Monday, March 31, 2014

Indisputable Proof and Blind Rejection

  Life of Christ 54

          When the infirm man told his friends the wonderful news about Jesus Christ you would expect them to rejoice with him, and you would expect wrongly. Actually, the response of these Jews wasn't to rejoice with a man whose entire life had been fixed, but to run straight to Israel's religious leadership with the news that it was Jesus who had been breaking the Sabbath. And immediately, instead of discussing what this meant in relation to His claims to be the Messiah, the leadership begins to plan just how to go about killing Him (John 5.16).
          He isn't hard to find in Jerusalem that week, and Israel's religious leadership sends a delegation to confront Him about this event. Jesus readily admits it, 'But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work' (John 5.17).
         In the tense conversation that follows between a furious group of appalled Pharisees and a firm Galilean rabbi He asserts that He is the Messiah, and that He is God, and that they should believe on Him just as the paralyzed man had done in order to be forgiven of their sins and be saved. He then proceeds to give them four evidences or witnesses that establish the veracity and authenticity of His astounding claims (John 5.17-40).
          First, He points them to the witness of John the Baptist. 'Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth. But I receive not testimony from man: but these things I say, that ye might be saved. He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light' (John 5.33-35).
          John wasn't just any other man. He was accounted, even in His own time, as a prophet, and his views about Jesus were widely known, clearly spelled out, and oft repeated. 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world' (John 1.29).
          Israel's religious leadership could not ignore this because the great mass of common people loved John the preacher and John the man. Jesus knew this, and He knew Israel's religious leadership had no rational explanation for how John could be right about so many things, and good for Israel, but completely wrong about what he said in relation to Jesus.
          Second, He points them to His own miraculous works. 'But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me' (John 5.36).
          Miracles, as I have already mentioned, were signs pointing toward the authenticity of Jesus' claims, and He did the kind that could not be ignored. He did the kind that could not be faked. He did the kind that involved many people. He did the kind that nobody else would even have considered making up. He did the kind whose results were immediately and visibly apparent. He did the kind whose results continued. He did miracles for the nobility. He did them for the working class. He did them for the outcasts of society. He did them from a distance. He did them on land and on water. He clearly and repeatedly had power over nature, disease, and the demonic world.
          They had no answer for John the Baptist. They could not possibly dispute the authenticity of His many miracles. But He wasn't done yet. He also offered them the third witness, that of the Father. 'And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me' (John 5.37).
          When did this happen? At Jesus' public baptism just over a year ago, in front of crowds of people, many of them from Jerusalem, down at the Jordan River. 'And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased' (Matthew 3.16-17).
          There may well have been in the group that gathered around Jesus and Israel's religious leaders in Jerusalem that very day people who were at the Jordan River a year ago when Jesus was baptized. If there were not such people surely would not be hard to find. If Israel's religious leadership really did want to establish the veracity of Jesus' claims let them interview some of these people, and then let them try to weasel out of the fact that Jehovah had spoken in an audible voice at Jesus' baptism, and pronounced that Jesus was God's Son.
          They had no answer for John the Baptist. They could not dispute the authenticity of the many miracles. They could not disprove the publicly audible testimony of the Father in front of many assembled people. But that's not all as there was also a fourth witness, that of the Scriptures themselves. 'Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me' (John 5.39).
          As if the first three witnesses were not compelling enough Jesus sends them a clear challenge: 'You claim to be experts on the Old Testament; go take a look at the dozens of prophecies about the messiah and see how they correspond to My life.'
          This is one of those aspects of Jesus' life that is absolutely impossible for the skeptics to ignore. These prophecies were clearly in existence prior to the time of Christ. These prophecies were spread amongst dozens of Old Testament writers. These prophecies referred to numerous different aspects of the messiah's life and ministry. The existence of these prophecies could not have been faked after the fact, nor could it be ignored that they pointed, like a laser beam, smack dab at Jesus.
          Even though most of them had not yet been fulfilled at the time Jesus was having this conversation at His second Passover many of them had been. The messiah was to be born of a virgin. Check. The messiah was to be of the house of David. Check. The messiah was to have spent time in Egypt. Check. The messiah was to be preceded by a messenger. Check. The messiah would minister in Galilee. Check. The messiah would be called a Nazarene. Check.
          It is almost like Jesus is throwing these things at them, piling up a mountain of evidence, forcing them to confront the fact that their unbelief in Him was not a careful and responsible diligence to establish the facts with painstaking care, but was instead a stubborn rebelliousness that rejected indisputable truth. To me, one of the saddest verses in all the Bible is found toward the end of this conversation. After Jesus heals the infirm man, is attacked for it, and offers clear and convincing proof that He is right, and is still rejected, we find this awful statement: 'And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life' (John 5.40).
          There is an old statement that says there are none so blind as those who will not see. That was the case with Israel's religious leadership. Their problem wasn't an intellectual one, but a spiritual one. It wasn't a head problem but a heart problem. They didn't want, in their heart, to yield to Christ. He piled up evidence after evidence after evidence, indisputably, and publicly, and all they did was attack Him for telling a man to carry His bed on the Sabbath.
          Beloved, this thing of ours, this Christianity, is real. He is Who He said He was. And we are right to bow before Him, and to embrace Him, and to live for Him.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you can find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 26, 'Four Witnesses'.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Jesus, Which Made Him Whole

  Life of Christ 53

          Jesus, while attending the second Passover of His public ministry, takes time to visit the Pool of Bethesda. This was a rectangular, distinctively man-made pool, open to the elements, surrounded on all four sides by covered porticoes, and intersected in the center with a wall that also had a covered portico on it, and that controlled the flow of water between both sides. Apparently, according to John, sick people gathered here waiting for an occasional troubling of the waters that resulted in healing. I confess I do not understand that, but the infirm man had been waiting 38 years there and had seen it happen many times.
          For some centuries theological liberals would use this story (John 5.1-16) to attack the veracity of John's Gospel because there was zero archaeological evidence for a five sided and covered man-made pool near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. They asserted that the Gospel of John was fabricated centuries after the life of Christ by someone who obviously had no knowledge about Jerusalem whatsoever.
          There is an old statement in archaeology that says absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. In other words, just because it hasn't been dug up yet doesn't mean it never existed. This is often conveniently ignored by those who attack the Bible, well, at least until their faces are rubbed in it when something is dug up.
          Yep, you guessed it, the Pool of Bethesda was found, right where it was supposed to be. The November 3, 1888 Richmond Examiner carries an article attributing the discovery to Conrad Schick, a German missionary had lived in Jerusalem for decades. The intervening century and a third has largely vindicated him, and now nobody attacks the authenticity of John's Gospel on the basis of the Pool of Bethesda.
          I do not know why Jesus chose this particular man to heal rather than any of the multitude of others who were waiting there, but I do want you to put yourself in his position for a moment.
          You have been infirm for decades. As the years pass you bitterly come to realize that you will never be able to get into the Pool at the right moment. Suddenly, an obscure Galilean rabbi appears with a small group of followers, engages you in conversation, and the next thing you know you are in better health than you have ever been. He tells you to pick up your bed and carry it away. You do, never stopping to think for one moment that it is the Sabbath and you aren't supposed to carry your bed. Suddenly, around you a commotion arises.
           'Hey, bud, put that bed down! You're not allowed to carry that!'
           You answer, 'There was a guy and He healed me, and He told me to pick it up and carry it, and I'm gonna' listen to Him.'
          They say, 'Which guy?' but suddenly you can't find Him anywhere. You search and search but you don't ever find Him so you head, naturally, to the Temple, a place you haven't been able to visit for years, not since you were a little boy. You are eager to praise God for the wonderful fortune that has befallen you. There, He finds you again. He engages you in a spiritual conversation about sin and Himself, and you come to believe in Him as your Saviour and Messiah. You run back to the Pool and tell everybody you know, 'I found Him! His name is Jesus. And He is wonderful! He made me whole!'

          Are you empty? Are you incomplete? Are you missing something that you just cannot quite put your finger on? Are you searching? When you find Him, and He is what you are looking for whether you know it or not, you will find just exactly what is needed to make you whole.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Bankruptcy of the Pharisees

  Life of Christ 52

          Just about a year ago Jesus of Nazareth threw off the anonymity that had cloaked Him for the entirety of His earthly career and embraced a public life of ministry. The bulk of the time thus far has been spent in His home province of Galilee preaching from town to town. Our two stories today find Him back in Jerusalem for what is probably the second Passover observance of His ministry.
       We are going to look at two stories because they both happen around the same time and in the same general vicinity. Additionally, the Pharisees reaction to them both was the same, and the point that Jesus sought to get across to them in response was the same.
          In the first story (John 5.1-16) Jesus interacts with an infirm man and heals him. This interaction happened to take place upon a Sabbath. He was so thoroughly healed that even though he had lain in the same place for 38 years he had the vigor to carry his bed away with him.
          In the second story (Matthew 12.1-8) Jesus and His disciples are walking through a field, and they plucked some grains of wheat with their fingers and chewed them as they walked. This was a perfectly acceptable behavior on the part of these men other than the fact that it, like the first story, took place upon a Sabbath day.
          In both cases the Pharisees respond by attacking Jesus for doing these things on the Sabbath day. 'The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed' (John 5.10), and, 'But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day' (Matthew 12.2). In picking this particular battle with Jesus, not only did they pick a battle with the wrong Man, but from my perspective they could not have chosen a better issue with which to reveal their own theological and practical error. In other words, this is the ground of their own choosing, and I think it, more than almost anything else they did, illustrates the complete spiritual bankruptcy that was the hallmark of their movement.
          Let me first say that it is certainly true that the Torah forbids working on the Sabbath. 'Remember the sabbath day; to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:' (Exodus 20.8-10). But the Pharisees had taken this relatively straightforward commandment and so fenced it in with numerous regulations so as to make it absolutely ridiculous.
          J. W. Shepard, a 20th century Southern Baptist missionary and professor said it this way in his book on the life of Christ:

There was no institution among the Jews regarded with more veneration and scrupulosity than that of the Sabbath. It was a divinely ordained and beneficent part of the Mosaic economy, designed for the rest of man and for his worship and service to God…Beginning with sunset on Friday, announced by three trumpet blasts from the Temple and synagogue, it ended at sunset on Saturday. All food must be prepared, all vessels washed, all lights kindled, and all tools laid aside. There were restrictions laid down in the Mosaic law; but the Rabbis had elaborated from these a vast array of injunctions and prohibitions, making of the Sabbath law a veritable bondage. Moses said: “Thou shalt not do any work.” The Rabbis made out a system of thirty-nine works, which done rendered the offender subject to death by stoning. Derived from these “father-works” were numerous “descendant-works.” One of the “father-works” was ploughing: a son of this was “digging.” Wearing false teeth was a “descendant” of “carrying a burden.” Among the descendants of “reaping” were the “plucking of a head of wheat” or the “pulling out of a grey hair” from one’s head. Lengthy rules were formulated about what kind of knots one might tie on the Sabbath. The camel-driver’s and sailor’s knots might not be tied or unloosed. Two letters of the alphabet might not be written together. To kindle or extinguish a fire was a great desecration, not being justified even in case of the emergency of sickness. The Sabbath had become a grievous burden by the thousands of restrictions and rules too numerous to mention.

          Edersheim adds:

For example, it was forbidden to draw a chair along the ground lest it should make a rut; and although it was permissible to spit on a pavement and rub the expectoration with the foot, it was debated whether it were permissible to perform the operation on the earth, inasmuch as the foot would scratch the surface…To walk on a crutch or a wooden leg was permissible; but to go on stilts was forbidden, since it was not the stilts that carried the man but the man that carried the stilts…A tailor must not go abroad with his needle nor a scribe with his pen toward sunset on Friday, lest the Sabbath should begin ere his return and find him abroad with his burden…An ordinary Sabbath day’s journey extended 2000 cubits beyond one’s dwelling. But if at the boundary of that ‘journey’ a man deposited on the Friday food for two meals, he thereby constituted it his dwelling, and hence might go for another 2000 cubits…Supposing a traveler to arrive in a place just as the Sabbath commenced, he must only take from his beast of burden such objects as are allowed to be handled on the Sabbath. As for the rest, he may loosen the ropes and let them fall down of themselves.

          There were twenty four entire chapters of the Talmud devoted to the specific rules related to what you could and couldn't do on the Sabbath. For instance, you couldn't carry a burden, and a burden was defined as the weight of a fig, but if you divided the fig in half and carried it twice it was legal on the Sabbath. If water fell on a dress you could shake it, but you could not wring it out. Chapter after chapter is dedicated to such nonsensical specificity, and the Talmud itself speaks approvingly of one particular rabbi who spent two and a half years studying just one of these chapters.
          If we take the time to look at the specifics involving the accusation against Jesus' disciples regarding grain we will find the following proscriptions in the Talmud: If a woman was handling or cooking grain on the Sabbath, and she rolled it to remove the husk it was considered sifting or working. If she rubbed the head it was considered threshing or working. If she bruised the ear it was considered grinding or working. If she tossed the kernel in her hand it was considered winnowing or working. If she dropped a stalk of grain she wasn't allowed to bend over and pick it up. That was, you guessed it, considered working. However, the learned scribes had determined that if she then dropped a spoon on top of the stalk of grain she had already dropped, since she was allowed to carry a spoon on the Sabbath, she could bend over, pick up the spoon, and pick up the grain with the spoon at the same time. Wasn't it thoughtful of them to provide such a creative outlet for getting around their own draconian rules?
          We can see in this just how much rabbinism had produced a system in which an incredible amount of study was done in order to make sure one really obeyed God, and at the same time an incredible amount of ingenuity was done in order to get around all the rules with which they had tied themselves up in knots. 'For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders' (Matthew 23.4).
          And they were dead serious about all of this. 'And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day' (John 5.16). Jesus, in an astounding display of God's power and grace, healed a man paralyzed for thirteen thousand eight hundred and seventy days, at least, and their reaction was to want to kill Him.
          To me, that is all illustration, and the actual lesson can be boiled down to one basic sentence. Don't let your religion major on the minors. Was it important, in the Torah, to keep the Sabbath holy? Yes. But was it important to turn it into such a system of tyrannically petty instructions? No. Why? Because in so doing they taken the heart out of it.

          Several weeks ago I took one of our new converts through the section of our discipleship program that covers tithing. I taught him that what tithing was, from the Bible, and how to do it. In the process of it I told him that he should be careful to make sure he tithed completely, but that if he happened to be wrong by a cent or two on his check God wasn't going to throw a thunderbolt at him. Do I think he should tithe ten percent? Absolutely. Does that include more than just the net on his paycheck? Yes. But I'm not going to spend my ministry emphasis preaching, blogging, and studying out in fanatical detail how to establish dozens of instructions ensuring he does it correctly to the penny. I'm also not going to spend my time inspecting a hundred different church members to make sure they have then done their tithe in painstaking accordance with my exacting instructions. And I'm dead sure not going to try to kill those who don't dot every i and cross ever t according to my satisfaction. I will preach on the subject of tithing occasionally. I will model it in my own life. But I will do it in context, from the heart, and emphasize that heart, or I will not do it at all.
          God is after your heart, not necessarily how big of a fig you carry around your house on Saturday. Are you living holy? Are you loving your wife? Are you raising your children to love and serve God? Are you involved in some ministry helping people? Are you telling others about Christ? Are you honoring the Lord with your money? Are you looking for His return? Do you pray? Do you praise Him? Are you pursuing wisdom? Do you soak your mind and life in the Word of God? Is church a priority with you? Are you honest in your business dealings? Do you keep your word? Are you living a life of faith, mercy, and compassion? Is your life marked by worldliness and vanity? Are you covetous or grateful? Are you forgiving or bitter? Are you faithful to Him in the midst of trial and testing? Are you growing in grace, and closer to the Lord this year than last year? Do you love the Lord with all  your heart, soul, strength, and mind? These are the questions, beloved, that I would have you answer.
          It is the Lord that is important, not the hairsplitting of Sabbath keeping. Jesus said to the Pharisees in response, 'But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple' (Matthew 12.6). They had their Messiah, very God in the flesh, standing right in front of them. He had just marvelously demonstrated His authenticity by helping a man afflicted for four decades. …and all they could see was that one of their precious, extra-biblical instructions had been violated.
          How is your heart today? How is your relationship with the Lord of the Sabbath? I urge you, let us stop our unseemly focus on the fact that our second cousin, twice removed, on our mother-in-law's side says 'O my gosh' when she shouldn't. It is the Lord that is important, and love and obedience to Him from our heart.

If  you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you can find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 25, 'Lord Even of the Sabbath Day'.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

He Will Change Your Life

  Life of Christ 51

          'Want some mustard? It will change your life!'
          Every young person, at some point, does something that causes him in maturity to look back in horror at his younger self and say, 'What in the world were you thinking?' For me, one of those moments occurred at a summer camp I attended in ninth grade. For some reason, perhaps lack of sleep, perhaps emotional overload, perhaps just pure silliness, during a hotdog roast, I ran around the entire camp for an hour repeatedly offering people mustard. By the end my t-shirt was covered in yellow, and I had been given the look that silently told me to grow up approximately one hundred thousand times.
          But what I like about that was apparently I had been hearing a lot about something changing my life, and that is wonderful. It is wonderful because it was a Christian camp that was seeking to grow boys and girls closer to Jesus, and that is exactly what Jesus does – He changes your life.
          Jesus is a revolutionary, and when you let a revolutionary into your  world your whole life changes. When you get saved Jesus doesn't want you just to reform your old life; He is seeking to build in you a completely brand new life, one that reflects Himself. Paul said it this way in Colossians 3:

5  Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:
6  For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience:
7  In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them.
8  But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.
9  Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds;
10  And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:
11  Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.

          As you put on 'the new man' you will notice that it is completely different than 'the old man.' Forgive the poor illustration here, but it reminds me of a divorce and remarriage. When a woman ships out the old man she wants a completely different man to take his place, not just one who is slightly improved. When Jesus the revolutionary comes into your life you will find that you don't like what you used to like, you don't go where you used to go, you don't enjoy what you used to enjoy, you don't spend your money on what you used to spend money on, and you don't look how you used to look. Everybody you knew before you were saved will begin to look at you strangely, and they will push back against these changes. Before Jesus, you were a dead fish floating with the current. Now you are a salmon swimming upstream. The world is going in one direction, but your course correction is not just slightly tweaked – it is a brand new direction, and now headed completely opposite the lost world around you.
          To me, this is one of the saddest things about the wider contemporary American church model. Their approach, speaking broadly, is to attract and hold people by being as much like the world as possible. They are sincerely seeking to draw people to Jesus, but that Jesus was a revolutionary. He isn't in the business of adding a dash of Himself to people's lives and letting them continue on their merry way. He changes absolutely everything.
          A few months ago, over coffee, I talked to a man whose life was falling apart. I told him that if he sincerely came to Christ and sought to follow Him that he wouldn't recognize his own life twelve months later. He did come to Christ and for several months now he has been following Christ. If he continues, as I told him, he will find his life will be completely different. Why? Because Jesus is a revolutionary.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you can find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 24, 'A Revolutionary Not a Reformer'.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jesus and Politics

  Life of Christ 50

        Jesus was a revolutionary. I believe that. The problem with saying it, however, is that immediately people see him with ratty hair and a headband leading a communist peoples' revolution in Latin America. Yes, He was a revolutionary. No, He wasn't a political revolutionary.
          Think about it for a minute. He specifically turned down a decent chance to foment a political rebellion and lead a revolt against Rome (John 6.15). There is nothing about His ministry that indicates He was trying to accumulate political power. In fact, what He was clearly after was the spiritual obedience of His people from the heart.
          Of course, people always ask the question, 'Well, if He was offering Himself to Israel as her king what would He have done if they had accepted? Wouldn't He have then had to lead a rebellion against Rome?' But they didn't, and so He didn't, and I think the whole question is thus moot. We are not studying the life of Christ as an academic question, remote from real life application, and surrounded by a lot of what if's. We are studying the life that was actually lived in Palestine two millennia ago, and in that life He obviously didn't seek to lead a political movement.
          He just as obviously got this point across to His Apostles as well. In spite of Rome's corruption, human rights abuses, and the persecution she heaped on the early Church the Apostles quietly steered the Church away from any open confrontation with Rome. It wasn't that the Apostles and the early Church, or Jesus for that matter, were afraid of Rome. Men and women who march in complete faith to their own martyrdom aren't afraid of any earthly power. So why was it then that this revolution I speak of that Jesus lead didn't have a political component?
          Simply this: because political solutions to spiritual problems never work. For example, our American society is rushing headlong away from God's Law and embracing a pro-homosexual agenda. Can we solve this problem by passing a law? Well, we did. Back in 1996 the US Congress overwhelmingly passed the Defense of Marriage Act which was specifically aimed at the growing homosexual marriage movement. Fast forward 18 years and that law is in shreds, and a growing plurality of American states now recognize homosexual marriage. Can we solve this problem by putting in a constitutional amendment? Back in 1920 the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, and it specifically outlawed the transportation, sale, or use of alcoholic beverages. Fast forward 13 years and it was such a stunning failure that the American public overwhelmingly passed the Twenty First amendment repealing the Eighteenth, and now there are tens of thousands of places one can go to legally purchase alcohol in America. Can we solve the problem by leading the conservative anti-homosexual states in a radical secession from the rest of the country? Back in 1860… nevermind, you know how that one worked out. I say again that political solutions to spiritual problems never work.
          See, the problem in just this one example, an embrace of homosexuality, is a spiritual one. It is unrepentant, rebellious, sinful people by the millions rejecting God and the truths of God's Word. The only way, in this dispensation, to solve that problem is to win those millions of people to Christ, and to ground them in the teachings of God's Word. This is why, in my humble opinion, the single best thing we can do with our money and manpower is to start local churches. They are the scripturally ordained method of reaching people with the Gospel and lifting up the Word of God in this dispensation. In other words, they are a spiritual solution to a spiritual problem.
          Did you ever stop to ask yourself why Jesus chose Simon the Zealot as an Apostle? After all, he literally never says a single thing in the entire New Testament, and we have no record at all of anything about him other than his name. I mean, he was practically useless, at least until you look more closely at his name.
          The Israel of Jesus' day had tremendous problems, spiritually and politically. The Pharisees and Sadducees sought to answer the first, in disastrous fashion, and the Herodians and Zealots sought to answer the second, in a differently disastrous fashion. The Herodians wanted a closer link with Rome, and were in favor of essentially turning Judea into a permanent Roman province. The Zealots, on the other hand, sought to raise a military revolt against the entire might of the Roman empire, and so win Israel's freedom.
          All we know about Simon is that he was a Zealot, and it seems to me that Jesus chose him specifically for that reason. It is almost like Jesus is saying, 'See, I'm putting a man right smack dab next to me who used to think the answer to Israel's problems was a political one. But now he knows better. Now he knows that I am the answer, and there isn't any permanently good answer to be found in politics.'
          Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying, nor am I advocating, that we shouldn't be politically aware, concerned, or opinionated. We should, in a scripturally appropriate fashion. I regular read the newspapers, and keep myself well informed on the economic, legal, political and cultural issues of the day. I also believe very strongly in both voting and praying for our political leadership. But what I am saying is this: we shouldn't make political solutions our aim or goal, nor place our dreams in a political or legal solution to America's problems. My hope is not in politics because Jesus taught me not to place my hope there. He taught me to place it in Himself, and in His teachings. I gently urge you to do the same thing.

          Jesus was a revolutionary, but not a political one.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Jesus the Revolutionary

  Life of Christ 49

          We are entering a time in Jesus' ministry in which His fame has gone past the point of 'Did you hear about this guy?' to 'Do you think he is the messiah?'. Consequently, there are those who will seek to look beneath the surface of His reputation, and find out what makes Him tick. We saw this recently when, during a stopover in Capernaum, He was confronted and questioned by a waiting committee of the 'doctors of the Law.' Following that, He meets and calls Matthew, and spend some time with Him. This brings us to our story today (Matthew 9.14-17), another investigative story, if you will.
          John the Baptist, almost a year into Jesus' ministry, still has his own ministry, including a small band of disciples that remain loyal to him. Apparently, word has spread through the grapevine from one group of disciples (Jesus') to another (John's) that Jesus' group of seven or eight didn't fast every week. John's disciples did, and, of course, the Pharisaic rabbis had their own disciples, and they fasted as well.
          Fasting is commended in the Old Testament, and it had become customary in the years between Ezra and Jesus for spiritually observant Jews to fast once a week. The Pharisees, as was their wont, thought if once was good than two was better, and they fasted two days a week. But Jesus' disciples didn't fast at all. Some of John's disciples got up the courage, and on a visit to Galilee, probably specifically to see Jesus, asked Him why they didn't.

          Jesus answers their question by explaining that it isn't reasonable to expect a man to fast at a feast. Feast times were rather a period for rejoicing. Such occasions do not fit with the idea of fasting, which includes sorrow, penitence, and humility of soul. Jesus says, in essence, that since He, the Messiah, was here, the fact needed celebrated. There would be plenty of time for mourning and sorrow after He left.
          Following that explanation, Jesus gets to the unspoken root cause and problem of their question. We will see that this was often His way. He would answer a question, and then go beyond the simple answer to deal with the actual problem. Why did the Jews fast once a week? Was there a scriptural command to do so? No, but there was a traditional call for it, and that was the reason – tradition.
          Jesus was dealing with a religious system, cultured and led by Israel's pharisaic religious leaders, that emphasized the now traditional extra-biblical externals more than it did the spirit of the Torah, and obedience from the heart. He knows He has to tear down this too highly esteemed respect for tradition if He is to turn the people in the direction of real religion.
          At the same time, Jesus already knows that His attempt won't work, that Israel will reject Him, and that He will be killed. He has not yet begun emphasizing it to His disciples, but He does know it. His early knowledge is indicated clearly in John 2.18-19 when, just weeks into His ministry, He cleanses the Temple of the moneychangers, and refers to His own death and resurrection in answer to a question. Ergo, He knows as well that if He is going to fail at reaching His people, and at His attempt to fix what was broken in Israel's religion, that He must start something brand new to take its place. Thus, He gives an example to John's disciples to illustrate His reasoning behind overthrowing tradition, and going with something brand new.
          'No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved' (Matthew 9.16-17).
         Several years ago I undertook a reasonably extensive study of alcohol in the Bible. One of the things I learned is that alcoholic wine does not occur naturally in nature. Rot does, but not the kind of wine that is bottled and sold. To make that kind of wine one must have the correct temperature, and the proper amounts of sugar, yeast, and oxygen. Occasionally grapes rotting on the vine will become vinegary (vinous fermentation vs. acetous fermentation) but no one would drink that. To produce alcoholic wine, in Bible times, was definitely a man-made process.
          This process often involved certain kinds of yeast, which, once introduced into a wineskin stayed in the skin even when the alcoholic wine thus made was poured out. If you then poured new or sweet wine, which was just grape juice, into that skin, and if the temperature was just right and the sugar content of the grape juice was correct, you would then get a new batch of alcoholic wine regardless of whether that was your intention. More often than not, though, you would get a chemical reaction, which since you weren't expecting and thus weren't monitoring, would burst the wineskin open due to the fermentation process going on inside.
          In other words, as Jesus said, if you put new wine into old wineskins, skins that had alcoholic wine in them, that new wine would begin to ferment and the bags would burst. What you needed to do was put new wine into previously unused wineskins so there would be no active yeast cultures inside to spoil it.
          Jesus, to use His own illustration, was not just fixing an improperly made batch of alcoholic wine. He already knew that wasn't going to work. He was going to have to make a brand new batch of wine altogether. And it would be the height of foolishness for Him to place that brand new batch of wine right back into the old wineskins of traditional Judaism. The old wineskin would just ruin the new batch of wine He was making.
          For example, Jesus did set the record straight in relation to the popular yet oh-so-wrong hermeneutic of Old Testament interpretation. His Sermon on the Mount is clear proof of that. But that wasn't enough. No, His life produced, not just a fix to a wrongly interpreted Old Testament, but an entirely brand New Testament. The system of Temple worship, and its stepchild the synagogue would be replaced with a brand new institution called the Church. Judaism itself, with all of its numerous flaws, would be replaced with a brand new religion we call Christianity.
          It is fair to say that Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and grew out of Judaism, but is not fair to say that Christianity is a reformation of Judaism. It isn't. It is something revolutionary. It is something brand new.
          So many people wrongly assert that Jesus was a reformer, one who came to fix what was wrong with the religion of His day. They couldn't be more wrong. Reformation means the improvement or amendment of something that is wrong or corrupt. Jesus wasn't a reformer for He didn't leave behind an amended and fixed Jewish religion. Revolution, on the other hand, means an overthrow of what exists by replacing it with something totally new, and that is precisely what Jesus did.
          This is, to me, a totally crucial thing to understand about the life of Christ, and most people seem to miss it. He was a revolutionary, not a reformer. The American Revolution didn't fix what was wrong with the British governing system. It produced an entirely new country. Jesus didn't come to tweak Judaism, to edit it, or to add a little here and there around the edges. He came to bring something entirely new. He put new wine into new wineskins.

          Jesus was a revolutionary.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Saviour Welcomes Sinners

  Life of Christ 48

          We will see, in the course of  this series, that Jesus will make a gradual transition of emphasis in His ministry from offering Himself to Israel as her messiah to passionately training the Apostles in light of His own forthcoming death. But I believe He had that in mind from the very beginning. In fact, He gathered to Himself Andrew and another one or two of John the Baptist's disciples before He had preached a single sermon or performed a single miracle.
Henrikk ter Brugghen, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1621
         In that vein, we find the story in Matthew 9.9-13 of the calling of Matthew, also called Levi in the Bible. His father's name was Alpheus. Matthew held the job of tax collector, and Jesus called him while he was working. Matthew immediately responded in the affirmative, and held a feast for his coworkers in order to introduce them to Jesus and to his new life. The only other mentions of Matthew in the entire Bible are the parallel stories in Luke 5 and Mark 2, and, of course, his name is included in the various lists of the Apostles – but that's it. Although his name is well known as the title of the first book of the Christian New Testament literally not a single word he spoke is recorded anywhere in Scripture, and the only actions of his discussed are in relation to his initial call and response.
          So where does that leave us? I believe Jesus did every single thing on purpose, so why did He choose Matthew, and see to the fact that this choice was recorded if Matthew then never did another thing in all the Bible? I believe the answer is in the story of Matthew's calling itself. I think Jesus is giving the Church through the centuries a lesson on whom it should be reaching, namely, sinners.
          I have spent four decades intricately connected with local churches, seventeen of those years as a pastor. I have noticed that it is very easy for a church to turn inward, and to become about the church, and the people in it, as it seeks to minister to the genuine needs of the people who call it home. But Jesus spent (literally) His life going after sinners, of all kinds and stripes, and that is the lesson for us here I believe.
          The outstanding thing we know about Matthew's life is what he did for a living. He was a tax collector, otherwise known as a publican. But what did that entail, and what did it mean?
          The Roman Senate, after the Second Punic War, farmed out the direct receipt of taxes and customs. Certain capitalists agreed to pay the Roman treasury a given amount for the right to collect taxes within a certain geographical area. They often formed for-profit companies and then hired commissioned contract workers to do the actual collecting. For this purpose they would usually seek to employ locals who would know their way around the area. Adam Smith, in his seminal work on economics, The Wealth of Nations, says this system is essentially vicious, and he was correct.
          We can see in the Scriptures that they were known to overcharge at every possible opportunity. 'Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto t hem, Exact no more than that which is appointed you' (Luke 3.12-13). They were also known to bring false charges of smuggling in the hope of extorting hush money. 'And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold' (Luke 19.8).
          The publicans, in the face of societal opposition to taxes, would often band together, and demand that the local government pass stringent laws preventing their work from being impeded, and attach to those laws severe penalties if violated. All over the Roman Empire they were known to be harsh and fraudulent, and in the Roman system there was no real remedy for this. In fact, Cicero famously said that dealing with publicans and the issues around them was the hardest part about being a Roman governor. They were so universally despised that three different Roman writers, Terence, Stobaeus, and Zeno, speak of being a publican as the absolute worst way to make a living.
          This bad situation was only aggravated to awful in the Jewish provinces of Judea and Galilee. Most religious Jews did not believe in paying taxes to a secular government (Matthew 22.17). In fact, Judas of Galilee (not one of the Apostles) led a revolt against Rome in the time of Christ because of this very issue (Acts 5.37).
          If the publican was Jewish, and remember, they sought to hire locals, the other Jews regarded them as national traitors. Not only that, but they were regarded, because of their chosen vocation, as religiously apostate. To add insult to injury, because of their frequent interactions with their Gentile bosses, they were also regarded as unclean or defiled. Matthew 11.19 classes them sinners. Matthew 18.17 classes them with the heathen. Matthew 21.31 classes them with harlots. The Talmud gives three classes of men to whom promises need not be kept: murderers, thieves, and, you guessed it, publicans. Their money was not accepted in the alms box at the synagogue or the Temple. To write a publican's ticket or carry ink for him on the Sabbath was considered a sin. They were not allowed, under Jewish canon law, to sit on a jury or even to testify under oath in a court of law. They were, in every sense of the word, outcasts in Israel.
          In view of all this, the story related in Matthew 9.9-13 regarding Matthew's calling by Jesus Christ takes on a new light. All we know about Matthew is that he was a publican. All we know about publicans is that they were universally despised. Consequently, what we discover about Jesus is that the Saviour warmly welcomes to His side those whom society frowns upon the most.
          If we are to be like Christ there isn't anybody we shouldn't be willing to reach, to whom we shouldn't be willing to extend a hand of hope and mercy. The Gospel is the clarion call of good news for all men, not just the ones like us, or the ones we like. Let us reach ever color, every career, every age, every religion, every background, and every kind of sinner.
          When Jesus reached out His hand to me twenty six years ago I only had one qualification: I was a sinner – and Jesus welcomes sinners. John Newton, the author of the most famous hymn in the English language, 'Amazing Grace', slowly lost his mind toward the end of his life. On his deathbed he reportedly said, 'I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and He is a great Saviour.'
          We are surrounded in our towns and factories and offices and lives with great sinners of all types and descriptions. This is wonderful. It means they qualify for welcome at the hand of the Saviour. He welcomed me. He welcomes you. He even welcomed Matthew the publican. The Saviour welcomes sinners.
          Do we?

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 23, 'The Saviour Welcomes Sinners.'

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Dawn of Deity

  Life of Christ 47

          Well into Jesus' first year of ministry He pauses in the midst of His preaching tour of Galilee, and stops off at His home base of Capernaum. When He arrives He discovers that His reputation has spread so high and far that a delegation of 'doctors of the law' from Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem were waiting to speak with Him (Luke 5.17-26). Accompanying them was the new normal, a huge crowd of people that seemed to throng whatever house He happened to be in while in town.
          Meanwhile, a palsied man had the fortune of having some good friends who were determined to get him an audience with Jesus. As he could not walk they carried him, in his pallet, to the house where Jesus was, but they found the crowd so thick it was impossible to force their way through carrying the palsied man on his pallet. They decided to risk an unorthodox attempt at entry via the roof.
          Most roofs of ordinary houses in the Palestine of Jesus' day were not solidly constructed of timber, plywood, and shingles all nailed together such as ours are. The climate was mild, and consequently they were often flat, instead of peaked, and consisted of thin limestone tiles three feet long glued over rafters. Additionally, there was often no additional ceiling below this simple roof. Thus, it would have been relatively easy to pull up a few of those tiles, and then to repair the minimal damage afterward.
          This is exactly what these friends do, and I can picture the crowd in the rooms below shrinking back in alarm as the roof ceiling begins to open up. The friends then carefully lowered the palsied man through the gap and down into the space created inside as the people pressed backward.
          I want to pause the story for a moment, and explain an important doctrinal point that has direct bearing on what is to come. Up to this time, all through Jesus' first year of ministry, He had not yet mentioned publicly His claim to be God. He had clearly, repeatedly, and publicly asserted His claim to be the Messiah, but those two things (being messiah and being the Son of God) were not synonymous in the Jewish mind of the day. In fact, when you read the extant rabbinic writings of the time, although they frequently discuss the prophecies surrounding the promised messiah, and wander way out in the left field of expectation, they most assuredly do not expect this messiah to be divine.
          Jesus, of course, well understood this, and He realized that if He had launched His ministry and His claim to the messiahship by declaring Himself to be the Son of God He would have been immediately written off as crazy or stoned for being blasphemous. Jesus was a revolutionary, but He wasn't rash. He knew that He needed to build a solid base of support in the mind of His followers, and the general public, first so that when He did reveal His claim to deity people would be already prone to believe Him.
          If you stumble out of a darkened room into the brilliant sun of full noon you are not much helped, but rather blinded, and you do not welcome it so much as resent it. So it was with Jesus and the Jewish people. Gradually, as the sun climbs its way up the eastern sky, He revealed to His people the precious truth that He was not only their Messiah, but also their God come in the flesh. This story is the first blush of that rosy fingered dawn.
          Every word that Jesus was spoke was carefully considered, and wisely chosen. Fascinating, then, isn't it, that His first words to the palsied man were 'Thy sins are forgiven thee' (Luke 6.20)? Why start with that? Why not, 'hello'? Why not, 'What brings you here?' Why not, 'How can I help you?' or some version of that? Very simply, because in saying 'thy sins are forgiven thee' Jesus was launching a well placed cannon shot across the bow of the assembled delegation of Israel's religious leadership. By stating this, He was implicitly taking upon Himself the power to forgive sin, a power reserved in Jewish theology for God alone. Ergo, He was calling Himself God.
          John Cunningham Geikie, a 19th century Presbyterian preacher from Scotland said it this way:

The Law knew no such form as an official forgiving of sins, or absolution. The leper might be pronounced clean by the priest, and a transgressor might present a sin-offering at the Temple, and transfer his guilt to it, by laying his hands on its head and owning his fault before God, and the blood sprinkled by the priest on the horns of the altar, and toward the Holy of Holies, was an atonement that “covered” his sins from the eyes of Jehovah, and pledged his forgiveness. But that forgiveness was the direct act of God; no human lips dared pronounce it. It was a special prerogative of the Almighty, and even should mortal man venture to declare it, he could only do so in the name of Jehovah, and by His immediate authorization. But Jesus had spoken in His own name. He had not hinted at being empowered by God to act for Him. The Scribes were greatly excited; whispers, ominous headshakings, dark looks, and pious gesticulations of alarm, showed that they were ill at ease. “He should have sent him to the priest to present his sin-offering, and have it accepted: it is blasphemy to speak of forgiving sins, He is intruding on the divine rights.” The blasphemer was to be put to death by stoning, his body hung on a tree, and then buried with shame. “Who can forgive sins but One, God?”

          Jesus was doing several things here. He was presenting, for the first time, His claim to deity. Additionally, He did it in the presence of the 'doctors of the law', so that they had direct first-hand knowledge of it. This would allow them not only to carefully establish the circumstances, but also to see the proof for His claim that He was about to furnish them. He is also making this claim for the sake of the people watching, both those that already believed on Him and those that didn't. It was time they began to see Him for Who He really was, and especially for His followers to understand this. And, of course, He was also actually ministering to the palsied man in question.
         Jesus well knew that the reaction of the 'doctors of the law' would be theological horror, which it was. 'And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?' (Luke 6.21). Jesus proposes, then, a simple test. He will heal the palsied man as an evidence that He does have the power and authority to forgive sin. After all, it is certainly harder to immediately and publicly bring a clearly palsied man back to vigorous health than it is to simply say, 'Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.'
          So He does. The palsied man goes away both healed and saved. His friends are also likely saved, if they weren't already.  As well, Jesus, for the first time, plants the thought of His claim to deity in the minds of the Jewish people, and Israel's religious leadership is put on notice of those claims, and furnished with an immediate and convincing proof of their authenticity.
          You see, contrary to what so many modern religions assert, Jesus most emphatically did claim to be God. Of course, this is not the only time; it is, indeed, only the first time. Yet somehow Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Muslims, and scores of others all say differently. We will see, however, as this blog progresses, that Jesus asserted His claim to deity again and again and again. It is absolutely crystal clear in the New Testament, and the only possible way to miss it is to want to miss it. In fact, it was this claim that was precisely the religious motivation behind His assassination.
          Beloved, one of the fundamental truths we must firmly embrace, against all comers, at all costs, is the deity of Jesus Christ. He wasn't just a prophet. He wasn't just a good man. He wasn't just a religious leader. He wasn't must a moral ethicist. He wasn't just a social activist. He wasn't just another in a long line of influential and helpful religious leaders. He was God in the flesh, come down from Heaven, sent to be the only acceptable sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.
          This story contains yet one more exceedingly precious application. Since He is God He does have the power to forgive sin. Go ahead, try to name a sin that Jesus cannot forgive. Idolatry? Swearing? Breaking the Sabbath? Disrespecting your parents? Murder? Adultery? Theft? Lying? Coveting? Greed? Gambling? Smoking? Drinking? Drug Abuse? Rape? Homosexuality? The simple truth is that some people may be so far gone in their sins as to not want to be forgiven, but Jesus Christ can forgive anybody of anything. Including you.
          He can do that. He is God.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 22, 'The Son of Man Hath Power to Forgive Sins'.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Balance Between Compassion and Convictions

  Life of Christ 46

          Usually, when Jesus did a miracle related to illness, it was said that He healed the person. Leprosy was different. It wasn't healed, but cleansed. This was because leprosy in Jesus' day was an incurable physical ailment, easily contagious and highly unsightly, and so the leper was considered completely unclean. Interestingly, the Torah, while it goes into great detail about how to determine the early presence of leprosy, and how to establish its absence, makes absolutely no provision for the curing of or cleansing of it. Even the Mishnah, which had a vast collection of mythological miracles done by various rabbis, contains absolutely nothing about a leper being healed or cleansed.
          The Jews of Jesus' day, driven by the Pharisees, could be incredibly harsh toward what they viewed as defilement, or something unclean. To quote Edersheim:

In the elaborate code of defilements leprosy was not only one of the “fathers of uncleanness,” but, next to defilement from the dead, stood foremost amongst them. Not merely actual contact with the leper, but even his entrance defiled a habitation, and everything in it, to the beams of the roof.
True, as wrapped in mourner’s garb the leper passed by, his cry “Unclean!” was to incite others to pray for him – but also to avoid him. No one was even to salute him; his bed was to be low, inclining toward the ground. If he even put his head into a place, it became unclean. No less a distance than four cubits (six feet) must be kept from a leper; or, if the wind came from that direction, a hundred were scarcely sufficient. Rabbi Meir would not eat an egg purchased in a street where there was a leper. Another Rabbi boasted, that he always threw stones at them to keep them far off, while others hid themselves or ran away. To such extent did Rabbinism carry its inhuman logic in considering the leper as a mourner, that it even forbade him to wash his face. As the leper passed by, his clothes rent, his hair disheveled, and the lower part of his face and his upper lip covered, it was as one going to death who reads his own burial service, while the mournful words, “Unclean! Unclean!” which he uttered proclaimed that his was both a living and moral death.

          In light of this we can see that no leper would ever approach a rabbi yet one did of them did dare to approach Jesus (Mark 1.40-45). There must have been something in the demeanor of Jesus Christ, in how He conducted Himself, that spoke to that sick and lonely leper, and told him he might find compassion here. And he did. 'And it came to pass, when he was in a certain city, behold a man full of leprosy: who seeing Jesus fell on his face, and besought him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And he put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will: be thou clean. And immediately the leprosy departed from him' (Luke 5.12-13).
          One of the hallmarks of Jesus' life was His compassion. For years the leper had experienced no sympathetic human touch. Dozens of times yesterday at church I gave a child a gentle hug, or a kiss on the top of the head, or received a welcoming handshake, or an affectionate slap on the back. Such things warm our heart, and assure us that we are accepted within our circle of friends and family. They minister encouragement and good cheer to those to whom the world has only turned a cold shoulder all week. But the leper, not for a week, but for months of years, had experienced no sympathetic human touch. After all, who in their right mind would touch him? Who would want to risk, not only the ritual defilement, but the possibility of contracting such a loathsome disease?
          Jesus did. What compassion there is here! What tenderness and human sympathy expressed toward a cursed and solitary man! Beloved, may we never forget that Jesus cares.
          I am, unashamedly, an independent fundamental Baptist. In saying that I full well realize the various stigmas that go with it, one of which is that we are known as being a group that is against practically everything, it seems. At the moment it is popular in our movement to criticize this, and though I refuse to use this blog to simply address current trends, I must say I find all of that a bit a short sighted, to say the least. It is good that we clearly mark errant behavior, and stand against it, no matter how that makes us look in the eyes of other people. In fact, I think a public and unabashed stand against wrong was modeled by Jesus Christ, and if we want to be Christ like people we must embrace this, even if it comes with a bit of reproach now and again.
          Having said that, it is at least equally important, if not more so, that we don't fall into the trap of letting our distaste of defilement overrule our compassion for people. Yes, our convictions ought to be high indeed, but our compassion must always run deeper than our convictions run high. This doesn't mean that personal and corporate convictions and standards are not important, for they clearly are, but it does mean that if we don't constantly work at deepening and displaying our compassion then we run the risk of becoming just like the Pharisees. They were more concerned with avoiding defilement, to an irrational extreme, than they were in ministering to people in need, and Jesus Christ, as He would with so many other things in His day, turned that on its head.
          Jesus was for the Law. He was more against the breaking of it than anybody could possibly understand. But when that leper knelt before Him Jesus reached out in compassion to touch him, and to cleanse him. Beloved, let us be known, not just for what we are against, but also, and more, for what compassion we display and extend to the lonely, hurting, unclean sinners all around us.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 21, 'Be Thou Clean'.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Five Things About Jesus and Prayer

  Life of Christ 45

          It is Sunday morning. Jesus had preached yesterday, and then stayed up late into the night doing miracles and ministering to people. Naturally, then, as all preachers do early on Mondays, He gets up before dawn, walks out of town, finds a lonely spot, and pours out His soul in prayer (Mark 1.35-39).
          I do not have, today, some great insight from the rabbinical writings. I do not have some fascinating explanation of the story. I do not have some interesting tidbit from the culture of the day. What I do have is five simple thoughts from this story about prayer.
          First, we notice that He prayed for large chunks of time.
          God hears you, assuming your heart is right, no matter how long or short you pray. Additionally, there is no specific scripture passage that demands we spend a certain amount of time in prayer. But these two facts, while facts, do not mean that our prayer life is designed to consist of short, brief, occasional prayers. What we find in the life of Christ is an example modeled for us in scripture of a prayer life that occupied great amounts of time.
          'And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed' (Mark 1.35).
          'He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God' (Luke 6.12).
          'And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest thou not watch one hour?' (Mark 14.37).
          Respectfully, don't tell me that you can't pray for an hour. Tell me you haven't yet, but don't tell me you can't. I think, if you tried, you might not get to an hour but you would be shocked how much further you would get than you thought you would, and with time and experience your ability to pray in blocks of time will grow.
          Second, He prayed in the wilderness.
          I have already referenced this in this blog, but one of the things you see about the life of our Lord is an oft repeated emphasis. It is a scriptural truth that you can pray anywhere and God can hear you (John 4.24). It is also a scriptural truth that you can pray among other people (Matthew 21.13). But there is also a scriptural emphasis on praying alone, in complete privacy. When there is zero fear of being overheard you can pour out the innermost thoughts of your heart and soul (Psalm 62.8).
          Yes, this can be done alone on top of a skyscraper, for instance, but there is something to be said in scripture about the importance of stillness and quiet when communicating with God. 'Be still and know that I am God' (Psalm 46.10). 'Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth' (Isaiah 5.8). I encourage you to find a wilderness somewhere, a place where you can be completely alone, and in relative quiet, and then spend some chunks of time in prayer there.
          I can hear it now, 'This is all well and good for you preachers, but it is completely unreasonable for me.' Why? Is Jesus only modeling prayer for preachers? Are preachers the only ones that need to pray or are they the only ones to whom God listens? I'm glad you work hard for a living, forty or fifty hours a week, but what about your days off? Could you not take an hour or two and just get alone with God once in a while out in the woods? Find a wilderness and pour out your heart to the Lord until you forget what time it is.
          Third, He prayed.
          I know why I need to pray. I'm sinful. My natural state is to drift away from God. I'm a frail and weak human being. I'm completely powerless to change events beyond my control. I also know why you need to pray. After all, you are just like me. But why would Jesus need to pray? He was sinless, never away from the Father for a moment of His existence until the cross, He worked miracles, and He knew what was in man's heart. When you set you and I on one side and Jesus on the other it would seem that He wouldn't need to pray at all, yet He clearly did, and did as a point of emphasis.
          I believe strongly that although He was the divine Son of God He laid aside aspects of those attributes when He took upon Himself the form of man. The human Jesus voluntarily was not omnipresent, omniscient, or omnipotent. He did His works in the power of the Holy Spirit, yielded to Him. In other words, He, in essence, depended for what He needed just as much on God as you and I have to do. And so He prayed. And if He prayed then you and I certainly need to pray.
          Fourth, the more He was involved in ministry the more He prayed.
          We find Him, at this point, several months into His public ministry, on His initial preaching tour of Galilee. He has begun doing miracles. He has begun preaching on a regular basis. He has begun gathering to Himself a few men to train. Galilee is responding to all of this with enthusiasm, and the Bible says that at this time 'all men seek for thee' (Mark 1.37).
          If this took place in 21st century America to us we would promptly hire an assistant pastor and another secretary, launch some new programs for the young people, begin formulating a book, and plan a nationwide preaching tour. Jesus didn't. He prayed.
          Every child of God needs to serve Him, whether inside a local church or outside of it. As that ministry grows it should begin to dawn on you that your need for His help also grows. For example, a bread delivery truck driver is assigned a certain route. If he takes his work conscientiously and does it well he will find that his route grows. As his route grows he will then find he needs more bread. The same thing is true of you and I. Just like Jesus, the more we are involved in ministry the more we need to pray. I am reminded of Luther's famous dictum, 'I have so much to do today I must spend the first three hours in prayer.' We cannot give people what they need unless we get it from the Lord, and the more need with which we are faced the more time we must spend with Him.
          Fifth, He prayed, and others followed. 'And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with him followed after him' (Mark 1.35-36).
          One of the great fringe benefits of becoming a person of prayer is that others follow you in the same thing. Inside every genuine Christian there beats at least a tiny desire to learn to pray. It may be largely silenced by materialism, carnality, laziness, intimidation, comparison, or insecurity, but it is there. When you learn to really get a hold of God He can use that to motivate others to want to get a hold of God too. 'And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said, Lord, teach us to pray' (Luke 11.1).
          Fathers, if you want your children to pray, then pray. Mothers, if you want your children to pray, then pray. Teachers, if you want your students to pray, then pray. Husbands, if you want your wife to pray, then pray. Friends, if you want your friends to pray, then pray. Blaze the trail and others will come behind you.
          Several years ago my father sustained a terrible heart attack, and had to undergo an emergency quadruple bypass surgery. God, in His grace, brought him through it, but I am reminded of the days in the hospital immediately afterward. He wasn't allowed to go home until the breath in his lungs was powerful enough to hold a certain ball up in a breathing chamber. This was important because breath brings oxygen, and you cannot live without oxygen. So they had him breathe and breathe and breathe into that little chamber, pushing the ball up again and again and again. Prayer is the lungs through which our Christianity breathes; pray and pray and pray, and then watch in amazement as your prayer life takes shape and strength.
          There is nothing more important to your Christian life than prayer.

If you would like to hear the audio version of this blog you can find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 20, 'And There Prayed.'