The coming of the Promise. Fulfillment of prophecy in a mystery of yes and not yet. A baby born of a virgin on a not-so-silent night who grew up and changed the world, even to the marking of the calendar days. BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini) divide human history, even though the terminology has change with the secularization of the West. The “common era” of CE still begins with the events of this liturgical season.
As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the Incarnation of God in human flesh, we take time to consider the magnitude of God’s greatest grace toward humanity: the virgin conceived (Isaiah 7:14), a child was born (Isaiah 9:6), and hope entered the world (John 3:16).
“We are rescued by grace poured out” (Jason Cook, 11/07/2021).
The text for the sermon was Ephesians chapter 2, and theme was “one new man.” Pastor Cook, with his usual wit and eloquence, compared the Church to a magnificent mosaic, made up of individual tiles. Alone, each tile may be beautiful or plain, but carefully combined by a master artist, the collection of tiles makes up a masterpiece. He proclaimed, “Salvation is possible by works—just not yours.” Only God’s grace with His mercy and love can redeem us to the Body of believers, a collection of mosaic tiles brought together to be a picture of Jesus to the world.
As followers of Jesus, we know intellectually that we cannot begin to approach the holiness of the Creator. Our egos, however, often forget. We begin to think about our legacy, our influence, and even our popularity as essential elements of how we live out our faith. Advent is an opportunity to consider with great awe and wonder the mystery of grace poured out. The Creator joined the creation through the very human process of birth. He who spoke the universes into being with a word subjected Himself to a physical (and messy) delivery of a squalling baby, born to a young, unmarried woman and her faithful betrothed without the benefits wealth might procure. From the great throne of the King of kings, He humbled Himself to the lowest and weakest of all humanity.
Love. Mercy. Grace.
Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to His mercy through grace He saves us (Titus 3:5-7).
The grace revealed to us came in the form of an infant, physically born. Fully human, yet still fully God, Jesus offers a grace we can never fully understand, but one in which we can rest, secure in knowing that God’s grace is perfect.
I heard a song for the first time the other day and was moved by the message and the music. I appreciated the nod to old familiar hymns woven through. Mostly, though, I was struck by the focus on the blood of Jesus as the master key of salvation. We don’t sing about the blood often in our contemporary services, but the old hymns regularly pointed to the centrality of blood to the gospel.
I’ve been in a study through Hebrews the last several weeks and listening to a plan on a Bible app about finding Jesus in the first five books of the Bible. My pastor in in a series taking a deep dive into Ephesians. I was primed to respond to this song. The gospel is clearly presented in these lyrics. The propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus as a ransom for our sins, both individually and corporately propels us to move from hopelessness to transformation and gratitude.
The mystery of grace, the very nature of God poured out on people who are utterly selfish, requires more than acknowledgement. Grace is not cheap. Grace is not easy. It cost our Savior everything. Without the sacrifice provided by grace, there is no hope for life; we are the walking dead.
Only by blood.
Under the Old Covenant the faithful had to bring regular sacrifices to the altar. The burnt offering was brought to the altar and completely burned up. The symbol there is that everything we have and everything we are belongs to the Father to do with as He desires. The purification offering was to atone for sins. The faithful brought the sacrifice (a male animal without any blemish), placed his hand on its head, and then killed it. The priests took the blood of the animal and splattered it on the altar and at the entrance of the tent of meeting (Leviticus 1). The offering was then burned completely; nothing remained. Sin is like that. If even one iota of sin remains in us, we stand condemned by a holy God.
Over and over again, the people brought and slaughtered animals to atone for their sins. Over and over the priests splashed the blood, still warm, over the altar. Year after year, and still the task of purification was incomplete.
Until Jesus. The author of Hebrews reflected on the required ritual sacrifices, noting that the old covenant was established in blood: life for life. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22). Jesus, as the perfect Lamb of God, fully human and yet without sin, entered the Holy of Holies, not by slaughtering and animal, but by submitting to his own murder on the cross. His blood for ours. He, Himself, by the shedding of His blood, became the atoning sacrifice for all who call on His Name. We can serve the Living God only because Jesus traded His life for ours. At that point, the work of atonement was complete. Jesus breathed, “It is finished,” and it was.
The New Covenant, then, relies, not on the blood of bulls and goats and lambs and birds, but on the blood of Jesus. “This is the blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” he said. And by that same blood, we are sanctified, not just for a year, but for eternity (Hebrews 10).
Only by grace.
In many of our modern churches we spend time considering how to live in this broken world. We study how to rely on Jesus, how to navigate a culture that rejects the values we hold dear, and how to live. These are all worthwhile topics, to be sure, but I think regular reflection on the foundation that brings us to all the “how-tos” matters. The “how-to” topics are concrete expression, things we do, checklists we can keep to make sure we are on the “right” path. But the “how-to” conversations often lead away from grace into legalism and pharisaical mindsets. Checklists are not necessarily wrong; they can be helpful. But checklists cannot replace the blood of Jesus. Checklists may become idols. In fact, for most of us, the idolatry of what we do prevents us from living free in the grace of His abundant and joyful life. Focusing on the checklist means we focus on ourselves.
“Jesus, keep me near the cross,” Fanny Crosby (1869) wrote. “Near the cross! O Lamb of God, Bring its scenes before me; Help me walk from day to day With its shadow o’er me. In the cross, in the cross Be my glory ever, Till my ransomed soul shall find Rest beyond the river.”
It is only by grace that we are redeemed. The blood of animals served only as a reminder that God’s holiness is unapproachable because, in our humanity, we are unworthy. The sacrifices of the old covenant were a picture, copies, shadows of the real redemption through Jesus’s blood. “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains” (Cowper, 1772). “Alas and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head For sinners such as I?” (Watts, 1707). “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus” (Lowry, 1876). Only God’s grace, flowing from mercy and love as a gift to us as individuals can redeem us to the Body of believers (Jason Cook, 2021). Saved by grace, through faith, God’s gift.
God’s gift, given through the Blood of the Perfect Lamb. We must remember the necessary sacrifice that secures our salvation and sustains our sanctification. We must bow in abject gratitude and then proclaim His name. The focal point of our lives, the center of everything, is Jesus. His work, His perfection, His grace poured out on us delivered us. Thank you, Jesus, for the blood.
I was a wretch I remember who I was I was lost, I was blind I was running out of time
Sin separated The breach was far too wide But from the far side of the chasm You held me in your sight
So You made a way Across the great divide Left behind Heaven’s throne To build it here inside
And there at the cross You paid the debt I owed Broke my chains, freed my soul For the first time I had hope
Thank you Jesus for the blood applied Thank you Jesus it has washed me white Thank you Jesus You have saved my life Brought me from the darkness into glorious light
You took my place Laid inside my tomb of sin You were buried for three days But then You walked right out again
And now death has no sting And life has no end For I have been transformed By the blood of the lamb
Thank You Jesus for the blood applied (thank You Jesus) Thank You Jesus it has washed me white Thank You Jesus You have saved my life Brought me from the darkness into glorious light
There is nothing stronger Than the wonder working power of the blood The blood That calls us sons and daughters We are ransomed by our Father Through the blood The blood
There is nothing stronger Of the wonder working power of the blood The blood That calls us sons and daughters We are ransomed by the Father Through the blood The blood
Thank You Jesus for the blood applied Thank You Jesus it have washed me white Thank You Jesus You have saved my life Brought me from the darkness into glorious light
Glory to His name Glory to His name There to my heart was the blood applied Glory to His name
Jesus had just pronounced woes on the religious leaders and lamented over Jerusalem. He began with the temple, in all its glory and beauty. The temple was the centerpiece of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish culture, and the symbol of the Jewish God.
TheTemple was built between 537 BCE and 516 BCE, when the Jews began their return from Babylonian captivity. It was made of limestone under the direction of Zerubbabel at the time and was later renovated and expanded under Herod the Great. The Temple the disciples admired was 150 feet high (12-15 stories), covered in white marble and gold with bronze entrance doors. The courtyard of the temple was large enough to hold 300,000-400,000 people during the pilgrimages, particularly of Passover. Colorful tiles from the floors were discovered in 2007 and put on display in 2016. The stones were imported from Italy, Greece, Tunisia and Asia Minor and the layout likely resembled the design motifs of Herod’s palaces in Masada, Herodium, and Jericho, not random patterns underfoot. The top of the temple had gold spikes on it to prevent birds from sitting and nesting there.
However, when Jesus said that the temple would be completely destroyed, he was talking about more than an impressive building; he was talking about a way of life. First century social values revolved around loyalty to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then to the extended family. Identity was less individualized and more associated with groups; there is a reason why the Scribes and Pharisees were largely unnamed. Society was built on a definitive hierarchical structure that began and ended in the temple and the rituals of the Old Covenant. It was the one thing that every Jew had in common. From the lowest day-laborer to the chief Pharisee, the Abrahamic covenant and the requirements of sacrifices and offerings were the same for all. The Jews were people of “one temple, for the one God.” To destroy the temple would disrupt a system in place for hundreds of years. The system was corrupt in many ways, but it was familiar to all and it represented something larger than individuals.
The disciples were understandably perplexed by Jesus’ words about the temple, but they didn’t ask about it immediately. Mark noted that the inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, were the ones who approached Jesus after they had reached the Mount of Olives. Jesus was sitting, so they had probably been there a little while. Based on what we know about the disciples from other passages, it is within the realm of plausibility that they had already discussed and debated the issue amongst themselves before deciding to ask directly. Still, it was up to the four closest to Jesus to approach him. It hadn’t been so long that Jesus had chastised them for their lack of faith almost immediately after the transfiguration (Matthew 17). I’m sure they figured they had some level of protection from correction if only those four went as representatives. Looking across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, the Temple would have reflected the late afternoon sun in full radiant glory. How could such a magnificent place be utterly destroyed? And more importantly, when?
Before Jesus starts to describe the signs of the end, he issues a warning to the disciples that he repeats throughout the discourse: Do not be deceived; you do not know everything. Jesus speaks of events that will take place, but the focal point is not the events themselves; they are mere preludes to the One Important Thing. More than anything, Jesus wants his followers to be aware and alert (vv 42, 46). In v 8, Jesus compares the events he describes as the beginning of the birth pangs. The metaphor of childbirth is apt.
A full-term pregnancy is 37-42 weeks, and many women experience what is commonly called “false labor.” From the moment of conception, a woman’s body changes to accommodate the new life. Morning sickness gives way to a brief reprieve that turns into increasing discomfort as the pregnancy progresses. Somewhere in that 37-42 weeks the mother can reasonably expect the arrival of the child, and the more uncomfortable she becomes, the more she hopes the birth is sooner rather than later. True labor progresses gradually, but contractions become increasingly painful as the body prepares the path for delivery. Even then, no one can predict the actual moment of birth.
Applied to this passage, there are signs that point to the general time for multiple events: the destruction of the Temple, the Tribulation, and the return of the King, but no actual time is given.. Wars and rumors of wars, nations in conflict, and natural disasters are reminders that the justice of God will prevail, but we don’t know when exactly that judgement will occur. God is outside the bounds of time. Peter wrote, “The heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:7-8).
The purpose of Jesus’ prophecy here is to alert us to false prophets and false teachers. Speculation about details is divisive. Paul wrote to Titus, “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9). This passage lends itself to foolish controversies and arguments, not so much about the law, but about specific events and the timing thereof. So, in your groups, talk about persecution, the great tribulation, the second coming, and the sign of the fig tree, but keep in mind that NO ONE knows –not even angels–the day and the hour of the King’s return. Focus on truth teaching and faithful service so that you will be blessed at the hour of his coming.
The Olivet discourse has been called one of the most difficult passages in the Bible, mostly because it is unclear what generation Jesus was talking about when He said “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place (Matt 24:35; Mark 13:30-31; Luke 21:32). That all three authors of the synoptic gospels record the exact same words means the words matter. But what generation and which things? Some choices:
The fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 AD
Partly the fall of Jerusalem (vv 4-35) and partly his second coming (vv 36-66)
Mostly the second coming
Generation may refer to race. There will be Jewish people until the end of time.
Generation may refer to a type of people. Sinful humans will roam the planet until it is replaced
Generation may be the generation that sees the signs unfold (Isaiah 13: 9-11)
Generation may be the disciples and early church. The destruction of the temple serves as a metaphor for the final judgement and times.
Part of what makes this passage hard to understand is the fact that we look back at the whole of Scripture, while the original hearers had the ancient prophets only. We can compare this discourse of the synoptic gospels to the prophecies of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation. We can also see 2000 years of historical events that seem to meet some of the criteria for the end times, from the destruction of Jerusalem through the Crusades, the 100 years war, world wars of the 20th century, genocides on every continent (except Antarctica), and pandemics that decimated the world’s population through smallpox, tuberculosis, bubonic plagues, leprosy, measles, cholera, and influenza. The earth still turns, and we are all still here, so none of those events signaled the final end of the earth and judgement. However, there is sufficient scholarship to believe that Jesus was answering the disciples specifically about the destruction of the temple by Rome in 70 AD and telling them to be prepared for it to happen soon. Luke wrote his account after the fall, possibly to add weight to Jesus’ divinity: his prophecy had come true by the time Luke’s readers read the text. It seems evident that the first part of the discourse refers to 70 AD, but the coming of the Son of Man is still to come.
The final answer? I don’t know. No one does.
HOWEVER, what we do know is that Jesus exhorted his followers (and us) to continue to do the work of the kingdom. We don’t need to know when He is returning, only that He WILL return. Luke expanded Matthew’s words by telling believers to be on guard, echoing Peter’s admonition to be sober-minded and alert. The adversary “the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour” (1 Peter 5:8). We can be aware of the signs of labor without neglecting the work before us. When the time comes, Jesus will return. And we will rejoice.
Albl, M.C. (2009). The Essential Guide to Biblical Life and Times. Saint Mary’s Press.
How to please the Lord 101: Love God, love people. There is nothing complicated about what God wants his children to do. He says it over and over in every book of the Bible. Jesus himself summed up the commandments in two sentences: Love the Lord your God will your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).
What does it look like to love the Lord with everything you have? It looks like loving others. It looks like true judgments, showing kindness, and offering mercy. Zechariah says it in chapter 7, verse 9. Micah says it in chapter 6 verse 8. Paul wrote in Romans 12 that believers should outdo one another in showing honor, and how else do we do that but by true judgement, kindness, and mercy?
The author of Hebrews and Peter and John all emphasized the importance of loving one another the same way that the Father loves us.
James wrote that faith without works is dead. It might be equally said that loving God without loving others is הֶבֶל (hebel), a vapor, nonsense, or foolishness, what King Solomon called “Vanity of vanities.” Love for God isn’t real unless it is demonstrated by loving one another through justice, kindness, mercy, and humility.
Love isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy, either. We are human. We have annoying habits. We have strongly held differences of opinion. We interpret Scripture differently. Our experiences vary, our cultures conflict, and our expectations of how things should be often sit in opposition. In the US, the differences between us have been amplified in 2020 and 2021 by a pandemic (and how people should respond to it), racial strife (and how government should mitigate it), and disasters, both nature and human-caused. Human nature lashes out and social media makes it convenient to insist on being right instead of being unified. We must carefully consider not only what we say, but how we say it. Love is quick to listen. Love pursues goodness and truth. Love judges the self truly so that each one might be humble. In humility we act out our love for God by showing kindness and mercy to our brothers and sisters, just as the Lord commanded.
If God demonstrated His love for us by sending His only Son to be the atoning sacrificefor our sins, how much more ought we demonstrate our love for God by loving one another in right judgements, showing mercy, and being kind?
Just a few days ago, Wine Spectator posted a “wine IQ” blind tasting game on their website. It posted a sommelier’s tasting notes and asked players to identify the variety, country/region of origin/appellation, and age based solely on the notes.
Tasting Note: Fresh and juicy, with good cut to the red currant and dried berry flavors that feature bright minerality. Ends with a creamy, well-spiced finish, with notes of dried green herbs.
Wine Spectator, June 11, 2021
Would you believe I got 3 of the four correct? And I almost selected Sierra Foothills instead of Sonoma County. The other correct answers: It is a California Merlot, 3-5 years old. But how was I able to identify any of the elements correctly? Let me explain.
The descriptors of “fresh and juicy” and “red currant and dried berries” told me it was a lighter wine. The options were Carignan, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Zinfandel. I’ve never heard of a Tempranillo, but I do know that Syrah is usually pretty “big,” with strong flavors, not “fresh and juicy.” Zinfandel is usually kind of peppery. Carignan is not very common, so that left Merlot, a variety I happen to like now and then. It’s not too sweet, not too heavy, and pairs well with lots of meals.
California produces Merlot wines all over the state, so I opted for that instead of choosing from Australia, France, Spain, or Washington. I may be wrong, but I associate Australia with bolder flavors, Spain with bigger wines, and Washington State with lighter, sweeter wines like Pinot Noir. There were only two appellations in California among the options, and I chose the wrong one. In retrospect, I should have gone with my gut because of the “notes of dried green herbs.” As for the age of the wine, “fresh” is usually attributed to younger wines, so that gave me 1-2 years or 3-5 years. Straight up guessed that one.
Because wine is a product from grapes, it should always have some kind of fruit in the description. If the fruit is missing, you no longer have wine; you have vinegar. The Wine Spectator game is a regular feature. Some of the other descriptions include things like “cranberry core,” “apple and pear,” and “lemongrass, passion fruit, and Key lime.” Those essences of fruit are directly related to everything that has preceded the first taste, from the choice of terrain for the vineyard, the weather, the time of harvest, the processing, the aging, the bottling, and the storing. Every decision made by the wine-maker is captured in that first moment of release. As Jesus-followers, our fruit is revealed in first impressions as well. Jesus said that we can bear much fruit when we abide in Him. He prunes and nourishes us, and when we acquiesce to His work in us, the Holy Spirit infuses us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
As with wine, the fruit of the Spirit is complex, and even though the elements are the same, the way in which the essences manifest varies from believer to believer. Some people exude joy, while others are models of self-control. It is not that every Jesus follower is the same, but that the Spirit infuses each one with a unique combination of elements represented in that one Fruit of the Spirit. Above all, though, love must dominate. It is the first note, and the one on which all the others are measured.
See and Swirl
Sommeliers are professional wine stewards who spend years perfecting their senses of smell and taste so they can identify wines that will pair well with food. Only 269 people in the world have earned the title of Master Sommelier; the three part exam has been called the most difficult in the world because it requires demonstration of technique, palate, and theory across three days.
Of course, it is possible for the non-sommelier to have an educated opinion about a wine, especially if conditions of tasting are good: not too hot, not too cold, proper glass, and no outside odors (somehow even creating that list feels more than a little pretentious, but bear with me for now.)
The first evaluation is by sight. What colors are in the wine? Red is a color, yes, but it doesn’t actually say much. Look deeper. Is it a deep blue-purple red with gold tones as you hold it to the light? Is it more filled with shades of pink or bright ruby? Or, if you happen to be looking at a white wine, is is more translucent yellow or deep gold? The color will give you an idea of what to expect from the tasting; the richer the color, the bolder the flavor.
What do people see when they look at you? Do they see your joy? Your peace? Maybe your kindness? The color of your love is visible when you abide in Jesus. You present yourself as a reflection of God’s goodness with your countenance. Moses reflected the glory of God so brightly that he had to wear a veil when he came down from the mountain (Exodus 24:35).
Swirling a taste of wine begins to release the fragrance of aromatic compounds. Scientifically, swirling adds oxygen to the wine, allowing it to “open up” to its fullest flavor. Spiritually speaking, that is an interesting concept. When wine is bottled and corked, it is stable, and maybe beautiful, but only by open agitation does it begin to reveal its true character. We may want to live in a world where we blithely skip from rainbows to glitter, but the reality is, our character is revealed most when things around us spin. Trouble and trial bring to the front who we are at the core. Paul wrote,
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subject to futility–not willingly, but because of him who subjected it–in the hope that the creation will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.
When we are swirled in the glass of suffering, we “open up” to share the essence of the Fruit of the Spirit within us, not for our own good, but for the glory of God the Father! All the notes of joy and peace and patience–all the way to self-control are released so that others may sense the overwhelming love of Jesus in us and through us.
“Every branch that does bear fruit, He prunes that it may bear more fruit.”
Pruning does more than shape a grapevine. Pruning also directs the future growth and direction of the plant, and affect how well the vine produces.
In viticulture, pruning is an ongoing process. The dormant season is marked by constant training and trimming so that the branches are ready to bear the full weight of the fruit to come. In spring, when the branches bud, wine growers have to determine which buds to keep and which to discard.
As abiders in the True Vine, God also uses our dormant times to do major work in us. The times in between ministries or events may be traumatic, which engenders strong but slow growth, or they may be restful, allowing us to store up energy for whatever comes next. During those times, the Lord may see fit to remove some things that we view as generally positive. During the pandemic of 2020-21, physical church attendance was stripped from every believer. But we are called to be in fellowship with one another, so going to church is a good thing, right?
Why would God separate His children from each other? Why would He allow churches to be closed down, not for a just a few weeks, but for a full year?
Not being a prophet, I cannot say for certain, but I do believe that the pandemic provided an opportunity for Christians to take a step back and evaluate their reasons for going to church on Sundays and weekdays and holidays. I think the Church, particularly in the US, had become complacent, and in many cases, just another thing to do. The pandemic was, for the Church, a pruning away of all the non-essentials, even of good things like choirs and children’s activities, so that the permanent trunk, growing directly from the root could strengthen. For individuals, the loss of activities cut away at things and actions that become works-based faith, and offered time (plenty of time) to grow deeper as branches into the True Vine.
The pruning process continues throughout the growth cycle of the vine. The fruit sets, first as clusters of tiny green spheres and then into bunches that we recognize. During vérasion, the grapes (which are technically berries) begin to turn from green to yellow, blush, and every shade of red to indigo. During this time, viticulturalists continue to thin the vines to allow the perfect amount of sun to reach the fruit and to reduce the bunches so that the remaining fruit has the best opportunity to develop flavor.
Our Christian lives are continually shaped with experiences and relationships that stay for a season and then are pruned away. Bad habits, like diseased vines or blemished fruit are also pruned away and discarded. Just because we “lose” something doesn’t mean we aren’t loved by God. It means He has a plan for us to produce the best for His glory. It means that, even though something is good, it may not be best. Pruning eliminates the things that keep us from fully abiding in the vine that is Christ. God is glorified when we acquiesce to His careful cutting away of anything that interferes with what is His best. It is a lifelong process of cutting back the old things, training new growth, and preventing the cares of this world from affecting the fruit we produce.
As Fall approaches, the vines thicken and become more woody. The grapes become heavy with sugar and the harvest begins. While machine harvesting does exist, many wine grapes are still harvested by hand. There is a short window of opportunity to remove the fruit at its perfect sweetness. When the harvest is complete, the vine drops its leaves in a colorful display, and the process of pruning and training begins again. Recent years, especially in the Western US, fires have consumed vineyards before the harvest was complete, and the remnants of ash and smoke in the soil may affect the flavor of future wines in the region. Other years and in other places, hailstorms battered the fragile fruit. Parasites and blights destroyed whole regions. The life of the vineyard keeper changes with every season, but the goal remains the same: grow the grapes that can become the best wine.
As believers grow older, we too may become a little hardened, a bit set in our ways. We like the familiarity of the songs we sang at Bible camp or the liturgies we recall from holidays long ago. We know what the vines should look like and how the fruit should taste. We have weathered the long seasons of life, and we are ready to sit back and let the younger generations take over the work. But like the vines in the vineyards, the master gardener prunes the branches away, taking the plant to its central base as He prepares us for another season of growth and productivity. We are never too old to produce excellent fruit.
Throughout our lives, the only thing keeping us moving closer to holiness is our graft into the vine of Christ. We can do nothing unless we abide in Him. The branches and buds and fruit that are pruned away are discarded so that He can pour his spirit into and through us. We cannot produce holiness in and of ourselves any more than a cut off vine can produce grapes. We do not bring glory to the Father by perfect church attendance, the volunteer activities we do, or even the things we give up. God trains us in righteousness while we are in Jesus. He is the stable root network and the strength of the trunk that allows the branches to flourish. This is the glory of God, that we remain in Christ and produce much fruit as His disciples.
I was privileged to lead my precious Hope Las Vegas ladies’ Bible gathering this morning, and thought I might share my notes and the questions for the breakout groups here.
We are currently walking through the Gospel of Matthew, one chapter at a time. I did a short recap of the first part of the the Sermon on the Mount and then added thoughts and reflections (and challenges) for the final section. The summaries are my own, so any inaccuracies are also mine.
The Spirit allows us to keep in step with its fruit, becoming people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Our very natures are being changed from earth-centered to heaven-bound. That change is HARD because our sin nature keeps pushing through. But as we learned in Matthew 4, God has given us His Word so that we are able to put the enemy in his place even as we are sustained by the Father. It’s a DAILY experience. It may seem like change isn’t happening, but when we look backward, we can see the unmistakable hand of God on our lives.
Third/Final block (Matthew 7): How to live out a spirit-filled life in an increasingly secular world. cf Galatians 6:9-10
This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
We may not feel at home in this crazy, violent, turbulent world, but we are stuck here until the Lord calls us home or Jesus returns. The events of recent days just illustrated how broken this world is and how human attempts to fix it just seem to accelerate the downward spiral. The worse it gets, the more dependent we need to be on the Way the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). While the first sections of the Sermon on the Mount addressed activities visible to the outside world, this last section focused on issues of the heart, the things no one else sees.
Key verse: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).
The crowds were astonished, not by the person speaking, but by the words of the message and the authority by which they were spoken. Why? What set Jesus apart?
Ancient synagogue services were divided among presenters. While the synagogues had officials, they rotated roles within each service. The chief ruler (Rosh-ha-Keneseth) identified different attendees to read the various parts of the formal service. One person read the prayers, seven people shared reading the law, another person read the prophets, and if someone in the room didn’t know Hebrew, an interpreter was required. Finally, a congregant was chosen to speak a message from the texts. Jesus took on all the roles himself.
Ancient practices separated men, women, and children. Jesus didn’t.
Further, the old ways followed a call-and-response format (sort of). The prayers would be read, and the congregants would respond with a scripted, traditional response.
Jesus interpreted the ancient words in new ways.
Jesus taught by the Spirit. Matthew Henry wrote:
The scribes pretended as much authority as any teachers whatsoever, and were supported by all the external advantages that could be obtained, but their preaching was mean, and flat, and jejune: they spake as those what were not themselves masters of what they preached: the word did not come from them with any life or force; they delivered it as a school-boy says his lesson; but Christ delivered his discourse, as a judge gives his charge. He did indeed, dominari in conscionibus—deliver his discourses with a tone of authority; his lessons were law; his word a word of command. Christ, upon the mountain, showed more true authority, than the scribes in Moses’s seat. Thus when Christ teaches by his Spirit in the soul, he teaches with authority. He says, Let there be light, and there is light.
So, in this third section of the Sermon on the Mount, what did Jesus say?
Jesus started with the thing that drives everyone nuts–and everyone does it, at least in their heads: Judging. James talks about showing preferences and the problems therein. We can hide our judgmental thoughts, but Jesus makes it clear that we have no space to be judgmental; we have our own issues that the Spirit is dealing with us all the time.
Additionally, we have to be aware of how we use God’s word when we DO correct (lovingly, gently) our brothers and sisters. They may not be in a place to let you work on their specks–even if your logs are completely removed.
Continuing the theme of internal actions, Jesus reminds His listeners that they are LOVED by God. The teachings of the Pharisees/Sadducees and the focus on keeping the Law (legalism in modern parlance) makes God look like a cosmic killjoy whose eyes run to and fro over the earth to see whom He can condemn (2 Chronicles 16:9). That is NOT TRUE!
God loves us (1 John 4:10),but that doesn’t mean we can celebrate our fire insurance and do whatever we want. Back to James: Faith without works is DEAD (James 2:14-26). Working out our faith, especially internally, is challenging because our sin nature keeps tripping us up. We WILL have trouble in this world (John 16:33) and some of that trouble comes by way of false teachers. Don’t listen to them. I won’t name them here (that would take too long), but you recognize them by their fruit. Are they servants or influencers? Do they preach Jesus plus nothing? Is their gospel message unadulterated by the culture of this world? If Jesus isn’t first, RUN.
And if YOU happen to be teaching falsely, or if YOUR works are for your own glory, you may be in for a surprise when you get to glory and your name is not in the Lamb’s book of life. What motivates you to work out your salvation? Fame and followers? Or Fear and trembling? (Philippians 2:1-12)
Can you imagine the people sitting and hearing these words? They’re contrary to anything else they knew. They had been taught that adherence to the words of the Law, the Prophets and the sacrifices were sufficient to be saved, but Jesus told them that the whole purpose of everything they thought they had to do was to show them that they actually couldn’t do it! In fact, the things they tried to do to earn their way into the eternal Kingdom were nothing more than a foundation of shifting sand; anything built on that ground would disappear.
Is it any wonder people were astonished? Dumbstruck, even? Here was a man who spoke the scriptures, interpreted the scriptures, and preached the scriptures without needing to check with another person to make sure He was on the right track. His authority rang out in the way he held “church” (outside in a mixed crowd speaking the words of the Law from memory) and in the way He blended familiar things, like fig trees and construction with the Scriptures in ways no one had heard before. He talked about the impossibility of keeping the whole law while reassuring people of God’s great love for them. He told them they needed to not only act on what He taught them, but they had to take His words to heart and let the Spirit make internal changes that no one could see. And He reminded them that people only see the external things, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:17).
Key verses: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).
Matthew 7: 1-6
What is the difference between judgement and accountability?
How do you handle dealing with differences of opinion when it comes to biblical and/or moral gray areas?
Matthew 7: 7-12
Consider and define the verbs in the section (ask, seek, knock).
What is significant about these words?
Why does Jesus compare God to a human parent?
How do you go about asking, seeking, and knocking for God’s good gifts?
Matthew 7: 13-23
Why is the road to the kingdom hard and the gate narrow? If God loves everyone, why not make it easy?
What does Jesus mean that not everyone who says “Lord, look what I did” will enter the Kingdom of God?
How do you determine the trustworthiness of a speaker who claims to be a spiritual authority or guide?
Read Galatians 5:22-25. What kind of fruit do you produce?
Matthew 7: 24-27
What does Jesus mean when he talks about rock and sand as foundations for building? Where might he have gained his expertise in structural security? What did he expect his audience to know about construction?
Why is it important to base your faith on a reasonable and responsible understanding of the Bible?
Matthew 7: 28-29
Why were the crowds astonished?
When you find yourself astonished by a message, how do you respond?
Jesus said these words to the priests and Pharisees, the men chosen to intercede for the people to the Holy One. Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy explicitly spell out the requirements for the priesthood, the Law, and the sacrifices both to atone for sin and to offer thanks to the Lord. The priests were set apart for a holy purpose. But over time, that holy purpose went to their heads and instead of teaching the Word as the Lord gave it to them, they created their own rules and regulations, putting themselves higher than the people over whom they had authority. They demanded respect, instead of serving with intention. They prayed loudly in order to be heard by everyone passing by. They drew attention to themselves instead of drawing people to the Holy One.
Jesus gave them every opportunity to have a conversation with him. Instead, they continually tried to entrapment him into scriptural error. He always answered them with scripture and left them silenced again and again. They could not make him sin in word or deed, as hard as they tried. For three years, Jesus patiently endured their verbal assaults, but when the time was right, he took decisive action: He cleared the temple.
The temple was supposed to by a holy place of prayer, repentance, and sacrifice. The religious leaders had installed their own form of commerce by selling the animals and other elements required by the Law for sacrifice and offering. They set up tables for money-changers (who always charged a fee), and turned a blind eye to the ways the people were overcharged as they tried to meet the sacrificial requirements of the Law. When Jesus came in during this Passover week, he had enough. He overturned the tables, sent the animals into chaos, and left the money-changers scrambling to pick up their ill-gotten coins. This is not Jesus, meek and mild. This is Jesus, righteous judge.
Jesus didn’t stop with physically emptying the temple. He restored it to its original intention. The blind and lame came to the temple and Jesus healed them. Children came in singing praise. Because this event followed the triumphal entry, the shouts of the people who had waved palm branches and laid down their coats for the donkey carrying Jesus probably echoed throughout the walls. The chaos turned from greed to gratitude, and the priests were outraged.
The priests accused Jesus of usurping their authority over the holy things, but he just asked them a question they could not answer: Where did John get his authority? At this point, John had been beheaded and he was a revered figure. The priests had to know that John’s authority was God-given, but they couldn’t admit that without explaining why they refused to listen to him. On the other hand, if they said John was a self-made prophet, they knew the people who had followed him would revolt. Instead of answering, they just shrugged, saying they didn’t know.
Jesus told two stories, opportunities for the Pharisees and priests to see themselves for what they were and repent. Knowing their hearts, Jesus made it plain that they were no longer employed in God’s holy service. He said, “Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit.” For a priest, that was condemnation.
The New Testament tells the story of how the kingdom was delivered to other nations, including the much hated gentile nations of Samarian, Syria, and all around the Aegean Sea. North Africa learned the gospel from Philip. The entire Greco-Roman Empire turned to Christianity within the first decades of Jesus’s resurrection. The Jewish leaders lost their authority as representatives of God’s Kingdom.
I wonder whether God is removing the Western Church from its role as primary evangelist/seat of God’s kingdom and putting that authority in the places where people are producing gospel transformations. Certainly the Western Church has lost both credibility and influence in the last 30 years or so. Wrong theologies (prosperity doctrines and liberation theologies) may draw people in, but they are not transforming lives with the gospel of Jesus. Larger than life personalities draw attention from Jesus, sometimes with devastating consequences. The culture, with its current fascination with Critical Theory, has infiltrated the Church, creating a human-centered, works-based version of the gospel that is from the devil himself. There’s just enough truth in it to make it sound good, and just enough reward in it to make people feel good, but it is a deadly trap.
Growth in the Church has slowed to a crawl in most of the West and in countries with Westernized ideals. In the US, Evangelical Christianity is growing by .08% annually; the population is growing by just over 1%. On the other hand, people in Iran, Afghanistan, and throughout the continents of Africa and Asia are producing the fruit of the gospel (Operation World). In some of the poorest countries with the most corrupt authoritarian leadership, Jesus is being proclaimed. Not only proclaimed, but it seems to be the young adults who are responding to God’s call, in spite of the laws against proselytizing in many countries with Islam as the State religion (Missions Box). These churches, often held in secret, take advantage of social media and internet streaming services to build their knowledge of Scripture. The youth in many countries are suffering under harsh regimes, and the gospel offers hope, something no other religion can do. The punishment for learning about Jesus can be severe, even to banishment or death, but for those who choose the gospel, hope is greater than fear (New York Times, Religious News Service). These believers form communities where the gospel is lived out daily.
Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37). While there are many churches in the US that practice these two foundational commands, there are many that do not. Increasingly, the most recognizable figures of the evangelical church are turning our to be mere mortals who have built a ministry on personality and intellect instead of Jesus. Unless believers insist on the Bible as the core of church teaching and as Jesus as central to the Bible, it is likely that the US will follow Europe into secularism and worshipping the god of good works. That path leads to destruction: “Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him” (Matthew 21:44).
Let us choose to be broken before the Lord in repentance rather than shattered when we stand before the righteous and holy Judge in the end.
As promised: This world is not my home by various artists in a multitude of styles. The origin of the lyrics is muddy, with at least three people given attribution as author.
This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue; The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door, And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Chorus: O Lord, you know I have no friend like you, If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do? The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door, And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
They’re all expecting me, and that’s one thing I know, My Savior pardoned me and now I onward go; I know He’ll take me thro’ tho’ I am weak and poor, And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore. [Chorus]
I have a loving Savior up in glory-land, I don’t expect to stop until I with Him stand, He’s waiting now for me in heaven’s open door, And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore. [Chorus]
Just up in glory-land we’ll live eternally, The saints on every hand are shouting victory, Their songs of sweetest praise drift back from heaven’s shore, And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore. [Chorus]
This World Is Not My Home
This world is not my home I’m just-a-passing through My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue Angels beckon me to heaven’s open door And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Oh Lord you know I have no friend like you If heaven’s not my home oh Lord what will I do Angels beckon me to heaven’s open door And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
They’re all expecting me that’s one thing I know I fixed it up with Jesus a long time ago He will take me through though I am weak and poor And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Over in glory land there’ll be no dying there The saints all shouting victory and singing everywhere I hear the voice of them that’s gone on before And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
[This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin thru]
Composer or Arranger:
Albert E. Brumley October 29, 1905, near Spiro, Oklahoma. Died: November 15, 1977, Springfield, Missouri. Buried: Fox Cemetery, Powell, Missouri. Brumley attended the Hartford Musical Institute in Hartford, Arkansas, and sang with the Hartford Quartet. He went on to teach at singing schools in the Ozarks, and lived most of his life in Powell, Missouri. He worked for 34 years a staff writer for the Hartford and Stamps/Baxter publishing companies, then founded the Albert E. Brumley & Sons Music Company and Country Gentlemen Music, and bought the Hartford Music Company. He wrote over 800 Gospel and other songs during his life; the Country Song Writers Hall of Fame inducted him in 1970.
Jessie May Hill I can’t find biographical information, but she seems to have been in great demand as a singer and pianist in the late 1920s.