Key Verse: Matthew 21:44
Big Idea: The storyline of Scripture is the tragedy of how we failed to recognize our King, and the love story of how He pursued us anyway.
Matthew 21 is packed full of important information. It begins with the Triumphal Entry of Jesus, and so begins what is commonly called Holy Week - the week in Jerusalem that ended with Jesus in the tomb, the disciples scattered and the enemies of God seemingly triumphant. In future readings we will reflect on some of the other events described in this chapter, but today we are going to pay special attention to the parable in Matthew 21:33-46.
A man built a vineyard, and rented it out to people who would bring him the profits at the end of the season. When the servants went to collect the fruit, the tenants instead beat one, killed one and stoned one, refusing to give the landowner what was his. Incredibly, the master sent another group of servants (more this time) to give them another chance to comply. Although they had rebelled and even killed a servant, they were given another chance. But they chose the same path of rebellion again. Finally, the landowner decided that he would send his own son - at least they would respect him. Instead, they cast him out of the vineyard and killed him.
Jesus had just given them a thumbnail sketch of human history generally, and Israel's in particular. God gave us this world, but instead of giving Him the fruit of it, we horded it for ourselves. He sent prophets and teachers to call people back to Himself, but they rejected Him time and time again. Finally, He sent His own Son to come and call the people to repentance, but for those who rejected His Son there was no further remedy. Every human being who has ever lived has taken God's blessings and used them in rebellion against Him (Romans 3:23), but God has been patient to give us more opportunities to recognize Him. Ultimately, there is one messenger who we either accept or reject, and if we do not choose Him, there are no more messengers of grace, only justice. Jesus is like a stone, which can either be the main cornerstone of the Temple, or a massive crushing boulder.
Discussion Idea: Have you ever done something kind for someone which they did not recognize? How did it make you feel? Why does God continue to reach out to us, even when we reject Him?
Prayer Focus: Pray for an awareness of God's will and rule in our lives today.
PS: I have tried to be diligent to keep these short and direct, but there is something deeper in this passage that I want to point out for the interested. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had cleansed the Temple of the merchants, bringing its business to a halt. Then, He used a verse about the temple to refer to the people rejecting Himself. Jesus was already indicating that the physical Temple at Jerusalem's time was up and that He was the chief cornerstone of a new Temple - God would no longer dwell in the physical building, but when His people, gathered in His name, assembled together. It is our responsibility to not use that Temple like the moneychangers used the old Temple, for personal profit and pleasure, but to give God the fruit that He deserves. It is a little advanced, and may not be a good fit for your family, but is something to chew on.
Monday, January 31, 2022
Key Verse: Matthew 21:44
Friday, January 28, 2022
Key verse: So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen." Matthew 20:16
Big Idea: Rewards in God’s Kingdom do not correspond to our expectations.
If you listen to the State of the Union addresses given by Presidents throughout the last several decades, you will notice that they spend very little time on the big numbers. Despite the title, the State of the Union is not primarily about the birth rate, the military’s capacity, or the economy. Instead, the President makes a point and backs it up with stories, often of people he has carefully selected to be in the room. This is no accident. Every gifted speaker (and every parent!) knows the power of a story to engage, challenge, or encourage. A story can slip past our defenses and draw the truth. A story can fester in our hearts, remembered but not comprehended until the right moment. It is no wonder that the Bible records thirty-seven parables of Jesus, about a third of the total teaching of the Master Teacher.
Our knee-jerk response to the parable of Matthew 20:1-16 is probably the same as it was for Jesus’ listeners in the first century. Every diligent student remembers with horror what it was like to be assigned a group project; you did all the work, and the freeloaders got an A too. Consider a more adult example: Imagine you worked hard for a company all year. The hours were long, the work was challenging, but you did your best. Then someone else came in to help with the holiday rush and received the same salary for a month as you did for a year. You would probably not be sending your boss a Christmas card.
We have certain expectations of what is fair, and we get angry when those expectations aren’t met. But in this parable, Jesus takes that reaction and exposes its rottenness. What right do we have to be angry when someone else receives more than they deserve? Does God’s grace toward them somehow mean we get less? Of course not.
One of the greatest temptations we face is the self-righteousness that leads to arrogance. We compare ourselves to others and delude ourselves into believing that we are worthier than they are. But here is the truth: In God’s Kingdom, no one is getting an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. You do not want God to square up your account, I can assure you. We have been offered grace when we deserve judgment. We are adopted into the royal family when we have committed high treason. If someone comes to faith at the end of their life, do I have any right to compare the super-abundance of grace they receive with the super-abundance of grace I receive? If I think someone is not pulling their weight, what kind of wake up call do I need to realize that I am not either? Grace smothers our expectations of justice.
Discussion Idea: Who is someone in your life that seems to always be there for the reward but half absent from the work? How does God’s grace toward you soften your feelings about them?
Prayer Focus: Praise God that He is not fair, but gracious.
Thursday, January 27, 2022
Key verse: “But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26
Big Idea: In God’s Kingdom, the impossible is possible.
Matthew 19 is a chapter full of overwhelming demands. First, a group comes to Jesus to ask about divorce: under what conditions can a man leave his wife? The Master’s response is unflinching. Marriage is not a human act but a divine one. When a man leaves his father and mother, God makes him one with his wife. What God has put together, people should not separate. From the permission for unfaithfulness and Paul’s discussion of abandonment, we can say that a Christian may only dissolve their marriage when their partner has already broken it. The disciples, maybe half-jokingly, said it was better to never marry at all, if there was no escape clause. But Jesus agreed with them. Some people are given a special gift of singleness, but those who did marry entered into a holy union. The demand seemed impossible.
Later, a wealthy young man came to Jesus to ask what he needed to do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In response, Jesus listed the fifth through ninth commandments and the summary: love your neighbor as yourself. Enthusiastic (perhaps at the absence of the tenth one), the rich young ruler claimed he had done it all and asked what else he lacked. Jesus, came at the tenth commandment indirectly. Rather than asking if he had been covetous, Jesus asked the man to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor. This seemed impossible and the man went away sorrowful.
Of course, salvation is not by charitable donation. Jesus, in the same tradition as Nathan rebuking David through a story, used a specific situation to expose the man’s heart. When they were alone, Jesus told the disciples that it was very difficult for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. This was shocking to the disciples who assumed that a rich person must be especially favored by God. How could anyone be saved if a rich person could not? They were right in a sense. It is impossible for any sinner to enter the Kingdom. But God is in the impossible business.
No part of our lives or our ministries can be done in our own power. Raising a family, leading a church, or even coming to Christ personally are all beyond what we could ever do. But God does not call us to gather up the strength to climb some mountain. Instead, He calls us to trust Him and let His power work through us. The one who raises the dead and made the stars with His voice is the One who loved us enough to die for us. With Him, the impossible is possible.
Discussion Idea: In what areas of your life do you have to trust God? Are you guilty of human-sized goals to avoid the need for faith?
Prayer Focus: Pray for God’s perspective. Problems that seem insurmountable or temptations that seem overwhelming are nothing before the might and wisdom of God.
Wednesday, January 26, 2022
* I apologize for the hiccup getting Monday and Tuesday's readings properly scheduled. I will have them fixed today.*
Key verse: “Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:” Matthew 18:32
Big Idea: The King has forgiven us of more than we could ever need to forgive.
In today’s chapter, Jesus tells a parable so vivid that it requires almost no explanation. A slave owes an unimaginable debt of ten thousand talents, an amount of money so absurd that it means something like “a zillion dollars.” If the talents (a measure of about one hundred pounds) were gold, it would take a day laborer well over two hundred thousand years to repay. So when the slave begged the master for more time and said that he would pay it all back, it was obviously impossible. But the master graciously forgave the debt. Then, the forgiven slave went and found a peer who owed him three or four months’ wages. Not a small sum, but nothing in comparison to his own debt. He took the other slave by the neck and threatened to throw him into prison if he did not repay it.
The scene is simply absurd. How could someone who had been forgiven so much be so ungrateful as to refuse to forgive others? Jesus told this story to answer the question of how often we should forgive each other. If we have been forgiven of all of our sins by a holy God, we must certainly be quick to forgive others. Whether the language is seventy times seven or ten thousand talents worth, the picture is clear. We have received forgiveness we could never earn, and whatever anyone else might owe us is insignificant in comparison.
When we use the mouths, minds, and hands given to us by God to rebel, we can understand why David said, “Against you, and you alone, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). When we placed our faith in Jesus, we were forgiven at such a high cost that we are like a slave forgiven a debt we could never repay. Others may hurt us and do so substantially, but it is nothing in comparison to how we have hurt God. He has forgiven us at a cost far higher than money. No blood-bought sinner has any right to refuse forgiveness to another.
Discussion Idea: What leads to an unforgiving spirit in ministry? How can you keep the magnitude of God’s grace to you personally at the forefront of your mind?
Prayer Focus: Praise God for His kindness in removing a debt far beyond our comprehension or ability to repay.
Friday, January 21, 2022
Key verse: "Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour." Matthew 15:28
Big Idea: Faith is the boundary of the Kingdom of Jesus.
In Matthew 15, we meet a woman whose daughter is possessed by a demon. The woman is described, literally, as a Canaanite woman. The term is so odd that some translations relegate it to a footnote and substitute the more common “Gentile.” Canaanite was an anachronistic term even in the first century; it was used to describe the historical enemies of God’s people who had lived in the land of Palestine. Matthew picked a deliberately loaded term. The historic enemy of Israel came to Jesus, asking for help. What would the King of the Jews say?
Nothing. He ignored her pleas. How could the one that John would later write “is love” be so cold? Yet she persisted. She annoyed the disciples, so they finally asked Jesus to send her away. He did not send her away, but told her, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.” If there is anything worse than silence, it must be an insult. He went from ignoring her to calling her a dog! How could this be the One that John said would take away the sin of the world?
Still, she continued, and agreed with Jesus, but reminded him that even dogs get scraps dropped on the floor. Her response demonstrated humility (she knew she did not deserve an answer) and faith (she believed that casting out a demon was as insignificant as crumbs to Jesus). The Lord then gives the response that we expected all along: “Your faith is great. Your request is granted.” He healed her daughter with a word and praised her in front of the disciples, but only after He had put her through the ringer. We should not mistake this for cruelty. Jesus knew from the beginning that she would prove herself worthy but allowed her to demonstrate her faith in action. He was the Messiah of Israel and until His resurrection, His ministry was focused on the nation. But even then, He was ever dropping hints that He was building a new people, not marked by food, clothes, or ancestry, but faith.
Discussion Idea: What physical boundaries are you tempted to apply to the people of God? Are they social, political, educational, or age-based?
Prayer Focus: Ask God for eyes like His, to see that no human circumstances are an obstacle for Him.
Thursday, January 20, 2022
Key verse: “And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison." Matthew 14:10
Big Idea: The victory of Jesus’ kingdom may seem delayed, but it is sure.
I wish Chick-fil-A ran the driver’s license office. A smiling teenager takes my order on their tablet, lets me swipe my card, and tells me it was their pleasure to stand in the blistering sun so I can have a lemonade. Someone at the next kiosk is ready with my receipt and my food is nearly in my car before I realize I am at the window. It is quick, it is efficient, and it is predictable. When I have renewed my driver’s license, the best I can say is that I could quickly predict it would be inefficient. We live in a society where we expect instant gratification and when we do not get it we are on Twitter hoping for an apology and a gift card. But I have some tough news: God is not Chick-fil-A, despite their shared affinity for the first day of the week. God is not concerned about waiting on me hand and foot to give me what I want when I want it. He is not interested in my timetable, because He has a better one.
John the Baptist had done everything right. He had answered God’s call to preach the gospel, baptized untold hordes of people, recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God, and ultimately been thrown into prison for the unpardonable crime of speaking truth to power. Remember when Jesus had said: “of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist”? Yet, while Jesus continued to teach and preach, John languished in prison. Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great who slaughtered the children in Bethlehem, had married his sister-in-law and John had rebuked him for it. John was rewarded with death. He never saw the conclusion of the story he had helped begin.
Fulfillment delayed is not fulfillment denied when God is the one who has promised. The truth is that very few of us will ever see the big picture of what God is doing with our lives, at least not on this side of eternity. So we see by faith that what God says He will do, He always does. He is not bound by my microwave mentality. As Longfellow famously translated the old proverb:
“Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all.”
It is true of God’s justice and it is true of His work in our lives. He is not overly concerned by time, but He is perfect in timing.
Discussion Idea: When have you seen God answer a prayer or a need after what seemed to you like a long delay? What did you learn from that experience?
Prayer Focus: Pray for faith to endure, even when the answer is unseen.
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Key verse: “But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold." Matthew 13:8
Big Idea: The Kingdom of Jesus changes lives at different times and in different ways, but the life it brings is unstoppable.
One of the saddest times of the year is the end of tomato season. The heat has withered the plants and it is doing its best on the gardener. It seems like I planted the seeds in another lifetime before I knew what a coronavirus was and when I could still walk across a parking lot without changing shirts. There is a lot of dirt, water, sunshine, and time between golden seed and juicy red tomato. The end result bears no resemblance to the initial input, but there is continuity. My seeds held a tiny spark of life in them, which grew and spread throughout. My bell peppers have grown differently than my tomatoes, my figs in another way, and my cucumbers in yet a different way, but the principle is the same in each. If the seed is able to take root, it will provide fruit after its kind.
Some of Jesus’ best-known parables come from the world of agriculture, and the parable which begins today’s chapter is probably the best known of all. The Parable of the Sower, or Parable of the Soils, is one of the only parables explicitly interpreted by Jesus. The seed is the good news of the Kingdom of God and the various soils represent the kinds of hearts in which it might land. Verse 23 refers to those who understand the message as the good soil and to those who “produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” When the seed takes root in receptive soil, it bears fruit. Not always the same quantity or in the same time, but that seed of life is always growing and multiplying.
The next parable in this chapter, the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds, gives an important warning. Like tares are hard to distinguish from wheat before the harvest, we cannot always tell whether a person’s faith is genuine until they stand before God. Sometimes what seems strong has no root. Sometimes what seems weak is just a late bloomer, but will eventually bring a great harvest. This requires a certain humility on our part since we cannot judge what kind of harvest someone else ought to bear or when they should produce it. I could not plant more tomatoes now because the season is wrong. Fighting the weather would only frustrate me and leave me with nothing to show for it. What is obvious in the physical world seems hard to remember in ministry! God works with His people on His timetable and in His way, and no amount of scolding or work from me will turn July to March. But when we make it our business to support what God is already doing, weeding and watering alongside His plants, we nurture life and support the harvest of more life for His glory.
Discussion Idea: For a seed to become a new plant, it has to die. How does bearing fruit for Jesus require our “death”?
Prayer Focus: Pray that we will have the kind of patient love for late bloomers and small harvests as God has for us.
Tuesday, January 18, 2022
Key verse: “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless." Matthew 12:7
Big Idea: The Kingdom of Jesus demands obedience that goes beyond the superficial.
Walking with Jesus on the Sabbath, the disciples reached out to pick some grain to eat. Although this was not a violation of the Sabbath law, it was a violation of the elaborate oral law built up around it. The Pharisees came to Jesus and protested. Jesus could have simply quoted Deuteronomy 23:25, which permitted picking grain with your hands on the Sabbath. Instead, He took a much broader route by making three comparisons. (1) King David broke the letter of the law by taking the sacred loaves of bread when he was on the run from King Saul, (2) the priests worked on the Sabbath because the service of the temple outweighed the restriction against working on Saturday, and (3) God has announced in Hosea that He wanted mercy more than sacrifice.
What do these have to do with the disciples picking grain while they served Jesus? The only way these points would make sense is if Jesus were greater than King David, the sacrificial system, and the temple itself. Priests could offer animals on the Sabbath – but the disciples were serving the perfect Lamb. From dawn to dusk, the temple was busy with work, but the disciples walked with God tabernacled in human flesh. King David’s reign was more important than the ceremonial bread, but the dominion of Jesus would never end. If the Sabbath law was inferior to the shadows that Jesus cast through the years, how much more now? Jesus made the point explicit. The Pharisees should not attack the disciples, “For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”
Imagine criticizing obedience to signs and symbols while the Lawgiver Himself stood there. They were precise in their compliance with specific instructions and never understood the heart of God. Our heavenly Father wants more from us than rote obedience, thinking we can earn a relationship with Him. Our righteousness cannot be about what we force up in ourselves. The only holiness that you and I have is the righteousness given to us by faith when we recognize who Jesus is. The Lamb, the Temple, and our Perfect Rest provided the sacrifice and overwhelms us with His mercy.
Discussion Idea: Why is it easier to seek obedience to hundreds of elaborate written and unwritten rules than the simplicity of a transformed heart?
Prayer Focus: Ask God to open your eyes to the heart of the matter: His Son.
Monday, January 17, 2022
Key verse: "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." Matthew 11:5
Big idea: The Kingdom testifies about the heart of the King.
Jesus was the one who would take away the sin of the world. John the Baptist was sure of that. But if the promised Messiah had come, why was wicked Herod still on the throne of Israel? Worse, why was John imprisoned for no crime other than telling the truth about Herod’s sin of convincing his Herodias to leave his brother to marry him? It seemed strange that the King had finally arrived, but things continued as they always had. So John sent a messenger to Jesus to ask the obvious question: “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”
John did not seem to doubt Jesus, he was still willing to accept Jesus’ word about His identity, but he doubted himself. Had he misunderstood when he trusted Jesus was the King? Jesus did not rebuke John for his question. Instead, He told the messenger to return with evidence that the Kingdom was here, even if it was not fully manifest in John’s situation. The blind, the lame, the deaf, and the lepers were healed, and the good news was preached to the poor. God’s reign was breaking through into people’s hearts. From our modern world, we have far better evidence than John ever did. The Baptist died long before Jesus was arrested, beaten, mocked, and executed for the sins of the world. Proof that the love of God is here on full display. On the third day, the penalty paid, He rose again triumphant. Proof that the power of God is here on full display. The King is here, and His power is defanging the old oppressors.
We have the evidence, but will we believe? Jesus condemned the Pharisees and scribes for refusing to believe but dealt tenderly with John, who just needed the reassurance of his Master. Indeed, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist.” Yet the least born into the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than the least born physically to a mother. John was an incredible man, both a prophet and the fulfillment of prophecy, but we can be his brothers and sisters by faith. Jesus’ conclusion of the chapter is powerful. He thanked the Father for not revealing Himself to the impressive and the wise, but the childlike. We do not enter God’s family because of our merit but because of His grace.
Discussion Idea: How does your approach to people with doubts compare to the path Jesus took with John?
Prayer Focus: Thank you, Lord, for revealing Yourself to us, when we were undeserving and had nothing to offer You except a sin-stained heart of faith. Thank You for bringing us into Your Kingdom with patience and compassion. Help us to see that even though Your Kingdom is not yet fully revealed, You are working in our lives.
Friday, January 14, 2022
Key verse: “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows." - Matthew 10:31
Big Idea: Jesus is all we need for the work of His Kingdom.
Have you ever started to make a meal and realized midway through that you were missing a critical ingredient? The onions are sauteeing, the water is boiling, and the meat is…frozen. There is a reason that a professional chef will set all of the needed supplies out before beginning! An experienced contractor will not begin a project and learn midway through that he does not have enough bricks. No military launches an invasion without determining the guns, tanks, and airplanes needed to win. It is foolish to begin without the tools to finish the job, and what is true of the physical world has a spiritual application as well. What do we need to carry out Christ’s work?
Jesus told His disciples not to worry about some of the things we might expect they would need. Money, clothing, and even extra shoes were unnecessary. The only thing they needed to carry was the message: The Kingdom of Heaven is near. God would provide for them as they went through strangers who would come to faith. There was no calling ahead to reserve a room at La Quinta. The only security they had was their faith. They did not need to worry, even though they would face betrayal, rejection, and apparent failure, like their Master Himself. No matter what they faced, He was enough for them.
If my shoes wear out, my parents turn their backs on me, and I have nowhere to stay, Jesus is still enough. No stockpiles of supplies can replace the One who is active in caring for us, before whom not even a sparrow falls to the ground. There is no need to prepare elaborate speeches for if we stand trial because the Spirit of our Father will give us what to say at that moment.
When God gives us something, it is a blessing for which we should be grateful. I cannot imagine ministering through the coronavirus pandemic without the gifts of the Internet. I would not want to pastor here in the Houston metro without the blessing of air conditioning. But we should never mistake the gift for the Giver. Even when we think we have lost some essential tools or irreplaceable friends, we must realize that if we have Jesus, we have everything.
Discussion Idea: What resource are you tempted to trust instead of God? Money, facilities, people? How can you reshape your thinking to depend on Him entirely?
Prayer Focus: Ask God to help you recognize what He has already given you, and to remove any excuses that keep us from obedience.
Thursday, January 13, 2022
Key verse: “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house." - Matthew 9:6
Writing about authority in 2021 is clearly a delicate task. Our society is asking fundamental questions about the presence and the use of power, and answers vary radically. But the first century was no less tenuous. The Roman Empire and Jewish leaders alike deserved the condemnation Ezekiel had given to wicked rulers centuries before: “neither did my shepherds search for my flock, but the shepherds fed themselves, and fed not my flock (Ezekiel 34:8).” But a new King is now on the scene, full of grace and truth, and He is prepared to demonstrate that His authority is legitimate and total.
At the beginning of our chapter, a paralyzed man was brought to Jesus on a stretcher. Jesus saw the faith of the man and those who brought him and said the one thing no one was expecting: “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.” Two things stand out here. First, Jesus demonstrated His priority of the soul over the body. Second, Jesus shows that He believes He has the right to forgive sins, which is God’s prerogative alone.
The Pharisees’ response is perfectly reasonable. This kind of talk is blasphemy! They wonder, “Does [Jesus] think he’s God?” and Jesus replies to their thoughts. He asks an interesting question: “Is it easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Stand up and walk’?” To prove that He has the authority to do the thing they could not see, He does something they can see: He gives the paralyzed man the strength to stand. The people were amazed, but did not really understand the significance of what Jesus had done, and only thought of Jesus as an especially blessed man. The Pharisees understood the importance of Jesus’ claim, but did not worship Him.
How do the Pharisees explain this away? We only find out at the end of the chapter, after He has continually demonstrated His power over disease, sin, and death itself. They claim that He is casting out demons by the power of the devil. They see His power – the ability to act – but reject His authority – the right to do so. The miracles were wasted on them because they did not recognize them as the divine stamp of approval on Jesus. But how do we respond? Do we cherish Jesus for what He can do for us, or do we worship because what He can do reminds us of who He is?
Discussion Idea: Was there any miracle which Jesus could have done to persuade the Pharisees? Can a miracle convince a skeptic today?
Prayer Focus: Pray that we will not see God’s blessings for their own sake, but will see them as pointers to God’s heart.
Wednesday, January 12, 2022
Key verse: And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. - Matthew 8:3
Matthew 8 returns to a reality that we considered back in chapter 4. It is the story of an invasion force: the rightful King has returned, and He finds his people oppressed and enslaved. People’s rebellion against God had them bound by sin, disease, suffering, and death. The chains were their own by birth, but they had also chosen them and were now unable to remove them. Who would Jesus use to build His Kingdom? Who would receive Him? The religious people and the upstanding citizens might be the ones we would expect, but no one deserved His mercy. Some were chained more grotesquely and visibly than others, but they were all prisoners.
Consider the lepers. Their horrible skin disease (incurable in the ancient world) led to open sores and a loss of sensation, which often resulted in severe injury. Under the Law of Moses, if they touched you, then you were unclean and quarantined until they were sure you were not infected. Uncleanness spread and contaminated everything it touched. This outcast is not who the elites expected to come to the Messiah. But he did come to Jesus, and when Jesus put His hand on the leprous skin, purity spread instead of uncleanness. After years of crippling disease, the first thing this man felt was the hand of the King. Suffering and impurity retreated at His arrival; joy and peace took their place.
After this, Jesus healed the servant of a Roman soldier, although the Romans were unclean Gentiles who oppressed the Israelites. He cast out demons, healed the sick, and even demonstrated His authority by ordering the sea itself to be still. A legion (a Roman military unit of about 5000) of demons recognized that He was the Lord and fled at His command. The unexpected received Him gladly, but how did others respond? His own disciples were afraid in the storm, not realizing who was in the boat with them. The residents of Gadara, where the legion of demons had possessed the man, were afraid of Jesus and “begged Him to go away and leave them alone.” There is a real paradox here: the ones who seemed the most promising turned from Him and the ones who were the most unlikely turned to Him.
The King has arrived. The rejects accepted Him, and the acceptable rejected Him. There is no one so righteous they do not need Him, and no one so wicked they cannot have Him. He did not call His people along standard social lines but received those who recognized their need of a Savior and accepted His grace.
Discussion Idea: Why was it easier for the blatant sinners to accept Jesus than the apparently righteous?
Prayer Focus: Pray for God to help us see people the way He does and to join Him in giving grace.
Tuesday, January 11, 2022
Key verse: “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:" - Matthew 7:24
Big Idea: When we submit to Jesus the King, we build our lives on the solid rock.
When I was a teenager, I worked at a local horse ranch. I made a little money, but mostly I was paid in the lease of a beautiful Paint Horse. One evening, I was unloading bales of hay from the back of a pickup truck in the rain. I braced my foot on the toolbox and pushed when I learned that my foot was not as secure as I thought it was. Loose, wet hay on metal made a slick surface, and my Ariat boot went straight through the rear windshield. I think it cost my dad more to replace that window than I ever made working there. Hopefully, you have never had that exact experience, but you have probably tried to push something while standing in the mud. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink, and no amount of slipping and sliding will get you anywhere. You need a firm footing.
In the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us about the hypocritical life. Jesus begins with a vivid word picture about trying to remove a speck from your brother’s eye with a log sticking out of your own. He goes on to describe wolves wearing sheepskin and the insanity of expecting a thornbush to grow grapes. Superficial change may fool some people for a while, but no amount of work will ever deceive the Lord on the Day of Judgment.
He concludes the Sermon with a story about two houses. If we genuinely answer Christ’s call, we are like a wise man who dug deep and built his house on solid rock, unshaken by any storm. But if we do not, our life is a house built by a fool, which for all of its crown molding and fresh paint is founded on mud and is sure to collapse catastrophically. Jesus is not impressed by the behavior of a hypocrite with a rotten heart. He calls us to choose the narrow way of faith and transformation from within. Trying to do good deeds without a relationship with Jesus is like trying to push a hay bale out of a truck with insecure footing: a mess and a failure. It is like grapes falling into a thornbush, destined to rot without ever affecting the roots of the plant. But if our life is founded on a broken heart submitted to Him by faith, we will stand.
Discussion Idea: When we look at another person’s life, we cannot see the foundation. Could a person have a deep, solid foundation, but appear like a shack to others? How should that affect the way we evaluate other people’s lives?
Prayer Focus: The reality of our heart will inevitably be exposed eventually. Ask God to help you have the humility to recognize it and the wisdom to repair it with His strength.
Monday, January 10, 2022
Key verse: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven." Matthew 6:1
When we are very young, our brains do not understand that objects are permanent. As you play peek-a-boo with an infant, they do not realize that you exist anymore and are terrified when you leave the room. If they cannot see you, how can they know you are still there? In a literal sense, we outgrow this quickly. By the time a healthy child is a year old, they know that you are still there, even if a teddy bear is in the way. But in another sense, I do not think we ever get over it. Part of being sin-entangled human beings means that we are always obsessed with what we can see and, perhaps even more dangerously, by what others can see. It is not much of a surprise, then, that Jesus spends the middle third of the Sermon on the Mount warning us against the idolatry of the tangible.
Jesus warns us about two manifestations of this idolatry. The first is pride in our works. It is easy for us to forget who the audience of our good works is. We have all seen missionary tourism pictures, and some of us have taken them. A social media post that says, “Pray for Carlos, I got to share the gospel with him today!” may be genuine, or it may be a subtle way of flaunting our holiness. Jesus’ examples are remarkably up to date. When we give to the poor as a gift to God, He will repay us. But if we are doing it for the attention of other people, that is all the reward we will get. Prayer and praise are precious when addressed to God, but if they are just begging for the approval of people, we have our reward. It is frightening to think that even our best moments could be so corrupted. As Jesus says in verse 23: “And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!”
The latter form seems contradictory at first, but they are two sides of the same coin. Anxiety about our daily needs replaces confidence in the blessings of God with the help we can count and touch. We trade our good Father for the cruel master of Mammon and rob ourselves of the contentment of resting in love. God has proven His faithfulness by clothing the flowers and feeding the birds: won’t He care for us? If He has given us His very Son – is He going to withhold material things? The thought is absurd. We should not worry about what we are going to eat or wear; our Father is rich, even when we cannot see His storehouses.
Discussion Idea: In ministry, we often see these two idolatries combined. We want our good works to be seen by those who can write checks or volunteer because we do not trust God to meet our needs. How does confidence in God provide peace and motivation?Prayer Focus: Pray that God would open our eyes to see the unseen, and to trust Him with the unknown.