If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. [1 Corinthians 10:12-13 (NLT)]

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DUST TO DUST – ASH WEDNESDAY

I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance. [Job 42:6 (NLT)]

Matterhorn Memorial - ZermattToday is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season. Marking the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before beginning His ministry, Lent is a time many believers intentionally reflect on the life of Jesus: his ministry, sacrifice, death, and resurrection. For some Christians, today also starts a season of repentance, fasting, and self-examination.

Although many evangelical Christians do not observe Lent, it is one of the oldest traditions of the Church. A letter written by Irenaus of Lyons (c. 130-200) describes a pre-Easter fast that originated “in the time of our forefathers.” Originally lasting only a few days, in 325 AD the Council of Nicaea wrote about the occurrence of a 40-day season of fasting, penitence and self-examination. While it originally may have been a time for new Christians to prepare for Baptism, the whole Church soon joined in observing the Lenten season.

Although Lent is 40-days long, a look at the calendar tells us there are 46 days until Easter. Since those other six days are Sundays, they aren’t considered Lent. The disciples and most of the first followers of Jesus were Jews who had observed the seventh day (Saturday) as the Sabbath. Because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, however, the early apostles changed their Sabbath day of rest and worship to the first day of the week as a continued celebration of His resurrection. When the early church began to observe the season of Lent, Sundays (being mini-celebrations of the risen Christ) were exempt from fasting and other forms of self-denial.

Most Roman Catholics and some Protestants will observe this day with the imposition of ashes on their foreheads. Made by burning palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and mixing the residue with anointing oil, the ashes are a visible reminder of mankind’s mortality—God made us by breathing life into dust and it is to dust that our bodies shall return. [Genesis 3:19] The ashes also represent penance. Putting dust or ashes on the head was an ancient gesture of mourning and penitence; when people repented of their sins, they would dress in uncomfortable sackcloth and cover themselves with ashes. Today, some worshipers may leave church with the ash cross still on their foreheads as a way of carrying the cross into the world while, in other churches, worshipers will wash off the smudge as a sign that they’ve been cleansed of their sins.

Neither Ash Wednesday nor Lent is Biblically ordained and whether we observe either is a matter between us and God. We must keep in mind that observing any religious ritual or rite is not a way to earn salvation; we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone. Moreover, if we choose to observe Lent, Jesus made it clear that fasting and abstinence should be done humbly, sincerely, and discreetly. [Matthew 6:16-18] While it is okay to be seen fasting, it is not okay to fast so to be seen. Finally, let us remember that there is no specific season for repentance; we should repent of our sins all year long!

I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent. [Luke 5:32 (NLT)]

Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. [Acts 3:19 (NLT)]

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BEYOND REPROACH

Elders must be blameless, the husband of only one wife. Their children must be believers, and must not be open to the accusation of loose living, or being rebellious. This is because an overseer, as one of God’s household managers, must be blameless. [Titus 1:6-7 (NTE)]

yellow-crowned night heronIn my granddaughter’s ethics class, the question was posed, “Should elected officials be held to a higher standard than the population that elected them?” She maintained that everyone should be held to the same high standard and I agreed. We have no right to hold anyone to a higher standard than the one we keep. I added, however, that having taken on the public’s trust, elected officials have an obligation to hold themselves to the highest standards possible.

In Jesus’ day, every community had a group of adult men known for wisdom and maturity called elders who gathered as a kind of village council. When Christian churches came into being, they borrowed this leadership model and elders were appointed for each congregation. Sometimes referred to as bishops or overseers, their duties were to teach and preach, direct the affairs of the church, shepherd the flock, and guard the church from error. The other church office was that of deacon. The deacons assisted the elders which enabled them to give their full attention to prayer and ministry. The qualifications for both elders and deacons were much the same.

Paul gave both Timothy and Titus a list of the qualities necessary for elders and deacons. It’s interesting that Paul wasn’t concerned with their skill sets, talents, or spiritual gifts. Whether they were competent writers, brilliant speakers, accomplished musicians, or wealthy businessmen wasn’t his concern; their personal character was!

The principal requirement was that an elder be anenklētos, often translated as blameless, not accused, above reproach, of unquestionable integrity, or of unimpeachable virtue. For the sake of the church’s good name, the elder’s impeccable reputation was as important as his good character. Perhaps this seems unfair but the early church was a minority and already misunderstood by many. It could easily be smeared by even the hint of a scandal. Those who represented it had to be irreproachable.

Paul then spelled out the characteristics necessary for an elder. In his personal life, the elder was to be discrete, self-controlled, clear-headed, fair-minded, and not arrogant, argumentative, violent, or quick-tempered. In their homes, elders were to have a well-ordered household and healthy family relationships. As for the elder’s social life—he was to be hospitable. This was an important aspect of his calling since churches often met in homes and travelling evangelists and teachers were housed and fed by members of the church. Moreover, an elder was not to indulge in riotous living. Financially, the elder was to be a good steward of God’s gifts, trustworthy with money, and not greedy. Spiritually, elders were to be mature in their faith, virtuous, and knowledgeable in the Word of God. Their lives were to be an example for others to follow.

These requirements bring me back to a slightly rephrased version of the question posed in my grand’s ethics class: should we hold those in authority (such as elected officials, pastors or church council members) to a higher standard than our own? Are our own standards as high as those Paul purposed for the elders and deacons of the early church? They should be. As representative of Jesus, we all should strive to be the sort of people Paul would want to serve as elders and deacons: people above reproach! Let us remember that public perception of Christ’s followers and the church is as important today as it was in the 1st century!

Since I recently was appointed to our church board, I also return to my addendum to the grand’s answer. As a board member and a representative of our church, I must hold myself to the highest possible standard. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that any of us can be the kind of people described by Paul: people who shine like stars in this dark and troubled world!

There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you’ll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging on to the word of life. [Philippians 2:14-16a (NTE)]

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LET IT GO! (Part 1)

But if we freely admit that we have sinned, we find God utterly reliable and straightforward—he forgives our sins and makes us thoroughly clean from all that is evil. [1 John 1:9 (PHILLIPS)]

I’ve undertaken a series of “Abundance” exercises, the purpose of which is to take Jesus up on His promise of an abundant life. While my first assignment was to notice God’s abundance in His creation, the second was to let go of any guilt that I might be holding by asking God to forgive me (and believing that He truly has).

“Forgive yourself and let it go!” is easier said than done and this second exercise was more challenging than the first. Asking God for His forgiveness is less difficult than actually believing we’re forgiven and forgiving ourselves can be hardest of all. Sadly, the underlying guilt and self-reproach when we can’t let go of the past robs us of an abundant life.

I thought of Peter’s many failures that last night of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He protested Jesus’ washing of his feet, bickered with the disciples about their Kingdom status, boasted that he’d never desert the Lord, fell asleep in the garden, and then denied knowing Jesus! The lowest point of Peter’s life must have been when the Lord looked into his eyes after that third denial. By disavowing the man he loved, Peter did exactly what he promised he’d never do and, weeping bitterly, he left the courtyard. Peter’s despair and shame must have grown the following day when Jesus died after hours of suffering on the cross. Did guilt for his betrayal fill Peter’s heart?

Several months earlier, Peter had asked Jesus if forgiving someone seven times was enough. Jesus’ answer of seventy times seven meant there is no limit to forgiveness. While Luke tells us that the risen Jesus appeared to Peter, we don’t know how that first reunion went and what words were spoken. We do know that, when Jesus appeared on the lakeshore and told the men to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, Peter was so anxious to see Him that he jumped into the water and swam ashore. I can imagine Peter’s tears at their soggy embrace.

That morning, as the men stood around the charcoal fire while the fish cooked, did Peter remember warming himself by another charcoal fire when he denied Jesus the third time? We know that Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him and that Peter answered in the affirmative each time. Although we never read of Jesus explicitly forgiving Peter, we know that man who preached unlimited forgiveness certainly practiced it! That He told the apostle to take care of and feed his sheep certainly implies the Lord’s forgiveness. Indeed, Peter shepherded His flock and became the Rock of His church.

While Peter probably remembered that Thursday night with regret, he also knew there was nothing he could do to change it; his words of denial couldn’t be unsaid. Yet, if he’d chosen to hold onto his guilt, he would never have been able to speak of forgiveness and lead 3,000 to Jesus on Pentecost! Fraught with guilt and shame, he may even have taken his life as did Judas. Instead of holding onto the past, Peter sought God’s mercy and forgiveness and reaffirmed his devotion to the Lord. Believing in Jesus’ power to cleanse him from his sins, he accepted God’s forgiveness and lived the abundant life promised by Jesus. Peter forgave himself and let it go; let us do the same!

If we live like this, we shall know that we are children of the truth and can reassure ourselves in the sight of God, even if our own hearts make us feel guilty. For God is infinitely greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. And if, dear friends of mine, when we realise this our hearts no longer accuse us, we may have the utmost confidence in God’s presence. [1 John 3:19-21 (PHILLIPS)]

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ENTRANCE EXAMS

Another said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.” But Jesus told him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.” [Luke 9:61-62 (NLT)]

In Jesus’s time, rabbis weren’t the Jewish equivalent of a minister or employed by a synagogue. A rabbi simply was a teacher of the Torah—what we’d call a sage—and his students were called disciples. Jesus’s disciples often called him “rabbi” and there were more than just twelve of them. Although we know the identity of His inner circle, we don’t know the names of the seventy-two he sent out to prepare towns for his visit or the two with whom He spoke on the road to Emmaus that Sunday morning.

Disciples normally chose their rabbis and two of John the Baptist’s disciples (Andrew and probably John) left the Baptizer to follow Jesus. Sometimes a disciple was called by the rabbi, as were Simon Peter, Philip, and Matthew. In either case, the decision to follow any rabbi meant a total commitment. Hoping to become like their teacher, disciples left their employment, home, and family for an extended time to learn from him. Wanting only those he thought could fully live up to his standards, the rabbi would examine his potential students carefully. By accepting the rabbi’s invitation to follow him, the disciple was totally submitting to his authority in all things. In that context, Luke 9:57-62 and Jesus’s curt response to three would-be disciples makes more sense.

When the first potential disciple promised his willingness to follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus quickly warned him of the privation encountered by an itinerant rabbi. Although the proper response would have been that he’d follow Jesus in spite the hardships, we hear no more from the man.

When Jesus called another man to follow Him, he asked to return home and bury his father first. Responding that the dead can bury the dead seems harder to understand until we realize that a funeral was not imminent. If the man’s father had just died, rather than talking with a teacher, he would have been home in mourning. Perhaps wanting to collect his inheritance before leaving, the man wanted to postpone his discipleship until his father was dead and buried (which could have been years). By telling him the spiritually dead could bury their own dead, Jesus made it clear that proclaiming the Kingdom of God was not to be delayed; it should be a disciple’s first priority.

When the third follower said he wanted to say good-bye to his family first, Jesus had another abrupt response. Reminding him that a plowman who looked back couldn’t plow a straight furrow, Jesus made it clear that a man who looked back was unsuitable as a disciple and would be of little use to Him. Nothing in life, not even family, was to have greater priority than following Jesus. If Jesus had been an ordinary rabbi, those would have been harsh words, but He wasn’t ordinary. The only One who has a greater claim on us than family is God and Jesus was God! He had every right to make such demands upon those who wanted to be His followers. He expected absolute and immediate, not conditional and delayed, trust and obedience.

These somewhat harsh exchanges tell us in no uncertain terms that Jesus is not interested in half-hearted discipleship; He demands our undivided attention. What are we willing to sacrifice to be His disciple and grow more like Him?

But the soul renounced shall abide in the boundlessness of God’s life. This is liberty, this is prosperity. The more we lose, the more we gain. [Watchman Nee]

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, 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, you will save it. Luke 9:23-24 (NLT)]

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ONLY ONE MASTER (Part 2 – Luke 16:19-31)

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. [Luke 16:13 (NLT)]

primrose willowBecause the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the only parable in which names are used, some people in the early church believed that it was a real-life incident. Whether a true story or a parable is of no consequence because its lessons remain the same.

What the parable doesn’t tell us is that the poor automatically go to heaven and the rich to hell. After all, Abraham was wealthy and yet he’s there in Paradise dining with Lazarus! The angels didn’t carry Lazarus to Abraham simply because he was poor. The name Jesus chose to give him tells us Lazarus is there because he was godly. His name means “whom God helps” and Lazarus knew his help was in God. He’s named in this story because, like Abraham, he was known to God.

Just as Lazarus wasn’t carried to Abraham simply because he was poor, the rich man wasn’t condemned to his fiery torment simply because of his wealth. Although the man dressed in expensive purple cloth and fine linen, lived in luxury, and ate sumptuously every day, there was no sin in that. There’s no reason to suspect that he was a dishonest tax-collector, a double-dealing business man, a corrupt judge, or a thief and we’re not told that he beat his wife or abused his servants.

That the rich man knew Lazarus by name is what convicted him of sin. He knew Lazarus and his plight and yet ignored the poor man every time he walked in and out of his house. It was not the man’s wealth that condemned him; it was his hardness of heart. Although the Torah was filled with admonitions to care for the poor and oppressed, the rich man deliberately turned a blind eye to the suffering man at his doorway. We never know the rich man’s name because God didn’t know him and he didn’t know God!

To the first century Jew, riches were considered a sign of God’s blessings and poverty a sign of His judgment. Rather than a sign of blessing, however, Jesus taught that riches test man’s faithfulness in stewardship. Just a few verses before telling this story, Jesus gave a clear warning that we cannot serve both God and money. What isn’t said but is implied is that we can serve God with our money! Neither wealth nor poverty determine salvation; we are saved by grace through faith. Nevertheless, our faith is demonstrated by how we live and use whatever wealth with which we’ve been blessed.

Christ did not object to the riches of the rich man but to his impiety, infidelity, pride and cruelty. … [People] to not need to fear riches but vices. They should not fear wealth, but avarice. They should not be afraid of creaturely goods, but of greed. Let them possess wealth…with faith. Let them have it, and possess it, and not be possessed by it. [Augustine, Sermon 2999e.5]

When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required. [Luke 12:48 (NLT)]

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