Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed!"

[Originally published on Easter, 2014]

I've actually been to this tomb in Israel many times--a rolling stone tomb along the road that is probably the closest we
will get to a good representation of what Jesus' empty tomb would have looked like.
A very well known "cutting edge" Christian famous for his iconoclastic life and writings wrote a book a number of years ago that was every "wanna be cutting edge" Christian's favorite book. In it, the writer echoed one of his mentors in saying that the beauty of the teachings of Jesus is so great, and the power of his instruction so overpowering, that even if the whole story of Jesus wasn't true, and there was no heaven ahead, he would still want to be a Christian because of these qualities.

At that point as I was reading the book, I threw it across the room.

Why? Because that is what Paul the apostle would have done.

Actually he says, in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Christ is not, really and truly, raised from the dead, we Christians are "most to be pitied." That is Bible talk for "losers," "idiots," or just about any term of derision and foolishness you would want to pin on us. Why, Paul says, would we go through all the self-denial, the enduring of wrongs in hopes that they will be made right some day, the offending of others, and who knows what else, if this whole matter of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus isn't real?  Good question! 

Christianity, thankfully, is not just a self improvement program because, let's face it, even if I improve myself to my highest potential, I am still falling short of God's glory, still selfish, still thinking more about myself than I should, only now I'd just have more about me to brag and think highly about. And I can't save myself from myself--from my sinfulness. 

Christianity is about resurrection, not just reformation. It is not just weak becoming strong, but dead coming to life. The resurrection of Jesus figured much more prominently in the apostles' preaching in Acts than it often does in our thinking. We focus on his death--a vital focus to be sure. But they loved to proclaim his resurrection--his power over death, and the guarantee of right standing before God forever in his presence. His death, without the resurrection, gave his followers only grief. They didn't think about how noble it was, or even of it as a possible appeasement of God's wrath. Only the resurrection made it real to them.

And it keeps making it real to us. He is risen. He's alive, now and forevermore. And as he ascended into heaven the message of the angels at that event was the same as he had been giving--he is coming back!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Saturday of Holy Week

[This is the seventh and final post in a series on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]

Theme: Waiting
Text: Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56; Matt. 27:62-65

The records of what happened on the day between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are brief.  Nothing is reported about the disciples--we can only gather from the lack of faith demonstrated later that they were not confidently expecting Jesus' words about rising again to come to pass.  

The women who wanted to care for Jesus' body ran out of time on Friday to complete their preparations: the tomb was closed while they went home and rested for the Sabbath as required by Jewish Law.  Saturday night was spent getting the final supplies and preparing to go to the tomb the next day--wondering how they would move that stone.

But the enemies of Jesus were disturbed.  They knew that Jesus had said He would rise.  So they went to Pilate to ask for guards to be sent to the tomb to keep his disciples from stealing the tomb.  Obviously these Jewish opponents of Jesus feared the power of Jesus to motivate his disciples, even if they didn't believe in resurrection.

Sometimes those who don't believe in Jesus have a clearer understanding of what Jesus words can mean than do His own disciples.  Maybe that's why so many efforts are made to keep people from hearing or reading God's Word.

Thank God that the despair and dejection of that Saturday never need be faced by any of Jesus' followers again, for less than 24 hours later, Jesus would emerge from the tomb and the question of whether or not He was Messiah and His sacrifice sufficient would have been forever settled.  

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Friday of Holy Week

[This is the sixth post in a series on Jesus' passion week, first posted in 2012.]


Text: John 18:28-38
Theme: Truth


There is so much more to be said about the day of Jesus' death than I can even mention in this format, but let me simply point out one moment.  It is Jesus, standing before Pilate, questioning him and having Jesus answer with questions and hard sayings.


"Are you king of the Jews?" asks Pilate.


"Do you say this on your own, or did others say it about me?"


"Am I a Jew? Your nation has delivered you over..." Pilate responds.  "What have you done?"


"My kingdom is not of this world..."


"So, you are a king!"


"For this purpose I was born," said Jesus, "to bear witness to the truth."


It is at this moment, as Ravi Zacharias first pointed out in a sermon I heard, that a huge opportunity is presented and missed.


Pilate responds to Jesus' statement by asking, "What is truth?"


But instead of waiting for Jesus to respond, he turns and goes outside.


Pilate was a skeptic, who didn't believe there was truth to guide you: there was only opportunities to be snatched or missed, and circumstances to be controlled or else have them control you.


Imagine if he had waited.  At every moment in this dialog, Jesus had responded.  But here, Pilate doesn't wait for a response.  If he had, what would Jesus have said?  Would it have mattered?  It would not have changed the outcome as Christ's sacrifice was not optional, but might have begun a change in Pilate.  We can never know.


On this Good Friday, many will not know what the day is about.  Many others will recognize an historical event, but not seek to know the truth of what happened and why.


May your Good Friday be one where you know what happened, and why it happened, and that it happened all for you.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Thursday of Holy Week

[This is the fifth post on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]

Text: John 13:1-17:26
Theme: New Commandment


Our text today is a long one, but that is because it was so important that John dedicates almost 20% of his gospel to the account of the last supper in the upper room.  Why so much time here?

There were, it is true, many poignant moments.  The passage begins by stressing Jesus' unfailing love for His disciples, right to the very end.  And it concludes with a prayer that reflects that love.  He taught them humility by washing their feet, and told them that those who know him are "clean."  He explained that He was the vine and we are the branches, taught on our future dwelling in His Father's house, and He instituted the Lord's Supper.  He revealed His betrayer, and He promised the Holy Spirit to us.  All of this took place in the course of a supper, which the other gospels identify as a Passover meal.

But something we sometimes miss is that Jesus, having earlier this week summarized the whole Law in two commandments, now offers a third to be kept by His disciples.  The two summary commandments we may remember:
  1. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37)
  2. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt. 22:39)
Now, Jesus offers #3, calling it "a new commandment," and requiring it as a proof that we are His followers:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have love you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35)
Who does the loving here?  His disciples.  And who are they to love?  One another--the rest of the disciples, or what we call Christ's Body, the Church.

If we read this passage from the standpoint of Jesus' love for us and His desire for us to love each other deeply, it takes on a powerful new meaning.  He washes disciples' feet because He loves us, and He wants us to wash each others' feet because we love each other.  We draw life from Christ the true vine, but we share in that life together.  The Spirit will come because Jesus loves us, but He comes to us, collectively, binding us together even as He binds us to Christ.

Further, if we take Jesus' three commands as the summary of what He wants us to become as His grace transforms us, it looks like this:

  1. We love God supremely, with everything we are and have.
  2. We love others humbly, putting their needs on equal footing with ours
  3. We love the Church sacrificially, putting our collective good ahead of individual desires
This is what Jesus modeled in the Upper Room, and even more powerfully in the Garden and on the Cross.
Pray today that we will fulfill this high and holy calling.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Wednesday of Holy Week

[This is the fourth post in a series on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]
Text: Matthew 26:14-16
Theme:  Betrayal and fake faith

Wednesday during the Passion Week has been difficult for commentators to deal with, because while other days are specifically noted through entering and leaving Jerusalem, or the relation of the day to Passover, or some other detail as to what Jesus did.  As Sherlock Holmes would say, "When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" (Doyle, 91).  Now if we can assign all of Jesus' other recorded activities to other days, then the conclusion is that Jesus spent Wednesday in private fellowship with the disciples and the family of Simon the Leper: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, in Bethany.  The next day would be the second most painful of his life.

But that doesn't mean everyone was idle.  Only on a day when everyone was left to themselves would Judas have the freedom to make a quick trip (probably less than a 30 minute walk) to the Temple precincts where he could arrange to betray Jesus.

The actions of Judas are epic in scope, and have led to all sorts of speculation.  How could one who had seen all he had seen come to such a point?  There had been no mistreatment by Jesus or the disciples--he had even been made treasurer of the group (Jn. 12:6).  Some have thought he had tried to orchestrate a move that would force Jesus to act against Rome.  More liberal scholars have even suggested that he acted with Jesus' covert blessing to bring things to a head.  And others have suggested that after discovering that Jesus would not fight Rome for independence, he had become disenchanted and disgusted.

Ultimately, we don't know his lesser motivations.  But Jesus offers a number of clues.  Here is a list of what He, John, and Matthew have told us about Judas:

  • Judas was not "clean"--cleansed from his sin.  "You [the disciples] are clean, but not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, "Not all of you are clean." John 13:10-11
  • Judas was led by Satan--"...the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray [Jesus]" John 13:2
  • Judas was "the son of destruction" who is specifically said to be "lost" John 17:12
  • Judas was "a devil" John 6:70
  • Judas was a thief  John 12:6
  • Judas' sorrow over betraying innocent blood lacks any expression of repentance toward God or toward Jesus  Matt. 27:4-5
If we simply take what the Scripture says, we must conclude that Judas was, from the beginning, a fake.  He was known from the beginning by Jesus as the one who would betray Him.  His only comments recorded are lies--whether about Mary's expensive ointment for Jesus, or denying that he was the betrayer, or greeting the Lord with a kiss.

But he was a good faker.  None of the rest of the twelve knew he was the betrayer until he did the deed.  Even when he left the upper room, they thought he was on a mission for Jesus.

Such fakers are still among us.  God, by his grace, will open the eyes of some of them (or you, if you are a faker reading this--and this may be His warning to you to repent).  Others will continue to deceive everyone else until they do something to reveal their loyalty, or maybe they will go to the grave deceiving us, and be exposed only at the Judgment.  They may even join the chorus of those crying out, "Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name (Judas did), and cast out demons (Judas did), and do many might works in your name (Judas did)"(Matt 7:22).

And they will hear what Judas will hear, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness."

Faking faith is deadly, and it can't succeed before the one Judge who matters.  

Let's pray that God opens the eyes and hearts of fakers we may know (even if we don't know they are fakers).  And perhaps we might need to ask the Lord Jesus the question even his true followers asked that next night when he told them betrayal was coming, "Lord, it's not me, is it?  I'm not faking, am I?"

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Tuesday of Holy Week

Jesus and his disciples at the Temple
[This is the third post on the week of Jesus' passion, which I first posted in 2012.]

Text: Mark 11:19-13:37 (Matt. 21:19b-25:46)
Theme: Teaching

On way back into Jerusalem Tuesday morning, the disciples see the cursed fig tree has died, from the roots, so it couldn't have been a killer frost, bug, or blight.  They are amazed, but Jesus tells them that faith in Him enables followers to see huge problems or barriers (which is what mountains often symbolized) moved aside--and of course the biggest barrier we all face is that between us and our Holy God.  

Arriving in the Temple courts, Jesus spends his entire day facing tricky questions and teaching difficult truths.  His enemies try and trap Him in His words, but He not only escapes, but ties them up in theological knots.  He points out their ambivalence toward John the Baptist, shows the difference between saying we will obey authority and actually obeying it--an attitude his opponents clearly manifested toward God's powerful Word through Jesus.  He exposes Pharisees and Sadducees as having faulty theology, summarizes the whole Law in the two great commandments, and raises the thorny issue that the Bible says that David's Lord was also David's son.  He pronounces woes on scribes and Pharisees, laments over Jerusalem (once again quoting Ps. 118:26 as needing to happen again before the city sees Him for who He is--something yet to occur), and takes time to praise a poor widow's generous heart.  Finally, He spends a great deal of time with the disciples teaching on events surrounding the destruction of the Temple, the signs of His coming at the end of the age, and what the kingdom's coming will be like.  As Jesus left the Temple and the city, He was not only teaching about its future destruction, He was leaving it for the last time of his own accord.  His next departure would be on Good Friday, carrying a cross.

Jesus' teaching in one day encompasses a full course of theological study!  I wish I could have been there taking copious notes, but then all I would have is what the Bible gives me.  I'd want to ask questions!!!  There is so much still for me to learn.

That may be why this one day has chapters dedicated to it--and I hope that you might take the time to read them, or at least one of the sets of text listed above.  Jesus had much to say that we needed to hear.  We still do.  Today, as we reflect on all that Jesus said for our benefit, let's pray and ask the Spirit of God to drive us to see our need of the Word of God to instruct us, and to cause in us a craving for the pure milk we find in that precious Word.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Monday of Holy Week

[This is the second in a series of posts on Holy Week, which I originally posted in 2012.]


Text:  Mark 11:12-19
Theme:  Curses!

A mature fig tree
Jesus went into Jerusalem from Bethany, and on the way sees a fig tree that has its leaves out in the spring.  It was not the season for figs, but a fig tree in leaf would already have little, edible, "figlets" that would become figs and were a simple treat to eat.  This tree didn't have them, and so Jesus curses it, because it held the promise of fruitfulness without the reality.  This sets the stage for the next event.

Arriving at the Temple, Jesus, for the second time, attacks the commerce taking place in what is often called "cleansing the Temple."  But he doesn't cleanse it, he "curses" it with words taken right out of Isaiah and Jeremiah rebuking the Israelites for their unfaithfulness.  As rightful King arriving on Palm Sunday, he had looked with a look of evaluation the evening prior before going to Bethany.  Now he has rendered his judgment that the Temple's role was finished.  This beautiful edifice looked "fruitful" religiously, but in fact it had become the opposite through the corruption of its controllers.

The fig tree was an established symbol of Israel.  The Temple was the heart of Israel's worship of God.  In his actions Jesus was passing divine judgment on the nation and its worship.  While both showed the promise of bearing fruit, neither actually did so.

As we consider our walk with Christ during this Passion Week, we might want to do some "fruit inspecting" concerning ourselves.  Do we profess great love for Jesus, but manifest little evidence of it in our lives?  Paul was not above warning professing believers to do self-examination to see if we have true faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).  But even true believers must sometimes acknowledge that our fruitfulness has been adversely affected by a lack of abiding in Christ.  Perhaps our prayer might be that the Father--whom Jesus calls the Vinedresser (John 15:1) might come and do his work of pruning us as branches so that we might bear more fruit (John 15:2).