Living Consistently

It seems strange that Jesus and his disciples were traveling through grain fields and the Pharisees saw his disciples eating the heads of grain on the Sabbath. Were the Pharisees constantly around Jesus? Were they traveling with him? How would they have seen what the disciples were doing traveling along a footpath through the middle of a field? What it does show is that someone is often watching what we do and will point out any inconsistencies they see, particularly if they disagree with what we believe.

Jesus had an answer to those who criticized his disciples. He pointed out inconsistencies in those the Pharisees looked up to. King David and his men ate bread that was reserved for the priests because they were hungry. The priests themselves work in the temple on the Sabbath yet are innocent of breaking the Sabbath laws. Then Jesus concluded with God’s value. He desires mercy over sacrifice. If the Pharisees had practiced that value, they would not have condemned the disciples’ action. We too, are to have an answer to explain our actions and why we act in a certain manner. How do we do this?

Our actions should be reflect our being intentional and consistent with our values. This requires forethought on how we are to act and a consideration for the implications of our actions. Can we give an explanation for why we did something, or why we didn’t do something? It also means that we say and demonstrate that our values impact our behavior. If our behavior does not coincide with our stated value then we need to re-evaluate what our values are.

We should assume that someone may disagree with the approach that we take, not because they do differently, but because they disagree with us. We must recognize that we are in a conflict and those who disagree may point out things to discredit us. Jesus said we are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus always had an answer for his actions; with his help we should do the same.

Grateful Hearts

On this Thanksgiving Day I’m reminded that following Jesus begins with our heart and proceeds to our actions and lifestyle. As Donelle and I sat drinking coffee this morning in the sunshine on our back courtyard enjoying the view of palm and citrus trees, we were both reminded of how much our heavenly Father has blessed us over the years. In a few hours friends and family will come over to share a meal with us as we give thanks for all that Father has done for us.

As I reflected earlier this morning I was reminded of the apostle Paul’s words to the Philippians, a group of believers with whom Paul seemed to have a particularly close connection. He reminded them to rejoice always in the Lord, not sometimes, but always. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to be more joyful when I perceive that things are going well for me and less joyful when I perceive difficulty, but this is not what Paul instructed. I’m reminded of Jesus’ instruction to the seventy, when they returned full of joy after healing those they encountered. Jesus told them not to rejoice because disease and demons obey them, but because their names are written in heaven. When our names are written in heaven, no circumstance will ever change that. If our joy is rooted in that reality then we can easily do what Paul instructed, to rejoice always.

A few verses later, Paul gave them counsel regarding how to feed their joy. They were to reflect on that which is honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent or praiseworthy. These are the subjects with which we are to fill our minds. That practice, I suspect will bear additional fruit along with joy. To the Galatians, Paul identified that fruit as the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I also believe we must be intentional in this practice, because we are surrounded by information that is anything but what Paul told us to fill our minds with. Much of the media that we encounter more and more with the advance of technology is negative and violent provoking in us anger, anxiety and fear. While it is next to impossible to avoid the media, we must approach it through the lens of heaven so that we can continue to practice what Jesus and Paul taught us.

When we practice gratitude, not only for the material and relational blessings we have received, but also and more importantly are grateful for our continual relationship with our heavenly Father through Jesus, then our lives will be filled with light and love, which will be both a blessing to us as well as those we encounter each day of our lives. May you have a grateful and blessed day this day and everyday!

Miraculous?

While Jesus was walking along, two blind men came up to Jesus and cried out for him to have mercy upon them. After Jesus entered the house where he was staying, these same men came up to him. Jesus asked them if they believed he was able to do this, meaning that he was able to heal their blindness. They told him “yes”. Jesus then touched their eyes and said that it would be done according to their faith. Then their eyes were opened. He instructed the two men that no one should know about what happened, but the two men went out and told everyone in that area what Jesus had done for them.

Sometimes we can miss things by being focused on one aspect of a passage. Jesus’ healing the men’s blindness often grabs our attention, but there is something else of note here as well. In this passage I find one word interesting. It is the word “ability”. Jesus asked the two men if they believed if he was able to do what they wanted. What is curious about that word “ability” or “able” is that it is the same word used to translate what we call “miracles”. This raises a question in my mind. Why do we sometimes call an action a miracle and other times the very same word is translated merely “power” or “ability”? The word “miracle” comes to us in English from the Latin term for something that causes us to wonder. While Jesus’ powerful works do cause us to wonder and be amazed, originally that was not the meaning of the word that was used. In fact there are other words that meant “wonder” that at times the authors did use, but not here. On this occasion Matthew chose to use the word for “power” or “ability”. So why do sometimes we see the word for “power” or “ability” gets translated as “power” and other times as “miracle”? We have an internal criteria that we use to categorize something as a normal expression of power and another as an extraordinary use of power that is not common among men, the latter we refer to as miracle. However, that distinction is not present in the gospels. Rather it was categorized as an ability that Jesus possessed and later others who followed Jesus also possessed. What is further curious is what we categorize as a “miracle” actually changes over time. Much of what we take for granted today, such as driving cars, flying in airplanes, treating and curing certain diseases would have been considered miraculous in previous centuries.

The way that we interpret or understand Scripture is often a result of our belief system. As people living in the Western world, we have been powerfully influenced by Greek philosophy, which separated the world of “God”, the supernatural world, we would call it today, from the world of men, the natural world. However, that distinction does not seem to be present in the New Testament. Jesus and his followers didn’t move from living in the natural world at one point in time to living in the supernatural world at another point. They just exercised the abilities that had been bestowed upon them as if they were the most natural thing in the world. This is why Jesus was often surprised at his disciples’ inability to do what he did and called them men of little faith. In fact the word, “supernatural” doesn’t even occur in the New Testament. It is a word we have created to describe what Jesus and later the apostles did that we cannot do now with the same regularity. Let me suggest that we might want to rethink what we call “supernatural” or “miraculous” in order to bring our thoughts into alignment with how Jesus thought.

Scripture tells us not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. That could include the way that we think and the assumptions that we have. As we journey through life with Jesus, he will from time to time challenge some things that we have always thought were true in order to bring us into greater alignment with how he thinks. That leads us to ponder an important question. What might be some assumptions that we have now that might need further evaluation?

Kingdom Transformation

After Jesus instructed Matthew the tax-collector to follow him, Jesus went and ate at Matthew’s home with other tax-collectors. The Pharisees, who observed Jesus’ action, were offended by Jesus’ association with tax-collectors and sinners. The Pharisees lived according to a principle we have today: “Bad company corrupts good character.” However, Jesus hung around tax-collectors and sinners, but was not corrupted, rather he transformed them. Jesus suggested to the Pharisees to consider the Scripture, God desires mercy not sacrifice. The Pharisees thought they were maintaining their purity by avoiding sinners, but they failed to grasp that their avoidance of them was also a failure to demonstrate mercy toward those same individuals.

Bad company does not have to corrupt good character, if we like Jesus seek to transform others, rather than fit in with them. Bad company corrupts good character when an individual associates with bad company in order to be accepted by them. Many of Jesus’ disciples came from questionable backgrounds. Matthew was a tax-collector. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fisherman who were probably crude and not well educated men, later some would be called illiterate. They had violent tendencies; they wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village; Peter attacked the servant of the High Priest. Simon was called a Zealot; we’d call him today a terrorist. These were the men whom Jesus called friends. Jesus didn’t become like them, they became like Jesus.

How Jesus lived is how we are to live. We are not to be conformed to those around us, but we are to transform those around us, by who we are, by practicing justice, being kind, compassionate and forgiving, by lovingly caring for them, in order to reveal to them who Jesus is and encourage them to follow Jesus as well.

Kingdom Potential

Early in his ministry, Jesus revealed himself to be a different type of teacher. He didn’t accept everyone who wished to follow him. The scribe who wished to follow was discouraged because Jesus said he didn’t have a fixed place to live. To the disciple who desired to stay and care for his father until his father died, was told that to follow Jesus was to leave behind loved ones. The point being that following Jesus was more important than having a home, more important than even maintaining expected familiar obligations when others could do so. These are implications of Jesus’ statement, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” To follow Jesus is to discover life, not to follow Jesus is to forfeit that life.

Immediately after those two encounters, Jesus revealed his power and dominion over the earth. When the storm arose on the Sea of Galilee that threatened to submerge the ship, Jesus rebuked that storm and it became calm, so much so that Matthew described it as a great calm, a calm that was not a normal calm, but even more still and quiet than normal.

Since the time of Jesus, men have tried to explain Jesus’ great power in relationship to the natural laws of the world. How did Jesus calm the storm? Some conclude that these accounts in the gospels are fictional stories to encourage trust in Jesus. However, the fact that powerful works have been done by others who follow Jesus since the time of Jesus indicate that everything we read in the Gospels is factual. At creation God told Adam to subdue and have dominion over the entire world (Genesis 1:28), but when man sinned he also caused that same world to be corrupted (Romans 8:20). It is possible that the physical laws that we believe have always existed in the universe did not, because they too may have been corrupted when man sinned. That means we can’t be completely sure what physical laws were functioning on the earth prior to man’s disobedience to God. We also don’t know the extent of God’s command to subdue the earth given in Genesis 1:28. That could mean that Jesus when doing his powerful works while on earth, could have been revealing what God meant when he originally told Adam to subdue the earth, but because of sin, man lost that vision of what he could do. Add onto this Jesus’ statement to the disciples when they called out to him for help. He described them as having “little faith”, not “no faith”, but little or weak faith. What did Jesus mean by that statement? Did he mean that the disciples should have realized that Jesus could calm the storm, possibly he meant that the disciples should have understood that they could have calmed the storm. Later Jesus would tell his disciples that if they had the smallest of faith, they could move mountains. However, if we believe something is impossible, then we will never even attempt it. That is little faith. Even when we begin to attempt something we’ve never done before we may still fail, not because its impossible, but simply because we don’t have the maturity. For example, it is not true that an infant will never walk, run or speak clearly, just because they are unable to do so at birth. It just means that they have not developed the maturity to do those things. What we know and take for granted in the natural growth process of infants to children to adults, could also have its parallel in relationship to exhibiting the same powerful works that Jesus did. An infant grows and matures to do many things we all take for granted because that child is encouraged and taught to do so. In other words, the potential of a follower of Jesus, may be much greater than we have assumed, not because it is impossible, but because we suffer from little faith and fail to attempt and practice what Jesus did and indicated that we could do as well. We fail to encourage others to make the attempt and practice, because everyone is afraid of failure. Consider what Jesus said to his disciples, that every work he had done, anyone who believes in him will be able to do and even greater things than what Jesus himself did.(John 14:12). Jesus implied that what we consider impossible may not be impossible, when we actually believe and practice what he instructed us to do.

Giving Honor

I am continually amazed at how the Gospels portray what an amazing man Jesus is. Early in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17), Jesus warned his followers not to assume he had come to abolish the law, that is the Old Testament law given through Moses. Rather, he came to fulfill it. Immediately, after descending the mountain from teaching, having said those words, Jesus encountered a man suffering from leprosy. The man didn’t actually ask for healing, he declared that Jesus could heal him if he were willing. Jesus responded that he was and pronounced him cleansed. Then we read something curious. Matthew wrote that the leprosy was cleansed (Matthew 8:3), he didn’t say that the man was healed, but that the disease itself was cleansed. That is a curious statement by Matthew, but I believe it relates back to what Jesus said earlier about fulfilling the law. Jesus went on to tell the man that he was to tell no one what had happened, but go show himself to the priest and present the offering prescribed by Moses as a testimony to them.

Jesus’ command was not merely a testimony to the priests to substantiate the healing that Jesus had done, but it was a fulfillment of the law regarding those who suffered from leprosy. In Leviticus 13-14, Moses had given specific actions the priests and sufferers of leprosy were to take if someone were to be healed of leprosy. It was the priest who had the authority to declare a person clean from leprosy. Although Jesus healed the man and informed him that he was cleansed, Jesus honored what Moses had written and left it to the priest to declare the man officially cleansed. Even though many priests and Pharisees opposed and would oppose Jesus, he still honored the authority that God had bestowed upon them through the law. In so doing Jesus also gave honor to his Father in heaven who had originally given the law to Moses. We often assume we should only give honor to those whom we consider to be honorable, or who agree with our position. We should take note of Jesus’ example to us. We give honor to those our heavenly Father has declared should receive our honor regardless of whether they are honorable or whether we agree with them. God determines who should be honored, not us.

Knowing and Being Known

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus instructed his followers to enter through the narrow gate, because the road to destruction is wide and easy and many take that route, not realizing that it is taking them to their ruin. On the other hand the road that leads to life is both small and can be difficult, therefore few take that route. The important question is what did Jesus mean by taking the narrow gate? A few verses later, Jesus would explain that many who think they had found the way did not. Even those who appeared to have lived in a manner consistent with Jesus would not enter Jesus’ kingdom. They prophesied, healed and cast out demons in Jesus’ name. Yet, Jesus will inform them that he never knew them and to depart from him because they practiced lawlessness (Matthew 7:21-23). I believe there is a connection between these two sections. The road to destruction is so wide that even some who think they are following Jesus, who think they know him, are actually not known by him. How do we avoid ending up like these misguided individuals?

When I was in college, a friend and mentor instructed me that I should never allow that which is good to distract me from that which is excellent. It is clear that these individuals who prophesied, healed and cast out demons forgot what it meant to know Jesus. During his ministry when the 70 returned rejoicing for what they had accomplished in Jesus’ name, Jesus instructed them not to rejoice because they had authority over disease and demons, but to rejoice because their names were written in heaven. We are not to let anything, even the blessings and power of God working in and through us distract us from our destiny to know Jesus and be known by him.

So how do we know that we know Jesus? The apostle Paul answers our question. It is not through what we accomplish in this life, but the role of the Holy Spirit in our life. The Holy Spirit who was sent by Jesus to dwell with his followers, bears witness to our own spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16). There are many ways we can live our life; the way of destruction is easy and broad and many take that road. There is only one narrow gate; that way is a determined pursuit of an ever growing relationship with Jesus, which leads to our living out the implications in our life of that relationship. Jesus told his disciples that he is the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). That means truth is not what you know, it is who you know. Truth is not a “what”, it is a “who”, a living, breathing person, whom we know as Jesus.

Heaven and Hell

The wisdom of Jesus is that we are to always address our own issues first and foremost and to absolutely avoid addressing another’s issue, because that role belongs to the Holy Spirit. If that is true, then how are we to turn another away from sin as is mentioned in Scripture? This can be done through teaching and proclaiming truth, rather than addressing directly that which might be amiss in another person. We are to be instructors of truth, rather than confront another’s sin. This is the way of Jesus, who rather than condemning mankind for its rebellion and evil, took upon himself the consequences of our sin. If anyone had the right to condemn it is Jesus, he refused to do so, we are to do the same. This leads to another question regarding what we call “hell”.

I’ve been reflecting on hell and what it is. I used to think it a place of punishment, but I don’t any longer. It is a place of confinement where the natural consequences of our decisions are lived out absent of God’s grace and intervention. It is a place where men live doing what men naturally do. They look out for only themselves and only do what is right in their own eyes. Some ask why doesn’t God let everyone into heaven. This question implies that heaven is primarily a geographic location, when in fact, heaven is primarily a relationship with God through knowing Jesus and others who love God. Even though heaven is a place, it is only heaven for those in relationship with Jesus. For a person who has no love for God or even hates God, being in God’s presence constantly would be terrible. It would be like living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and you know absolutely no one. I remember shortly after moving to Florence, Italy and knowing very little Italian. I’d go to pay our electric bill and stand in line with all the others, many of whom knew one another and were chatting it up. I felt extremely lonely because I was in a place where I didn’t know anyone and could not even communicate with the people around me. I imagine this would be just a little taste of what it would be like for a person with no relationship with Jesus to be present in heaven. Since such an individual is not suitable for what we call heaven, the only place for them is a place that fits their nature, which we call hell. Jesus called it a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Why is it that? Because when men live selfishly everyone suffers. Their suffering would be the same exact suffering that would be on earth, if God removed his sustaining grace. The only thing that makes earth bearable or enjoyable is God’s grace bestowed upon all who live upon it. Jesus said that the sun shines upon the righteous and unrighteous and the rain falls upon the godly and the ungodly all the same. Those who don’t know God presume upon his grace and attribute it to the natural order of things and their own efforts. I do not believe God is punitive because some, even many, wind up in a place we call hell. God is not obligated to continue to bestow grace upon those who refuse to acknowledge him. God is not unjust and would not be unjust if he stops preventing individuals from experiencing the natural consequences of their own decisions.

Defeating Temptations

Jesus’ 40 days in the desert to be tested by the devil give us a strategy for defeating temptation. First Satan may use our physical needs against us, in order to tempt us to live for ourselves, rather than living in a dependent relationship on our heavenly Father. Jesus refused to use his own power independently in order to meet his own physical needs. Jesus understood his mission to give his life for many. If he starved to death in the desert, he was OK giving his life in that manner. Likewise, we need to understand our purpose and role in the Kingdom. Just like Jesus, as sons and daughters of God, we live and serve at his pleasure to accomplish the purposes that he has set out for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

Second, the devil may use Scripture against us. In this case he used Psalm 91:11-12 against Jesus to get him to test God. In this case he used Scripture to test Jesus regarding pride. Would Jesus make an open demonstration of God protecting him to reveal who he was? Here on this occasion, Jesus again revealed his dependent relationship upon our Father. He would not force his Father’s hand and make him fulfill what he had promised through the prophet David. He was fine living in relative obscurity without a clear revelation of who he was. For us, it is key that we realize that Scripture can be used to tempt us, we need to keep in mind the higher principles of the Kingdom to hold us in check. Again as in the first temptation, we must grasp our role in the Kingdom. We are not seeking recognition or the praise of men. Jesus lived out what we read Peter exhorting all of us to do, to humble ourselves before God and in due time he will lift us up ( 1 Peter 5:6-11).

Finally, Satan may use our own desires for ease and comfort against us. He offered Jesus a short cut to Lordship over the earth. Rather than taking a shortcut to power and authority, Jesus preferred to honor God. Jesus was willing to endure suffering in order to accomplish what God had for him. Again in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus reaffirmed his commitment to submit to our Father’s will rather than follow his own desires. Even though Jesus was the Son of God, he learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). Did you catch that? Jesus, like us, needed to learn obedience! We are not on earth to seek out success and comfort, but to accept difficulties that come our way in order to become what God created us to be. This is why James can write to us that we are to consider it all joy when we encounter difficulties in this life, because those difficulties produce in us endurance, which in turn brings us to a state of perfection and completion in Jesus (James 1:2-4).

Like Jesus, we are to come to understand who we are, who God is and learn to live according to our heavenly Father’s design for our lives, so that when we come to the end of our earthly journey, we too can say “it is finished” and hear Jesus tell us “well done”.

Seeking the Eternal

When I was in college I remember my pastor, mentor and friend telling us that there are only two things on earth that are eternal, Jesus’ words and people. Jesus said that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words would never pass away. Therefore what Jesus said is worth exploring, pondering and applying. Furthermore, God created individuals to live forever. Therefore individuals also are well worth investing in. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul warned the Corinthians about discord within their church. They had divided over who they were following, some Paul, others Apollos and still others Cephas (Peter). Paul reminded them that there was only one who had died for them, Jesus and he was the only one worthy of following. Throughout church history, we have seen the tendency of the Corinthians play out over and over again, as Christians attach themselves to the teaching of men and women, creating discord between themselves. We have seen religious wars break out as Christians of one group fought Christians from another. There always seems to be some form of justification for that type of behavior, but they have departed from what Paul taught the Corinthians. When we focus on “Jesus words”, we discover a commonality and unity in our relationships with other Christians. When we deviate from what Jesus taught, and begin to follow the teaching and strategies of men, division often results.

Later in that same chapter, Paul talked about those who build upon the foundation of Jesus with gold, silver and precious stones. Those who do will receive their reward, but those who build with wood, hay and stubble will suffer loss, when their individual efforts are destroyed by fire. Paul’s statement here is worth pondering. How do we build with gold, silver and precious stones and not build with wood, hay and stubble? I believe there is a connection between what Paul said later in 1 Corinthians 3 and what he said earlier. Those who build their lives upon what Jesus taught and build others up with that same teaching are building with gold, silver and precious stones. Jesus called this building your house upon the rock. However, when we begin to deviate and begin departing from what Jesus taught and modify it with what men have taught, we are building with wood, hay and stubble. Jesus called this building your house on the sand. The wise man or woman will examine his or her own life to discern with whose words they are impacting others.