GOING WITH JESUS

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The spread of faith in Jesus Christ came about through ordinary Christians who lived their lives in such a way, and spoke about their faith in such a way, that others came to faith also. We don’t have to do any of this alone. We don’t have to do it with our own power, or skill. Obviously, if we are disciples who are in true fellowship with other disciples, we have each other. But even more than that, Jesus promised that will have Him.

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Matthew #100.  Matthew 28:16-20

16The 11 disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:16-20, HCSB)

This section of scripture is often called “The Great Commission.” One way or another, all four gospel writers record that after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples that he wanted them to spread the word about Him. So Luke writes, at the beginning of Acts:

3After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While He was together with them, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise.

“This,” He said, “is what you heard from Me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time? ”

7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:3-8, HCSB)

Mark has it like this:

15Then He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16, HCSB)

And John includes this incident:

21Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23, HCSB)

I doubt that any of these refer to the same incident. Instead, it seems that after his resurrection, several different times, and in different ways, Jesus told his disciples that they were to continue on with his mission after he left the earth, and that he would empower them with the Holy Spirit to do so, and that His presence would be with them through the Spirit.

This mission was not only for the eleven faithful apostles. Earlier on, Jesus sent seventy of his followers on a smaller mission, preparing them for the time when they would have the opportunity to share the full good news (Luke 10:1-12). Almost immediately after Jesus left the earth, we find not only the apostles, but other Christians as well, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Stephen, who was not one of the twelve, shared it so boldly that he became the first Christian martyr. After his death, the Christians in Jerusalem were scattered by persecution, but even as they left their homes, they brought the good news to other places:

4So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news. (Acts 8:4, HCSB)

Mostly, they spoke to other Jews, but eventually, they began sharing with the culture at large:

19Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews.

20But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21, HCSB)

The spread of faith in Jesus Christ came about through ordinary Christians who lived their lives in such a way, and spoke about their faith in such a way, that others came to faith also. I italicize “spoke” because many people think they shouldn’t have to say anything. I have heard many Christians express enthusiasm for the saying: “Share the gospel. If necessary, use words.” It sounds cool, but it is utter nonsense. There is no record in the New Testament of anyone coming to faith without hearing someone speak. Cornelius was a man who was seeking God. He had a vision from the Lord. The Lord did not reveal the full gospel in that vision. Instead, he instructed Cornelius to find Peter, and he instructed Peter to share the good news with him. In order to make disciples, we must be willing and able to speak about Jesus.

Of course, it is important how you live your life as well. Both things: Living your life for Jesus, and speaking about Him, are important. The rest of the New Testament backs me up with this.

14But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, 15but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1Pet 3:14-15, HCSB, emphasis added)

5Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. 6Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person. (Col 4:5-6, HCSB, emphasis added)

Even in our text for today, Jesus emphasized that teaching is an indispensable part of making disciples.

These texts show us that speaking about Jesus is the responsibility of all Christians. Obviously, some are called to do it in a special way, full time, but every Christian should be willing and able to share about Jesus at any time. The Greek expression for “go therefore” might also be translated “as you are going.” In other words, this is something all Christians do, as we go through life.

To more fully express the mission Jesus gave us, we might say this: all Christians are supposed to be disciples and help make other disciples, as we go through this life. Most certainly, that is what the very first Christians did (and not just the apostles).

Let me clarify some things that many Christians seems to get confused about. Acts 11:26 tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” In other words, to be a Christian means you are a disciple. To be a disciple means you are a Christian. Being a  Christian (and thus, a disciple) means that you trust Jesus, and, however imperfectly, try to allow him to be in charge of your life. This means that you make decisions based on what you believe Jesus wants you to do. You treat others the way you think Jesus wants you to treat them. You live your whole life that way.

In order to do this of course, you have to get to know Jesus. Disciples spend their whole lives getting to know Jesus more, and more. They do this through reading the Bible (which is His special message for us, so it is listening to Him), praying (which is talking to Him), and “doing life” with other disciples so that you can help each other along the way. This is what Jesus meant when he said “make disciples.”

Jesus did not say “make converts.” A convert is someone who goes from believing one thing, to believing another. Often, becoming a disciple involves being converted. But that is only part of the process. Once you are converted, you are supposed to continue to walk the path of discipleship. Conversion is only one step in that path.

Jesus did not say “make churches.” However, becoming a part of a church is a necessary by-product of being a disciple. A real disciple is part of the family of God, and according to the New Testament, the family of God is not “all humanity,” but rather, it is the church. We need other disciples of Jesus to encourage us, pray with, and for, us, tell us when we are being stupid, work together with us for the purposes of Jesus, and help us through tough times. A church can also get together and call Bible teachers, who can assist people in understanding God’s Word (the Bible), which, again, helps us to be better disciples. A real church navigates the ups and downs of life together. If you don’t have a group of fellow-disciples-of-Jesus with whom to do that, you need to find one, as soon as possible. Christians quickly drift away from really following Jesus when they don’t have a church.

Even so, being a part of a church is merely part of being disciple. In other words, if we make disciples, and pursue discipleship ourselves, we will naturally join together and form churches. If we keep the proper mission in view (“Make Disciples”), then churches will indeed form. But we need to remember that our main goal is not to form churches, but to be, and make, disciples. The emphasis should always be not on growing churches, but growing, and making, disciples.

We don’t have to do any of this alone. We don’t have to do it with our own power, or skill. Obviously, if we are disciples who are in true fellowship with other disciples, we have each other. But even more than that, Jesus promised that will have Him:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Luke and John, and the rest of the New Testament, teach us that when Jesus returned to Heaven, he sent his Holy Spirit to be with us in a special way. Through the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus is always with every one of His disciples.

16And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. 17He is the Spirit of truth. The world is unable to receive Him because it doesn’t see Him or know Him. But you do know Him, because He remains with you and will be in you. 18I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you. (John 14:16-18, HCSB)

Now, I hope you know that this is a scary thought. That’s right, he’s with us always. When you did that thing, you know what I’m talking about – the Holy Spirit saw you. That’s why Paul writes:

30And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by Him for the day of redemption. (Eph 4:30, HCSB)

And:

15Don’t you know that your bodies are a part of Christ’s body? So should I take a part of Christ’s body and make it part of a prostitute? Absolutely not! 16Don’t you know that anyone joined to a prostitute is one body with her? For Scripture says, The two will become one flesh. 17But anyone joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. (1Cor 6:15-17, HCSB)

But it isn’t just that Jesus knows when we sin. Through the Spirit, he applies the work He did on the cross, to us. Through the Spirit, he forgives, washes and renews us:

4But when the goodness of God and His love for mankind appeared, 5He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, HCSB)

Through the Spirit, he teaches us, comforts us and guides us.

25“I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. 27“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful. (John 14:25-27, HCSB)

We can only do the work of discipleship, and making disciples, through our connection with Jesus by the Holy Spirit:

5“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. (John 15:5, HCSB)

I am embarrassed when I sin, and then after, remember that the Holy Spirit is with me. But His grace and forgiveness are bigger than my sins, and bigger than yours, also. He reminds me of all the teachings of Jesus, and applies all of the work of Jesus to my heart.

All in all, the promise that Jesus is with us always through the Holy Spirit should bring us tremendous comfort and joy. Relying on the Spirit’s power and guidance, if we give Him our willingness, we can be sure to find joy in fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus, in being His disciples, and in helping other disciples to come to Him, and grow.

THE PEOPLE OF HOPE

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You may not believe Jesus was actually, physically raised from the dead. But there is no question that every single writer of the New Testament did believe it – and most of them claimed to be eye-witnesses. True or not, this isn’t a fairy tale, or an allegory.

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Matthew #99.  Matthew 27:62-28:15

Many people seem to have the feeling that the Bible is a bit like a fairy tale. In a fairy tale, all sorts of strange and magical things happen. In the Bible, all sorts of strange and miraculous things happen. It’s somewhat understandable that some people get confused, especially if they don’t read fairy tales, or the Bible, very often.

Even so, the Bible is very unlike a fairy tale in several respects. In the first place, fairy tales take place in a vague and imaginary place. The classic beginning to one is “once upon a time, in a kingdom far away,” or some such variation. If you searched for the time and place where the events in a fairy tale took place, you would not be able to find them: they don’t physically exist.

The same is true of the people in the stories. When did Snow White live? Where was she born? In what year did the evil queen take power? It is silly to ask such questions, because clearly, when you are dealing with a fairy tale, you aren’t supposed to think it really happened.

Another thing is that in fairy tales, we accept magical and improbable events as simply ordinary parts of the story. Returning to Snow White, there is no explanation given as to why a mirror could talk to a queen. These things aren’t considered out of the ordinary, in the context of the tale. Of course the mirror can talk. The story doesn’t tell us how or why.

Let’s set this in contrast to our text today. Matthew 28:1-8 tells of a miracle. You might say, it tells of THE miracle, the most significant one that has ever happened: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death.

THE miracle didn’t happen “Once upon a time,” or “far away in a strange Kingdom.” Matthew tells us where it happened: Jerusalem. The place where it happened still exists today. The people in the story of the resurrection are likewise real people. Pontius Pilate was really a Roman governor – all historians agree about that. Romans really did crucify people. Caiaphas really was a High Priest in Jerusalem. There really was a temple there. People really did and said the kinds of things that Matthew describes. The only resemblance to a fairy tale is that Matthew says something unusual happened: Jesus Christ was truly physically dead, and then later, he was truly physically alive.

However, the miracle of the resurrection is not treated as if such things happen all the time. Matthew records it as amazing and astonishing to everyone who learned of it. No one in the story of Snow White is amazed that the mirror talks, or that a kiss could cure a fatal illness. But miracles in the Bible, including the resurrection, are always treated as remarkable. It’s not like, according to the Bible, people rise from the dead all the time. In fact, no miracle is considered “commonplace;” by definition a miracle is something extremely unusual and amazing.

Matthew also deals with the skepticism of his readers. There was a counter story, circulated by some, that the disciples had stolen the body. Matthew tells us about it and explains how the story was concocted. How did Matthew know all this? Remember two of Jesus followers – Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus – were members of the Jewish ruling council. They were probably there as these decisions were made.

By the way, when Matthew says the story is told “even today” that “today” was only twenty years after Jesus was raised from the dead. I don’t know about you, but I can easily remember the major events in my life from twenty years ago. My oldest child was three, and my youngest was one. I had recently started a church in which many wonderful things took place. Almost all of those who were part of that church are still around, and could verify the many stories I tell about it. The same was true with Matthew. Most of those who witnessed the resurrection (more than 500, before Jesus returned to heaven) were still alive at this point. The apostle Paul explains, a few years after Matthew wrote his gospel:

3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1Cor 15:3-8, ESV2011)

You may not believe Jesus was actually, physically raised from the dead. But there is no question that every single writer of the New Testament did believe it – and most of them claimed to be eye-witnesses. True or not, this isn’t a fairy tale, or an allegory. If the New Testament described what it does, only without miracles, everyone would believe it: it describes real places, real people, and real first-century culture. People only disbelieve parts of it because they have a pre-existing bias against miracles.

The point of all of Jesus’ teaching hinges on the resurrection. We have seen throughout the book of Matthew that in a variety of different ways, Jesus claimed to be one with God. He continually acted as if the most important thing was how people responded to Him. Numerous times, he predicted not only his own death, but also his resurrection. If he wasn’t God, and he wasn’t raised from the dead, then much of his teaching doesn’t really make sense, and he would have to be considered an arrogant narcissist. We would also have to admit, that his major prediction – that of his resurrection – didn’t come true, so he certainly couldn’t be Divine.

This means that resurrection is incredibly powerful, and incredibly joyful. It means that what Jesus said is true! We are forgiven for our sins! We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to forgive and love others! If we submit our hearts, minds and souls to Jesus, we, like him, will be raised from the dead ourselves!

The first people to see Him alive – the women – responded with fear and joy. The fear part is that you don’t see a dead person come to life…really, ever. It filled them with awe. The joy is that everything he said was now proved to be true, and this man who filled them with peace, grace and love was still alive!

Christians, more than any other group on earth, are people of hope. The ultimate hope of Hindus is to cease to exist as individual personalities. The hope of Buddhists is to cease to exist entirely. Atheists have no real hope – they believe that death means the end of existence, which, though they usually refuse to admit it – makes all of life meaningless. Jews believe in a resurrection, but it’s a bit tough to know if you really qualify. Muslims hope they’ve been good enough to live in paradise, but the end, even for good Muslims, is very much in doubt. Allah makes no promises.

Only Christians, out of all the major world religions, have the concrete hope that we will be resurrected with new bodies to inhabit a new creation and live glorious eternal life, free from pain and sorrow. And that hope is based entirely upon the resurrection of Jesus, and therefore, our relation to him. If we entrust ourselves entirely to Jesus, and give him free reign in our lives, we are promised that wonderful, eternal future.

That promise makes a difference, even here and now. As I write this in February of 2017, I have been struggling with chronic pain for more than two years. For the past 8 months or so, it has become much worse. Even doctors at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic will not promise me that I will ever be free of this pain. But Jesus does. I may not be free of it in this life, but I will in the next. Through Jesus resurrection, I have the assurance that I will have  new body, perfected, and ideally suited to the new creation. There is more out there than this life can offer me. That gives me hope to endure anything. It can do the same for you.

THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT IN HISTORY

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It is very important for us to understand that death of Jesus fundamentally changed forever the way human beings relate to God. We live after that world-changing event, after his death has broken every barrier between us and God.

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Matthew #98.  Matthew 27:51-61

Christianity is a faith deeply grounded in, and connected to history. The Bible is not a book of fairy tales. Scholars have confirmed, countless times, that the people in the Bible were real people, the places were real places and the events that are recorded actually happened.

According to our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus were the pivotal moments in all history. Something happened at that time in Jerusalem that is unique in all of human existence. You might expect that a moment so special might look or feel different than other moments. All four gospel writers confirm that it did indeed.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record a three hour darkness, leading up to the death of Jesus, from the sixth, to the ninth hour. (Matt 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). This was not an eclipse: eclipses do not last that long. It may have been simply heavy cloud cover, but that’s not exactly what they say. Also, cloud cover that is that dark usually turns into a storm quickly, and passes quickly, but everyone agrees that this darkness lasted three hours. At the very least, we could say that it wasn’t coincidence that the clouds were so heavy that day that it felt like darkness.

At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain in the temple was torn into two (more on that in a moment) and there was an earthquake that split open rocks. Earthquakes are not unknown in Jerusalem, but it is interesting, to say the least, that one occurred the very moment of Jesus’ death. Also, in order to split rocks, it would have to be a very violent earthquake indeed. Matthew also says many dead people came alive from their tombs, but he also mentions that they showed up after the resurrection, not immediately after Jesus’ death.

He also writes this:

54When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “This man really was God’s Son! ” (Matt 27:54, HCSB)

Luke and Mark also tell us about this centurion. A centurion in the Roman legions was something like a Master Sergeant in the Marines today. He had the primary responsibility for one-hundred, hard-bitten, violent, unruly legionnaires. It was up to him to make sure that his “century” (100 men) obeyed the orders of officers, kept their equipment maintained, marched in formation, and maintained discipline. He had to force these mean, angry, violent men to do what he told them to. He had probably seen men die, and certainly, he had seen men beaten and whipped. He’d probably been in some brawls and seen and done some nasty things. In other words, a centurion had to be one tough, no-nonsense son-of-gun.

Something about the way Jesus died touched this hard-bitten, cynical, violent man to the core. He makes what is in the New Testament, a basic declaration of faith: “Surely this man (Jesus) was really God’s Son!” We don’t know what all went into this man’s faith. I tend to believe it was a combination of the way Jesus handled himself on the cross, along with the physical signs of darkness and violent earthquake.

We don’t know a lot more about this centurion, but I have some speculations. John records one moment when he and Jesus’ mother were close enough to the cross to hear Jesus speak. Mathew, Mark and Luke tell us that most of the time, the women were all standing off, watching at a distance. So, how do the gospel-writers know what Jesus said and did on the cross? How do they know what he said and did at Pontius Pilate’s trial? I suspect that this centurion ended up as a member of the early church. He was certainly there, right at the foot of the cross. He was probably there at Roman headquarters, when Pilate questioned Jesus. He may be the source of some of that information. Of course, Jesus himself could also be the source of that information, after his resurrection. In any case, I think it is testimony to the uniqueness of Jesus’ death that a Roman centurion came to faith because he witnessed it.

Another one of the unique events was that the curtain in the temple sanctuary was torn in two (Luke 23:45; Matt 27:51; Mark 15:38). This is actually a tremendously significant event, but we need to understand more about the temple to know why.

The temple at the time of Jesus was actually a complex of buildings. There were two large courtyards which contained various covered porticos, and other rooms and smaller courts around the edges, but within the walls of the larger courtyards. One courtyard was generally for women and Gentiles, with a sub-court for lepers. A second, more exclusive courtyard was for only Israelite men. Within this inner courtyard was the “sanctuary” which we might think of as the “main building” of the temple. The sanctuary was also called ‘the holy place” (actually, the English word “sanctuary” comes directly from the Latin for “holy place.”) Only priests could enter the sanctuary, where they would change out bread on the altar of bread, and offer incense on the altar designated for that, and light candles. The priests were divided into divisions for these duties, and then chosen by lot. To enter the sanctuary was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event, even for priests. The sanctuary was a large rectangular room. One end of the sanctuary was curtained off, from wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. Behind that curtain was the “most holy place,” or “holy of holies” (sanctum santorum, in Latin – a phrase some people still use in different contexts). It was believed by the Israelites that the very presence of God dwelt in the most holy place of the temple. Only the high priest could enter the most holy place, and only once each year, to offer atonement for the sins of the people.

The message of all this was that the presence God was separated from the vast majority of the people at all times. Women, gentiles and lepers could not even enter the courtyard that surrounded the sanctuary. Israelite men couldn’t enter the sanctuary. Even priests almost never got to go into the sanctuary, and inside the sanctuary, the curtain kept them from the most holy place.

It is very important for us to understand that death of Jesus fundamentally changed forever the way human beings relate to God. We live after that world-changing event, so we can’t really conceive of what it was like before. But the Old Testament gives us glimpses of it. Before the death of Jesus, some tribes of people were so beyond redemption that they had to be entirely wiped out (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). Before Jesus’ crucifixion, God’s holiness could kill you if you simply worshipped at the wrong time, or in the wrong way (Leviticus 10:1-3). Before Jesus, God’s holiness could kill if you simply reached out to prevent a holy artifact from falling off a cart (2 Samuel 6:1-7). Before the death of Jesus, more than half of those who wanted to worship could not even enter the courtyard where the sanctuary was built. Almost all of the remaining half could not enter the sanctuary itself. The message was this: “We need God, but his holiness destroys us, because of our sin. We have to stay separated from him in order to be safe.”

But Jesus, by his death, ripped down the barrier between us and God. The physical tearing of the curtain in the sanctuary was a manifestation of the spiritual reality that Jesus accomplished by his death. He has definitely destroyed the barriers between us and God.

Now, let’s make this real in our own lives. What are the barriers that you feel between you and God? What keeps you distant from him? I want you to pause and think about this. Let the Holy Spirit bring things to mind.

After you have thought about that for a moment, ask yourself this question: “Did the death of Jesus remove this barrier?” (Hint: the answer is “yes.”)

The next question is this: if the death of Jesus removed the barriers between me and God, how do I “take hold” of that? What I mean is, it’s fine to say the barrier was removed, but what if I feel like it is still there? How do I live in the truth that it is gone?

The centurion shows us the way: repentance and faith. If you hold on to your sin – that is, you do not repent, and turn away (however imperfectly), then  you yourself are holding the barrier in place. Repentance drops that barrier. Faith – as the centurion shows us – is simply trusting it is true. Yes, Jesus is the son of God. Yes, his death did remove the barrier between me and God. I am going to act and feel as if this was really true. The more you do so as an act of will, the more real it becomes in your life.

The death of Jesus changed history. It changed everything. Will you let it change you?

GRACE: FREE TO US, COSTLY TO HIM

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God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever.

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Download Matthew Part 97

Matthew #97  Matthew 27:11-50

[This is a slightly longer message than usual. Be prepared, if you are listening, to take 35 minutes or so. If you are reading, please be ready for just a few more words than normal.]

At this point, I want to consider the extreme suffering of Jesus – all of which was for us. Some of you will read this long after I post it. In “real time,” as I write, it is only a few weeks until Christmas. This may seem like a weird topic to cover during this season of joy and goodwill. But consider this: I have already mentioned that in Jesus’ life on earth, every single moment that included physical or emotional pain, was suffering on our behalf. Even a stubbed toe was suffering that Jesus did not have to experience, but that he endured for our sake. So, in a way, his atonement for our sin began with his birth.

Of course the atonement could not be complete without his death. He came into the world for exactly this purpose: to die, to receive in himself what we deserved. Let’s consider what that meant for him, physically, spiritually and emotionally. As always, many other sermons might be preached on these same verses. I am choosing to focus on just the one thing, although I do think it is the most important thing in this text. By the way, even if you don’t normally “share” things online, I think this would be a good one to share.

Jesus was killed by torture. There is really no other way to say it. It began with three beatings during the course of about eighteen hours. First, Jesus was taken to the high priest’s house – and you can bet they weren’t gentle in the taking. Most likely they pushed him and perhaps even struck him on their way there. After the mock trial, he was surrounded by an angry mob, and beaten with fists (Matthew 26:67-68; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63-64). At least some of the blows were to his head. This kind of beating alone would probably put most of us in the hospital, at least overnight. Picture an LA street gang finding the member of a rival gang alone, and deciding to teach him a lesson. You can imagine several people holding the poor man up, while others took turns punching him. It is possible that Jesus sustained a concussion from this, and certainly he received multiple bruises; possibly even broken ribs or teeth. Remember, there was no pain medication in those days.

Next, they took him to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who did not live in Jerusalem, but was there to try and keep the peace during the Passover festival. A standard Roman response to suspected trouble makers was to have them “scourged.” Pilate had this done to Jesus. In common language, this means he was whipped – that is, beaten with an instrument designed to inflict pain on human beings. Instead of one “tail” to the whip, it had several strips leather. At the end of each strip was fastened rocks or bits of glass or even pieces of lead. So each strike of the whip caused multiple gashes, laying open the flesh, and bruising the muscles as well. Most probably Jesus was given the 39 lashes, which had been known to kill people occasionally. Remember, Jesus had been beaten up by a mob, just hours earlier. In addition to his other injuries, Jesus certainly lost a lot of blood from the whipping, and perhaps sustained more broken ribs. Between these two beatings, the overall physical shock to his body was enormous. Coming so close together, there is no doubt that many men would have died from the combination of these two traumas.

After that, Jesus was turned over to the Roman cohort for crucifixion. Before they did their job, however, the entire cohort had fun mocking him; a cohort was made up of about 500 brutal, hardened soldiers. They jammed a crown made of thorns on his head. They took a staff most likely made out of a cane stem (something like bamboo, but smaller in diameter) and gave it to him, and then took it away and used it to beat him over the head. This cane rod would probably not have created any serious injury, unless it was used to strike Jesus on the face, and thus open up cuts on his cheeks. Even so, they were likely hitting the crown of thorns, driving thorns into his head, and the direct blows themselves would have been very painful.

But all that stuff – physical punishment which could easily have killed many men – was only preliminary to the suffering which killed the Son of God. After these severe beatings, they strapped a big beam to his back and made him carry it a mile or two. The beam was likely equivalent to a 4”x4”, perhaps six or eight feet long. Considering what he had been through, it was no wonder he needed help. When they got to the place, they put metal spikes through his hands, into the crosspiece. Though tradition pictures these as going through the palms of the hands, it is more likely that they put the spikes through his wrists between the two bones of the forearm, so that the flesh would not tear away and drop him from the cross. Either way, that alone would have been painful beyond belief. His legs were slightly bent, and then they pressed his feet, one on top of the other, and drove a spike through them into the upright beam of the cross. Tradition pictures a kind of triangular piece of wood for his feet to rest on, but this is doubtful. Then they raised it up.

At this point, Jesus had two choices. He could let the weight of his body hang from his wrists, tearing away at the flesh, and rubbing on bare bone. Or he could straighten his legs, and push up against the spike driven through his feet, inflaming the wounds there, and grinding against broken metatarsals and tendons. Each movement probably drove splinters into his raw, lacerated back. If he had an itch, he couldn’t even scratch it. If he had to go to the bathroom, it would be right there in front of everyone.

Over time, victims of crucifixion spend more and more time hanging from their arms, since pushing up on the spike through the feet was intensely painful, and required effort. As Jesus’ body weight pulled on his arms, and kept them above shoulder-level, his lungs gradually began to fill with fluid, and breathing became difficult. The only relief for this came from thrusting against the spike in the feet. By pushing himself up this way, he could straighten his body and breathe more freely. But the pain was such that no one could endure this for long. It also required strength and energy. He was undoubtedly weakened by his beatings to start with, and as his body grew weaker through this torture, he got less and less air. In this position, fluid also collected around his heart, putting pressure on it. As a result the organs slowly got less blood and oxygen.

Incidentally, this was why, late in the day, they broke the legs of the other men who were crucified alongside Jesus. By breaking their legs, it became impossible for them to straighten up and get air, and so they died more rapidly.

Jesus was taken to the Roman governor early in the morning. He was put up on the cross before noon, possibly as early as eight or nine in the morning. He endured this suffering until it killed him, about eight hours later. It killed him, either by filling his lungs with fluid and suffocating him, or by the pressure of the fluids surrounding his heart, which could have caused it to stop.

This was actually a relatively short time for death by crucifixion. When we read the gospels, we find that Pilate was surprised when he heard that Jesus had died by late afternoon. But then, most people being crucified were not beaten three times within hours before they were put on the cross.

But the suffering wasn’t only physical. He also went through emotional and spiritual agony.

First, he endured the anticipation of suffering. He knew, long before what happened, what was waiting for him. When I have some special event approaching in the future, anticipation is almost half the joy of it. I enjoy the feeling of looking forward to a good thing coming. But the reverse is also true. If you know about something you dread that is coming up, part of the negative experience is anticipating what you don’t want to go through. It is clear that Jesus knew about his approaching suffering, and that he dreaded it. That is why he said hours before he experienced any physical torment:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:36-39)

He also experienced humiliation. He was the King of the Universe, the very One whom everyone around him professed to worship. And yet, in order to accomplish his purpose, he had to allow them to mock him, to spit on him, to humiliate him as if they were right and he was wrong. There was a physical aspect to the humiliation as well. It is a terrible experience to be a man, and be struck, and yet not be able to strike back. Also, they almost certainly stripped him completely naked when the put him on the cross, again a humiliating experience.

In addition, Jesus experienced abandonment. All his followers ran away and left him to his fate. His faithful lieutenant, Peter, denied him publicly. But even worse, he was abandoned by God. 2 Corinthians 5:20 says this:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

God the Father abandoned Jesus the Son in a way that he has never abandoned any human being, ever, nor ever will. The bible teaches us that if we choose to reject God’s grace through Jesus, then ultimately God allows us to do that. In other words, God doesn’t reject us, but he gives us the freedom to reject Him. If we choose that, we will experience what it is like to be without God – but it will be our doing not His. He does not willingly forsake us. But in the case of Jesus on the cross, it was the opposite. Jesus never turned away from the Father. He followed him obediently, and perfectly to the end. But when the Father made Jesus into sin – for our sake – He turned away and abandoned him. He had to, if Jesus indeed took our sin on himself. This is why Jesus cries out:

46About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46, HCSB)

Now, I want us to consider something. When I think about the horrible suffering that Jesus experienced, it’s hard to contemplate. But there are many other things in this life that are hard to contemplate as well. For instance, it is hard to contemplate the horror of rape. It is hard to truly grasp the awfulness of murder. We don’t like to think this way, but even the sins which we think aren’t so bad are so far removed from God’s holiness that they are as fully horrific to God as the suffering Jesus experienced. The extremity of Jesus’ suffering shows us the extremity of our sin. All this is the depth of God’s love for us. This is picture of the true horror of our sin. This crucifixion is the gulf that would exist between us and God if Jesus had not taken our place.

The cross is also justice for sin. This is what makes forgiveness possible. We can’t just wave our hands and say “it doesn’t matter.” When we hurt others, it matters. When we offend God, it makes a difference. There are a lot of people who like to say, “It’s OK to do whatever you like, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” But what if you hurt God? He has told us, in the bible what matters to Him, what drives a wedge between us and him. Why is it OK to hurt him, but not anyone else? A sin that is only against God is just as much a sin as something which hurts another person.

Jesus, by his suffering, has endured what sin deserves – all sin. I can forgive the person who did something horrible to me because there was punishment and suffering for the evil that was done. It was made right, and justice was done for that sin, to Jesus, on the cross.

23For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. 26God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:23-26, HCSB)

No other faith takes sin or forgiveness seriously enough. You can’t just wave your hand and say, “it doesn’t matter,” as Buddhism does. One reason Buddhist monks dedicate their lives to separation from the world and to meditation is that you have to concentrate very hard and remain very isolated to believe that the suffering caused by sin in this world doesn’t matter.

You can’t say, “You’ll make it up next time you’re re-incarnated,” as Hinduism does. Since nobody is perfect, all you would do is rack up more “karma-debt” with each new life. Even Islam and Judaism say, essentially: “Well, you do your best, and God forgives the rest.” But why? On what basis can God allow un-holiness into his holy presence? If he could do such a thing, it means that God isn’t really holy, and therefore that moral standards are not actually real; in short, that anything goes. We like “anything goes” if it means we can do whatever we want, but it becomes intolerable when someone else can do whatever they like to us with no consequences. If there is no moral standard, we live a world of senseless brutality, and all kindness and love mean nothing. Even what think of as moral good is meaningless. If nothing is evil, nothing is good either.

That is why it was necessary for sin to be accounted for. Justice must be done. Sin must have consequences. If not, there is no such thing as goodness or grace. If not, we cannot survive in the presence of a holy God. It is only through this extreme suffering of Jesus that sin could be dealt with. The Lord has made a way to take away the power of sin, and still allow goodness and grace and love to flourish.

There is one more thing about the cross. Scripture tells us that there is a mysterious spiritual truth: when we trust that Jesus did this for us, it was not only he who died there. We too, died with Jesus to sin.

Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over Him. For in light of the fact that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in light of the fact that He lives, He lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Rom 6:3-11, HCSB)

This cross that killed Jesus also killed our sin. This is now also our death. This is why we can be free from guilt – our sins were punished with this severe and just punishment. About a year ago, I was speaking with a murderer. I mean it, this man was just released from prison after doing time for murder. He was marveling at the fact that he could be forgiven. It was this horrible crucifixion death that punished his terrible sin of murder, and he is putting his faith in Jesus that this is so. He doesn’t need to feel guilt anymore, because his murder was paid for – not by his ten years of prison time, but by the death of Jesus. I think when we feel guilt, it is usually because we have not considered how fully our sin was punished on the cross. The extreme suffering of the Perfect Man was enough for you, for me, for the world.

As we consider all this, I want us to be very aware of one thing. God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever. A single woman doesn’t accept a diamond ring from the man she loves and then go on in her life without him, except for maybe occasionally remembering him fondly. No, the diamond is not just a gift – it is an invitation to a new life. When she accepts that gift, she also accepts that invitation, and enters a new relationship, a relationship that is strengthened and reaffirmed daily as they make their lives together. The acceptance of that gift is life-changing.

What Jesus did for us on the cross – the grace that God offer us – is far more precious than any diamond ring that ever has, or ever will, exist. It should not be received any less casually than a marriage proposal. To receive this gift is also to accept the invitation to a new life. It is to give your life to Jesus, to commit to Him for forever, to live in a daily relationship with him. It is life-transforming.

If you’ve never received that gift, never really accepted that invitation to a new life, now is the time. Pause and do it now. There are no special words, just your willingness and acceptance and surrender to God’s love.

Let us thank him for that gift today!

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PETER AND JUDAS?

peter-denies

Peter is my hero. He seems to mess up more than any of the other disciples, but he is my hero because of what he does after he makes mistakes. Every time, he repents, and goes back to Jesus in humility and faith. It’s not about how often you fall down: it’s about what you do after you fall. And Peter always does the right thing after he falls. He’s a terrific example for us.

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Matthew #96. Matthew 26:69-27:10

There is a lot going on here. Matthew tells the tale as it happened, so we are jumping back and forth between various events. So far, I have not spoken about the physical suffering that Jesus experienced, beginning with his arrest. I will continue to put that off until another message, and this time, instead, we will concentrate on Peter and Judas.

In the book of Acts, Luke describes the fate of Judas in these terms:

18Now this man acquired a field with his unrighteous wages. He fell headfirst and burst open in the middle, and all his insides spilled out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that in their own language that field is called Hakeldama (that is, Field of Blood). (Acts 1:18-19, HCSB)

This is not necessarily incompatible with Matthew’s account. I will warn you that there are some gruesome thoughts in this paragraph. Here’s one way to reconcile the two. It may be that the body of Judas hung, unattended, until it began to decompose. Then, whenever it fell down “bursting open” would be a normal sort of thing to happen. At that point, the field in which it happened would have been, for Jews, ceremonially contaminated by contact with the dead body. For the Jewish religious rulers, the ideal solution to both the money (which they couldn’t use for themselves or the treasury) and the contamination, would be to buy the field as a burial ground for foreigners, since it was no good to Jews anyway. The one slight variation to this theory could be that when Judas went to hang himself, he did so at the edge of some sort of cliff, and instead of succeeding, the rope broke, and he fell to his death. After that, the same logic takes over for the rest of it.

In any case, I don’t think we have to imagine the entire sequence of Judas as happening on the very same night when Jesus was tried. I believe Matthew included it here to wrap up the history of what happened to him, but I tend to think it did not all occur on the same day Jesus was crucified. After all, the religious leaders were busy with that, and then with the Sabbath, and it is doubtful they would have taken time to debate about what to do with the money on that very day. I would say it is likely that Judas changed his mind and committed suicide within a week or two of Jesus’ crucifixion.

A lot of people use this passage to “rehabilitate” Judas, so to speak. They point out that Judas felt regret because, he says, “I have betrayed innocent blood.” Using that, many people speculate the Judas betrayed Jesus because he thought that the betrayal would provoke Jesus into some spectacular action that would then prove he was the Messiah. In other words, Judas really believed in Jesus, and just thought he needed a little “push” to start the war with the Romans. The argument boils down to this: Judas had really good intentions, and just went about it the wrong way.

However, both John and Luke tell us that it was Satan who motivated Judas to betray Jesus (John 13:27; Luke 22:3). I think that pretty conclusively ends the argument that he was just a misunderstood man with good motives.

I don’t think it is an accident that Matthew puts the story of Peter’s betrayal next to the story of Judas’ end. We have very important similarities, and also very important contrasts between the two disciples. It’s true that Judas’ betrayal is premeditated. Jesus gave him at least two opportunities that very night to repent. However, you could say the same thing about Peter. Jesus warned Peter about what was coming. When Peter denied Jesus the first time, you might say it was the heat of the moment. But there was time before his next denial, and time again before the third. After each one, Peter might have re-considered. He too, was given every chance to do it differently, and yet he too, in his own way, betrayed Jesus.

So what was different? Why is it that Judas committed suicide, while Peter went on to become the leader of Jesus’ church?

I think it boils down to the essence of what the Bible teaches: repentance and faith. [By the way, before we get into this, let me say that I am not talking in general about people who commit suicide. I am talking about Judas, specifically.]

Let’s start with repentance. Matthew says that Judas felt remorse for what he did.  The word is metamelaytheis. It is only used six times in the New Testament: the HCSB translates it three times as “changed his mind,” here as “remorse” and twice as “regretted.” The ESV translates it here as “changed his mind.” Though it is related, it is not the same word as “repentance.”

At some level, Judas felt bad about what he had done. So bad, in fact, that he committed suicide. But in all his bad feeling, he never turned back to Jesus. He regretted, but he did not repent.

Regret eats away at you. It doesn’t help you change, or lead you to anything positive. You just sit there, wishing you had done differently. Regret means you wish it hadn’t happened, but it doesn’t mean you are sorry, or that you are willing to change. That is why “regret” is one of the favorite words used by politicians in meaningless “apologies.” Over and over, you hear some Pol, caught in a scandal, say something like, “I regret what happened,” or “I regret that people were hurt.” This isn’t the same thing as saying, “I’m sorry,” or, “It is my fault; please forgive me,” or, “I am going to change.”

Since both Luke and John tell us that Judas was deeply influenced by Satan, I think we can assume that this regret was deepened, worsened, and played on demonically, over and over.

There may be something else, too. The regret of Judas was focused on the fact that he had done something wrong. Maybe you could put it this way (please pay attention to the italic emphasis):

Peter sat there, thinking, “I’ve betrayed Jesus!”

Judas sat there, thinking, “I’ve betrayed Jesus!”

What I’m getting at is this: It could be that Judas was more upset about the fact that he screwed up than the fact that it was a sin against Jesus. For Judas, it was about himself. He had regret, but not repentance. He did not humble himself before God. Though he regretted the incident (deeply) there is no evidence that he repented.

For Peter, it was that he had hurt the man he had come to know and love. The point wasn’t that he screwed up (Peter might have been used to that by now!) but that he had hurt Jesus. He wasn’t just sorry that he had made a mistake – he was sorry he had hurt his Lord. Regret is self-focused, but repentance is God-focused.

By the way, some of you have mentioned that I seem to enjoy picking on Peter. Actually, Peter is my hero. He seems to mess up more than any of the other disciples, but he is my hero because of what he does after he makes mistakes. Every time, he repents, and goes back to Jesus in humility and faith. It’s not about how often you fall down: it’s about what you do after you fall. And Peter always does the right thing after he falls. He’s a terrific example for us.

It takes humility to repent. When you repent, you are fully owning the fact that you are wrong, and in addition, humbling yourself by asking for forgiveness. You are putting yourself in a position of need in relationship to the person you hurt. You are saying that you need their forgiveness, and that you have no right to be forgiven, and no power to make them do so. You are, in a sense, offering them power over you. Peter was very humble. He knows what he is talking about when he writes, years later:

God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. 6Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you at the proper time, 7casting all your care on Him, because He cares about you. (1Pet 5:5-7, HCSB)

The second difference between Judas and Peter was faith. Despite the fact that Jesus predicted it all, neither Judas nor Peter understood what was happening when Jesus was put to death. But somehow, though he couldn’t see how, Peter believed that Jesus could overcome. He believed that Jesus would have mercy on him, and forgive his failure.

Judas, clearly, did not believe he could be forgiven. I believe he could have been. I believe that Jesus, with his question in the garden “Why have you come?” was inviting Judas to repent, even after his deed was done. Even after, Judas had the same opportunity that Peter had. But the truth was, he simply did not believe in Jesus, which is why he betrayed him in the first place.

So how do we apply these things to our lives today? I’ll offer a few thoughts, but let the Holy Spirit take you wherever he wants with this. Here are my thoughts:

The Bible says we have all sinned:

9What then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, 10as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. 11There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom 3:9-12, HCSB)

We aren’t any better than Judas or Peter. We all stand on the same ground. The question is, will we be more like Judas, or Peter? Obviously, we want to be like Peter, but how?

  1. Seek repentance, and beware of regret. Regret doesn’t help you in any way. It leaves you with nothing. Repentance motivates, and brings you back to the Lord. If you find you are regretful but not repentant, I encourage you to ask God to help you repent instead. Repentance means you change, you turn away from your sin and toward God, even if that means sacrificing other things to do so.
  2. Seek humility. You cannot repent without humility. In repentance you admit your faults, you admit that your actions (or inactions) are wrong, and you are truly sorry for them. In addition, you give God (and sometimes other people) power over your life by admitting that you stand helplessly in need of his (and possibly their) forgiveness. To do that, you need humility.
  3. Believe that Jesus’ death was truly enough to make up for your sins. Trust what the Bible says:

Everyone who believes has God’s approval through faith in Jesus Christ.  There is no difference between people.  Because all people have sinned, they have fallen short of God’s glory.  They receive God’s approval freely by God’s grace through the price Christ Jesus paid to set us free from sin. (Romans 3:22-24, God’s Word Version)

Sometimes when I see people struggling to accept that God really forgives them, I ask this: “Are you saying that what Jesus suffered wasn’t enough for your sin? Are you saying he should have suffered more? Are you saying that what he did was somehow incomplete? If not, then stop messing around, and believe you are forgiven. Take him at his word, and receive his forgiveness.”

Peter humbly took Jesus as his word. More than that, he trusted the character of Jesus, that somehow, he could make it all OK. And that’s exactly what Jesus was doing at the very time that Peter betrayed him: making it all OK for anyone and everyone who will trust him.

THANKFULNESS

thankful-kneeling

The older I get, the more I am inclined to believe that thankfulness is a key part in receiving the grace and love and joy that are offered to us through Jesus Christ. When we thank God, we are, in a way, reaching out and receiving what we thank him for. We are agreeing with what the Bible says about his graciousness and love toward us; we affirming something true about the nature of God. We are saying, “Yes, I have received your love and grace,” and as we declare that to be true, it somehow becomes more real to us.

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THANKSGIVING

[I preached this two years ago, and if anything, it is even more relevant today. In case you didn’t memorize at the time, here, once again, are some helpful, Biblical thoughts about giving thanks].

Thanksgiving has become an American holiday and tradition, but it does originate from deep, Christian spiritual roots. One of the things that I find interesting is that many of significant Thanksgiving celebrations early in the history of America took place in the middle of very difficult times.

The “original thanksgiving” took place in the New England settlement of Pilgrims during the sixteen-hundreds. It is true that at the time they celebrated, they had a good harvest. But they had just gone through an incredibly difficult year in which large numbers of the Pilgrims had perished from disease and malnutrition. From a simple cataloging of bad events versus good, they had much more to be upset about than to be thankful for. Yet they held a three day feast, thanking God for his blessings.

The first national day of thanksgiving was proclaimed by the brand-new American government in 1777. It is true, at the time many people were elated by the American victory over the British at Saratoga. But also at the time of the proclamation, the British still occupied the capital city of the new country (which was Philadelphia at that point) and also held New York City and several significant southern cities. The war was far from over, and times were still quite desperate, and yet they called for a national day of prayer, thankfulness, and repentance toward God.

Considering this history, perhaps it is appropriate that Thanksgiving became an official national holiday during the middle of the Civil War. Once again, the war was far from over, and many desperate times and terrible battles were both behind and ahead. Yet President Lincoln wrote of the many blessings that persisted in spite of war, and said:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

It isn’t my intention to give a history lesson. But I want to point out explicitly that the early Americans seemed eager and able to thank God, even in the middle of significant hardship. In fact, the American Thanksgiving tradition arose more from hardship and war than from peace and prosperity. Even more, I want to point out that this idea of thanking God at all times, even in difficult circumstances, is a biblical practice.

Job chapter one records a series of calamities that befall Job, a righteous man. At the end of it all, this is what he did:

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,

and naked I will depart.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;

may the name of the LORD be praised.”

Psalm 69 was written by someone who felt he was “poor and in pain.” His appropriate response was to thank the Lord:

But as for me — poor and in pain — let Your salvation protect me, God. I will praise God’s name with song and exalt Him with thanksgiving.  (Ps 69:29-30, HCSB)

Paul says, “Good, bad, normal, it doesn’t matter. Give thanks all the time.”

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

The older I get, the more I am inclined to believe that thankfulness is a key part in receiving the grace and love and joy that are offered to us through Jesus Christ. I have long known that when I confess my sins to the Lord and repent, what really helps me to feel forgiven is the act of thanking him for that forgiveness. When we thank God, we are, in a way, reaching out and receiving what we thank him for. We are agreeing with what the Bible says about his graciousness and love toward us; we affirming something true about the nature of God. We are saying, “Yes, I have received your love and grace,” and as we declare that to be true, it somehow becomes more real to us. I think this is one of the reasons that the New Testament is so clear about the fact that whenever we pray, part of our praying should involve thankfulness to the Lord. Thankfulness breeds faith and grace.

Thankfulness also leads to peace and contentment. Philippians 4:5-7 teaches that thankful prayer is an antidote to worry:

Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil 4:5-7, HCSB)

Yes, it is good and proper to ask God for what we need, and to share our burdens with him. It is also important to thank him as we offer up those prayers. Through turning our burdens over with thankfulness, we experience the peace of God, which is beyond understanding. The fact that it is beyond understanding means that sometimes we will experience peace when our circumstances suggest that we shouldn’t be able to do so. It is thankfulness, at least in part, which leads to this sort of peace in all circumstances.

I have found that thankfulness (and the benefits of peace, grace and faith which come with it) can be encouraged by some self-discipline. Sometimes, it is helpful to just make myself start thanking God. I don’t like mornings, and I’m not usually very happy until after mid-morning. But, stepping into the shower grumpy and irritated, I can begin by thanking the Lord for running hot water, and then soap, and then a towel. I can thank him that I have my own bathroom. That reminds me that I have my own house to live in, and it is plenty for my whole family. I can go on, and thank the Lord for warm, clean socks, and the existence of coffee, and then for my wife and children. You see how it goes: once we get started, there are an endless stream of things to thank the Lord for. I think one thing that is Biblically appropriate is to frequently thank Jesus for his sacrifice for us, and for his promise of eternal life to us.

Thank the Lord today and this week, and let him encourage thankfulness in your heart!

FACING TRIALS

The Bible

We are all capable of being very self-righteous and very blind – you aren’t safe from it just because all your friends tell you that you are open minded. A whole set of things that is called “open minded” is, in fact, just a new set of beliefs that is actually closed to alternative views. That leads me to the other application. This passage may be an encouragement to you when you are unfairly judged and insulted by our culture, and people who have bought into the new cultural values.

 

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Download Matthew Part 95

Matthew #95.  Matthew 26:57-66

We are continuing with the last night of Jesus life before the crucifixion.

None of this happened quite the way the enemies of Jesus had planned. Originally, they did not want to kill Jesus during the festival of unleavened bread, which started that very day, with the Passover (Matthew 26:5). Judas surprised them by delivering Jesus to them on Thursday night. It wasn’t ideal, but they decided to go with it. However, the timing forced them to have their trial that very night, because they wanted Jesus to be sentenced to death by the Romans before the Sabbath began, on Friday night. Otherwise, they would have violated the Sabbath by doing business with the Romans.

I want to pause and absorb this. In putting an innocent man to death, they were very concerned that they not break any of their man-made rules about the Sabbath. It gets even worse. It is almost fascinating to see how far the Jewish religious rulers were willing to go to keep pretending that what they did was righteous. It was wrong, by Jewish law, to hold a trial at night. But their desire to be done before the Sabbath forced them to do so. Even so, in order to maintain their sense of personal righteousness, they waited until after daybreak to pronounce the verdict, so they could claim that technically, it was not done at night (Mark 15:1).

Another rule of Jewish law was that everything had to be established by two or more witnesses:

15“One witness cannot establish any wrongdoing or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deut 19:15, HCSB)

But the trial of Jesus was assembled so hastily that no one had time to brief the witnesses and coordinate their testimony. After several came forward with various accusations that did not match each other, finally two came forward who claimed that Jesus said something about tearing down the temple, and rebuilding it in three days. Mark records that even these two did not fully agree with one another (Mark 14:59). Jesus did, in fact, say something much like this, though the “temple” he was referring to was his body.

18So the Jews replied to Him, “What sign of authority will You show us for doing these things? ” 19Jesus answered, “Destroy this sanctuary, and I will raise it up in three days.”

20Therefore the Jews said, “This sanctuary took 46 years to build, and will You raise it up in three days? ” 21But He was speaking about the sanctuary of His body. 22So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this. And they believed the Scripture and the statement Jesus had made. (John 2:18-22, HCSB)

During his trial, his accusers took this to be a statement by Jesus that he was God, since only God could accomplish a feat like destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days. In other words, they thought it was blasphemy.

In all of this, Jesus did not defend himself. This fulfilled Isaiah 53:7

7He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth. 8He was taken away because of oppression and judgment; and who considered His fate? For He was cut off from the land of the living; He was struck because of my people’s rebellion. (Isa 53:7-8, HCSB)

Apparently there was still some question about whether or not the testimony of these two was good enough, therefore the High Priest asks Jesus directly if he is the Messiah. Jesus’ reply is quite clear:

64“You have said it,” Jesus told him. “But I tell you, in the future you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

 65Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? Look, now you’ve heard the blasphemy! (Matt 26:64-65, HCSB)

You can see that up to this point, the High Priest was a bit concerned about the quality of the evidence. But now he says: “Why do we still need witnesses?” In other words, everyone present (which was certainly more than two or three) heard Jesus’ words, giving them the required number of witnesses that would agree.

Here’s an interesting thought though: Jesus’ words would have been blasphemy only if they were not true. It’s only blasphemy to claim to be the Messiah if you are not the Messiah. It’s only blasphemy to claim to be God if you are not God. There’s no doubt that Jesus’ words would have been shocking and offensive to the Jewish people of time. But neither the  High Priest, nor any of the Sanhedrin (religious ruling council), bothered to investigate whether or not the statement of Jesus was true. They didn’t review the evidence of his miracles, or consider the record of his teachings. They simply pronounced him guilty because he threatened their world view. Their self-righteousness blinded them to the truth.

When I seek application from this passage, it runs in two different directions. First, how often are we like these religious leaders? How often do we refuse to let Jesus threaten our world-view? How often are we so self-righteous that we are blinded to the truth right in front of us?

Whenever we begin to be more concerned with our way of doing things, or our particular rules, than we are about God himself, we are in danger of becoming like the Sanhedrin. For instance some religious people might be so against dancing that they forget that some kinds of dancing might honor the Lord (as David did, when he danced in worship). Some of us might get so wrapped up in “honoring the Sabbath,” that we make Sundays the most burdensome day of the week. We might hold such strong views about baptism or communion, or worship styles, that we forget the very purpose of those things. Sometimes we mix up cultural conservatism and Christianity. The two share some (but not all) values, however they aren’t the same thing. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that to be a Christian, you must vote a certain way, or belong to a certain political party. To be a Christian, Jesus alone commands all your allegiance.

By the way, blind self-righteousness is not the exclusive domain of those who go to church. Our culture is in the midst of a transition to a new set of values, and many who embrace the new values are just as self-righteous and blind as traditionally religious people; sometimes, maybe more so.

After the Presidential election of 2016, a friend of mine made an angry post on Facebook, accusing all Trump supporters of being racist, misogynistic, dishonest and greedy. She then said, in the very next sentence, that she wanted to live in a world where people respected and cared for each other, regardless of how different they were, completely missing the irony that she herself disrespected, made assumptions about, and judged, those who voted differently than her.

The point I’m making is that we are all capable of being very self-righteous and very blind – you aren’t safe from it just because all your friends tell you that you are open minded. A whole set of things that is called “open minded” is, in fact, just a new set of beliefs that is actually closed to alternative views. That leads me to the other application. This passage may be an encouragement to you when you are unfairly judged and insulted by our culture, and people who have bought into the new cultural values. Bible-believing Christians have been mocked for many years in most areas of popular culture. If you bring this up with non-Christians, however, you are likely to be insulted as a whiner, and told you are the one in power, and you are the one oppressing others.

The truth is, our culture has begun a radical shift away from Biblical values and morals. Christian thinking and Christian values are increasingly being pushed to the fringes of society. It is becoming more and more acceptable to mock and insult Christians. We are accused of being “haters” for simply believing what the Bible says about sexual morality. We are accused of being sexist and racist and homophobic and narrow minded. Examples of sexist and racist Christians can be found, of course, but in general, our culture is becoming inclined to believe those things of all of us, whether or not it is true.

I believe this will get only worse for some time to come in Western Culture. There is a vast temptation to join with this cultural shift so that the people around us don’t think badly of us. Many Christians have already given up the Bible as a significant source of truth, because they don’t want to look bad in our current culture.

It is helpful for us to remember Jesus, who was accused utterly unfairly. The accusations against him, and against first Century Christians, were exactly the reverse of the truth. But they came anyway. How will we handle such things when they come to us? I believe the example of Jesus should be a comfort to us. The accusations against him were unfair and unjust. They were lying. But Jesus did not fight back. As Peter writes:

21For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps. 22He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth; 23when He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly. 24He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds. 25For you were like sheep going astray, but you have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (1Pet 2:21-25, HCSB)

Peter encourages his fellow believers repeatedly as they face the ridicule and slander of those who reject Christian truth:

1Therefore, since Christ suffered in the flesh, equip yourselves also with the same resolve — because the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin — 2in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will. 3For there has already been enough time spent in doing what the pagans choose to do: carrying on in unrestrained behavior, evil desires, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, and lawless idolatry. 4So they are surprised that you don’t plunge with them into the same flood of wild living — and they slander you. 5They will give an account to the One who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. (1Pet 4:1-5, HCSB)

Once more:

12Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. 13Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. 14If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1Pet 4:12-14, HCSB)

Let the Holy Spirit apply his Word to your life today.