Saturday, January 10, 2009

01/10 - The Descriptive Laws of the Spiritual Realm

Matthew 5:1-12

The Beatitudes are to the spiritual realm what the laws of science are to the physical realm.

People have puzzled over what these nine statements are for years, perhaps even from the day Jesus first spoke them. Some say they were commands, but they do not have that language or feel; compare them with Jesus’ instructions later in his sermon. Some think the Beatitudes were striking statements to get listeners’ attention or jar them out of usual ways of thinking.

Perhaps the beatitudes are exactly what they seem to be—simply statements of truth.

Scientists talk about laws such as the Law of Gravity, Law of Relativity, and the Ideal Gas Law. These laws are not the prescriptive kind, stating what ought to happen, but are descriptive, stating does happen.

Similarly, Jesus was stating laws about how the spiritual realm works. By today’s usage, he could have talked about the Law of the Mourner, Law of the Righteousness Seeker, and Law of the Peacemaker.

How do the Beatitudes, nine spiritual laws, fit into Jesus’ sermon? They are the foundation on which the rest of the sermon was based. Actually, everything he did and taught for the rest of his life was based on them.

The Beatitudes are not commands any more than the Law of Gravity is a command but they are helpful to us in navigating through the spiritual realm just as understanding the Law of Gravity helps us navigate safely through the physical one.

Think how we esteem a scientist who understands the physical world enough to discover its laws. For example, we are in awe of Einstein because of his influence on modern physics through discovering several laws of physics. Scientists of his caliber think on a different level than the rest of us.

Similarly, Jesus thought on a different level when it came to the spiritual world. Never before or since has a person explored so broadly about spiritual principles. He deserves our unreserved respect and dedication.

Friday, January 9, 2009

01/09 - The Ministry Begins

Matthew 4:12-25

Here begins the most extraordinary campaign to change human hearts and human history ever conceived.

It was extraordinary because of the location Jesus chose. Although he moved from Nazareth to make Capernaum his home, neither village was very significant. Commonsense should have told him to head for the region of Judea and especially Jerusalem, its major city, the center of religion and culture. Instead he went back to Galilee, the back country, and kicked off the greatest spiritual revolution ever started.

The campaign was also extraordinary because of who Jesus chose as his lieutenants. Following the custom of other rabbis of the day, he picked students (i.e. disciples) who were essentially apprentices. However, instead of picking those with academic bent, for the most part he picked working class men, like the fishermen Andrew, Peter, James, and John. They were probably literate, having gone to synagogue school in their youth, but they likely had no special theological or religious knowledge. Jesus mentored them in every aspect of his life and his ministry to carry on when he was gone.

Jesus' campaign was extraordinary, however, mainly because of the man at its center. Probably few people in those crowds knew Jesus was incarnate deity, but they still knew he was extraordinary.

In him they saw a tanned, strong man in the prime of his life who a few months earlier had been a quiet citizen of his little village, a carpenter, his time taken up with tools and materials.

Now he was a traveling preacher at the center of great mobs of people who came from all over the nation. He no longer worked with wood and stone; now he worked with ideas and healed people.

Although Jesus was successful, his work was grueling and difficult. Fortunately, the words of God still rang in his ears, the power of the Holy Spirit worked in his mind and heart, and his mettle had been tested in the desert. He was ready to begin his ministry.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

01/08 - Tempted to Take Shortcuts

Matthew 4:1 – 11

The Holy Spirit, which had just descended on Jesus as a gentle dove, seemed to turn against him, leading him into great trial and danger. This probably was not what Jesus expected when he received the Holy Spirit and heard God’s words of approval.

Jesus had mission to do and instead, here he is in the desert with few if any people to work on, facing temptations directly challenging his identity and his mission.

God had declared his identity, saying, “You are my son.” Satan challenged that identity with, “If you are the son of God…”

Jesus sought to prepare for his mission by fasting, perhaps at the Holy Spirit’s direction. Satan suggested he abandon the preparation simply to take care of his own needs. (Making the bread was not in itself wrong—he would later make enough to feed thousands.)

The mission’s strategy was to be yeast and sacrificial death and its methods to be stories about mustard seeds and lost sons. Satan suggested doing something splashy, like leaping from the Temple to awe the crowds with an angelic rescue.

Jesus knew the mission would lead him through deserts, doubts, misunderstanding, discouragement, and ultimately, terrible death. Satan said Jesus could do the mission—have control of every kingdom—with just a moment of worship, an act Jesus could have justified by pretending or by doing it with mental reserve.

We can barely imagine Jesus’ state after 40 days of loneliness and no food. The events of his baptism were faded memories that seemed like illusions. However, his righteousness proved stronger than Satan’s temptations.

The desert experience was essential for Jesus. Certainly, it gave him 40 days to meditate on God’s words and the mission. More importantly, the temptations showed him how strong and dedicated he was, and he would draw on this knowledge in the coming years.

Although the details are different, Jesus’ temptations match ours. Satan asks each of us, Will you look out for yourself instead of feeding on what truly nourishes the heart and mind? Are you sure about your identity as a son or daughter of God? How about doing something splashy to attract attention to your mission? How about taking a shortcut to save time and trouble?

Pray Jesus gives us his strength to give his answers to all of these.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

01/07 - A Good Son and a Proud Father

Matthew 3:13–17

This is our first look at Jesus the adult. His words and actions reveal his principles and his intentions, which we will see him live out consistently for the rest of his life.

John was understandably reluctant to baptize Jesus. He knew Jesus, who would soon be a fellow prophet, already lived a righteous life. However, Jesus knew a bigger purpose for baptism than just a commitment to repentance, its primary role in John’s ministry.

For Jesus, his baptism was important simply because it was a good act, a way to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus did not come simply to not do bad—he came to do all possible good, including unnecessary acts like rededicating himself to living a righteous life through John’s baptism.

The baptism served another purpose for Jesus. He had spent years thinking, observing, praying, and studying, and he was now ready to change the world. Like any person embarking on a great, new mission, he wanted an event to mark the turning point in his life. Jesus’ baptism launched his public ministry.

It was a spectacular launch. As Jesus arose out of the water, two significant events occurred that would sustain him to the end of his ministry.

First, he received a new, and probably more powerful, presence of the Holy Spirit. The scriptures do not tell us to what extent he had the Holy Spirit earlier in his life, but certainly from this point on, he would have everything the Spirit could provide to help him in his quest.

Second, he heard words of approval from his proud Father. A human father tells his son or daughter how proud he is right before the child starts a new phase of life, like entering the university, starting a new job or getting married. The father hopes his words will sustain the son or daughter in the tough times that are sure to come.

God was no different. He was proud of his son and wanted that pride to sustain Jesus in the tough times. We can only guess at how often Jesus thought back to this day to gain strength to keep going.

01/06 - God Was Back in the Prophet-Sending Business

Matthew 3:1-12

Everything about John the Baptist and his methods go against today’s accepted wisdom for generating spiritual revival.

First, he was an extreme eccentric. He ate strange foods and dressed in course clothing. John looked odd and probably smelled unpleasant.

Second, John chose a poor location for his work. Commonsense says to do big ministry in major population centers. Folks in big cities such as Jerusalem had to travel a day or more to hear his message.

Third, his personality was gruff, blunt, even rude, and his message was threatening and unpleasant. When he finally got the attention of mainstream religious people—both conservatives (Pharisees) and liberals (Sadducees)—he insulted them and called them names instead of making them his allies.

John’s methods and personal qualities did not hinder his success. In fact, many people came to see him out of curiosity, got caught up in his message, and became his disciples.

John accomplished his main goal: preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry. His preaching caused thousands of people to examine their hearts, repent, and dedicate themselves to God. Many of these people later migrated to Jesus’ ministry, and several in his inner circle of twelve were first followers of John.

The people felt anticipation because of John. No prophet had come in many generations, and the sending of John signaled that God was in the prophet-sending business again. And if God would send one prophet, He might soon send another one, exactly like John was saying. When Jesus started his ministry, he found a nation expectant that God was at work.

Monday, January 5, 2009

01/05 - Neither Time Nor Distance Hindered God’s Plan

Mathew 2:19-23

How are Mary and Joseph making it financially? Apparently he was not a wealthy man, and he quite his work when they went to Bethlehem. Perhaps he got some work after Jesus’ birth, but within a year or two, the family fled in the middle of the night on a long, expensive trip to Egypt. While there, he may have found work but soon came another expensive trip back to Israel.

God had provided. From far away, He sent valuable gifts with the Magi. In fact, He was looking out for this little family in almost every way. For example, consider how He directs Joseph in dreams. First, He first tells Joseph to flee to Egypt to prevent Jesus being killed; second, to return from Egypt after Herod dies; and third, to locate in Nazareth, safely away from Herod’s son.

Every detail had been anticipated and a grand plan worked out, as illustrated by Matthew’s references to prophecies:

  • The Messiah would be born to a virgin (Matt. 1:21)
  • He would be born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:6)
  • He would be called from Egypt (Matt. 2:15)
  • There would be weeping for the children (Matt. 2:18)
  • The Messiah would come from Nazareth (Matt. 2:23)
God determined details of events centuries ahead of time. He sent needed gifts from Persia and sent Jesus to Egypt for protection. Neither time nor distance mattered to God in planning for the sending of his son.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

01/04 - A Preemptive Strike Could Not Stop the Message

Mathew 2:13-18

We never see this part of the Christmas story on a greeting card. There is nothing sentimental about danger, about fleeing the country to save the life of your child, or about some king killing your baby simply to prevent competition for his throne.

On the surface, this event appears to be about a violent, cruel tyrant who would stop at nothing to consolidate and keep his power. History tells us that this was not the only time Herod resorted to mass killing to accomplish his goals. However, something more profound was really going on.

What we really see here is a preemptive strike in the war between good and evil. The evil side struck early and struck hard against God’s work to save the world. War experts talk about collateral damage, that which occurs to innocent people as a byproduct of war. From the perspective of the evil side, the killing of innocent babies was simply collateral damage. This event confirms that Jesus came in human form to join in the spiritual war between good and evil.

This event also presents us with an interesting question: Given that Jesus came to die for our sins, why didn’t God simply let it happen with the babies in Bethlehem? The death would have been quick and efficient and would have accomplished the sacrificial killing of His son.

We must remember that Jesus did not come just to die—he came to live and to show us how to live completely from birth to death and then to resurrection life. There could be no shortcut. Every aspect of Jesus’ story is the message from God. Isn’t that what scripture means when it says “the word became flesh” (John 1:14)? If he had died that day, we would have gotten only the first few pages of the story.