Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Asking the Wrong Question

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37

"Like a good neighbor State Farm is there." Chances are (if you watch as much TV as I do) that you are not only familiar with this company's slogan but that you know the tune that it is sung to. State Farm has built their business on the idea that good neighbors help each other out when they are in need. They want to be viewed as one of those good neighbors. This of course stands in stark contrast to how insurance companies are normally viewed, as money hungry institutions that pay out the minimum that is required by your coverage. Generally speaking the question an insurance company asks itself when you call to file a claim is not "What would a good neighbor do?" but "What is the least I can do?"

That is the very same question we find a lawyer asking Christ in the above passage of Scripture. He has come to test Jesus regarding the law, but in wisdom Christ turns the question back on the lawyer who answers it correctly. The conversation would have ended there, with Jesus encouraging the lawyer to actually put his words into action, but the lawyer wanted to show himself to have already met the requirement so he asks Jesus a question. "And who is my neighbor?"

The more I think about this question the more I think that this lawyer thinks of his relationship with God in much the same way that we sometimes do. He thinks it is about rules and standards. He wants to know exactly what is required of him, and he wants to prove that he has already met that requirement. Jesus crafts His response to reveal to the lawyer and to us that the life He is calling us to is not about meeting the minimum but is about being so changed from within that good works overflow out of our lives. The lawyer is asking the wrong question! The question is not "What is the least I can do?" the question is "What does it mean for me to love?"

Now there is much more to say about this parable, but since this is a devotional, let me cut to the chase. The great surprise of this parable is that Christ chooses a Samaritan to hold out as the great example of love. Jews hated the Samaritans for a whole host of national, ethic, and religious reasons. A Jew in the first century would have taken it for granted that a Samaritan was far from God and certainly farther away from God than an expert in the religious law. But Christ does a surprising thing. He does not merely say that the lawyer should love the Samaritan; He casts the Samaritan as the hero of the story and tells the lawyer that he should love like the Samaritan. The lawyer is so sick he can't even bring himself to use the word Samaritan at the end of the parable. He refers to him as, "The one who had mercy."

It can be surprising and even painful when the true condition of our heart is revealed. Living the Christian life is not about conforming your outward behavior to some minimum requirement. It is about living a life that is totally at odds with this world. And the only way to do that is to be so transformed from within that these good works flow naturally out of your new heart. Ask the Lord to examine your heart today and surrender any nook or cranny where sin is found. Submit yourself to the Lord and ask the right question "What does it mean for me to love like Christ?" Ask the Lord to give you a new heart.

For further reading...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hidden Treasure

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field."
Matthew 13:44

Banks are a great invention. They allow people to save money without fear. Can you imagine what you would do if there weren't any banks...if you had to keep all the money you owned at your house somewhere? Where would you put it? You might try to stuff it into a hole in your mattress. Or you might try to put it into an empty cookie jar. But eventually you would begin to fear that someone might try to take your money and or even kill you for it. Chances are that eventually you would do exactly what many people did when Jesus lived. They didn't have banks (just moneylenders) so many people buried their life savings somewhere on their property for safe keeping. It was a good solution, but every now and then someone would die suddenly without getting the chance to tell their family where the money was hidden or they would become senile and simply forget where they hid it. In a situation like this money could remain buried on someone's property for a long time.

In the above passage of Scripture Jesus tells a story of a man who finds money like this. It was buried in a field probably for the reasons stated above. This man was probably a servant working in the field. Perhaps he was tilling it to be planted or digging a well. Either way, somehow he found this money that had been hidden and then forgotten. Now this man is very shrewd because he didn't immediately lift the money out of the ground. Scripture says he hid the money again. Why did he do that? Well, first century law stated that once treasure like this was lifted from the earth it belonged to the landowner. The fact that this man was careful not to simply dig all the treasure up tells us that he was not the landowner. Instead he re-hides the treasure, goes home and sells everything he owns and purchases the field. The implication being of course that after he owned the field, he promptly went and dug up the treasure. Okay this is all well and good but what is Jesus trying to tell us?

This parable teaches us at least two things about God's kingdom. The first is fairly obvious. Admittance to the kingdom will cost you everything. Sometimes preachers talk about how salvation is free, and that is true. Christ paid the price for our sin. You and I cannot do anything to earn salvation, but this can be misleading. Just because you get a free puppy doesn't mean she won't cost you any money. Chances are that after you pay for shots and food and veterinary care you won't think that puppy was very free. The same goes for salvation. It is free but it is also very costly. In fact, salvation will cost you everything. Let me explain. Romans 10:9 says, "If you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." To confess Jesus as Lord means to confess him as Lord of your life. It means much more than merely saying "Jesus please forgive me." It means that you surrender your life to Christ fully. He becomes your Lord, your King. Your allegiance changes. At salvation you choose to no longer live your life for yourself or for the world, but to live your life for Christ.

The second thing this parable teaches is not explicitly stated but it is implied in such a way that I think it is undeniable. The man sells all that he has to buy the field because the treasure that he has found is worth far more than all he currently has. Applied to the kingdom of heaven, this tells us that although admittance to the kingdom will costs us everything, what we receive in return far outweighs what we give up. Yes, salvation will cost you everything, but what you receive in salvation is worth far, far more anyway. This has certainly proved true in my own life.

So let me ask you a question: Have you accepted Christ as Lord of your life? Maybe you asked Him to save you from Hell, but have you ever actually surrendered your life to Him? I believe that doing so is necessary to salvation. Matthew 7:21-23 says, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" What a tragedy. I believe this passage speaks directly to those who pay lip service to being a Christian but who haven't actually surrendered their life to Christ. Is that you? If so, confess Jesus as Lord of your life today.

For further reading...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Who Gets the Credit?

After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying,

   “Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
   Creator of heaven and earth.
   And blessed be God Most High,
   who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.” But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”
Genesis 14:17-24

When Abram finds out that Lot has been taken as a captive of war, he musters his servants and sets out after the four kings who have his nephew. After Abram defeats these kings and rescues the captives and plunder, he is confronted with two opposing views of his victory presented to him in the persons of the mysterious priest king named Melchizedek and the recently defeated king of Sodom. Abram's interactions with these two kings give us insight into the pitfalls and appropriate responses to God's blessing in our lives.  

Melchizedek gives Almighty God blessing and praise for Abram's success while the king of Sodom attempts to credit Abram's own power for the victory by offering the spoils to Abram. These represent Abram's options in the face of his success. Should he give the credit to God or keep it for himself? You and I face the same two options anytime we are blessed in this world. This world will try to rob God of the credit and honor of the blessings He has given you. It will do this to both steal God's glory from Him and to try to convince you to seek out future blessing through the ways of the world instead of through obedience to God. But Scripture says that "every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights" (James 1:17).

Abram makes the right choice. He affirms Melchizedek and rebuffs the king of Sodom. Abram gives a tenth of everything to Melchizedek and in so doing sets the precedent for the practice of tithing. But understand that this wasn't a gift to the priest. It was a gift to God. Melchizedek is simply a mediator. Abram also rejects the generosity of the king of Sodom. He doesn't do so out of rudeness but out of shrewdness. Abram is vigilant in guarding against taking anything from this worldly king lest the king later claim that he is the reason Abram has prospered. Abram is relentless in guarding himself from becoming an opportunity for the world to boast against God.

This world wants to take credit for what only God has done in your life, but the way of the Lord cuts against that. When you tithe, you are affirming that you believe your blessing and abundance are from the Lord. And when you refuse to submit to the world's ways of accumulating wealth, you effectively cut them off from taking credit for what only God has done in your life. So stand firm and avoid the trap of your enemy. Be vigilant in giving the Lord the glory for every good thing in your life for He surely deserves it.

For further reading...
  • Psalm 110:4 & Hebrews 5-10 (especially chapters 5 and 7)- Check out how this priest named Melchizedek foreshadows Christ.
  • Malachi 3:6-12- Don't rob God. Test His generosity
  • Isaiah 42:8- God will not give His praise to others. Just something to think about.
  • Luke 11:42- Some people say that New Testament Christians are not under an obligation to tithe any longer. Does this passage prove that we are?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fear the Lord?

You who are His holy ones, fear Yahweh, for those who fear Him lack nothing.
Psalm 34:6

The idea that we should fear the Lord has fallen on hard times lately. No one seems to like it any more. Many think that we should ignore those parts of the Bible or at least find a new way to understand them so that they make more sense in the postmodern world. I disagree. God's Word is without error and is precious. If we don't agree with part of it, it is either because we don't understand it or because we are wrong and in need of heart-change. In the case of fearing the Lord, I think it is both.

First, my understanding of the Biblical passages that call us to fear the Lord is that it is not calling us to be terrified of Him (though there certainly are some points in Scripture where people are faced with a clear picture of God's power and are rightly terrified. c.f. Exodus 20 [esp. verses 18-19], Isaiah 6, Revelation 1:17-18). I believe the fear the Bible is referring to when it says that we should fear the Lord is the type of fear a person would have before a great king. There is little in the modern American experience that helps us understand this, but perhaps the closest thing is the fear of a child for his father. As a small child, you love your father and you know he loves you, but you are also aware of the fact that he is much greater than you and will discipline you harshly if you are disobedient.

Second, I think the simple truth is that we just don’t like the idea of fearing God. We prefer to focus on the parts of the Bible that talk about how we have been brought close to God through Jesus. We like to talk about how we are friends of God and no longer servants (John 15:15). But the fact of the matter is that we have been called to fear Him and that through our fear of Him our every need is provided. Let me explain why.

Those who fear God obey Him. They submit their lives to His will as they would a king. By doing so they become a part of His kingdom and come under His protection. He is a great king and provides bountifully for all in His kingdom. But He cannot and will not tolerate persons who want to be in His kingdom but who refuse to bow the knee to Him. He cannot have little would-be-kings running around threatening His authority yet demanding that He provide for their needs. It would be an assault to the greatness of His majesty.

So let me ask you, is Jesus the Lord of your life? (c.f. Romans 10:9) To put it another way, is He king of your life or are you just a little would-be-king who refuses to obey His commands? Psalm 111 says, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom." How wise are you? Stop and consider how awesome a God you serve and tremble with a holy fear in His presence. Then let Him draw you close by the love of His Son.

For further reading...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Fork in the Road...

Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.

So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.
Genesis 13:5-12

My wife and I both like the musician Ben Folds. He is a truly talented man, and my wife derives no small amount of joy from the fact that she occasionally sees him driving around town. One of his songs that we both enjoy is The Luckiest. It starts out, "I don't get many things right the first time. In fact, I am told that a lot." In some ways I think this applies to Abram.

Abram learned a hard lesson in Genesis 12. He should have trusted God to keep His promises; instead he gave in to fear. As a result, Pharaoh unknowingly took Abram's wife as his own. No doubt this damaged Abram's relationship with his wife Sarai but it also damaged his relationship with the Lord. Now, in Genesis 13, he finds himself at another crossroads. The Lord is keeping his promise to Abram and is blessing him so abundantly that he and his nephew Lot must part ways. Here is a fork in the road. How will Abram handle it? This time he shows faith. This time he gets it right.

Abram has learned to trust God. The Lord has promised to bless Abram and make him into a great nation, and Abram trusts Him to do this regardless of where his flocks feed. He allows Lot to choose the part of the land he wants. Abram is content with the leftovers because he believes that God is going to bless him no matter what. This highlights one of Abram's best qualities in my opinion. He was teachable. Abram didn't always get things right the first time. In fact, sometimes he made the same mistake twice (see Genesis 12 and 20), but he was humble before his God. He listened to the Lord and learned his lessons well. He wasn't perfect right away. He was far from it. But because he was teachable the Lord continued to use him and grow him. Abram was far from a giant of the faith in chapters 12 and 13 of Genesis. But he walked with the Lord day in and day out and he humbled himself under the Lord's correction for year after year. Over time he became more and more conformed into the image of his God.

What about you? Are you teachable? When the Lord corrects you, do you learn your lesson well or do you stiffen your neck? Proverbs 3:12 tells us that "The LORD disciplines those He loves, as a father the son He delights in." God disciplines you with an eye to correction. He is not merely punishing you; He is training you into the man or woman He would have you be. He has predestined you to be conformed into the image of his Son and He is working that out in your life little-by-little (Romans 8:29). So learn your lessons well. Submist yourself wholly to the guiding hand of God. He doesn't expect immediate perfection, a teachable heart will do.

For further reading...