Monthly Archives: February 2017

Today’s Scripture – February 27, 2017

Matthew 19:27-30 (NIV) Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

It is true that the twelve had left everything to follow Jesus.  There were actually thousands who followed Jesus, but the vast majority of them were occasional followers – they would come and hear Jesus when He was in their area, and when He moved on, they would go back to their jobs and families.

But the twelve were different.  Jesus had called them specifically to be with Him full-time.  They had left behind their jobs, their families, their whole lives to follow Jesus.  Some, maybe even many of them, had felt good about doing that because they believed at the beginning that Jesus would soon take over the reins of the government, and they would be elevated to important positions in His administration.  So it seemed like the short-term giving up of financial and familial security would be more than paid back when He was swept into power.

But that scenario was seeming less and less likely.  Jesus Himself squashed that dream every time it surfaced, and instead talked about how suffering and death, not a crown or throne, was waiting for Him in Jerusalem.

Jesus had just told the rich young man that if he wanted eternal life he had to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then leave everything and follow Jesus.  Peter and the twelve had already left all to follow Him, so Peter wondered aloud what they would receive, since state positions seemed to be off the table.

Jesus’ answer pointed far beyond the present time, and even far beyond the present world.  Those who had left all to follow Him would indeed receive honor and authority, but it would come at the renewal of all things, when Jesus was recognized as king by the whole world.  All that they had left would be repaid; all that they hoped for would come; but they would only receive it in full (along with eternal life) in the fullness of time.

In addition to reassuring themselves that all they had done would not be for nothing, Jesus’ statement should have immediately done away with the competition and infighting that was always going on among them.  Their future was more glorious than anything they could imagine, and in that future there would be no upper echelons and no lower.  All of them would sit on thrones, all of them would be judges, and all would have eternal life.  But the spirit of competition still continued, albeit in less obvious ways, despite Jesus’ closing warning that those who strived to get to the top would find themselves on the bottom.

Father, the future You had in store for these men was spectacular beyond all they could imagine.  But it was almost too amazing for them to believe.  So they still scrabbled for position instead of simply doing what Jesus called them to do, and trusting Him to ensure that future.  Help us to never fall into that same trap.  Help us to trust You enough to simply obey, and leave our future in Your hands.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – February 26, 2017

Matthew 19:23-26 (NIV) Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

It was a common teaching at the time of Jesus that the only way a person got rich was if God was greatly pleased with them and funneled wealth their way.  This teaching brought great comfort to the rich (who were thus assured of God’s great love for them), and great consternation to the poor (who were puzzled as to what in their lives was blocking this great blessing).

But now a wealthy man had walked away from Jesus because of His statement that his wealth was actually getting between him and eternal life!  And then Jesus doubled down on this statement by saying that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.  Jesus was not just saying that it was difficult or tricky, but pretty much impossible for great wealth and the kingdom of heaven to exist in the same person’s heart.

In one sense, this should not have surprised Jesus’ followers.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had flatly said that it was impossible (not merely difficult) to serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24), because serving both would require giving mastery to both, but only one master can be actually be served in a person’s life, and most people, given the choice, choose money.  But hearing that in isolation on a mountain, and hearing it stated so starkly after watching a man choose money over the kingdom of God struck the disciples completely differently.  If those who had been given abundant material blessings by God could not get into God’s kingdom, who could possibly be saved?

Jesus’ answer was both pithy and profound:  It is impossible for man in his own strength to break himself free from the mastery of money and other material possessions.  The lure of such things is simply too strong, and once a person has them, they find that worrying about them, working to keep and protect them, and struggling to grow them becomes by itself a nearly full-time job.  And as a person’s focus is drawn to those things, their relationship with God quickly falls by the wayside.

But with God all things are possible.  A person with an absolutely rock-solid relationship with God, whose heart is solidly committed to putting Him first and has been purged from a love of money, can be trusted to use worldly wealth for the interests of God’s kingdom without getting snared by it.  In this sense, a rich person getting into heaven is an impossibility on a par with raising someone four days dead.  It can’t be done by any human means, but God Himself can do it easily.

Father, the love of money really can shut the doors of the kingdom to those who fall prey to its snares.  Such idolatry cannot exist in people who name You as Lord.  But I praise You that, through Your power and strength, all things are possible, even having great wealth while being immune to its lordship.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – February 25, 2017

Matthew 19:16-22 (NIV) Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”
“Which ones?” the man inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.'”
“All these I have kept,” the young man said.  “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

This rich young man who came to Jesus was in earnest about wanting to know the way to eternal life.  But his expectations about what Jesus would recommend were far from what happened.

The man was actually looking for a single thing that he could do that would buy eternal life for him.  Many teachers had taught things like this:  a prayer to be said each day, a rhythm of good deeds to do each week, or a specific offering or gift to take to the temple.  This man was willing to check off any box of this type that Jesus might recommend.

But Jesus started with a curve ball:  just obey the commandments.  This panicked the young man.  The Pharisees had counted and counted, and had determined that there were 613 discrete commands in the law, and each of them had spent years memorizing them all, as well as all of the commentaries about how they were to be obeyed.  Surely Jesus didn’t mean that he would have to become a Pharisee, or dig out all 613 commands on his own and try to obey them!  That fear was the source of his question, “Which ones?  Which of those 613 commands do I have to obey?  What is the smallest number of the most significant commands that I have to obey to achieve eternal life?”

Jesus knew the man’s heart, that no matter how much he wanted eternal life, there was an idol in his life that he would have to let go of before he could receive it.  So rather than just jump out with the greatest and second-greatest command (Matthew 22:36-40), he began just listing some of the commands from the 10 commandments, as well as the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself from Leviticus 19.  The idea was, if you were going to look to obedience to the law to help you inherit eternal life, you really did have to obey all of them, and do it flawlessly.

The young man was confident that he had all of those commandments down, and likely was a very nice person toward other people, the focus of the commands that Jesus had listed.  But his problem was really not in his relationship with others; it was in his relationship with God.  The young man was very wealthy, and his devotion to maintaining and increasing his wealth had far outstripped his devotion to God some time before.  The young man knew this in his heart of hearts.  Even though he was a nice guy, and always treated others fairly, he sensed that there was still a problem between himself and God.

Jesus’ final answer threatened to lance the boil of the man’s idolatry once and for all.  He could have eternal life, or he could keep the idol of his wealth, but he could not have both.  If he wanted eternal life, he had to give away all of his wealth, and then follow Jesus.

Notice that Jesus’ challenge was also an invitation.  In giving up his false god, Jesus invited him into a relationship with the one true God.  But it truly was a one-or-the-other choice.  No compromise with false gods could ever be allowed in one’s relationship with God.

The man’s decision was reflexive.  The threat of the loss of his idol of gold made him clutch it to himself all the tighter, and turn away.  He wanted eternal life, but he didn’t want it enough to let go of the one thing that kept him from having it.

Father, this really drives the point home that eternal life actually only exists in relationship with You (John 17:3), and that relationship with You will allow for no other gods, no other top priorities.  Help me, Lord, to always ensure that no other god is ever allowed to creep into my heart.  And if I find one that is working its way in, help me to deal with it ruthlessly, so that it can never come between me and You.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – February 24, 2017

Matthew 19:13-15 (NIV) Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them.  But the disciples rebuked those who brought them.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

The disciples believed that they were doing Jesus a favor by keeping these mothers and fathers with their children from being a burden and a distraction to Him.  “After all,” they reasoned, “He has a lot on His mind right now.”

But a huge part of Jesus’ mission was to declare God’s blessings on people, including children.  Yes, He had come to be the Messiah.  Yes, He had come to die for the sins of the world.  But until the moment that He was nailed to the cross, His mission also was to declare the reality of God’s kingdom on earth, and to make it real in the lives of God’s people.

For some people, that meant healing their bodies and souls.  For others, it was setting them free from the power of sin and the oppression of demons.  For others, it was  shining the light of the Scriptures into their minds and hearts.  And for children, it was often pronouncing God’s blessing on their lives, and embodying His presence to them; literally putting a face on God for them.

When Jesus left, there was a vast amount of kingdom work still to be done.  He did not leave His followers a rulebook to follow, or a philosophy to promulgate.  He left them a mission to complete, and sent His Spirit to empower them to do it.  The mission of Jesus was then and still is the mission of God’s people, the Christians.  We are still to declare the reality of God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom made real by the death and resurrection of Jesus, through whom the gates of that kingdom were thrown wide to all of the people of the world.

We are still to make God’s kingdom real on earth by living in God’s presence, doing His will on earth as it is in heaven, and teaching others to do the same.  Sometimes obedience to God’s will means healing the bodies and souls of the people around us.  Sometimes it means setting people free from the power of sin and the oppression of demons.  Sometimes it means shining the bright light of the Scriptures into the minds and hearts of people.  And for children, it frequently means pronouncing God’s blessing on their lives, and embodying God’s presence to them; literally putting a face on God for them.

Father, I’m afraid very few of us see our mission this way. But what a difference it would make if we did!  Some of us run away from Your calling on our lives, fearful that it will be difficult things, or scary things, or dangerous things, or things that require a lot of knowledge of theology or the Scriptures.  But a lot of Jesus’ mission was a joy, as He brought people to life, healed bodies, minds, and hearts, and gave them hope and a future by showing them the way into Your kingdom.  And it is amazing to consider that as we follow Him in all of this, we will have the Holy Spirit working through us so that we can do it all in Your power.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – February 23, 2017

Matthew 19:10-12 (NIV) The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.  For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.  The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Jesus had just shocked His closest followers by opening their eyes to the nature and, as far as God is concerned, the permanence of marriage.  Far from being a contract that could be quickly and easily escaped from, God designed marriage to be a permanent covenant relationship between a man and a woman, lasing until the death of one spouse or the other.  Divorce was a strictly human invention and, except in the case of proven adultery, totally unacceptable to God.

But that was not the way that divorce was seen in Jesus, day, even by the rigidly upright Pharisees.  And it was definitely not the way that the disciples had been taught.  Most people were quite relaxed about marriage, because they had been taught that no less than Moses himself had built an escape hatch into it.  If it didn’t work out, or if they became disenchanted with the wife of their youth, they could simply give her a properly constructed certificate of divorce and try again.

But Jesus’ adamant view that the only valid reason for divorce was proven adultery, and His clear statement that divorcing for any other reason and remarrying was adultery, caused them to gasp.  One of them actually stated, in effect, “If I can’t just get out of an unhappy marriage, it’s probably better to not get married at all!”

But Jesus had a second shock waiting for them.  He agreed with the statement!  He did not put marriage down (after all, it was God’s idea!), but simply stated that if someone was able to live a solo life, whether they had it compelled on them like natural or man-made eunuchs, or chose it for themselves so that they could serve God and His kingdom wholeheartedly, then they should choose that path, like Jesus Himself (and, later, Paul – cf. 1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

It is important, though, to keep both sides of the argument in full view.  Nowhere in the Bible does God forbid His people to marry, not even priests (although priests did have more stringent guidelines – see Leviticus 21:13).  But those who choose to get married must choose wisely, and not allow themselves to enter into a marriage with an unbeliever, or a marriage with a person that they will later regret.  Marriage is a very serious thing in God’s sight, and He intends that each marriage among His people will be a bond for life.  But, at the same time, there have always been those who decide to not get married, and instead serve God with their whole life.  Both of these life decisions are within God’s will, and both will receive His blessing if they are lived out in accordance with His commands.

Father, it is easiest to see this from one side or the other, and wonder why the other side sees it the way they do, instead of simply being supportive of whichever path that person has chosen regarding whether to marry or not.  Help those of us who are married to do marriage like You designed it to be.  And bless those of us who have chosen to not marry with a clear sense of Your presence.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – February 22, 2017

Matthew 19:7-9 (NIV) “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.  But it was not this way from the beginning.  I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

In a single paragraph, Jesus demolished the arguments of the best legal minds of His day.  He not only told the Pharisees that divorce is definitely NOT allowed by God for any and every reason; He also narrowed the allowable reasons down to only one.

Part of the problem that the theologians had was that they interpreted scriptural allowances as mandates.  Moses did not mandate divorce for any reason, but allowed it for “indecency,” which had a very specific (and narrow) meaning.  What Moses did mandate was that, if a husband determined to divorce his wife for indecency, that he didn’t just quit providing for her, but that he divorce her publicly by giving her a properly written divorce decree.  That way there would be no ambiguity about the woman’s status.

Jesu’s point was that marriage was God’s invention, not mans.  And divorce was not God’s invention, but man’s willfully breaking apart what God had joined together.  God instructed Moses to provide boundaries for it only out of recognition that the hard-heartedness of people would cause this breaking apart of the divinely enabled one-flesh bond, and was an effort to minimize the collateral damage.

Jesus also clearly pointed out that there were no reasonable grounds for divorce in God’s sight except for marital unfaithfulness.  In other words, unless the woman had broken the marriage relationship through committing adultery, then the man divorcing her and marrying another would be his own committing adultery, since the covenant was still in force.  God was not bound to recognized what man determined as to when divorce was appropriate; but man was bound by God’s determination.  And the only reason that God would see divorce and remarriage as appropriate was if the other person had clearly committed adultery already.

And, by the way, a suspicion or accusation of adultery was not enough, since an unfounded accusation of adultery could be lodged at any time by a discontented spouse.  That is specifically why God designed a test for a woman accused of adultery when there was no proof (Numbers 5:11-31), because God always knows what is true, and would not let an innocent woman be condemned, or a guilty one go free.

Father, we live in a time and in a society where we have completely lost track of what marriage really is, so it’s no wonder that we see it as a mere social contract that we can define in any way we want, and that can be dissolved “for any and every reason.”  Help us, Lord, as Your people, to recapture for ourselves the truth of what You created marriage to be.  Once we get it, it can spread out into our secularized society as we reach out with the gospel.  But we need to get it first!  Thank you for the clarity of Your word.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – February 21, 2017

Matthew 19:1-6 (NIV) When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan.  Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

Many of the teachers of the law, including the Pharisees and many prominent rabbis of Jesus’ day and before, taught that when Moses wrote that a man should give a certificate of divorce to his wife if she “becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her” (Deuteronomy 24:1), that it allowed for basically “no fault” divorce.  (It’s interesting that this passage that this Scripture is a part of is not actually about procedures for divorcing a wife, but about forbidding remarriage to the same wife after she has married and been divorced by someone else.)  These leaders taught that that a wife could become displeasing by simply burning dinner, or that “something indecent” could simply be that she was no longer as pretty as she once was.  Of course these “rules” for divorce worked only in one direction; only husbands could file for divorce.

The Pharisees wanted to see if Jesus agreed with this liberal interpretation of the law, but quickly found out that He did not.  And for very good reason.  Rather than looking at what the Scriptures said about divorce, Jesus took them all the way back to what they said about marriage, specifically the origin and nature of marriage.

First, Jesus noted that at the beginning when God made mankind, He created them male and female.  (Note that neither Jesus nor God believe in evolution!)  Genesis 2:20b-25 are the key Scriptures here, and show first how God created the woman from a piece of the man taken from his side (traditionally a rib, together with the surrounding flesh).  They then tell how God created marriage, bringing the woman to the man, who instantly recognized in her “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  God then put in the hearts of this man and this woman a desire to reunite what had originally been one flesh into a new, one-flesh union:  marriage.

Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 to support His rejection of divorce.  Marriage is not two people joining into a contract.  It is a man and a woman becoming one flesh in a relationship with God Himself.  Therefore, they are no longer two individuals, but a one-flesh union.  And what God has joined together into that kind of intimate union should not be separated by man.

Divorce was never part of God’s plan for humanity.  In fact, as He said through Malachi, He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).  This breaking up of what God put together is detestable to Him, and actually keeps people’s prayers from being effective and their offering accepted (See Malachi 2:13-15, the context of verse 16 above.).

Father, we treat marriage so casually, so cavalierly today, because we as a society have lost track of what it was made to be when You first created it, or we have been told that those parts of Scripture are just fairy tales.  But everything You say about marriage (and divorce) in the Bible stems from this very real history, including Paul’s exhortations to husbands in Ephesians 5:25-31.  I am grateful that, like everything that we do that is not in line with Your word, we can find forgiveness for disobedience in this area too, if we will simply ask.  Help us, Lord, to always align our lives with the Scriptures, like Jesus, instead of trying to find loopholes in them, like the Pharisees.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – February 20, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV) Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’  The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.  He grabbed him and began to choke him.  ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ “But he refused.  Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in.  ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

 

Jesus was very big on forgiving others.  He had already explained in the prayer that He had taught His disciples that God would forgive their sins only to the extent that they forgave the sins of others (cf. Matthew 6:9-15).

But now Peter is asking for more specifics.  How many times must a brother be forgiven who repeatedly sins against me?  In other words, how many repeat offenses does it take for God to determine that they have been forgiven enough, and are unredeemable enough not to require any more?  To Peter, seven times seemed to be on the extreme end of generous.  If someone sins against me an eighth time or more, he felt that they should lose the right to further forgiveness.

But Jesus had a far different take.  Not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or, as in some translations, seventy times seven times)!  This was not Jesus’ invitation to Peter to start putting tick marks in a record book somewhere to tell when he could start to withhold forgiveness.  Instead, He was telling him that there is no limit.  The people of God’s kingdom must ALWAYS forgive others, purely because they have been forgiven themselves by God.  And, to illustrate the point, Jesus told the parable of the unmerciful servant.

The debt that this servant owed to the king was completely unpayable – today it would be considered billions of dollars.  Because of his inability to pay, the man was doomed to be sold (along with all he had) to recompense the king for a bit of the debt.  But, moved by the servant’s repentance and pleading, the king instead cancels the whole debt, setting the servant free.

But that servant’s subsequent dealings with a fellow servant who owed him the equivalent of a few hundred dollars was scandalous.  Instead of offering the same mercy and forgiveness that he himself had received for an unimaginably larger debt, he withheld forgiveness, and had the fellow servant thrown into jail until the debt was paid, a fact that quickly became known to the king.

The king’s response was immediate, and fierce.  This ungrateful servant had been forgiven billions; how could he not forgive hundreds?  He had no gratitude for what had been done for him, and without his being worthy of such mercy at all.  Instead, he was willing to receive his own forgiveness of such a heinous debt, and then close up his heart to his fellow servant who needed his forgiveness.

The kings final judgment was that this unmerciful servant should be thrown into jail and tortured “until he should pay back all he owed.”  The king basically rescinded his forgiveness, and reinstated the whole multi-billion dollar debt on the unhappy servant.

The application is clear:  all people of the kingdom have been forgiven a debt of sin against the Almighty God that is unimaginably huge.  The forgiveness is granted, not based on the worth of the person asking, but on God’s own mercy and grace.  Compared to what has been forgiven, symbolized by a debt of billions of dollars, no amount of sin against me even matters.  Whether one time, or seven, or seventy-seven, or seventy times seven, or even more, it is completely insignificant by comparison.  And if forgiveness is withheld, then God will revoke the forgiveness that He originally extended, and the full load of sin will be back on my own shoulders.

This view goes against a lot of popular theology, but the parable is clear, and Jesus closing statement shows it even more clearly:  “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”  We must always forgive our brothers from the heart, or the consequences will be horrendous.

Father, it  is so easy for us to forget how much we have been forgiven.  And if we do that, it is easy for us to refuse to extend the needed forgiveness to others.  Instead, we make it all about us – feeling a deep need to be made whole when we are wronged, instead of taking Jesus as our model as well as our Savior.  Help us to not throw away our own forgiveness over wrongs that we refuse to forgive.  Instead, help us to forgive the hundreds owed to us by others as freely and as fully as we have been forgiven our billions.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – February 19, 2017

Matthew 18:18-20 (NIV) “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Jesus again confers on His closest followers, the heirs of the kingdom, the authority to judge what is and is not required of those in the kingdom.  (See Matthew 16:19 for the first time He did this.)  Even though the disciples were not ready to even enter the kingdom because of their pride, their competitiveness, and their mixed motives (see verse 3 earlier in this chapter), Jesus knew that after the crucifixion and resurrection, and especially after the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they would after all inherit and have to lead the kingdom on earth.

But note that they were not to do this as individuals or free agents.  Verse 19 follows immediately after verse 18, and outlines the requirements of wielding that authority:  they had to do it together.  It is not that Jesus is not present or doesn’t answer prayers where a single disciple of His is alone.  It is merely that, in order to lead wisely, the concurrence of at least two disciples needed to be present.  That would, at least among spiritually mature individuals, prevent someone from going rogue in their judgment or decision making.  The other one (or, preferably, more than one) disciple would act as a check on any one person’s authority.

The early Church understood this and, on important questions, tended to call many leaders together.  (See the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 for a biblical example of this, and the Councils and Synods for post-biblical examples.)  Of course, even in this, the hearts of the decision-makers had to be clean, their ears tuned to the Holy Spirit’s voice, and their minds open to His leading.  If that was the case, and all involved heard the same thing, then they could be sure that it was God leading, and not their own minds.

That was also the understanding behind the idea that if two on earth agree about anything asked for, it will be done.  Of course, the prayers of even a single righteous man or woman are powerful and effective (James 5:16b).  But if two or more are listening, and are both moved to pray for the same thing, that is an assurance that the request originated in God’s heart and not in their individual minds, and those requests will always be answered right away.

Father, this is obviously why You saw it as a good thing to put us into community with each other, instead of each of us operating independently.  When we are together, we can not only sharpen each other (Proverbs 27:17), but we can also act as checks and balances to ensure that no one person runs with his own thoughts, believing that they are from You.  It’s a great plan.  Help us to live within it.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – February 18, 2017

Matthew 18:15-17 (NIV) “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

As we read these words, it is vital to remember who is speaking them, to whom they are being spoken, and the context – what Jesus has just finished talking about.  Far too many people read and follow this process as if Jesus was giving them a series of steps for them to take to be able to receive an apology, or to be made whole in the face of a wrong done to them.

But Jesus never focused on such things.  Instead, He teaches everywhere that those who are wronged are to forgive those who wrong them (Matthew 6:12, 14-15), and to do good to those who mistreat them (Matthew 5:44).  Jesus had just finished telling His disciples about the length that God Himself is willing to go to win back those who have wandered off into sin.  This parable continues that theme, this time showing His disciples how they can help.  Looking at this paragraph though that lens changes everything.

If a brother sins (the words “against you” are missing from many of the oldest and best manuscripts and seem to be later scribal additions), then the one who knows about the sin needs to assume that that person has wandered off, and is in danger of being lost.  That disciple is being tasked by Jesus to begin the rescue effort by going to the sinning person, and helping him or her to see their fault, where they have wandered off into sin.  The goal here is not to get an apology but repentance; not to shame the other person, but to win him or her over, and bring them back into the fold.

If they refuse to repent, the situation is more desperate, because it shows an unwillingness to acknowledge the sin, and a hardening of the heart.  That is when one or two other godly brothers or sisters are to get involved, to see if additional input can reverse the dire situation and save the soul.  If not, as a last-ditch effort, the whole congregation is brought in on the issue so that they can pray for that person, and talk to them, to try to restore them.

The last sentence of this paragraph has been used to justify, and even encourage, shunning of an unrepentant sinner.  But again, the context must be seen and honored.  To understand what Jesus meant by “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector,” we have to look at how Jesus Himself treated pagans and tax collectors.  (That is where the disciples would go to figure that out.)  Jesus did not shun them or write them off as unredeemable.  (That’s actually what the Pharisees and teachers of the law did!)  Instead, Jesus considered the pagans and tax collectors as the lost sheep to whom He had been sent to show the way into the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 15:24), and as the sick to whom He had been sent as a physician (Matthew 9:10-13).

What Jesus is telling His disciples here is that if someone, even someone who has been a brother of sister in the Church, turns away into sin (whether sin against me or sin in general), that is a sign that they have wandered away, and every effort must be made to pursue them and get them to repent and return to the fold.  If, even after all of the steps listed are done, they refuse to repent, then they must be considered as one who is lost, as lost as a pagan or a tax collector.  As such, they are no longer a candidate for restoration, but a target of wholehearted evangelistic efforts.  God Himself will see them as lost sheep in need of saving, and will be pursuing them in love to bring them to Himself.  And His people must see them that way too, and deal with them on that basis.

Father, it’s amazing the difference it makes to take the context into consideration.  In the way that Jesus is saying it, even if I am the wronged party, from a kingdom perspective, the focus is not on me, on enabling me to be made whole.  It is on the one who has so clearly demonstrated that they have wandered away from the fold and need to be found.  If it was about me, about my getting an apology or satisfaction for the wrong done against me, then I can read that, after I have exhausted all of these steps, I am justified in writing that person off.  But if it is about them, as Jesus clearly intended it to be, then their failure to repent after even the Church tries to help them to see their wrong shows that they are in need of salvation as a top priority, and urges us to pursue them on that basis.  Thank You for shifting the frame!  Amen.

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