Monthly Archives: March 2017

Today’s Scripture – March 30, 2017

Matthew 23:25-26 (NIV) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were indeed very good at keeping the outside of the cup, their outer life, clean and polished, and looking wonderful.  But the inside of the cup was another matter entirely.

Jesus knew what was inside a person, and in the case of these leaders, He knew that their hearts, the insides of their cups, was filled with greed and self-indulgence, and even more evil things.  And God, who looks not at the outside of a person but at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), did not even see or take into account their scrupulous attention to all of the fine points of the law. He only saw the evils within.

Jesus’ solution to this problem was simple, elegant, and perfectly effective.  He was urging these men to repent, so that their hearts, the inside of their cups, could be made spotlessly clean, something that no amount of good works or renewed efforts could ever accomplish.  It is something that only God Himself can do.  And then, with hearts that are perfectly clean and pure, their actions, the outside of the cup, would be clean, pure, and holy as well.

The biggest problem that these leaders and teachers faced was that, in their worldview, they believed that if they got their outer lives clean enough, their hearts would follow along.  But Jesus knew that only God can cleanse a heart, and He does that work from the inside for those who repent and believe.  No amount of outer “scrubbing” can ever make a heart clean.

Father, I wonder how many of us today have fallen prey to that same inaccurate worldview.  How many of us try to be holy by trying to do more holy things and less bad things, instead of merely asking You and allowing You to cleanse our hearts?  If we let You make our hearts clean, our actions will follow suit.  Help us to be humble enough to ask You for the inner purification we need to be genuinely holy at heart, and not try to approach true righteousness as a self-improvement program.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – March 29, 2017

Matthew 23:23-24 (NIV) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin.  But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness.  You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were very focused on keeping all of the fine points of the law.  But in their focus, they missed many of God’s larger and overarching requirements.

For example, many of them really did spend long hours laboriously counting out small seeds of dill and cumin, and leaves of mint, ensuring that one out of every ten went to their tithe.  They believed that God would bless them for their extra diligence, since the vast majority of people measured out their tithes by weight or measure, and might be off by several seeds or leaves.

But in the process, these men were overlooking the “more important matters of the law” such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in these things in their theology and speak about them in their lectures.  But their eyes were so focused on the minutia of their religious observances that they really didn’t make time to apply them.  It was like a man so captivated by what he is seeing through a microscope that he doesn’t notice that his house is burning down around him!

In their zeal for keeping every fine point of the law, these men ignored justice, fighting to make sure that the least was treated fairly.  They overlooked mercy, instead dealing harshly with people who did not live up to their standards, even writing them out of God’s salvation!  And they overlooked faithfulness to all of God’s commands to love others in His name.  They were like those God spoke to through the prophet Isaiah about fasting and Sabbath keeping (Isaiah 58), who had the procedures right, but who were missing the why, the reflection of God’s own character that His people are supposed to exhibit.

Many of these men would literally pour their tea and wine through a piece of cloth before they drank it in order to strain out any gnats that might have gotten into it, because gnats were unclean.  Jesus’ final statement shows the irony of this by His figure of man being meticulous about straining out gnats, but swallowing a camel, which was also an unclean animal.  His point was that while these men focused on avoiding the minute details of sin, they ended up violating much larger commands by treating God’s people harshly, failing to show God’s love and mercy, and not receiving His Messiah.

Father, this is a trap that we can all fall into:  focusing so much on specific right actions that we miss You and Your purposes in the midst.  Jesus specifically taught here that the details are important, but reflecting Your character through justice, mercy, and faithfulness is even more important, and must never get lost in the details.  Help me to keep my eyes focused on You as I go through my day today, so that I can live out a full-bodied faith, correct in the big picture as well as in the details.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – March 28, 2017

Matthew 23:16-22 (NIV) “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’  You blind fools!  Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?  You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’  You blind men!  Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?  Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.  And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.  And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”

It was this twisting and dodging in the matter of oaths that moved Jesus to condemn oath-taking among His followers (Matthew 5:33-37).  The Pharisees and teachers of the law had developed an intricate system of oaths that was incomprehensible to the common man, and allowed them to dupe and manipulate the uninitiated.

The examples Jesus gave were only two of the many that were in common use.  If a Pharisee was entering into an agreement with someone, they could swear “by the temple,” and thus seem to improve their credibility with a divine vow.  But later, when they reneged on the vow and were called on it, they could smile and simply claim an exemption:  swearing by the temple wasn’t really binding.  Of course, if they had sworn by the GOLD of the temple, that would have bound them.  Thus they felt that they could be false without compunction, simply because of the words that they carefully chose.

But, as Jesus clearly explained, their man-made rules about oaths didn’t influence God’s judgment on the matter at all.  As God is honest, upright, and just in all of His dealings with people, so God’s people area to be equally honest, upright, and just in all of our dealings with others.  Intentionally twisting words to give a false impression, even if we call it “nuance,” is a lie in God’s book; to use a sacred oath in that lie doubly so.  If God’s people make a promise, even if we swear by our own big toe, or don’t use an oath at all, God considers us iron-bound by that promise, because, as people who bear His name, failure in honesty on our part besmirches His name and reputation.

Jesus was correct that it is better for God’s people to not have to resort to oaths, even honest ones, to bolster our credibility.  Instead, we should have such sterling reputations earned by being absolutely honest in all of our dealings, that our simple word can be trusted to be our bond.

Father, this really is a character issue, and these leaders failed the test of character with their weasel words and their sly dealings that don’t resemble Your character in the least.  Help me as Your man to always have honesty above reproach, so that my dealings with others and my character bring only glory to Your name.  Amen.

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Today’s Scriptures – March 27, 2017

Matthew 23:15 (NIV) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”

Just as it is impossible for a bad tree to bear good fruit (Matthew 7:18), an ungodly teacher cannot produce a godly disciple.  A person can only teach what he or she knows.  And, in the case of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, they had a lot of head knowledge of the Scriptures, but their hearts were far from knowing God Himself.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees knew the letter of the law.  But outside of a relationship with God, the letter of the law is fatal to the soul (2 Corinthians 3:6).  Jesus Himself pointed out that the Pharisees were scrupulous in their observances, going so far as to count out precisely one-tenth of small seed crops like dill and cumin, and leaves of mint to ensure that they gave an exact tithe of even these (Matthew 24:23), But their hearts were devoid of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

When these men made a convert, instead of teaching them to know God and showing them God’s power, love, and grace, they loaded down these new believers with lists of rules to follow, and shades of meaning of the various commandments.  Their new faith then, became all about rules and requirements, and left out the all-important element of relationship with God.  Such a religion cannot save, but merely attempts to imprison the will behind the bars of regulations – a death trap, as Paul clearly learned during his days as a Pharisee (cf. Romans 7:9-11).

The faith that Jesus came to bring stood in stark contrast to the religion of the Pharisees.  His faith is one in which believers are brought into vital relationship with God through His own faithful life and sacrificial death (Romans 5:18-19), a proximity from which they can develop a genuine relationship with God Himself.  But such a new and radically different faith, a different pathway to justification, necessarily showed the path of the Pharisees for what it truly was:  a path to failure, and ultimately to hell.

Father, this is really crucial.  There is still a tendency for us to introduce new believers into a faith of rules and requirements instead of relationship.  Partly this is because it is easier, but partly it is because that is all many of us know!  Help us, Lord, to keep our living relationship with You at the forefront of even our own disciple-making activity, so that our converts are twice as much children of heaven as we are.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – March 25, 2017

Matthew 23:13 (NIV) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were not entering God’s kingdom for one reason:  they were determined to enter on the basis of their own righteousness, and were rejecting the only legitimate gate into the kingdom – Jesus.

But their spiritual shortcomings extended far beyond this.  They were slamming the door of the kingdom in the face of multitudes of legitimate seekers.  They had written off to their faces many of the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus had come to seek and to save.  In their denunciations, they had convinced many of these that they were too bad to ever be saved; too wicked for God to visit anything on them besides His judgment and wrath.

In doing this, they were operating in direct opposition to God’s agenda and purpose.  And with every person they discouraged and waved off the path as unworthy, they brought deeper judgment on themselves.  Not only that, but they were actively trying to persuade people that Jesus, the one true way, was a charlatan and a fake, turning them even further from the path.

Jesus’ denunciations of these men may seem harsh to some.  But He was simply delivering God’s message directly to them.  They had strayed from God’s ways, and were now actively working in opposition to Him.  Jesus’ words had a twofold purpose.  To those who still had enough spiritual life and love for God to be able to respond, His words were a wake-up call – a call to repent and get back on the path.  But for those whose necks were stiff and whose wills were set on the path of ruin that they were following, God’s words were a sentence of doom that would soon overtake them.

Father, we are so reluctant to speak Your strong words to people.  But for those locked hard into sin’s irons, those harsh-sounding words may be the only thing that can break through and penetrate their souls, moving them to repent.  Help me to never be cruel or harsh with those whose hearts are soft.  But help me never to turn from speaking, even the hard truths, to those who need to hear them, so that they can be led to repent, and be saved.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – March 24, 2017

Matthew 23:1-12 (NIV) Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:  “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
“Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus honored the teachings of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, insofar as they taught correctly.  They had been given authority by God to teach the people the requirements of God’s kingdom, and Jesus knew that that was a necessity.  The people would not obey God’s requirements unless they were taught to obey them, as was clearly shown in the times before the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, when the law was not taught, and God’s people cast off all restraint.

It was not their Scriptural teaching that Jesus had a problem with, but their hearts.  Jesus knew what was in a person’s heart (cf. John 2:25), and these men were no different.  He knew that, even when they taught orthodoxy, their motives were impure.  Even when they did right things on the outside, their hearts were smudged and stained with sin.

Both groups were famous for pushing people to obey all 613 commandments in the law, plus all of the collateral regulations that had been developed around those commandments over hundreds of years.  It was a crushing burden that was nearly impossible for the average person to keep track of, let alone obey.  And, not being able to do all that these teachers required of them, the people of Jesus’ day lost hope of ever being good enough in God’s sight.

But the teachers of the law and the Pharisees had largely exempted themselves from these strict rules through a series of loopholes that had been developed along the way.  Thus they could, for example, make false oaths that didn’t obligate themselves, and incurred no condemnation (in their opinion) if broken, because of the way that they carefully worded those oaths.  (See Matthew 23:16-22.)  As another example, they could walk further than the standard 2/5 of a mile on the Sabbath, because they had invented work arounds that exempted them from the heavy load that they imposed on others.

Jesus’ advice was to obey their teachings, but not to follow their example, because the way that they lived was far from righteous.  Jesus also warned His disciples that they were not to strive for titles like these teachers and leaders, because that striving would lead them into sin, and its achievement into pride.  He advised them to eschew titles and positions like rabbi, or father, or teacher, because they were all followers of the one true Rabbi, Father, and Teacher.  Instead of striving to be someone special, their focus needed to be on serving.  Instead of trying to be exalted and admired, they needed to focus on serving God, and on taking up Jesus’ agenda as their own.

Father, the lure of titles and admiration, and even fame, is very strong.  But in Your economy, those who are humble are the greatest, and those who do the work of the kingdom in obscurity are those who garner the greatest praise from You.  Help us to live lives that fit this mold every day, that we may keep our focus on You and on Your agenda every day.  Amen.

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Today’s Scripture – March 23, 2017

Matthew 22:41-46 (NIV) While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”‘  If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

The Pharisees had all gotten together to see if there was a way to refute Jesus’ teachings at the temple.  But His teaching on the greatest and second greatest commandment was not only unassailable, the Pharisees found themselves actually agreeing with Him.  Now Jesus took them on an investigation into the person of the Messiah – who He was supposed to be.

One of the most confident teachings that the Pharisees had about the Messiah was that He would be a descendent (or “son”) of king David, a descendent in the direct line of the ancient kings of Israel.  Thus they looked for a person with a clear pedigree, who would come to Jerusalem one day as a mighty ruler.

Jesus didn’t disagree with the theology of the Messiah’s descent.  He knew that the Scriptures clearly foretold that the Messiah would come from David’s line.  And He had no problem fulfilling that prophecy, as He was Himself from David’s line through both His mother and Joseph. (See Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38.)  But to the Jewish people, “son of” included the subtle understanding that the son would be less than the father.  They looked forward to being ruled again by a Davidic king, but they saw David as the epitome of kings that would probably never be matched again.

But Jesus, the Messiah, was not only as great a leader as David, He was infinitely greater, being in fact God in the flesh.  To support this, Jesus pointed back to Psalm 110, a psalm written by David Himself, and widely accepted to be a prophecy about the Messiah.  Jesus pointed out that David talks about how “the LORD” (the divine name of God) spoke to the Messiah, but calls the Messiah “my Lord,” or “my master.”  Jesus’ point was that if David calls the Messiah “Lord” or “Master,” He must be greater than, not less than, David.

The Pharisees couldn’t argue against Jesus’ logic.  It was at that moment that they realized that they would never be able to trap Him in His words or trip Him up in His theology.  He was just too good!

Father, Jesus really is greater than David, or any earthly king precisely because He was and is God in the flesh.  If even David accepted Him as Lord, we can’t claim to be too good to receive Him as such ourselves.  Help us to do precisely that.  Amen.

 

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