John 19

Read John 19.

Pontius Pilate was a Roman. He was assigned a powerful position in the Roman Empire over the area of Judea so he had to keep tabs on potential threats and problems in his region. But there was really no reason for him to fear anyone in Israel. With Roman soldiers at his disposal, any uprising by the Jewish people could be easily squelched. Any political would-be leaders could be dispensed with easily.

It is surprising, then, to read in verse 8 that “Pilate… was even more afraid” when he heard that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. I would expect a man as Roman and as powerful as he was to laugh at such a claim.

Pilate, however, did not laugh.

He seems to have taken the charge very seriously. In verse 9b he asked Jesus where he was from and in verse 10 he scolded Jesus for not answering him. When Jesus finally did answer Pilate, stating that all the power he had was allowed him by God (v. 11), Pilate did not react as one who was insulted. Instead, “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free” (v. 12). It took some political bullying by the Jewish leaders (v. 12bff) to get Pilate to send Jesus off for crucifixion (vv. 13ff).

What caused Pilate to be so fearful of Jesus? Remember that anything Jesus said was God’s word by definition. Since it was God’s word, it had the power of God behind it. That power, plus the witness of the Spirit, gave Jesus’ words self-authenticating power. Pilate knew that he was hearing the word of God and, on some level, knew that Jesus was the Son of God.

Do you understand the self-authenticating power of God’s word? Unbelievers like Pilate may resist God’s word and evade accountability to it. But, because it is God’s word, they feel the conviction of sin within when they heard God’s word. They know through the convicting work of the Spirit that Jesus is truly God.

John 9

Read John 9.

Peer pressure–the desire for social acceptance–is a powerful driver of human behavior. Sometimes that is a good thing. When something that is evil is also unacceptable socially, the fear of being exposed and shunned will help people to resist temptation and make good moral choices. But peer pressure is often a bad influence in people’s lives. It suffocates righteousness by embarrassing someone for doing the right thing.

This is what we saw in John 9. Jesus healed a man born blind (vv. 1-17). Because the Pharisees had their own moral and political reasons for rejecting Jesus, they pressured the man and his parents not to glorify God for this miraculous work but to be quiet about what Jesus did.

His parents submitted in fear (vv. 20-23) but the man himself did not. Ironically, the Pharisees told him, “Give glory to God by telling the truth.” But then they told him the “truth” they wanted to hear: “We know this man is a sinner.”

That is what pressure groups do. They create their own version of “truth,” spinning out lies that empower them and using the natural human desire to fit in against everyone.

We see this happening in our society as well; more and more, powerful pressure groups seek to silence our witness for Christ and get us to back down from what we know is right. They will be successful with many people, too, because it is hard to resist the flow of social pressure.

But those who trust the Lord instead of conforming to the expected in this world have Jesus with them (vv. 35-38). There is a cost to following him, but the freedom and benefits of knowing him are far more valuable.

1 Peter 5

Read 1 Peter 5.

As Peter closed his first letter to the persecuted believers scattered through modern day Turkey, he urged the elders over these churches to lead God’s people well (vv. 1-4). In verses 5-7, he turned to “you who are younger” and commanded them to “submit yourselves to your elders.” My interpretation of this passage is that the “younger” refers to people in these churches who were not elders; that is, they were not God’s ordained leaders for the church. Just as Christ referred to his disciples as “my children,” so Peter plays off the literal meaning of the office “elder” to speak to those who were not elders in the church.

The command to people not leading the church, then, was “submit yourselves to your elders.” Submission, in this context, means to fall into line behind the leaders. It is about surrendering control of decision making to someone else. This does not mean taking orders from the elders of the church about every detail in your life. As elders, we have no business telling you to marry this person, have four children–and we’ll name them for you, take that job, not this one, etc.

Instead, the meaning of “submit yourselves to your elders” is to let the elders of the church lead the church. If the elders decide to start a ministry, support the ministry in whatever way you can. If the elders choose to shut down a ministry–especially one you love–then understand that it is their decision to make before the Lord, not yours.

It also means listening to the wisdom of your elders in the moral aspects of your life. We, as elders, would never tell someone whom to marry. But we have told professing believers in our church not to marry–or to date–unbelievers. We have also told people in our church that we have concerns about someone they intend to marry. Our goal is not to control their lives but to help them apply Biblical truths.

Sometimes people listen to us and do what we tell them is right. Those people have obeyed the command in this passage to “submit yourselves to your elders.” Others have pushed back–hard, at times–against what we have told them. Inevitably, their pushback does not come from a place where they interpret the scriptures differently than us. The resistance we get as elders usually is about avoiding the application of scripture, not its interpretation. People are really good at justifying what they want to do. When we try to help them make godly and wise decisions, they will often give reasons why the biblical principle, which they admit is true, does not apply to them. People often think they are the exception to God’s word. Sometimes God is gracious to them anyway, but more often than not things turn out exactly as we warned them they would.

If you have godly elders, like the ones described here in verses 1-4, you can trust them. Submission is about trust. It is not about agreement; it takes no effort to “submit” to someone that you agree with. You’ve both made the same decision, so there’s no submission involved.

Submission only happens when you disagree: You want something different from what your leaders think is wise and best. If you trust them, and trust the Lord’s command here in 1 Peter 5:5, you will do what your elders advise you to do, because (a) you know they want to glorify the Lord, (b) you believe that they want what is best for you which is the will of God, and (c) because the Lord commands you to submit.

This takes humility (vv. 5b-6) and it is never easy. But look at the Lord’s promises: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (vv. 6-7).

Could you benefit from godly counsel in your life right now? Are you making decisions within the will of God or are you hoping to be an exception? Godly leadership–in the family, in the church–will protect you from bad choices, from the self-deception that operates so powerfully within us all. Do yourself a favor–seek counsel from your elders and submit to what we tell you. We are not perfect or infallible, but we know the scriptures, want to see God glorified, desire the very best for you, and have seen a ton of stuff over the years. Is it wise to ignore all of that?

1 Timothy 2

Read 1 Timothy 2.

One of the common objections heard against our faith is that it is exclusive. If Jesus is the only way to God, then what about people who worship God through other religions? Will they miss salvation even though they have a desire to know God?

The answer is yes, according to verse 5 of our passage today: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.”

It is common to hear that every religion is worshipping the same God, just by a different name. The Bible, however, calls worship of any other god than the true God idolatry. The reason is that “there is one God.” Verse 5 went on to say that there is “one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” The only way to know the one true God, to worship him, and receive his forgiveness is through Jesus.

Why?

Because he “gave himself as a ransom.”

Only the death of Christ on our behalf made reconciliation with God possible. Any other religion, in addition to saying things about God that contradict the Christian description of God, lacks a solution to the problem of sin.

But notice the next phrase in verse 6: “…for all people.” This truth goes against the idea that our faith is unjustly exclusive.

Our faith is exclusive in the sense that there is only one way–Jesus. He is the exclusive way to God.

But our faith is not exclusive in the sense that it is restricted to only one type of person. The salvation Jesus purchased, and the good news about knowing God he brought us, is for every kind of person on earth–Jew or Gentile, slave or free, wealthy or poor, male or female, Japanese or Lebanese, or any other way that people can be categorized.

This is why Paul began this chapter by urging us to pray “for all people” (v. 1). We should pray for the gospel to go everywhere there are people. In verse 2, Paul specified that we should pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives….” This is a request for the authorities of the world to leave us alone so that the gospel can advance to all the world without interference or persecution.

When you pray today, remember to pray for the world. Specifically, pray that people all over the world will learn about the one true God and the one mediator, the man–our Lord–Christ Jesus. Pray that those who are taking the gospel everywhere will do so without being persecuted or interfered with so that all kinds of people will be “saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (v. 4).

Pray also for our government here in the U.S.–not that Team A or Team B will will win the next election but that whoever wins will leave us alone to spread the gospel message. That is the message of 1 Timothy 2:1-8.

Mark 14

Read Mark 14.

Dependability is a great personal characteristic. Most people, I think, want to be someone that others can trust to be there in any situation.

Peter did. He had a close friendship with Jesus and a fierce determination to stand with Jesus no matter what. Christ warned the disciples, “You will all fall away” in verse 27. He even quoted scripture (Zechariah 13:7) to prove his point. Peter spoke right up to say, “Not me. Not me, Lord. You can count on me, no matter what.” Or, to quote rather than paraphrase verse 29, “Peter declared, ‘Even if all fall away, I will not.’”

Jesus pushed back and said, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times” (v. 30). Instead of pleading with Jesus for his grace to prevent that from happening, Peter raised his promise to say, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (v. 31).

Of course, Jesus was right and in verses 66-72 Peter did exactly what Christ had prophesied. Instead of standing and dying with Christ, Peter did everything he could to distance himself from Jesus. The reason, of course, was fear that he would also be crucified with Christ–exactly the thing he told Jesus he was ready to do. But, when “it got real” as they say these days, Peter’s bravado didn’t hold up.

One reason why this passage was given to us is to show us the tender mercy of Jesus. Peter failed Jesus but Jesus loved him and restored him anyway. Perseverance in the faith is taught in scripture and is an important doctrine for believers to understand. But most, if not all of us, will fail to stand for Jesus in some way or other at some time in our lives. Either we will be ashamed of something in his word that the world ridicules or we will not identify with his people because of fear. If this has happened to you and you feel the shame that Peter felt in this passage, take heart! Jesus is loving and forgiving even when we don’t follow him perfectly.

How does this passage square with the doctrine of perseverance? Remember, perseverance is the truth that those who are truly regenerated and belong to Jesus will follow him from the time of their salvation until the end of their lives, continuing and growing in faith and good works.

How do Peter’s failures not contradict this doctrine?

The answer is that Peter did not renounce Christ in his heart; he allowed fear to keep him from honestly affirming what was true. Peter did not genuinely fall away from Jesus; he distanced himself from Jesus because he was afraid, even though he still believed in Jesus.

Perseverance does not make us immune to failure. It means that we will, by the grace of God, grow strong enough to overcome our failures and stand for Christ as we grow in maturity. That happened to Peter. In the very text where Jesus restored Peter (John 21), he also prophesied that he would die for Christ someday (John21:18-19). This prophecy of Christ was fulfilled, too. God was gracious to Peter and strengthened the man who failed until he became the dependable disciple he aspired to be in Gethsemane.

May God continue this growing, stabilizing work in our lives, too. Confess and forget your failures to stand for Christ and call on his grace to strengthen you in the future when you are put to the test for him.

Mark 12

Read Mark 12.

Last year, a man on the University of Michigan’s board of regents and his wife offered to give $3 million to help build a multicultural center on campus. The university accepted their offer (of course) and offered to name the building after them. Students, however, objected because the building was to be named after another man and it would have been the only building on campus named after a minority–in this case, an African-American. In response to the objections, the university changed their plans and decided to keep the original name. And, the couple who offered to donate the $3 million changed their minds and rescinded the offer. Strangely, however, they claimed publicly that getting their names on the building was not a condition of their offer. They also claimed that they usually give privately to philanthropy.

If these things are true, then why not leave the original $3 million pledge in place since it was not, they claim, pledged on the condition of having the building named after them?

Regardless of how they came to their decision, you and I both know that wealthy people like to get their names on stuff when they give a lot of money. So many buildings on U of M’s campus are named after wealthy people who donated money to the university. Some of the amounts given by these people is extraordinary. That’s why the university wants to honor them by putting their name on something.

Here in Mark 12, however, Jesus was not impressed by the people who paid a lot to the temple (vv. 41-42). Instead of being impressed with the “large amounts” (v. 41b), Jesus was impressed by the small amount given by the widow (vv. 42-44). Although her amount was small in cash value, her gift was incredibly generous because it was “everything–all she had to live on” (v. 44). Her generosity made the big impression on Jesus, not the absolute dollar amount.

Why?

Because it takes a lot of faith to give all the cash you have in the world to the Lord’s work. Others may have given huge amounts but their gifts were much smaller when compared to their overall income or wealth. It was a genuine sacrifice for this woman to give as much as she did; for everyone else, it didn’t hurt at all.

Have you ever given extravagantly like this woman did–not in the total dollar amount you gave but in the percentage of your income you gave? If not, learn the lesson from today’s passage. God doesn’t need your help or mine to care and provide for his work; instead, he invites us by faith to be part of it so that he can reward us for our faith in him. So trust him with your money and invest in God’s work.

Mark 11

Read Mark 11.

In verse 23, did Jesus really mean that you could order a mountain into the sea if you prayed with enough faith?

The short answer is yes, he really meant it.

But…

It is important to keep some things in mind here when we look at this text, or one like it.

First, Mark 11 is a strong kingdom text. It began with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a colt, fulfilling the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9b, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” See Matthew 21:5 also. This entire week–the passion week before Christ was crucified–was designed by God to show Israel that the true Messiah was here.

So Jesus did some very unusual things (even for him) to demonstrate his identity as Messiah. For instance, Jesus’ “triumphal entry” (vv. 1-11) was not the way he normally entered Jerusalem… or any other town for that matter. Also, the way he unilaterally cleared the temple (vv. 15-17) was unusual, too, though he probably did it once before.

The way Jesus cursed the fig tree was also unusual; not that he used his divine authority as Lord to do a miracle but that he cursed something rather than blessing it. Furthermore, the fig tree miracle had no other function than to demonstrate his Lordship to the disciples (vv. 12-14, 20-21). Jesus could have ordered the fig tree to immediately make figs and that would have happened. Instead, he cursed the tree for not making figs so that his disciples would see–again–that he had authority over everything, including nature.

That curse on the fig tree set up Jesus’ teaching on faith and prayer here in verses 22-25. Preparing the disciples for that teaching was the point of the curse but the entire of this chapter was to show us Jesus acting in a more overtly king-like, Messianic way. Jesus was about to be rejected and crucified–all according to God’s plan–but not before he gave everyone a look at what an authoritative king he would be. This text on faith was for the disciples to show them that his kingdom power would continue to work as they acted according to his will for the promotion of his kingdom. If moving a mountain was necessary for the promotion of his kingdom, the disciples would have been able to do it by faith in God’s power. But if they just wanted to re-arrange someone’s backyard by getting rid of that pesky mountain, well… there’s no good kingdom reason for that.

A second consideration for interpreting verse 23 is that Jesus often spoke using a literary device called “hyperbole.” Hyperbole means wildly overstating something for a powerful communication effect. We do this, too, when we say that we called someone “a million times” when we really just called twice. Jesus spoke in hyperbole often, such as when he told us to cut off a hand that causes us to sin. I’m not saying that Jesus was insincere about the power of “mountain moving faith” but I am saying he chose that image to show us how much power God would place at our disposal if we believed him and used it in service to him, not so that we could rearrange the world’s topography on a whim.

So, did Jesus really mean that you can order a mountain into the sea if you have enough faith? Yes, he meant it. But, the people who needed that power most were the original disciples, not us. If this miraculous power is for us, not only do you need faith without a doubt, you also need a good kingdom reason for it.

If a mountain stands between you and a mission God gives to you, I think you can use Jesus’ authority to move that mountain. But, let’s face it, a lot of our prayer requests aren’t kingdom or mission focused. They are for our comfort more than for God’s glory. God does not tire of hearing people ask him to help them through routine surgery, but I wonder if he is saddened that we never ask him for anything else.

If you want to live for God in this world, you will need God’s power for spiritual things such as:

  • forgiving someone who has sinned against you
  • overcoming an addiction
  • praying for an opportunity to witness to someone for Christ
  • asking God to help someone else who is stuck in sin
  • receiving grace to accept something you wish he would change (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

If we believed God in these areas and asked him to move those metaphoric mountains for us, can you believe that we would see him working more powerfully in our lives and in our church?

Acts 22

Read Acts 22.

On Friday we read about Paul’s return to Jerusalem, his attempt to mollify the Jewish people by submitting to a Jewish purification rite, and his arrest which had been foretold repeatedly by the Holy Spirit. At the end of Acts 21, Paul asked his arrestors for a chance to speak to the crowd that had rioted.

Today’s chapter, Acts 22, recorded that speech.

Given this opportunity to speak to such a large number of his fellow Jews, what did Paul say?

He gave his personal testimony.

He began with his background as a carefully observant Jew from the Pharisaic tradition (vv. 1-3). He moved to his persecution of Christians for their divergent beliefs (vv. 4-5). He described his conversion experience on the road to Damascus (vv. 6-13) and his commission to reach the Gentiles with the good news about Jesus (vv. 14-21).

People can reject arguments and counter them with other arguments but it is extremely difficult to argue with someone’s personal experience. The personal experience of another person is also very persuasive, one of the most persuasive forms of communication. Paul’s testimony here did not get him released, but it did give him an opportunity to witness for Christ.

A straight up sermon about Jesus would have been interrupted a lot sooner, probably, than Paul’s testimony was here so this was a wise way to use the opportunity.

Do you realize how powerful your personal testimony can be when you speak to others about Christ?

You don’t have to have a dramatic Damascus road-type conversion story. In fact, if you were saved as a child, your testimony might focus more on what being a Christian has meant to your life than about how much you changed from when you were an 8 year old contract killer or whatever.

Let Paul’s example here encourage you to think about your testimony and write it out even to help you be prepared to share Christ when the door to speak for Jesus opens.

Romans 1

Today we begin reading the book of Romans, so read Romans 1 today.

As we’ve read the book of Acts, we have stopped here and there to read Paul’s letters around the points chronologically where scholars think they were written. In other words, Acts 19 described Paul’s two year stay in Ephesus. After reading Acts 19, we stopped to read 1 & 2 Corinthians because there are good reasons to believe that Paul wrote 1 & 2 Corinthians during his time in Ephesus. In Acts 19:21, Paul described his desire to go to Jerusalem but to stop in the regions of Greece (Macedonia & Achaia) on his way. 2 Corinthians described his coming visit. Also in Acts 19:21, Paul described his desire to visit Rome. At the end of Romans (Rom 15:28-29), Paul described his coming trip to Jerusalem and his intention to visit Rome after he went to Jerusalem.

Here in Romans 1:10b-11a we read, “I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong….” So the book of Romans was a letter designed to prepare the believers in for Paul’s intended visit after he went to Jerusalem. That’s why we’re reading Romans now.

Paul had not yet been to Rome as an apostle, so the church that existed there was not one that he founded. In this letter to the Romans, Paul laid out his doctrine of the gospel so that the Roman church would understand their faith better and would receive him and support him as he intended to go further out to Spain (see Rom 15:23-24). He began by summarizing his doctrine of Christianity (vv. 1-4) and his commission to preach the gospel (v. 5). Then he described his prayers for the believers in Rome (vv. 8-10) and his desire to visit them (vv. 11-15).

Starting in verse 16, Paul transitioned to the gospel. He wrote first about the greatness of the gospel in verses 16-17, then about the universal human need for it (vv. 18-32). Humanity’s rejection of God (vv. 18-23) and the deep-rooted sinfulness that results from rejecting God (vv. 24-32) are the source of all human problems. Some human problems–like sickness and death–are not cured by the gospel in this life. Instead, the gospel holds a promise for deliverance from those in the life to come. But every other human problem, the things that take up the first page of every day’s newspaper, are caused by people rejecting God and cured by the gospel. Very often we try to make things more complicated than they really are. We think that typical human issues like materialism, homosexuality, murder, gossip, arrogance, disobedient children, and other problems are caused by insecurity, lack of love, poor parenting, fear, poverty, hopelessness, and other psychological issues. While all of those things may be factors in why people act as they do, they are not the cause. All these things and others are human responses to rejecting God. The cure is Christ–who died for our sins in order to save us from these problems and an eternity apart from God. Paul stated in verse 16 that he was not ashamed of the gospel because it was God’s power to save all who believe its message of deliverance. What the disobedient child (v. 30) needs is salvation in Jesus. The same is true for those eaten alive by envy (v. 29b), those who kill (v. 29b), those who exploit others for financial gain (aka, the greedy, v. 29a), homosexuals (vv. 26-27), and every other sinner. People need forgiveness, rescue, and reconciliation with God more than they need better coping strategies, more powerful drugs, or a happier childhood. That is what the gospel offers.

As you and I live in this world, we meet people who are stuck in these and other problems. We may offer sympathy to those who are suffering, advice to those who are confused, and even prayer but do we offer the gospel? That’s where the power of God to save resides. Don’t be ashamed of the simple message that Christ died for our sins; use it to rescue sinners for the glory of God.

1 Corinthians 7

Read 1 Corinthians 7.

This chapter from 1 Corinthians contains several instructions around the subject of marriage. Verse 1 began the chapter with the phrase, “Now for the matters you wrote about.” The Corinthian believers had many questions about what was right and wrong for Christians to do, so they wrote a letter to Paul spelling out their questions.

The first question was about sexual ethics: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” This is not a statement from Paul; rather, Paul is quoting back to them their first question or point of confusion: “Is celibacy Christian?”

Paul explored this question from a number of angles. First, there is nothing morally wrong with marriage and a person should marry (v. 2) and have regular sexual relations with his or her spouse (vv. 3-5). One reason for this is to protect against a church full of single people giving into their sexual desires (v. 2a), committing adultery (v. 5b) or burning with lust (v. 9).

Second, Paul commended the single life if a person can be single without giving into sexual temptation (vv. 8-9, 25-40).

Third, he commanded believers not to divorce (vv. 10-14) but also not to contest a divorce if an unbelieving spouse divorces you, the believer (vv. 15-16). This is the passage which gives an additional exception for divorce to the exception Jesus gave in Matthew 18.

The main principle in this passage is “remain as you are” (vv. 17-24). If you are a married person, give your spouse what you promised (vv. 3-5) and don’t divorce him or her–even if he or she is an unbeliever (vv. 12-14).

In fact, the passage teaches that faith in Christ has a sanctifying effect on the unbelieving spouse. That is a reason to stay in the marriage (v. 14). But if your non-Christian spouse leaves you, you do not have to contest the divorce and are free to remarry (vv. 15-16).

Although marriage is the dominant topic in this chapter, Paul suddenly references circumcision (vv. 18-19) and slavery (vv. 21-24). These have nothing to do with decisions about marriage, but they are other applications of the principle, “remain as you are” (v. 17, 20)

In other words, your faith in Christ applies to your life whether you are single or married, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free (vv. 21-24).

There are no second class Christians; whatever situation you are in is an opportunity for you to live for God today. Christians who are married to other Christians have advantages that others do not have, but God isn’t evaluating you based on your circumstances. He’s called you and empowered you to live a godly life in whatever circumstances you are in today.

What circumstance are you in today that you wish were different?

Do you find yourself thinking that you could be a more godly Christian if you had a different spouse–or no spouse at all?

Do you think it would be easier to be holy if you had a different job or that God would be more pleased with you if left your secular job to work in the ministry full-time?

This passage should cause you to reconsider. There is nothing wrong with changing your circumstances if you can do it without sinning (vv. 21b-23), but a change of circumstances is not what you need to live a godly life. You already have what you need to live a godly life–God’s divine power–no matter what circumstances you are in. So believe that by faith and live within your situation differently for the glory of God.