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For May 22, 2022

ACTS 16:9-15

THE BACKGROUND

In the few verses preceding this passage, Paul and his group are heading off in this direction or that, only to have “the Spirit of Jesus” clearly tell them “no”.  They want to preach the Good News, but don’t know where to go.  They are at a standstill.

THE DETAIL

  • Finally, Paul has a dream in which a man tells him to “come over to Macedonia”. Macedonia is just north and east of present day Greece.  (v. 9)
  • They set sail from Troas (which is located in northwestern Turkey), and head for the seaport city of Neapolis, in Macedonia.  They have chosen Philippi as their destination.  Philippi is the capital of Macedonia.  It is on the main highway connecting Rome with its colonies to the east.  Many retired Roman soldiers live here.  It has been developed to be a model Roman city, to show others what the ideal life looks like under Roman rule.  (vv. 10-12a)
  • They rested “some days” from their journey.  On the Sabbath (Saturday), they went to the place where they thought there would be a meeting of the Jewish inhabitants of Philippi.  It takes a certain number of people to establish a synagogue; less than that, and you simply find a place to meet for prayer.  (vv. 12b-13a)
  • They start chatting with some women there, and meet a woman named Lydia.  Oddly enough, she is from Thyatira, which is one of the places that Paul was told not to go to.  She is a businesswoman dealing in expensive purple cloth.  Apparently, she was well to do.  The Lord opens her heart to the Good News.  (vv. 13b-14)
  • She accepts Jesus as the Messiah, and her whole household is baptized.  She urges Paul and his companions to stay with her, and continue teaching.  (v. 15)

THE TAKEAWAY

Paul and his followers are much attuned to the direction of the Holy Spirit.  They await orders, and obey them when they are conferred.  Most of the action in this story is not Paul, but the Holy Spirit.  It is even the Spirit that opens Lydia’s heart to hear the Word.  Paul provides a good model for our spiritual lives—listening for and obeying the Holy Spirit’s direction.
 

REVELATION 21:10, 22-22:5

THE BACKGROUND

Remember that this book is a vision given to John to strengthen the faith of Christians under his spiritual care.  This book offers a big-picture perspective of how God will bring an end to evil and injustice, and provide a comfortable home for the faithful. 

THE DETAIL

  • An angel carries John away to a high mountain, where he can view the new holy city Jerusalem. John gets a birds-eye view of the city. (v. 10)
  • In the verses that have been omitted from this selection, the city is described in great detail.  It is interesting to note that there is not one set of pearly gates, but twelve. There are three gates on each face of the city walls, which face north, south, east, and west.  Yes, these gates are made of pearl, but St. Peter is not peeking out from them; they are all wide open, for us the faithful to freely enter! (vv. 11-21)
  • The city does not have a temple representing God’s presence, because God (Father and Son) are the temple!  (v. 22)
  • This place is so special, that the source of daylight the glory of God.  (v. 23)
  • All the nations of the earth walk here, including rulers and everyday people.  And those pearly gates are always open.  (vv. 24-26)
  • This is a pure place, where nothing imperfect exists.  Only we believers live there, those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.  It is a perfect world.  (v. 27)
  • Wait! There’s more!  A beautiful crystal river flows from the throne of God and the Lamb right through the heart of town.  There are trees along the river which continually provide the inhabitants with fruit. (vv. 1-3)
  • As was said earlier, there will be nothing bad in this city.  There is no night, because God’s brightness shines continually.  God reigns forever!  (v. 3-6)

THE TAKEAWAY

I find comfort in this passage, knowing that the gates to heaven are open wide to believers from the whole world.  God dwells with us.  We are home.


 

 

JOHN 14:23-29

THE BACKGROUND

This reading is taken from Jesus’ long discourse in the upper room, the night before his crucifixion. He has just told his disciples that he is leaving them.  He has reassured them that they will see him again, even though others will not. Judas (not Iscariot) asks Jesus “How does this happen?”  Jesus does not directly answer the question, but the answer is there.  Let’s look for that, and see what else he says. 

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus’ first words (answer?) is that there are those who love him and his father, and keep his word.  They have the ability to see him, whereas “the world” is blind.  Jesus and his Father will come to them, and make their home with them.  This is the answer to Judas’ question.  Love God and keep his word, and they will come.  (v. 23)
  • The next statement is a sort of opposite of the first.  Jesus says that if you following other’s teachings, then you’re not keeping his words.  “It’s the message of the Father…” was a little confusing to me at first.  Jesus is saying that the message he has been sharing is from the Father, and other messages are not.  (v. 24)
  • Then, Jesus tells them to be at peace.  Don’t be worried.  He is sending “The Friend” (in this translation), the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit will make everything plain.  (vv. 25-27)
  • They must have still seemed sad, because he tells them that they should be happy! I’m sure that was hard advice for them to take.  (v. 28)
  • Finally, he tells them why he’s told them all of this ahead of time—so they’ll believe even better when it all happens.  (v. 29) 

THE TAKEAWAY

It is nice that we already know the end of the story.  We know of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.  We know that the Holy Spirit did come as promised.  We must put our trust in Jesus and his teachings.  By trusting and keeping them, we will see him!

 

For May 8, 2022

ACTS 9:36-43

THE BACKGROUND

Our first readings continue to be taken from the book of Acts.  Jesus has ascended into heaven, and left his apostles to carry on his work.  We see the new church in action.  One thing needs to be brought to mind.  Palestine, 2,000 years ago, was a very male-dominated society.  The role of women was very limited.  It was nearly impossible to “make it on your own” as a woman.  Women were almost always under the care or charge of a male, whether it was a husband, a father, or a brother.  This is why Jesus “handed off” the responsibility of caring for his mother Mary to “the disciple whom he loved” in John 19:25b-27.  What with all the wars and sickness, many men died early, leaving families behind.  Widows and orphans were one of the big social problems of that time.  There was no way for most of them to make ends meet.  In fact, in Acts 6:1-6, seven Christian men were assigned to this ministry.

THE DETAIL

  • This story takes place in the seaside city of Joppa.  A woman lived there, whose name we are given in both Greek and Aramaic. She is a disciple of Jesus, and has devoted her life to doing good works and acts of charity.  (v. 36)
  • Long story short—she gets sick and dies.  (v. 37)
  • Peter is nearby in Lydda, and Tabitha’s friends hear about this.  Two of them go there, and ask him to come quickly to Joppa.  (v. 38)
  • As they enter the room where her body lay, they show Peter some of the clothing that she had been making for the poor.  (v. 39)
  • The scene is reminiscent of the story in Luke 8:40-56, where Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter.  Peter empties the room, and calls to Tabitha to get up.  She does!  (v. 40)
  • Peter helps her up, and shows her to the saints (the Christian believers) and the widows.  Word spreads of this miracle, and many come to believe.  (vv. 41-42)
  • Peter stays on a few days, presumably to preach and teach to the new believers. (v. 43)

THE TAKEAWAY

Tabitha is not one of the seven men officially assigned to caring for widows and orphans.  In spite of this, she sees an opportunity to serve Jesus by caring for those in need.  In verse 41, Peter shows Tabitha to “the saints and to the widows”.  “The saints” means the believers in Jesus.  Since the widows are listed separately, it indicates to me that not all the widows are necessarily believers.  Tabitha’s clothing ministry is open to all.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

What is Jesus calling us to do in our world? What are the needs of those around us? Are we open to serving everyone, regardless of belief or ethnicity? 

 

REVELATION 7:9-17

THE BACKGROUND

As we read through these passages from Revelation, keep in mind that these words were written to strengthen the faith of those suffering for believing in Jesus.  They should not evoke fear, but confidence that God is in control, and will triumph in the end.

Last week’s throne room scene continues.  Six of the seven seals have been opened by Jesus the Lamb. The suspense builds, knowing that the seventh seal will wreak havoc on earth.  A key to understanding why all this is happening is found in 5:9-11.

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’  They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.”

The people of John’s day were suffering and dying for their faith, and were wondering when God would even the score.  John’ answer is for them to have patient endurance.

THE DETAIL

  • John looks, and sees  multitude of people dressed in white robes, praising God the Father and Son.  The robes signify victory.  Victory (nike in Greek) is a prized trait in Roman society.  They join in singing the praise-song that the creatures and elders have been singing.  (vv. 9-12)
  • I’d like to paraphrase verse 13-14a in this way:  “One of the elders asked me ‘Do you know who these people are, who are robed in white?’  I told him ‘You tell me!  You’re the one who knows.’”
  • The elder supplies the answer—they are those who have come out of the “great ordeal”.  Their robes have become white because they have washed them in the blood of the Lamb. It makes no practical sense, if we take this verse literally.  Don’t try to take a stain out of a white garment by washing it in blood!  But, the symbolism is crystal clear—salvation comes from being faithful to Jesus the Lamb.  (v. 14b)
  • Their faithfulness in the face of adversity is why they are here in God’s throne room.  They are safe now.  They will suffer no more.  These words of comfort are much needed to John’s churches.  They are also great news for us in times of trouble.

THE TAKEAWAY

A friend of mine had an expression.  When we would get mired into some sort of problem at work, we couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  He would tell us to “zoom out to 30,000 feet”.  If you’ve ever flown in an airplane, the view from up there gives you a completely different perspective. 

In our troubled times, it is helpful to stand back and look at life from God’s perspective.  At times, it may appear that God is nowhere to be found.  But if we stand back, especially if we read Revelation, we see that God is in control.  God’s got this!
 

JOHN 10:22-30

NOTE: In this study, I am going to use the word “church” incorrectly.   I will use it to describe the established religion of the people around Jesus, the Jewish people.  I am using this word in this way for a reason that will become clear in the Takeaway.

THE BACKGROUND

 Jesus’ ministry has been causing problems for the “church” of Jesus’ day.  Jesus’ teachings and actions challenged their views of how a man of God should act.  Some thought Jesus was a man of God, but other devout people thought that he was demon-possessed.  “He was obviously a sinner, because he healed on the Sabbath—he did not obey God’s law.” Some even tried to stone him because they felt that he was a blasphemer.  (10:31) 

THE DETAIL

  • It is Hanukkah, and Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem.  He is confronted by some members of the “church”, who want him to just say it—“Are you the Messiah or not?” (vv. 22-24)
  • Jesus didn’t buy into their game.  He knew that it was a trap.  He had already told and shown them enough for them to know.  But they already had it all figured out.  They already knew who and what the Messiah would be like. Jesus’ words and actions didn’t fit into their mold.  They were out to get him.  In the end, he simply states that they are not part of his group; his “sheep”.  (vv. 25-26)
  • Using the sheep/shepherd analogy, he tells them that his people know his voice [and they do not].  I recently learned that sheep actually do know their shepherd’s voice, and follow him. (v. 27)
  • Now, Jesus takes the discussion further, telling them that those who follow him will have eternal life, and they will never be separated.    (v. 28)
  • Jesus concludes by stating that he and the Father are inseparable; of one mind. (vv. 29-30)

THE TAKEAWAY

In the previous chapter, we are told the story about Jesus healing a man who had been born blind. There is bitter irony in this story, because many of the onlookers couldn’t “see” that Jesus was the Messiah at work.  They couldn’t see past the fact that he did this on the Sabbath, which violated a Law of Moses.  Jesus must have also seen the irony in the situation, because in 9:39 he says “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”

These days, we are so bent on having answers for everything, I am concerned that we will fall into the same trap as the Pharisees. We could be looking for Jesus to return exactly like this or like that, and totally miss the entire event.  Now that would mean being truly left behind!  The key here is in knowing the shepherd’s voice.  For me, this comes from reading the gospels, listening to Jesus’ words, observing his actions, and doing my best to emulate him in my actions. This is not easy, and I fail almost constantly!  But to my way of thinking, I’ve seen far too many “shepherds” out there who are more like Pharisees than my Lord. 

For May 1, 2022

ACTS 9:1-20

THE BACKGROUND

A young man named Saul is first mentioned in Acts 7:58.  Steven is stoned to death for preaching the gospel, & Saul takes care of the coats of those doing the dirty work.  Saul then goes on to enter houses of worship, and drags women and men off to prison. (Acts 8:1-3) 

THE DETAIL

  • Saul’s story picks back up in chapter 9.  He has asked for approval from the high priest to arrest those belonging to the Way. This is what the Christians were called at that time.  (vv. 1-2)
  • As he approached the city of Damascus, Saul receives a supernatural confrontation.  There is a flash of light.  Jesus speaks to him, asking him why Saul is persecuting him. Jesus gives him directions to go to Damascus and await further instruction.  (vv. 3-6)
  • Saul has been blinded by the flash of light.  Those with him take Saul to Damascus.  He was so shook up that he did not eat or drink for three days.  (vv. 7-9)
  • There is a Christian in Damascus named Ananias.  The Lord comes to him in a vision, and tells him to care for Saul.  But Ananias has heard of this man, and the nasty things he has done to followers of the Way.  (vv. 10-14)
  • The Lord answers that Ananias should “…go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen…”  (v. 15)
  • Ananias obeys. He meets Saul, and cares for him. When he lays his hands on Saul, he regains his sight.  Saul is baptized.  Afterward, Saul begins preaching in the synagogues, proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God.  (vv. 16-20)

THE TAKEAWAY

Later in the story, Saul’s name is changed to Paul, the famous evangelizer of Gentiles.  But the words we should focus on are those in verse 15. Jesus tells Ananias that Saul is Jesus’ instrument.  We are all called to be Jesus’ instruments, serving Jesus by loving those around us.  
 

REVELATION 5:11-14

THE BACKGROUND

Today’s excerpt is a small segment of a vision that was given to John in order to assure and strengthen the faith of the churches he was caring for.  They had undergone various forms of strife.  All were in danger of losing touch with the gospel message.  After the introduction we studied last week, there are three chapters of instructions to the seven churches John was responsible for. 

Beginning in chapter four, a voice tells John “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”  You and I might expect to see something cataclysmic, such as a war or a plague. Instead, John is taken to heaven to witness a worship scene.   After all, this is where we should begin. 

For the sake of brevity, much of the scene has been cut from today’s reading.  Allow me to reconstruct the missing beginning.  John attempts to describe God and His throne in 4:2-6. But how do you describe such a thing?!? Around the throne are four living creatures, all different, but all having three pairs of wings.  They fly around the throne and continually praise God with their singing.  Twenty-four elders follow the creatures, also singing praises to God.  In God’s hand is a scroll that no one can open.  A Lamb appears, who is described as “a Lamb as if it has been slaughtered”.  The Lamb (Jesus) takes the scroll.  He alone is able to break the seals.   The creatures and the elders sing “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.” 

 

THE DETAIL

  • All the creatures, elders, and saints in heaven join in, directing their praise to the Lamb. “Worthy is the Lamb!”  In my church, we use these same words as a hymn of praise to our Lord.  It is one of my favorite parts of worship.  (vv. 11-12)
  • As if this weren’t enough, heaven AND earth (including the oceans’ contents), join in this hymn of praise to God and the Lamb.  (v. 13)
  • In conclusion, our worship leaders, the four creatures, say a big amen.  Then, all the elders, fell down and worshipped.  (v. 14)

THE TAKEAWAY

In Roman times, a common way to flatter the emperor was to call him your Lord and God.  In 4:11, the four living creatures tell God on His throne “YOU are our Lord and God”. It would have been clear to the first readers of this book exactly who was and who was not their true Lord and God. 

Some nasty things are about to happen, as the Lamb breaks the seals on the scroll.  But it is very important that the entire vision begins in heaven and in worship to the true Lord and God.  The vision that is about to be revealed requires a solid foundation. That foundation is to be found in God’s heavenly throne.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Life has a way of throwing us some very difficult challenges, from time to time.  If our eyes are firmly fixed on the throne of God and on the Lamb, we will have the strength to endure these hardships.

JOHN 21:1-19

THE BACKGROUND

This is Jesus’ final appearance to his disciples in the book of John.  In the previous story, which we studied last week, Jesus appears in the room where the disciples have locked themselves out of fear.  He breathes the spirit on his chosen, and tells them to continue his work after he’s gone.

THE DETAIL

  • The story begins on the banks of the Sea of Tiberias, which is another name for the Sea of Galilee. Peter says “I’m going fishing!” The others join him.  They do some night fishing, but catch nothing.  (vv. 1-3)
  • At dawn, someone on the shore (Jesus) tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. (Like that’ll make a difference.) Well, why not?  So, they do, and they catch more fish than they can handle. 
  • Immediately, Peter realizes who is calling from the shore.  He puts on some clothes (!), and swims ashore to greet him.  (vv. 4-7)
  • The rest haul the catch and the boat ashore.  They have breakfast with Jesus, who has fish and bread for them.  They knew it was him, but no one dared ask.  (vv. 8-14)
  • Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.  When Peter replies with an emphatic yes, Jesus gives Peter orders to feed and care for his “lambs” or “sheep”.  (vv. 15-17)
  • Finally, Jesus tells Peter that because of this love and devotion to him, Peter will indeed die a similar death to Jesus.  (vv. 18-19)

THE TAKEAWAY

Back in chapter 13, verse 37, Peter vowed to lay down his life for Jesus.  Shortly afterward, he would deny Jesus three times out of fear. Jesus renamed Simon, calling him Peter (the Rock).  Peter has not yet demonstrated rock-like characteristics, and Jesus is challenging him on this.  As we are reading in the book of Acts, Peter does answer the call.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How do we get the strength to face life’s challenges?  I believe that we must first commit ourselves to the task, as Peter does in this discussion with Jesus.  But after that, we can trust in the help of the Holy Spirit, just as Peter did. 

For April 24, 2022

REVELATION 1:4-8

THE BACKGROUND

There are basically two ways of reading the book of Revelation.  One is to read it as a code book which predicts the end times.  The other is to read it as a letter from an imprisoned church leader to his flock, to encourage them to keep the faith.  This second way is how I read this book.  Let me explain why.

John was in prison on the island of Patmos.  Patmos was a sort of Alcatraz for the Romans; it’s where they sent criminals who were enemies of the state.  We do not know the charges that were levied against John.  But it is clear that he felt that Jesus was the king of all, including Caesar.  That alone would have been enough.

But he was a loving pastor of his churches.  These churches were under pressure from the Roman emperor Domitian to worship Caesar and go with the Roman flow.  Domitian was the worst of all the Caesars for persecution to Christians.  John, according to the first verse of our passage, was writing to these churches. He was not interested in providing you and me with a code book, so we could figure out the end of the story 2,000 years later.  His churches were in trouble, and he was writing to them to encourage them to 1) remain strong in their faith, 2) be patient and endure the current hardships.   He did this by showing them the big picture; that God would win in the end.  In order to get this message out of prison and past the Romans, he wrote it in an ancient literary style we call Apocalyptic literature.  This made no sense to the Romans, but it made perfect sense to John’s readers. Unfortunately, much of the imagery is also lost on us.  But the message John sent to them is just as important to us.  Let’s take a look.

THE DETAIL

  • Verse four is jam-packed with “stuff”, so we need to break it down.
    • First, John names himself as the sender and who this letter is for—the seven churches in Asia (present-day Turkey).
    • Next, John sends them greetings from God (that is the one “who is and was and is to come”).
    • These greetings also flow from the seven spirits that are before the throne in heaven. (In the verses that follow, these seven spirits are identified as the seven churches in Asia.) 
  • In verse five the greeting also comes from Jesus.  Notably in this verse, Jesus is given three titles:
    • The faithful witness—a reminder that we should all be faithful witnesses. 
    • The firstborn of the dead—a reminder that we shall live forever.
    • The ruler of [all] the kings of the earth [including Caesar]—a reminder that Jesus is the Lord, and not some Roman emperor.
  • Verses five (b) and six continue by reminding us that:
    • Jesus loves us.
    • Jesus freed us from our sins by his blood.
    • Jesus made us [all] to be a kingdom of priests serving God the Father.
  • Verse six ends in a little impromptu praise to God for all of the above.
  • Next is a reminder that Jesus is coming back, and everybody will get to see him.  Even those who crucified will see him.  The whole earth will wail, presumably because Jesus is coming to judge them all.  (v. 7)
  • God Himself concludes this passage by stating that He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  If I were to paraphrase this verse, I’d translate it as “I started this creation, and I’m going to finish it.  I was here at the beginning, and I’m seeing it through to the end.”  (v. 8)

THE TAKEAWAY

John makes it clear from the start of this book that God is the one who is in control.  We are his servants, and should follow in Jesus’ footsteps.  We have been saved forever by Jesus’ blood.  We should be faithfully obedient, serving Him as a kingdom of priests, or a “nation of ministers”.  
 

ACTS 5:27-32

THE BACKGROUND

In the previous chapter, chapter 4, Peter and John were put in jail for preaching the Good News.  The next morning, they were called before the council, and told to quit their preaching.  Peter refused, and they continue their healing and preaching.  This landed them in jail again, in Acts 5:18.  But during the night, an angel released them, and they went back to the temple to preach.  The next day, the council went to get them, and found that they’d escaped! After some searching, they found them at the temple, and presented them to the council. 

THE DETAIL

  • They’re brought before the high priest, who reminds them that he gave them strict orders not to teach in Jesus’ name or to bring his blood on the council. (vv. 27-28)
  • Peter makes it clear who he answers to—“God, rather than any human authority”. These are bold words coming from a man who denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed.  What is the difference?  The Holy Spirit now dwells in Peter.  (v. 29)
  • Peter is bold enough to remind the council of their implication of Jesus’ crucifixion.  (c. 30)
  • Verse 31 is interesting in that not only does Peter tell them that Jesus is now at God’s right hand, but that the council could still receive forgiveness of their sins, if they would repent.  They will not repent, of course.  (v. 31)
  • He concludes by stating that they are eyewitnesses to all of this.  They must obey God by doing what they are doing, through the strength they receive from the Holy Spirit.  (v. 32)

THE TAKEAWAY

We, too, have the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We can have the boldness of Peter, to speak up in front of our adversaries.  We have the Spirit to help us, when we preach and teach in His name.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Was it the Jews who crucified Jesus or the Romans? Before we place the blame totally on Jews, we must remember that Jesus and his disciples were all Jewish, as were most of his followers.  Many openly or secretly assisted him all along his journey.

 

JOHN 20:19-31

THE BACKGROUND

These are the closing lines of the Gospel of John, his conclusion to the gospel story.

THE DETAIL

  • This is Jesus’ first appearance to all the apostles, after his resurrection. Well, except for Judas and Thomas, that is.  Somehow, Jesus infiltrates the room, in spite of the locked doors.  Yet, he is not a ghost, because the apostles are able to touch his wounds.  What an interesting event!  (vv. 19-20)
  • Next, he tells them that they must continue the work that he had started. He then breathes the Holy Spirit on them, to give them the power they need for the task.  (vv. 21-22)
  • He further explains that they have the authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness of sins.  (v. 23)
  • Now we hear that Thomas was not present.  When Thomas returns, he doesn’t believe that Jesus was there.  He has to see for himself.  (v. 25)
  • Jesus appears the following week, and Thomas is there.  Jesus does not scold Thomas for being skeptical.  Instead, he is patient and understanding.  “Put your finger here… Do not doubt, but believe.” Thomas doesn’t even need to touch Jesus, he believes on the spot.  (vv. 26-28)
  • What Jesus says next is more for us for Thomas.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (v. 29)
  • In verses 30 & 31, John explains why he wrote this all down.  It wasn’t so that we would have a complete biography of Jesus’ life.  He wrote down just enough for us to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God…” 

THE TAKEAWAY

Let’s look at Jesus’ reaction to Thomas’ behavior. Long before this, Jesus told them all that was going to happen.  That he was going to die and be risen from the dead.  Yet, Thomas doesn’t believe.  Jesus had every right to be angry with Thomas.  Instead, he has patience and understanding.  In my times of doubt, I am always comforted by this. I know that my Lord understands, and loves me in spite of my moments of  doubt.

 

For April 17, 2022

EASTER SUNDAY

For the Sundays beginning with Easter and following, the first lesson does not come from the Old Testament; it comes from the book of Acts.  We shift our focus from the old promise to the actions of the apostles, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to spread the Good News.

 

ACTS 10:34-43

THE BACKGROUND

The Holy Spirit has called Peter to go to the house of Cornelius in the city of Philippi. Cornelius is an officer in the Roman army, and a Gentile.  But he is a “god-lover”.  This is what they called non-Jews who worshipped Yahweh, but did not fully convert to all the Jewish practices, namely the dietary laws and circumcision. The Holy Spirit called Peter to bring the Good News to Cornelius’ household.  At this point in time, most of the Christians were Jewish, and kept all the Laws of Moses.

THE DETAIL

  • Peter begins his speech by making a bold statement.  He says that “…God shows no partiality.”  Because of what the Holy Spirit has revealed to him early in this chapter, Peter now knows that Yahweh is not interested in a relationship with His “chosen people”; God loves everyone, showing no partiality to the Jews. (This is very good news to all us Gentiles!)  (v.34)
  • He then says “You [already] know his relationship with the people of Israel, but wait!  There’s more!  Jesus [the] Christ was sent to preach peace.  By the way, Jesus is Lord of all “.  (This is my personal paraphrase of verses 35 & 36.)
  • Peter goes on to concisely explain the life and ministry of Jesus.  (vv. 37-39)
  • He concludes with Jesus’ death and resurrection, adding that he and those who came with him that day were witnesses to all of this.  (vv. 40-41)
  • Now comes the clincher.  Jesus not only commanded them to spread the news.  Jesus is the one ordained by God who will judge us all.  Not only that, everything you know about the prophets—they all testify about him.  (vv. 42-43)
  • The rest of the story, not included here, is that Cornelius and his entire household believed in Jesus, and were baptized that day.  The Holy Spirit came, and caused them all to speak in tongues, just like those at Pentecost.

THE TAKEAWAY

No longer do the Jews have exclusive access to God’s love.  God sent Jesus to gather us all in, even Roman army officers.  He commands us to preach the Good News of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.  

 

1 CORINTHIANS 15:19-26

THE BACKGROUND

In this section of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he addresses a very specific problem.  Some Christians there have come to believe that there is no resurrection of the dead.  They did not even believe that Jesus was resurrected.  If you wish, you could read the previous verses in your bible, starting with verse 12.  This helps to put today’s passage in perspective.

THE DETAIL

  • This verse is actually a summarization of the paragraph that begins with verse 12.  In other words, if we believe in Jesus, but don’t believe in the resurrection, we are pitiful.  (v. 19)
  • Paul doesn’t leave that statement lay for very long— he says “But that’s not the case!”  (v. 20a)
  • He calls Jesus the “first fruits” of all those who have died.  I’m thinking of the sweetness of those first strawberries of the season. It seems like they are sweeter than all those that follow.  Jesus is like this first strawberry.  We are those who will follow.  (v. 20b)
  • In the next two verses, Paul compares Jesus to “Adam”, or humankind.  He does this elsewhere in his letters.  As old Adam died as a result of his sinful nature, we too will die. But since we are alive in Christ, we can expect to follow Jesus’ resurrection path.  (vv. 21-22)
  • This does not happen right away, but in an orderly fashion.  Jesus is first.  Our resurrection will follow at his second coming.  Details are not given.  We might want these details, but we really don’t need them.  We have God’s promise.  (vv. 23-26)

THE TAKEAWAY

We always want more details than what are given.  When Jesus was quizzed regarding his second coming, he replied that nobody knows that except the Father—not even Jesus had the details.  So too it is with the resurrection.  We don’t have all the details, but we have enough to know that it is part of God’s master plan.  There’ll be more on that in the Gospel lesson.

 

LUKE 24:1-12

THE BACKGROUND

The previous chapter of Luke contains the entire story of Jesus’ trial, torture, crucifixion, and burial.  The chapter ends with “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.  Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.  On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”

THE DETAIL

  • Our passage begins with “… on the first day of the week…”  In the Jewish tradition, the last day of the week is Saturday.  This is in keeping with the idea that God rested on the 7th day, after creating our world in six days.  So, on Sunday morning, a group of women come to care for Jesus’ body. (v. 1)
  • But something is wrong.  The stone has already been rolled away.  And inside, Jesus’ body is not to be found.  (v. 2) 
  • They were still scratching their heads, when things got really weird.  Two men, dressed in dazzling clothes, suddenly appear.  The women fall to the ground in fear and reverence. (vv. 3-5a)
  • These “men” begin with a key question—“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  (v. 5b)
  • They go on to explain that he is risen, as he said he would.  “Don’t you remember him telling you this?”  Jesus taught them many things.  Maybe they had forgotten this unbelievable teaching.  But they reminded them of this teaching.  (vv. 6-7)
  • “OK, now we remember!”  (They must have said.)  They went back to tell the 11 apostles and all the other disciples who had locked themselves into a room out of fear.  (vv. 8-9)
  • Verse 10 lists the names of three of the many women who went to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  Unfortunately, we don’t know how many went.  But what is interesting is the fact that there were disciples who were women. Matthew 27:55-56 provides another list of female disciples.
  • So, these women tell the apostles what they had seen and heard.  Like so many who hear something unbelievable, they believe it to be “an idle tale”.  (v. 11)
  • But Peter must have recalled Jesus’ prophesy.  Maybe it was because Jesus called him Satan, when Peter rebuked Jesus’ prophesy. Regardless, he was the only one who thought “wait a minute”, and ran to the tomb.  He went home amazed.  (v. 12)

THE TAKEAWAY

Never before or never since has someone been resurrected from the dead.  The exception being Lazarus, of course.  Maybe that should have been a hint to the apostles that something extraordinary was about to happen.  But they forgot about Jesus’ prophesy, and considered these babbling women to be spinning some sort of idle tale.  Only Peter had the presence of mind to go and investigate.  Jesus has indeed risen from the grave!  Things will never be the same!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

We live in a time where we are surrounded by conspiracy theories, pranksters, and fake news.  We all must decide what to believe and what to reject as untrue.  To my scientific mind, the resurrection of our bodies makes no sense whatsoever. But it also does not make sense that God could make this beautiful world with just his voice (Genesis 1), or make us by forming some clay of the earth (Genesis 2).  God’s thoughts and actions are beyond human comprehension.  Some things cannot be explained, and must be taken at their word. 

Are we like those “pitiful” Christians in Corinth, when we experience doubt?  Or are we like Peter, and believe in amazement?

Jesus is risen!  Things will never be the same!

For April 10, 2022

With Palm Sunday, we only have a week until Easter. But for now, we have a little more Lenten work to do.  Today’s readings all have a common thematic thread—humble obedience.  Let’s jump into these readings, and see how they might speak to us.

I have chosen the alternate gospel lesson. Normally, we read the entire passion narrative on Palm Sunday.  The alternate gospel lesson focuses on Jesus’ entering Jerusalem.  The rest of the pre-resurrection story will be handled with a special Holy Week edition. 

 

ISAIAH 50:4-9a

THE BACKGROUND

Most believe that this part of Isaiah was written during Israel’s exile in Babylon, around 550 BC.  They are the third of four song-poems that theologians have called Servant Songs. They describe the experiences of an unnamed servant of the Lord.  Who was this servant?  Some say it was God’s people, in this case Israel.  Some say it describes the prophets.  Christians want to conclude that these words refer to Jesus.  I would like to say yes and no to all three!  But before I do, here are all four song-poems1:

 

THE DETAIL

  • The first thing to note that this song is written in the first person (“me” instead of “he”).  It is a personal recounting.  Could this be Isaiah sharing his story?  (v.4)
  • So, the servant’s ears are opened, and He listens to God’s directives.  He obeys, and “did not turn backwards”. (vv. 4-5)
  • Because of his conviction, he endures pain, suffering, and humiliation.  (v. 6)
  • Yet he is unmoved.  The words “I have set my face like flint…” are striking to me. Have you ever skinned a knee or cut your hand on a sharp rock?  This is determination!  (v. 7)
  • The remaining verses show dignity and resolve in the face of danger.  They seem to me to be like a boxer in a ring with his feet firmly planted.  “Bring it on!” the servant seems to say. (v. 8)
  • And finally, the servant proudly declares that “It is the Lord God who helps me…”  With God on his side, the others don’t stand a chance.

THE TAKEAWAY

So who was this servant?  The Bible doesn’t say!  Let’s look at two or three possibilities.

  • Early Christians were quick to see Jesus in these words.  The suffering described in Songs 3 & 4 is very descriptive of what Jesus endured. But think about it for a moment. These words were written over 500 years before Jesus walked the earth.  The people in exile would not have said “that’s Jesus!”  Imagine going into a publisher today with a manuscript that does not make sense, and asking for it to be published.  “No, it doesn’t make sense now, but it will in 500 years.” Do you think they’ll publish it? No.  These songs must have made sense to the people of Isaiah’s day. These words were preserved for over five centuries before they applied to Jesus.  But they sure do apply to Jesus’ suffering… 
  • Perhaps it applied first to God’s people, suffering for their faith in exile. They were in a foreign land which had weird religious beliefs, customs, and language.  The Jews most certainly were outcasts.  They were probably ridiculed, and perhaps at times even suffered physical pain for their faith.  These songs could have provided them with a spiritual strength to stand up to the opposition, and remain faithful.
  • Perhaps Jesus recalled these words during the final days of his time here on earth.  Maybe he also drew strength from these words.
  • Maybe we can also draw strength from these words, whomever they describe.  We are God’s people.  These words are also for us.  They can describe all of us who suffer for being steadfast in our faith to our Lord in the face of adversity.  Yes, I believe that these words were written for all of us.

1 Table from “Reading the Old Testament”, Bandstra, chapter 10.  Thompson Wadsworth Publishing
 

PHILIPPIANS 2:5-11

THE BACKGROUND

It is believed that this passage is actually the words to a hymn sung in the very early church.  Paul uses these beautiful words to instruct and encourage the church in Philippi.

THE DETAIL

Let’s divide this hymn into three sections.

  • The opening line instructs us to have the “same mind” that Jesus had.  The Greek word used here for “mind” is phronēte, which also means “thinking.2  So one could say that Paul is encouraging us to be so much like Jesus that we actually think like Him. (v. 5)
  • Next comes a very interesting point.  Jesus used to be in heaven with his Father, but he chose to set all that aside and take on human form.  Not only did he do this, he came in the most humble form—a poor carpenter’s son born in a barn.  Worse, he suffered a humiliating and agonizing death for us.  (vv. 6-8)
  • The song concludes with a hymn of praise.  (vv. 9-11)

THE TAKEAWAY

Jesus gave up everything he had going for him, up there in heaven.  Yet, he obeyed the will of his Father, and became like us.  Not only that, he suffered and died a humiliating death. All this he did because of love. 

We are called to “have the same mind” as Jesus. As his disciples, we are to be like Jesus.  Just as Jesus was a humble servant for his Father, so should we.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Humility and servitude are not valued commodities today, any more than they were in Jesus’ time.  Are we truly prepared to be like Jesus, think like Jesus, and be willing to obediently suffer like Jesus, if called to do so?

 

2 For the record, I do not know ancient Greek.  This fact was taken from the commentary found for this Sunday, www.workingpreacher.com.

 

Luke 19:28-40

THE BACKGROUND

According to last week’s gospel lesson from John, Jesus had dined with Lazarus’ family in Bethany.  This week’s gospel seems to straddle that event.  (More on this in the detail.)  But the main point here is Jesus is making preparations to enter Jerusalem, and complete what he came to earth to do.

THE DETAIL

  • “After he had said this” refers to a parable that he has just told about another king, one who was hated by his people.  Jesus is about to demonstrate how a godly king acts.  This scene happened along the way to Jerusalem.  (v. 28)
  • This account does not mention the dinner party at Lazarus’ house.  But it does say that when he was in that area, he sent two of his disciples on ahead to obtain a colt for his entry into Jerusalem. Presumably, while they were getting this colt, he had dinner at Lazarus’ home.  They did as Jesus said, and brought the colt to him.  It is interesting to me that this colt “has never been ridden”.  It was an unbroken colt. (vv. 29-34)
  • [Presumably] after the dinner party (maybe the next day?), they put their coats on the colt, and Jesus is set upon it. (v. 35)
  • You know the story.  People threw their coats along the path, singing praises to Jesus.  (There is no mention of palm branches in Luke.) (vv. 36-37)
  • The Pharisees did not take kindly to these praises.  They ordered Jesus to silence the crowd.  Jesus simply says that it is not possible.  (vv. 38-40)

THE TAKEAWAY

Back in Luke 9:28-36 is the story of the transfiguration. We do not know what Elijah, Moses, and Jesus discussed on the mountain.  But perhaps they were discussing Jesus’ final days.  We do know that in Luke 9:51-53, Jesus is said to have “set his face toward Jerusalem”.  What does that mean?  Perhaps after the transfiguration experience, he was committed to the completion of his mission.  He had taught and healed all the way from Galilee to Judea.  He had accomplished the teaching portion of his mission.  Now it was time to accomplish the final sacrificial act of salvation.   It was time to enter Jerusalem and give his life for all.   I’m sure that as he did this, Isaiah’s words about the suffering servant were ringing in his ears.  He was going to the holy city to act out Isaiah’s prophecy, and save us all.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The second lesson tells us to be and think like Jesus. Are we ready to show our love for God by showing this love to those around us?  What will that love cost us?  Does the cost really matter?

For April 3, 2022

ISAIAH 43:16-21

THE BACKGROUND

This passage from Isaiah was written during Babylonian exile.  God’s people had been displaced from their homes in the Promised Land, and were living hundreds of miles away.  The outlook was hopeless.  There seemed to be no chance of ever returning home.  But then, God spoke these words to Isaiah.

THE DETAIL

  • “Thus says the Lord” is a cue from Isaiah that these words are not his, but God’s. Isaiah is merely the messenger. (v. 16a)
  • God reminds His people of a former time.  It was another hopeless time, when the Israelites were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. Conventional thinking would place the Israelites there forever.  But God rescued his people, exterminating the Egyptian army in the process.  (vv. 16b-17)
  • As soon as God recalls this saving act, He tells them to forget about it.  Why? Because He’s going to do it again!  He says “What’s the matter?  Can’t you see it happening before your eyes?”  (vv. 18-19)
  • And God will provide water for the journey, just like He did on the journey from Egypt. He is so worthy of praise that even the wild animals honor him!  (v. 20)
  • Why is He doing this?  Because He loves His own, so that they might praise him.  (v. 21)

THE TAKEAWAY

God is capable of doing the impossible.  He reminded those hopeless souls in Babylon that he loves them, and will save them.  He reminds you and me of this still today. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

When our lives seem hopeless, we need to remember that God is in control.  We need to keep the faith—God’s got this!


PHILIPPIANS 3:4b-14

THE BACKGROUND

The church in Philippi had been established by Paul.  Later on, after Paul left, some Jewish Christians insisted that these Gentile Christians must be circumcised like their Jewish Christian brethren.  The question in today’s passage is about what is important; what is it that “saves” us.  Is it our ritual traditions or something else?   

THE DETAIL

  • Paul starts out by stating that if anybody has “Jewish bragging rights”, it should be him. (v. 4b) 
  • He rattles of his list of qualifications for these “rights”  (vv. 5-6)
  • Then, Paul states that these qualifications are worthless.  I love The Message’s translation of verse 7:  “…I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash… all the things that I thought were important are gone from my life.”
  • He says that compared to the value of knowing Jesus, everything else is rubbish.  (v. 8)
  • The righteousness discussed in verse 9 has to do with how we live our lives.  Paul is saying that he no longer lives his life trying to obey the Law of Moses.  Instead, he lives his life based on faith in Jesus.  Then, his life-actions become an embodiment of God’s mercy and justice in the world around him.
  • The next verses are interesting, in that even Paul finds his faith journey continuous. He is ever struggling, ever striving, ever improving in faith and hope.  Verses 13b-14a are a beautiful summary of this struggle: “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on…”  (vv. 10-14) 

THE TAKEAWAY

I’ve heard people brag about being Lutheran their whole lives, or being “Baptist to the bone”.  Paul is talking, at least a little, to them. What matters most is having a sincere faith; a faith that recognizes that there is no end to the improvement that we can make.  We must be like Paul, straining forward in faith to the heavenly call of God. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Each denomination has unique ways of expressing their faith and ways of praising God.  Each is precious to those of that denomination. But we must remember that what is most important in our relationship with God is our faith.  All the detailed practices of our particular denomination aren’t exactly “rubbish”, as Paul calls it, but they are not as important as faith.
 

JOHN 12:1-8

THE BACKGROUND

Jesus is preparing for his entry into Jerusalem.  He stops in the nearby town of Bethany, where his dear friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha live.  They have prepared a banquet for him.

THE DETAIL

  • The clock is ticking.  Jesus has less than one week to live.  What lies before him is clear.  The mention of Lazarus prepares us for the subject at hand—death.  (v. 1)
  • They are going to have a nice dinner.  And yes, [formerly dead] Lazarus is in attendance. (v. 2)
  • Mary does something astonishing.  She tenderly anoints Jesus’ feet with an extremely expensive perfume.  She is preparing him for his death.  (v. 3)
  • Judas is present, and objects to the extravagance.  He claims that the money should be spent on the poor.  But the Gospel writer sees through this ploy. (vv. 4-6)
  • Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone, that she is preparing him for his burial. (v.  7)   
  • The last verse is sometimes quoted by rich people today to justify not giving to others in need.  But Jesus’ words reflect Deuteronomy 15:11—“Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’.”

THE TAKEAWAY

This entire passage foretells of Jesus’ impending death.  Lazarus looming presence is one indication.  The nard is another.  Judas is beginning to stem out of line, but that’s not the main point of this story. Jesus is about to suffer and die for our sins.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Isn’t it ironic that some use Jesus’ words to justify not giving to the needy?  Yet, Jesus’ partial quote of Deuteronomy 15:11 indicates that he was saying the exact opposite. 

 

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