Saturday, November 30. Matthew 7 – 8

The Sermon on the Mount opens with the identification of what the blessing of God requires. These requirements of life are summarized by what we call the beattitudes, character traits expected by God even in the Old Testament. It continues by disabusing the hearers of false notions about what God expects of his people and promptly moves to some commands that have to do with our relationship with God.

The sermon ends much as it began: with a call to obedience. At the start of the sermon (5:19) Jesus said: “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Here, Jesus says “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Often, the “Kingdom” is confused with the Church, and admittedly, it’s an easy mistake to make. The New Testament teaches that those in one are in the other. That both started at the same time. That admission to one is the same as admission to the other. But when it comes to Matthew, Jesus is obviously talking about two different things. The first readers of Matthew are already in the Church, but Jesus is pointing to something else: the kingdom of heaven – something beyond this life. It is safe to say that those of the Christian age not in the Church will never be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. On the other hand, it is possible to be a part of the Church, and still miss the kingdom of heaven.

Who will ultimately enjoy the kingdom of heaven? Those whose lives reflect the rule of God in the here and now.

Friday, November 29. Matthew 4 – 6

Chapter six brings us to the third section of the Sermon on the Mount: the negative commands of Jesus. The commands are linked by the continued reminders not to be like people of the world. We do good for goodness sake, not to be seen of others. Our prayers other particularly religious acts are between God and ourselves, not opportunities to display piety for others.

Two commands stand out to me:

The first is not to focus on earthly things. It’s interesting how, as one grows older, a life becomes more crammed with things – particularly useless things. Not useless in that they have no utility, but in the sense that the owner has no use for them. You would think that a person, preparing for the Kingdom of Heaven would methodically reduce his assets, finding them a useful place in the service of others rather than let them become dust laden trophies that have to be repeatedly moved and maintained. That’s what Jesus calls us to, a life of downsizing here to furnish the home to come. Rare are the elderly who, on their own, downsize their lives so that as energy fades, they have less to care for. But that’s probably because they never learned to do it earlier in life.

The second involves Matthew’s rendition on the Lord’s Prayer. Compared to the others, Matthew focuses more on forgiveness – giving it and seeking it, but both Matthew and Mark condition receiving it on giving it.

Thursday, November 28. Matthew 1 – 3

Only Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” Mark, Luke and John prefer “kingdom of God.”

The reason is that the other writers want to emphasize the rule of God at all times in the lives of his people. And so, if you would come under God’s rule here on earth, according to Mark, Luke, and John, you must behave in a certain way. On the other hand, Matthew’s view is further reaching. If you would be a part of the kingdom of heaven, that is, the age to come, you must learn to let God rule in your life now.

If the two views seem the same, keep this in mind: Matthew’s readers are suffering for their faith. Matthew refers to persecution more than the other gospel writers put together. He cannot tell them their trials will soon be over. He cannot say that God will make them painless, or even less painful. What he does do is point them to the eternal assurance that is theirs because God rules their lives. This is the significance of the “kingdom of heaven,” and it is so important, that it becomes, in Matthew, the substance of John the baptist’s preaching, and of Christ’s.

The old hymn reads: “There’s a great day coming, a great day coming.” Whatever we face today, for good or ill, it will be nothing compared to the greatness of the day to come. Whatever we face today, we must live this day to enjoy that particular day to come.

Monday, November 25. Hebrews 11 – 13

Leadership in the Church is not a matter of wielding power; it is a matter of imitative mentorship, the kind of leading that inspires others to follow and provides direction by example. We all would like to point people to Jesus and say: Follow the Lord; not me. But that will not do.

People need mentors they can see and God provides leaders in the church to model behavior. Deacons had to be “full of the Holy Spirit,” a trait best seen in a holy life rather than in the performance of miracles. Elders must be “worthy of respect” and preachers must be examples in speech, life, love, faith and purity (1 Timothy 4:12).

The Church is not a republic where everyone gets an equal vote and a say. Those who by virtue of their holy living, and informed, dedicated and willing service inspire the respect of others have more vote and more say because they speak and live the way of God. The church should respect these people and submit to their leadership. The writer of Hebrews, in a flurry of imperatives in the last chapter, exhorts his readers to the holy life. This includes respect for leaders of the past who have now passed on (verse 7), and leaders of the present who are entrusted with the task of watching for the souls of their brethren. Christians who find submission to others difficult will find submission to God impossible. We are not called to be an oppressive people. Neither are we called to personal independence. We are called to be a submissive community whose surrender to God is seen in the way we treat one another and follow those among us entrusted with leading.

Sunday, November 24. Hebrews 8 – 11

What does he mean by “it is impossible to renew them to repentance” (6:6) Does he mean once you sin you cannot repent? God won’t forgive you? Who are these people who seemingly cannot be saved? Are they Christians?

Let’s start with the last question first. Whatever this passage means, it applies to Christians. Only they would qualify as those who have “been enlightened,” “tasted of the heavenly gift” and “shared in the Holy Spirit.” The old idea that once one is saved he cannot be lost (and if he is, he was never saved) must be, then, entirely unbiblical. Older translations render the passage “if they fall away,” but the Greek text lists five particular participles, having been enlightened, having tasted of the heavenly gift, having shared in the Holy Spirit, having tasted the goodness of the word of God, and having fallen away.

Why is the writer disturbed about this?

Because his readers are in danger of this happening to them.

If they fall away, can they come back to God?

Yes, but they can’t come as they are. They have to change first, renouncing their fallenness. God’s people cannot expect to live as they please and remain in his fellowship and grace.

Then, there is another possibility: that the fallen will not be able to renounce their ways. It is possible that a person become so hardened in their sin that they not only cannot give it up, they won’t want to.

Saturday, November 23. Hebrews 4 – 7

What does he mean by “it is impossible to renew them to repentance” (6:6) Does he mean once you sin you cannot repent? God won’t forgive you? Who are these people who seemingly cannot be saved? Are they Christians?

Let’s start with the last question first. Whatever this passage means, it applies to Christians. Only they would qualify as those who have “been enlightened,” “tasted of the heavenly gift” and “shared in the Holy Spirit.” The old idea that once one is saved he cannot be lost (and if he is, he was never saved) must be, then, entirely unbiblical. Older translations render the passage “if they fall away,” but the Greek text lists five particular participles, having been enlightened, having tasted of the heavenly gift, having shared in the Holy Spirit, having tasted the goodness of the word of God, and having fallen away.

Why is the writer disturbed about this?

Because his readers are in danger of this happening to them.

If they fall away, can they come back to God?

Yes, but they can’t come as they are. They have to change first, renouncing their fallenness. God’s people cannot expect to live as they please and remain in his fellowship and grace.

Then, there is another possibility: that the fallen will not be able to renounce their ways. It is possible that a person become so hardened in their sin that they not only cannot give it up, they won’t want to.

Friday, November 22. Hebrews 1 – 3

The letter to the Hebrews proclaims that God has spoken, and spoken in a way unlike any ever before. God has come to this earth and actually spoken himself. We know this God-become-man as “Jesus.”

And this God has not just spoken.

He has provided purification for sins, announced salvation to the world, made it possible for us to become God’s family, and has opened the way into God’s glory for us. He has tasted of death and provided the antidote to its poison, and has become our High Priest, walking with us every step of the way into God’s glory.

In chapter three comes an extended warning: “fix your thoughts on Jesus . . . hold on to your courage and hope . . . do not harden your hearts . . . see to it none of you turns from the living God.”

Why?

Because God has something he’s been wanting to give his people for a very long time, something he calls his “rest.” It belongs to his people by virtue of the fact that we are his people. We can’t earn it or merit it. God will never owe it to us. It is ours as a gift. But we can lose it by turning away from God.

Thursday, November 21. Mark 14 – 16

Sometimes it’s instructive when reading the Gospels to compare them and see what is unique to each one. Then, ask why the gospel writer saw fit to bring that up.

As we reach chapter fifteen, it is only Mark who tells us Barabbas was a murderer. Only Mark makes a point of telling us that the soldiers mockingly worshiped Jesus, that he was crucified the day before the Sabbath and at the 9th hour.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention it was Simon who was pressed into service to aid Jesus in carrying his cross, but only Mark tells us Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus – two men who must have been known to Mark’s readers.

It is Mark who most underscores that it was the Jewish leadership who killed Jesus, opening the chapter with mention of the chief priests, the elders, teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin. In fact, Mark particularly makes the leaders of this murderous group the “chief priests.”

In the Old Testament, the chief priest (High Priest) was always to come from the house of Aaron. But by the days of Jesus, the priesthood changed every year, going mainly to the highest bidder (who paid the fee to the Romans, making him subject to them). Though only one person functioned as the “High Priest,” everyone who served made up the group of “chief priests” in Jesus’ time.

Finally, only Mark tells us Pilate, despite his insistence that Jesus was innocent, gave Jesus to be crucified to “satisfy the crowd.” The crowd had followed Jesus relentlessly. They were the ones on whom Jesus had compassion (6:34), the ones he fed (chapter 8), the ones who were so zealous for Jesus that the Jewish leadership decided to kill him (11:18), and those whose protection of Jesus made the leaders cautious in what they did.

But the tide turned.

That’s the way it is when you follow the crowd. People are fickle. What appeals one minute will repulse the next. That’s why being a part of the crowd, the majority, is so dangerous. The Christian must never find himself there – indeed cannot – because the life Jesus calls us to will never be embraced by them. When we are accepted by the crowd, we’re doing something wrong. This is not an excuse for being contrary. It’s the result of being Christ’s disciple.

Wednesday, November 20. Mark 11 – 13

The Lincoln memorial is not far from my house. It is my favorite memorial. When I ascend the steps and turn around, there is the mall before me, and in the distance, the Washington monument. There may be more beautiful cities, but I have not seen them. Patriotic people, looking at the same scene for the first time, seldom fail to feel that intense pride in their nation.

I would imagine that’s the way Jesus’ disciples felt as they were traveling through the temple courts in chapter thirteen. It was a magnificent structure. It had been under construction for nearly fifty years. Construction would continue for over thirty more. Disciples could not help but marvel at what was taking place.

As they voice their amazement (and perhaps no little pride), Jesus turns to them and says: “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

It seems wholly unappreciative of Jesus, but the Lord has a point: Don’t put your trust in anything earthly. It will all come to an end. Everything here is temporary: government, achievements, programs, and treasures. They should all be thought of as disposable. Nothing should get in the way of following Jesus.

Two “ends” are contemplated in chapter thirteen: First, the end of the Jewish economy. Jerusalem will be destroyed. The Jewish nation and government will end, and it would end in one generation – the generation of the disciples (13:1-31). Second, the end of the world (32-37). It is now the latter one we must all be preparing for.

Tuesday, November 19. Mark 8 – 10

Mark 9 contains one of the sadder moments in this gospel account.

The chapter begins with the transfiguration story. The transfiguration itself must have been an amazing event but rather than ask Jesus about its meaning, Peter simply blurts out a response. Peter isn’t interested in knowing. He’s interested in doing, reminding me of a lot of Christians whose desire for good deeds runs ahead of God’s will.

The transfiguration is followed by the healing of a boy with a demon and there we learn that prayer hasn’t exactly been a part of the disciples’ lives.

Then, Jesus delivers the shortest of three statements about his impending death. The disciples not only don’t understand but they are afraid to ask Jesus about it.

And yet . . . they will argue among themselves about which of them will be the greatest. In the shadow of the Lord’s death, their focus is on themselves.

Perhaps in pointed response, Jesus tells them that if they are going to focus on themselves, they ought to focus on those things that will keep them from eternal life (verses 42-48).

As disciples of Jesus, we ought to be better listeners and particularly is that true when it comes to listening to God. The disciples wanted to understand. They wanted to be taught. But they didn’t want to listen. The gospel of Mark offers us all a chance in introspection: what is it that will keep us from eternal life? Are we more like the twelve bumbling twelve during Jesus’ ministry? We must answer thoughtfully and honestly. Whatever hindrance is there, we must excise with prejudice. The consequence of our action is eternal.