Defined by Faith and Fear

phobia

Phobias are fears that deeply affect the sufferer.  They are not entirely rational, and in fact, can be so strong that rational thinking is hijacked by the fear.  As we’re on the subject of fear this morning, I thought we’d begin with a look at some of the strangest fears people have.

“Nomophobia” is fear that your cell phone, for whatever reason, is going to stop working.  It’s estimated that over half of all cell phone users are affected by this fear.  Based on my experience, I’d say it’s worse than that!

“Ancraophobia” and “anemophobia” are two words for the fear of wind.  People with this phobia are anxious next to an open window or under a hair dryer.

You might guess “spectrophobia” is a fear of ghosts, but you’d be wrong.  It is a fear of mirrors and a dread of seeing one’s image in a mirror.

“Linonophobia” is a fear of string.  There is an online test you can take to assess the severity of your fear, but I’d think just waving a string around would be easier.

“Ablutophobia” sounds like a fear of Popeye’s adversary Bluto, but it’s a fear or bathing or cleansing.  Interestingly, this rare fear is more common in women and children than it is in men.

“Allodoxophobia” is, believe it or not, a fear of opinions.  Don’t you wish politicians and media types would get a dose of this?  The 24 hr. news channels would go out of business!

These are some unusual, new, and weird examples of things that people fear and they sound amusing.  However, in real life, phobias can be severe to the point of crippling a person’s life.  In those cases, serious steps need to be taken to relieve these fears.  God did not create us to live in fear, but in freedom.  While we may not be bound up by a phobia, fear still affects our thinking, attitudes, and decisions.  In our passage today, Jesus sets forth two kinds of fear.  One is good and necessary; the other is bad and unnecessary.  We’ll analyze this passage to understand which is which and how we are to deal with fear.

CONTEXT (v. 1) = Acc. to 11:38, this set of teachings was delivered in or near the home of a Pharisee, following some very strong rebukes Jesus delivered to the Pharisees.  It’s hard for us to picture a crowd this size gathering to listen to the goings-on in or near a person’s home, but it happens in the Gospels. There were so many people, Luke wrote that they numbered in MANY THOUSANDS and THEY WERE TRAMPLING ON ONE ANOTHER.  This is Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s Gospel.

What provoked Jesus’ rebuke was His host’s fussing about Jesus not going through the ritual of washing His hands before the meal.

Followers are defined by faith, not anxiety.

  1. Three things we must not fear.

In verse four Jesus taught, “DO NOT BE AFRAID OF THOSE WHO KILL THE BODY AND AFTER THAT CAN DO NO MORE.”  Followers of Jesus know there is more to life than what this world holds. Everything in this world, including pain, is temporary.  In a sense, even death is temporary as we are raised to life to face judgment.  No matter the persecutions and trials we face in this life, we can be encouraged to know they’re nothing to be afraid of because they are temporary. Don’t waste a moment being anxious about worldly things, no matter how scary they may seem; God is more powerful than all of them and He will deliver you.

In verse seven Jesus urged, “DON’T BE AFRAID.”  His reason?  God has not forgotten you.  He cares for the most common kind of bird: you can be sure that He cares for you.  Put anxiety away; trust in his knowledge of you (HAIRS) and His high evaluation of you (MANY SPARROWS). Anxiety gains power when we doubt God loves us or that He exists at all.

Similarly, in verse seven, Jesus said, “DO NOT WORRY” referring to anxiety over people who oppose our faith.  Jesus warned His disciples that the leaders of their own people would drag them into court and persecute them.  He promised that they needn’t worry about such experiences, even about what they might say in their own defense.  His promise was the Holy Spirit would supply a defense; He would inspire them with the best possible words that would result in the best possible testimony to their persecutors.

  1. Three things we must fear.

Jesus commanded, “BE ON YOUR GUARD AGAINST THE YEAST OF THE PHARISEES, WHICH IS HYPOCRISY” (v. 1).  This section is an example of how the context aids interpretation.  We observed the context section above that a huge crowd had gathered.  Notice the detail in v. 1; JESUS BEGAN TO SPEAK FIRST TO HIS DISCIPLES.  This is a sidebar Jesus held with the Twelve.  He used this occasion to give them a warning about the YEAST that is HYPOCRISY.  In other words, don’t be a hypocrite.  Put these facts together and here’s what Luke is depicting: the vast crowd felt like a victory.  The temptation in this kind of situation will be to please the people so they will stay and come back for more teaching later.  This is human nature.  How many times have we seen people with a distinctly Christian witness in music or preaching become popular and immediately their witness changes, it gets watered down in order to maintain that popularity.

Jesus used the image of YEAST because it is something that works silently but effectively permeates the whole loaf.  That’s why He warned them about hidden and secret things coming to light.  Sneaky compromises with the world made just to be popular will always backfire.  Our God who sees all will also tell all, so avoid hypocrisy.  Be afraid of being exposed as a hypocrite and be sincere from the beginning.

Jesus delivered the most serious warning in verse five, “FEAR HIM WHO…HAS THE POWER TO THROW YOU INTO HELL.”  While it may not sound good, this is the good kind of FEAR, the kind that motivates us to be wise to know what God commands and obedient to Him.  To be sure we get it, Jesus said “FEAR HIM” twice in this verse.

Don’t bother worrying over human violence that can only kill your body: instead, be concerned about God who has THE POWER TO THROW YOU INTO HELL.  The worst any person can do is hurt and maybe kill you TEMPORARILY.  They are not worthy of fear.  What God does is eternal and HELL is eternal separation from God, which is literally THE “fate worse than death!”

Having delivered that warning in verse five, Jesus gave two promises in verses six and seven that are positive motivations to FEAR God.  First, God is mindful of SPARROWS and you are much more important than them.  Relax in the knowledge God has not FORGOTTEN you. Second, Jesus said God has taken the time to number the hairs on your head.  That kind of knowledge indicates intimacy and constant watch care over us.

Wise people fear God above all others and don’t have any fear left for hypocrites or violent punks or any other kind of threat the world can mount.  Fearing God means we don’t abuse grace by accepting His gifts and avoiding our responsibilities.

Verses eight to ten direct us to fear the consequences of disowning God.  Before that, Jesus made a promise to His followers.  Verse eight might be paraphrased as follows: “You be faithful to me and I promise I will be faithful to you, especially when it matters most; at the gates of heaven.”  Loyalty in this life is rewarded in eternity.  We don’t EARN eternal life by being loyal, but our loyalty to Christ is one aspect of a true, saving faith.  It’s interesting how Jesus referred to Himself directly in the present time and to Himself as the SON OF MAN at that future time.  If you understand the meaning of that term as it originated in Daniel 7, then you understand its significance.

Verses nine and ten are a warning to unbelievers.  Jesus is NOT trying to make His disciples anxious about their salvation; that is a bad kind of FEAR.  Instead, He is attempting to motivate unbelievers to come to faith & be saved.  To DISOWN Jesus is to be guilty of disbelief.  Disbelief is refusal to accept the truth and be changed by it reveals a person who has no faith at all.

Back to Jesus’ warning about HYPOCRISY (v. 1): these verses are a warning to unbelievers who have only a pretense of faith.  A superficial faith is more likely to turn from Jesus because of temptations or trials.  The consequence is dire: the worst possible circumstance imaginable.  DISOWN Jesus and He will DISOWN at the worst possible time, on Judgment Day.  Such a person will be lost for all eternity, cast out of God’s presence.

Verse ten has confused a lot of people.  Rather than list all the ways this warning has been interpreted, I want to tell you what I believe Jesus meant, based on the context.  Jesus’ warning there is an “unforgivable sin.”  As it is unforgiveable, the guilty party can’t be saved.  It is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit because it is a rejection of the Holy Spirit’s witness to an unbeliever convicting them of sin and calling them to repent, putting their trust in Jesus.  It is unforgivable because, as the previous verse indicates, the person has denied Jesus all the way to death.  When he/she stands before the throne of judgment, it is too late; they are self-condemned.  Logically, God cannot forgive those who refused His offer of forgiveness.  Our just God gives them what they wanted in this life; separation from God.

Followers are defined by faith, not anxiety.

Commenting on this passage, Darrell S. Bock wrote, “This passage asks fundamental questions about our identity.  Will we fear God or the masses?  Does our affirmation come from above or from our neighbors?”  People-pleasers are fearful folk.  We’re seeing the results of the Church in America trying to “fit in” with the culture.

On the liberal side, there is an evil spirit of accommodation.  In that case the Church has followed the dictates of political correctness, adopting it as “gospel.”

On the conservative side, there is an evil spirit of adaptation.  We have attempted to use worldly weapons of politics and money to fight ungodliness.  In fact, Charles Colson wrote in The Body, “Ironically, political flirtations and dalliances have threatened the church’s independence in the West even more than the direct opposition of Communists in the East.”

The most biblical and godly way is once again in the middle of these extremes.  We need to stay true to Scripture and away from worldly philosophies and methodologies.  We need to be sensible consumers and critics of culture, employing prayer, scripture, and positive responses as often as possible.

This battle is not for our culture, but for the people mired in it.  We direct our efforts at individuals to save them.  Culture and government are not our tools.  We rely on the Holy Spirit and the word of God.  We do not have to win in this world because we know this world is doomed to destruction and are assured that God is going to win.  Only what is of Him survives.  That is our only concern.

 

RESOURCES:

The Body, Charles Colson

The NIV Application Commentary, Darrell L. Bock

Ten Completely Bizarre And Completely Weird Phobias

 

Walking in Jesus’ Footsteps

footprints

Please read Luke 9:51-62 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

Followers follow Jesus’ example.

          Have you seen members of the Third United States Infantry Regiment of the United States Army guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery?  Every day since July 2, 1937, the Old Guard has stood guard.  Pastor Andy Cook wrote about them:

“When a sentinel comes on duty, he walks exactly 21 steps across the tomb, representing the 21-gun salute, the highest honor given to any soldier or foreign dignitary. When he turns, he faces the tomb, and remains in that position for 21 seconds. He turns again and walks 21 steps across the tomb. When he completes the short journey, he stops, turns toward the tomb, and pauses for 21 seconds. The sentinel repeats the process until his shift is over.

“With an average age of only 22, these enlisted men and women prepare for weeks to take a turn at the tomb.  Strict training ensures that the guard will be unwavering in duty.  The guard’s steps will remain perfect, even when no one is watching.

“If you want to join this group, you’ll have to learn a new way to walk.

https://www.lifeway.com/en/articles/sermon-a-clearly-different-way-to-walk-ephesians-4

That statement really impressed me.  The same thing can be said for the Christian faith.  Anyone who wants to become one of the followers of Jesus can no longer walk in the way our culture approves.  We have to learn to walk in Jesus’ steps.

Peter said the same thing in 1 Peter 2:21; TO THIS YOU WERE CALLED, BECAUSE CHRIST SUFFERED FOR YOU, LEAVING YOU AN EXAMPLE, THAT YOU SHOULD FOLLOW IN HIS STEPS.  What an image!  These words were inspired and written by a man who had literally walked right behind Jesus, putting his feet in the same spots on which the Son of God had left His mark.

Now he turns that personal memory into a picture of discipleship, one that we will examine today.  Looking at a pivotal moment in Luke’s account of the life of Jesus, we will see one good & five bad examples of discipleship.

  1. Jesus set a good example.

I like the King James Version’s translation of v. 51; it says Jesus STEADFASTLY SET HIS FACE TO GO TO JERUSALEM.  This gives us a view of the courage Jesus displayed.  He was resolved to do the will of God, to obey His Father.

Courage is not the absence of fear.  It is not about the absence of doubt.  It is a resolution to do the right thing, period.

Jesus resolved to go to Jerusalem in spite of what He’d suffer before being raised from the dead and later, returning to heaven.  The phrase Luke used seems curious, knowing what awaits Jesus when He appeared in Jerusalem that final time.  Let’s explain what Luke meant by THE TIME APPROACHED FOR HIM TO BE TAKEN UP TO HEAVEN.  This verse puts a good face on it, leapfrogging over His death and Resurrection, going right to the Ascension.  In this statement, Jesus showed enormous faith: He looked beyond the trial to the reward.

This choice of words reminds me of Hebrews 12:2 where Jesus’ motive for obedience is explained in this way: FOR THE JOY SET BEFORE HIM HE ENDURED THE CROSS, SCORNING ITS SHAME, AND SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE THRONE OF GOD.

  1. James and John set bad examples.

When their patience was tested, they got angry (52-56).  At the start of this narrative, Jesus and His disciples were in Bethsaida.  That city was north of the Sea of Galilee.  Jerusalem was 80 miles away, as the crow flies.

The province of Samaria lay between them.  God-fearing Jews would go the long way around to avoid Samaria.  It’s a long story, but Samaritans and Jews pretty well hated one another.  That’s why Jesus sent MESSENGERS ahead to GET THINGS READY.  Jesus’ caution was correct; the Samaritans in this village were not keen to have travelers going to JERUSALEM; they did not WELCOME Jesus and His people.   Maybe we can maybe see both sides, but James and John were provoked to anger.

Their reaction betrayed an immature faith.  Jesus nicknamed these brothers the SONS OF THUNDER (Mark 3:17), which may be a comment on their short tempers or bluster.  Based on personal experience and Jesus’ teaching, they had faith to expect that if Jesus said so, they really could “CALL DOWN FIRE FROM HEAVEN TO DESTROY THEM.”

Jesus did not get stressed or retaliate.  As v. 55 says, JESUS TURNED AND REBUKED THEM.  After that, they sought hospitality in ANOTHER VILLAGE.  James and John had faith, but they wanted to exercise it in an immature way.

One kind of experience that reveals a lot about our character is how we deal with rejection.  Sometimes, like James and John, we get mad and we want to “get even.”  It’s not right to be so hard-hearted.

Other times we take the opinions of others too seriously, allowing them to wound our tender hearts. In Galatians 1:10 Paul condemned this attitude as “people pleasing” when he wrote, IF I WERE STILL TRYING TO PLEASE MEN, I WOULD NOT BE A SERVANT OF CHRIST.

Followers of Jesus display His character by avoiding these extremes.  We’re not to overreact to every perceived slight; neither do we have to be a doormat.  Good character is manifest in middle; keep moving forward.

  1. Three “wannabe disciples” set bad examples.

Luke grouped these encounters together to show us how seriously Jesus took discipleship.  While only two of the three of them volunteered for service, all three wanted to join on their own terms.  It’s not that their reasons were bad, but Jesus knew their hearts were insincere, so He confronted them.

“Wannabe #1” I call “The Volunteer” (57-58).  This fellow came to Jesus making such a confident-sounding statement.  Jesus heard his heart, and discerned the Volunteer hadn’t really thought about what following Jesus would cost him.  While Jesus wants His followers to show zeal, have passion for the things of God, no good will come of commitments based on temporary enthusiasms and vain emotion.

“Wannabe #2” is “The Good Son” (59-60).  His request sounds very reasonable, which makes Jesus’ reply sound less reasonable, even harsh.  One of the teachings of Jesus that makes Evangelicals squirm a bit is when He says that the family of faith is more important than one’s family of origin (Matthew 10:37; 19:19; Luke 14:26).  Jesus’ response here is similar.  If this “Good Son” lived in our time, we might remind him the windshield is bigger than the rear view mirror; it’s time to move forward.

“Wannabe #3” is “The Family Man” (61-62).  On the face of it, the Family Man doesn’t seem to be asking for much.  But Jesus recognized an excuse when he heard it and warned this would-be disciple that a divided heart ends in disaster.  In James 1:6-7 we read that prayer with a double mind is not going to be answered affirmatively; it is a sign of instability.

Following Jesus isn’t about pleasing yourself or other people; it’s about pleasing Jesus.  Following Jesus requires sacrifice. Getting our own way and always being right are among the first things to go. Following Jesus requires discipline: the world and your own human nature will keep getting in the way: don’t let them.  Following Jesus requires patience and persistence.  If it’s just a hobby, don’t expect God’s blessing.  Expect to fail.  Following Jesus is motivated by love, even love of self.  At its most basic level, we follow Jesus because we want to have life and every other way leads to death.

Followers follow Jesus’ example.

          In Hebrews 12:2 Jesus is identified as the AUTHOR of our faith (see also 2:10).  In an article entitled “Walking in the Footsteps of Christ,” I read, “The Greek word translated ‘author’ is archegos, and it means ‘the first one in line in a column or file.’”

It is one of those ancient words to which English does no justice.  The picture is that of a ruler who has founded a new kingdom.  If you President Thomas Jefferson personally lead the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase, you’d call him an archegos.

Hebrews 12:2 exhorts us to FIX OUR EYES ON JESUS, which is natural and necessary when you’re trying to step in the footprints someone else has left for you.  We can’t find life on our own; we have to walk in the footprints of Jesus.  He’s already walked past death into life and He alone knows the way.

RESOURCES:

https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/29/29-1/29-1-pp047-054_JETS.pdf

https://www.truthortradition.com/articles/walking-in-the-footsteps-of-christ-becoming-like-christ

Advent Attitudes: Reverence

Advent 4

When we worship God we make Him known.

(Please read Matthew 2:1-12 & Luke 2:8-20 in your Bible.  I’ve used the NIV (1984) for my research.)

Every year about this time we lament the “commercialization of Christmas” and silently pledge not to go to such extremes next year.  Somehow eleven months go by and here we are again.  it seems the only solution is to laugh at ourselves and stay out of the stores until February!  In that vein, I offer a couple of Christmas stories involving kids and gift-giving.

“Two young boys were spending the night at their grandparents’ house the week before Christmas. At bedtime, the two boys knelt beside their beds to say their prayers. The younger one began at the top of his lungs:

‘I PRAY FOR A NEW BICYCLE…’
‘I PRAY FOR A NEW NINTENDO…’”

“His older brother leaned over, nudged him and said, ‘Why are you shouting? God isn’t deaf,’ to which the little brother replied, ‘No, but Grandma is!’”

One father thought he’d found a new angle and told his daughters that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday and he only received three things.  So they were not be upset with what they found under the tree.

As it happened on Christmas morning, one little gal expressed her disappointment with her gifts, very nearly in tears.  When the father reminded her about Jesus only getting three things, she responded “How do you think Jesus felt when he got three things and none of them were toys?!”

(http://desperatepreacher.com/christmas/xmashumor.htm)

Now, at the end of Advent, we add the fourth and arguably the most necessary Advent Attitude: Reverence.  We must seek to regain a sense of the awe of the shepherds, the wonder of Mary, and reenact the worship of the Magi before we throw ourselves into gifting and feasting.  We must pray for God to recreate some of dazzling light of the star that will lead us to Jesus.

Reverence is quiet.  It is understated.  It requires a little solitude and some time for undistracted attention to the Spirit of God in us.  Hands need to be folded and kept still.  Hurried thoughts need to be gently brought back to an inner vision of the radiant baby, the Son of God.

  1. The Magi worshiped God with their giving (Matthew 2:1-12).

Their first gift was to seek Him because their journey was long in both mileage and time.  We have so little information on these visitors, all we can say with certainty is that there more than one (“magi” is the plural form of “magus”) and that they came FROM THE EAST.  Not knowing an exact point of origin it’s impossible to say when they started, but we have four clues about the timing of their arrival.

In v. 1, it plainly says AFTER JESUS WAS BORN. Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ birthday; all that comes from Luke.

In v. 7, King Herod directly asked the Magi THE EXACT TIME the star appeared to them.

Add to that v. 16 where King Herod had all the boys in Bethlehem TWO YEARS OLD AND UNDER killed.  This was an attempt to slay the newborn king whom he thought must be no older than two years, based on the TIME the Magi told them.

In v. 11 the text says they came to a HOUSE, not a stable.  For whatever set of reasons, the family did not immediately return to Nazareth, but remained in Bethlehem for some time.

Their journey started with one fact (a new Jewish king was born) and an idea where he might be found (in Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews).  That’s going to a lot of trouble on the basis of very little information.

Their journey had some danger.  In addition to the usual hazards of travel, there was the danger indicated in Herod’s lethal reaction to the Magi not reporting in to him as he’d commanded.

From the Magi we learn that worship is more about the giving than the gifts.  Their gifts have been thoroughly analyzed by Bible scholars, without much insight added.  People have tried to say that the various gifts are various symbols.  What makes the most sense to me is that they were the kind of expensive gifts one would present to a king to curry favor.  What’s more important is following their example by making sacrificial gifts, whatever we might see as “valuable.”

God’s purpose in these gifts is that they funded the family’s escape to Egypt.  They were small but sold for a hefty price.

  1. The angels worshiped God with their singing (Luke 2:8-20).

The song was the culmination of their message.  The message was: “The most wonderful thing has just happened.”

“I BRING YOU GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY THAT WILL BE FOR ALL THE PEOPLE. This is a major theme of Luke’s Gospel.

“TODAY IN THE TOWN OF DAVID A SAVIOR HAS BEEN BORN TO YOU; HE IS CHRIST THE LORD.

“THIS WILL BE A SIGN TO YOU: YOU WILL FIND A BABY WRAPPED IN CLOTHS AND LYING IN A MANGER.”

The song is an example of heaven-sanctioned worship.

“GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST.”  In other words, “May God be praised in heaven” and/or “to the highest degree.”  Pointing to God is one job humans and angels share; we give Him the glory. For example, in Luke 19:38, the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem shout, “PEACE IN HEAVEN AND GLORY IN THE HIGHEST.”

“ON EARTH PEACE TO MEN ON WHOM HIS FAVOR RESTS.”  What we generally hear at Christmas is “on earth, peace, good will toward men.”  That line is based on a mistranslation in the KJV.  It should actually read as the NIV translates it.  The point: God bestows PEACE on whomever He chooses and He chooses His people.  Paul confirmed this teaching in RMS 5:1; THEREFORE, SINCE WE HAVE BEEN JUSTIFIED BY FAITH, WE HAVE PEACE WITH GOD THROUGH OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST

Worship is more about the singing than the song.  Of course I am NOT referring to any quality of musicianship.  Seven times the Psalms urge us to MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE UNTO THE LORD.  Those verses put the focus on the worshiper’s heart, not his or her vocal chords.  I am referring to the attitude of the worshiper.  As usual, the inner parts are more important that the outer ones.

Because we are committed to your having a MERRY Christmas, I want to conclude with a couple humorous versions of the account of the visit of the Magi.

Three wise men walk into a barn…yes I said BARN…and see Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. Joseph asks why they are disturbing them as his wife had just given birth and needed rest. The first wise man said “I have brought gold for the child.”
Joseph thanked him but asked them to leave. Then the second wise man said “I have brought frankincense for the child.”
Again Joseph thanked him but was getting annoyed as they were interrupting a special moment between him and his wife. He then, forcefully, asked them to leave.

The third wise man said “But wait there’s myrrh!”

It is true that most of what we think we know about the magi has come from tradition or legend, not from the Bible.  As we’ve seen, the Bible does not give us a number of Magi, but legend says there were three, named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  They are so named in the book Ben Hur.

I recently came across a legend of a fourth Magi named Jacques.  Jacques did not make the trip to Bethlehem but stayed behind in Persia.  He refused to go because he was caring for a baby dolphin.

When the other three came back, they were full of wondrous tales of the journey and praise for the newborn king of the Jews.  When they had at last told all, Balthasar sighed and leaned back and said, “Poor Jacques, you missed all these things to stay home and feed that baby dolphin.”

Jacques merely waved him off.  He said, “I like to think I have served a youthful porpoise.”

<https://upjoke.com/three-wise-men-jokes&gt;

Throughout this Advent season we have observed the attitudes of joy, expectation, obedience, and reverence.  May the days ahead bring all these experiences to you.  May they transcend all the distractions the world offers so you will know the fullness of joy and satisfaction that only God can provide.

When we worship God we make Him known.

With this in mind, let us make worship the central part of Christmas.  Let us make Jesus known in our homes, our community, and our world.

Advent Attitude:Obedience

Advent 3

Please read Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to research these remarks.

            If you haven’t discovered it yet, please take a look at the website Bible Gateway.  It is a handy way to do research on the Bible and you can read from many different Bible translations without requiring loads of Bibles in book cases.

Bible Gateway reported last week the most often-searched Bible verse of 2018: “Out of more than 2 billion page views conducted by visitors to Bible Gateway during 2018, the most popular verse for the year was Jeremiah 29:11: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2018/12/this-is-the-most-popular-verse-in-2-billion-pageviews-during-2018-on-bible-gateway/?utm_source=bg&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=weeklybrief&spMailingID=58037004&spUserID=MTI3ODAxOTkxODkwS0&spJobID=1541969998&spReportId=MTU0MTk2OTk5OAS2

You would not want to read too much into this one factoid, but 2 billion is a big number, except in comparison to the federal debt.  So it may be safe to infer from this choice of Jeremiah 29:11 that people are looking for some reassurance.  We who believe need to be reminded from time to time that the trust we put in God is well-placed.  We need to be encouraged to continue to be faithful that our obedience to God is making a difference.  We need to hold fast when trials discourage us.

Obey God especially when it costs you.

  1. Joseph obeyed God (Matthew 1:18-25).

He was the type of man who you’d expect to obey God.  Matthew lists five obedient qualities Joseph evidenced.

He was a RIGHTEOUS MAN (v. 19).  Normally, we think of RIGHTEOUS as obeying God’s law.  However, in this situation the “righteous” thing for Joseph to do was to divorce Mary.  Jewish custom required divorce to break an engagement where adultery had been committed.  The little word AND figures large in this verse.  Joseph was RIGHTEOUS and yet, he did not want to make a public issue of Mary’s pregnancy which was assumed to be the result of adultery.  So there’s something deeper at work in Joseph’s heart than legalism.  Love is there, too, and it tempered the legal response.

He did not want to EXPOSE Mary to PUBLIC DISGRACE (v. 19).  The Greek word for PUBLIC DISGRACE is fourteen characters long.  It meant to punish someone by exposing them to the contempt of the community.  The punishment was shunning; making the person an object of scorn and ridicule.

Adultery was supposed to be punished with death by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:23-24 and John 8:3-5), so there’s a greater danger to Mary than that of a broken heart.  The point is that Joseph was looking for a way to obey God, keep his honor, and not punish Mary.  He was merciful instead of being vengeful.

In the original language, the phrase AFTER HE HAD CONSIDERED THIS (v. 20) means that Joseph came to this decision after a lot of thinking about it.  He did not act rashly.

But when it came to being obedient, Joseph did not take his time; he obeyed immediately (v. 24).  The text plainly points out that when Joseph awoke from the dream, he brought Mary into his home as his wife.  He brought her under his protection.  He accepted her shame as his own and defied the customary response to cases of adultery.

Joseph obeyed the angel’s instructions and, on his own initiative, went beyond them (v. 25).  Matthew points out that Joseph gave up his  conjugal relations with Mary.  He was not instructed to do this, so it may have been something he felt honor-bound to do.  He may have had the foresight to know that any relations between them might cause some to say Jesus was his son.  This way, it is historically clear Joseph was not the birth-father of Jesus.

Obedience in this matter would cost him.  Matthew identified two costs Joseph paid for His faithfulness to the angel’s message.

To accept PUBLIC DISGRACE with Mary.  As far as anyone else knew, Joseph was the injured party here.  Mary had wronged him; she had been unfaithful to him.  As a man and as the innocent party, Joseph held all the cards and Mary’s life in his hands.  He chose mercy before God explained the real reason for Mary’s pregnancy.  After that, Joseph changed his mind about the marriage and proceeded with it.

It cost him what most people would consider a “normal” marital relationship, the customary way to consecrate a marriage.  The Bible confirms the marital rights of husband and wife.  It is an important aspect of the relationship.  Their marital relationship began under a cloud of suspicion.  Instead of the week-long celebration most Jewish couples enjoyed, Joseph simply set aside custom and took Mary into his home immediately.  And, as Luke tells us, one of the first things they did as a couple was to pack up and make the long journey to Bethlehem.

  1. Mary obeyed God (Luke 1:26-38).

She was the type of person you’d expect to be obedient to God.  Luke details five virtuous aspects of Mary’s character.

As the text tells us several times, Mary was A VIRGIN.  Mary had been moral and observed God’s command to have sex only in the marriage relationship.

She was HIGHLY FAVORED by the LORD (v. 28).  This Greek word (charitoo) literally means “full of grace.”  It is used of all believers in Ephesians 1:6 and indicates we are recipients of God’s grace, not dispensers of it.  The use of this word shows that Mary is on the same gracious status as the rest of us; she should not be made semi-divine.

THE LORD was WITH her (v. 28).  This explains the grace we just mentioned.  God is gracious by being present with us and by working His will in us.

She identified herself as THE LORD’S SERVANT (v. 29).  Mary’s faith was mature enough to make her humble.  She knew her place in relationship to her Creator.

Though the angel’s message GREATLY TROUBLED Mary (29), she was obedient.  The appearance of the angel and the greeting alone prompted this reaction and caused her to WONDER what this was all about.  Gabriel’s response was to answer her questions and try to calm her fear.  (In the previous section, Zechariah questioned the angel that appeared to him and was disciplined by being rendered mute.  Mary does the same thing and is not disciplined.  There is no obvious difference between the questions, so the difference my lay in the people.  Zechariah must have disbelieved the angel but Mary believed him.  She asked a question out of curiosity, not out of disbelief.)

Her obedience in this matter would cost Mary.  Luke’s Gospel and a little reasoning reveal four ways in which agreeing to carry God’s Son would require sacrifice on Mary’s part.

We go back to the PUBLIC DISGRACE we mentioned in regard to Joseph.  As the apparently offending party, and as the woman, Mary would have suffered a greater share of the DISGRACE.  Contrast the DISGRACE the people of Nazareth threatened with the grace God offered Mary in v. 28.  Remember our comment on the phrase HIGHLY FAVORED?

As we noted with Joseph, there is the problem of starting a marriage under these adverse conditions.  This initial awkwardness was expertly portrayed in the film “The Nativity Story.”  I recommend it.  (Incidentally, the two leads would also appear in Star Wars films.  From the Star of Bethlehem to Star Wars – it’s a fun bit of trivia – look it up!)

Mary would have to face the physical and emotional conditions associated with pregnancy and childbirth.  We can’t assume that just because she was carrying the Savior that she was spared morning sickness, getting kicked, labor pains, etc.  The conception was supernatural, but we can assume the rest of it was natural and typical.

This is not affirmed in Scripture, but I think we can assume that both Joseph and Mary were concerned how Jesus might be treated by their family and the people in Nazareth.  In that culture, an illegitimate child would probably have to bear that stigma and be treated cruelly.

This happened once when Jesus returned to Nazareth after beginning His public ministry.  In Mark 6:3 someone referred to Him as “Mary’s son.”  This might be taken as an insult, that Jesus was no son of Joseph.  While we know that was biologically true, it’s unlikely this remark referred to His divine father.

Thankfully, this was not always the case.  Luke 2:52 reports, the boy JESUS GREW IN WISDOM AND STATURE, AND IN FAVOR WITH GOD AND MEN.

Obey God especially when it costs you.

Obedience that costs us nothing is not going to be worth much.  Being faithful while trying to take control isn’t a great act of faith at all.  Obedience to God is risky, difficult, and in some places in the world, downright dangerous.

Mary and Joseph are examples of obedience that was costly.  Mary’s obedience took her all the way to the cross.  That was a sword that cleaved her heart in half.

In a December, 2012 article for Relevant magazine, Nick Price wrote, “As we approach Christmas, let us not forget the faithfulness of Mary and what she was willing to risk. In her story, we are reminded that following Christ often leads to persecution and rejection by the world. Sometimes the price we pay for obedience is rejection. We must ask ourselves, What are we willing to surrender to God? Are we willing to be used for His purposes in the world? Are we willing to trust Him to provide for us when the rest of the world may turn its back? Mary models for us what obedience in the face of rejection looks like.”

There is a place where you have not really said “yes” to God.  There is something He’s called you to do and you haven’t yet obeyed.  Advent is an especially good time to begin a life-long habit of obedience.

 

RESOURCES:

One Perfect Life, John MacArthur

The Bible Knowledge Key Word Study, Darrell L. Bock

Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich Greek Lexicon

Advent Attitudes: Expectation

Advent 2

Be an optimist: expect God to keep His promises.

(Please read Luke 2:21-40 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) for my research.)

          The Reader’s Digest published an article last year explaining why September Is the Most Popular Birth Month in America, and These Are 3 Fascinating Explanations.  It was written by Brandon Specktor.

“According to real birth data compiled from 20 years of American births, mid-September is the most birthday-packed time of the year, with September 9th being the most popular day to be born in America, followed closely by September 19th.  The week and a half between September 9th and September 20th contains nine of the top ten birthdays in America, with the top three being 9/9, 9/19, and 9/12.

“The least common days to be born are, incidentally, all holidays: 12/25 rounds out the bottom, right after 1/1, 12/24, and 7/4. Strangely, in the 20 years analyzed above, there were even fewer births on each of these holidays than there were on February 29th, which only only appeared on calendars six times between ’94 and ’14.

“Why is September such a popular time to come into the world?

  1. Winter is for lovers.Turn the great clock back 40 weeks from September 19 and you’ll find yourself in the December holiday season. This makes sense: Many American students and laborers take time off around Christmas. [I suspect mistletoe is a factor here, too!]
  2. Our bodies crave winter cuddles.
  3. Every day is a popular birthday.The actual differences in birth numbers between common and less common birthdays are often within just a few thousand babies. For example, September 19th, has an average birth rate of 12,229 babies. Meanwhile, Christmas day has a birth rate of just 6,574 babies.”

https://www.rd.com/culture/september-popular-birth-month/

What have we learned?  Christmas is great time for beginning new things.  God the Father began a new thing with the birth of Jesus, who is God the Son.  Advent is a good time to conceive of a new, more godly way to live.  Forget about Santa’s “nice list,” it’s a great time of year to get on the “nice lists” of family, friends, and neighbors.

Our second Advent Attitude is that of expectation.  From the children building with excitement about presents to the maturing believers having a sense of anticipation growing of worship and family traditions,  This season is all about our expectations of what’s coming and our preparations to enjoy it.

  1. Simeon’s expectations were met by Jesus (25-35).

He’d been expecting the CONSOLATION OF ISRAEL.  What’s not obvious in English translations is the “Consolation” is a person, not a thing.  It was a title used to refer to the Messiah, the person God would choose to free His people.  (See Isaiah 25:9; 40:1-2; 66:1-11.)

In having this expectation Simeon was not unusual.  We read an example of this speculation at work in Luke 3:15: THE PEOPLE WERE WAITING EXPECTANTLY AND WERE WONDERING IN THEIR HEARTS IF JOHN MIGHT POSSIBLY BE THE CHRIST.  Of course, John the Baptist was

not the Christ, he was the herald, announcing the coming of the Messiah.  He positively identified Jesus as the Christ.  This verse indicates that there was a popular belief that the Messiah was coming.  Lots of people were, like Simeon and Anna, expectantly looking for Him.

Simeon was especially qualified to recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Luke notes three qualifications:

He was RIGHTEOUS.  He was a good citizen and a good man.

He was DEVOUT.  This term refers to someone who fears God and is careful to keep God’s law (see Deuteronomy 2:4 and Isaiah 57:11).

The HOLY SPIRIT WAS UPON HIM.  His appearance at the temple at just the right moment and his recognition of a little peasant baby both came about by the Holy Spirit’s influence.

Before we note the particulars of what Simeon said about Jesus, let’s note what a leap of faith this must have been for Simeon.  His eyes saw a baby.  The Spirit said the baby was the Redeemer.  He followed the Spirit into the temple and into the revelation of the child’s true identity.  Simeon made four public comments and four private ones to Mary.  Publically, he said:

“You have kept your promise.”  This was something Simeon took very personally.

“Now I can die happy.”  I think this comment either sounds like an older man or someone who is making an exaggerated statement because he’s so happy.

“I have seen YOUR SALVATION.”  Popular expectation sought a political/military savior, but God planned for salvation from sin.

“PREPARED IN THE SIGHT OF ALL PEOPLE.”  (See Revelation 7:9.)

“A LIGHT FOR REVELATION TO THE GENTILES.”  Popular expectations for the Messiah probably didn’t concern themselves with the Gentiles, so this is another extraordinary mark; a sign of the Spirit’s leading.

“GLORY FOR YOUR PEOPLE ISRAEL.” God will keep His promises to His people Israel.

Simeon’s private predictions to Mary were not good news.  He said Jesus was

“DESTINED TO CAUSE THE FALLING AND RISING OF MANY IN ISRAEL.”  In his first letter Peter picked up on this and referred to Jesus as a STONE that caused men to STUMBLE and FALL (1 Peter 2:8).

“A SIGN THAT WILL BE SPOKEN AGAINST” predicted not only the verbal abuse Jesus suffered but includes the rejection of His teaching and His crucifixion as well.

All this because He would reveal THE THOUGHTS OF MANY HEARTS.” It is human nature and sin nature to resent exposure of one’s faults and sins.  But it was not so much that Jesus knew their hearts and exposed them as much as by their own choice to reject Him that they revealed the sad, sinful condition of their own hearts.

“A SWORD WILL PIERCE YOUR OWN SOUL TOO.”  This warning must’ve been something she pondered, just as she had the shepherds’ words, but she probably did not “treasure” it as she did in verse nineteen.  The word SWORD refers to a large and brutal weapon.  The word carried a more emotional impact.  The warning came to pass in Jesus’ arrest and death by crucifixion.

  1. Anna’s expectations were met by Jesus (36-39).

Anna had expected THE REDEMPTION OF JERUSALEM.  This was a pious way of referring to every Jew’s hope that their nation might be set free (redeemed) from servitude to Rome.  The city of Jerusalem and the temple within the city were the focal points of the entire nation and were used to refer to the entire nation.

Anna was especially qualified to recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Luke noted three qualifiers.

She was a PROPHETESS.  This title does not necessarily mean that Anna was given revelations of the future.  It more likely meant that she was a teacher, probably of women, there in the Court of Women.

She was a resident of the temple courts, spending her days FASTING & PRAYING.  It would have been unusual for anyone but a priest to have quarters on the temple grounds, so this indicates Anna held unique status as a PROPHETESS.

She was VERY OLD.  Luke’s language is a little ambiguous, but it’s most likely she was 84 years old when she encountered baby Jesus.  In a time when the average life expectancy was mid-40s, 84 is a very ripe old age indeed.

Anna became a witness.  We see her exercising her witness in two ways.  SHE GAVE THANKS TO GOD, just as the shepherds had done earlier in this chapter.

SHE…SPOKE ABOUT THE CHILD to everyone who looked forward to God saving His people and especially Jerusalem.  Anna may’ve been part of a group known as “Quiet in the Land,” people who were looking forward to the coming of God’s Messiah.

Be an optimist: expect God to keep His promises.

          In Luke’s account, Simeon and Anna appear AFTER Jesus’ birth.  Even so, they are two great biblical examples of people who have the attitude of expectation.  For YEARS they kept up their expectations of the coming of the Messiah, just as God had promised.  Can you imagine their great joy and deep satisfaction when God revealed the Messiah to them?  Maybe their first reaction was surprise.  A baby?  “Well, OK,” they may have thought, “everybody’s got to start somewhere.”

Notice that Luke implies that both Simeon and Anna were senior citizens.  It’s likely each of them had lived a significant portion of their lives with the attitude of expectation.  And then, God revealed His plan was not a man but a baby.  Wow!  Mind blown!

Here’s the thing: it seems very likely to me there was a moment after the excitement wore off a bit that they realized they might not live long enough to see this baby grow to manhood and accomplish God’s plan.  After all their years of waiting, God kept His promise, but they would not see the results.  In fact, as history tells us, it would be another THIRTY YEARS before Jesus began His ministry.  It’s likely both Simeon and Anna were long gone.

At first, this thought is frustrating.  All those years of waiting rewarded with only a glimpse of the one for whom they’d been waiting.  But you don’t get any sense of disappointment or frustration from Luke’s account, do you?  No, Simeon and Anna both demonstrate profound delight, a joy that burst forth in worship and witness.

They are an example to us of how the Advent Attitude of Expectation is supposed to work: when God answers our prayers, He often does so in ways we had never anticipated.  When He acts, can be sideways or backwards of what we expected.

Rather than be like a kid who opened a present to find a socks instead of a baseball glove, we can follow Anna & Simeon’s path and be delighted with what God did.  By faith we can trust and assume His gift is far above what we had asked for or thought about, much better for us anyway.

So I’m asking you, in these days of Advent, ramp up your expectation of what God is going to do, but then don’t be disappointed when it’s something different that what you expected.  Faith says it will be better.

RESOURCES:

One Perfect Life, John MacArthur

The Bible Knowledge Key Word Study, Darrell L. Bock

Thru the Bible, J. Vernon McGee

Advent Attitude: Joy

Advent 1

(Please read Luke 2:8-20 & 1 Peter 1:3-12 from your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to conduct my research.)

Last Christmas, grandpa was feeling his age and found that shopping for Christmas gifts had become too difficult. So he decided to send checks to everyone instead.  In each card he wrote, “Buy your own present!” and mailed them early.
In the usual flurry of family festivities he noticed the grandkids were a bit cold to him; a couple were downright angry. Puzzled over this, he went into his study to get some time alone to think about it. It was then he saw the gift checks which he had forgotten to enclose with the cards.

(https://www.favecrafts.com/Entertaining/A-Great-Bunch-of-Funny-Christmas-Stories)

Today we begin a journey that will end at a cattle pen near a village that had a lot of history, but not much to recommend it at the moment.  Advent is a significant time in the church calendar, one of two seasons of preparation.  I felt lead, this Advent, to explore some of the reactions to Jesus that people in the Bible demonstrated.  My prayer is that these studies will encourage us to be mindful of our own Advent Attitudes.

This thought is not original to me.  Darrell L. Bock expressed a similar line of thought in his commentary of the Gospel of Luke: “The variety of reactions to the birth of Jesus noted here should not surprise us.  People respond to him differently.  Some are amazed, but do not engage him at any deeper level.  Others offer praise, while others ponder what Jesus means.  There is no doubt that in this passage Mary and the shepherds are the exemplary characters, reflecting the testimony and obedience that should characterize saints.”  (p. 89-90)

We begin this series with JOY because it is the most common reaction to the birth of Jesus.  With the exception of King Herod, everybody in the biblical accounts seems really thrilled that God has brought this about.

Jesus brings joy to His people.

  1. Jesus’ birth brought joy to the Shepherds (Luke 2)

The angels predicted the Holy Birth would bring GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY to ALL THE PEOPLE (10).  GOOD NEWS is the Greek word from which we get our English word “gospel.”  It is significant that very word was used to announce the birth of Emperor Augustus.  Luke tried to evoke a similar vibe among his readers.

The angels promised GREAT JOY.  It was “great” in the sense of being giant-sized.  The size of the JOY is measured by the size of the recipients: ALL THE PEOPLE.  The size of the JOY is measured by the reactions of the shepherds.

Then angels promised that God intended this joy to be for ALL THE PEOPLE.  This is one measure of the significance of Jesus’ birth: it is important not to just one family or even one nation, but to ALL PEOPLE.  This is also the reason why the world must know and part of what motivated the shepherds to go and spread the word.  For us as well, the world must know so we must go tell them.

Another measure of the JOY is how the shepherds wasted no time checking it out (vs. 15-16).  They quickly agreed this was worth looking into and decided to go together (v. 15).  In fact, verse sixteen testifies that they HURRIED OFF to find the family in Bethlehem.

They wasted no time, spreading the word immediately (vs. 20, 16-17).  This is another reaction you’d anticipate from someone feeling GREAT JOY.

Luke may have these verses a little out of chronological order.  In terms of how the events happened, verse 20 should precede verses seventeen to nineteen.  Verse twenty describes the immediate effect on the shepherds; verses seventeen to nineteen describe the effect of their testimony on others.

First, the shepherds worshiped God.  Luke wrote that they returned to their flocks GLORIFYING AND PRAISING GOD.  They were gratified they’d had seen the Savior with their own eyes, that everything was just as the angels had promised.

Second, they told everyone about it.  The response to their excited witness is amazement (v. 18), except for Mary, who treasured these revelations and PONDERED them (v. 19).

  1. Jesus’ life brings joy to His followers (1PR 1).

Jesus Joy gets us through tough times (v. 6).  Peter wrote about our LIVING HOPE; a future God created for us through the RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST.  This HOPE shields us, protecting us until our salvation is REVEALED IN THE LAST TIME.  He wrote IN THIS YOU GREATLY REJOICE.  Remember, the angels announcing Jesus’ birth said it was GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY.  Here is that expression again.

The JOY Jesus brings helps us endure GRIEF from ALL KINDS OF TRIALS.  Verse seven explains God’s purpose in trials; he uses them to “refine” our faith, the most precious thing we have.  While we might prefer that God refine our faith by gentler means, it is in trials that we most appreciate the value of our relationship with God.

Peter also encourages us to know our TRIALS – even the ones that are life-long – are only temporary.  They last only FOR A LITTLE WHILE.  Heaven is eternal.  In trials we most eagerly desire our deliverance, our salvation.

Jesus Joy is INEXPRESSIBLE and GLORIOUS because it is based on our salvation (vs. 8+9).  Jesus Joy is so wonderful, so supernatural, Peter wrote that it is INEXPRESSIBLE! This JOY is so deep it challenges our vocabulary to describe it.  It challenges our hearts to contain it.  It challenges us to properly express it in our words and deeds.  It is so contrary to ordinary worldly experiences, it defies all attempts to draw comparisons.

GLORIOUS means it is divine (from God).  It reflects the being, character, and will of God.  As our salvation comes from Him, so does this JOY that flows from our salvation.

In the Greek New Testament, the word JOY is written in the form of a command.  Peter is not just saying JOY is available to them, he is commanding them to observe it.

Jesus brings joy to His people.

It was the last case before the court went on Christmas break.  The judge was to wrap it up and allow everyone to leave.  Without waiting for the bailiff to announce the case, the judge barked at the prisoner, “What are you charged with?”
The prisoner replied, “Doing my Christmas shopping too early.”
“That’s no crime,” said the judge. “Just how early were you doing this shopping?”
“Before the store opened,” he said.

(https://www.favecrafts.com/Entertaining/A-Great-Bunch-of-Funny-Christmas-Stories)

I don’t imagine that guy made it home for Christmas.  When all your plans and the extra responsibilities of the season threaten to make you crazy, do us all a favor and remember the first and greatest Advent Attitude is JOY.  Begin each day of Advent with that thought and see how it transforms the season.  Seek joy for yourself and to share it with others.

 

RESOURCES:

Sermon #1187

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Edwin A. Blume.

The NIV Bible Application Commentary, Darrell L. Bock.

Lent is for You

repentance

Please read Luke 3:7-14 in your Bible.  I’ve used the NIV 1984 to prepare these remarks.

          USA Today called it “Date confusion;” as this year Ash Wednesday falls on St. Valentine’s Day and worse, Easter on April Fools’ Day.  Writer Ann Zaniewski of the Detroit Free Press sagely predicted, “Christian couples might celebrate their love next month with smudges of ash on their foreheads.  And a prank or two could infiltrate Easter Egg hunts.”

This quirky calendar coincidence hasn’t happened since 1945 and will not occur again until 2024.  Ned McGrath, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Detroit commented, “For the record, the last time there was a confluence of these dates — 1945 — the Detroit Tigers won a World Series. No joke. I’m just saying.”

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/01/06/ash-wednesday-valentines-day-easter-april-fools-day/1004317001/

Leaders in Chicago’s Roman Catholic Church are offered this guidance: “Solemnly mark the start of Lent, a day the faithful are asked to abstain from meat and to fast, on Wednesday. Celebrate love over a steak dinner and candles another day.”

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-met-ash-wednesday-valentines-day-20180207-story.html

It seems to me that we’re missing the point here.  We have an opportunity to observe, just once every eighty years – give or take – that LOVE was expressed on the cross of Jesus Christ.  LOVE motivates us to repent and do better.  Rather than just the cheapened version of love, we’ve been given a rather obvious opportunity to LOVE.

At Easter I’ll show how God made a fool of the devil with the empty tomb!!

“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” was the heart (pun intended) of Jesus’ message (LKE 5:31-32; 19:10) and the message He commanded His disciples carry to the world (LKE 24:43-47).  Ash Wednesday is the day in the traditional year devoted to repentance.  Today we’ll look at JTB’s take:

Repentance is a single act and a way of life.

  1. Context: John’s ministry was to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (3:1-6)
  2. John preached that repentance requires bearing FRUIT in KEEPING with a changed life. (3:7-14)

His sermon included a stern warning (3:7-9).

Verse seven has some tough talk: VIPERS and WRATH.  These people are coming out to him; treating potential converts this was counter-intuitive, to say the least.

Matthew’s version clarifies John’s sternness – these remarks were probably directed at the PHARISEES and SADUCEES – religious leaders who’d probably come out to spy on and maybe oppose John.

Because of the Gospels, the name PHARISEE has become a byword for hypocrite.  That is certainly one reason they were always at odds with Jesus.  Worse, they turned their inflated legalism on others, creating burdens impossible to bear (see Luke 11:46).  The SADDUCEES were a larger party of Jewish religious leaders who collaborated with the Romans, often to line their pockets.  Whenever the Gospels say these two parties were working together, we should know that was a rare occasion and happened only when they saw a worse threat.

What was threatening about John?  First, in Jewish practice, baptism was reserved for people not born Jews who converted to Judaism or Jews undergoing an extreme rededication of faith.  John was using baptism in a new way; baptism for repentance for all people.  John’s baptism created a doctrinal stir and that’s probably what caught the interest of the Pharisees.

Second, John was preaching about the Christ, the promised Messiah, as foretold in Scripture.  This kind of talk got people wound up.  The CROWDS gathering were an occasion for a riot.  That would’ve made the Sadducees feel defensive.

The word VIPERS refers to poisonous snakes, which most of us would consider a physical and emotional threat.  When there is a fire in the desert, snakes will come out their holes in the ground to flee the flames, which leads to the other provocative word, WRATH.  This is a warning of God’s just punishment of all non-believers which will occur on the Day of the Lord (see Isaiah 13:9; 30:23; Ezekiel 7:19; Zephaniah 1:18; Malachi 3:2; Romans 1:18; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; Hebrews 10:27).

Real repentance requires righteous FRUIT.  Repentance itself is not a work; it’s a change of direction based on sorrow over sin and a decision to discontinue it.  However, a genuine change of mind leads to good fruit; actions that are godly in character.

In verse eight we find another warning: don’t rely on being Abraham’s kids.  John tells them their ancestry dating back to Abraham is worthless toward salvation: “OUT OF THESE STONES GOD CAN RAISE UP CHILDREN TO ABRAHAM.”

John warned them that God is so powerful He can come by CHILDREN TO ABRAHAM pretty cheaply.  It’s nothing special and will NOT save them from God’s wrath.

At His Triumphal Entry Jesus was told to quiet His disciples.  Jesus’ reply was that if the people kept quiet, the stones beneath their feet would “cry out.” (see Luke 19:40).  In addition to Abraham’s physical descendants, all who believe are spiritual descendants (see Romans 4:11-16; 9:8; Galatians 3:7+29).

And in verse nine, John warned them God’s wrath is on fruitlessness and it was imminent: “THE AX IS ALREADY A/T ROOT OF THE TREES” = irreversible judgment.  Individuals are like trees in that they produce either GOOD FRUIT by godly living or bad fruit by godless living, sin.  The call to repentance is to turning away from evil and toward God.  Our new orientation will bear FRUIT.

In verses ten through fourteen John refined what he meant by FRUIT IN KEEPING WITH REPENTANCE.  The word repentance literally means “turning.”  It is a change of mind, direction.

What’s exciting about this passage is that each of these three groups of people had the insight to ask John “What must I do?”  They got John’s warnings and more deeply understood repentance is manifest in actions.

John did not use or set up a legalism.  Instead, he personalized what repentance would be for each of the groups.

To the general population (the CROWD), he used the example of TWO TUNICS and FOOD.  A TUNIC was a shirt-like garment, the main clothing worn by a person of the time.  A robe was worn over this.  At that time, most people had only ONE TUNIC and everyone wore only one at a time.

John’s principle was to share your surplus.  His example of FRUIT IN KEEPING WITH REPENTANCE was to suggest that whatever you have in surplus – beyond what it takes to satisfy your immediate needs – you should provide for those who have none.  We Americans typically have closets full of clothes, pantries and freezers full of food, more than we need.  We can demonstrate we are God’s people is by turning our surplus into support.

Addressing the tax collectors (12-13), John’s example was to meet your need, not your greed.  Tax collectors were locals who contracted with the Romans to charge taxes.  They realized a profit by charging more than what was required and pocketed the difference.

John’s repentance principle was “Save, don’t shave the sheep.” There’s a difference between making a living and making a killing.

To the soldiers (14) John gave three commands, but one example: don’t be abusive of your authority. These were likely King Herod’s soldiers and/or temple guards who accompanied the Pharisees and Sadducees.  It took guts for them to admit to considering John’s baptism right in front of their bosses.

Command number one: “DON’T EXTORT MONEY.”  It was common for soldiers to intimidate people and take bribes.  The word EXTORT means “to shake violently,” hence our slang term, “shake down.”

Command number two: “DON’T ACCUSE PEOPLE FALSELY.” The word of a soldier was always taken over a citizen’s, which is an obvious occasion for abuse.

Command number three: “BE CONTENT WITH YOUR PAY” is asking a lot.  Soldiers were underpaid, relying on bribes to make more money.

This is also John’s repentance principle: be content.  John is not just teaching a moral principle; he is also giving sound financial advice.  Repentant people are content with what they have; they don’t cheat or get themselves into debt simply to have better things.

  1. Context: John made it clear he was not the Christ, only His precursor. (3:15-20)

Repentance is a single act and a way of life.

Regardless of our individuality and circumstances, repentance is something we all must practice and it brings forth a character that is generous and refuses to abuse authority.  This Wednesday night we enter into the traditional season of Lent.  Lent is a period of preparation for Easter.  A particular focus of Lent is repentance.  We need to give additional time, thought, and prayer to turning away from sin AND turning to God.

Starting Wednesday night, here’s your homework.  Keep a pad of paper and pen next to your bed.  Before you lay your head down at night, list three sins you committed that day – either by omission or commission.  Ask God to forgive you those sins.  Cross them off to indicate they are forgiven. Next to each, write the opposite kind of action.  This would be something godly you can do instead.  Then, in the morning, circle those three things and go out and do them the next day.  Imagine what great things can be accomplished if we would commit to this kind of discipline over the 40 days of Lent!