Your Plan for 2024

Commit to read the New Testament in 2024. Just one chapter every weekday, accompanied by a short devotional here.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

January 31 - Matthew 23

Key Verse:
 Matthew 23:28

Big Idea: God does not look at the outside, but the heart.

Matthew 23 is almost the antithesis of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus had listed various descriptions of the blessed person, but here, He describes those who are under God's judgment. Woe, He said, to the Pharisees and the hypocrites. In each case, Jesus recognized their external righteousness and obedience, but condemned them because it went no deeper. They obeyed the letter of the law, but missed the spirit of it. One of Jesus' pictures is particularly vivid: imagine being told to wash a cup, and washing the outside, while leaving the inside dirty. Perhaps you technically followed instructions, but you obviously did not do what the person wanted.

It is easy enough for us to do something that looks like obedience or holiness, but God is clearly not impressed. Jesus’ words against the Pharisees are strong, going so far as to compare the Pharisees to tombs – beautiful on the outside, but full of death. There is no good kind of sin, whether subtle or flagrant, but there is something especially dangerous about hypocrisy. If someone is caught up in major sin, the are often aware of their sinfulness and are willing to seek desperation. The hypocrite is just as sinful, but has convinced herself (and sometimes other people) that she does not need repentance or forgiveness.

A good doctor does not treat the symptoms of a disease without curing the underlying problem; pain, fever or swelling is useful, because it lets us know that there is a problem. There is no one whose condition is so helpless as the one who does not realize they are sick. God is not satisfied with reforming the outside, or with our own efforts to look good, but with the condition of our hearts. When He changes our hearts through faith in Jesus, everything on the outside will follow.

Discussion idea: Have you ever done something because of how it would look to other people? Why is this kind of temptation so powerful for us?
Prayer focus: Pray for God to search our hearts, and help us to see our hidden faults for Him to forgive and cleanse.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

January 30 - Matthew 22

Key Verse: Matthew 22:40

Big Idea: The whole Law of God’s Kingdom is built on love.

One of my favorite snacks is stovetop popcorn. Pouring the oil, salt and corn into the Whirly Pop and cranking it while unimpressive kernels become beautiful vessels for butter is a very soothing ritual. I also love spicy food, so one of my favorite things to do for popcorn is to add Julio’s seasoning mix and Tabasco sauce. If everything is not just right, the Tabasco will caramelize on the bottom of the pan, and instead of having popcorn that is lightly spicy throughout, you will have dark little chunks of spice, where the sauce has condensed. Those little chunks are salty and spicy - they are Tabasco sauce, intensified.

If you took the Bible, and boiled it down to its very essence, what would you have? Not animal sacrifices or elaborate rituals, which Hebrews says could never get to the real problem. Not holidays, that pointed forward to coming events or remembered past ones. When they were testing Him in our chapter, Jesus said you would have the greatest commandment: to love God with all of your heart, soul and mind. The second is of the same essence: love your neighbor as yourself. Boiled down, the essence of the Bible is love.

Both elements of the Bible have this same theme: the narrative of the Bible is the story of how, despite humanity’s rebellion, God’s love never stopped pursuing us, ultimately to a cross. The commandments of the Bible are all carried out by a person full of love. We do not murder or steal from those we love, and will not blaspheme or worship idols if we love God. The two commandments are of the same essence, because it is not possible for us to love God without loving our neighbor made in His image, and impossible for us to love our neighbor without the enabling love of God.

Discussion idea: How does love relate to each of the 10 commandments? (Exodus 20) Do you find it hardest to love God with your heart, your mind or your soul (your will/choices)? Why?

Prayer focus: Pray for the ability to recognize God’s love, and to respond with love for Him and each other.

Monday, January 29, 2024

January 29 - Matthew 21

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.

Friday, January 26, 2024

January 26 - Matthew 20

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. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

January 24 - Matthew 18

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 your family? In your work or school? In your church? 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.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

January 23 - Matthew 17

Key Verse: Matthew 17:26
Big Idea: God’s children have freedom, but God gives us the resources to go beyond what is required of us.

Matthew 17 is a big chapter. Jesus is transfigured, casts out a demon and promises that if the disciples have faith like a mustard seed, they will be able to move mountains. Throughout the course of the year, we will look at each of these things, but today we are focused on something unique to Matthew: the paying of the temple tax. Every free Jewish man was required to pay an annual tax of two denarii (each worth a day of manual labor) for the maintenance of the temple, in addition to their tithes and Roman taxes.

Some tax collectors came to Peter and asked something like: “Your master pays the temple tax, doesn’t he?” Peter, without consulting with Jesus, said  “Of course!” When he returned to the house, Jesus, showing supernatural knowledge, asked him a question about whether princes needed to pay taxes or not. Of course, it was the other people who had to pay taxes, not the royal household. Jesus, as God’s Son, is then exempt from paying the temple tax, but to prevent being a stumbling block to the tax collectors, Jesus will make a payment. God’s children are free from certain man made regulations, but we are not exempt from the debts of love. Rather than stand up for His rights on principle, Jesus stands up for the tax collectors on compassion.

But Jesus and the apostles were not rich. They travelled from place to place, dependent on the kindness of the people they reached. They did not have an abundance of money to cover this tax. But Jesus announces that Peter is to go fishing and will find a single fish with enough money in its mouth to cover Jesus’ tax and (in a comic twist) Peter’s too. To try and put this into perspective, a day laborer today might expect to make $100 to $120. The temple tax would be something like $250. Jesus tells Peter to go fishing, and he will find a fish with a $500 bill in its mouth.

God expects us to go beyond what can rightly be demanded of us, but He also is the one who provides us with the resources we need to do it. Peter and Jesus would pay a tax they did not owe for the sake of the tax collectors, but would do it through a miraculous provision of a valuable coin in the mouth of a fish. When we trust God, He supplies all of our needs.

Discussion idea: Have you ever had an opportunity to choose between what you had to do and what you could do?
Prayer focus: Pray for the kind of love that Jesus had, that we will go above and beyond what we must do, for the sake of the gospel.

January 25 - Matthew 19


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.

Monday, January 22, 2024

January 22 - Matthew 16

Big Idea: God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus.

Key Verse: Matthew 16:17

Jesus took His disciples near a city called Caeserea Phillipi and asked them who people thought He was. Peter, as the spokesman for the group, offered various identifications of Jesus as one of the different prophets resurrected. But Jesus moved to a much more important question when He asked them “But who do you say that that I am?”

Peter’s answer was bold and correct: “You are the Christ/the Messiah and the Son of the Living God.” Jesus’ response was surprising: Simon son of Jonah was a blessed man, because He was not offering human answers, but the answer given to Him by God the Father. God had chosen to reveal who He was to Peter, by introducing Peter to Jesus. Jesus promised that this confession in Him was the rock on which He would build His church, which would never be overcome.

Older kids: The Romans had built a temple to worship Caesar Augustus in the city the disciples were overlooking. Jesus was presenting His disciples with a choice: who would they confess as lord? Within a few decades of Jesus’ death, Christians would be executed for refusing to worship Caesar. While individual Christians might lose their lives, the institution of the Church would persist on this rock.

Younger kids: Christ was not Jesus’ name, but His title. Christ Jesus and Jesus Christ are comparable to saying King George or George the King.

We are in the same position as Peter, because that church Jesus built has continued through the ages. Sometimes His churches were in hiding, sometimes they were strong, sometimes they were many and sometimes they were few, but they continued confessing His name and were never overcome. Like Peter, this is not a human triumph, but a divine one. We could never know what this King is like by our own reasoning or strength, but we know who He is because He has come and revealed Himself to us. We do not need to wonder what God is like, because He has shown us who He is by becoming a man and dying on the cross for us. We could never climb up to Him, but in love, He has come down to us.

Discussion idea: How does the way God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus give us confidence in good times and bad? How does Jesus’ promise that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church encourage us to be bold even in the face of loss?

Prayer focus
: Pray that, just as God reveals Himself to us when it is time to be saved, that He would continue to reveal His will for our lives to us as we learn more about Jesus.

Friday, January 19, 2024

January 19 - Matthew 15

 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 18, 2024

January 18 - Matthew 14


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 17, 2024

January 17 - Matthew 13

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 16, 2024

January 16 - Matthew 12

 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 15, 2024

January 15 - Matthew 11

 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 12, 2024

January 12 - Matthew 10


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 11, 2024

January 11 - Matthew 9

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

Big Idea: The miracles of King Jesus demonstrated His royal authority.   

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 10, 2024

January 10 - Matthew 8

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

Big Idea: The Kingdom of Jesus was accepted by the unexpected.  

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.