Faith MomentsJun 23, 2023
These words of Jesus are very familiar. He spoke them at the “last supper”, the meal he shared with his disciples the evening before his death. But it wasn’t only a meal. It was the final teaching he was leaving with them to sustain them when he was condemned and executed. John devotes 5 full chapters to what he had to say that night. In the middle, he records Jesus saying this:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:12-15)
Several things Jesus says here are remarkable. What he says is enormously comforting, or course, as he intended. But let’s not just take the superficial comfort and move on. Let’s listen a little more carefully...
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Increase Our Faith
The disciples once asked Jesus, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5) We all feel that way sometimes, don’t we?
What do we think would do the job, to increase our faith? I think a lot of people feel like they would believe, if there was just some physical evidence. Some kind of sign—not something obscure, something tangible and unmistakable.
There were people who felt that way in Jesus’s day. They asked for a sign. His reply? “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.” (Matthew 12:38-39) They did it again later, and he gave the same answer. (Matthew 16:1-4)
Does it seem evil to ask for a sign? And how in the world is it adulterous?
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Cell phones are everywhere, at least almost everywhere. Billions of calls and messages cross the network hourly, and those voices and messages all go to the exactly correct device. In spite of many thousands of phones connected to any given tower, the system accurately knows where every bit of traffic is supposed to go, and it gets there—instantly.
If human beings can devise a system like this, is it any wonder that the Almighty can handle the many “calls” and “messages” directed to Him? The One who devised our brains, can He not tap into those brains and understand our thoughts? In particular, the prayers we direct to Him? The brain is a very weak transmitter, but it is a transmitter. Cell phones are weak transmitters—yet humans have devised ways that what is transmitted can get to its destination anywhere in the world. Surely the Almighty can do at least as well.
Yellow, gold, orange, red, and some remaining green. Where I live autumn is on full display. Whenever I have my eyes open, actually noticing what’s around me, seeing the Creator’s hand in what He has made, I am filled with awe. He built such incredible beauty into everything. Even in the leaves on the trees, turning so beautiful…as they die.
The trajectory of human life has often been compared to the seasons of the year.
You’re familiar with Jesus’s encouragement not to worry about the future: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:34)
Good advice, and an exhortation to have faith in our heavenly Father’s care for us. We humans do tend to be anxious. So we should boldly forge ahead in total confidence about the future?
Well, we humans also tend to have a problem in the opposite direction. The most succinct caution in that direction is: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” (Proverbs 27:1)
We do like to brag. (Including bragging about how humble we are, but that’s another topic.) The point of this proverb is that we have a tendency to over-estimate our control over things around us, and even over our own lives. This especially comes out in areas such as career planning, retirement planning, money management, and related things.
There are certain phrases that bring instant recognition, even though they appear only once. We know where they are, we know the context, we know what they mean. They resonate powerfully with us, they speak for us. Here are a few.
Paul wrote his letter to the church in Philippi from prison in Rome. It was more of a house arrest than a prison as we might think of it, but still, he did not have freedom of movement and was under guard. Awaiting trial. He was pretty sure he would not be condemned to death.
But still, the possibility of execution was real. If it were me in that situation, I might not feel a lot of joy. But he did. He wrote about it, and apparently really dwelt on it.
In the KJV of this letter, we find Paul talking about joy or rejoicing 18 times. It’s 16 times in the NKJV and the NASB, 13 in the NIV, 12 in the ESV. Some of the difference among versions is due to varying use of “glorying” instead. The “rejoicing” and “glorying” are not all from the same word family in the Greek, but that’s not the point here. The point is that joy and rejoicing were at the forefront of Paul’s mind, as he sat in detention awaiting trial.
What did he have to be so joyful about?
Previews of the Kingdom
Wherever Jesus rules, the Kingdom is there. In that sense we live in the Kingdom now—and in a number of places that kind of language is used.
But these two passages aren’t the Kingdom in that sense: Jesus says the Kingdom is coming near even where his kingship is not accepted!
But where the miraculous healings were happening, Jesus says, the Kingdom is there. At least, a foretaste of what it will be like—sickness and death banished, for a short time, a demonstration of what we’re promised is coming in full, at Jesus’s return.
What makes a shepherd? Not a trick question – what makes a person a shepherd is that he or she takes care of sheep. No sheep, not a shepherd...
Time For What Lasts
What portion of our lives is given to things that don’t last, things that are gone in a few years, or gone next year, or gone tomorrow? A lot,I’m guessing. Over 90%? 95%? 98%?
It’s the other 10% or 5% or 2%, that we give to what lasts a lifetime, or lasts forever. Doesn’t seem right somehow, does it? That’s the problem with humans—we are so short-sighted and focused on the immediate. (OK, you’re right—it’s one of the problems.)
And it’s getting worse. How many people still treat marriage as something that lasts a lifetime? How many people think there’s anything eternal at all?
“Be like men who are waiting for their master to come home… You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:35-40)
“Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36-42)
“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7)
“If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” (Revelation 3:3)
“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake!” (Revelation 16:15)
Paul writes something similar to the brand new baby church in Thessalonica: “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (1 Thessalonians 5:2) But then he goes on: “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.” (verse 4)
So, is Jesus coming like a thief or not like a thief? At an expected time or not expected? Will we be surprised or not surprised?
In the Tabernacle, built by Moses at the Lord’s command, a veil (or curtain) separated the Holy place from the Most Holy. The priests went regularly into the Holy—to offer incense, to tend the golden lampstand, to lay out the “bread of the presence”. But the Most Holy, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, was only entered once a year, only by the High Priest, only on the Day of Atonement. The details are found throughout Exodus and Leviticus.
In his first letter to Corinth, Paul deplores divisions among brothers and sisters in Christ... The only RIGHT division is between those who are united in Christ, and those who are not.
Recorded for us are two parables of Jesus that deal with someone begrudging someone else. In the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32), the older brother begrudges the welcome given to his returning brother. And in the “Laborers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20:1-16), those hired early begrudge those hired later, for getting the same pay.
Both of these have characters who think they deserve more than somebody else.
This isn’t the only instance where we have more than one parable addressing an issue. But it seems to me that if Jesus bothered to develop multiple lessons about something, it’s probably important. Of course they’re all important, but you see what I mean.
What the Lord is saying to us is, “Take a look at yourself, and be honest enough to recognize that you have the capacity to be grudging toward someone else.” We like to fool ourselves into thinking that surely I don’t have that problem. The doubled lesson, I think, cautions us not to be so smug.
Overcome the World
It’s the final evening before his arrest, trial and execution, and Jesus gives his disciples an intense class on what lies ahead for them—without him being physically present. It’s the longest conversation recorded in the whole Bible. He concludes the class with these words: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) After that he prays for them (John 17), and then heads out to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Put It Away
Who says this? “Put all this stuff away!” A lot of us recognize it as something Mom or Dad said to us—and a lot of us have said it ourselves to our own kids. Bosses might say it to their employees, or teachers to students, perhaps spouses or neighbors to one another during an argument.
And apostles of Jesus Christ say it to all of us: “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” (1 Peter 2:1)
This stuff needs to be put away, or somebody is going to get hurt.
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 7:6)
Israel, the Jewish people, are chosen by God. Why would He choose such a nation? They turned their backs on Him again and again. Why in fact would He choose any nation of sinful mortals? We’re all messed up...
None of us would claim to be good. We are too aware that Jesus himself refused such a label: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18) Jesus was tempted in every way like we are, but did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15) If even he refused to be called “good”, how could we possibly claim to be?
But. Around us are vast numbers of people who will say things like, “I believe that people are basically good.” By which they are saying they believe they themselves are basically good. And this sort of thinking rubs off, even if we would never utter the words that we think we’re good.
Just two little words, but my what they evoke! I’m pretty sure that the two-word title caused 100% of those who read it to mentally lock on John 3:16—the most well-known verse in the Bible, even among non-believers: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The miraculous feeding of 5,000+ is one of the few incidents recorded in all four of the gospel narratives. Each account includes a few unique details, and putting all of them together gives us a fuller picture of this remarkable day. I’m certain no one who was there ever forgot it!
Sleeping for Sorrow
You probably recognize the title phrase, “sleeping for sorrow,” describing the disciples falling asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s an odd phrase, isn’t it?
Matthew and Mark record that the disciples fell asleep because “their eyes were heavy”. We know that feeling, right? Just…can’t…stay…awake… Only Luke tells us that the cause of this overpowering tiredness is sorrow, grief. But he doesn’t say grief over what.
Backing up, when Jesus got to the garden, he had asked the disciples to sit while he steps away a short distance to pray. He had taken three of them part of the way with him. Matthew tells us he then began to be “sorrowful”—the same word Luke uses of the disciples—and then he spoke to these three saying he was “exceedingly sorrowful”, the same word again but with a prefix indicating great intensity. Jesus says he has this sorrow “even to death”. The intensity of his grief is so great that it feels like he will die of it! Matthew and Mark record this level of the Lord’s grieving. Luke doesn’t use the same words, but he records that Jesus has great drops of sweat, like drops of blood—on a cold night. I don’t think we can really even imagine.
We rightly think of the letter to the Hebrews as jam-packed with exposition. Many key doctrines have solid anchors in this letter. Every time we return to it, if we’re paying attention, our faith is bolstered.
But there’s something else going on in this letter, something equally important: exhortation. The letter is just as jam-packed with encouragement and coaching in discipleship. Both positives, and cautions about things to watch out for.
Here’s an exercise I think you’ll find valuable: Over the next day or two, read the letter carefully, and write down the pitfalls that the writer is cautioning us to watch out for. You will assemble quite a list! Every item on it can be the beginning of a fruitful study. We’ll just look at one.
Stones seem to be really important in scripture, and therefore we have to conclude, important to God.
Under the Law, altars were to be made of unhewn stones. So right there, approach to God is linked to stones. On the grimmer side, stones were to be used for executions for capital offenses. And as we all know, David killed Goliath with a stone.
But here’s what makes this really important: we’re told Messiah is a stone, in both senses. He was foretold to be, and was, a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling—Jesus just wasn’t the Messiah they were expecting, and they tripped over the reality. He was also anointed to be their Judge, and would be a stone that would crush those who oppose him. But then on the other side, Messiah would also be the cornerstone laid by the Almighty, a precious cornerstone and a sure foundation. Approach to God, and the vehicle for judgment, both embodied in Jesus Christ.
It’s late spring, and it’s graduation season here in North America. Students are congratulated, honored for completing some level of education, encouraged as they go on to the next step—whether that’s additional school or heading into employment, the adult world, supporting themselves.
We don’t encounter much in the way of formal schooling in the Bible. Paul mentions being “educated at the feet of Gamaliel”, an important Torah scholar in Jerusalem. There were rabbis (which means teachers), and they had disciples (which means students).
The Greco-Roman world, in which our New Testament is set, did have formal education, including universities, but there’s only slight reference to it. Paul advances a brief parable that the Law was a paidagogos to bring us to Christ. This is the origin of the English word “pedagogue”, a teacher—but in Greek it doesn’t actually mean a teacher. It’s the role of a servant whose duty was to take a child to school. Paul goes on to refer to a sort of graduation—saying we are no longer under a paidagogos. We’ve graduated from Law to faith, he says. (Galatians 3:24-25)...
It’s a challenge to try to figure out the organization of the book of Psalms. Or I should say, the books of Psalms—there are five. Some of the organization is easy to see, for example Psalms 120-132 in Book Five are the songs of ascents, we’re informed in their titles.
Today I noticed what seems to be another group of psalms that might be intentionally collected together. I can’t be sure I’ve got it right. Take a look and see what you think...
They were neighbors. They both saw the attraction of living near a stream ,to have a reliable source of water close by. Both built the house of their dreams, and for years enjoyed the fine location, the excellent water, and their comfortable home...