Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Sad Man, a Desperate Man, and a Child

Reading: Luke 18:15–19:10
In Luke 18:15-17 people are bringing little children to Jesus that He might touch them. The disciples think they need to help Jesus by putting a stop to this. Jesus rebukes the disciples with a very well known saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” It is what He says next, however, that I want to draw attention to right now, for it sets up the next three stories.
Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17)
What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God like a little child? What does it look like when one does receives it like a child, and therefore enters the kingdom? I believe the next three accounts answer these questions through the responses of three different men. Which one best represents how you have responded to the kingdom of God?
A Sad Man (Luke 18:18-30)
A ruler who had great wealth came to Jesus to ask how to inherit eternal life. Rich rulers are supposed to be very happy people. This man had an air of self-confidence. Initially Jesus instructed him to keep the commandments which this man professes to have done since he was a child (Luke 18:20-21). Jesus informs him:
You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)
The one thing this man lacks is treasure in heaven.1 Jesus is offering this man a treasure that is greater than the wealth and power he already has. One might expect this man to be very happy to have the answer to the what he pursued since a youth, but he is not.
23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” …27Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
He became sad because he was very wealthy. Before question why he would respond this way, consider: How happy are you when you hear someone say, “Jesus isn't asking all of us to sell everything and give to the poor, he was only asking this man to do it because...?” If hearing that makes you happy, it may be evidence that you too would have walked away sad. Why would anyone walk away sad at the offer of Jesus to have treasure in heaven? Because we are blind to the realities of eternal life. We see our stuff, and we don't see the treasure in heaven. In order to come to Jesus like a little child, we need to be able to see treasure in heaven for the reality that it is. This man could not.
Why is it so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Because they can see earthly wealth so clearly. They have comfort and ease; they don't long for another day, a better place. They don't carelessly or foolishly, like little children, just get rid of everything to follow Jesus. They have to measure the costs; they have to think about the long term ramifications; they have responsibilities; they have a reputation to uphold. It is as hard for them (us?) to take up this offer as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The illustration is clear and simple: a camel cannot go through the eye of a needle—it is impossible!2
This wealthy ruler left very sad because he was not receiving the kingdom like a child but like an important, powerful, comfortable person. This outcome shocks the disciples (Luke 18:26). This man must be a likely candidate for salvation since God has so evidently blessed him. They would never guess the next man to be a candidate for salvation.  
A Desperate Man (Luke 18:35-43)
As Jesus is approaching Jericho, a blind man is sitting there begging. Hearing the noise of the passing crowd he asks what all the commotion is about. Then he began shouting and could not be quieted. Just like the little children who were rebuked for coming to Jesus, this blind man is rebuked for his desperate pursuit of Jesus. It is as if the disciples are saying, “Jesus has time for wealthy rulers, but not little children or blind men.” Jesus asked him what he wanted: “Lord, I want to see!” This man understood his inability to see. He knew it was impossible; he needed God's help, and he received it. He received the kingdom like a child.
A Child (Luke 19:1-10)
Now, if we aren't careful, we might stop reading at the end of Luke 18 and think, “Rich people can't get into the kingdom, but blind people can.” (Or something like that.) However, in the next account we have the embodiment of both the rich man and the blind man in Zacchaeus. Like the rich ruler, we are told that Zacchaeus is both rich and a ruling tax collector (Luke 19:2). Like the blind man, we are told he can't see Jesus and wanted to see (Luke 19:3).
Zacchaeus won't be stopped: he runs ahead, allowing himself time to climb the tree before Jesus gets there, and climbs the tree. Like a child he forgets his power and his wealth, he isn't concerned about his reputation. He seems to have caught glimpse of something more valuable than any of it. Jesus comes to the place where Zacchaeus is He invites Himself over for dinner.
Without any instruction, Zacchaeus begins ridding himself of his wealth and helping the poor. He spontaneously rights the wrongs that he has committed. He is a truly repentant man for he has seen something; he has seen Someone—the Someone Who is the Kingdom of God. Zacchaeus didn't do these things sadly; he did them gladly. His joy seems so foolish to the world—like a child's.
Which of these three best represents how you have responded to Jesus Christ? Have you heard about this kingdom in which your sins are forgiven because God Himself bore the punishment and guilt of your sin for you? Would you gladly give up all to follow Him? Is He your greatest joy?
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

1I have previously written as to why Jesus is only telling him to do one thing and not two things (How Would You Answer This Question?).
2Before you change that from “impossible” (Luke 18:27) to “difficult” by thinking there was a gate called “the eye of a needle” which was so small that a camel needed to be unloaded in order to pass through, you should know: 1) there is no evidence that such a gate ever existed. This appears to be a 5th Century A. D. idea that was offered when the church was experiencing great wealth to explain away this verse. And, 2) Jesus wasn't making the point that it was difficult, but that it was impossible. So such an explanation of a gate doesn't even make sense.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Is that Your Final Answer?

Reading: Luke 15–16  
It is easy to recognize the connection between the parables of Luke 15. They might be easily summarized as the parables on the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Three things that were lost and found. Each refers to the joy that heaven has over the repentance of lost sinners (see Luke 15:7, 10, 23,24, 32). Something I had not recognized prior to my reading this morning is a significant connection between the parable of the prodigal son and the parable of the dishonest steward which immediately follows it in Luke 16:1-13. 
This connection is first evidenced by the description of what was done wrong:
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered (dieskorpisen) his wealth in wild living. (Luke 15:13)
But when this son of yours who has squandered (devoured: kataphagon) your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' (Luke 15:30)
Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting (squandering: diaskorpidzo) his possessions. (Luke 16:1)
The prodigal son squandered his wealth in wild living, later described as devouring this wealth on prostitutes. The dishonest steward squandered the possessions of his master.
Secondly, this connection is evident in their acknowledgment of their wrong. In each case they ask what might be described as a “What shall I do now?” kind of question. In the case of the prodigal son, those words aren't explicit, but implicit (Luke 15:17-19). They are explicit in the case of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:3-4). Each of them recognized their guilt and the desperation of their precarious state. In recognizing this, they gave up figuring things out on their own, and put their fate in the hands of others—the prodigal son put his in the hands of the father; the dishonest steward into the hands of the debtors. This is a “What shall we do?” kind of question.
Luke records many “what shall we do?” kinds of questions. Recall the response of the people to Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:37. What we must do in light of Christ's coming? light of our sin? light of eternity? These “what shall I do?” kinds of questions are a theme throughout Luke's 2 volume writing (Luke 3:10-14; 10:25-26; 12:17; 18:18; Acts 2:37-38; 9:6; 16:30). This is a question that each of us must ask when we realize our own guilt before the holy God and the desperation of our precarious state. We have squandered what God has given us; we have wasted what we were given; we are without an eternal home, we have no ability to provide one for ourselves. We must humble ourselves before the Lord and ask, “What shall I now do?”
In another place, Luke records the wrong way to answer that question (Luke 12:16-21). There the Lord had blessed a man with abundant possessions and he asked himself the question, “What shall I do?” His answer?
18'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."'
This sounds like an advertisement for a financial management company. Keep in mind, it wasn't that this man had barns for storage, it was that his need, instead of his generosity, increased dramatically with the Lord's blessing. When the Lord adds to you, which of those increases most: your need or your generosity?
Some of us may think the next verse should read, “And the Lord said, 'Is that your final answer?' So the man rethought his answer....” However, the next verse reads,
20"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'  21"This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God."
The parable serves those of us who read it as God's question for us, “Is that your final answer?” Like the man in this parable, and the dishonest steward, we have been fools, and have wasted what has been entrusted to us. What must I now do? We must throw ourselves on the mercy of God (Acts 2:38), we must put our fate in His hands, we must become rich toward God (Luke 12:21), and that richness toward God will be expressed in a richness to those who are in need (Luke 16:4) just as God has been rich toward us in our need. Freely we have received; freely we give.
This isn't only about money. We have been entrusted with the grace of God in the Gospel, we have been given forgiveness of our sins. How are we doing in giving away forgiveness? God has been rich toward us; are we lavishing forgiveness and forbearance on others? Or do we make them pay even though they've repented? There are so many ways in which God has entrusted to us His wealth; are we being faithful with what we've been given? When we want to hold someone's sin against them, though they've repented, we ought to hear the question, “Is that your final answer?”  What shall I now do?
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Saturday, June 9, 2012

My Cupboards are Empty!

Lord, Teach Us to Pray (Part 5)  
Reading: Luke 11:1-13
When the disciples came to Jesus in order for Him to teach them how to pray, He not only taught them how to pray, but gave them a simple parable that reminds us of the key motivation for our prayer. Unfortunately, this clear motivation for prayer is often obscured by our translations. However, it isn't hard to clean away the grime so that we might peer into this great motivation for prayer for ourselves.
Then Jesus said to them, "Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.' 7And suppose the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.' 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. (Luke 11:5-8 NIV)
The above quotation is from the recent update (2011) to the NIV, which has definitely made an effort to include the primary meaning of the word in vs. 8 translated “shameless audacity.” The older NIV translation read boldness. Many translations point toward persistence (importunity). And while there are many great teachings in scripture on the importance of persistence in prayer (especially when we feel like God is being silent!), or boldness (because we no longer need to be afraid), I don't think that either of these capture the plain teaching intended in this text of Scripture.
Let's begin by examining the story. Jesus very wisely puts you, the listener, into the parable. You, the one being taught to pray, have an active role in this parable. What is that role? Your role in this parable is to pray. You have a friend, and at midnight you go to him to appeal to him, to make an audacious request of him. What is your request? It starts with another friend who has come to stay with you, and he is hungry. You are required both by custom and by your friendship to offer him hospitality. However, you are a slacker and therefore have nothing to offer him. The notes in the NET translation say on verse 6, “The background to the statement 'I have nothing to set before him' is that in ancient Middle Eastern culture it was a matter of cultural honor to be a good host to visitors [emphasis mine].”
You should be embarrassed; you should be ashamed of yourself. You are unprepared and have nothing to offer your guest. But what do you do? You go immediately, without hesitation even though it is very late, to a friend and wake him up and openly admit your shameful situation: My cupboards are empty! [I have nothing to set before him.] While you don't actually even ask for food, the request is implied by your unashamed admission of need. We are told that this man will get up, not because of your friendship. You receive nothing because of who you are, or because of your standing with this man. He gets up to provide you with the food you need because of your _____________. (This is where the translation of this word becomes very important.)
While various translations fill in this blank with references to persistence, or boldness, the common meaning of the word is unashamedness, or shamelessness. However, even though many acknowledge this meaning, they often go on to say that there is nothing in the context that fits that translation (unashamedness), so they offer solutions in the area of boldness or persistence. Might I suggest that there is plenty in the context to suggest the common meaning of the word: unashamedness?
In fact, that is exactly the point of the parable. You aren't going to have your prayers answered because God is partial to you. That should never be your motivation for prayer. That would be a Pharisaical approach to prayer (see Luke 18:11-12). Your motivation for prayer must be your utter need. And your need is rooted in the fact that you are a slacker. But instead of shame, and hiding from your sufficient friend, you unashamedly go to him immediately, admitting your need, acknowledging your desperate situation and inability to serve others without his help.
Now that unashamedness will no doubt be great motivation for persistent prayer, as your need will drive you to keep asking, seeking and knocking in order to receive the Holy Spirit to help you minister to those whom the Lord brings before you (Luke 11:9-13). Oh that the church, each of us, would learn to embrace our desperate need, and unashamedly go to the Father immediately with our inability to serve others, that we might be empowered by the Holy Spirit to effectively serve them in their time of need! It is your need, and lack, that is intended to spur you on in prayer to the One Who is all-sufficient.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Monday, June 4, 2012

What is Paul's Mystery of the Messiah?

Reading: Ephesians 2–3  
Paul speaks of the mystery of the Gospel throughout his epistles, but it is more concentrated in Ephesians than any other place. What is this mystery? Paul said it had been kept hidden in times past, but is now revealed (Romans 16:25-26; Colossians 1:26), and it was central to his preaching and ministry (1 Corinthians 2:1, 7; 4:1). At times, identifying this mystery can feel a bit like nailing jello to a wall. However, Ephesians 2–3 probably help us get to a core understanding of it as much as any text.
In order to understand what this mystery of the Gospel let's look at Ephesians 3:4-6:
By reading this you are able to understand my insight about the mystery of the Messiah. 5This was not made known to people in other generations as it is now revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6The Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, and partners of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:4-6 HCSB)
This is a clear and concise statement of the mystery of the Gospel. Let's break it down a bit.
Why is it a mystery?
It is a mystery because it was not revealed by God's spirit to the people of God in generations past with the same clarity that it is now through the apostles and prophets in the New Covenant era. In other words, while the prophets talked about it, they talked about it with veiled references. It is likely that they were veiled in speaking about it because they themselves didn't not see it clearly (see 1 Peter 1:10-12).
It isn't a mystery because it is hard to understand now, but it is hard to understand or clearly see if all we look at is the Old Testament. We need the New Testament (the writings of the apostles and prophets) in order to clearly understand what is being said in the Old Testament. Last year, we went through Isaiah as a church on Sunday mornings and because we were able to read it through the lens of the New Testament, we could see Jesus and the church all over the pages of Isaiah. (Click here to listen to those messages.)
What is being revealed that was a mystery?
The Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, partners of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.
Co-heirs of what? The inheritance of the promise given to Abraham. In other words, we [I am a gentile by birth] are the children of promise, the children of Abraham, just as much as a Jewish believer in the Messiah is. To put it in Gospel language, you may recall the account of the woman whose daughter was tormented by a demon. Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.... It is not right to take children's bread (Israelites) and cast it to the dogs (Gentiles).” Well here is the mystery simply put: Gentiles who believe in Christ are not dogs any longer, but are the children. So, it is now accurate to say that the lost sheep of the house of Israel are those children God is gathering from all over the world (the distant shores, or islands, as Isaiah would have said it). (For a sermon on the account of Jesus and the woman He called a dog click here.)
Gentile believers are members of the same body, not a different body, but the same body to whom the promises of Abraham were given. Ephesians 2:11-22 makes this perfectly clear.
11Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" … 12remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace... 19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God's people and also members of his household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
The church is the one body, the one household of God, the one inheritor of the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12–22. This mystery is revealed all over the pages of the New Testament. As you read through the New Testament look for this mystery and it will begin to pop out at you all over the place. Enjoy your reading.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,