Monthly Archives: July 2014

Today’s Scripture – July 31, 2014

Mark 7:9-13 (NIV): And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Traditions in and of themselves are not bad things. They can serve to keep us connected with those who have gone before us, and they can even enrich our understanding of the faith. But any time a tradition or a “supplemental teaching” contradicts the clear words of Scripture, it becomes a positive evil that can corrupt the faith of God’s people, and can even drive a wedge between us and God.

Jesus gave the example of a person who devotes money or other property to God. That sounds very pious and self-sacrificing. However, in some cases it made it impossible for them to uphold one of God’s actual commandments: Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12 NIV) One important part of obeying this commandment is by ensuring that our parents are adequately taken care of, especially when they are too old or infirm to provide for their own needs. Some would say, “I’d really like to help, but all of the money that I could use to help you I can’t use, because I’ve dedicated it to God as part of a vow.”

Again, that sounds very pious, but it ends with that person actively disobeying a direct commandment in order to keep a commitment to God that He did not ask for. The principle behind Jesus’ condemnation of this kind of “tradition” is that which was given to King Saul by the prophet, Samuel, when Saul failed to completely destroy the Amalekites as God directed, but saved their king alive to parade in front of his subjects, and also saved the best of their animals, ostensibly to be sacrificed to God as a thank offering.       The principle is: Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22 NIV)

The irony is that these men, these Pharisees and teachers of the law, who so prided themselves on obeying every fine point of the law, were trying to gain additional blessings from God by those extra sacrifices, those additional acts of devotion. But the thing that would have brought them the maximum blessing was simple obedience to God’s clear command. By placing their traditions ahead of what God had commanded, they actually robbed themselves of the very blessings they were trying to earn, and instead actually brought judgment on themselves.

Father, we still have a tendency to do that very thing: to seek Your blessing through extra sacrifices or acts of devotion, while at the same time disobeying Your clear commandments. It is easy to see that simple obedience opens the door to every blessing that You long to give us. We don’t have to “sweeten the pot” with extra promises or acts of devotion.   Simple obedience really is better than many sacrifices! Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – July 29, 2014

Mark 7:6-8 (NIV): (Jesus) replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

The Pharisees and teachers of the law had moved away from the clear teachings of the Bible and, step by imperceptible step, had been following a faith that was largely based on man’s thinking about God, instead of on what God had revealed about Himself.       And they had been judging others, including Jesus, based on their man-centered faith, and had frequently found them wanting.

The process began innocently enough, with godly men adding interpretations and clarifications to the words recorded in the Scriptures. Some of the events in the Bible were confusing to them, or difficult to understand, so they wrote commentaries about them to try to explain them. Some of the commandments and laws left questions as to how they should be applied, so they wrote applications for those commands.       Over time these commentaries filled volumes. Many people, desiring to know and serve God better, intensely studied those writings, crafted by men deemed to be more godly and more wise than ordinary men.

The problem began to manifest itself when those writings became more studied, more well-known, and even more cited than the Scriptures themselves. And the interpretations and commentaries began to be read back into the Scriptures when they were studied, biasing the readers to see things in a certain way, whether or not that way was accurate, not allowing the Scriptures to speak clearly for themselves.

The same phenomena are easily seen in our own times. Many people read the latest devotional book, the latest “historical fiction” about people in the Bible, the latest commentary, and do so much more frequently, much more regularly, and with much more focus than they do the Scriptures themselves. They look up to the authors of those other books because of their godly reputation and the obvious research that they have done. And they feel that those commentators help them to understand the Scriptures better than they could do if they tried to do it themselves. It is then very easy to begin reading those commentaries, those interpretations, and even those fictions, back into the Scriptures themselves, experiencing biases that can lead them to see things in the Bible in a certain way, that may or may not be accurate.

God wrote the Scriptures in such a way that, if His people will only read them along with Him, asking for and receiving His guidance (cf. Psalm 119:18), and letting His words speak for themselves, they can be understood by the vast majority of people.       And whereas the commentaries, devotionals, and companion books can sometimes help people to understand historical contexts and applications more fully, even the best of them can never substitute for careful, Spirit-guided reading of the Scriptures themselves.

Father, we often do read books about the Bible much more than the Bible itself. We do this under the guise of them being easier to understand, kind of pre-processed.       But when we do that instead of reading and digesting the Scriptures themselves, we run the real risk of keeping ourselves mere spiritual infants, instead of spending lots of quality time in Your word, being guided and directed by You, and being purposefully grown up into people who can rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).       Help us, Lord, to crave the meat of Your word, undiluted, unprocessed, undigested, so that its clear meaning will shine forth in our hearts and out of our lives, challenging us, informing us, and ultimately changing our lives in ways that secondary sources never can.       Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – July 26, 2014

Mark 7:1-5 (NIV): The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”

If we search God’s law in the Old Testament, we will not find anything pertaining to washing of hands before eating. This rule came purely from the traditions of men (as the Pharisees and teachers of the law correctly identified it: “the tradition of the elders”.) the idea behind the ritual was that contact with the things of the world, especially contact with gentiles, or with anything that they had touched, would leave a residual spiritual uncleanness on a person’s hands. If that person then picked up and ate something with unwashed hands, that uncleanness would be taken into their body, making them spiritually unclean.

It is a good thing to wash our hands before we eat, but that won’t keep us from being spiritually contaminated. As Jesus pointed out a little later on in this interaction (v15), spiritual contamination does not come from physical germs, but from allowing corrupting elements to impact our souls. Even those Pharisees who were most conscientious about washing any possible contaminants from their hands before they ate were unconcerned about allowing hate for Jesus to penetrate their hearts. Those who would not dare shake hands with a gentile, or go into a gentile house for fear of contamination that would exclude them from the temple, or from eating a Passover meal (cf. John 18:28), had no problem seeking out false witnesses against Jesus and plotting the murder of a man they knew to be innocent.

Traditions are a fine thing, especially traditions that help people to draw closer to God and to rely more fully on His strength to live holy lives. But when the traditions start to cloud the truth, when they make people believe that they are holy while they are disobeying God’s actually commands, or when they become more important than what God actually commanded in His law, then they become harmful, even deadly, and must be abandoned.

Father, I know that we have a tendency to become very comfortable in our traditions, to the point that we don’t notice when they become more important to us that You and Your commandments. And when they do hit that point, they become transformed into idols, and can actually be a snare to us. Help us, Lord, to see ourselves with clear eyes, so that we never lose track of what must always be the main thing: You. Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – July 24, 2014

Mark 6:53-56 (NIV): When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went–into villages, towns or countryside–they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.

Despite appearances, and despite people’s expectations, Jesus did NOT come primarily to heal people or to do miracles. Those things, while quite common in His ministry, were the side-effect of His presence, not His purpose.

Jesus came to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth as a here-and-now reality; to reform and re-form God’s people into what we were always intended to be: the embodiment of God’s presence in the world. But the people of that day, even the Jewish people, were far from understanding that. Even Jesus’ own followers had a worldview that was tainted by false expectations of who the Messiah would be and what He was to accomplish. Many of them still carried the expectation of a largely political Messiah, who would free Israel from its Roman overlords, and raise them again to the glory, magnificence, and power that they had in the days of Solomon.       To the people with those expectations, the miracles were just a bonus – a wonderful blessing that they clamored to take advantage of. But they, like the disciples, missed their deeper significance.

The fact is, where God is, miracles happen, and they happen all the time. Jesus’ miracles were proof that He was, in fact, God in the flesh.       Where He was, God was, and people were healed, sins were forgiven, and demons fled. When Jesus gave His disciples authority to do miracles and cast out demons (Mark 6:7, 12-13), those miracles were proof that God was present with them, and that they were actively living in God’s kingdom and acting in His power to do all kinds of things that were beyond human ability.

Many people have said that miracles are “by definition” rare. Meaning, I suppose, that if they were common, they would no longer be “miracles”. But the miraculous cannot be defined merely by frequency (or lack of frequency). God provided manna to the Israelites in the wilderness every day for 40 years. Each morning for over 14,000 days it was a new miracle. The fact that it happened every day, and that the people began to take it for granted (and to even look down on it – cf. Numbers 21:4-5) does not diminish the “miraculousness” of it one bit. The fact that Jesus healed dozens, sometimes hundreds of people at a time, and that he did that often (the very opposite of “rare”) doesn’t make those events “normal” and not miraculous. A miracle is not defined by its frequency, but by its agency. A miracle is something that is done by God’s power outside of the normal processes of the physical world, whether they happen once a century, or many times a day.

Sadly today miracles ARE rare. But Jesus came to demonstrate that that was not to be the case among God’s people.       Miracles happen when God is present in the midst of His people; when we allow Him to work unimpeded in and through us.       Even the book of Acts only specifically details a few of the frequent miracles that God did in the midst of His people.       The rest are covered with only general statements that still give you the sense that they were frequent. (cf. Acts 2:43; 4:33; 5:12-16; 6:8; 8:6-7, 13; 14:3; 19:11-12.) Because God was present in the midst of His people, miracles happened all the time.       It would have been impossible for them not to!

Jesus was the very embodiment of God’s kingdom – the model of what kingdom people are supposed to be.       He was one through whom all of God’s power flowed to bring healing, freedom, and restoration to the people and the world around Him. He embodied the promise of what God can make of all of His people – a promise realized to a high degree in the people of the early Church.

Father, thank You for this insight. O, Lord, how I long to see this promise of Your kingdom embodied in Your people. How I long to see the ability to be a genuinely miracle-living, miracle-producing people lived out in our own time. Help us, Lord, to follow You so closely, to open ourselves to You so completely, and to live for You so thoroughly, that Your miracle power can once more flow through us into the world, healing, freeing, and restoring the people and the world around us. Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – July 23, 2014

Mark 6:45-52 (NIV): Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.

The disciples were not having a good time. They were trying to obey Jesus’ instruction and get to the other shore of the Sea of Galilee, but the wind was against them. They couldn’t use the sails in that situation, so they all had to row. Even then, the waves were pushing against them.       After several hours of hard rowing, they had only covered a little more than 3 miles (John 6:19). They were tired and discouraged, and figured that, even having to walk around the lake, Jesus would probably beat them to their destination.

One of them looked toward the stern of the boat, and caught his breath. What was that sticking up out of the water? He poked another of the disciples (it was too windy to talk and be heard) and pointed toward the mysterious object. More of them had noticed the thing, whatever it was, protruding out of the sea, with what almost looked like fabric flapping around it. And it seemed to be getting closer. Finally it was close enough for them to see it clearly.       It looked like a person walking on top of the water right toward them. “A ghost!” someone cried out, and then they were all saying it.

Then, over the sound of the wind and the waves, they heard a familiar voice call out, “Take courage!       It’s me! Don’t be afraid!” It was Jesus walking toward them on the surface of the stormy water; they could see that now. They stopped rowing, and in just a moment He was climbing into the boat with them, smiling at the fear that they had shown. And, as soon as He was in the boat, the wind died down, the sea grew calm, and they were able to quickly get to the other side.

The disciples, far from being comforted by Jesus’ presence, were once again mystified, stunned at the things Jesus could do. Calming the storm a few weeks before was amazing; raising the dead was stunning; even feeding a multitude with five loaves of bread and two fish was incredible.       But what were they to make of a man who could walk across the surface of a stormy lake like they walked on dry ground?       Their minds were completely blown.       They had no idea what to do with this.       They still had no idea who Jesus really was. Yet.

Father, we often point fingers of ridicule at the disciples for being so slow to understand. But we are not that much better. We are stunned when we see a real miracle. We still try to work out our own solutions to the major problems we face each day, only turning to You when we can’t see a way forward (and even then with more desperation than faith). Even with the Bible and all of the information that we have about You, I think we only have a small glimpse of all that You are, and of all that You are capable of doing.       Help us, Lord, to lean on You more fully and more completely , so that we can experience more of You. And then help us to share what we learn with the people around us, so that they can learn more about You, too!

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Today’s Scripture

Mark 6:38-44 (NIV):  “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five–and two fish.”
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.  They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.  The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.

As much as Jesus would have like to have seen His disciples instantly spring into action when He told them “You give (these 5000+ people) something to eat,” it was clear that that wasn’t’ going to happen.  So Jesus began to work to both fix the problem and to show the disciples how it was done.

First of all , they needed to realize that they weren’t completely without resources.  After a little research, they found that they had available to them five barley loaves, and two small fish.  Of course, that wouldn’t do much to feed more than 5000 people!  (“How far will they go among so many?” John 6:9 NIV)  But that was the wrong question.  The right question was, “What can God do with these resources?”

The next step was to impose order on the current chaos (a specialty of God’s ever since the creation of the universe!).  Jesus had the people sit down in groups of 100s and 50s.  Thus directed and organized, the people grew quiet and attentive, anxious to see what Jesus would do next.

Next Jesus did something that was completely normal, and, at the same time, completely counter intuitive:  He prayed.  Jesus always prayed before He ate, giving thanks to His Father for providing what He was about to eat.  What was counterintuitive was that He didn’t vary His normal prayer, even under these extraordinary circumstances.  There was no laying out before God the massive challenge – He already knew.  There was no pleading for direction – Jesus was always plugged into the Father, and the Father had already told Him what He was going to do before the situation ever manifested itself.  There was no pleading for a solution – God was already at work to meet the need.  Instead, Jesus merely lifted up the small beginnings that the Father had provided, and thanked Him for what He was going to do with them.

Then Jesus began to break the bread and fish into pieces, which He handed to His disciples, sending them off to the seated groups of people to distribute.  As they broke and distributed what had been given to them, there continued to be bread and fish to break and distribute.  Like the widow’s jar of oil (2 Kings 4:1-7), the food didn’t run out until the last person had received what they needed.  And even more than they needed.  God did not produce only enough for each person to have a mouthful.  The people all ate until they were satisfied, and the disciples picked up 12 basketfuls of leftovers; more than enough to feed all 12 of them another meal.

The lesson that Jesus was teaching was that when the people of God’s kingdom are expressly called to do something, whether it is to share the gospel, or move a mountain, or even to feed more than 5000 people, they can trust God to abundantly provide everything they need.

Father, this is an amazing lesson for us.  But how slow we are to believe and act on it!  How easy it is for us to hear Your command, or sense Your will, and then excuse ourselves because we don’t feel that we have the skills or resources.  But, Lord, Your arm is no shorter today, Your power no less, than it was in the days when You called forth the universe with a word, than when You divided the Red Sea with Your breath, than when You fed 5000 men with 5 loaves and 2 small fish.  Help us to trust You more, and then to turn that trust into action.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – July 12, 2014

Mark 6:35-37 (NIV):  By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late.  Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take eight months of a man’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”

The disciples really were a considerate and caring group of men.  So when Jesus teaching the crowd of more than 5000 people continued on and on, as the sun got lower and lower in the sky, they became concerned that they would suddenly be faced with 5000 hungry people and no way to feed them.  Finally they approached Jesus to remind Him of how late it was getting:  “Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”  It was all perfectly reasonable.

But Jesus’ answer floored them:  “You give them something to eat.”  Silence fell as they all processed what He had just said.  Could they possibly have heard Him right?  US give all of these people something to eat?  We don’t have food for ourselves.  How are we supposed to feed more than 5000 people?!

When they expressed these thoughts to Jesus, He quickly realized that this was turning into teachable moment.  These disciples had a view of God and of themselves that was several degrees too small.  Plus, they were really bad at connecting the dots!  They had just returned from a mission trip, spreading the good news that God’s kingdom was becoming a reality right before the eyes of the people.  They had been empowered to do miracles, heal people, and cast out demons.  And they had been sent out without food, extra clothes, money, or even a purse to carry money in (cf. Mark 6:6-13), putting themselves completely in the care of God.  And they had experienced God’s provision in every way.  Not one of them came back to report to Jesus how they had gone cold, or hungry, or thirsty, or without a place to stay.  Not one of them came back with a story of how God had been unable to provide for their basic needs, or had been unable to work through them a mighty miracle that had needed doing.

But here they were, barely 24 hours back with Jesus, and they seemed to have completely forgotten all of that.  They no longer believed that God could work powerfully through them, so they turned to Jesus.  They saw the magnitude of the need all around them, and didn’t even believe that HE could meet it with the miraculous power that coursed through Him.

But Jesus knew that God, His Father, could meet this impossible need without breaking a sweat.  After all, what was creating food to feed more than 5000 people compared to creating a whole universe from nothing!  All it needed was faith, which Jesus had, and which His disciples lacked right then.  All it needed was moving forward to do what the Father had determined to do.  “You give them something to eat” was the invitation to be vitally involved in what God was doing right then; to continue learning how to be an effective instrument of God’s power in this situation.  But the apostles just didn’t get it.

Father, it is so easy to see ourselves as powerless in the face of many of the situations we find ourselves faced with each day.  We pray frantic prayers, asking You to do something.  But we refuse to consider the possibility that You would answer, “YOU do something.  YOU fix the situation.  YOU speak the needed words of healing or freedom.”  Of course, like the disciples, we could do none of those things in our own strength and power.  But, also like them, we can do anything You command us to do, because it would then be Your limitless power flowing through us to accomplish it.  Help us, Lord, any time You tell us to do something, to say something, to fix something, to never doubt, to never question, but to simply step forward in absolute faith that whatever You command, You can do through us.  Amen.

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