Monday, December 3. Matthew 5 – 7

    The Sermon on the Mount is the largest “behavior” section in Matthew and as such provides the foundation for everything that is to follow.  It can be divided into parts, easily seen in the reading:

1)    Introduction – the fundamentals of a holy heart.  5:1-20

2)    Misinterpretations corrected – Jesus addresses improper behavior coming from a misinterpretation of the Law of God.  5:21 – 48.

3)    Negative commands – “Don’t do this” 6:1 – 7:6

4)    Positive commands – “Do this.”  7:7 – 20

5)    Conclusion – the wisdom of obedience.  7:24 – 29

    There is an important point you should not miss in the “Introduction.”  Matthew points out that Jesus’ requirements are no different from those in the Old Testament.  In fact, all of what are called the “beattitudes” can be found in the Old Testament.  Jesus didn’t come to do away with the ethical code of the Old Testament, but to make it possible.  The ethical code of the Old Testament will endure, Jesus says, “until heaven and earth passes.”

Sunday, December 2. Matthew 1 – 4

    The story of the Magi brings up lots of questions.

    Was this a new star?  How did they know to interpret it as the coming of a Jewish king?  Why would Babylonian astrologers even care about a Jewish king?  Why would they make a journey to worship him?

    On the other hand, Herod was surely interested in the new king, but had no clue about his coming.  The chief priests and teachers of the law knew of his coming, but were not expecting him – or just didn’t care.  Everyone, on hearing the news was “disturbed.”  Notice that no one is happy.  The coming of a new king upsets the current order of things.  Change is in the offing.  People don’t like change.

    Except for the Magi. 

    They seek to worship this new king, an odd sort of response for a king but perhaps their understanding is that he is really more than just a king.

    But there’s something else.

    Why didn’t this star lead the wise men to Bethlehem in the first place, rather than to Jerusalem?

    It would seem that the function of the star was to lead the wise men to scripture (thus the passage from Micah), then to confirm scripture.  I note that Herod has no interest in going to Bethlehem.  Neither do the chief priests and teachers of the law.  “Outsiders believe the word; insiders ignore it.”

    This leads us to two lessons I believe intended by Matthew: First, that the coming of Jesus is for the benefit of everyone.  Not everyone will follow Jesus, but Jesus came for their benefit anyway.  Second, those of us who know him best must not find ourselves among those who, by our behavior, are interested in him the least.

Thursday, November 29. Hebrews 4 – 6

    The book of Hebrews is forward looking.

    To a people who are suffering for their faith, he has little to offer them of present encouragement.  He does not know when their trials will be over – unless, of course, you want to talk about death.  But for the unfaithful, trials do not end with death, for they will one day stand before God to be judged.

    And yet, there is hope.

    The writer talks about it in terms of the “rest” of God.  It is obviously not a rest that occurs in this life.  It looks beyond this life to the one to come.  But that rest comes only to those who make every effort to be obedient to God, trusting that His way is the only way to live with any promise at all.

    Like ancient Israel, we as Christians, because of our faith in Christ, have entered that lot of people who have been qualified by God to share in His rest.  But like ancient Israel, we can lose our share in that rest if we turn from faith . . . and The Faith (note 4:13).

Saturday, December 1. Hebrews 10 – 13

    I am convinced that the real point of the book of Hebrews is found in the last two chapters.  Everything written up to that point is solely to get to that point.  The Christians addressed are abandoning Jesus.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t religious.  They are very religious.  The problem is that their religion does not show in their daily living, their ethic.

    Life is hard.  The writer of Hebrews knows that.  But while the readers have suffered much, their suffering is not nearly that of other people of faith whose relationship with God was not near what the Hebrews Christians’was.  They have no reason to abandon the God who has called them into this superior relationship with Him.

    But they are abandoning it.  You can see it in their behavior.

    And so, arriving at the end of the book, having dug down and shown the foundation on which the Christian life exists, the writer of Hebrews calls them to live accordingly.  It is that living, so often referred to in this book, that is carefully described and encouraged as the letter comes to a close.  Whatever you do, don’t miss what he says in these closing chapters.

Friday, November 30. Hebrews 7 – 9

    Hebrews reminds me so much of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts – not in content, but in form.  The writer of all these books has a habit of introducing a subject, then leaving it and returning to it as he expands and integrates that subject with the larger theme of his book.

    Melchizedek is mentioned only twice in the Old Testament.  But the writer of Hebrews makes much ado of him in this book.

    The writer introduces us to the idea of Jesus as a high priest in chapter 2.  In chapter five, he tells us Christ’s priesthood is not of the Levitical order, but of the “order of Melchizedek..”  He draws this conclusion from Psalm 110, a Psalm used numerous times in the New Testament (by Jesus) to refer to Jesus (cf. Matthew 22:44 and parallels).  Peter uses it the same way in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:34-35).  In chapter seven of Hebrews, the writer explains why it is so important.  Melchizedek was a member of a greater priesthood than that of Levi since even Abraham paid him tithes and was blessed by him (the lesser is blessed by the greater).  Playing off the mysteriousness of the Melchizedek priesthood (we don’t know anything about the guy – where he came from or where he went), the writer of Hebrews proclaims it an eternal priesthood.  The fact  that God promised (during the days of the Levites in Psalm 110) that a priest was coming who would be of this order signifies the limited usefulness of the Levites.  The fact that Jesus, whose priesthood is of this order, lives forever makes not only his “order,” but his service as a high priest greater than all other high priests.  He is always there for us.

    To a group of Christians considering abandoning their faith, the unstated question is inescapable: if you abandon Jesus, where will you turn.  Whatever you turn to will be inferior in every way.

    I don’t want to leave this without making an important point: You should not think that the writer of Hebrews thinks his readers are going to abandon Church for Synagogue.  The issue is not competing religions.  As the book comes to a close, we will see their abandonment of Jesus is not so much a matter of switching doctrinal orthodoxy as it is abandoning the behavior in daily life Jesus requires.  Once they leave the life of Jesus for the way of the world, there is no hope left.  That was the point of Hebrews chapter six.

Wednesday, November 28. Hebrews 1 – 3

    As you read through Hebrews, one of the things to notice is an alternation between information and exhortation.  “Exhortation” is just a fancy word, almost a religious term now, for “encouragement.”  It is as if the writer says “here’s what you should know” and then, “because this is true, this is how you should respond.”

    The readers of Hebrews have suffered much for following Jesus.  With a Jewish background, some of them are wondering if it might not be just as well to abandon Christianity in favor of the faith of their fathers.  But the writer of Hebrews tells them that Christianity is the faith of their fathers, for Jesus is the Son of God.

    As the book opens, the writer mentions Christ’s work of providing purification for sins (chapter 1).  In chapter two, he calls it “atonement for sins” and “making people holy” and the message of this blessing is the message of “salvation.”  There was only one way for Jesus to do this, and that was to become human and destroy the power of death through his own suffering.  In fact, Jesus’ work was brought to completion by his suffering.  Because he suffered, He knows what we are going through and can help us with sufferings of our own.

    If we abandon Jesus, the writer of Hebrews says, we abandon the only hope humanity has.

Tuesday, November 27. Mark 14 – 16

    “She has done what she could.”

    All four gospels tell a story about a woman anointing Jesus’ head with very expensive perfume.  Three of the gospels make much ado over how much the perfume cost.  Luke talks about the character of the woman.

    But only Mark tells us Jesus said: “you can always do something nice for the poor.  On the other hand, you won’t always have me around.”  Then, “she has done what she could.”

    The disciples often do what they can, but it’s always in their best interests, or at least, contrary to the will of God.

    But here is a woman who yields herself to God’s will (something Peter has yet to do) and to Jesus’ death.  In yielding, she does what she can.

    With us, we talk about doing “what we can,” but it doesn’t always involve being inconvenienced or even submitting to the uncomfortable will of God.  We’re just talking about “doing our part,” often while whining that others are not doing theirs thus burdening us.  But this woman gave a year’s wages in a sacrificial act that boldly yielded to the Father’s will.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke never mention her name, but the legacy of Christian preaching is that the gospel is not fully proclaimed until her story is told.  I would contend that the Gospel is not fully lived until her example is followed.

Monday, November 26. Mark 11 – 13

 (A note to our readers:  You may have experienced a bit of erratic behavior in this blog of late.  It is “supposed” to post at 6 am each day, but lately, they’ve been frequently late.  I write these often days in advance and they are supposed to post automatically.  For some reason that hasn’t been working.  Beginning January 1, we will use another blog platform and it should work better.  Until then, please bear with us.)

    How about a sandwich?

    Not a real one, but a literary one.

    Mark often uses what scholars call a “sandwich technique” in his presentation.  He begins telling a story, interrupts it with another totally different one, and then returns to his original one.  We’ve seen several of these.  In chapter three, Jesus’ family goes to take charge of him because they think he’s insane.  That story is interrupted with the story of the divided house and then Mark returns to the story of Jesus’ family (see also 4:1–20; 5:21–43; 6:7–30).

    The point in the sandwich is that the mid-part, the meat so to speak, is supposed to illuminate the “bread” part.

    In chapter eleven, Jesus curses a fig tree for not bearing figs.  Then, Jesus clears the temple, and Mark returns to the story of the fig tree.

    The first thing we have to address is why Jesus cursed the fig tree for not having figs when, as Mark plainly tells us, it was not the season for figs!  But in season or not, the fig tree had leaves which normally come after the figs.  In other words, season or not, there was promise without performance.  When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, what stirs him up is likewise the “promise without performance” issue.  The temple held the promise of relationship with God.  But all that was going on there was worldliness feeding separation from God.

    If we called it what it is, and we seldom use the word today, we’d call it “hypocrisy.”

    But the story takes a sudden twist at the end: Jesus talks about prayer, and that’s the lesson.  Disciples often talk a good game, but there is little praying going on in their lives, and in even shorter supply is confidence in God.  Prayer becomes simply an exercise to make us feel holy without faith.

    For God’s people, prayer is powerful!  We must pray.  But as much as pray, we must believe God hears us, is in charge, and will answer.  If we don’t believe that, we’ll do more posturing than praying and find ourselves under Jesus’ sure condemnation.

Saturday, November 24. Mark 3 – 6

    Bible scholars are mixed in their view of whether Mark was an eyewitness of Jesus’s ministry, but I am convinced that despite not being an apostle, Mark was surely a close disciple.  He includes details only an eyewitness would know.  In other gospels, Jesus uses a boat to separate himself from the crowds, but only Mark tells us Jesus told his disciples to make arrangements for that boat.  Only Mark tells us that James and John were nicknamed “sons of thunder.”  Only Mark tells us Jesus’ family thought Jesus was crazy, insight only a insider might have.  Only Mark tells us that Jesus explained his parables to the disciples “in private” or when they were “alone.”

    In chapter four, two points stand out to me:

    First, it is in chapter four that we first see Jesus’ unhappiness with his disciples.  On their not understanding the parable of the sower, Jesus says: “If you don’t get this one, how will you get the rest?”  This will not be the last rebuke of the twelve, but the rebukes are most clearly seen in Mark.  Keep the rebukes in mind as you read the book.  We are sometimes tempted to think that we would be better disciples if we could actually see Jesus and walk with him, hearing his voice.  But as Mark will make plain, we are not likely to do any better than the twelve.

    Second,   the success of the Kingdom of God cannot be explained in terms of human effort or struggle.  Disciples, of course, have work to do, but they will not succeed because of their effort or dedication.  Success comes because it is empowered by God.  That’s the message of the “parable of the growing seed” (4:26-29), found only in Mark.

    Put both observations together.  Discipleship requires effort.  Jesus expected (and expects!) his disciples to “get” his teaching.  He expects behavior to be molded.  But the success of the molding is, ultimately, in the hands of God.  Which is why Jesus, often disappointed with his followers, never abandons them.  He knows His heavenly Father is still working within them.  We should know it too.

Friday, November 23. 2 Timothy 4, Mark 1 – 2

    Much of what you will find in the Gospel of Mark you will also find in one or more of the other gospels, but occasionally, there will be those nuggets about Jesus’ life that only Mark tells you about.  The closing verses of Mark chapter two is an example of that: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

    Luke takes great pains to note that Jesus was a scrupulous observer of the law of Moses, but if we are not careful, Mark will lead us to the opposite conclusion – if we are not careful.  Note that when Jesus healed the leper in chapter one, the healed man was required to observe the ritual of one who is healed.  What we find, however, is that Jesus has an understanding of the law his contemporaries do not.  They understand the law as the rule of God in their lives – but it’s only a rule.  Faithfulness requires slavish obedience to the rules.  You can be a horrid person (precisely the way Mark portrays the Pharisees), but if you keep the rules, you are good in God’s sight.

    Jesus, however, has no such understanding.  The law is not so much about rule keeping as about being like God.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep the law, only that the law is made for your benefit, to mold your life and change your character.  Jesus keeps the law from the inside out.  His opponents keep it only on the outside.

    This should become an interpretive rule for us.  It was exactly that for Jesus.  The rules of God are meant to affect our behavior by informing our hearts.  We don’t case them off when they don’t suit us, but we are obligated to discover how God intended them to suit us.