Recently I was reminded of the age old question, if God is so loving, why doesn’t he stop evil in the world. This is both a concerning and personal question, but it also raises the problem that humanity faces. Adam, when he was confronted with his transgression of eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, implied God was responsible for his mistake. He declared that the woman whom God had given him, gave him the fruit and he ate. Adam refused to take responsibility for the evil that he had introduced to the human race. Mankind has been refusing to take responsibility for the evil in the world ever since. The question about God addressing evil does the same thing. It ignores humanity’s responsibility for evil’s existence and its continuation in the world. Paul, the apostle, addressed both the problem of evil birthed by Adam and the solution to evil resolved in Jesus in his treatise to the Roman people. When we arrive at chapter 12 of that letter, Paul gave us very practical advice on how we can address the evil around us. In considering his teaching, we should remember that he is speaking to individual followers of Jesus. He doesn’t expect those who don’t know Jesus to live this way and neither should we. In any case, his instruction is surprising, but not new, Jesus instructed the same in his Sermon on the Mount.
Paul wrote to the Roman followers of Jesus to bless, not curse, those who persecute, or hurt, them (v. 14). How might our world be different, if those who know Jesus were to bless those with whom they disagree, rather than showing disrespect? When was the last time we blessed someone who has hurt us? Further on, Paul instructed to never pay back evil with evil, but to live at peace, as much as possible with all men and never seek your own revenge, leaving that to God (v. 17-19). Revenge and payback are natural responses to being hurt, even something as simple as withdrawing from a relationship with someone who has hurt us or with whom we disagree is a form of revenge and paying back evil with evil. Paul summarized his teaching with a powerful statement. We are to overcome evil with good (v. 21). Do you realize what Paul said here? Evil can be overcome and does not require a position of power and authority! As we confront evil with goodness received from Jesus, evil is defeated. In other words, we who follow Jesus, are responsible for conquering and defeating evil in the world, simply by inspiring those around us with the goodness and peacefulness of our lives and relationships.
The Scripture that declares that God gives grace to the humble but resists the proud (James 4:6) is easy to understand at one level, but can be difficult to accept in practice. This was Paul’s point as he concluded his discussion in Romans 9. When he declared that the Gentiles, who had lived dissolute lives were accepted by God, because they repented with faith in Jesus, while the Jewish people who had lived morally upright lives were rejected, because they thought they were good enough through their efforts, rather than also placing their faith in Jesus. The immoral people who came to Jesus, understood their position and repented. However, the moral people who came to Jesus felt themselves justified and were blind to their own pride. Their pride is why both John the Baptist and Jesus referred to the religious people as children of the devil, because they struggled with the same problem that consumed Satan, pride.
As a result, it can be hard for us to accept when we see God blessing and working powerfully in a person who once lived a horrible life. While we may have lived an outwardly better life, we may not see that same blessing on our life and wonder why. We need to learn not to be either impressed or distracted by the person through whom God works, because it is the Spirit dwelling in that individual who is operating through and partnering with them. Remember, all the 12 disciples including Judas Iscariot prophesied, cast out demons and healed people, but Jesus would later say of Judas that it would have been better had he never been born. God can and has the right to choose any person or any type of person to communicate His message and promote His kingdom. The better response is to accept and be open to the fact that we can learn from anyone, because the Spirit of God may use anyone, young or old, moral or immoral, to teach us. Then it is that humility to learn from anyone, that will also open up the way for the Spirit of God to work through us as well, whatever that may look like.
The story found in Matthew 2 of the Magi coming from the east to worship the newly born King of the Jews demonstrates one of the amazing ways that God encourages, protects and provides for his people. In a manner that the Magi, who study the stars, would understand, God revealed to them that the King of the Jews had been born. How did he do that? According to the Magi when they spoke with King Herod, they saw the newborn king’s star in the east and came to Jerusalem to worship him. Of course, this news was a surprise to Herod and threw him and the entire city of Jerusalem into bedlam. This raises yet another question. Why would the Magi associate this star with the newborn King of the Jews? Taking a step back from this story and considering the broader history of Israel, we understand from the latter chapters of 2 Kings and Daniel in the Old Testament, that after Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came and defeated Jerusalem, he took both the king and some of young men from the royal family into exile. One of these young men was Daniel. From the book of Daniel we learn that Daniel became the chief of the wise men (Magi) of Babylon. That means he would likely have taught them about the prophecies regarding his own nation, including the coming Jewish Messiah. It is curious to consider that out of a disaster, the defeat of Jerusalem and the exile of the king and members of the royal family, God brought about blessing and provision hundreds of years later for his own son. It was as if Daniel was a type of John the Baptist, sent ahead of Jesus to prepare the way for Jesus and bring provision for him.
Through the chief priests and the scribes the Magi were informed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem according to the prophet Micah’s prophecy (Micah 5:2). That information along with the star reappearing led the Magi to the very house in Bethlehem where Jesus, Mary and Joseph resided. As part of the Magi’s worship of Jesus, they gave him expensive gifts, which subsequently would have been useful to sustain the small family as they lived in exile in Egypt having fled the terror that Herod rained down on Bethlehem. It also would have been a powerful reminder to Mary and Joseph that Jesus was the Messiah and that God was protecting and providing for them.
I have learned that what God did here for Jesus, he does and will do for us. He sometimes leads us down paths that we did not expect to go and provides for us in ways we never could have imagined. Several years ago, we were going through a difficult financial time. Out of the blue I received an email that at first I thought was a scam. However, it was a job opportunity for a teaching contract from an organization that I had never heard of. It led to my teaching Italian on a six month contract providing desperately needed income for us as well as encouragement to me. Later when I inquired as to how they got my email address, no one could remember or knew why they had contacted me. That experience reminded me that God sometimes brings provision for us in completely unexpected and unforeseen ways, just as he did here for Jesus. Such knowledge should spark joy and hopefulness in our lives, particularly when we are navigating a challenging time in our life.
Lately I’ve been reading what Paul wrote to the Romans about following God. Knowing that Paul addressed people who were being taught to live according to the Old Testament law as Christians, Paul addressed the concept of living lives of love and freedom for and toward Jesus, without the regulations of the law. Under the law people often just go through the motions and do what the law says following its regulations out of obligation, but with no thought for love for God. However, when an individual knows Jesus, the law’s regulations cease to exist for them, leading to living life with a consideration for the desires of the one they love, Jesus. In this the Christian life is very similar to a loving marriage, in which partners do things which they know please their spouse, rather than living according to a set of regulations, because that is what they are supposed to do.
Since God created us in his own image, that which we desire in our relationships, reflects what God desires in his relationship with us. It is unheard of for a married couple to live their life according to a book or regulations that govern their marriage, where they go through the motions following the regulations of the book to guide their marriage. Rather in a loving marriage each partner desires to naturally do things that please their partner out of love and affection and not because they are required to do so, because that is what the marriage rule book tells them. Likewise, God desires us to seek him and do that which pleases him out of an affection for him, rather than going through the motions of some religious rule book.
I have learned and am learning that much of God’s truth for us is quite subtle. In Romans chapter 4, Paul makes some statements that are quite easy to gloss over, but when you ponder them, they are quite profound. In Romans 4, Paul uses the case of Abraham to argue the concept of being justified before God by faith in Jesus rather than through the practice of religious works. It is commonly summarized as “being saved by grace through faith”. While this phrase is very true, Paul implies other things about us in his explanation of what Jesus does for us. Pride can have no place in God’s kingdom. Regarding those who are justified through faith, Paul wrote that God is the one who justifies the ungodly. In other words, if anyone has been “saved by grace through faith”, that individual also acknowledges that without God, they are ungodly. Nothing they possessed was worth anything. Later, Paul would write as much to the Philippians when he said that all his previous accomplishments, he considered as loss in comparison to knowing Jesus. On the other hand, those who believe that their good deeds can outweigh their bad deeds and make themselves acceptable to God, don’t really grasp what they are saying. They are saying that through their own efforts they can justify themselves before God, that they can make themselves righteous before God. In such, they are literally the definition of being “self-righteous”. This is what Paul explains in Romans 4 as being impossible. We cannot be “good enough” to make ourselves righteous. Why? Because by definition, without God we are ungodly. We need Jesus to transform us from being ungodly to godly, we can’t do it on our own.
Perhaps it is easier to understand this concept when considering our physical bodies and sickness. When we have a physical condition that we cannot not address by exercise, diet and rest, but we remain sick and possibly get worse, we go and see a physician. Our self-help and self-treatment are not sufficient, because our condition is greater than what we can accomplish. However, the physician can help us find a cure. In the same way, Jesus is our physician, who transforms us from our ungodly condition to one of godliness. This is why pride has no place in God’s kingdom; we have nothing to be proud about in ourselves, because anything of value that we’ve done has been received through Jesus. This is why it is tragic that the world considers Christians to be self-righteous, harsh and judgmental, when in fact we should be the most humble, kind and gracious people, because we understand from where we have come and what Jesus has done for us.
The apostle Paul makes a fascinating statement in Romans 1:24-25. In Romans 1, Paul outlines a case against humanity, who has rejected what God has revealed of himself in nature. Since man chose to worship nature instead of God himself, God allowed man to do so. According to Paul, man had the opportunity to worship God, but preferred to worship nature instead. Paul’s words reminded me of a video I recently saw on You Tube. One of the channels I enjoy is Jay Leno’s Garage. I enjoy gaining insight on cars and the automotive industry that Jay brings on his weekly episodes. On a recent episode, Jeff Dunham was on with his Ford Econoline van. As Jay and Jeff drove along, Jeff shared some wisdom that his father had given to him. Jeff told Jay that everything we have is either a tool or an idol. When we examine our relationship with our possessions we realize that there is truth in what Jeff’s father told him. Our possessions either serve us or we serve them. We choose our relationship with our possessions. This is what Paul is saying in relationship to man and God. Man either worships God or he ends us worshiping something else. Man will worship something. If he chooses not to worship God, then he will worship something created, which in Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is idolatry.
Jeff Dunham’s comment to Jay Leno, alongside Paul’s words to the Romans teach us the same lesson. What is our relationship to our possessions? Do they serve us, or do we serve them? If we discover that we are actually serving our possessions, then what are we going to do about that situation?
After breaking the bread and drinking from the cup, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives, where he told them they would all be scandalized because of him. Although they denied it, later that night they all would be. Peter was most vehement in his denial, so Jesus told him exactly what he would do, but more than that all the disciples lost faith in Jesus. While he was alive they all believed he was the Messiah, but after his death, they all doubted whether he was. This was revealed by the statement of Cleopas in Luke when they, not knowing they were speaking to Jesus, told him that they had thought Jesus was the Messiah, implying that they no longer did because he had died.
The disciples’ example reveals to us how powerful our expectations of the future can be in our thinking. Jesus told his disciples on a number of occasions that he would be arrested, killed and rise again on the third day. While they questioned what rising from the dead meant, they understood and even opposed the idea that he would be killed. Their presuppositions of the Messiah and what the Kingdom of God would be like prevented them from accepting the truth. In some way they heard the words and explained them away or spiritualized them so that their conclusions were so different that when this all literally took place they began to doubt who Jesus was. The disciples held their theology so tightly, that it prohibited them from accepting the truth. While we all have expectations of the future and what God is doing and will do, we should hold those expectations and even theological positions lightly in order to be open to course corrections in our expectations and even parts of our theology, particularly end time theology. We do not want to be like the disciples whose faith was temporarily shaken because kingdom reality didn’t agree with their theology of the kingdom of God.
The story of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, is an illustrative one to us. First we know from John’s gospel that he had a love for money. John revealed that as the group’s treasurer, he stole from the money bag. So it should not be surprising to us, that he offered his services to the religious leaders for money, receiving thirty pieces of silver. What is curious is at the Passover meal, Jesus revealed to all the disciples that one of them would betray him. All denied it. Jesus declared that for that one it would have been better had he never been born. Matthew records an interesting exchange between Jesus and Judas. When, like the others, Judas denied being the one, Jesus confronted him and declared to him that yes, he was the one.
At that moment, Judas had a choice, he could have confessed and repented of what he was about to do. He could have returned the money to the leaders. Only afterwards were his eyes opened to what he had done; he did return the money, but overcome with guilt and shame he took his own life. In his compassion, Jesus had offered Judas a way out. He revealed that what Judas was doing was no secret; he was found out. Jesus offered to him an opportunity to confess. Tragically, Judas didn’t respond. Judas reveals a tragic human condition, a commitment to hide who we truly are and our need for confession. We seek to pretend to be someone who are are not, to be better than we really are. We hide our weaknesses and failures, hoping no one sees. However, Jesus and often many others perceive who we really are, yet we continue to hide. Like he did with Judas, Jesus offers to us a way out. He invites us to live in the light, as he is in the light; that is to live authentic lives. He invites us not to pretend to be someone we are not. When we hurt, he invites us to talk about it. When we’ve made poor decisions in our life, he invites us to confess and be healed from the pain of them. It is often our pride that holds us back, but we need to set that pride aside and live in freedom.
Jesus taught his disciples that when speaking their “yes” was to be “yes” and their “no” was to be “no”. He went on to explain that if they made a vow it was valid and to be kept. Later when addressing the religious leaders of his day, he rebuked them for their teaching the people that if they made a vow on the temple it was invalid, but if they made it on the gold in the temple it was valid. Jesus pointed out that they were foolish, because it was the temple itself that made the gold in it holy. In other words, Jesus showed them that if they made an oath it was to be honored.
Jesus’ teaching implies that we have a problem with our speech. It raises the question of “why”? Why should we ever need to make a vow or an oath? Could it be that our “yes” doesn’t always mean “yes”? Sometimes we have to make a promise or take an oath, to communicate to others that this time we really mean “yes”. That is a problem. Have you ever noticed that throughout the Gospels, we never see Jesus making an oath or a vow? Jesus never had to because everyone who heard him speak knew that he always spoke the truth, so that an oath was unnecessary or redundant. When Jesus told us to let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” to be “no”, he meant for us to live in a manner similar to the way he lived.
After Jesus descended from the mountain of transfiguration, he encountered a father, whose son was afflicted by a demon. Jesus dealt with the demon and healed the boy. When the disciples asked Jesus about their inability to cast it out, he said it was their little faith, which raises the question of how was their faith little? Jesus’ response reveals how their faith was small. They clearly had faith that Jesus could heal the boy. However, their faith was small in that they weren’t completely sure that they could heal in all situations like Jesus. Then Jesus said that if they had the faith even as small as a mustard seed, nothing would be impossible for them. Jesus’ statement must be qualified because Jesus did his works in accordance with his Father’s will. Jesus lived and acted out of relationship with our heavenly Father, not according to his own understanding, but out of his relational knowledge of his Father. In other words, nothing will be impossible for us, as long as we are doing what our heavenly Father has directed and led us to do. Again, this brings up another question. How do we know what our heavenly Father wants us to do? The response to this is a relational one. We get to know others, co-workers, our spouse, our children and our friends, by spending time with them, talking with them and doing things together. As we do, we discover their likes and dislikes, as we learn who they are. As we do, we adjust our behavior in order to please those we love. In a similar way, we need to spend time with our heavenly Father, discovering what it is that he desires so that we can live according to his desires for us and for others. Jesus’ promise is that as we live out of a growing relationship with our heavenly Father, then nothing will be impossible for us. Of course Jesus did this perfectly, because of the depth of relationship with our Father. We on the other hand are in the process of learning, growing and maturing in our relationship with God our Father. At times, we fail to realize who we are and we want God or Jesus to do what he wants and has empowered us to do. This is how God’s people operated in the Old Testament. They understood themselves to be God’s servants so they looked to God to do what needed to be done. Then came Jesus, who modeled how we as sons and daughters of the living God are to live. We are to live like Jesus and leave behind how God’s people lived in the Old Testament. Our failures can come when we fall back into an Old Testament mode of operating instead of embracing how Jesus has taught us to live. Our “little faith” can be revealed in our immature understanding of what our heavenly Father is doing in any given situation.