AN ABOUT FACE

I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law.  I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. [Philippians 3:5-6 (NLT)]

In writing about change yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of the Apostle Paul. He knew firsthand of God’s transforming power. When we first meet Paul, he’s going by his Hebrew name of Saul and looking on as Stephen (the first of Christ’s followers to give his life for the gospel) is stoned to death.

The slaying of Stephen led to a wave of persecution and Saul relentlessly went from house to house in search of Jesus’s followers so he could drag them off to prison. Full of religious zeal and eager to kill those who followed the Way, Saul asked the high priest for permission to go to Damascus so he could arrest Christ’s followers and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains. In short, Saul was brutal and violent and little more than a religious terrorist! It is on the road to Damascus, however, that Saul meets the risen Christ and has his amazing conversion [Acts 9]. Meeting Jesus face-to-face, being struck blind for three days, having Ananias lay hands on him, scales falling from his eyes, and Saul’s baptism make for a powerful story of redemption and truly testify that no person is beyond the saving grace of the Lord.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard and, as I wrote yesterday’s devotion, I wondered if Saul struggled as this once fanatical persecutor of Christians transformed into the great Christian evangelist. As a second-generation Pharisee, he thought of himself as a member of an elite group and anything foreign would have been detested. Wanting to keep himself free of any impurity, the old Saul would never associate with Gentiles or even any Jews who interpreted the law differently. Yet, the man who abhorred anyone different from him preached all over the Roman Empire, stressed unity between Jewish and Gentile believers, and became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles!

As a Pharisee, Saul had been meticulous to the point of obsession about obedience to both the written and oral Law. Yet, in an about face, he maintained that Jewish Christians no longer had to abide by those same regulations and that Gentile converts didn’t have to become Jews before becoming Christians. Understanding that it was the Holy Spirit rather than the Law that empowered holy living, Saul changed from thinking that strict obedience to the Law would make us right with God to knowing that we are only made right by grace through faith in Jesus.

Nevertheless, until meeting Jesus on the way to Damascus, Saul’s life had been wrapped around strict adherence to the Law. Did he have difficulty letting go of Pharisaic traditions like their elaborate hand washing ritual before meals, the conspicuous wearing of phylacteries and tassels, or fasting twice a week? Did the Jew who’d grown up loathing Gentiles cringe when he first sat down to eat with them? Until now, I hadn’t considered how difficult it had to have been for the Pharisee to become the Apostle. The man who wrote that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person” [2 Corinthians 5:17] knew firsthand the truth of his statement. It is in his transformation that we see the power of Jesus to revolutionize a life! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the persecutor of Christians became a preacher for Christ!

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. [Philippians 3:8-9 (NLT)]

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TWO IN ONE

For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. [Colossians 2:9 (NLT)]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

white ibisThe early church encountered difficulty in trying to reconcile the humanity and divinity of Jesus. In the 5th century, one group, from Alexandria, referred to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God, while the group from Antioch insisted that she was merely Anthropotokos, the one who gave birth to the human nature. Trying to bring about a compromise but pleasing no one, the bishop Nestorius suggested that the term Christotokos, the one who gave birth to Christ. The controversy, however, wasn’t about Mary; it was about the nature of Jesus. Did Mary give birth to a man who also was God or did Mary give birth to a man who later became God? The debate continued until 451 when the Chalcedonian Creed was adopted which confirmed the two natures of Christ (human and divine) in one person.

Creed or not, two natures in one being is a difficult concept to grasp. Infinite, God always has been and always will be, but the man Jesus had a beginning in Bethlehem and an end in Jerusalem. God is omnipresent but, when the boy Jesus was at the Temple, He couldn’t also be with his family on the way back to Nazareth, let alone everywhere at once. God is omnipotent but Jesus wasn’t all-powerful. He grew tired, thirsty and hungry, had to walk from village to village, and was cruelly crucified. God is immutable, meaning He never changes, but Jesus started as an embryo and matured into a grown man. He went from babbling to talking and from crawling to walking. His features changed as He lost his baby teeth and got molars and His voice deepened during adolescence. Self-sufficient, God has no needs but we know that baby Jesus needed to be fed, bathed, rocked and dressed. God never sleeps but we know Jesus did. God is omniscient; He sees and knows all but Jesus didn’t know the date of the End Times and, when the woman with the blood disorder touched his robe, He had to ask who touched him. Surely, as a little boy He asked Mary, “Why?”

Nevertheless, Jesus wasn’t two people; from the moment of His conception, He had two distinct natures perfectly united into one being. Inseparable, neither nature was diluted by the other. Jesus was fully man and, at the same time, fully God. Because our thinking is limited by the rules of this world as we know them, we can’t truly comprehend how He could be neither one nor the other but fully both in one body. How can finite man ever understand an infinite God? Nevertheless, we’re called to believe what we can neither imagine nor comprehend.

Can you conceive of anything more awesome than a God who chose to become man, who combined His divinity with our humanity, who connected with man by becoming one of us and yet remained God, who loved us so much that He took on our nature and died for our salvation? Thank you, Jesus!

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 (NLT)]

We all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood;… [Chalcedonian Creed]

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ICONS AND IDOLS

Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.” [1 Samuel 4:3b (NLT)]

Madonna and child - NetherlandsSorting through cabinets, I came across a video of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As I recall, archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones was authorized by the government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s Nazis could obtain its supernatural powers and dominate the world. Indiana was told that the Bible speaks of the Ark’s power to level mountains, lay waste to entire regions, and that any army carrying the Ark is invincible.

The only other Indiana Jones movie I remember is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Like its predecessor, it had equally poor Biblical history and theology. Indiana again found himself up against the Nazis when his father disappeared while pursuing the Holy Grail (the cup from the Last Supper). Since drinking water from the chalice would grant immortality, the Nazis wanted to possess it.

Of course, we should never get our religious education from popular movies. As for an army being invincible when carrying the Ark, the opposite actually happened. Thinking God’s power was in the Ark, the Israelites carried it into battle and were defeated by the Philistines; 30,000 of their soldiers died and the Ark was captured. As for drinking from the Holy Grail, the disciples all drank from it and they all died. Belief in Jesus is the only way to gain eternal life.

While it seems silly to think that merely possessing the real Ark would bring world domination or that drinking water from a cup used by Jesus would bring immortality, the Israelites made the same mistake of venerating some of God’s things rather than God. Instead of reminding them who to worship, objects like the bronze serpent became what was worshipped. When approaching Canaan for the second time, the impatient Israelites spoke against God and Moses. In judgment, God sent poisonous serpents into their camp. As people began to die, the people confessed their sin, and begged for mercy. God then commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent, telling him that all who looked at it would be healed. The Bible makes no more mention of Moses’ bronze serpent until some 700 years later when King Hezekiah began to rule Judah. When he eradicated idolatry throughout the country, Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent because people had started to worship it rather than God. Instead of being a symbol of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and healing, the bronze serpent became an idol.

Power comes from God, not from things. Central to the Israelites’ faith, the Ark was a sign of God’s covenant with them. Even though it symbolized a holy pledge, the Ark was no more worthy of worship than a rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant with Noah. Although it contained precious relics, it had no more power than does my jewelry box. The Holy Grail had no more power than my coffee cup and the bronze serpent possessed no more power than the bandage on my knee.

None of those items were graven images nor were they made to be idols and yet people turned them into objects of worship. While we have no ancient artifacts tempting us, let us never make the error of turning respect for a religious symbol into the worship of it. While worthy of reverence, the cross in the sanctuary or on the chain around one’s neck, the Communion chalice, a statue of Mary or picture of Jesus, dried palms from Palm Sunday, or a mezuzah at the doorway have no more power than a rabbit’s foot or a lucky penny. While they may aid in prayer or worship, salvation comes from God—not from any of His things!

You must not have any other god but me. [Exodus 20:3 (NLT)]

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WHY MIRACLES?

“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus replied, “I have already told you, and you don’t believe me. The proof is the work I do in my Father’s name. … Why do you call it blasphemy when I say, ‘I am the Son of God’? After all, the Father set me apart and sent me into the world. Don’t believe me unless I carry out my Father’s work. But if I do his work, believe in the evidence of the miraculous works I have done, even if you don’t believe me. Then you will know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.” [John 10: 24b-25, 36-38 (NLT)]

glossy ibisAfter driving out an evil spirit from a man in Capernaum, Jesus went to the home of Andrew and Peter. When He learned that Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever, Jesus went to her bedside, took her hand, helped her up, and the fever was gone. Having shown his authority over both demon possession and physical disease that day, reports of His ability circulated throughout town. That evening, a crowd gathered wanting to be healed by Jesus.

Early the next morning, Jesus went off by himself to pray. As word of His power spread, more people desirous of healing gathered around Peter’s house. Wanting to bring Jesus back to town to continue His healing ministry, the disciples searched for Him. Rather than return to Capernaum, however, Jesus informed the disciples that they needed to go elsewhere to preach to other people, explaining, “That is why I came.” [Mark 1:38]

Jesus fed the hungry, cast out demons, gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, brought healing to the sick, and even raised the dead, but those miracles were secondary to His real purpose. Miracle-making was merely a sign of His authority as the Messiah. While our lives are far better with Jesus, His purpose was not to make our lives painless, simpler or free from trouble.

Although many were healed by Him, Jesus’s ministry was not one of physical healing but one of spiritual healing and salvation. His purpose was not to repair bodies but to fix souls. He explained it best Himself when He told Nicodemus that God sent His son to save the world. In response to the repentance of the corrupt Zacchaeus, Jesus told the crowd: “The Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” When Jesus disclosed to the disciples that He’d come to give His life as a ransom for many, He never said He’d come to make our lives easier with miracles. Jesus came to change the world and save our lives!

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” [John 14:6 (NLT)]

Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true. [John 18:37 (NLT)]

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SHUT THE DOOR (Elisha – 5)

And Elisha said, “Borrow as many empty jars as you can from your friends and neighbors. Then go into your house with your sons and shut the door behind you. Pour olive oil from your flask into the jars, setting each one aside when it is filled. [2 Kings 4:3-4 (NLT)]

naples doorwayHer neighbors probably thought she’d lost her mind when she sent her boys out to ask for empty containers. Shutting the door certainly kept out the creditors, naysayers, and doubters along with any talk of unbelief that could hinder the widow’s faith. That closed door shut out interruptions, distractions, anxieties, and whatever else that might have kept the widow from focusing on God. Because that shut door even kept out Elisha, there was no mistaking who was responsible for the flowing oil: God!

Not every miracle is meant to be as public and impressive as the parting of the Red Sea. With the door open, once others saw what was happening, they even may have brought their own jars to cash in on the widow’s seemingly unlimited supply of oil. The closed door meant that, rather than a public display of God’s power, this miracle was to be a private demonstration of God’s mercy and grace. There are many other private miracles throughout Scripture. When Elisha restored the Shunammite woman’s son to life, he did it behind closed doors. Elijah’s resurrection of the widow from Zarephath’s son also was done privately and only Peter, James and John witnessed Jesus’s resurrection of Jairus’s daughter. Many miracles, like Jesus’s healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman or the Roman officer’s servant were done from a distance with no witnesses. While these instances of God’s miraculous provision and healing eventually became known far and wide (we still read of them today), at the time, they were a personal matter of one person’s faith and God’s amazing power.

Because it cut out other options, shutting the door showed the widow’s total trust in God. Leaving the door open would have implied that she wasn’t quite sure about Elisha’s promise. With an open door, once she saw the oil pouring, the woman could have sent her boys out for more jars; something tells me that the oil would have stopped flowing the moment she did. After the door was closed, the number of jars indicated her faith. Shutting the door meant she’d shut the door on other people and other options. Having opened her life to God, she was all in and committed to Him.

Do we truly trust God’s provision? When He calls us to do something, are we all in? Do we ignore the skeptics and pessimists? Do we focus on God or our fears? Do we give God credit for our blessings or do we tend to chalk them up to coincidence or good fortune. Do we trust in God even when what He tells us to do seems impractical or implausible? Do we put all of our faith in God or do we rely on ourselves and keep a backup plan handy? Peter certainly shut the door when (without a life-jacket) he stepped out of that boat onto the water!

I guess it comes right back to Monday’s message, “Any Bridges to Burn?” The widow trusted God enough to shut the door on her neighbors and any other options and Elisha trusted God enough to shut the door by burning his plow and cooking his oxen. Having faith is believing that God will do what He says He will. Do we have enough faith to shut the door?

Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. [Hebrews 11:1 (NLT)]

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. [[Jeremiah 17:7 (NLT)]

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WHAT DO YOU HAVE? (Elisha – 4)

“What can I do to help you?” Elisha asked. “Tell me, what do you have in the house?”
“Nothing at all, except a flask of olive oil,” she replied. [2 Kings 4:2 (NLT)]

swamp lilyRemembering that Elisha burned both plow and oxen to become an itinerate prophet for the Lord, let’s rethink the way he may have said “What can I do to help you?” With no home or money and possessing only what he could carry, how does the widow expect him to help? In the very next sentence, however, Elisha tells her to take stock of what she already has. Although she expected Elisha to solve her problem, he showed her how to solve it herself (with God’s help, of course). As it turned out, with a little work on her part and God’s intervention, the little she had was more than enough; she didn’t just pay her debts, she had money left over.

When God asked Moses what he had in his hand, the man thought his staff was just a piece of wood. When presented to God, however, that staff became a snake, brought forth Egypt’s plagues, parted the Red Sea, and made water spring from a rock. When offered to Jesus, six empty stone jars were filled with vintage wine. When offered to God’s prophet, another poor widow’s resources of only a little flour and few drops of oil were enough to feed three people for three years! When surrounded by hungry crowds, Jesus asked His disciples, “How many loaves do you have?” After taking stock of their resources and being blessed by the Lord, they had enough to feed a multitude.

What has God given you? The widow didn’t think she had enough but, in God’s hands, it became more than enough. If a small flask of oil can turn into gallons, think of what God can do with our resources (whether money, time, possessions, skills, experience, influence, or talent) if only we offer them to Him. Consider what God did with twelve Jewish men, ordinary people just like us, when they offered themselves to the Lord! When we take a step of faith and willingly offer what little we have to God, He will use it, sometimes in supernatural ways, but always in wonderful ones.

Elisha asked the widow, “What do you have?” God asks us the same question.

Trust God for great things; with your five loaves and two fishes, he will show you a way to feed thousands. [Horace Bushnell]

When I fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread, how many baskets of leftovers did you pick up afterward?” “Twelve,” they said. “And when I fed the 4,000 with seven loaves, how many large baskets of leftovers did you pick up?” “Seven,” they said. [Mark 8:19-20 (NLT)]

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