Monthly Archives: December 2014

Today’s Scripture – December 30, 2014

Mark 12:32-34 (NIV):  “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

This teacher of the law, unlike many of them at that time, was not out to get Jesus.  Instead, he was in pursuit of a solid relationship with God that would lead him to eternal life.  In Jesus’ answer, he found the same truth that he himself had arrived at through years of arduous study.

He had found, contrary to the beliefs of the Pharisees, that the answer was not to be found in rituals and sacrifices.  He had seen countless numbers who were scrupulous in their sacrifices and ritual observances, and had been for years, but had not the slightest scent of God about them.

He had found, contrary to the beliefs of the Sadducees, that the answer was not to be found in worldly wealth, power, position, and prestige.  Many of that party had all of those things, and pointed to them as signs of God’s favor, but at the same time they had corrupt and ungodly hearts.

And he had found, contrary to the beliefs of the other teachers of the law, that the answer was not to be found in devotion to the study of books.  Many in his own group could recite long passages of Scripture forward and backward, but were no more godly than those who were largely ignorant of the finer points of Scripture.

He had come to realize that the real key lay in complete devotion to God, loving Him with the entirety of his heart, soul, mind, and strength.  If he withheld any part of himself from that devotion, it would quickly become a toehold for the enemy, and would corrupt all of it, leaving him ultimately in the dark.

But that love for God could not be considered real unless it showed itself in wholehearted love for others.  This was echoed by James: What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17 NIV)  It was also John’s point in 1 John 2:9-11 (NIV): Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him. Both commands, whole-hearted love for God and sacrificial love for others, have to be obeyed.  If either is absent, it betrays darkness still abiding in the soul.

Jesus could clearly see that this man had searched long and hard for the truth, and had found it.  He was not far from the kingdom of God.  Good theology is not enough to be in the kingdom, but bad theology will blind us to the truths necessary to enter.  All that was missing in this man’s life was saving faith in Jesus Himself, which would come soon enough.

Father, thank You for making these truths clear.  We, as New Testament Christians, have been commanded by Jesus Himself to love You with every part of ourselves, and to love our neighbors, caring for them in the same way that we care for our own needs.  But in addition to that, we must enter Your kingdom through the one way of Jesus, the Lamb of God (cf. John 14:6).  Help us, Lord, to walk in this way of obedience and faith, starting right now.  Amen.


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Today’s Scripture – December 29, 2014

Mark 12:31 (NIV): “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The greatest commandment is that God’s people are to love Him with every part of themselves:  heart, soul, mind, and strength.  The second greatest commandment comes from Leviticus 19:18:  we as God’s people are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The reason why these two commandments are the keystones of the entire law (cf. Matthew 22:40) is this:

  • If a person loves God completely, with every aspect of who they are, there is no way that they will willfully sin against God, doing what they know is displeasing to Him; no way that they would worship or serve anything apart from Him.  Those are the complete opposite of loving God completely.  And if they ever find that they have inadvertently trespassed against something that God has commanded, absolute love for God will drive them instantly to repent so that the relationship between them and God can be restored.
  • If a person loves their neighbor in the same way and to the same degree as they love themselves, there is no way that they will willfully sin against their neighbor, killing them, committing adultery against them, stealing from them, lying about them, and coveting what they have.  Those are the complete opposite of loving their neighbor.  And if they ever find out that they have inadvertently wronged their neighbor in any way, love for that person will drive them to instantly repent, to do what is necessary to make things right, so that the relationship can be restored.

By the way, the focus of this second commandment is our neighbor, not ourselves.  A teaching makes the rounds from time to time that before we can love our neighbor as ourselves, we have to first learn to love ourselves appropriately.  But this command has nothing to do with feelings or emotions.  It is about action and attitudes.  It really ties in most closely with the golden rule:  “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  (Matthew 7:12 NIV)  Just as we want to be treated with honor and respect, loving our neighbor honors and respects them instead of doing things that will kill body or soul.  Just as we want our marriage commitment to be honored by others, love for our neighbor honors their marriage commitment instead of engaging in adultery with their spouse.  Just as we want our property rights to be respected by others, love for our neighbor respects their rights to what they own, and doesn’t steal from them, or covet what they have.  Just as we want our reputation to be respected, love for our neighbor will never lie or gossip about them, tearing down their good name.

And love like this is not just about avoiding evil.  It is about doing positive good to our neighbor every chance we get.  Just as we would want to receive food, when we are hungry, clothing when we are cold, and shelter when we have none, love for our neighbor willingly shares what we have with others in need.  Just as we would want to be encouraged in times of struggle, visited when we are lonely, and comforted in times of grief, real love for our neighbor looks for opportunities to do those things for them.

This kind of love is easy to see when it is present – no one has to wonder whether they have it or not.  If we are doing these things consistently, we will know it.  And if we aren’t, we will know that, too.  And we, as God’s people, need to realize that this kind of love for others is not an option, a nice addition to our faith if we have the time and energy and means.  It is a commandment – the second most important commandment in the whole Bible, from Jesus’ own lips.

Father, it is easy for us to think that this kind of self-sacrificial love in action is “optional equipment,” or something that we might be able to do some day.  But there is no escaping the truth that Jesus identified this as an outright commandment for Your people, second in importance only to loving You with every part of ourselves.  Forgive us, Lord, for too often putting something so important to You on our back burner, or for disregarding it altogether.  Help us to live in Your love, so that it flows all the way through our lives into the lives of everyone around us.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – December 18, 2014

Mark 12:28-30 (NIV):  One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”

Among the Jewish leaders and teachers that day in the temple, many were intent on destroying Jesus – laying traps for Him that would either destroy His credibility with the people who followed Him, or that would form the basis of official charges that they could bring before the Roman government officials.  But some among these leaders were sincere and devout and craved the truth, wherever that truth might lead.

Among those who sincerely sought the truth was this man, a scribe, or teacher of the law, who had made studying and obeying God’s commands the very core of his life.  The scribes had counted 613 discrete commands in the law, the first five books of the bible.  And there was always a lively debate as to how do divide those commandments up.  Which were critical to a life of godliness?  Which were just nice to do if you could work them out?  Which one was the most important?  And over hundreds of years, the scribes and commentators had worked out many different organization systems, none of which truly satisfied those who genuinely desired to please God.

So this man, after listening to Jesus display His depth of scriptural knowledge, decided to ask his own question:  Of all of the commandments, all 613 of them, which one is the most important?

To the surprise of many, Jesus didn’t go to the Ten Commandments for the most important one.  Instead, He went to the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ summation of God’s law and of God’s history with the Israelites, from the time of the Exodus to the day of Moses’ death about 40 years later.  By the way, Jesus had already showed His deep respect and knowledge of the book of Deuteronomy three years earlier during His temptation in the wilderness.  Every answer that Jesus had given to satan had come from the book of Deuteronomy.

Jesus went straight to what we now know as chapter six, verse four and five.  The first line of these verses were very well known by the Jewish people, forming part of their regular synagogue liturgy: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. This basic statement reveals that God is the only true God, the God of not just Israel, but of the whole world.  There is no other God besides Him, so He is to be worshiped by all of His people exclusively.

But that line is not to be separated from the very next sentence, which shows the natural outgrowth of the former truth, and forms the core of the commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  Since there is no god besides the one true God, all of His people are to love and serve Him completely.  Some have tried to break down what is included in each of these categories, but that is not necessary – the command is actually much simpler than a close analysis would suggest.  God’s people are to love and obey Him in every dimension of their lives, and with every part of themselves:  mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and even physically.

The reason why this is the most important commandment is simple.  If a person is willing to acknowledge that God is the only true God, and if they will commit themselves to love and obey Him in every dimension of their lives, then everything else will naturally fall into its proper place.  If, however, a person is unwilling to acknowledge who God is, or if they hold back any dimension of themselves from His lordship, it will open the door to every kind of sin and compromise that will ultimately reach into and contaminate every area of their lives.

Father, it really is very simple, isn’t it?  If You are acknowledged as the uncontested God of every part of our lives, there is no possibility of us compromising our beliefs with other things, and allowing them to jump into first place in our lives (the definition of idolatry).  And if we love You and are committed to serving and obeying You with every dimension of our lives, there will be nothing that could motivate us to willingly disobey You.  This single command, elegant in its simplicity, really is the hinge-pin of a life committed to loving, following, and obeying You.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – December 8, 2014

Mark 12:18-27 (NIV): Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.  “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children.  The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third.  In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too.  At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?  When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.  Now about the dead rising–have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?  He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”

The Sadducees, the line from which the priests and high priests had come ever since the rebuilding of the temple (cf. Ezekiel 44:15-16), only accepted as authoritative the first five books of the Bible, called the law, or the Pentateuch:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Since these books did not contain any explicit teaching that there would be a resurrection from the dead, they rejected the concept out of hand.

When they came to Jesus that day, they came with what they believed to be an iron-clad argument against the whole idea of the resurrection from the dead.  They approached the idea from a purely logical standpoint:  a resurrection would be too confusing, with too many problems that would have to be resolved.  In their story, this woman had been legally (and rightfully, according to the Bible’s rules on levirate marriage – Deuteronomy 25:5-6) married to each of seven brothers.  So when the resurrection comes, it’s going to be a mess!  Each of the seven brothers would have a legitimate claim on her as husband.  So whose wife will she end up being?

The Sadducees finished with smug looks on their faces.  The best legal minds in their schools had wrestled over this question, and no consensus had been able to be reached.  Therefore, they considered the problem unsolvable, and any advocate of a resurrection from the dead (like Jesus) sadly ignorant.

But Jesus was neither ignorant nor mistaken when He promised a resurrection from the dead – first His own, and ultimately everyone else.  Instead, it was the Sadducees whose understanding was lacking.

Jesus presented His rebuttal to the Sadducees under two headings:  they were ignorant of what the Scriptures really said, and they were ignorant of God’s power and ability to pull off what might seem impossible or illogical to the human mind.

First of all, as far as God’s power, when He raises the dead (which, with his infinite power, is really not difficult), He will not just reanimate what was dead and decayed.  Instead, He will actually recreate us, making us new and imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:42-44a), so that our bodies will last forever, without pain, disease, or aging.  And the life that we will live in our resurrected bodies will not just be a continuation of the life we have lived here, with our need for things like possessions and spouses.  Instead, we will be consumed with our love for God, and completely occupied with serving Him.  There will be no marriage to other people, and marriage relationships that we had here on earth will be subsumed into our mutual focus on God.

As far as the Scriptures are concerned, even the five books that the Sadducees accepted as authoritative contain enticing hints that there is more to our lives than this earthly existence.  When God identifies Himself to Moses, and through Him to the Israelites, He said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  This statement is in the present tense, even though all of these had been dead for four hundred years or more.  Jesus’ point was that God’s statement indicated that His relationship with these three patriarchs was ongoing and current, not a thing of the past.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though physically dead and buried for centuries, were still alive in God’s presence.  And since their lives continued beyond their physical deaths, contrary to the Sadducees’ view that this life was all that there is, a resurrection from the dead becomes neither impossible nor illogical.

Jesus’ final sentence is very important.  The Sadducees’ mistaken notions about the nature of life and of God’s power had caused them to build their spiritual foundation on the wrong stuff.  Even though they were the ones entrusted with the holiest things of God, their focus had become completely locked onto the things of this world.  They relished material gain and material comforts because, in their worldview, this life was all that existed for human beings.  And, because of that, their concept of God had slid into a mode of believing that God’s favor was shown only through material prosperity, a notion that Jesus completely rejected (Luke 12:15).

Father, it is easy for us to sneer at the Sadducees, but at the same time fall into the trap that they were in.  How often do we live like this world is all that there is, or at least like it is all that matters now?  How often do we paint heaven in our minds as merely the world that we know, except with better weather and a healthier body?  How often do we limit our ideas of what is true to the Scriptures that we personally know and believe, instead of constantly allowing the entirety of Your word to stretch us?  And how often do we measure Your blessing in our lives or in our churches merely by the material blessings we possess?  Help us, Lord, to keep our focus on the things of the Spirit instead of the things of this world.  Help us to love You and Your word, so that we are continually learning more of You.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – December 2, 2014

Mark 12:13-17 (NIV):   Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.

The next challenge for Jesus came from an unlikely alliance: the Pharisees, who were focused on righteousness through keeping all of the fine points of the law, and the Herodians, who were focused on loyalty to the king, and thus were generally seen as being in cahoots with the Romans. Their only point of commonality was that they saw Jesus as a threat.

The Herodians were threatened by Jesus’ widespread acclamation as the Messiah, the rightful king of the Jews, a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Herodian dynasty. They also worried that if a popular uprising against Herod ever got a foothold, it would bring down on everyone’s head the considerable wrath of the Roman Empire.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were threatened by Jesus’ credibility with the common people. Jesus made no secret of the fact that He had little use for the rituals, rules, and traditions around which every Pharisee built his life. They saw Him as a heretic, as Sabbath breaker, and a rebel against the traditions of the elders (and likely to bring God’s wrath down on all of their heads!).

In what looked like a sincere question on a hot-button issue of the day, they asked Jesus whether or not they, as Jews, should be paying taxes to Rome. But in that question was planted a trap. If Jesus said that they should pay taxes, the people would rise up against Him, considering Him a shill for the hated Romans. At best (for Jesus), they would desert Him en masse, leaving Him with no influence. At worst, they would rush Him out of the temple and stone Him.

If, on the other hand, Jesus said that they should not pay the taxes that Rome demanded, He could be denounced to the governor as trying to undercut the Empire, a charge that carried the death penalty. Either way that Jesus answered, His goose was cooked!

But Jesus saw through their duplicity at once. Roman taxes were paid with Roman coins, the currency of the Empire, which had the image of Caesar on their face. These coins, because of this image, were not allowed to be used to pay the temple tax – they had to be exchanged for Jewish shekels through the money changers in the temple courts. But outside of the temple, these were the coins that everybody, Jew as well as gentile, carried and traded with.

When Jesus requested and was given a denarius, and asked whose image it bore, He was not ignorant of whose face was on the coin; He was simply making His point. Since the coin bore the image of Caesar, it belonged to Caesar, so should be given to him when he demanded it. However, Jesus had an even more significant point that He was making. The thing that bears the image of God, which is us, belongs to God, and so should be given to Him. The Herodians had given themselves to the king. The Pharisees had given themselves to their rituals, and rules, and traditions. Both groups, despite their profession of being God’s chosen people, had not been faithful in giving to God what belonged to God. So in the end, both groups left without their prey, and stinging from the well placed slaps from their intended victim.

Father, how many of us today can say that we have given ourselves unreservedly to You? How many of us even understand that, because we bear Your image and likeness, we are by rights Yours? And even more so since You have redeemed us! But instead we give ourselves to so many other things, so many activities, so many pursuits, so many causes that are not Yours. And in the process, we steal ourselves from You, and end up deserving Your condemnation. Forgive us, Lord, and help us to set things aright, by giving ourselves entirely to You from now on. Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – December 1, 2014

Mark 12:1-12 (NIV): He then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
“But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read this scripture: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.

It is important to remember the context of this parable. Jesus was only a couple days away from His arrest and execution orchestrated by the same priests, teachers of the law, and elders who had just confronted Him, challenging His right to do the things He was doing. (Mark 11:27-33) And this parable was told directly to those same religious leaders as part of His answer to them. (The chapter break here was not in the original gospel but, like all of the chapter breaks, was added hundreds of years later to make finding Scripture passages easier.)

This parable uses several symbols:

  • The vineyard was a traditional symbol for Israel, but here it stands for the larger concept of God’s kingdom. The people of Israel were supposed to be the people of the kingdom, living in God’s blessing, and growing His kingdom by bringing more and more people into it. God had done everything He needed to do to enable them to be successful at this. Just as the vineyard owner in the parable had done everything necessary to make the vineyard safe (building a wall & watchtower) and productive (planting the vines and digging the winepress), so God did all that was necessary to make His people productive as His kingdom, including giving them a land, empowering them to be victorious over all of their enemies, and even providing wealth beyond imagination.
  • The servants sent at the harvest time symbolize the prophets that God sent repeatedly to the Israelites, trying to refocus them back to their original mission – to work the harvest of the world, and grow His kingdom. But God’s people quickly lost track of the mission and the vision that all people of the earth would be blessed through them (cf. Genesis 12:3), and instead were living in His kingdom as if it were theirs to possess and control. As God sent His prophets over and over again, they persecuted them, and even killed them.
  • Of course, the last messenger that God would send to these people, to try one final time to redirect them was His beloved son, Jesus – the most important, most authoritative messenger of them all. But the leaders of the Jewish people would not tolerate His clear teachings and, even then, were plotting how they might kill Him so that they could regain control of God’s kingdom. Jesus predicted what was already in their hearts: in just a couple of days, these leaders would kill him and (so they thought) throw Him out of the vineyard.
  • The judgment of the vineyard owner on the tenants foretold events that would follow over the following 40 years. These same Jewish leaders would see God’s kingdom given to others, both to Jewish believers who came from outside of their approved circle, and even to gentiles, who would start flooding into the kingdom within the next decade. They would see their beloved Jerusalem and temple destroyed by Rome, and many would die in that conflict.

Even though those leaders, God’s tenants, rejected, and even killed God’s beloved Son, Jesus became the capstone of the kingdom through that very death, and through His resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God that followed.

The vital thing has always been the kingdom of God – His rule in the lives of people who love Him wholeheartedly, and who obediently do the work of building His kingdom, saving souls, and expanding His influence throughout the world. And those who stand against God’s kingdom, ultimately end up standing against God Himself.

Father, how often we fall into thinking that the most important thing to You is our worship and praise. But, as You told Your people in Isaiah 1:10-18, worship without obedience, without doing the work of Your kingdom, without producing a harvest for You, is actually detestable to You. Help us, Lord, to keep Your main thing OUR main thing. Help us to be the people of Your kingdom, and to regularly present You with an abundant harvest. Amen.

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