Monthly Archives: December 2016

Today’s Scripture – December 29, 2016

Matthew 13:33 (NIV) He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

This is another parable about small beginnings, but deals more with methodology.

The people of Jesus’ day had no idea how yeast worked.  They only knew that if a small piece of leavened dough, held aside from the previous batch, was added to a new batch of dough, the leaven would spread through the new batch, and soon the whole thing would be leavened.

Today we know that yeast is a variety of fungus that feeds on starches, like sugar, and produces gas bubbles that raise the dough as a byproduct.  However, the focus of the yeast cells is not on producing the gas bubbles that we value so much, but on simply reproducing themselves.  The individual cell consumes the starch, metabolizes the nutrients, produces a small bubble of gas, and divides in two.  The process is then repeated by both the old cell and the new, resulting in four cells.  And so the process continues, and the multiplication of the cells continues exponentially until they run out of food, or are killed by the heat of the oven when the loaf is baked.

The yeast, in the process of doing what it does – reproducing itself – changes the whole character of the loaf.  The yeast cells aren’t trying to change the character of the loaf; the change occurs as a simple byproduct of their focus on multiplication.

In the same way, the people of the kingdom of God have one purpose given to them by Jesus:  to multiply themselves.  “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19)  They are to feed on their relationship with God through Jesus, and on God’s word to them.  Then they are to take all of that power and use it to reproduce themselves in the people all around them.  Like the yeast, they don’t have to reproduce themselves hundreds at a time (although that can happen from time to time).  All it really takes is for each disciple to reproduce themselves by making one new disciple who can reproduce themselves, and then start the process all over again, and, over a surprisingly small interval of time, the growth will be exponential.

Like the yeast, the focus of disciples should never be on changing the society in which they live.  That focus could easily overwhelm even the staunchest disciple.  Instead, the changes will take place in a society as a natural result, a byproduct, of the multiplication of disciples, until the entire society is transformed.  That’s why Jesus didn’t say, “Go and change the world,” but “God and make disciples of all nations.”

Father, it is easy to see how, when we take our sights off of simply reproducing ourselves, and try on purpose to change society, that our efforts become less and less productive, and we become smaller and less impactful, because we haven’t been reproducing ourselves.  You have empowered us to multiply ourselves like yeast, so that we can fulfill Your command.  Help us to focus on this calling, and accept that real societal transformation will come as a natural byproduct of our obedience.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – December 28, 2016

Matthew 13:31-32 (NIV) He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.  Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.

In the days when the exiles returned from Babylon and laid the foundation of the new temple, many were dismayed, because it seemed so insignificant compared to the grandeur of Solomon’s temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians (Haggai 2:3).  But God promised His people that glory of the temple that they were building would greatly exceed the glory of the former one (Haggai 2:9).  At around the same time, God told His people that they were to not despise the day of small beginnings (Zechariah 4:10 KJV) with regard to the new temple.  It is impossible to look at the start of something and to see the greatness that God can produce from it.

A mustard seed is a perfectly apt analogy for this.  Even though a mustard seed looks insignificant compared to other seeds, such as corn or wheat, the plant that grows from it can be many times larger than those that grow from the larger seeds, and can easily produce many times more seeds than they can.

Jesus used this analogy for the kingdom of God.  At the time that Jesus left the world, He only had about 120 devoted followers (cf. Acts 1:15) whom He tasked with taking the gospel of the kingdom to the whole world.  Compared to the task, the beginnings of the Church seemed woefully inadequate.

But one should never look at the beginnings, and then determine what is possible  Just a few days later, on the day of Pentecost, God accomplished a mighty miracle, and in a single day, the Church grew to more than 3,120 people.  From such small beginnings, great things were already starting to happen.

In God’s kingdom, a single person can be the catalyst for dozens, hundred, or even thousands of changed lives.  And that person doesn’t have to be a pastor or a PhD theologian.  God can work through the great and the lowly, through the rich and the poor, through the weak and the powerful to accomplish great things.  All that it requires is for a person to place themselves entirely in His hands, to live their lives for Him in the power of the Holy Spirit, and amazing, even miraculous things can be done through them to grow God’s kingdom, until it fills the whole earth.

Father, we do often look at ourselves, and instantly discount what can be accomplished through us for Your kingdom.  We make the excuse that the world is so large, and I am only one person. But we forget Jesus’ illustration about the mustard seed.  Help me, Lord, to have faith, not in what I can do, but what You can do in and through me to grow Your kingdom, and to reach more people with the good news.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – December 26, 2016

Matthew 13:28-43 (NIV) “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
“’No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest.  At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn….’
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.  The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.  They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”

There have always been weeds among the wheat of God’s people, from the days of Moses when Korah, Dathan and Abiram raised a revolt (Numbers 16); through the days of Jesus’ ministry, when Judas, one of Jesus’ inner circle, betrayed Him; all the way down to the present.  And, until the end of the age, when Jesus returns and purifies His people from all that contaminates them, that will continue to be the case.

Moses put up with a lot from the weeds.  Ultimately they frustrated him so badly that he acted rashly, and lost his opportunity to go into the Promised Land (Numbers 20:2-13).  It would have been tempting for him to have conducted a purge, and try to get rid of all those who did not seem to be 100% committed to God.  But instead, he simply followed the Lord, and let the Lord do the weeding as He chose.

Jesus could easily have cast Judas out of His inner circle, and even forbid him to follow Him at all.  But even He did not see that as appropriate.  Instead, in the full knowledge that betrayal was in Judas’ heart, He followed the Father, and let Him do the weeding at the appropriate time.

In the same way, these days it is sometimes tempting to deal harshly with those who might seem to be weeds, and to cast them out of the fellowship.  But Jesus’ caution must take priority:  “While you are pulling up the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.”  Sometimes what looks to us like weeds may legitimately be weeds.  But sometimes they are people who are simply not believers yet, people who have not yet been transformed, but in whom God is still working.  It is often impossible for people to see the difference, especially in the early stages.

It is important to note that this in no way does away with the need for discipline in the church.  If someone is caught sinning, Jesus laid out clear procedures to use in Matthew 18:15-20.  But note that, even when discipline must be used, the intent is to restore a brother or sister who seems to have gone astray.

The key is that human judgment is fallible, and the most righteous person can still make mistakes in judgment.  Declaring someone to be a weed, irreparably outside the kingdom, is a dire pronouncement, and is best left to God.  And sometimes, even as He used Judas as a part of His divine plan, He can use the weeds that spring up in the church to strengthen and build up the faith of the good wheat.

Father, it is tempting to summarily dismiss someone who seems destructive and weed-like; to skip over Your guidelines for how to discipline them, and simply try to get rid of them.  But even in the church, we must be careful that our instinct for protection and self-preservation doesn’t cause us to act rashly, unintentionally rooting up wheat along with the weeds, and ultimately short-circuiting the work that You may be doing in the hearts of those people.  Help us to trust in You to do the weeding at the right time, and in the meantime, to simply follow You in everything.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – December 25, 2016

Matthew 13:24-28a, 26-39 (NIV) Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.  But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.  When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
“’An enemy did this,’ he replied…”
Then he left the crowd and went into the house.  His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man.  The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom.  The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil.  The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.”

Jesus’ next parable switches focus from how the hearts of people respond to the good news of the kingdom to God’s kingdom itself.  Even though it is tempting to equate the kingdom of God with the church (lower case c), Jesus uses this parable to illustrate why there is a difference.

The kingdom of God is composed of all of those around the world who have trusted in Jesus for salvation, and who therefore live in a restored relationship with God. They obey God’s commands, and do His will on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).  They are the New Jerusalem, the body of Christ, and the dwelling place of God’s Spirit.

The church, on the other hand, is composed of many who belong to the kingdom of God.  But by its very nature it also attracts many who are there for other reasons, just like the crowds that followed Jesus.  Some are legitimately seekers who have not yet received salvation, but they are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and will ultimately be filled.  Others are there for the fellowship and for the feeling of belonging that is naturally present in congregations that are focused on God.  They have potential to become part of the kingdom, but are not on the path yet, because they don’t yet have a real sense of their need for salvation and reconciliation.  That awareness is masked in their hearts by their need for family and fellowship.

But there are also those who are drawn to the church, but who are focused on themselves and their own agendas.  The focus of some of these is to make a name for themselves, and to attract a following in order to build themselves up.  Some others aim to remake the church into what they believe it should be to suit their own ideas.  Still others come in to cause strive and divisions.  These are weeds, planted among the wheat of the kingdom by the enemy.

The  problem with these weeds is that, at least in the early stages, they look so much like the wheat that it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to tell the difference.  And those who do notice the differences, being kingdom members who legitimately love others as themselves, tend to grant them a lot of grace, and to cast them in the most positive light possible.

These people have always been part of the church, and have frequently caused problems for the people of the kingdom.  Jesus called them false prophets, and wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15), people who look like a fellow sheep on the outside, but who had damaging intentions on the inside.  Paul called them savage wolves (Acts 20:29-31) who would rise from among the church’s own members to distort the truth and to draw away disciples after them.

Even though these people are present in most, if not all, congregations, both Jesus and Paul recommended a cautious approach with regard to dealing with them.  Jesus recommended that the people of the kingdom watch the fruit of people’s lives before following them.  And Paul simply recommended that the people of the kingdom in Ephesus be on their guard so that they would not be led astray by them.  Even though it is tempting to just try to get rid of those that one suspects of being weeds, there are dangers in trying to do so that Jesus Himself cautions against in this parable.

Father, I can honestly say that I have run into several people in my years in the church that seem to fit the description of weeds.  But I can also say that some of them ultimately turned out to be true members of the kingdom when all was said and done.  So I understand very well the reason for Your urging caution and restraint in dealing with them.  Lord, we are Your people, and obviously want the best for everyone in Your churches.  Help us to use Your ways in dealing with everyone, even with those who strike us as being weeds.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – December 23, 2016

Matthew 13:16-17 (NIV) “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.  For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

Those who were squandering the opportunity to really see and hear Jesus had no idea what they were throwing away.  Jesus was the culmination of God’s promises to His people.  He was with them now, and for a limited time.

Those whom Jesus had chosen to follow Him had eyes that could see who He really was.  At times, their vision was flawed, due to previous teaching that sometimes washed over what Jesus was trying to show them, and sometimes by their own humanness, which caused them to see in Jesus what they wanted Him to be instead of who He really was.  But their eyes were wide open, and their sight was becoming clearer with each passing day.

They had ears that heard what Jesus was teaching.  Especially at this early stage, they didn’t always understand what He was telling them, but their hearts longed to know, so they asked Him when His meaning escaped them.

Jesus was always patient with the ignorance of His disciples, and answered their questions clearly and simply.  Theirs was not the stubborn refusal to understand of the Pharisees, because Jesus’ teachings contradicted their preconceptions about God’s kingdom.  It was not the feigned ignorance of the Sadducees, who were more worried about the appearance of subversion that might threaten their authority and position.  Instead, theirs was the innocent ignorance of young children whose inexperience with spiritual things made it hard for them to grasp the monumental truths that Jesus was speaking to them.

Jesus knew their hearts; that they were willing learners, not only willing to learn, but actually intent on learning about Him and His kingdom.  He knew that they would quickly respond to His teachings, so He taught them.

Jesus tried to help them to understand the privilege that they enjoyed.  Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and other spiritual giants had seen His day in the far distance, and had longed to see it for themselves.  But “they were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised; they only saw and welcomed them from a distance.”  (Hebrews 11:13 NIV)  But the followers of Jesus were actually experiencing the things that the prophets had promised.  The future that those heroes of the faith had looked forward to was unfolding right then, and they all got to be a part of it.

Father, so often we strain so hard to see the future that has been foretold that we don’t realize when the fulfillment happens in our own time.  You did amazing things in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  But I think that too many of us feel like we are stuck in an “in-between time,” waiting out the clock until Jesus comes back to fulfill the rest of His promises.  We are slow to understand that You are fulfilling many of those promises right now, if only we will open our eyes to see like those first disciples did, and open our ears to hear.  Help us to live with You in the present, and not let a focus on the future keep us from experiencing the wonder of Your here-and-now kingdom.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – December 21, 2016

Matthew 13:10-17 (NIV) The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.  This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.  In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.  For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.  Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’  But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.  For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

Jesus’ parables were not designed to make the truths of God’s kingdom accessible to all through the use of simple imagery, as some teach.  Instead, they were designed to make those truths come alive for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear; those in whom the Spirit of God was already at work because they were earnestly seeking God and His kingdom.

There were many in the crowds that Jesus regularly spoke to who did not get the parables.  To them they were simple stories that couldn’t possibly have any deep meaning.  Among those were the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who were so sure that they had a lock on God’s truth that they felt no need for additional light, especially when that light came through someone the considered a mere itinerant preacher and sorcerer, who amazed the crowds with his “parlor tricks.”

These men really did fulfill Isaiah’s prophecies.  They had eyes but they couldn’t see what was going on right in front of them, because they willfully closed their eyes to anything that didn’t fit their own preconceptions about God (and about them!).  They had ears, but their ears had grown hard of hearing through listening to their own prayers and their own arguments.

But they weren’t the only ones in the crowds who saw and heard, but who didn’t really see or hear.  Many in the crowd were there just to get close to Jesus.  While He was teaching, their minds were focused on the miracles that they had seen, or that they hoped to see, and on who they would tell about them.  Their whole focus was on themselves.  They came away from their time with Jesus with stories of their experience.

But those who had eyes that could really see because they were seeking first God’s kingdom came away with so much more.  They came away changed by their encounter with Jesus, the Truth.  And those who had ears that could really hear because their hearts were open, came away with the true meaning behind the parables that Jesus told.

Father, give me eyes that always see, because they are connected to a heart that longs for Your kingdom to become real in my life and in the world around me.  Give me ears that always hear because they are connected to a heart that wants to grow more and more close to You every day.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – December 19, 2016

Matthew 13:8-9, 23 (NIV) “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop–a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.  He who has ears, let him hear.
“But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

The seed that fell on good soil was no accident.  Whereas the rest of the seeds in this parable, those that fell on the hard-packed pathway, on the shallow rocky soil, and into the weedy soil were stray seeds that fell where they did because of the broadcast method used to sow them, the seeds that fell on good soil are those intentionally sown to grow a harvest.

In the hearts of the crowds that surrounded Jesus on any given day, all four kinds of soil were represented.  Jesus freely spoke about the kingdom of God to all of them, but He was intentionally aiming His words at those whose hearts had been prepared to receive them, and it was in those hearts that He expected the kingdom to take root and multiply.

Those hearts were prepared by a combination of God working in them to open them up to the truths about His kingdom, and faithful people speaking God’s truths boldly and faithfully to them.  John the Baptist was one such faithful person, who had in fact been sent specifically to help prepare the soil of those hearts to receive Jesus and His message (cf. John 1:76-80).

Of course, other people had worked on the hearts of God’s people, both consciously and unconsciously.  Some mistreated those people, causing their hearts to harden instead of soften, so that when Jesus appeared, His words could find no place to penetrate.  Others taught a skin-deep brand of faith that encouraged external righteousness, but did nothing to break up the hard hearts underneath, leading them to quickly grab hold of Jesus’ teachings, but then to turn away when the path grew harder.  (John 6:60, 66)  Others loaded down the hearts of the people with so many demands, rituals, and man-made additions to the law, that when they heard Jesus’ words, those extras choked the life out of them, and prevented any real fruit from forming.

Jesus’ gospel was actually a good deal simpler than most people believed it should be.  He didn’t surround His truths with elaborate rituals and ceremonies.  It was simply the good news of the kingdom of God – that once again, and for all time, God Himself was in the process of working to liberate His people, not from Egypt or Babylon, but from the penalty and power of sin, and that whoever was willing to have faith in Jesus, and surrender their lives completely to God, could become a part of it.  That message, though often cloaked in the symbols of Jesus’ parables, penetrated deeply into the hearts of those whose hearts were soft and fertile from responding to God’s preparation, and began to immediately germinate and grow.  In the years ahead, those same people would begin to produce fruit as they shared the good news of the kingdom of God, and brought more and more people in to partake of the real life that Jesus made possible.

Father, we rarely think about this parable when we think about “sharing the gospel.”  Still less do we think about how our actions, words, and attitudes play a role in forming the soil of the hearts of those around us who don’t yet know You.  It’s easy to see that we have two roles to play in growing Your kingdom.  We need to be consistently sowing the seeds of the gospel everywhere we go, like Jesus did.  And we need to always be looking at the hearts around us, the potential new fields that we will be working, and pray that the Holy Spirit would soften and prepare them, as well as being willing to help in that work of preparation as You direct, like John the Baptist did.  Help me to do both today in cooperation with You, and to do my part well.  Amen.

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