THE KINGDOM

One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you.” Luke 17:20-21

holy name cathedralDepending on your Bible translation, the Kingdom of God is mentioned at least 68 times in the New Testament. Rather than “Kingdom of God,” Matthew usually used “Kingdom of Heaven.” All four gospels, however, are speaking of the same place. Matthew was a Jew and primarily writing for a Jewish audience. While we tend to interpret the third commandment about not misusing the Lord’s name to mean not using it irreverently, Jews have a much stricter interpretation. Believing God’s name too sacred to say aloud, by the 1st century, His name wasn’t even written or spoken in anything but prayer. Even today, many observant Jews substitute “G-d” rather than write the full name.

Because Jesus continually preached the Kingdom of God (or Heaven), the Pharisees asked Him when it would come. Like the rest of Judah, they were thinking of a materialistic kingdom—one with boundaries and a Jewish ruler—so they missed what was happening in front of them. Looking for a political rather than a spiritual fix, they couldn’t understand that the Kingdom had arrived and God was busy restoring it.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees sounds like He’s saying the Kingdom is present and yet He also told His disciples to pray for its coming. Rather than an involved theological explanation to explain a kingdom that was both here and pending, Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed that was planted in a field but hadn’t matured into its future glory. The Kingdom was “already” because believers were taking part in building it but it also was “not yet” because it wouldn’t reach its full expression until the future. To further explain the Kingdom, Jesus used a number of metaphors: a farmer scattering seed, yeast in dough, a fishing net, a merchant in search of fine pearls, treasure in a field, a king settling his accounts, a landowner hiring workers for his vineyard, a king’s wedding feast for his son, ten bridesmaids meeting the bridegroom, and a landowner with tenant farmers. Even then, His own disciples were still thinking of an earthly kingdom when they asked the resurrected Jesus, “has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” [Acts 1:6]

The Kingdom of God is not about going to heaven when we die; it’s about bringing God’s kingdom to earth. We pray, “May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” [Matthew 6:10] God is king of everything and everyone and, when He reigns in our hearts and minds, His Kingdom is already here. At the same time, His Kingdom is not yet here until its full realization when paradise is re-created in the New Jerusalem.

The Messiah has accomplished the work of redemption, the Spirit has been poured out, yet evil has not been eradicated, the general resurrection is still future, and the final state of God’s kingdom has not been established. In other words, the new era has begun–has been inaugurated–but it has not yet replaced the old era. [Dr. Peter Cockrell]

Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” [John 18:36 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

WHAT ARE THE ODDS? (Part 3)

He [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. “Today,” he began, “this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing.” [Luke 4:20-21 (NTE)]

evening primroseIn writing about Blaise Pascal yesterday, I mentioned that he, along with Pierre de Fermat, laid the groundwork for probability theory back in 1654. I remember a school friend writing her term paper on probabilities who began by testing what’s called the “birthday paradox:” in a room of 23 people, there is a 50% chance that two people will have the same birthday and, out of 75 people, there is a 99.9% chance of two people’s birth dates matching. Imagine her surprise when the first two people she asked had the same birth date! That, of course was sheer coincidence but, if the next 30 people she asked also had the same birth date, another explanation would have been necessary.

I know nothing of permutations, exponents, or probability theory, but even I know when coincidence can’t explain the improbable. Consider the improbability of anyone fulfilling the many Messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Messiah would come from the seed of a woman (not a man) and be born of a virgin in Bethlehem. He would be from the line of Abraham, a descendant of Isaac and Jacob, of the tribe of Judah, and from the house of David. The Messiah would spend time in Egypt, would be a Nazarene, and a messenger would prepare His way. He would be a light to the Gentiles, give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, visit the Temple, and enter Jerusalem as a king on a donkey. The Messiah would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, falsely accused, and stand silent before His accusers. He’d be mocked and ridiculed, his hands and feet pierced, dice would be thrown for his clothing, and would die with the wicked but be buried with the rich.

Taking just eight of the some 300 fulfilled Messianic prophecies in Hebrew Scripture, mathematics professor Peter Stoner calculated the odds of one man fulfilling them by coincidence at 1 in 1017 (100,000,000,000,000,000). Putting those many zeros into perspective, Stoner likened it to covering the entire state of Texas with silver dollars piled 2-feet deep, placing one marked silver dollar among them, and expecting a blindfolded person to wander through the state and pick up the marked coin in his first try. Stoner then figured the odds of one man fulfilling 16 of those Messianic prophecies at 1 in 1045 and of fulfilling 48 of those prophecies at 1 in 10157, a truly mind-boggling number. Although the odds against one man fulfilling all those prophecies are astronomical, that’s exactly what Jesus did! Looking at it purely from a mathematical viewpoint, Professor Stoner concluded, “Any man who rejects Christ as the Son of God is rejecting a fact proved perhaps more absolutely than any other fact in the world.”

While probability theory proves that Jesus is the promised Messiah, intellectual assent is not quite enough when it comes to our salvation because it’s not the same as believing in Jesus. Faith is more than an acceptance of facts; it is a commitment to those facts. A profession of intellectual belief is meaningless until it makes a discernible change in us! Nevertheless, Stoner’s use of probability theory to prove Jesus is the promised Messiah helps bolster our own faith. Moreover, it enables us to defend the validity of Scripture and the truth of Jesus’ identity to those who don’t believe.

And we have the prophetic word made more certain. You will do well to hold on to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star shines in your hearts. You must know this first of all, that no scriptural prophecy is a matter of one’s own interpretation. No prophecy, you see, ever came by human will. Rather, people were moved by the holy spirit, and spoke from God. [2 Peter 1:19-21 (NTE)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE GOD-SHAPED HOLE (Part 1)

Wilson Arch - Moab UtahYet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NLT)]

Our children gave us a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas and, as I struggled to complete it, I wondered if I should thank or curse them for their gift! After staring at an opening, I’d try to find the one piece out of 1,000 that would fit. Since the puzzle’s edges were one color, I confess to a bit of pride when I completed the puzzle’s border. After assembling several sections of the interior, I ran into difficulty finding the right spots for them. Eventually, I realized why—the left side was shorter than the right! With a puzzle that large, while each piece is unique, some are nearly identical; a close fit, however, isn’t good enough and the border had to be redone. As I struggled to find the perfect fit for each opening, I thought of the phrase about everyone having a God-shaped hole that only can be filled by Him. While it doesn’t come from Scripture, the concept is Biblical and I wondered about its source.

The saying may have been inspired by Augustine of Hippo’s word from his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” As a young man, Augustine attempted to fill his restless heart with things like paganism, revelry, drunkenness, empty philosophies, idleness, and decadence. Having tried to fill that void with everything but God, Augustine still felt empty until he heard a voice say, “Take up and read.” Reaching down, he picked up the book beside him and read the first thing he saw—the words from Paul’s epistle to the Romans urging them to stop participating in “the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness…sexual promiscuity and immoral living…quarreling and jealousy,” and  to “clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.” [13:13-14] Augustine had been living the life of debauchery about which Paul warned the Romans but, in the Apostle’s words to clothe himself in Jesus, he finally knew how to fill the emptiness in his life and immediately transformed. Augustine ended up being one of the most influential voices in both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology.

Some sources wrongly attribute a quote about having a “God-shaped vacuum” in our hearts to the 17th century French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal. While close, that’s not what Pascal said. In Pensées, a book written in defense of Christianity, Pascal wrote of an “infinite abyss” that man vainly seeks to fill with things that aren’t there. Since Pascal came along more than 1,200 years after Augustine, perhaps the ancient theologian’s words influenced him.

Like Augustine, Pascal had a conversion experience but, unlike him, Pascal never led the life of a libertine. Nevertheless, shortly before having a mystical vision in what he called a “night of fire,” Pascal complained of the dissatisfaction, guilt, lack of purpose, and boredom in his life. After his vision, Pascal committed his life to Christ, left the world of science and mathematics, put his remarkable mind to work for God and, like Augustine, left his mark on Christianity.

That “God-shaped hole” is man’s innate longing for something far greater than anything found in this world. Perhaps it’s the “eternity” God plants in our hearts that keeps us from finding complete fulfillment in earthly pursuits and passions. As happened with my puzzle, we often try to fill the emptiness in our lives with pieces that don’t fit and, while some may come close, only the perfect piece works. Nothing—not fame, wealth, education, possessions, shopping, popularity, ritual, false gods, self-indulgence, or even family, can fill that God-shaped hole. As for the puzzle, I eventually gave up and returned it to the box—perhaps, someday I’ll try again. Fortunately, seeking God and fitting Him into the emptiness in our hearts is far easier!

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. [Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)]

 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14 (NLT)]

His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. Acts 17 27-28 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

MISSING THE TARGET

His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.” [Luke 15:21 (NLT)]

pearl crescent butterflyHamartia is the word most frequently used in the New Testament for sin. Originally an archery term that meant missing the target when hunting with a bow, hamartia came to mean missing or falling short of a goal, purpose or standard. In Scripture, it conveys the idea of missing God’s perfect standard of what is righteous.

Because my father frequently went bow hunting, he set up an archery range in our garage. A round straw target was surrounded by hay bales along the back wall. Covered with a colored paper target paper showing ten concentric rings of five colors, the bull’s eye was at the target’s center. When we were old enough, my father taught my brother and me how to use a bow. Only seven, I was lucky if my arrow landed in the target’s outer rings and I often missed the target entirely. Whether we’re talking of arrows or sin, it’s not always easy to hit the target. But what of those arrows that missed the mark? While mine went into the hay bales, what if those arrows were sins? What would they hit?

I pondered this question while reading the Parable of the Prodigal (or Lost) Son, a beautiful illustration of God’s grace. In this story, we tend to focus on the pardoning love of the father when he welcomes his lost son home. Since both sons in the story clearly missed the mark with their actions, let’s look at it from a different viewpoint and consider where their arrows of sin landed. Having had a prodigal child myself, I know exactly where they came to rest—deep in their father’s heart. His sons’ actions caused the father untold grief. Thinking back to that target in our garage—what if, instead of hay bales holding the target, it had been my father? Every arrow I shot that missed the target would have pierced him instead! What if, instead of arrows it had been sins and, instead of my father, it had been God?

Sin is far more than not living up to a certain divine standard. It is as much a slap in God’s face as were the younger son’s demand of his inheritance while his father was still alive and the older son’s insolence and rudeness in his refusal to attend the celebration. Sin is a personal affront to God and it grieves Him as much as it must have grieved the father in Jesus’ parable.

Sin isn’t a violation of an impersonal standard—it is a personal offense against our Father in Heaven. Our sins hurt more than ourselves and others—they hurt God because we’ve sinned against Him! Our God is a loving God of relationship, not estrangement, but every time we sin, like the sons in Jesus’ parable, we grieve Him with our rejection. The fact that our loving Father forgives us doesn’t make our sins any less painful to Him. Let us weigh carefully our actions and remember that, when an arrow we shoot misses the target, it hits something else. Don’t let it be God!

This day, my God, I hate sin not because it damns me, but because it has done Thee wrong. To have grieved my God is the worst grief to me. [Charles Spurgeon]

Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just. [Psalm 51:4 (NLT)]

And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. [Ephesians 4:30 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TOO DEFINITE FOR LANGUAGE

We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. [Galatians 2:16 (ESV)]

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. [James 2:24 (ESV)]

Siberian reindeerChristianity seems to be full of paradoxes. We’re saved by faith and not by works but we can’t have faith without works. As for grace and obedience—it’s God’s grace not our obedience that saves us. But, what initially sounds like a free pass isn’t because the saved are expected to have grace-fueled obedience! It’s easy to get confused when we read only isolated verses in Scripture. Rather than inconsistent or even contradictory concepts, however, faith, works, grace and obedience are complementary and interrelated. Perhaps some of the confusion comes from our language rather than our doctrine.

I think back to an exchange between two characters in Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. When the character Ransom is at a loss for words while trying to explain a concept, his companion says, “I realize it’s all too vague for you to put into words.” Looking at his friend sharply, Ransom replies, “On the contrary, it is words that are vague. The reason why it can’t be expressed is that it’s too definite for language.” Faith, works, grace, and obedience are so distinct and yet so interconnected in Christian doctrine that it’s a pity we don’t have a wider Christian vocabulary.

According to The Washington Post, there really are at least fifty Inuit words for snow that describe everything from a soft falling snow to a wet snow that will ice a sled’s runners. Along with having a multitude of words related to snow and ice, the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and Russia have over 1,000 words for reindeer. They have a different word for each year of a male reindeer’s life and I suspect they have one that would perfectly describe the reindeer in today’s picture. It’s done through something linguists call “polysynthesis,” which allows speakers to encode a huge amount of information into one word by plugging various suffixes onto a base word so that one word can encompass a whole sentence

Language evolves to meet the ideas and needs of the people speaking it. If the Sami people can use a single word like sietnjanjunni to describe a reindeer with the hair nearest to its nostrils having a different color than the one you’d expect from the color of the rest of its hair, we should be able to come up with something for the combined concepts of faith, works, grace, and obedience. Using a little polysynthesis, we could try for the whole shebang and come up with “faithorkobegracience,” but it still wouldn’t capture these concepts because we’re talking of something far greater than reindeer, snow, or ice.

We are finite beings trying to capture an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent being with words. No word in any language can come close to the immensity of all that is encompassed in our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith but true faith is obedient and obedient faith leads to works. Simply put, it is our obedience and works that reveal the authenticity of our faith!  We will just have to continue as we have for centuries: by having faith, doing His works, being saved by grace, remaining obedient to His commands and walking the way Jesus walked.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. … By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. [1 John 2:3,5b-6 (ESV)]

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. [James 2:18 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.