He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead.” They didn’t understand what he was saying, however, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant. [Mark 9:31-32 (NLT)]

Although crucifixion probably began with the Assyrians and Babylonians, the first historical record is of Persia’s King Darius I crucifying 3,000 political opponents in 519 BC. Alexander the Great adopted the practice when he crucified 2,000 survivors of the siege of Tyre in 332 BC. In 88 BC, the Hasmonean king of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, crucified 800 Jewish rebels after killing the rebels’ wives and children in front of them. Following a massive slave revolt against Rome in 71 BC, 6,000 rebels were crucified along the Appian Way. The crosses stretched for miles and the bodies were left there as a clear message that any rebellion would end in a violent death. After the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C., a failed rebellion in Judea led to the crucifixion of 2,000 rebellious Jews.

While the Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, they had perfected it by the time of Jesus and the torture began long before the cross. The condemned were stripped naked, tied to a post, and flogged across the back, legs, and buttocks by Roman soldiers using whips called flagrums consisting of small pieces of bone and metal attached to a number of leather strands. The scourging left the victims’ skin ripped to the bone. If they survived the scourging, they were taunted and forced to carry the crossbar of their death instrument to the place of execution. According to Josephus, sometimes Roman soldiers further tortured the condemned by blinding them or cutting off a body part (like the tongue). Arms were nailed or strapped to the cross beam and feet to the upright. Once upright, a massive strain was put on the wrists, arms and shoulders often resulting in dislocated shoulder and elbow joints. The rib cage was constrained in a fixed position making it extremely difficult to exhale and impossible to take a full breath. While death came from suffocation, loss of body fluids, and multiple organ failure, it did not come quickly.

According to Josephus, crucifixion in Palestine was a common sight so Jesus’ disciples knew all too well what carrying a cross meant. They heard stories of Roman cruelty, saw the bloodied and battered condemned carrying their crosses, and passed by the dead bodies left decaying on crosses as a warning to those who dared challenge Rome. But, for all of their lives, these same men had been waiting for the promised Messiah to come and deliver them from Roman oppression.

Perhaps, when Jesus spoke of the cross, they thought He was referring to the many Jewish rebels who had carried their crosses for defying Rome. But, unlike those times, this time they had Jesus—the promised Messiah who finally would bring victory to the Jewish nation. Even though they believed Jesus was the Messiah, they didn’t fully understand what that meant. They thought He came to defeat Rome, rather than death, and to save a nation, not the world. Even after Jesus spoke of His death on the way to Jerusalem, we have James and John ignoring that prediction and asking Jesus for positions in His kingdom. They still pictured a political victory!

The disciples abandoned Him at His arrest and, in spite of His repeated warnings, were not prepared for His death. Surely, the man who raised Lazarus from the dead wasn’t going to die a criminal’s death, but He did and there was no doubt that He was dead. When the Sabbath was over, two disappointed followers returned to Emmaus, the women went to the tomb to anoint a dead body, and the frightened disciples were gathered in a locked room. They weren’t proclaiming Jesus that morning and didn’t even believe the women when told the tomb was empty. They were a defeated, disappointed, and frightened group of men.

So, what happened to change this group of disheartened disciples? What turned them into enthusiastic evangelists? What turned them into men who willingly followed Jesus to their own equally horrific deaths? It was seeing the risen Christ! May we always remember the truth of this message: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this. Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us, just as you see and hear today. [Acts 2:32-33 (NLT)]

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Oh, that I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest! I would fly far away to the quiet of the wilderness. [Psalm 55:6-7 (NLT)]

mourning doveEaster is over and “season” here in southwest Florida is winding down. More people are departing than arriving as our seasonal visitors return north, transport trucks laden with cars are moving up the interstate, and we finally can get a table at our favorite restaurant! It’s been said that there is no escape from death or taxes but we usually try to flee from just about every other unpleasant thing. Thinking their lives would be better here, our snowbirds came south to escape sub-zero temps, heating bills, and shoveling snow. While the climate here is nicer, our tropical paradise doesn’t come with a guarantee and none of us can flee from life’s uncertainties and problems.

Rather than escaping from winter weather, Naomi and Elimelech fled from Bethlehem to escape a famine. Instead of trusting God, they ran away to Moab, a pagan nation hostile to Israel. They intended staying briefly but remained for ten years during which time their sons broke Jewish law by marrying Moabite women. Moab, however, didn’t turn out to be the sort of get-away for which they hoped; sadly, Elimelech and both sons died. A widow with no sons in a hostile and pagan land was in worse straits than a family in their homeland during a famine. Having literally fallen out of the frying pan into the fire, Naomi decided to flee from Moab. At least this time, she went in the right direction—back to Bethlehem and the God of Israel!

We’re not much different from Naomi and some of our snowbirds; we want to escape to a place where life will be better, simpler, happier, easier, less costly, or more fun. Like Naomi, however, we’re likely to be disappointed because the baggage we’ve packed contains more than our clothes. Tucked in with the sunglasses and beach attire are things like problems at work, disappointments, worries, responsibilities, lack of faith, ill health, guilt, unmet deadlines, family strife, or financial problems. If we can’t physically flee from our troubles, some people try escaping through things like procrastination, alcohol, shopping, drugs, busyness, codependency, or denial. Disregarding the bills doesn’t get them paid, ignoring the lump won’t make it disappear, and taking a vacation, moving to a new house, or having another baby won’t fix a broken marriage. There is no way to escape from life’s problems, obligations, or consequences. We carry that baggage with us wherever we go.

In Naomi and Elimelech’s day (the time of the judges), famine was a test of faith but the couple missed what God planned for them by fleeing from their challenge. If we simply suffer through our troubles and allow them to be our master, we lose hope and become bitter, as did Naomi. Having resigned herself to being an embittered penniless widow with no grandchildren, upon her return to Bethlehem the woman whose name meant pleasant called herself Mara, meaning bitter. Rather than running from or resigning ourselves to our troubles, we can endeavor to change them by trusting God—exactly what Naomi and Elimelech failed to do. Instead, it was the Moabite woman Ruth who showed more faith in Israel’s God than did her in-laws. Trusting in Him, she bravely faced the challenges of widowhood by gleaning in the fields of Boaz. Ruth, however, wasn’t alone in those fields; God was at her side! No matter how bleak the situation may seem, there’s no need to flee when we remember that God is with us in our troubles.

Good people must never expect to escape troubles; if they do, they will be disappointed, for none of their predecessors have been without them. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord hears his people when they call to him for help. He rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time. [Psalm 34:17-19 (ESV)]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

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So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. [1 Corinthians 15:21-22 (NLT)]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

rabbitIn less than five minutes the house was ready for Easter. I’d hung out the spring wreath with its silk tulips, placed the resin Easter rabbit with his cart and eggs on the hall table, and put the three ceramic bunnies around the flowers on the table. With no grands visiting this year, I didn’t even have eggs to boil or baskets to fill! Since it took me days to ready the house for Christmas, I wondered why Easter doesn’t get the same amount of decoration and celebration. Granted, most of the holiday traditions for both holy days have pagan beginnings. Nevertheless, those customs have become part of our culture and Christmas seems to overshadow Easter by a mile.

Christmas has its own color scheme, its own genre of music, and its own beloved fictional characters, including a Grinch, a snowman, an elf on a shelf, and a red-nosed reindeer. We spend weeks decorating our homes, purchasing gifts, and preparing food. We have special Christmas attire ranging from Santa hats to candy cane jewelry and ugly holiday sweaters. People decorate trees, hang garlands and lights, dress up their dogs, and adorn their cars with reindeer horns. Every year sees at least one Christmas-themed movie release and we get a plethora of holiday-themed television shows throughout December. Christmas music is played from the first of November to New Year’s and our calendars are filled with dates for holiday parties and concerts. Easter traditions pale in comparison to Christmas. Even with Easter baskets and egg hunts, the Easter Bunny can’t hold a candle to Santa. The few Easter hymns are sung only a couple of Sundays and hard-boiled eggs and Peeps are second-rate when compared to the plethora of holiday treats, Christmas cookies, and peppermint bark! As far as celebrations go, Easter is sort of like the neglected step-child of holy days. Of course, it’s difficult to generate a festive spirit when Easter is preceded by a season of penitence and fasting and follows the darkest day in Christendom.

As much as I enjoy the traditions of Christmas (in spite of their pagan origins), Christmas really has nothing to do with decorating houses, baking cookies, hanging stockings, gift exchanges, sending cards, singing carols, or holiday parties. Although our sacred Christmas traditions emphasize Jesus’ birth with nativity scenes and pageants, that night in Bethlehem was just the beginning of a far greater story—the story of who Jesus was and what He did for us.

Granted, we usually consider a person’s arrival more reason to celebrate that his departure and we celebrate birthdays rather than dates of death but, in Christ’s case, it is just the opposite. The meaning of Christmas is actually found in the Easter story. Without Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension there would be no forgiveness, redemption, and salvation. Without Easter, the Christmas story would be no more than just a story. For me, the purpose of Christmas can be summed up in one word: Easter!

So, Merry Christmas and Happy Easter on this upcoming Resurrection Sunday!

Somehow we just don’t make the same boisterous fun of Holy Week that we do of Christmas. No one plans to have a holly, jolly Easter. … Easter may seem boring to children, and it is blessedly unencumbered by the silly fun that plagues Christmas. Yet it contains the one thing needful for every human life: the good news of Resurrection. [Frederica Mathewes-Green]

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. [1 Peter 1:3-4 (NLT)]

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. [John 11:25-26a (NLT)]

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“My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” … Then Jesus left them a second time and prayed, “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.” … So he went to pray a third time, saying the same things again. [Matthew 26:39,42,44 (NLT)]

water liliesThroughout His ministry, it seems that Jesus knew that the cross awaited Him but we don’t know if the human part of Him knew the exact details. Even so, it’s one thing to know what lays in the future but quite another to know it is about to begin within a matter of minutes. That night in Gethsemane, God showed Jesus the cup from which He would drink and He showed it in gruesome detail. Jesus viewed the betrayal, abandonment, sham trials, mocking, beating, flogging, and suffering torture on the cross along with the jeers of the crowd and the heartbreak and tears of His mother and the other women at the foot of the cross. Had Jesus not known exactly what the next 24-hours held, He would have been no different than the lambs brought to the Temple for sacrifice. They weren’t there of their own volition and had no knowledge of what would happen to them when presented to the priest. Rather than willing sacrifices, they were victims! The Lamb of God, however, needed to know the extraordinary cup—the horrible ordeal—that lay before him because, rather than a victim, He was a willing volunteer! His anguished prayers that night, however, tell us He didn’t look forward to it.

When we look at Jesus’ prayers that last night, there’s a condition to His request to remove the cup: “if it is possible.” If there were an alternative means to accomplish God’s will, Jesus certainly would have preferred it. Knowing exactly what He was facing, the human part of Him prayed for another way and He prayed so intensely that he sweat blood! Judas and the soldiers hadn’t yet arrived and Jesus could have quietly slipped away in the night and disappeared into Jerusalem, but He didn’t! As He prayed for deliverance, He also prayed to do God’s will. Since the Son of God had come to mankind to do His Father’s will, Jesus obediently and willingly stayed in the garden and submitted to all the horror that followed.

Looking at Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane as a lesson in prayer, we see that since God the Father denied the request of His only Son, we shouldn’t expect God to agree to all we ask. C.S. Lewis says that Jesus’ unanswered prayers that night make it clear that prayer is not to be considered “a sort of infallible gimmick.” There is, however, a greater lesson in Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane.

He forthrightly asked for the horror of what lay ahead to be removed which is the sort of prayer we typically offer when a loved one lies in a coma, the doctor says “inoperable,” the bank threatens foreclosure, we face 32 more radiation treatments, or a child become addicted. We pray, “Take it away, Lord—make it all right!” That, however, is usually where we stop but Jesus didn’t stop there. After asking for our difficult cup to be removed, do we add “if it is possible,” with the understanding that God’s purpose is more important than our desire? Finally, like Jesus, do we complete our prayer by fully submitting to God’s divine plan (whether we like it or not) with the words, “I want your will to be done, not mine”? Jesus submitted, will we?

If there was not an absolute necessity of his suffering them in order to their salvation, he desired that the cup might pass from him. But if sinners, on whom he had set his love, could not, agreeably to the will of God, be saved without his drinking it, he chose that the will of God should be done. He chose to go on and endure the suffering, awful as it appeared to him. [Matthew Henry]

He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. [Luke 22:41-44 (NLT)]

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Tent Rock - New MexicoGo therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:19-20 (ESV)]

As Philip was walking down the road to Gaza, a chariot overtook him. Riding in it was the Ethiopian eunuch. Scripture tells us he’d been to Jerusalem to worship. Deuteronomy 23:1, however, stipulates that no emasculated male can be included within the Jewish religious community or allowed to enter the Temple area. Even though he’d been to Jerusalem to worship, possessed a costly sacred scroll, and hungered for God, this man who feared God and identified with Judaism wasn’t welcome. As a castrated man, he wasn’t a Jewish convert and never could hope to be.

The Spirit instructed Philip to walk beside the eunuch (who just happened to be reading aloud the words of Isaiah). While reading out loud seems strange to us, it was a common practice at the time. With no punctuation or space between the words, reading aloud aided in understanding the text. When Philip asked if the man understood what he was reading, the eunuch replied with a question of his own: “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” When Philip joined him in the chariot, the man wondered to whom Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant applied. Was Isaiah speaking of himself or someone else? Beginning with Isaiah 53 and continuing on through the scroll, Philip told him all about Jesus.

When the eunuch saw water, rather than asking to be baptized, he asked why he couldn’t be baptized. As a Jewish sympathizer, he knew that a full immersion baptism, known the tevilah, was essential for conversion to Judaism but was prohibited to him. Perhaps he expected Philip to tell him that Jesus found him as unacceptable as did Jewish law. Philip didn’t; instead, the two men immediately stopped and Philip baptized the Ethiopian man!

What do you think are the are the odds of a Greek-speaking Nubian (Greek was the language of the royal courts), who’s a follower of Judaism, reading aloud from a Jewish scroll written in Greek (the Hebrew Scriptures had been translated into Greek in the 3rd century BC) that prophesized Jesus and, at that very moment, encountering a Jewish Greek-speaking follower of Jesus from Samaria on a 50-mile stretch of road between Jerusalem and Gaza? What are the odds of them coming upon water on a “desert road” exactly when the man wants to be baptized? What are the odds of a wealthy foreign official allowing a mere commoner (one who’d been walking for several days) into his chariot? For that matter, what are the odds of the man who ran the national treasury admitting he didn’t understand a simple scroll? This, however, was a divine appointment orchestrated by God!

God took Philip 50 to 100 miles out of his way to meet someone considered unacceptable and defective under the old law and bring him to Jesus under the new one! In that one encounter, by bringing the Good News to a foreign eunuch, Philip fulfilled a prophecy found in Isaiah 56! When circumstance align perfectly, as they do in this narrative, we often attribute them to coincidence. There are, however, no coincidences in God’s plan. Both the Ethiopian and Philip may have been surprised that day, but God certainly wasn’t! He never is!

Divine appointments await us all if we are obedient to God’s leading!

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. [Isaiah 56:3-5 (NLT)]

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Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. [Acts 8:26-27 (ESV)]

firebushOnce day, the Holy Spirit told Philip to go south and then down the desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza. Although Scripture leads us to assume that Philip’s fortuitous encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch quickly followed, a look at the map tells us otherwise. At the time, Philip was in Samaria and, before he could walk the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, he had a 42-mile uphill trek south to Jerusalem before turning southwest onto the 50-mile stretch of road leading to Gaza, the southernmost of the five chief Philistine cities in southwest Palestine and the last settlement before the desert waste stretching away to Egypt. The trip to Jerusalem probably took at least two days and we don’t know how far down the Gaza Road he walked before the Apostle discovered his God-ordained task and met the treasurer of Ethiopia. In actuality, Philip was on this mission for several days before he knew why he’d been sent.

While most translations say the eunuch was from Ethiopia, he was not from the nation we know as Ethiopia. He was from a territory called Cush in the Old Testament and Nubia (meaning black) by the Romans. Present day Ethiopia (once called Abyssinia) is southeast of the ancient Nubia. This large kingdom was located in today’s southern Egypt and northern Sudan, an area considered by the Romans and Greeks to be the outer limits of the known world or “the end of the earth.” Referring to the dark skin of its inhabitants, the Greeks called any place south of Egypt Aithiopia, meaning the land of the “Burnt-Faced People.” When Wycliffe translated the Greek into English in 1382, he called this land Ethiopia and, until the late 1800s, Ethiopia was a general term referring to any of Black Africa.

The Ethiopian man was the Secretary of the Treasury/Chancellor Exchequer for Candace (Kandake in some translations). Rather than a given name, Candance was the title given to the queen mother. Her son, the king, was considered the child of the sun. As such, he was considered too holy to get involved in secular matters so the queen mother ruled the kingdom on his behalf. The Ethiopian is referred to as a eunuch because it was common in the ancient world to castrate trusted male servants in the royal household. It kept them out of the royal harem (or queen’s bed) and, since they were incapable of setting up a dynasty of their own, castration prevented them from plotting to overthrow the government.

Finally, this Philip is not the one from Bethsaida—the one who brought his friend Nathanael to Jesus and was one of the twelve apostles. This Philip is one of the seven men selected as deacons for the Jerusalem church. Following the martyrdom of Stephen and the persecution of Jesus’ followers, Scripture tells us that all the believers (“except the apostles”) fled Jerusalem and scattered. The deacon Philip went north to Samaria where he found his true calling—that of evangelist.

In Samaria, Philip “proclaimed Christ” and brought so many to believe in Jesus that “there was much joy in that city.” [Acts 8:8] Then, out of the blue, the Spirit told him to leave his thriving ministry in Samaria and start to Gaza. Did Philip question God’s reasoning? If he did, imagine his questions and the Spirit’s answers. Where exactly am I going? You don’t need to know. How will I know when I get there? I’ll tell you. What am I supposed to do? You’ll know when the time comes. How long will I be gone? As long as it takes. When do I leave? Now! We don’t know if Philip asked any of those questions but we do know that, when the Spirit said “Go!” he obeyed.

While it made no earthly sense for Philip to leave a successful ministry, it made sense to God because He’d arranged a divine appointment between Philip and the Ethiopian. God knew about the hunger for the Word of God that lay in the man’s heart and knew that Philip was the perfect choice to help fill it. People like Stephen, Peter and John brought the Gospel to Jerusalem and Judea. Philip took it to Samaria and, after he met with the Ethiopian, the Gospel would reach the last geographical sphere mentioned in the Great Commission—Ethiopia—the end of the earth!

Think of what we could do for the Lord if, like Philip, we went when the Spirit said, “Go!”

The Lord of all creation has ordained that he would do his work through us. Our seeking the Spirit’s guidance and obeying what he wants us to do and say is the way he works to bless the world. [Lloyd Ogilvie]

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. [Acts 1:8 (ESV)]

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