Monday, August 24, 2009

Prayer or Insurrection

Reading: Matthew 21       

[The following is not devotional in nature, but more technical. While much longer than usual, I have attempted to write it in an nontechnical fashion.]
On July 19, 2009, I delivered a message titled, The Coming of the King, which I would like to re-title, The King and the Advance of His Kingdom. That message covered Matthew 21:1-22 which really addresses the coming of Christ into Jerusalem and the unique way in which His kingdom will advance. Or, how it will function in a way so unlike the kingdoms of this world.
While I will not restate that entire message here, I will speak to one particular point because 1) it was one which invited some questions from some “Bereans” in our midst who desired to make sure that the application I made was accurate (which is great to see), and 2) it is one supported by further study into this section of Matthew's Gospel, so I thought it might be helpful to use this forum to make some of these thoughts available.
In particular, I wish to speak to the contrast which I believe our Lord sets up in His prophetic demonstration upon entering the temple, when He turned over the tables of the money changers.
Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. "It is written," he said to them, " 'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers.' " (Matthew 21:12-13)
This scene is truly intriguing. It stirs up images of anger & indignation. However, I suggest it is executed prophetically, with calmness and deliberation, not rage. As the prophets often communicated with an audio-visual effect using demonstration followed by words, so Jesus the prophet (see 21:11 where He is called “the prophet”) has a well thought out action which is explained by His words. His words are obviously planned as He carefully selects Isaiah 56:7 and combines it with a Jeremiah 7:11 creating a contrast between prayer and thievery... or, is it prayer and something else? I suggest it is prayer and something else.
In that sermon I went more into the background of Isaiah and Jeremiah in those particular chapters. I won't restate those things here. I will assume those thoughts and remind us that this Jeremiah quote is capturing an idea; an idea of the temple being a hide out. “Den of robbers” is a play on “den of lions”. Lions are predators, not scavengers—they don't steal their food, they kill their food. The Hebrew word used in Jeremiah 7:11 is more readily translated, “den of murderers,” not “den of robbers.”
So why do our New Testaments use the word, “robbers”? And why do most Old Testaments translate “robbers”? I will start with the first question.
The Greek word translated “robbers” can be either robber/thief, or insurrectionist, revolutionary, rebel who favors the use of force. [See UBS Greek Dictionary, Gingrich Greek Lexicon, Friberg Greek Lexicon which all show this.] Which one is meant? Context is always important. Remember Jeremiah 7 is quoted from the LXX (Septuagint, Greek Old Testament), but was originally Hebrew. This Greek word translated the Hebrew word for murderers, treacherously violent, destroyers of life.
Matthew uses this word again in this final section of His Gospel.
At that time Jesus said to the crowd, "Am I leading a rebellion (insurrection), that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. (Matthew 26:55)
And again,
Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. (Matthew 27:38)
There is no evidence to suggest that robbers were crucified under Roman law. However, insurrectionists were, indeed they would be the prime targets of crucifixion. In fact, these two insurrectionists were supposed to have a third insurrectionist crucified right between them, one much more notorious...
A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. (Mark 15:7)
This may explain why the people of Israel putting palm branches on the road at the beginning of the week, shouting Hosanna, are willing but a few days later to shout crucify Him, and ask for Barabbas. These palm branches are reminiscent of the deliverance from Gentile oppression through Simon Maccabees a century and a half prior. Palm branches had become a symbol of nationalistic fervor and freedom. It might be that they think Jesus is an insurrectionist. In John's Gospel we found they wanted to make Jesus king by force at one point.
Is it possible that once they realize Jesus isn't going to free them by force, deliver them from Roman oppression. Barabbas is a much better option and he would have been popular as an insurrectionist rebel!
So this word is translated “robber” because that is one of the good translations of the word. However, “insurrectionist” is another good translation, and I believe the context supports the latter translation. (I will have more on this in a moment.)
Why do most English translations translate “robbers” in Jeremiah 7:11, if the Hebrew is more indicative of murderers? For good reason, when translating the Old Testament, scholars consider the LXX also. And if it is assumed that the LXX reads, “robber” rather than “insurrectionist,” and if this verse is quoted in the New Testament, especially when it is as well known a verse as it is, translators will often translate it that way. However, if the LXX can be read as insurrectionist, then murderer, the more likely translation, should prevail. (Believe me, I am no Greek or Hebrew scholar, but I have read a few commentaries by real scholars which bring this translation out.)
If this is correct, Jesus is contrasting the insurrection with the power of prayer. Or to say it another way, the power of the sword with the power of prayer. The power of this temple is in prayer, not fleshly power.
Remember Jesus question in the Gethsemane, which we just read, “Am I leading a rebellion (insurrection)?” This follows Peter cutting off the ear of the high priest's servant, where Jesus responds,
"Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:52-53)
Note the contrast between the power of the sword and the power of prayer. The sword represents leading a rebellion, an insurrection. Prayer brings the power of 12 legions of angels.
Now, if all of this is true, then we must get back to the original scene and ask if it makes sense. Is Jesus calling the money changers murderers? Or, is he calling them thieves? My answer is that he isn't calling them anything. I believe He is speaking to the leaders of the temple religion—Pharisees and teachers of the law. I don't think his beef is with the money changers in particular. If it is, then this is the only time they are brought out as objects of correction. There is nothing else in the Storyline to support it.
Usually we construct the idea, based on the translation robbers, that the money changers were extorting huge profits from the poor travelers when they bought animals for sacrifice. While it is entirely possible that this is true, there is apparently no historical evidence to support it. In fact, it is quite plausible that these money changers were providing a service which made travel to Jerusalem possible while preventing the losses which might be incurred while trying to bring animals on such a journey. Indeed it may have been helpful, not harmful.
However, if Jesus is calling the leaders of the temple, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, murderers, then we have much in the context to support it. In fact, from this point forward to the crucifixion, it seems to be a constant theme. Later in the same chapter we read,
"The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (Matthew 21:35-39)
And we are told that the tenants Jesus was talking about, were indeed the leaders of the temple.
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. (Matthew 21:45)
Immediately following this is the parable of the wedding banquet in which we read of those originally invited to the banquet,
"But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.” (Matthew 22:5,6)
Again this is referencing the leadership of the temple religion. Finally, though not exhaustively, you have the 7th woe pronounced against the teachers of the law and Pharisees in which Jesus says,
31So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!
33"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
34Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. (Matthew 23:31-35)
I believe there is significant evidence to support then, that the contrast being created in Jesus' prophetic demonstration of overturning the tables of the money changers is between a house of prayer and a den of insurrectionists. Jesus is the king of a different kind of kingdom. His is not one which will advance by the power of the sword, rooted in some sense of Manifest Destiny. Rather, Christ will reign with a heavenly power. His kingdom is engaged in battle not with “flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12). Therefore we are to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” (6:18)
How often do we trade the methods of Christ (prayer) for the methods of Barabbas (rebellion/insurrection/hatred/murder) and reject the Savior afresh! How often do we groan inwardly because of the brokenness of this fallen world, but spend so little time praying for heavenly power to engage it redemptively?
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Producing the Fruit of Grace

Reading: 2 Peter 1      

A couple of Sundays ago we were talking about grace as God's investment into our lives... not a paycheck. In other words, everything God gives us is pure grace, but we aren't to spend grace however we want, like we might a paycheck which we earned. Grace is not earned. In Matthew's Gospel we found that God expects a return (fruit) on the grace He has freely given. That means grace is not ours to use as we wish, but is intended to be applied to our lives.
This morning, I was reminded of this as I read in 2 Peter 1. I will emphasize the words that brought this to mind.
1Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained (been chosen to receive) a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: 2May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
3His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
5For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. (2 Peter 1:1-9 ESV)
Before Peter talks about anything we are to do, he emphasizes the truth that we obtained, or how we were chosen to receive faith in God's righteousness; how we were granted all things that pertain to life and godliness through God's power which gave us the knowledge of Him; that we were called to His own glory and excellence; we were granted His precious and great promises.
We were given all of the above so that we might partake of the divine nature. In other words, so that we might be like Christ. We were called by the Gospel, saved by the Gospel, given a knowledge of God by the Gospel in order that we might live the Gospel.
Then, after reiterating all we have been given, all that God has done for us through Christ (revealed in the Gospel), he tells us, “For this very reason, make every effort...”. Why make the effort? Because it will keep us from “being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Or, to say it another way, if we don't make this effort and therefore are unfruitful in the knowledge of the Gospel, we are “nearsighted” and have “forgotten” that we were cleansed from our former sins—we have forgotten the Gospel. If we love the Gospel truths of what God has done for us in Christ, we will make the effort to produce the fruit of that grace. We will not treat grace like a paycheck, but an investment for which a return is required. If we don't live that way, it may prove we have forgotten the Gospel altogether.
Following this introduction, Peter goes on to tell them that he is making every effort to make sure they will always be able to remember the Gospel after He lives. And then he begins to recount some of that very Gospel story.
16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," 18we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.
Peter has done his part—we have the Gospel Story recorded clearly for us. May we now make every effort to not forget the Gospel Story, and make every effort to live the Gospel Story so that we are not ineffective or unproductive in our knowledge of the Gospel Story. And may God be pleased with the fruit of grace in our lives.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Monday, August 17, 2009

Beware of the Yeast of the Pharisees

Reading: Matthew 23, Matthew 5, 6   
As usual, there is much that was helpful to me in my study for the message this Sunday—Beware of the Yeast of the Pharisees (August 16, 2009)—that could not make it into the sermon itself. Amongst those things, the following may be helpful in expanding our understanding of the third point: Don't live before men rather than before God. This is the section which dealt with the 5th and 6th woes in Matthew 23:25-28.
25"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
As we saw yesterday, it was not outward cleanness that was the problem; it was inward wickedness. It was not obedience to the commands that was the problem, it was the motivation. It was not what they obeyed that was the problem, but what they didn't obey. Their obedience was not motivated by love for God, or a desire to please God. Their obedience was motivated by love of self, and a desire to be liked/feared/respected by men. They were valuing the praise of men more than the praise that comes from God (cf. John 5:44). Because of this, they only dealt with sin at the level of outward observation failing to deal with sin at the heart level.
However, this isn't a fundamental problem with the law, it is a problem with the heart. The law wasn't about cleaning ourselves up before others, and looking our best. The law was about holiness in us growing out of God's holiness revealed to us. The law was a shadow pointing to Christ who reveals God more fully to us.
Think of the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). The 1st commandment is all about our heart. “You shall have no other gods before Me.” If I obey this one, I will obey the next three. Commandments 2-4 are practical applications of the first:
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them... You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God... Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy....” (Exodus 20:4-8)
If I have no other gods before the One True God, then obviously I would not bow down to another god. Likewise I would not misuse His name and I would keep the Lord's day holy. To do otherwise would be a contradiction of the 1st commandment.
However, it is possible to keep commandments 2-4, but still have other gods before you in your heart—outward conformity with inward wickedness. This is what the Pharisees were effectively doing in how they were living. They were not loving God at the heart level. (For more on this refer to the sermon from Sunday, August 16, 2009.)
The next set of commandments deal with loving our neighbor:
Honor your father and your mother... You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:12-17)
Again, these commands not only address outward behavior, they address inward cravings which are at the root of the outward behavior. Note the tenth: “You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” You can outwardly obey commandments 5-9, but fail completely by not dealing with with the heart of covetousness.
This is what Jesus addressed in the Sermon on the Mount when he reminded us that each of these commands is intended to be lived out before God, not just before one another. In other words, they are to be lived out inwardly, at the heart level, that only God can see. We read in Matthew 5:
21You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'  22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. ... anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
The commandment, do not murder, is intended to be obeyed inwardly at the level of love and hatred. Likewise the prohibition on adultery, was intended to be lived before God, at the level of lust. In other words, it is not okay to window shop as long as you don't touch the goods.
27You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' 28But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Again, the command not to give false testimony, was not merely a reference to formal testimony, or oaths. At the heart level it is about truthfulness in everything we say. Loving our neighbor requires telling them the truth.
33Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.'... 37Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
And your neighbor is that person you find it most difficult to love:
43You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you mabe sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
The Pharisees were not framed because they were trying their best to obey the law, but that wasn't good enough. Rather they were guilty because they did not love the God of the law and so want to be like Him. They did not show mercy to others, give justice to the oppressed, or live faithfully before God and men. They strained at a gnat, but swallowed a camel because their obedience was all about what they loved most: themselves.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lord, Teach Us to Pray (Part 4)

Reading: Luke 11

Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. (Luke 11:4a)

I find this to be one of the most difficult prayers to pray. I will explain, but first let's get some background. Think of the following statements Jesus made:
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)
Again, in the parable of the unmerciful servant:
Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart. (Matthew 18:34-35)
But now we are actually told to pray, “Lord forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Luke, in a way, assumes Gospel fruit. By that I mean, Luke is effectively saying, “In light of the mountain of sin we have been forgiven through Christ, surely we now forgive everyone who sins against us, therefore Lord forgive us our sins, for we also...” To not forgive others reveals a lack of understanding of the Gospel. Yet, when I pray this, I am making a commitment that I have forgiven all who sin against me. Matthew's record says it slightly differently, with the same end result:
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matthew 6:12)
Every time I begin to pray this, I stutter. I stop and think, “Wait a minute, God, hold on. I am not sure I want you to answer this prayer! Let me pause and consider if there are any I have not forgiven.” And then I begin to go through my thought life and ask myself if there are any I have not forgiven... that I am still holding their sins against them. Is there anyone which I am secretly, or not so secretly, hoping God will teach them a lesson by punishing them for their sin against me or others, rather than praying God will forgive them and restore them to His wonderful presence. And usually, I don't have to think long because that person will come to my mind almost immediately as I am praying this prayer—it is that person who brought pause to my prayer.
And then, at that moment I can apply another prayer teaching from Jesus:
...bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Luke 6:28)
Right then I can begin to pray for that person; pray for God to release them from their sin, and forgive them; pray for my soul to rejoice in their well-being; pray for blessing in their life. And as I do this, I begin to forgive them; I begin to actually bear up under the pain of their sin, rather than throwing it back in their face. It cost Christ to bear my sin in order to forgive me. And it will cost you and me to bear the sins of others in order to forgive them. We would often rather (from the standpoint of how we feel) throw it back in their face and make them pay. But we are called to forgive them as we have been forgiven... as God in Christ forgave us.
Then, I am ready to go back to my original prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” And I do so with a proper fear and trembling, a proper fear of God.
It is important to note the corporate nature of this prayer. We are not only to pray, “Lord forgive me and make me a forgiving person (so to speak),” but, “Lord, forgive us (this local church you have joined me to), and make us a forgiving people...” This is a prayer for unity and peace in the church. This might be voiced as a prayer that we, as a church, would,
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:2-3)
Lord, teach us to pray!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lord, Teach Us to Pray (Part 3)

Reading: Luke 11, Hebrews 12

Give us each day our daily bread.” (Luke 11:3)
Have you ever noticed that the Lord's prayer is not individual prayer, but corporate prayer? It began with the 1st person plural possessive pronoun “our”. Not “my Father,” but, “our Father”. Of course if He is our Father, He is surely my Father. But the point is this: we are to see our praying as a joint effort with other believers. We join together with those God has joined us together with and pray. This applies when we actually come together into the same building, but it also applies when we individually go to pray for then we are gathering together with the saints around the throne of God. 
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)
Prayer is a joint effort; a community project. Not only are we praying to “our Father,” but as this next request indicates we are praying for the provision of each member of the church family we are joined to. I think this specifically applies to the local church to which we belong. We are responsible to pray for the provision of those in our midst, not merely our own. And it also applies has a means of praying for believers we may not actually know who may be suffering lack through loss of work, or persecution, those on the mission field, or any number of other reasons.
During this time of economic downturn in our nation it may be even more vivid in our minds to realize that we have a responsibility to pray for the provision of daily bread for those members in our midst who may be out of work. Thank God for the provision you have, but just as we are “to rejoice with the rejoicing, and to weep with the weeping” (Romans 12:15), it seems we are to hunger with those who hunger.
Prayer is a time of being joined together. Just as Paul seems to somehow be connected to the churches he served through prayer, though physically he was isolated from them, so we too are joined together with our brothers and sisters in their needs. And, others are joined together with us in our needs.
What needs are being spoken of here? Physical bread, or spiritual sustenance—bread from heaven? Of course many have debated that point, but I am not certain that there is a need to choose. Can it not be both in this case? Can it not be that Christ is telling us to trust God and pray to God for that which we (think corporately) need physically, and that we too would be supplied that which we need for spiritual sustenance? In the case of the latter I might pray for the Lord to encourage each member of the body in their walk, or to make His word come alive in our souls that day and nourish us. Of course there are many applications of this which we can explore in prayer.
And it is daily bread we are to pray for. Solomon prayed, "Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread." (Proverbs 30:8) We are dependent creatures made to remain dependent. God never intended that we should build storehouses which would put us in a place that we no longer need to rely on Him daily. Whether we are speaking of physical bread, as Solomon, we are to pray for our daily bread. And daily we are to realize our need to go to God. Daily we are to require bread from heaven. Daily we need to be reminded of the Gospel and apply the Gospel and encounter the Presence of God through the Gospel.
In closing, it is important to remember this lesson in prayer from Jesus followed the request, “teach us to pray.” May we ever be asking the Lord to teach us to pray as we enter into our time of prayer. He will indeed answer that request.

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,


Lord Teach Us to Pray (Part 4)