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)]

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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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WASHING THE FEET – MAUNDY THURSDAY

If any of you wants to be great, he must be your servant. If any of you wants to be first, he must be the slave of all. That’s how it is with the son of man: he didn’t come to have servants obey him, but to be a servant – and to give his life as “a ransom for many.” [Matthew 20:26b-28 (NTE)]

tri-colored heronWhile the accounts of the anointing of Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8 are similar, they are different events and different people were involved. Luke tells of an unnamed woman and John tells of Mary of Bethany. Although both women wiped Jesus’ feet with their hair, the unnamed woman, a notorious sinner, was an uninvited and unwelcome guest in the Pharisee’s home. Mary was a well-respected and devout friend of Jesus and welcome in her sister’s house. Pharisees were present at one and Christ’s disciples at the other. Where the Pharisees saw a sinful woman’s bad character, Jesus only saw a repentant sinner. Where the disciples saw an extravagant waste of money, Jesus saw a woman who offered a gift of love. He defended one woman’s actions by pointing out that she’d done what His host had failed to do. He defended the other woman’s extravagance by reminding his disciples that she was preparing Him for burial.

They were different times and different places but both women humbled themselves at Jesus’ feet. Both women took on a job that belonged to servants and, while most people chased after Jesus because they wanted something from him, neither woman asked anything of Him. Instead, they offered all they had. One woman’s old life died as she washed His feet and the other woman’s brother, who died, now lived. Their generous acts declared the women’s faith in Jesus as the Messiah. We may come to Jesus as a repentant sinner or we may come to him with praise and thanksgiving but, like both of these women, we must always come with a humble heart that is ready to serve.

The most radical act of humility and service, however, occurred shortly after the disciples argued over who among them was the greatest. That night, in the room where they’d gathered for their Passover meal, Jesus (the greatest of them all) knelt at the feet of His disciples. Knowing full well that soon one of them would betray Him, another would deny him, and all would desert him, Jesus humbly washed their feet. That was God incarnate kneeling in front of them and washing their feet but we don’t read of any of the disciples offering to wash His!

Today is Maundy Thursday and several Christian denominations will have communion services in remembrance of that last supper. As a visual reminder that loving Christ means service and there is dignity in serving others, some churches also will observe a religious rite called Washing of the Feet. As members of the Body of Christ, we are to follow His example by serving one another in humility and love. Like the unnamed woman, Mary of Bethany, and Jesus, we must have the heart of a servant.

One of the principal rules of religion is, to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbour; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us. [John Wesley]

“Do you know what I’ve done to you?” he asked. “You call me ‘teacher,’ and ‘master,’ and you’re right. That’s what I am. Well, then: if I, as your master and teacher, washed your feet just now, you should wash each other’s feet. I’ve given you a pattern, so that you can do things in the same way that I did to you.” [John 13:12-15 (NTE)]

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BUT THERE’S A DRESS CODE! (Matthew 22:1-14 – part 2)

And he said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, and the guests I invited aren’t worthy of the honor. Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.” So the servants brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the banquet hall was filled with guests. [Matthew 22:8-10 (NLT)]

mute swanIn Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Dinner, after the initial guests refused to come, the king’s servants invited everyone they could find. Since it was a royal wedding, you’d expect the new guests to be dignitaries but everyone was to be called—regardless of social standing, race, nationality, wealth, or even moral character.

What seems like a beautiful example of God’s grace takes a turn when we learn that the king seems to have set a condition—a wedding garment must be worn. When I’m going to a wedding, it takes days (and probably a shopping trip or two) to put together the proper apparel and this was a royal wedding! People came from all walks of life and, with little time to prepare or purchase fancy clothing, we’re surprised when the king notices a man not wearing wedding clothes. Confronting the guest, the king asks how he could be there without proper attire. When the man has no reply, the king has him bound and cast into “the outer darkness.”

It’s easy to think the host’s problem is that the man is poor and has only rags to wear but the host’s anger seems so unlike Jesus that I was troubled by this part of His story. Scripture, however, never says the man was poor or dressed in tattered clothing and the speechless man, by never explaining himself or even asking how to get such a garment, seems to know he doesn’t belong at the feast.

By eating with sinners, touching lepers, healing on the Sabbath, and talking theology with a Samaritan woman, Jesus never seemed overly concerned with propriety or etiquette so it’s hard to think He took much notice of clothing. Some commentators speculate that the king must have furnished all of his guests with suitable apparel and that the man slighted the king by refusing to wear it. While it makes for a convenient explanation, there is no evidence of this being a Jewish custom so I’m not sure Jesus’ listeners would have understood it that way. Then again, perhaps “proper clothes” shouldn’t be taken too literally!

Rather than fabric and jewelry, could the wedding garment be the righteousness of Christ? By accepting the invitation, the evicted guest professed his belief, but the absence of a wedding garment testified to the falseness of his profession. A wedding garment would be the evidence of salvation—a way of life showing rebirth, repentance, and the works of righteousness. If we want to enjoy the feast, lip service is not enough; we must be righteous in character!

Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” [22:14] God will not have an empty banquet hall and His invitation has been extended to all. He will, however, reject those who refuse His offer (as did the first invitees) along with those who are false in their acceptance (as was the man without the wedding garment.)

When sinners come in repentance, trusting in Christ, then He clothes them with the garment of salvation, with the robe of righteousness. This is the wedding garment that makes one presentable at the marriage supper. [Harry Ironside]

Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.  [Matthew 7:21 (NLT)]

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? …  Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works. [James 2:14,26 (NLT)]

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THE PARTY HAS STARTED (Matthew 22:1-14 – part 1) 

The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a king who prepared a great wedding feast for his son. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servants to notify those who were invited. But they all refused to come! [Matthew 22:2-3 (NLT)]

canna - bandana of the evergladesIn explaining the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus told a parable about a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son. Weddings are notable events but this was a royal wedding of great significance! Perhaps the most famous royal wedding was that of Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1981. Broadcast all over the world, the wedding was viewed by 750 million people and 3,500 people attended the royal nuptials. In spite of the honor it was to receive an invitation from the Queen, not everyone who got one attended the festivities. The Presidents of the Republic of Ireland and Greece along with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain spurned the invitation for political reasons.

News of the royal wedding in Jesus’ parable would have spread all over the land and the guests already had received and accepted the first invitation (the 1st Century equivalent of a “save the date” card). When the feast was prepared, the king sent his servants to notify his guests that all was ready and the time had come. Unlike the few people who declined Queen Elizabeth’s invite, everyone invited by the king refused to attend: an inexcusable affront to the monarch. Nevertheless, in spite of his people’s deplorable behavior, the king was patient and sent out a third invitation.

A king’s invitation is more of a command than a request, but the people ignored his messengers; some were even abused or killed. When the people’s behavior went from insult to outright rebellion, the king reacted as would any king: by sending soldiers to kill the murderers and burn their town. With the wedding feast prepared but no guests, the king sent his messengers out to invite everyone they could find (both good and bad) until the banquet hall was filled.

Up to this point, the parable isn’t hard to understand. The marriage feast is the Messianic reign—the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God since the two terms were synonymous). The King (God) had sent his messengers (the prophets, including John the Baptist) to invite His people (the Jews) to the wedding feast for His son (the Messiah). Since the original guests rejected His invitation, God extended his invitation to everyone (both good and bad Gentiles). His servants (the Apostles) would bring them into the banquet hall. The punishment of those who abused and killed his messengers along with the promised destruction and burning of their town points to Jerusalem’s fall and the destruction and burning of the Temple (the center of Judaism) by the Romans in 70 AD.

Matthew placed this parable immediately after the Parable of the Evil Farmers in which Jesus warned, “I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit.” [21:43] This parable expands on that theme. For centuries, the Jewish people had been invited to the Messianic feast, but they were showing contempt for God’s grace by their refusal to attend.

When Luke relates a somewhat similar parable about a feast, we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus taught for three years and, like any good teacher, probably repeated Himself from time to time. Both versions made it clear that, even if the initial guests refused to come, God’s plan would not be stopped. His Son would have a people who would enjoy the benefits of the Kingdom! The parable in Matthew’s gospel, however, carries an unmistakable message with its description of the king’s punishment. The parable then takes an unexpected twist. Just when it seems that all were welcome at the King’s banquet, not everyone who came was allowed to stay. More about that tomorrow!

The servant returned and told his master what they had said. His master was furious and said, “Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” After the servant had done this, he reported, “There is still room for more.” So his master said, “Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full. For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.” [Luke 14:21-25 (NLT)]

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THE WAGER (Part 2)

They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. [Romans 1:20 (NLT)]

sandhill craneIn researching yesterday’s devotion, I learned some interesting things about Blaise Pascal. Along with building the first digital calculator (c. 1642), he invented the syringe, created the hydraulic press, and, along with Pierre de Fermat, formulated the fundamental principles of probability theory.

It was when reading about Pascal’s Pensées, a compilation of notes and essays about Christian apologetics, that I saw mention of “Pascal’s Wager.” Curious as to what gambling and Christianity had in common, I read on. Perhaps it was Pascal’s interest in probabilities that led him to present the choice between belief and disbelief in God as a coin toss but, instead of betting on heads or tails, the bet is about God’s existence. After pointing out that making a wager is not optional, he asked how we’d bet. In mathematical terms, Pascal explains that, if God exists, and you bet that He does, you have infinite gain (eternal life) but, if you bet He doesn’t, you have infinite loss (loss of paradise and an eternity in hell). If, however, God doesn’t exist and you bet that He does, you lose nothing and, if you win, you gain nothing. Simply put, a winning bet on God pays off far better than a winning bet against Him and, if the bettor happens to be wrong, the one who’s bet against God has far more to lose than the one who’s bet on God.

If it should turn out that God doesn’t exist, Pascal says to the one who made a losing bet on Him: “Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.”

Summarizing, Pascal says: “According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost. ‘But,’ say you, ‘if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.’ He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it.”

Pascal’s wager does not prove the existence of God and wasn’t intended to do so; it simply tells us that belief in God is the best choice! There are, however, valid Christian criticisms of Pascal’s Wager. True faith doesn’t come from probability theory or a cost/benefit analysis; it comes from being born again. Pascal’s Wager seems to base belief in God on a risk and reward system that speaks of a heavenly reward without mentioning loving Jesus, obedience, or bearing fruit. His wager also fails to mention that there actually is a cost to following Jesus—one that is not always easy to pay. Whether we’re betting or choosing, the one thing about which we can’t argue is Pascal’s very first premise—the choice is not optional. We cannot sit this one out, the consequences are eternal, and the stakes are high.

Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists. [Blaise Pascal]

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, 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 and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? [Mark 8:34-37 (NLT)]

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