Posts tagged ‘Jesus’

What Does God Ask of Us?

In Matthew 21, the religious leaders are becoming increasingly incredulous toward Jesus. He has just ridden into Jerusalem triumphantly, receiving the praise of adoring throngs. He has also wrecked the temple’s shadow economy by driving out those who were buying and selling there. And He has outwitted and outsmarted the religious leaders after they tried to question Jesus’ authority. Now, Jesus moves on to tell these same religious leaders a story:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. (Matthew 21:28-31)

Jesus tells a story about a father who has two sons. The first son initially verbally spars with his father, but ultimately does what his father asks. The second son pays lip service to honoring his father, but refuses to do what his father asks.

This story is meant to be about the religious leaders, for, although they pay lip service to God, they do not do what God asks. The question that is still hanging in the air at the end of Jesus’ story, however, is this: what does God ask? Jesus’ answer, as He explains His story to the religious leaders, is fascinating:

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (Matthew 21:31-32)

This, Jesus says, is what God asks: to believe. Jesus puts it this way in John’s Gospel: “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent” (John 6:29). And yet, this is what the religious leaders refuse to do – to believe in the One God has sent. The religious leaders are so busy following religious rules that their righteous looking actions become the sum total of what they think God wants from them. But God does not need their righteous actions, for He already has all righteousness. So, He simply asks for faith – to stop believing in ourselves and to start believing in His Son. But this is what the religious leaders refuse to give. Faith is the one thing the religious leaders do not do.

The tax collectors and prostitutes to which Jesus refers know they can’t trust themselves, for they have already destroyed themselves. So, instead, they put their faith in One they hope can rescue them from themselves. Thus, they, and not the religious leaders, are the ones who, though they may spar with God, ultimately do what God asks them to do.

Where is your faith? Do you do what God asks of you? It turns out that what God asks you to do is not something you do at all. It’s Someone you trust.

In Christian circles, we will often talk about pointing people like tax collectors and prostitutes – the so-called “broken” and “bad” people of society – to Jesus, because they need Him. This is most certainly true and this is, in fact, something we should do. But let us not forgot that, in Matthew 21, it’s the tax collectors and prostitutes who are pointing religious people like us to Jesus, because, as it turns out, anyone can point someone to Jesus because anyone can have faith in Jesus.

My prayer is that you do.

January 20, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

In a World Full of Much News, Christmas is Good News

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Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Christmas is almost here. As many of us go on last-minute buying binges while we search and shop for the perfect presents for all our special someones, it is worth remembering that what makes Christmas special is not everything we do for this holiday, but what we are called to focus on in this holiday.

The first Christmas was a birthday punctuated by an angelic announcement to some shepherds who were in close proximity to a historically incomparable infant. An angel said to these shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Here, in this angel’s message, we find a sort of executive summary of what not only Christmas, but Christianity, is all about. The angel explains that a Savior has been born who is “good news.”

This two-word phrase – “good news” – is the echocardiogram by which the heartbeat of the Christian faith is measured. If this phrase permeates Christianity, the Christian faith is alive and well. If it does not, the Christian faith is doomed to anemia and obsolescence. Here’s why.

Culturally, two types of religion are prevalent. In more traditional cultures, religion that demands “good behavior” reigns. This version of religion promises that if you do what you should do and don’t do what you shouldn’t do, God will be pleased with you. This version of religion rewards one who walks the straight and narrow and lives as a straight arrow. Conversely, in more progressive cultures, religion that focuses on “good feelings” carries the day. This version of religion eschews what it sees as the needlessly constrictive and primitive commands of traditional religion and instead seeks the supernatural in what makes you feel good. Creeds of this religion include, “You do you,” “If it feels good do it,” and, “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy.” Interestingly, though these two religions sound different, at their core, they share the same assumption: the onus for spiritual fulfillment is on you because religion is about you. You are the one who is responsible for your spirituality – either by your behavior or in your emotional state.

Christianity is utterly different. Christianity is not about you. Instead, Christianity is for you. And there is a world of difference between these two.

Christianity is about Christ – His birth that an angel announces to some shepherds, His ministry that He carries out in front of a myriad of eyewitnesses, His death that He dies in place of sinners, and His resurrection by which He conquers death. This is why the angel calls Christ’s birth “news.” News is about what someone else from somewhere else has done. Christ is someone else from somewhere else – from heaven itself. And He has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has lived the life we cannot live, died the death we deserved to die, and offered the penalty for sin we cannot pay. Christianity is news about Christ. But it is not just “news,” it is “good news.” Why? Because, as the angel says, even though Christianity is about Christ, it is “for all the people.” And “all the people” includes you. What Christ has done, then, He has done for you.

Christianity promises that responsibility for spiritual fulfillment does not rest on you. Instead, it rests on the One who lies in a manger, dies on a cross, and empties a tomb. Jesus has done all the work necessary to procure the ultimate spiritual fulfillment of salvation for you. That’s the news the angel offers these shepherds. And I, for one, happen to think that news is quite good.

My prayer for you, this Christmas, is that you think it’s good, too. And that you believe that this news is for you. For it is this news that makes Christmas merry and hope real.

December 23, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Is The Bible Reliable?

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Credit: KML from Pexels

Over the past few weeks, there have been some astounding archaeological discoveries related to the Bible.  First, researchers have found possible evidence of the existence of the biblical people of Edom, a people long dismissed by scholars as mythical rather than historical.  Reporting for the Daily Mail, Joe Pinkstone writes:

The Biblical kingdom of Edom was long thought to be a myth, but scientists now think they have found proof of its existence in a controversial new finding. 

Analysis of copper mines and slagheaps dating back to the 11th century BC reveals evidence of improvements to smelting in mines throughout a 60-mile wide region …

Researchers from the University of California and Tel Aviv University concluded that due to its age and location, the authority controlling the mining and smelting could only be Edom, the kingdom which stood in the way of the expanding Israelites. 

The book of Genesis refers to the Edomites, who were thought to be descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau.

That’s incredible.  But that’s not all.  In another fascinating find, archaeologists uncovered a 1,500-year-old fresco that depicts Jesus feeding a crowd of 5,000 people.  Rory Sullivan reports for CNN:

A colorful mosaic recently found in an ancient church in Israel appears to depict a miracle Jesus is said to have performed nearby – the feeding of the 5,000 – archaeologists say.

The discovery was made in the “Burnt Church” in Hippos, an archaeological site on a mountain a mile east of the Sea of Galilee. The church was built around 1,500 years ago and destroyed by fire in the early 7th century AD.

Christian scholars have long argued that the Bible is a remarkably historically reliable document.  These recent finds simply contribute additional credence to these claims.

Of course, findings like these do not answer every question or criticism people have about the Bible.  But they should at least lead us to consider just how truthful this book just might be.  The peoples and places of the Bible seem to be exceptionally archaeologically accurate.  So, perhaps we should wonder: What else in this book is accurate?  Could the miracles described by the Bible be factual?  Could the teachings proffered by the Bible be wise?  Could the God confessed by the Bible be real?  Could the Bible be what it claims to be – divine revelation?

Archaeological discovery can help us verify the Bible’s accuracy.  But the Bible claims to be much more than just accurate.  It claims to be authoritative.  It is meant to guide and shape our lives.  As the Psalmist puts it: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105).

It is important to ask the of the Bible: did the events described therein happen way back when?  But it is just as critical to answer: how do the events described therein apply to me now?  For the Bible is not just a history book.  It is a helpful book.  And it is not just a helpful book.  It is a holy book.  May we treat it as such.

October 21, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Grace in the Wilderness

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Credit: Angelique Downing from Burst

There are some incredible words the Lord speaks through the prophet Jeremiah:

The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. (Jeremiah 31:2)

These words are written for Israel while Israel is in crisis – when she is being defeated and decimated by the Babylonians who will carry her people into exile.  While Israel is at her worst, then, God says to her, “In a place you might least expect it – the wilderness that is your exile – you will find My grace.”

God’s people have a history of finding grace in wilderness. When the Lord led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He led them into the wilderness, where they received grace upon grace. A miracle at the Red Sea. Manna and quail from the heavens. Water to drink from a rock. There was grace there in that wilderness.

When God decided it was time to send a Savior, His coming was announced in where else, but the wilderness:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:1-3)

The grace of God’s kingdom was being announced in the wilderness.

And when the Savior did arrive, where did He go to begin His public ministry? Into the wilderness, of course:

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

While Jesus may have been tempted by the devil, He did not succumb to the devil. He defeated the devil and his temptations so that there may be grace for everyone who does not fare so well under temptation.

I think sometimes we might prefer to find grace in places other than the wilderness. In the lushness of an awesome spiritual experience, perhaps, where we feel the warmth of God’s love surrounding us. Or in the comforts of an abundance of material possessions, perhaps, where we can breezily and easily praise God for the amazing things He has given to us.

God can show us grace through these things, but this does not mean He only shows us grace through these things.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness. Like when we feel spiritually cold inside and all we can do is cling to God’s Word. Or when our pocketbooks feel strapped and our savings accounts are depleted all we have is God’s promise of daily bread.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness.

This should not surprise us. For God’s grace was most fully expressed on some rough-hewn timbers, cut down from the wilderness of ancient Israel. Grace did not feel good to Jesus. But the grace of the cross is the greatest grace there is.

So, don’t let a time in the wilderness crush you. There is grace there because Jesus is there. If there’s one place He knows, it’s there. And if there’s one person He wants, it’s you.

September 2, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

“I am thirsty.”

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Credit: Gerard de la Vallée, “Longinus piercing Christ’s side with a spear,” 17th cent.

This Friday, Christians around the world will commemorate the death of Jesus Christ.  At the church where I serve, we will hold services centering around the traditional seven final phrases that Jesus speaks from the cross.  Many of these phrases are extraordinarily well-regarded and famous.  For instance, when Jesus prays for His executioners, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), we are treated to a tour de force in what true forgiveness looks like.  When Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34) we hear in His words both an ache for God’s presence in suffering as well as a separation from God because of sin.

One of my favorite phrases from Jesus on the cross is one that can sometimes be overlooked:

“I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)

This hardly seems like a profound statement.  It seems more like a mundane request.  A man who is baking in the hot ancient Near Eastern sun while hanging exposed on a cross has developed a case of cotton mouth.  And yet, these words represent not only the cry of a parched mouth, but the yearning of a scorched soul.

The Psalmist once said:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for You, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?  (Psalm 42:1-2)

The Psalmist describes his desperate thirst for God.  And how does God respond to his thirst?

Deep calls to deep in the roar of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and breakers have swept over me. (Psalm 42:7)

God not only gives the Psalmist’s soul spiritual water, He offers the Psalmist a superabundance of this water in the form of waves and breakers.

Jesus invites anyone who has a thirst like the Psalmist’s:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me and drink.  Whoever believes in Me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  (John 7:37-38)

But this takes us back to Jesus’ words from the cross.  For when Jesus, who offers all men refreshment for their souls, Himself complains of thirst, how do men respond to Him?

A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.  (John 19:29)

God responds to human thirst with refreshing water.  Humans respond to God’s thirst with bitter vinegar.  What a contrast.

And yet, the incredible thing about Jesus’ death on the cross is that sin’s vinegar never quite manages to strip Him of His life-giving water:

One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  (John 19:34)

The water of life stubbornly remains, flowing from the side of the One who died.

This week, as we reflect on and remember Jesus’ death, may we drink deeply from the water of His life.  For the water of His life gives us eternal life.

April 15, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Carol Turns 200

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200 years ago, on this night, the modern Christmas carol was born.  A small church in Oberndorf, Austria had an organ that was in need of repair, and the parish priest there, Joseph Mohr, wanted a Christmas song he could sing with his congregants sans the usual stops and pipes.  He composed some lyrics that a local teacher, Franz Gruber, set to music, and the two of them performed the song, accompanied simply by guitar, for the first time during their Christmas Eve service on December 24, 1818.  The name of the song was “Silent Night.”

The song’s appeal is indisputably enduring.  It was sung in the trenches as a part of an unofficial Christmas truce in 1914 during World War I by German soldiers to their British enemies.  It was sung again during World War II in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the Rose Garden of the White House.  When Bing Crosby recorded the song in 1935, it became the third best-selling single of all time.  And, of course, tonight, millions will gather across the world to sing the song by candlelight with warm hearts and, by God’s grace, lively faith.

Part of the song’s appeal is its utter simplicity.  Both the tune and lyrics are extraordinarily unassuming.  But the song also tells the story of Christmas extremely well.  Everything from Jesus’ birth to the angelic announcement to some nearby shepherds to the truth of Jesus’ identity is contained in this carol.  The last verse is my favorite:

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Here, in just this one verse, we find who Jesus is, why Jesus has come, and what He has come to do.  Jesus is the Lord who has come as a baby in a manger out of love to bring redeeming grace.  That’s more than a verse in a carol.  That’s the gospel.  That’s why, 200 years later, this is still a carol worth singing.  Because it tells of a birth that, 2,000 years later, is still most definitely worth celebrating.

Merry Christmas.

December 24, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Hurricane Florence Batters the Carolinas

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Credit: NASA Johnson

The remains of Hurricane Florence continue to pummel the East Coast.  The devastation already done by the monster storm is startling.  The death toll seems to rise nearly by the hour.  Nearly one million are without power.  And by midday Saturday, North Carolina received over 30 inches of rain from the storm, shattering the previous rainfall record of 24.06 inches, set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

As the storm sluggishly dissipates and the recovery begins, we are once again left grappling with the chaos that is endemic to a creation disordered by sin.  The pictures pouring in of wind-battered beaches, tree-split homes, flood-ravaged communities, and terrified-looking residents speak for themselves.  The cleanup and rebuilding process will most certainly be long and arduous.  This summer, I vacationed in Port Aransas, Texas with my family, the spot where Hurricane Harvey came ashore last summer.  The condo complex at which I stayed still had whole buildings that were missing their roofs.  The amount of work yet to be done in that family-friendly beach town is simply more than contractors can complete in a timely manner.  I have a feeling the coastal towns of the Carolinas will be enduring much the same experience.

When Jesus’ disciples find themselves in the throes of a massive storm of the Sea of Galilee, they come face-to-face with the chaos – and the danger – of a disordered creation.  As they are battered by the wind and the waves, they cry out to Jesus, who is in the storm with them, “Lord, save us” (Matthew 8:25)!  And He does.  He “rebukes the winds and the waves, and it is completely calm” (Matthew 8:26).

The disciples’ simple and desperate prayer is still a plea worth making, even as Florence passes.  The Lord can still help, even after the wind and the waves have been stilled and the floods have receded.  He can give us empathy for the injured and a resolve to rebuild.  And so, we pray that God would provide us with all that we need during a time that is fraught with exhaustion and heartbreak.

J.I. Packer, in his book on prayer, quipped that we should ask God “what we ourselves might need to do to implement answers to our prayers.”  As the Carolinas begin the process of rebuilding, this is certainly a question worth asking.  We can make donations to the victims.  We can help our loved ones – and, perhaps, even strangers – rebuild.  And we can refuse to forget that, long after the headlines of the hurricane fade, the need will continue to be real.

For all the damage that Florence has done, we must never forget that Jesus was in the storm, lovingly caring for all those who suffered – and continue to suffer – from the storm.  Jesus does not always stop storms, but neither does He shirk them.  He stands in them with us.  And He’s a good guy to have when you’re in the wind and the waves.

September 17, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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