Scripture Sabbath

The Faith of the Centurion—Luke 17:2–10

And a centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. When they came to Jesus, they earnestly implored Him, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation and it was he who built us our synagogue.” Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the crowd that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

—Luke 17:2–10

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The Centurion Kneeling at the Feet of Christ, by Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809), via Wikimedia Commons

Many Christians are familiar with the account of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant. His faith impresses us, as he reached out to Jesus despite the cultural barriers of his time. Roman Catholics and others from liturgical backgrounds recognize his confession of unworthiness in verses 6 and 7—“I am not worthy for You to come under my roof … but just say the word, and my servant will be healed”—as the inspiration for the last prayer recited by the congregation before receiving communion.

 

Many overlook how the centurion’s claim of unworthiness contrasts with the elders’ claim that he was worthy. We can learn a lot about faith from the centurion in this context.

There were probably few centurions whom Jewish leaders would consider worthy of any blessing. Centurions were high-ranking officials in the occupying Roman army. Few Jews knew any centurions who loved the Jewish nation: These were the people who would force the Jews to submit to Roman domination. When Jesus was scourged and crucified, it was probably a centurion giving the orders.

This centurion, though, apparently developed some kind of admiration and respect for the Jewish people and their faith. He had even provided the funds to build a local synagogue. This was particularly rare, since in many towns the synagogue met in someone’s home, much like a modern-day house church. The elders concluded that this man, unlike most Romans, deserved to be blessed.

Jesus did not argue about that point. He had come to destroy the works of the devil and to seek and save the lost. He needed no further explanation: There was a sick servant; his master requested healing; so Jesus, driven by His divine love and mercy, responded to the request by heading toward the centurion’s home.

Meanwhile, the centurion was having second thoughts about his decision to invite this man of God into his home. The elders thought he was worthy: the centurion knew he was unworthy. He knew his sins, mistakes, and shortcomings. He knew how he had failed to live up to the standards of the one true God, Whom the Jews honored and Whose local house of worship he had bankrolled. More than that, judging from what the centurion said, he recognized that he was not inviting just any holy man into his home. Jesus was not just any faith healer.

The centurion recognized that Jesus had a kind of authority unlike anything else he had ever seen. Military people understand authority. They know their rank, and they know which officers have more authority than they, and which ones have less. The centurion was a man under authority. Higher ranking officials could give him orders at any time. Caesar could send a letter ordering him to return to Rome without delay. If he received orders from Caesar or any other superiors, the centurion knew his duty: He had to obey. His wants and desires did not matter.

Likewise, those under his authority understood their obligation. If the centurion gave an order, there was only one valid response: “Yes, sir!” They would not respond, “Are you certain? Have you considered another option? I have a better idea. Can you get somebody else to do this? I don’t feel like doing this.” The centurion was a man under authority, and he had men under his authority. Perhaps he considered all social relationships in terms of authority.

Somehow, he recognized that Jesus had a kind of authority unlike anything he had ever seen. The centurion could order soldiers and civilians around. However, Jesus had been ordering demons and diseases out of people. When the centurion spoke, people listened and obeyed. When Jesus spoke, demons listened, trembled, and obeyed.

The centurion’s authority was bound by space and time. Jesus’ authority was unbounded. He realized that Jesus did not need to enter his home to heal the servant. He did not need to touch or even see him. “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” The servant would not even need to hear Jesus speak. The centurion understood that Jesus’ word could be trusted. As the centurion’s word carried the authority of the Roman government, Jesus’ words bore the full authority of the Kingdom of God, the Creator of the universe.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we need that faith! Let us resist the temptations to assume that Jesus’ power and authority are limited. He still heals. He still gives new life. He is not restricted by space or time. He is not limited by our failures, sins, or limitations. His love, mercy, and sovereignty are limitless. We can trust Him to speak life into our difficulties so that we may be healed and restored.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Valiant Warrior?—Judges 6:11–14

Then the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak that was in Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press in order to save it from the Midianites. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.” Then Gideon said to him, “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” The Lord looked at him and said, “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?”

—Judges 6:11–14, NASB

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An ancient Israelite wine press, like the one Gideon used to thresh wheat [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

The angel’s greeting to Gideon may be one of the most peculiar in all of Scripture. He finds a man who is hiding fearfully in a wine press and calls him a “valiant warrior.” Then, he tells Gideon to “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian.” At the beginning of his story, Gideon does not seem like a valiant warrior, and he seems to lack strength. One could wonder if the angel came to the wrong wine press.

Gideon can be an encouragement to all of us. God called him to step out in faith with strength he did not know he had, to accomplish a mission for which he seemed ill-equipped. Most of the heroes of the Book of Judges are like us. They have flaws. Their human frailties rise to the surface along with their greatest accomplishments. Most of us can relate to that. We are painfully aware of our weaknesses even in our noblest moments. Many of us would like to be heroic like James Bond, but realize we are often more like Maxwell Smart. Gideon was kind of like that too.

Gideon had a few strengths that God could use. For one, he knew Israel’s heritage, and he knew about his God. He knew God had delivered his ancestors from slavery in Egypt, parted the Red Sea for them, and fed them miraculously for 40 years in the wilderness. But now, they were a defeated nation, oppressed by the Midianites. Regardless of Israel’s present situation, Gideon knew—at least intellectually—that God could deliver them. He just did not know why the Lord was not acting on their behalf.

Second, Gideon had initiative and creativity. As soon as he knew what needed to be accomplished, he would act and he was not afraid to think outside the box to get things done. We see this at the beginning of his story: The Midianites would frequently raid their fields and take all of Israel’s grain. Therefore, Gideon was beating out the wheat in a wine press. This was probably the last place the Midianites would expect to find grain! This knack for initiative and creativity would serve Gideon well as he mustered an army to conquer their enemies.

Gideon had his shortcomings as well. Although he knew God could deliver Israel, he initially looked at his present circumstances. At first, he assumed God had forsaken Israel. He also underestimated himself. He believed he was too low on the social ladder to play a pivotal role in Israel’s deliverance (Judges 6:15). Finally, he needed repeated affirmations that God was with him: miraculous consumption of an offering was not enough to fully persuade him (Judges 6:19–23); he also demanded two omens involving dew and a fleece to be certain of his calling (Judges 6:36–40).

However, eventually Gideon claimed his status as a “valiant warrior.” At first, only God saw him that way. Before long, Gideon accepted this as his identity: demolishing a pagan altar, mustering an army, defeating the Midianites and executing their leaders. When he accepted God’s perspective, he could lead his people with the strength God had given him.

What is your identity? If you are in Christ, God’s seed abides in you (1 John 3:9) and you are a partaker in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). God can do great things through you. Fix your eyes on him, not your earthly status or present circumstances, and prepare to go forth in the power He gives you to advance His kingdom!

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Ministry and Motives—John 12:1–8

Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.”

—John 12:1–8, NASB

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Image from clipartfest.com

Which is the most important ministry on this list? (a) Emotional worship; (b) hospitality ministry (serving food to guests); or (c) feeding the poor? My first choice would usually be (c). The church needs to share God’s love with the world. I would normally put (a) at the bottom of the list: Too many people seek only an emotional high from their religion.

However, as John 12:1–8 shows us, maybe the question is not so simple. Why do we do the things we do? Motives matter. Why we do things is usually more important than what we do. If our motives are consistent with the will of God and are pure, even if our efforts are headed in the wrong direction, we can be guided onto the correct path. If our motives are selfish and impure, even good efforts can fall astray.

In John 12:1–8, we see a contrast of motives. Mary and Martha were two devoted followers of Jesus. They were sisters with very different personalities. I have written previously about how they reflected the “two sides of discipleship.” Mary was a worshipper, one who preferred to spend time at Jesus’ feet, hearing His teaching and worshipping Him. Martha was a “doer,” always eager to serve (and perhaps a little too anxious about it). Luke 10:38–42 shares that story.

Luke’s story occurred earlier in Jesus’ ministry. Now, just a short time before Jesus’ crucifixion (perhaps little more than a day or two before He would enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday), He had dinner with Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus. It must have been a big celebration, since Jesus had recently raised Lazarus from the grave.

Martha celebrated as she knew best: Let’s have a party with lots of food! We will have a banquet to celebrate Lazarus’ return from the dead. I can imagine her returning to the table repeatedly, bringing more food for Jesus, Lazarus, and the rest of their guests (including the 12 apostles).

In the midst of the celebration, Mary brought something different. Martha probably hoped Mary would bring some roasted lamb or bread, but instead, she brought a pound of expensive perfume and started wiping it all over Jesus’ feet. We can only wonder why she chose to make such an extravagant spectacle. A pound of aromatic oil, worth one year’s wages for a common laborer, drenched Jesus’ feet.

Mary was motivated by gratitude. Jesus had raised her brother from the grave. More than that, she knew Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness. The other Gospels point out that she had a reputation as a sinner (see, e.g., Matthew 26:6-13). Others would remind Mary about her past, but she knew that Jesus offered her a future where her previous sins did not matter.

Mary felt that only her best would be appropriate for Jesus. She was willing to make an extravagant sacrifice to show her love and gratitude to Him. What about us? Do we give Jesus our best? Are we willing to surrender our most treasured possessions for His glory? Are we willing to surrender our reputation or popularity for His sake?

If Mary was motivated by gratitude, Judas Iscariot had different motives. His logic sounded reasonable. After all, a year’s wages could feed a lot of hungry people. Why pour all of this oil on one guy’s feet when it could be used to gather food for countless widows, orphans, and handicapped persons?

Yet, Judas’ motives were in the wrong place. Judas was motivated by money. Perhaps the other disciples saw his financial expertise early in the ministry and persuaded Jesus to make him the treasurer of their group. Unfortunately, that was misplaced trust. Judas would pocket a few denarii at times for his own purposes. Even now, he was not really concerned about the poor. He wanted to make himself look good to Jesus, and was disappointed that he missed an opportunity to profit from one of his good-sounding ideas.

This would be a turning point in the lives of Judas Iscariot and Jesus. After Jesus corrected him, Judas decided to betray Jesus. (See Matthew 26:14.) After three years of friendship and discipleship, Judas would sell Jesus out. What about us? Do we try to promote our own agendas at Jesus’ expense? Will we put things, projects, or ideas ahead of Him? Even good ideas, project, ministries, and activities can become dangerous when we place them ahead of worshipping Jesus.

Not long thereafter (maybe about one week later), Jesus would meet with His disciples for a final meal together. As Mary had washed Jesus’ feet with her perfume and tears, and dried them with her hair, Jesus would wash the disciples’ feet with water and dry them with a towel that He wore around His waist. He would describe it as an illustration of how we serve one another, thereby tying Mary’s worship with every other ministry we can do in His name. Shortly thereafter, Judas would leave the meal in pursuit of 30 silver pieces. The man who verbalized a scheme to feed the poor would commit suicide, and his money would go to help the poor by providing a burial place for them.

Motives matter. For Judas Iscariot, wrong motives led him on the path to the grave.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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The Lion IS the Lamb

“And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:5-6, ESV).

This post concludes a three-part series, inspired by a Facebook discussion, about Isaiah 11:6, the verse many misquote as “The lion shall lie down with the lamb.” That passage actually says that wolf will dwell with the lamb, and I offered a few thoughts about that last week.

This week, I will conclude this series by answering a concern some people have about that difference in meaning. Some people object that they do not want the verse to talk about wolves and lambs. Besides the fact that Scripture often depicts wolves as evil (see, e.g., Matthew 7:15), there is the fact that Jesus is referred to as both the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God. They fit so perfectly together: If the Bible said, “The lion shall lie down with the lamb,” then not only do we get a beautiful pastoral image of supernatural peace, we get a picture of Jesus Himself. (Incidentally, like wolves, the Bible often describes lions as symbols of evil; see 1 Peter 5:8.)

Take heart; the Bible brings the images of Jesus as both lion and lamb together. In fact, it does so much more emphatically than the misreading of Isaiah 11:6 does. Furthermore, it does this the only time that the Bible calls Jesus the Lion of Judah.

In Revelation 5, an angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” Only one person in the universe is eligible: The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David. But then, it turns out that this Lion is “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.”

Why is Jesus a lion? Why is He a lamb? And, how can He be both at the same time? They are very different animals. I’ve fed lambs at petting zoos; they are harmless creatures. However, I will keep my hand away from lions’ mouths. If they bite, it hurts.

While Revelation 5:5 is the only time that Jesus is called “the Lion of {the tribe of} Judah,” it is not the first time Scripture associates Jesus’ ancestral tribe with the king of the beasts. When Jacob blessed his sons, shortly before dying, he said:

“Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:9-10).

Jacob compared his son to a lion. Jacob had a lion-like spirit that would make his lineage ideal to rule. On several occasions, Judah showed a natural gift for leadership. Eventually, that gift developed a spiritual, godly dimension that points to the ministry of Jesus.

The first time Judah displayed leadership is described in Genesis 37. When Joseph’s older brothers decided, in a fit of jealousy, to throw him in a well and leave him to die, Jacob thought of a shrewd way to avoid the guilt of murder while making some extra money: “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers listened to him” (Genesis 37:26-27). Thanks to Judah’s planning and influence, Joseph lived (although he was sold into slavery) and the brothers made a few extra shekels. This was not Judah’s finest hour, but it showed that he knew how to influence people and effect change. He was a leader.

Let us fast-forward a few decades. Joseph had been a slave in Egypt for a while and, by the grace of God, emerged as a leader in the Egyptian government. His spiritual discernment and wisdom elevated him so, in response to a prophecy of severe famine, Pharaoh appointed him to manage food collection and distribution. When famine struck, Egypt had food to spare. Jacob’s ten oldest sons, including Judah, came to buy food from Joseph. Jacob kept his youngest son, Benjamin, home. Joseph warned them not to return unless Benjamin was present. Eventually, Judah persuaded his father to send all of the sons, by agreeing to take full responsibility for his youngest brother’s safety. In the end, he showed that he was willing to accept a role of slavery in place of his youngest brother. (See Genesis 43 and 44 to read this very detailed story.)

At first, Judah could influence people to act out of greed. In the end, he would influence people by acting in the interest of others. He would place his own life and freedom on the line to save his brothers. The Lion had learned to lead through sacrifice.

About 1800 years later, Judah’s descendant would prove Himself to be the Lion of the tribe of Judah by offering Himself as the Lamb of God. As the lion is the king of the beasts, Jesus is the King of Kings. He does not rule by acting selfishly. Nor does He rule by throwing His weight around violently. He rules through self-sacrifice. He showed His most lion-esque leadership not by devouring or conquering, but by offering Himself for our sins. The Lion of Judah was most lion-like when He displayed His lamb-like gentleness as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Did the Lion Lie Down with the Lamb?—Isaiah 11:6

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6, ESV).

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Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Talk about a learning experience. I pride myself on being a committed student of God’s Word. I have a seminary degree and have read the Bible many times over the last 32-plus years. Isaiah 11:6 comes up several times per year in the Book of Common Prayer’s Daily Office readings, so I should know this verse. Well, as Proverbs 16:18 tells us, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

But recently, the wife of one of my church’s pastors urged her friends on Facebook to read this verse more closely. So, I did, and was surprised. I thought it should say that “the lion lies down with the lamb.” I have always heard that phrase. Surely, I thought, it is in the Bible, and this is the verse. How did I miss this? Perhaps, while reading Isaiah 11, I saw this passage, and thought, “Oh, that sounds like the verse about the lion and the lamb,” but did not check the cross-references to find it. (Or perhaps, maybe my coffee did not kick in yet. I think I’m usually only about halfway through my first cup when reading the Old Testament passage.)

Did I miss something? Some of my King-James-only friends might suggest that I was reading one of “those corrupt modern English translations” that are part of a conspiracy to distort God’s Word and deceive believers. But, the King James Version says essentially the same thing as my English Standard Version:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

All of the English translations I read depict the same two animals: a wolf dwelling with the lamb. (Wait a minute: He’s not lying with lamb, he’s dwelling with it!) Even Martin Luther’s German translation, published about 70 years before the KJV, said “wolf.” So did the Hebrew. If there was a conspiracy to change God’s Word, it goes back many centuries.

So, what is the lesson here? Christians need to read their Bibles. We need to be wise, discerning, and diligent. Sometimes, we can grow so accustomed to thinking the Bible says something, because we have always heard it that way, that we miss what God is really trying to teach us.

Some of the mistakes committed by students of Scripture are minor. Is theology affected if Matthew 2:1-12 does not specifically say that three wise men visited the baby Jesus when He was born? (It does not tell us the exact number. Tradition assumes there were three, based on the number of gifts. By the way, Jesus could have been a toddler already by the time they arrived.) Many people think that the Red Sea parted instantly when Moses prayed, even though Exodus 14:21 says it took all night for the wind to blow it apart. (I have to admit, that would not have looked quite as cool in the classic movie, The Ten Commandments.)

However, diligence is in order because some mistakes affect biblical morality and core teachings necessary for salvation. In 1631, a print run of the Bible contained an egregious typographical error in Exodus 20:14, leaving the crucial word “not” out of the verse, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The Bibles were immediately recalled after the error was discovered, but a few copies are still in existence. If such an error can get past the proofreaders, think of the errors we can make when we do not study the Bible accurately. (See here and here for some of my previous posts on this subject.)

In a forthcoming post, I will reflect more on the actual meaning of this verse.

(PS: Regarding the picture of the wolf at the top of the page. I generally try to honor copyright laws when selecting pictures for my post. Unfortunately, any pictures depicting a wolf lying with a lamb, in relation to Isaiah 11:6, were protected by copyright. Therefore, I selected the above picture which is under US Government copyright, and therefore is free for reuse with proper acknowledgment. Wolves are beautiful creatures, but I would not try to pet this one!)

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Freedom in Submission to the Truth

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Genesis 3:4–5, ESV).

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” (John 8:31–32, ESV).

“Freedom is found in submission to truth” (St. Augustine, Concerning the Freedom of the Will II 13:37).

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In my last post, I shared some of my thoughts about abortion after March for Life 2017. A former high-school classmate responded on Facebook to my post by stating that the Constitution prohibits “making legal decisions on religious grounds.” Our online discussion reflects something at the root of the culture wars in modern times. Christians are speaking to a culture that is thinking from a very different worldview. The friend is a lawyer, who does not profess faith in Jesus Christ, and who was approaching this issue from that perspective. I write primarily as a seminary-trained theologian and Bible teacher. While we both speak English, he approached abortion as mainly a legal and political question; I approach it as primarily as spiritual matter. We have very different ideas about who has the ultimate authority about this issue.

Christians follow Jesus, who declared that He is the Truth (John 14:6). Most Americans today join with Pontius Pilate, asking “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Many will even claim that there is no truth, that all people can claim their own truth, or that nobody can really know what is true.

Likewise, we find ourselves at odds against the culture regarding the concept of freedom. Christians and non-Christians, conservatives and liberals, all claim to value freedom or liberty, yet have very different definitions of this term. A Christian will claim that the preborn baby is entitled to the right to life, yet many others in our society will say that this conflicts with a woman’s freedom to make her own choices about her body. Both groups claim to value freedom, yet they reach very opposite decisions about abortion. We face similar conflicts over other social issues in America (for example, gay marriage).

I suggest that the most popular concept of freedom in American today—even among many Christians—is something I would call functional Satanism. Other authors have popularized the notion of functional atheism, “the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me,” to describe religious people whose lives do not reflect a belief that God is actively involved in their lives. Functional Satanism holds that freedom of choice, or the right to choose one’s own system of right and wrong, is a divine gift. The functional Satanist essentially believes that he can make his own life choices and expect God to bless them.

This is an outgrowth of the lie that the serpent (Satan) introduced in the Garden of Eden. He told Eve that, if she ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she would “be like God, knowing good and evil.” The Hebrew word for “knowing” includes the ideas of deciding or making choices, and I believe this is the greatest part of Satan’s lie. It is not so much that Eve would be able to discern God’s preferences between right and wrong; it would be that Eve could make her own decisions about right and wrong.

This lie pervades human cultures and prevails even in the Church. We can fall into two extremes as a result. On the one hand, many Christians will think that, as long as I believe in Jesus, I can just do whatever I want. Almost anything goes; we can make excuses for adultery, dishonesty, etc. We can break all of the Ten Commandments, as long as we devise a clever justification for our notions about good and evil. In response to this, some Christians go to the other extreme: They come up with rules and regulations God never sanctioned and preach them as if they are biblical.

Jesus offers us true freedom, but it is not the freedom that the world proclaims. The world’s idea of freedom implies a rejection of all restraint. Many drug addicts and alcoholics can testify that a life without restraint does not equal freedom, but actually binds one in spiritual chains. The One who created us, the Lord and Giver of Life, knows the Truth (and IS the Truth). By following Him, we can find true freedom.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Christians and Culture, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Holy Name of Jesus

“‘She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel’
(which means, God with us).” (Matthew 2:21-23, ESV).

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21, ESV).

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The Greek letters in the familiar “ichthys” symbol represent Jesus’ name and titles: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”

Today (January 1) is New Year’s Day. We think of it as a day for new beginnings, a chance to make resolutions to start anew in different areas of our lives. On some church calendars (e.g., in the Book of Common Prayer), it is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Since it is the eighth day since we celebrated our Savior’s birth, we commemorate the day that He was circumcised and His name became “official.”

 

Names matter. They are perhaps the most important part of our identity. If you want to insult somebody effectively and quickly, make fun of their name. Parents usually give much thought to the names for their children. We may name our children after family members, thereby emphasizing the link to previous generations; or, we may name our children after someone we admire (perhaps a hero of the Bible, or a historical figure we respect). We do not name our children after someone whom we dislike or disrespect (I do not know too many people named “Adolf” these days, thanks to one particular scoundrel).

It is thus important to consider the significance of the name of Jesus. His name tells us who He is and why He came into the world. It is the English transliteration of His Hebrew name, “Yeshua,” which means “The Lord is salvation.” He came, first and foremost, to “save his people from their sins,” as the angel told Joseph.

This is who He is, what He does, and what we can expect from Him. Jesus came to save us from our sins. His entire life—including His teaching ministry as well as His death and resurrection—was designed to save us from the kingdom of sin and darkness and bring us into the kingdom of God.

In addition to this name above all names (Philippians 2:9-10), the Bible ascribes numerous titles to Jesus: Immanuel, Son of God, Lamb of God, Prince of Peace, etc. If you are interested in an in-depth study of the names and titles of Jesus, an extensive podcast series by theologian Thomas Hopko is available here.

Much has been written about the power of Jesus’ name and the promises in His name. Our eternal condition is closely tied to His name: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). Someday, every sentient creature (including every demon in hell, every atheist, and every Islamic terrorist) will bow before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The authority of that name is undeniable, and someday all mankind will acknowledge that.

Those who acknowledge the authority of Jesus’ name can be assured that He will be faithful to His promises. Jesus said, “In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23-24).

This does not mean (as some misguided Bible teachers claim) that we can force God to give us something simply by ending our prayers with the phrase, “in Jesus’ name.” His Holy Name reflects His authority and power, much as a police officer’s badge reflects his authority to demand that you stop driving and present your license and registration. We do not try to exercise authority over God; rather, we acknowledge Jesus’ authority over our lives and all creation, and on the basis of that authority, we pray with confidence that God will do exactly what He promises. In John 14:13-14, Jesus clearly says that our prayers in His name will be answered so that “the Father may be glorified in the Son.” We pray in Jesus’ name to fulfill God’s will, not to baptize His will into our will or subjugate God to our desires.

The name of Jesus is the springboard to the greatest “new beginning” of all. God’s blessings and promises are intertwined with the name, authority, and character of Jesus, our Savior: the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; the God who is always with us. May 2017 be a year in which we all gain a greater appreciation and awareness of who Jesus is and what He seeks to do in our lives.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Keeping Christ in Christmas—Colossians 3:17

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17, ESV)

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Is this a holiday tree or a Christmas tree? Or, is it just a really big tree with lots of pretty lights? (Photo taken by Michael E. Lynch, at RXR Plaza, Uniondale, NY, December 17, 2016.)

Writing teachers urge their students to avoid clichés, especially in the title. However, “keep Christ in Christmas” has become such a familiar slogan that we should give it some thought, especially as the holiday approaches.

Every year, Christians use the phrase “keep Christ in Christmas” in response to a “war against Christmas” in society. Frequently, the enemy’s weapon is the phrase “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” (instead of “Merry Christmas”), and the great outrage is when stores and other nationally known businesses talk about “the holidays” instead of Christmas. In 2015, some complained when Starbuck’s used a  seasonal coffee cup with a snowflake instead of a distinctive Christmas symbol. Previous outrages involved department store chains selling “holiday trees” or refusing to say “Merry Christmas” to their customers.

I would suggest that the so-called war against Christmas is really just a symptom of a greater cultural war against Christianity and traditional Christian values. Furthermore, the battlefield where this war must be decided is not in store circulars, but rather in the church and in the hearts of people.

I found it interesting that some Christians were upset about a secular symbol on Starbuck’s cups, but were not offended by the non-Christian, and at times anti-Christian, values the company promotes year-round. I am more concerned when a company donates to organizations and causes that oppose biblical values (abortion, same-sex marriage) than when it uses secular symbolism in its “holiday” marketing campaigns. The same can be said about other outcries: We may want to boycott major corporations when they fail to mention Christmas in advertising, but we overlook questionable or immoral advertising campaigns, policy positions, social-issue stances, and business ethics the rest of the year. (I have to wonder: Are we as upset by unethical or immoral business practices as we are by “Season’s greetings”?)

I remain convinced that the real war against Christmas is a world-view perspective among Christians. Several weeks ago, I wrote in a post about Advent that “Most Americans—even devout Christians—allow the materialistic mindset of commercialism to define Christmas for them.”

This is the real issue of the war on Christmas. What is the real meaning of the holiday? Is it to celebrate the fact that God became a human being—Jesus Christ, a.k.a. Emmanuel, “God with us”—so that He could redeem us? Or, is it just a chance to celebrate winter? Will we sing joyfully about snow, even though many of us will consider it a different kind of four-letter word after a few weeks?

Is Christmas about commercialism? I think that, despite our outspoken protests to the contrary, Christmas has been reduced to a state of commercialism, even in the Church. In a recent post, Orthodox Christian priest-blogger Fr. Stephen Freeman observed that American culture is grounded in a worldview of consumerism (which defines a person’s significance by what he purchases), which we bring into our celebration of the Christmas feast. He writes, “But the Orthodox understanding of the feast is not grounded in consumerism. We do not believe people were created to consume. We are created to commune.” I would suggest that the Orthodox understanding he speaks of should be the de facto Christian understanding, but our churches often try to baptize secular worldviews rather than confront them with a biblical perspective. (His thoughts on this topic are definitely worth reading and reflecting upon.)

The war on Christmas is not new; it has raged since Jesus was a baby. In Matthew 2:12-18, Herod tried to eradicate Christmas by seeking to kill the baby who was born King of the Jews. The war has taken new twists throughout the ages, but it has always been grounded in an opposition to Christ’s Lordship, and this opposition lasts 12 months per year.

One of the masterpieces of Christmas entertainment is Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. Most readers are familiar with the story of how the greedy miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is drawn by three spirits to have a new attitude about Christmas. But, his new holiday joy is actually what we would normally speak of as a conversion experience. Rather than just beginning to like Christmas, he began to live by godly values in all areas of his life. This is more apparent in the last two paragraphs of the book than it is in most film adaptations of the tale:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One! (Charles Dickens, “Stave 5: The End of It,” in A Christmas Carol.)

As we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth, may He live in and through us every day. May God bless us, every one!

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Christians and Culture, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Renewed Mind and New Self—Ephesians 4:17–24

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:17–24, ESV)

The Holy Bible

Over the past few months, I have tagged several of my articles as “Renewing the Mind Reflections.” I encourage you to visit that link under “Categories” on my page for more articles on this subject. One blog post cannot cover it all.

Paul uses the term “renewing the mind” or something like it several times in his letters. He also speaks of the “new self” or new man frequently. Here, they come together. The old man—the person who is not “in Christ” or born again—needs an attitude adjustment. Because they are darkened in their understanding, ignorant, and hard-hearted, they are alienated from the life of God. This is why they engage in sensuality, greed, and impurity. We should not be surprised when non-believers live, think, and act like non-believers: It is who they are.

Yet, many of us (most? all?) continue to struggle with sin even years after turning to Jesus. We can shrug it off by saying, “Nobody’s perfect.” Yet, there is a way to win greater victories than we have experienced before.

Paul tells his readers “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” In other words, there are several elements of this change: (1) Put off the old self; (2) be renewed in the spirit of your minds; and (3) put on the new self.

At first glance, it sounds like we have to be renewed in the spirit of our minds before we can put on the new self. If we understand putting on the new self as salvation, this can be discouraging. After all, I turned my life over to Jesus over 30 years ago, and I still see areas where I need my mind renewed. I would propose, though, that Paul is not talking about chronological order here. He is emphasizing that these experiences are intertwined: As a child of God, one who is no longer alienated from the life of God (because I have, or continue to, put off the old self and put on the new), I will renew my mind.

Renewal of the mind is a process, but it is essential. When I struggle with sin or other hindrances to my walk with the Lord, there is often some “old self thinking” involved. I may be accepting Satan’s lies about a certain sin (everybody else does it; you really have to do this to make it in today’s world; it’s not so bad) or lies about who I am in Christ. There may be some other lies involved as well.

Paul writes in another verse of Scripture:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

It is easy to recognize that a renewed mind would take on God’s perspective about sin, righteousness, and holiness: for example, the renewed Christian mind recognizes that adultery and fornication are sins, even if the modern world says they don’t really hurt anybody. Reading the Bible may help us to recognize that activities we thought are acceptable may be sinful. However, renewal of the mind goes even further. In Romans 12, Paul follows the previous verse by writing:

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).

Too often, we think Bible reading and its related “renewal of the mind” is only about sin, morality, or perhaps some basic biblical theology. But, it is more: renewing the mind includes gaining a new perspective about who you are. It is also important to gain a new perspective about who God is.

Over 20 years ago, I was struggling with deep depression. One of the tools I used to find remission (I will not claim I am fully healed of depression; it can rear its ugly head when I least expect it) was a new approach to Bible meditation. As I would read the Bible, I would take note of verses that talk about a believer’s status or identity in Christ. I would write those verses on index cards, personalizing if appropriate (e.g., inserting my name in place of generic term for Christians). Then, I would keep that stack of index cards handy; if I had a free moment (for example, stopped at a red light while driving), I would read the next verse and think about for the next few minutes.

My goal was to stop thinking of the Bible as only a book of rules, regulations, and ideas I must believe. It was also God’s message, telling me who He is and who I am. I had to not only believe some doctrines. I had to believe that God is my Father, that He loves me, and that the things He says about His children are (or can be) true specifically about me.

Friends, allow God to renew your minds. Read the Bible. Meditate on it. Recognize what it says about you, and pray that God will make those truths visible in your life. As you allow Him to renew your mind, eventually your perspective will change and your life will follow.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Renewing the Mind Reflections, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

At Jesus’ Right Hand

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:20–28

One might expect that Jesus’ closest friends would be seated at His right and left hands in His kingdom. After all, that is how kingdoms operated in Jesus’ day. The king decided who held the places of honor and influence in His kingdom. He could appoint his best friends to those posts if he so decided. Historians have claimed that the first-century emperor Caligula, who reigned a few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, even appointed his horse to a high-ranking office.

Jesus, however, never endorsed the world’s leadership style. He would not award special status for the same reasons many rulers would. His approach opposes the world’s system, mainly because the world itself has been in rebellion against His kingdom since the first humans bit into the forbidden fruit.

Who can claim the place of honor in Jesus’ kingdom? James and John seem like legitimate candidates, from the world’s view. They were among Jesus’ earliest and most loyal followers. Were they able to drink the cup of suffering Jesus would soon face? Perhaps; they believed they could, and James would become the first apostle to be executed for his faith.

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At the Last Supper, John was seated by Jesus’ side (John 13:23). Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper depicts John at Jesus’ right hand, with James at His left.

However, it was not a matter of accomplishments or desire. It would be God’s decision who would sit at Jesus’ right hand in the Kingdom. Scripture tells us that Jesus is seated at God’s right hand, which means the Father sits at the Son’s left hand. What can we know about the person who may sit at Jesus’ right hand? Who can it be?

Can it be St. Stephen, the first martyr who saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God? (Acts 7:55–56; maybe Jesus was rising to welcome him home.)

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Icon showing Christ (center) bringing Dismas (left) into Paradise. At the right are the Gates of Paradise, guarded by a seraph (Solovetsky Monastery, 17th century).

Can it be the penitent thief (Luke 23:40–43) who recognized that he deserved his condemnation and that Jesus would soon enter His kingdom? St. Dismas (the name ascribed to the “good thief” according to ancient church tradition) was one of the two thieves hung next to Jesus at the crucifixion. Jesus promised him that he would soon join our Lord in paradise. Thus, St. Dismas can possibly be the first person to enter heaven by grace through faith in Christ. Could his faith, willingness to confess his sinfulness, and ability to see that Jesus was still the King, have earned him that seat of honor? After all, St. Dismas is the last person known to be next to Jesus before His death.

Christians can debate this question until the end of time. Perhaps there are only two people enthroned in the kingdom—God the Father on the left, and Jesus on the right. (This may be the most likely scenario, since if Jesus was in the middle, He would have greater prominence than the Father. This seems unlikely.)

Perhaps the greatest question is not who receives the sat of honor. Jesus does not answer that question. The real question is, “What kind of person receives honor in the Kingdom of God?” In the Church and the Kingdom, honor does not belong to those who boast of their achievements and accomplishments, to those who seek to elevate their power and prestige.  It certainly does not belong to those who try force their own will upon others. Rather, it is the person who claims the role of a servant. The person who is willing to lay down his life for Jesus, take up his cross and follow him, seeking to serve rather than be served. This is the person God honors.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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