Kingdom Matters

News and views regarding the kingdom of God

Love Supersedes Law

It’s interesting that the gospel of Matthew begins the story of the Incarnation with a curious plot twist. In Matthew’s version of the birth of Christ a glaring scandal was exposed. It would seem that even in the womb controversy surrounded the person known as Jesus. Be that as it may, we will soon discover that Matthew had intentional reasons for divulging this information to his Jewish audience.

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.”[1]

To understand why Mary’s mysterious pregnancy was scandalous knowledge of ancient Middle Eastern marriage custom is necessary. In those days when a man wanted to marry a woman he would talk to the woman’s father and if the father gave his blessing he would betroth his daughter to the man, which meant both father and potential husband would enter a contract and agree on a price for the bride. Note that the father did not auction his daughter as a slave; rather, the price was considered a gift to compensate the father for the loss of his daughter’s services to the household.[2] Once the contract was settled the woman legally became the man’s wife even though the marriage wouldn’t be consummated until a later date. Therefore, any crime against the woman during the betrothal period was also a crime against the father and her betrothed husband.[3] So, when Mary was found to be with child it was assumed that a crime had indeed occurred, be it rape or adultery. Joseph’s action suggests that he suspected adultery for he had made up his mind to divorce Mary secretly in order to spare her from public humiliation.  

Joseph’s decision to deal with the matter in private says much about his character. Matthew notes this by referring to Joseph as “being a just man,” which is an interesting choice of words given that Joseph acted contrary to Deuteronomic Law. According to code Joseph would have been within his right to contest his betrothal to Mary based on the grounds of infidelity and have the matter brought before the elders of the city;[4] however, he chose not to do that in order to spare Mary the shame and embarrassment of a trial. And his decision to protect Mary from indignity came even before the angelic visitation that provided him with a proper course of action. More about that in a moment, but for now suffice it to say that Joseph’s love for Mary superseded the law’s desire for justice as evidenced by the fact that he kept the whole affair out of the public eye.

This raises several questions. Why did Mary keep the news of her pregnancy to herself, telling only Elizabeth who, by the way, already knew?[5] Why did she not confide in Joseph or her parents? Was it out of fear that she wouldn’t be believed? Was she trying to avoid what in her mind would no doubt lead to an awkward and seemingly “impossible to explain” situation? Or was she simply ill-equipped to deal with such a complex problem at her young age and therefore reasoned to herself, “Best not to say anything and hope that no one will notice?” Unfortunately, whatever her reasons, Joseph did notice (for pregnancies are hard to hide) and was troubled by the news. The text continues…

But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call his name JESUS, for he will save his people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.[6]

So Joseph was troubled and agonized over what to do about Mary. Have you ever had a situation where you weren’t sure what to do; where the lines between right and wrong were blurred, which caused you much angst? That was Joseph – as “he thought about these things.” In his grief Joseph fell asleep and an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and gave him clarity.

It was not in God’s plan for Joseph to divorce his wife but it was in Joseph’s. But God, being unfavorable toward Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary, decided to intervene. As the truth regarding Mary was disclosed Joseph was persuaded to change his mind, which, by the way, is what it means to repent – to change your mind (literally) or to change your thinking (pragmatically) – and a change of mind naturally brings about a change of action. For Joseph this change in his thinking resulted in the rescue of his marriage to Mary.

Now in addition to redirecting his steps the angel gave Joseph revelation as to the nature of the child in Mary’s womb. First, that the child was conceived through an act of the Holy Spirit and not by illegitimate means. This news obviously comforted and encouraged Joseph. Second, that the child would be male. Third, the instruction to name the child JESUS (meaning Jehovah saves) for his mission would be to save his people from their sins.

I wonder what Joseph thought about that last statement, that his Son would be the Savior? Can you imagine having the responsibility of raising a child who would grow up to be the Messiah, the Savior of all? Just the phrase, “he will save his people from their sins,” could be a blog post in and of itself. What does it mean? Who are “his people”? Are his people the Israelites? Christians? Pagans? Barbarians? Wouldn’t “his people” refer to all people since Jesus created them all?[7] Yes! All are his, but all need saving. Saving from what exactly? From “their sins.”

The term “sin” is an umbrella term that includes offenses of all kinds – from minor improprieties to erroneous crimes – Jesus will save each of us from them all. All my failures, all my mistakes, all the wrongs that I’ve done, all the wrongs done to me, every misguided step I’ve ever taken Jesus plans to save me. And this he does despite what the Law says. Like Joseph to Mary, Jesus’s love for his people supersedes the law’s desire for justice as evidenced by the fact that he will save us from our sins.

Matthew concludes his story of the Incarnation by explaining that all this was done in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding a Son who would be born to a virgin who would be called Immanuel, meaning God with us.[8] And if God is for us who or what can stand against us. Not the Law, not sin because love supersedes both.


[1] Matthew 1:18-19 (NKJV)

[2] Bromiley, G.W., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), Vol. 3, pg. 262

[3] Matthews, Victor H., Manners and Customs in the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to Daily Life in Bible Times (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1988) pg. 133

[4] Deuteronomy 22:13-21

[5] Luke 1:41-45

[6] Matthew 1:18-25 (NKJV)

[7] John 1:3,10; Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:16; Revelation 4:11

[8] Isaiah 7:14

A BIG, BIG DEAL!

Christmas is the celebration of God entering our world in human form. In theological terms it is referred to as the Incarnation; that time so long ago when Jesus, the Son of God, was born to the Virgin Mary. This was an event of mammoth historical significance that might have gone unnoticed if not for a handful of proclamations given at various times and locations. We read about such things in the gospels as we look back upon past occurrences, but imagine being there in real time as they were unfolding. Imagine the wonder, the awe, the expectation and the hope that the coming of Christ inspired. My desire in the coming days is to look into the several occasions where a person, or group, was given inside information on the Incarnation and write about each of them for the sheer joy of reflecting on Jesus.

If the Holy Spirit intended to miraculously impregnate a young woman the polite thing for him to do would be to inform her in advance. Therefore, we are told, God dispatched the angel Gabriel to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph (of the line of David), whose name was Mary. Gabriel entered the place where Mary was and said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”[1] However, Mary didn’t know what to think of this stranger, nor was she able to discern what manner of greeting he had given her. She became greatly troubled and fearful; in a word, agitated. Then Gabriel spoke to her in the most reassuring way:

 “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[2]

Mary, I imagine somewhat skeptical or at least notably perplexed, responded, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”[3]

Gabriel, probably smiling and thinking to himself, “It’s easy!” replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” And, Mary, if you doubt the probability of it all, “Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”[4]

The angel’s explanation must have satisfied Mary for she answered, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”[5] But just to be sure the angel was legit Mary planned to visit Elizabeth ASAP to verify that the message she had received regarding the God of the impossible was indeed true.

Can you imagine being Mary in that moment? Notice that Gabriel’s word to Mary was a declaration not a request. Mary was told what would happen to her. She was not asked for her consent, even though she gave it. What would you be thinking? What would you be feeling? Would you wonder at the credibility of the messenger and his message? Would you be able to take it in, to comprehend its meaning, to embrace its reality? Would yours be a willing response? These are questions worthy of consideration because God involves people in his redemptive acts. What “act” might he require of you?

Mary’s assignment was to give birth to the Messiah. Of all the women in Israel she was chosen. That’s what it means to be “favored.” God would bless Mary in a way that no other would be blessed. She had a responsibility, and a destiny. What’s more is she couldn’t fail because the Lord was with her. All she had to do was give birth to the child, name him JESUS, and be his mother; God would do the rest. God would ensure that Jesus lived an extraordinary life. God would make him great and would testify himself that Jesus was his beloved Son, the Son of the Most High, the Son of God. These are titles that speak of Christ’s divinity.

Moreover, God intended to give Jesus the throne of his father David. Who was David? David was the anointed king of Israel. David was the man after God’s own heart. David was a righteous king despite his failures and shortcomings. And David had been promised by God that one of his descendants would sit on his throne and rule over Israel forever.[6]

Now, being of the line of David, sitting on David’s throne, ruling Israel, these all speak of Christ’s identification with humanity, but it goes beyond just that. The fact that his rule is eternal adds another dimension. Yes, Jesus rules, but not from an earthly palace. His kingdom is a spiritual kingdom and he rules from a spiritual realm. And of his kingdom there will be no end; which means, it’s still growing and expanding, here and now, until it encompasses all that is.

At this point in the gospel narrative Mary is the only one who knows that she is to be the mother of Israel’s Messiah. And what does she know of the child she will give birth to? She knows that he will be of divine origin, that he will be famous, that he will rule as king of Israel, and that his kingdom will never end. And that my friend, in itself, is a BIG, BIG deal!

Why, you ask, is it such a big deal? I’ll tell you why. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”[7]       

The belief that Jesus is the Messiah as well as the Son of God is at the heart of the Christian faith. It is the very foundation on which the church – the Christian faith – is built. This knowledge does not come to us by reading it in a book or on a blog, not even when that book is the Bible. It comes to us only by revelation of the Father – from his heart to ours. That’s when you truly believe, when the Father reveals to you that Jesus is the Son of the living God. Suddenly Jesus becomes a real person, not just an historical figure. You become intimately aware of his presence in your life, even when you can’t see him. He’s more than just a good idea, more than a character in a book, more than a good man, or a prophet. He’s Emmanuel – God with us, God with me and God with you. Once you grasp that and take it to heart you join the Jesus revolution, which he calls his Church, and enter his kingdom realm. Once you walk through that door you will never be the same again. And that my friends is a BIG, BIG deal!


[1] Luke 1:28 (NKJV)

[2] Luke 1:30-33 (NKJV)

[3] Luke 1:34 (NKJV)

[4] Luke 1:35-37 (NKJV)

[5] Luke 1:38 (NKJV)

[6] 2 Samuel 7 (esp. vs. 12-13); Isaiah 9:6-7; 16:5; Jeremiah 23:5

[7] Matthew 16:13-18

Where to Find the Kingdom of God

There is a story told in the gospel of Luke about Jesus responding to a question he was asked by the Pharisees. “When is the kingdom of God coming?”[1] This is an intriguing question considering the source. The Pharisees were rarely sincere in their search for truth where Jesus was concerned. More often than not they occupied themselves with trying to trap him in his words so they could accuse him of blasphemy, or insurrection, or, at the very least, to discredit him before the people. Whether the question was sincere or devious Jesus responded remarkably:

“The kingdom of God comes not with observation; nor shall they say, ‘Lo here, or Lo there;’ for behold (perceive, realize, experience, grasp), the kingdom of God is within you.”[2]

“The kingdom of God is within you.” What did Jesus mean? How is this possible? Is the kingdom of God within everybody, or is it only within Christians? Even among translators there is much debate over the meaning of Jesus regarding this matter. Some bibles translate this verse as the kingdom of God is “in your midst” or “among you,” because the doctrinal framework of the translators won’t allow them to translate otherwise for that would place the location of the kingdom of God even within the Pharisees. One might reason, “How could that be given the fact that many of the Pharisees publicly opposed the ministry of Jesus?” But as Greek scholar David Bentley Hart would contend, “It is occasionally argued that this phrase (‘within you’) would be better translated ‘among you’ or ‘in your midst,’ but this is surely wrong. Entos really does properly mean ‘within’ or ‘inside of,’ not ‘among,’ and Luke, in both his Gospel and the book of Acts, when meaning to say ‘among’ or ‘amid,’ always uses a different phrase (cf. Lu 22:27).”[3] Assuming Mr. Hart is correct the question remains – what did Jesus mean?

It helps to know that at the time of Christ there was an expectation that the Messiah would come and restore the kingdom of Israel and rule the nations from David’s throne. Note, this was not just wishful thinking on the part of the Jewish community but is in fact replete throughout the prophets of the Old Testament. Such an idea obviously assumes a literal, physical, earthly kingdom; whereas, Jesus clearly communicated to Pilate, the Roman Governor, prior to his crucifixion, “My kingdom is not of this world… now my kingdom is not from here.”[4] With his response to the Pharisees, as well as to Pilate, Jesus does not deny that a revolution will take place and, in fact, had already begun. What he draws attention to is where that revolution will occur; not on earth (at least not at the current time) but in our hearts.

“The kingdom of God is within you.” To find it you must look within, not without. No matter whether you are on the side of the liberal far left or the conservative right or somewhere in the middle, politics will not bring about the kingdom of God. “Why?” you ask. It’s because politics are definitely of this world, but the kingdom of God is not. Politics may successfully “change” the world from one social agenda to another but there will always be those who resist one agenda in favor of the other resulting in disunity and division. On the contrary, the kingdom of God, which is Christ in you,[5] works in the heart of individuals to effect “change” that lasts; change that will unite all peoples under one banner to the glory of God. Amen.


[1] Luke 17:20

[2] Luke 17:20-21

[3] David Bentley Hart, The New Testament (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 2017), 148.

[4] John 18:36

[5] Col 1:27

The Narrow Gate Defined

What did Jesus mean when he said, “Enter through the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13)”? Granted, he said more than that but given the fact that he started with this command makes the answer to the question seem kind of important. With that in mind let’s look at what else he said:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14 NASB95)

A common way in which evangelicals have interpreted these verses is to say that the narrow gate represents Jesus and his offer of eternal life whereas the broad gate represents the doorway to Hell and eternal conscious torment. Unfortunately very few find the narrow gate while the broad gate is congested with humanity. The problem with this view is that the context doesn’t seem to support it.

Speaking of context, Matthew 7 is the conclusion of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), which concerns how to live as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. In chapters 5-6 Jesus addressed many topics; such as, the blessings of being humble, compassionate, meek, longing for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peaceful, and longsuffering in the face of persecution. While the above ways of being invite God’s blessing Jesus also taught on the dangers of anger, lust, marital strife, breaking promises, and retaliation as a means for social disharmony rather than peaceful coexistence. He encouraged love for enemies, giving to the needy, and the practice of forgiveness, prayer and fasting. He warned against greed and prescribed the remedy for anxiety. All these things could be considered sound instruction for general societal ills, but in chapter 7 Jesus got even more personal and spoke of brother judging brother. This, of course, is the immediate context of the statement regarding the narrow gate.

The type of judgment that Jesus referred to here was in the area of interpersonal relationships (Mt 7:1-2). It’s the idea of separating, dividing or discriminating against each other based on one’s own system of evaluation.[i] Consider the culture of Jesus’ day in the land of Israel. The Jewish people were under Roman rule and consequently were a conquered and oppressed people. Tensions were high between Jews and Gentiles. Consider further the Samaritans who were a mixed race of Israelites, Assyrians and other assorted ethnicities; a half breed remnant from the Assyrian invasion/deportation/importation of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721BC (cf. 2Kings 17).[ii] So despised were the Samaritans that the Jewish people would avoid contact at all costs and I imagine the feeling was mutual. Last but not least, consider the various religious sects at the time of Christ not only within Judaism but also within the Gentile world at large where multiple gods were worshiped and where paganism and idolatry were rampant. All of these factors lead to mutual judgment and the devaluing of human life. In light of the current racial and religious tensions in our own nation it appears there is nothing new under the sun.

According to Jesus the solution to racial, political and religious insensitivity is to realize that we all have a tendency to recognize faults and imperfections in others but are often blind to our own. Therefore we should all take care to withhold judgment and criticism, which lead only to conflict, and instead embrace the axiom of treating others the way we would want them to treat us, which, in a nutshell, summarizes the overall message of the law and the prophets (a.k.a. The Old Testament). Of course, this is often easier said than done which is why Jesus exhorted his listeners to pray and trust that God would guide them through the reparations of difficult relationships (Mt 7:3-12).

That, my friends, is the context of Matthew 7:13-14. So with that in mind, what do you think Jesus meant by his command to enter through the narrow gate? Whatever the narrow gate represents it’s the only way that leads to life, and, by comparison, few find it. On the contrary, the broad gate leads to destruction and many enter through it. Again I ask, what did Jesus mean? I give you a moment to ponder and construct your answer.

Times up! What if the narrow gate represents the “Golden Rule” – a way of being – do unto others as you would have others do unto you (v. 12)? What if the narrow gate is synonymous with the Great Commandment, which is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:39; Mk 12:31)? And what if the broad gate represents the alternative – another way of being – which is to remain in conflict with others by judging, condemning, hating, quarreling, fighting, killing, devaluing and considering the other inferior to ourselves? It seems to me that entering through the broad gate would most definitely lead only to perpetual destruction as history has attested to through the ages.

In my view this interpretation of what Jesus meant when he said, “Enter through the narrow gate,” sounds more reasonable to me than the conventional evangelical view given the context of Jesus’ words. However, regardless of the way you might interpret this command for yourself one thing is certain: it would be wise to take the advice of Jesus and enter through the narrow gate and experience life to the fullest now and forevermore because the alternative in either view is unpleasant to say the least (Mt 7:15-27).


[i] Derived from Jonathan Mitchell, The New Testament (Harper Brown Publishing, 2016), Matthew 7:1-2

[ii] The New Bible Dictionary – Second Edition (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1982), 1062

The King and His Thoughts

For several days now I have been mulling over in my mind the words of Isaiah 55:8, which reads… “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD (ESV).”

Two days in a row I sat at my computer pondering those words and was unable to write about them. I think that maybe the Lord Jesus had in mind for me to just think about them and let them sink deep into my soul. What do these words mean? How should they affect me? In what way am I to communicate their insights?

The best way to interpret any passage of scripture is by learning its context. And what is the context of Isaiah 55? I’m so glad you asked! The chapter begins with an invitation to all who are thirsty, hungry and poor to come to the waters and buy food and drink for free (v.1). Uh… come again? Maybe Isaiah shops at a different grocery store than I do but who sells nourishment for free? Could it be that Isaiah was speaking poetically rather than literally and that maybe there is a different kind of nourishment to enjoy which truly costs nothing?

That seems to be the case as we read on and are further exhorted to “Listen diligently,” to “incline our ears,” to “hear,” and to “delight ourselves” in what we hear that our souls may live (v.2-3). So now that Isaiah has our attention what is it that he wants us to hear and delight in? He wants us to hear about an everlasting covenant that was made, “God’s steadfast, sure love for David (v.3).”

To understand the covenant that the Lord made with David we need to refer to 2 Samuel 7. David was in his final years and he wanted to build a house (a temple) for God because God had blessed him so much and he wanted to return the favor. But God said to David, “Nah, I don’t need a house (a temple), my tent is just fine. How about I build you a house instead? Here’s what I propose: after you are gone and buried with your fathers I will raise up one of your descendants after you and I will establish his kingdom. He’ll build me a house (a temple) and I’ll establish his throne forever. I’ll be his father and he’ll be my son. My steadfast love will not depart from him and your house, your kingdom, and your throne will be established forever. Is it a deal?” David said, “Deal!” And I assume they shook hands on it and drank a toast to the kingdom.

What 2 Samuel 7 and Isaiah 55 have in common is that the focal point in both passages is the Messiah. The everlasting covenant made with David is in regard to the Messiah whom Christians now know as Jesus. Like Solomon, Jesus was and is a witness to the peoples and a leader for the nations. He calls to nations beyond Israel’s borders and they run to him because God has exalted him and has made him known (v.4-5).

Therefore, according to Isaiah, all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike, were encouraged to, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon (v.6-7).” When Isaiah wrote these words Israel was in decline. Idolatry was on the rise. There were continual threats of invasion. Immorality, injustice, civil and spiritual unrest were the issues of the day, not unlike the days in which we live. And that, my friends, is the context of verse 8.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.”

Isaiah goes on to explain, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (v.9).” Now obviously God’s thoughts are infinitely greater than ours. That should almost go without saying. So whatever Isaiah 5:8 means I think it probes not into the infinite expanse of the heavens nearly as much as the finite space of human nature.

Notice the comparison that Isaiah makes between God’s thoughts and man’s. Man’s thoughts are unrighteous whereas God’s are not. Man’s ways are idolatrous, immoral, unjust, and there is much hostility as nations war against nations and neighbors fight with each other. It’s as though God is saying, “I AM NOT LIKE YOU! I don’t think like you or act like you. I think and act as one from another realm, from the heavenly realm, a realm where love rules and sin is pardoned for those who answer the call, those who accept the invitation to come to the waters and drink.

For the skeptics and unbelievers Isaiah ends this chapter with a promise: Just as rain and snow fall from heaven, water the earth, and produce food that is filling and satisfying, so will the word of God transform a person from the inside out. Instead of going out to war you will go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains will sing, the trees will clap; thorns and briers will cease, which is symbolic of the curse of Adam in Genesis 3:17-18 being reversed (v.10-13).

So yes, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and our ways are not his ways but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have his thoughts nor practice his ways. All it takes is for us to let go of our wicked ways and our unrighteous thoughts and embrace his love, experience his pardon and be transformed by his word. Then we will know peace and joy beyond anything we can imagine.

The King’s Agenda

In the gospel of John, chapter 10, Jesus shared with his audience a word picture, a figure of speech, a metaphor, a word of wisdom, a revelation, a kingdom principle. Call it what you may but bottom line… it’s an illustration. The illustration begins with a statement that goes something like this: “There’s a door to the sheep pen, which shepherds use, but thieves and robbers climb over or through the fence to gain unauthorized access (vs 1-5).” What we can surmise from this is that thieves and robbers don’t play by the rules. Thieves and robbers have their own agenda, which happens to be illegal.

 

Furthermore, as the illustration goes: “The doorkeeper who guards the sheep allows the shepherd access and when the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and the shepherd calling their names they follow him out of the pen because they know and trust the shepherd to safely lead them. On the contrary, the sheep will not follow a stranger, but will instead flee from him, because they do not know the stranger’s voice and have no established relationship of trust with him (vs 6-10).”

 

After Jesus finished with this figure of speech he left his audience scratching their heads wondering what he meant. They didn’t get it. I wonder, had you and I been there and heard this teaching would we have also been scratching our heads? Probably.

 

Fortunately for them, and for us as well, Jesus gave further explanation where he listed specific points in which to evaluate the meaning of the illustration:

 

  1. Jesus identified himself as the door of the sheep.
  2. All who came before Jesus are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.
  3. Those who enter through Jesus are saved and are free to go in and out and find pasture.
  4. The thief’s agenda is to steal, kill, and destroy.
  5. Jesus’ agenda is for the “life” of the sheep; meaning abundant life, uncommon life, extraordinary life.

 

Jesus went on to explain that not only is he the door of the sheep but he is the shepherd also. He’s the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep; thieves don’t do that, hired hands don’t do that, only the owner of the sheep does that (vs 11-18).

 

So what can we take away from this lesson that Jesus gave of the sheep pen? As you ponder its meaning what do you see? Try ridding yourself of preconceived notions and theological assumptions and let the text speak for itself. Here’s what I see.

 

First I see a sheep pen with Jesus as the door, the access point, into the fold.

 

Secondly, I see thieves and robbers as a threat to the sheep. They sneak into the fold illegitimately with impure motives and with an evil agenda bent on the destruction of the sheep – perhaps to sell them for profit or to keep them for their own personal use, but either way it is not the sheep they care for but themselves. Who these thieves and robbers are is not at all clear, except that they are thieves and robbers. What is clear about them is they are up to no good.

 

Finally, in contrast to the thieves and robbers, I see Jesus as the Savior of the sheep. He’s the door through which the sheep enter into the fold but he’s also the means of their salvation. Through Jesus the sheep have freedom and they have life. They have freedom to come and go as they please and find pasture to graze in without fear of robbers and wolves. Jesus’ only agenda toward the sheep is “Life,” and not merely physical life but abundant, extraordinary life – life in a spiritual sense and one that enjoys all the blessings and benefits that the kingdom of God has to offer.

 

So what does Jesus teach us by way of this first century metaphor? I think the message is simple yet profound. There seems to be two agendas in this world: one bent on our destruction, the other on our benefit. The key to our safety, security, and salvation is Jesus. He alone is the good shepherd. He cares for our well-being. He cares for our freedom; freedom from people or things that would result in our harm. He cares that we experience abundant life through an extraordinary relationship, where he knows us and we know him even as the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows the Father.

 

When Jesus ended his thoughts on this subject of sheep, shepherds and robbers, a division occurred among his audience. Some said he was insane and demon-possessed, but others marveled at his power to save and deliver and believed in him (vs 19-21). The question we are left with in this passage is not where do we go when we die, heaven or hell, but which camp do we identify with? Is Jesus a caring and loving Savior who gives his life for his sheep or is he just a madman not worth listening to? Peace to you as you decide.

Jesus, Advocate or Intercessor?

Did you know that there are numerous titles for Jesus in the Bible? Among them are Lord, Savior, Redeemer, Good Shepherd, and Messiah to name a few. These titles are descriptive of various aspects of our Lord’s nature and character, which helps us to know who Jesus is and what he is like. There is a particular title describing a role that Jesus plays and that is the role of Advocate, which is found in 1 John 2:1-2. The New American Standard Bible 1995 (NASB95) has translated these verses in the following way:

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”

What does it mean that Jesus the righteous (another description) advocates for us? And what is an advocate anyway?

According to our English dictionary an advocate is a person who pleads another’s cause; specifically, a lawyer. That’s the first definition. The second meaning is a person who speaks or writes in support of something; such as, to advocate for lower taxes.[i] These are fine definitions… so does that mean that Jesus stands as our lawyer before the Father? Or does he favor lower taxes? If it means he’s our attorney then the question as to why we need one is in order. If you will notice, the word “Father” is a familial term. It seems odd to me that in family matters we would need a lawyer to plead our cause before Dad as though Dad was our judge and not our Dad at all. Is it possible that there could be another explanation, possibly even a better word than Advocate, to describe this role of Jesus in our lives? I would like to suggest that not only is it possible but probable.

Perhaps it would help to define the Greek word from which Advocate is translated from. That word is “Parakletos” from which we get the English word “Paraclete”. According to the lexicon (Greek dictionary) this word means “Helper”; literally, one who is called or sent for to assist.

In a legal sense, a parakletos came as an act of friendship to give character witness in a court of law. It was considered more effective when others affirmed the character of the accused than for the accused to defend his or her own honor. In a non-legal sense, a parakletos came to offer encouragement, such as a pep talk before a battle or contest.[ii] Think of boxer whose manager stands in the boxer’s corner to offer assistance, encouragement and advice. In my opinion, it is this second sense that applies to the situation in 1 John 2:1-2.

To be clear, what I am saying is this: Don’t think Advocate as in court of law. Jesus is not a defense attorney protecting us from an overbearing despot who can’t wait to punish us for each and every infraction that we might commit. As verse two explains, Jesus has already taken care of the legal ramifications of sin by providing himself as the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for those of the whole world as well. That’s what the cross was all about. Rather, think Intercessor. Think of Jesus as your manager who is in your corner. He sees your struggles, knows your strengths and weaknesses and is always available to offer comfort, encouragement, advice, and help in becoming all that you can be – the best you possible.

It might also interest you to know that this same word “Advocate” used of Jesus in this passage is also used of the Holy Spirit in several others where the apostle John is the author, such as John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7, but it is only translated as advocate in 1 John 2:1. Go ahead, raise an eyebrow. I did.

Finally my friends, take a look at these verses in The Passion Translation (TPT):

You are my dear children, and I write these things to you so that you won’t sin. But if anyone does sin, we continually have a forgiving Redeemer who is face-to-face with the Father: Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

That’s what I’m talking about. And that is what Jesus is all about, i.e. forgiving and redeeming! Amen!

[i][i] Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition (Cleveland, OH: William Collins & World Publishing Co., Inc. 1976), pg. 1029

[ii] The Complete Biblical Library, Volume 15: Greek-English Dictionary, Pi-Rho (Springfield, MI: The Complete Biblical Library, 1991), pg. 63

Isaiah’s Prophetic Vision of the Kingdom

In the book of Isaiah the prophet (chapter 45) there is a prophetic word of the Lord to the nations of the earth. It begins in verse 20 with a call, an invitation, to the fugitives of the nations to gather and come – to draw near – and yet something hinders them from responding. The problem it seems is “they have no knowledge, who carry about their wooden idol and pray to a god who cannot save.” An idol, as it turns out, is a belief in a god who cannot save but the worshiper doesn’t know that his idol is impotent. He has no knowledge that his idol is powerless any more than he has knowledge of the true God who has power to save.

 

Thankfully that’s not the end of the story for the idol worshiper. His ignorance is confronted with the declaration in verses 21-22, “there is no other God besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none except me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” Isn’t this what the prophets had declared all along? But who would listen? Who would understand? Who would believe the truth? Who would turn from their idols to God? Hasn’t this been the human condition since the beginning?

 

We have still not arrived at the end of the story. Despite man’s ignorance of the true God; despite his unresponsiveness to God’s call to salvation, God has made a promise in verse 23 to the nations, “that to me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.” In addition to their unconditional surrender it is stated in verse 24, “They will say of me, ‘Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength.’ Men will come to him, and all who were angry at him will be put to shame.”

 

Now we are at the end. God’s promise, his decree, is that every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance to him. Even those who were (past tense) angry with him – the rebels, the defiant, and the idolaters are ashamed of the things they once believed. They are no longer rebellious and defiant idolaters but are now those who speak well of God saying, “Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength.” Their idols proved to be false and powerless and unable to save but with Yahweh the opposite is true, so they discover. With Yahweh there is salvation; he alone has made it happen.

 

In the New Testament the apostle Paul recognized this passage in Isaiah as being fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In Romans 14:9-11 Paul speaks of Christ as being Lord of both the dead and the living. And because he is Lord all will stand before the judgment seat of God and give an account of himself/herself to God. The end result of that conversation with God will be individual surrender (the bowing of the knee) and worship (the giving of praise to God). See also a similar teaching in Philippians 2:1-11 (esp. vs 9-11) where, “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on the earth and under [yes! Under!] the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

 

Isaiah’s vision of the future regards the nations of the world turning to God for salvation by bowing their knees and swearing their allegiance. To this end Isaiah wrote and taught and proclaimed and lived.

 

The apostle Paul envisioned a world where all would come before the judgment seat of God and ultimately bow the knee and give praise to God by confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. To this end Paul went to the nations proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of Christ. To this future he gave his life.

 

The question I pose to you the reader today is what is your vision of the future? Is it hopeful? Does it make God bigger or smaller? Does it magnify the glory of God or render him powerless and unimposing, like an idol? And secondly, how does your vision of the future inspire the way you live?

Setting things right

I came across a word in my Bible reading today that intrigued me greatly. It is found in Hebrews 9:10. In fact, it is the only place this particular word is found in all of the New Testament. It is just one word in the Greek New Testament, “diorthosis,” but it takes a whole phrase to translate to English. Some English translations use the word “reformation” as an equivalent and others “a new order”; however, the word literally means “setting things right”.

In the context of Hebrews 9 the author contrasts the ministry of the high priest in the tabernacle under the Old Covenant of Law with the ministry of Christ in the heavenly tabernacle. Under the Old Covenant the high priest entered the inner chamber, the holy place, once a year, with blood that he offered for himself and for the sins of the people. And even though this offering of blood atoned for the sins of the people until the next year rolled around it could not perfect the conscience of the worshiper and therefore had to be repeated year after year. Verse 10 explains that the Old Covenant tabernacle and its imposed ceremonies and rituals were only a temporary fix until, as translated in the Bible in Basic English, “the time comes when things will be put right.” 

And that’s what Jesus, our New Covenant high priest, does – he puts things right. For he entered once for ALL into the greater and more perfect holy place, not the earthly model but the one in the heavenly realm, not with the blood of bulls and goats but with his own blood, and by himself secured for us eternal redemption. Christ’s sacrifice is a better sacrifice in that it purifies our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.

The cross of Jesus sets things right. He established a New Covenant where things will get restored to their natural, normal condition; such as, crooked things get straightened, broken things get fixed, problems get resolved, minds get renewed, hearts get mended, disorders are re-ordered, and guilty consciences get permanently cleansed. That’s the good news of the kingdom for today.

An Unoffendable Spirit

I had this thought the other day as I was reading 1 Corinthians 13… What would the world be like if people and nations were unoffendable? What would our communities, neighborhoods, and families look like if we were not so easily provoked to anger?

 

I can imagine that there would be a significant decrease in the amount of war, distress, depression, disappointment, dysfunction, dislocation, and discombobulation in the world today if it were actually difficult to be offended. I can further imagine that in place of these things there would be a significant increase in the amount of love, peace, harmony, and unity in the societies of the world.

 

You might be tempted to believe that this kind of pie-in-the-sky, wishful thinking for utopia is beyond our reach, but is it really?

 

In describing the word “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul gives us hope that such a world is possible if we would love each other the way God loves each of us. In describing what love is, Paul is really describing what God is like since the scriptures teach that God is love (1John 4:8, 16).

 

So what is God’s love like? It is first and foremost both patient and kind (v.4), which are also both a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). God’s love is further described by what it’s not – it’s not envious, boastful, proud, rude, self-seeking, easily provoked to anger, and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love takes no delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. Love never fails.

 

God is relentless in his love for mankind. He pursues humanity and individuals with an intensity that boggles the mind. And though our sinful behavior may present roadblocks to the outworking of his love in our lives it does not detour him from loving us.

 

Consider a child who doesn’t want to eat the food you’ve put in front of him for his own good but defiantly throws it on the floor. How would you respond to such a child? In your anger you might be tempted to lose patience and self-control and align yourself against the child in full battle array, armed with riot gear, tear gas, and a fully charged stun gun. But if you were unoffendable like God my guess is that you would exhibit extravagant patience and kindness while lovingly trying to correct the behavior of the child without destroying his or her spirit.

 

What would the world be like today if, like God, it was extremely difficult to provoke us to anger? It may not warrant utopia status but it would definitely be a more peaceful place to live.