WITH JUST A WORD

I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel! [Matthew 8:10]

Coming from a career in the military where, as the commanding officer, his word was law, my brother-in-law had a rude awakening when he retired from the Navy and returned to civilian life. If, at his word, a squadron of planes could be on the runway and ready for flight at 0700 sharp, he didn’t understand why the cable man or plumber couldn’t be counted on to arrive on time (let alone, at all)! Unfortunately, the power and authority he had as a commanding officer didn’t transfer to his new role as a private citizen.

Like my brother-in-law, the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant was used to the power of his words. When the centurion spoke, he spoke with the emperor’s authority and he knew he didn’t need to be present to have his orders carried out by the 100 men he commanded. Recognizing Jesus as more than an itinerant rabbi, the centurion knew that, when Jesus spoke, He spoke with God’s authority. Like the centurion, Jesus didn’t need to be present to exercise His power—all that was needed was His command!

Typically, people were amazed by Jesus but, that time, Jesus was amazed by the centurion. Turning to the crowd around him, He commended the Gentile’s faith—saying he’d not seen so great a faith in the land. Reminding his listeners that the Kingdom of Heaven was open to everyone, both Gentile and Jew, He warned them that faith, rather than heritage, would determine attendance at the Messianic banquet and cautioned that some Israelites would not be there!

The only other time Scripture records Jesus’ amazement is when, after being scoffed and scorned in Nazareth, Jesus expressed amazement at his fellow Jews’ lack of faith. Mark tells us that was why Jesus could perform only a few healings (but no miracles) in his home town. The lack of miracles, however, doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t have the power to perform them; it means that He chose not to do so in an atmosphere of unbelief. Rather than being subject to our faith, God acts in response to it! God’s power is unlimited but He will not force His blessings on those who don’t believe. Let us remember that the One who spoke the universe into existence is capable of far more than we can ask! The centurion had great faith in Jesus; we should follow his example!

And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him. [Hebrews 11:6 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:27 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LOOK DEEPER

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7 (ESV)]

carolina wrenYesterday, when writing about the lack of physical descriptions of Jesus, I realized how rarely Scripture describes anyone. Granted, we know that Goliath was huge, Saul was tall, Ehud was left-handed, Samson had long hair, Esau was hairy, Zacchaeus was short, that Sarah, Esther, and Rachel were beautiful, and that Leah was not. Those brief descriptions, however, were necessary to explain the narrative. Other than their ages, for example, we know nothing about the appearance of Noah, Abraham, or Moses and we don’t even know the ages of any of the disciples! Appearance, however, isn’t important to God.

1 Samuel 9:2 describes Saul as “the most handsome man in Israel—head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the land.” Looking kingly, however, isn’t qualification enough to be a king. After removing Saul’s kingship because of his disloyalty and disobedience, God sent Samuel to Jesse’s house to find and anoint Israel’s new king. Once there, the prophet took one look at Jesse’s impressive-looking eldest son Eliab and was sure he found the new monarch. When God rejected Eliab, Jesse lined up the rest of his sons and Samuel continued on down the line. Going about this selection process as would a casting director—by choosing someone who looked regal—Samuel seemed to have forgotten that Israel already had a king who looked the part. What they needed was someone worthy of the role.

When God rejected all seven of Jesse’s boys, Samuel asked if there were any more. He learned of the young David out herding animals in the fields. This youngest son was so far down the family’s pecking order that his father hadn’t even summoned him to the feast but Samuel insisted on sending for him. Although David is described as being pleasant looking, with beautiful eyes and a ruddy complexion, a young shepherd boy (no matter how handsome) doesn’t sound much like king material, but God told Samuel, “This is the one.”

God explained to Samuel that He doesn’t look at a man’s appearance; He looks at a man’s heart. With his pink-cheeks and beautiful eyes David may not have looked the part, but he had the makings of a king because he was what God wanted: a man after God’s heart. [13:14] While people see what a person appears to be, God sees who that person actually is!

In spite of our best efforts not to do so, like Samuel, we tend to categorize people by their looks and often allow age, physique, beauty, ethnicity, clothing, wealth, grooming, or style to outweigh substance. If God doesn’t judge people by appearance, I wonder why we so often do. Unlike God, we can’t immediately see what’s in a person’s heart but, when we estimate a person’s worth by his exterior, we often miss the opportunity to ever see into his interior! God calls us to live by faith rather than sight; perhaps we should apply those words to the way we view our fellow travelers on this planet. Let us remember Isaiah’s description of Jesus—the Messiah who had “nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him.” [53:2] That man was God’s son! If we saw Him on the streets today, would we write Him off as readily Jesse did his own son?

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. [Isaiah 53:2-3 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE CAMEL AND THE NEEDLE (Part 2)

Jesus said to his disciples, “I’m telling you the truth: it’s very hard for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven. Let me say it again: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” [Matthew 19:23-24 (NTE)

camel-GCParadegrounds2wAfter the rich young ruler departed, Jesus compared the difficulty of a rich man entering heaven to a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle. Because of its impossibility, people find this metaphor troubling. To rationalize it, some scholars speculate that a narrow gate called “The Needle” was located in the wall surrounding Jerusalem. Supposedly used after dark when the main gates were closed, it was so small that a camel had to be unburdened of rider and cargo before getting down on its knees to pass through the gate. They interpret the metaphor as meaning that people must leave behind their baggage, repent, and humble themselves to get through the gate to God’s kingdom. While that’s correct and their explanation makes an excellent Sunday school lesson, no historical or archeological evidence exists that such a gate existed.

Other scholars conjecture that the original word was kamêlos, meaning cable or rope, and a copying error caused it to be written kamilos, meaning camel. They prefer an interpretation that, while it may be extremely difficult to get a rope through a needle, it wouldn’t be impossible, especially if Jesus meant a large carpet needle. Be that as it may, it seems improbable that three gospels would have the same transcribing error.

Rather than trying to reason away the difficulty of getting a camel through a needle, perhaps we should take this hyperbole at face value and accept it for what it is—an impossibility! In fact, in the Babylonian Talmud, there is a Persian metaphor about the impossibility of an elephant going through the eye of a needle. Jesus’ listeners may well have been aware of the Persian saying and, since a camel was the largest animal known in Palestine, it would make more sense to Judeans than would an elephant! If we stopped at this verse, it really would seem that the wealthy are automatically barred from God’s Kingdom. But, if wealth blocked us from God, why would He return twice his original wealth to Job? When Zacchaeus gave away half of his wealth, why didn’t Jesus tell him to give away all of it?

The disciples would have been incredulous at Jesus’ metaphor. In their 1st century Jewish world, if anyone could enter God’s Kingdom, it would be a rich man. After all, he could buy all the sacrificial lambs he needed to atone for his sins, easily pay his Temple tax, freely drop money into one of the many Temple receptacles, and even give alms to the poor. If a rich man couldn’t enter the Kingdom, they asked who could.

It is in Jesus’ answer that we begin to understand the fullness of God’s grace: “Humanly speaking, it’s impossible. But everything’s possible with God.” [Matthew 19:26] What the rich young ruler couldn’t understand and the disciples needed to know was that, rich or poor, there is nothing any of us can do to buy our ticket to the Kingdom because God’s Kingdom doesn’t operate on a works or financial system. Salvation on our own terms is impossible.

When Jesus gave His “Sermon on the Mount,” He said, “Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.” [5:3] He wasn’t speaking of those who were penniless. Jesus was speaking of those who recognize their spiritual bankruptcy—those who know they have nothing of their own to offer God—those who know how poor they are regardless of their bank balances or investment portfolios.

No man can purchase or earn God’s favor—the most we can do is receive God’s grace with a humble and contrite heart! Thinking that we are rich, however, will keep us from reaching out for that grace.

For you know the grace of our Lord, King Jesus: he was rich, but because of you he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. [2 Corinthians 8:9 (NTE)]

 You say, ‘I’m rich! I’ve done well! I don’t need anything!’ – but you don’t know that you are miserable, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. [Revelation 3:17 (NTE)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

COMPLICATING IT (Part 2)

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” [Romans 1:16-17 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronAmong the 613 mitzvot were laws about not adding to or detracting from the commandments. Unfortunately, man’s need for rules and regulations must be ingrained. Finding the original 613 laws an insufficient guide to Jewish life, the religious leaders stayed busy for the next several centuries clarifying the law by creating even more laws about how to keep the initial ones and then determining the proper way to atone for every infraction.

For example, finding the simple prohibition of work on the Sabbath too general, thirty-nine categories of work were created which led to sub-categories and then more laws about handling any of the implements used in such work. Among the work subcategories were sewing two stitches and hammering which meant handling needles or hammers on the Sabbath also was prohibited. There were, however, exceptions to the rules. If necessary, you could move a needle to open your prayer book and, if you had nothing else, a hammer could be used to crack nuts!

The laws in Leviticus said a priest with a physical defect could not serve in the sanctuary but, since a “defect” was not explicitly defined, 140 disqualifying physical blemishes were categorized that covered everything from head to toe (and even body odor). Even the size of a disqualifying mole was specified (but, if a mole had any hair, it was prohibited regardless of  size).

True to form, when an expert in religious law spoke with Jesus about the law of loving his neighbor, he wanted to define who his neighbor might be. While a fellow Jew surely would be a neighbor, what about a convert, an Edomite or an Egyptian? Would Moabites and Ammonites (who were barred from citizenship) be considered neighbors? And what about those hated Samaritans?

Interpreting those 615 laws became as difficult as understanding today’s complicated tax code. Eventually, it became more about doing a deed than following a creed—more about works than worship—rules than relationship—laws than love—penalties rather than penitence—and thinking it possible to save oneself rather than be saved.  Jesus brought a covenant that fulfilled the true intent and purpose of the law—one in which our salvation rests solely with God by grace through faith. There’s a lot we can do for ourselves but one thing we can’t do is to save ourselves by following rules. Salvation is God’s business; ours is getting saved, not by laws but by faith.

For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God. [Romans 10:4 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

RENDER UNTO GOD (PART 2)

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (ESV)]

Yesterday was tax day: the day we rendered unto Washington what is theirs. In case we weren’t sure how much that was, we had 1099s, W-2s, 1040s, TurboTax, various receipts, H & R Block, and accountants to help us figure it out. Since Jesus told us to give God what is His, how much is that? God doesn’t send out W-2s listing our year’s many blessings, supply us with 1040s to fill out, or give us deductions for medical expenses, charitable donations, mortgage interest, property taxes, or gambling losses. Rather than a CPA or the IRS, we need to consult our Bibles for the answer to that question.

“Tithe” is an Old Testament term for the 10% gifts the Israelites were required to pay to support the Levites, provide for the Temple, and relieve the poor. A series of complicated rules regarding which tithes were made in what year and the amount tithed ended up making the tithe more like 23.3%. Although the New Testament never commands (or even recommends) a tithing system, Christians often refer to a tithe (or 10% of one’s earnings) as being the right donation to the church. In reality, for some, 10% would be unwise and for others, 10% is hardly enough!

Rather than a fixed percentage, the New Testament calls us to give regularly, according to our means, generously and joyously (even sacrificially at times), and out of love for God and others. While this requirement is vague about the actual amount, it actually is stricter than a fixed 10% because it is a matter of obedience and trust. What we give is a matter of prayer. It is an issue between God and us and we must be willing to give whatever it is He asks—be it time, talents, or finances—in the amount he desires.

Because Caesar’s image was on the coin, it belonged to him. Let’s not forget that we are made in God’s image and it is His face that is stamped upon us. We belong to Him and whatever we give to God already is His. We simply are returning it to the rightful owner. Moreover, the list of what we should render unto God goes far beyond money. We should give Him our worship, service, obedience, praise, love, respect, gratitude, and fidelity. In short, we owe Him everything and not just on Sundays—we owe Him everything all of the time.

As John Wesley said, the question isn’t “how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself?” Although there is no need to worry about a letter from God questioning our deductions or demanding an audit, we must remember that one day we will be called in for an accounting of how we used His gifts.

Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. [Matthew 25:34-36 (ESV)]

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12: 2 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

ACT YOUR WAY INTO IT

I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another! Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. [John 13:34 (NTE)]

As the thunder echoed across the lake, my mother-in-law and I looked out the window and watched the lightning flash, the wind rage at the trees, and the rain pour down. Summer thunderstorms at the lake were an impressive sight and, while viewing it from the safety of the cottage, my mother-in-law confided that she used to be terrified of thunderstorms. She told of the panic she experienced as a child whenever the thunder boomed, lightening flashed, and rain pelted the roof and windows of her house. Even as an adult, she’d flinch at every crack of thunder and cower in a corner during storms. Once she became a mother, however, her behavior changed when she saw that her fear was infectious. Not wanting her boys to catch her unfounded terror, she decided to put on a brave face for the youngsters and soon discovered that, by acting unafraid, she’d actually become unafraid. Instead of feeling her way into a behavior, she’d behaved her way into a feeling!

Jesus told us we are to love one another but, let’s face it, there are an awful lot of people out there who are unlovable—people we don’t even like so we really don’t want to love them. We certainly don’t feel like forgiving them, bearing their burdens or praying for them. Given a choice, we’ll even go out of the way to avoid them. Jesus, however, didn’t make an exception for the disagreeable difficult ones and certainly not for the ones who don’t look, talk, think, or act like us! With the story of the Good Samaritan, He made it clear that everyone—even our sworn enemy—is our neighbor and someone we must love!

Although that storm and our conversation took place many years ago, whenever I question how I can possibly love certain people, I remember it—how by acting brave, my mother-in-law worked her way into feeling brave. If she’d waited until she felt brave before acting fearless, she would have been afraid of storms until her dying day. She couldn’t force her feelings, but she could force her actions!

Is it hypocritical to act with love when we don’t feel love for the person? Acting with kindness and consideration, however, is not comparable to toadying up to someone or fawning over and flattering someone falsely. When we act with love, we’re not trying to curry someone’s favor; we’re obeying the Lord. When we act with love toward our neighbor, we are doing it for God. We can’t always muster up affection for someone but Christian love isn’t a feeling of affection; it is merely a wish for the other person’s good.

As followers of Christ, even when we don’t feel love, we can act with love because we love God! The Apostle John tells us that “anyone who loves God should love their brother or sister,” and they’re all our brothers and sisters! Love for God and love for our brothers and sisters are inseparable—we truly can’t love the One without loving all the others!

Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. [C.S. Lewis]

We love, because he first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates their brother or sister, that person is a liar. Someone who doesn’t love a brother or sister whom they have seen, how can they love God, whom they haven’t seen? This is the command we have from him: anyone who loves God should love their brother or sister too. [1 John 4:19-21 (NTE)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.