BIBLE BRACKETS

Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” [Luke 5:31-32 (NLT)]

March brought more than basketball brackets. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, the Today show pitted 16 Irish favorites like U-2, Irish whiskey, step dancing, and soda bread against one another. The final bracket was a showdown between Guinness and corned beef and cabbage with the Irish beer winning. Since I don’t Twitter (Tweet?), I missed Bible Gateway’s March madness tournament pitting favorite Bible stories against one another.  

I can understand why some stories didn’t make the top sixteen. Gruesome ones like those of Jael pounding a tent peg through Sisera’s head (Judges 4); Dinah’s rape and the vengeful massacre of Shechem (Genesis 34); and the trickery of Ehud who assassinated the fat King Eglon (Judges 3) aren’t exactly Sunday school fare. Entirely missing from the competition, however, were Sunday school favorites like the Christmas story, the feeding of the multitude, and Pharaoh’s daughter finding Moses.

In actuality, there are far more than sixteen great stories in the Bible and, while my brackets would have differed from Bible Gateway’s, I can’t argue with theirs. Nevertheless, it was no surprise that Jericho’s walls collapsing (Joshua 6) beat the lesser known story of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). While the prophet’s vision is a beautiful illustration of Israel’s restoration and spiritual rebirth, picturing those dried bones reattaching, muscles and skin forming over them, and coming to life as a great army is unsettling. The story of the exodus easily beat the lesser known one of Balaam’s donkey. The visual of Moses raising his hand, the Red Sea parting, and the Israelites walking across the dry sea bed with walls of water on each side beats a talking donkey any day!

Before I tell you the winner of the contest, consider your favorite Bible stories. What would you include in your “sweet sixteen” – the wise men, the miracle at Cana, the faith of the woman with the bleeding disorder, Solomon suggesting a baby be cut in half, Zacchaeus climbing a tree, Elijah’s smack down with the prophets of Baal, Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, Paul and Silas singing in prison, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace? They’re all wonderful stories and well worth reading and re-reading over and over again.

The final match-up pitted the story of David and Goliath against the parable of The Prodigal (or Lost) Son. Everyone loves a story about an underdog hero and the boy shepherd who felled the Philistine warrior with a single shot was a sure favorite. It tells us that, even against insurmountable odds, when we trust in God, we can emerge victorious.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why the parable of the lost son won. Described by the Expositor’s Bible Commentary as “the crown and flower of all the parables,” it reassures us that no matter how far we stray, how low we fall, or how much we squander or misuse God’s gifts, His unconditional love is waiting for us when we return to Him. By focusing on the father’s love and forgiveness, however, we often miss an important part of that story—the son’s repentance! This was the last of three parables about the lost—a sheep, a coin, and a son—and the celebration when they are found. Jesus finished them all by tying repentance to the celebration. Let us never forget that we have to repent before we can attend the party!

In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! … In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. … We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found! [Luke 15:7,10,32 (NLT)]

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SAINT OR SINNER?

Human pride will be brought down, and human arrogance will be humbled. Only the Lord will be exalted on that day of judgment. For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has a day of reckoning. He will punish the proud and mighty and bring down everything that is exalted. [Isaiah 2:11-12 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronJesus’ Parable of Two Men Who Prayed contrasts pride with humility, self-righteousness with repentance, and how not to pray with how to pray. In it, both Pharisee and publican (tax collector) go to pray in the Temple. The Pharisee boldly thanks God that he’s not a sinner like everyone else and then self-righteously singles out the sinful publican. Then, just to make sure God understands how good he really is, the man brags of his tithing; rather than giving a tenth of what he earns, he tithes a tenth of all that he acquires. Even though fasting was only required on the Day of Atonement, Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays as well, so the self-satisfied man finishes his prayer by boasting of his twice weekly fasts.

In stark contrast to the proud Pharisee is the second man: a detested tax collector. Considered traitors and thieves by their fellow Jews, tax collectors paid the Romans for the privilege of collecting taxes and then overcharged their countrymen while lining their pockets with the excess. The despised man stands meekly before God with his head bowed and eyes down. Beating his breast in sorrow, he humbly confesses his sinfulness and begs for God’s mercy.

Although Jesus’ listeners would have anticipated the Pharisee’s commendation and the thieving publican’s condemnation, Jesus turns their expectations upside down when He says it was the publican who was considered righteous by God. He explains: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Luke 18:14] These were the same words Jesus used when, at a dinner party, He took the guests to task for their lack of humility as they jockeyed for the best seats around the table. [Luke 14:7-11]

We’re familiar enough with this parable not to identify with the Pharisee’s ostentatious display of piety but I suspect we’re more like the Pharisee than we care to admit. Although the Pharisee addressed God at the beginning of his prayer, the rest of it was all about him and seems more like a business contract than a prayer. Listing his good works, he seems to expect God’s commendation and favor in return for them. In theory, we know we’re justified by faith not works, that none of us are saved by our own merits, and that no human righteousness is enough for a God who demands perfection. In reality, however, we’re often more self-absorbed than self-examining, more likely to extol our virtues than admit our sins, and more interested in justifying our actions than being justified by God. Like the Pharisee, do we ever commend ourselves or justify our failings by pointing out the sins of others? How often do we actually take an inventory of our failings and honestly and humbly admit them to the Lord?

Sinners all, let us never forget how completely undeserving and unworthy we are of God’s grace.

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

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. [James 4:7-10 (NLT)]

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EXCUSES – Matthew 15:14-30 (Part 1)

Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “Look, we didn’t know.” For God understands all hearts, and he sees you. He who guards your soul knows you knew. He will repay all people as their actions deserve. … People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy. [Proverbs 24:12, 28:13 (NLT)]

Excuses—we all make them but I don’t think God much likes them.

giant swallowtail butterflyIn 1 Samuel 15, after Samuel confronts Saul for disobeying God’s clear commands regarding the Amalekites, Saul makes excuses—first by denying his sin, then by justifying his disobedience, and finally by blaming others. It is only after Samuel tells him the consequences of his sin—the loss of his kingship—that Saul reluctantly admits the truth. In contrast, we have Nathan confronting David regarding his sinful behavior with Bathsheba and Uriah. Immediately after the rebuke, David confesses. It would have been easy for David to blame Bathsheba for seducing him, Uriah for hampering his cover-up scheme, or Joab for his part in Uriah’s death, but he didn’t. Acknowledging his guilt, the repentant David confessed.

In Jesus’ Parable of the Three Servants (told in Matthew 15:14-30), the master entrusts each servant with a share of his wealth proportionate to their abilities. When the master returns, he asks them for an accounting. In my NLT Bible, the reports from the two servants who faithfully fulfilled their responsibilities take only sixteen words each. The third servant, the one who buried his master’s money, uses forty words to make excuses for his failings. In fact, by calling his master a harsh man, the servant tries to cast some of the blame back on him. Nothing in the parable, however, leads us to think the master was overly demanding, hard to please, or cruel. The negligent servant was just making excuses. I wonder what would have happened if he’d simply echoed David’s words to Nathan: “I have sinned against the Lord.” [2 Samuel 13:13]

One of the hardest things for us to do is admit our sins without making any excuses. We frequently deny, minimize, refuse responsibility, cast blame, defend our motives, justify our actions, or even rationalize that it couldn’t be wrong since everyone else does the same thing. Whether we call it a momentary lapse or an error of judgment, wrong is wrong and a sin is still a sin. A sincere confession takes only six words but most excuses take forty or more! Remember—when we honestly confess, it’s not as if we’re telling God anything He doesn’t know. We confess so that we know! It’s only when we honestly acknowledge our sins as sins that we can repent of them and get right with God.

In failing to confess, Lord, I would only hide you from myself, not myself from you. [Augustine]

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. [I John 1:8-10 (NLT)]

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SECOND CHANCES

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.” [Matthew 21:31b-32 (NLT)]

“It’s all about getting a second chance!” said the back of the man’s T-shirt. I then saw the dog paws printed on both sides of the message and realized his shirt was advertising a dog rescue organization. Nevertheless, the shirt’s words made me think of the parable Jesus told the Pharisees about two sons. The vineyard owner told his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son rudely refused but the second son respectfully promised he’d do the work. As it turned out, the defiant son had a change of heart and went to work in the vineyard while the second seemingly dutiful son never did. Jesus then asked the Pharisees which of the two sons had done his father’s will. Of course, they had to say that the first son, in spite of his initial rebellion, was the obedient one.

The purpose of the parable was to convict the religious leaders of their phoniness. Claiming obedience and righteousness, they’d refused God’s invitation to repent delivered by John the Baptist. While saying they wanted to do God’s will, the Pharisees hadn’t. The scum of society, however, had believed and repented. When Jesus claimed that repentant sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes would get into the Kingdom of Heaven long before the Pharisees, they were shocked. You see, in God’s world, performance takes precedence over promise!

While immediate obedience is preferable, delayed obedience always beats phony obedience. Like the first son, some people prove to be far better than initially expected. Before we accepted Jesus, most of us didn’t show much potential. Truth be told, we probably were willful, selfish, mean, hypocritical and possibly immoral. Like the first son, however, we repented, mended our ways, and now work for our Father in Heaven. Unfortunately, like the second son, others prove false to their initial promise. There is, however, good news for those people whose intentions and promises haven’t materialized. Like the first brother, they too can repent, change their ways, and start working for their Father. Jesus’ words to the Pharisees tell them that the door to His Kingdom is closed to religious pretenders but open to even the vilest of repentant sinners.

The parables of the Two Sons and the Prodigal Son tell us that our God is a God of Second Chances! If there had been a cross on that man’s T-shirt instead of dog paws, the same words would have promoted Christianity! Indeed, “It’s all about getting a second chance!” in Jesus’ rescue organization! Best of all, He doesn’t stop at second chances. Our God is the God of Endless Second Chances, which is good news since it’s pretty much a guarantee that most of us will mess up our second chance and need several more!

So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. … If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:6,8-9 (NLT)]

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FORGIVENESS CAME FIRST (Part 3)

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. [1 Peter 2:24 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronIn all three accounts of Jesus healing the paralytic whose friends carried him to the Lord, Jesus forgave the man before healing him. While the combination of both forgiveness and healing demonstrated Jesus’ power over both sin and disease, His offer of forgiveness before healing might lead us to think there is a causal relationship between sin and sickness or forgiveness and physical healing.

Connecting sin with disease goes as far back as Job and their cause-and-effect/retribution theology is part of what got Job’s friends in trouble with God. Nevertheless, associating calamity and suffering with sin continued to be a common point of view in 1st century Judah. Thinking sin and misfortune related, even Jesus’ disciples asked Him whether it was the sins of the blind man or his parents that caused him to be born sightless. Jesus’ answer clarified that sin had nothing to do with the man’s blindness. Later, when Jesus heard about Pilate’s ruthless execution of some Galileans, He made it clear that the murdered men, like eighteen others who died when a wall collapsed on them, were no worse sinners than any other people. Rather than explaining the why of such tragedies, Jesus pointed out that all people are sinners—sinners who should repent so they’re ready for the eternity following their unpredictable lives.

While illness can be caused by God (as it was in the case of King Uzziah’s leprosy, Nebuchadnezzar’s madness, and Herod’s worms), we must remember that we live in a fallen world. While all suffering is due to man’s fall into sin, not all suffering is because of a specific sin on the part of that individual. While some afflictions may be the specific consequences of sin, for the most part, sickness is just part and parcel of living in this fallen world of ours—a world where all creation “groans” under the consequences of our sin.

By forgiving the paralytic before healing him, Jesus wasn’t implying his paralysis was the direct result of his sins. Rather than seeing a man with a paralyzed body, Jesus saw a man with a troubled heart whose greatest need wasn’t mobility but forgiveness! What good would the ability to walk do for a man who remained spiritually broken? The paralyzed man’s most pressing need was forgiveness and, regardless of our physical ailments, forgiveness is our most pressing need, as well. Jesus didn’t die to heal our bodies; He died to heal our souls!

So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. [Ephesians 1:6-7 (NLT)]

He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases. He redeems me from death and crowns me with love and tender mercies. [Psalm 103:2 (NLT)]

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HE FORGAVE (Part 2)

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” [Matthew 26:27-28 (ESV)]

roseWhen Jesus forgave the unnamed woman’s sins, he caused quite a stir among the Pharisees and religious leaders who were His fellow dinner guests. People can forgive an offense against them, but they can’t forgive an offense against someone else or God! While I can forgive your $10 debt to me, I have neither the right nor the power to say you don’t have to pay the $150,000 you also owe the Bank of America, Sallie Mae, Capital One and Chase for your mortgage, college loan, car financing, and credit card purchases. A person can’t do that but God can! Because only God has the authority to forgive people’s sins, implied in Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman’s sins, is a claim that He is God.

This wasn’t the only time Jesus shocked the Pharisees by forgiving sins. On another occasion, a paralyzed man’s friends brought him to Jesus for healing. When Jesus told the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” the religious leaders accused Him of blasphemy. The Hebrew Scripture made it clear that only God has the prerogative to pronounce forgiveness. The book of Leviticus laid out an elaborate temple system of offerings for intentional and unintentional sins, with different animals offered for different kinds of sins. Every year, there was a special Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, with its elaborate forgiveness ritual in which the nation’s sins were paid for with the sacrifice of a goat and the people’s forgiven sins were laid on another goat (the scapegoat) and sent into the wilderness. To the Pharisees, Jesus daring to pronounce forgiveness without being a high priest or making a sacrifice was a blasphemous claim to divinity. His actions would have been blasphemous had He not been God. As both the Great High Priest and the final sin sacrifice, however, Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law.

Knowing their concerns, Jesus addressed the religious leaders and asked whether it was easier to pronounce forgiveness or heal. He then told the man to pick up his mat and go home! As the man arose and started walking, the crowd was astonished. By healing the man, Jesus confirmed His authority to forgive. The physical healing was as much for the religious leaders as for the paralytic. Although the man’s forgiveness couldn’t be proven or disproven, his healing was obvious to all and there was only one being who could both forgive sins and heal broken bodies—God!

Jesus’ healings were observable acts that identified Him as the Messiah and yet the very people who should have recognized Him seemed to deliberately turn a blind eye and deaf ear. When Jesus healed the paralyzed man, gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, or a voice to the mute, He was fulfilling Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy of salvation made some 700 years earlier.

Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. [Isaiah 35:4-6 (ESV)]

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