Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Disciples Remember

Both Matthew and Mark record an additional miraculous feeding of large crowds. All four Gospels record the feeding of the 5,000 (Mat. 14:15-21), only the first two record the feeding of the 4,000 (Mat. 15:32-39). Some suppose that a literary doubling has taken place, but there are differences. For one, the numbers are different. Not only is the size of the crowd different, the number of loaves and fishes are different. The first miracles feeds 5,000+ with five loaves of bread and two fish, the second feeds 4,000+ with seven loaves of bread and “a few” fish. He feeds less with more. The number of baskets that are left over are also different, but as the types of baskets are different I am not sure what the quantitative difference actually is. But it is not these differences that I want to look at in this post, it is the difference in the disciples themselves.

Now at first glance there is no difference. How can the disciples be so stupid in not seeing that Jesus can feed these 4,000 after he has already fed the 5,000? But is that a fair reading of the disciples? In the first feeding the disciples approach Jesus before the first day was over, in the second feeding Jesus calls the disciples to himself after the third day. I think the Lutheran commentator R. L. Lenski is correct in seeing this as an indication that they trusted Jesus to take care of the situation.

But what about their answer to Jesus? Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude? Well, where indeed would they get the bread? From Christ? Yes indeed, they put the provision of the crowd back into the hands of Jesus Christ. Jesus takes the seven loaves of bread and few fish and proceeds to feed the 4,000 men plus women and children. Instead of seeing the disciples as stupid and faithless, we should acknowledge that this time they remember to put the whole affair in the hands of their Lord. In the span of two chapters Matthew has painted a picture of maturing faith in the apostolic band. Certainly Jesus will have many more opportunities to rebuke their little faith, but this time their faith gives all the glory to Christ, and there in nothing in that to rebuke.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Low Expectations

And Jesus departed from thence, and came nigh unto the sea of Galilee, and went up into a mountain, and sat down there. And great multitudes came unto him, having with them those that were lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and cast them down at Jesus’ feet; and he healed them: insomuch that the multitude wondered, when they saw the dumb to speak, the maimed to be whole, the lame to walk, and the blind to see: and they glorified the God of Israel. Matthew 15:29-30.
This is one of those passages that we just skim over while we are reading. It is one of a few summaries of mass miracles that Jesus worked. It’s as if even Matthew has gotten a bit bored with the topic, but not quite. The summaries fit into larger contexts and serve to remind us of the fact that Jesus is the promised redeemer (see Isaiah 35, particularly verses 5 & 6, compare Matthew 11:7-15).
What strikes me about this particular summary is the fact that the crowds are surprised Jesus healed those who were brought to him (the multitude wondered). Presumably they brought him the lame, the blind, the mute (dumb), and the maimed for just such a result. It teaches us that faith is rarely found without a (large) share of doubt. The multitudes didn’t really trust Jesus to work genuine miracles. They probably thought he would give them some inspirational mumbo jumbo and sleight of hand and send them on their way. They were used to magicians and wonder workers, they were not used to him who caused the speechless to speak, who made the maimed whole, who caused the lame to leap for joy, and opened the eyes of the blind that they may see. Here was he who was sent by the God of Israel.
There are lessons here for us as well. As I mentioned above, it teaches us that our faith is often marred by a great deal of doubt. How many times does that lack of trust cause us to, as it were, stay home and not seek the Lord’s mercy. Think of your prayer life. We often struggle with prayer because we lack faith in the results. We don’t really believe that the Lord is interested in our burdens and struggles. Low expectations in prayer is an affront to the Lord’s liberality. If we don’t have faith, prayer will do us little good. We’ll never ask or seek, and so we will never find:
Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and ye shall find: knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth: and he that seeketh findeth: and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Matthew 7:7-11.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fire that Burns, Fire Giving Light

‘For behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up,’ saith the Lord of hosts, that shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings, and [ye] shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.’ Malachi 4:1,2.
Here we are told that when the Lord comes in judgment it will be experienced in two different ways. To those who fear the Lord it will be like the refreshing Sun after a long winter. To those who scoff at the Lord’s concern for justice, it will be an oven that will consume them. It is, I think, significant that roughly the same imagery is used for both experiences: fire. To one it is the heat of judgment, to the other the light of righteousness. This is true of any encounter with the holy Lord. He is awful in justice. He is terrifying in his goodness. Here is One that probes the depths of my heart that I cannot even know (Jer. 17:9,10), that does not give any quarter to iniquity (Exo. 34:6,7), that demands a holiness equal to his own (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:13-16). This view of God cannot be but a threat to one not righteous, and none of us are.
But there is a righteousness available by faith: the righteousness of Jesus Christ. When we forsake any dependency on our own worth, and cast ourselves completely on the mercy of Jesus Christ,we may then stand before the judgment of God, because it is not we, but Christ who stands in our stead. But the gospel, too, causes a division in reception. Like the fire of the day of judgment, the gospel reveals a distinction among men:
For we [the preachers of the gospel] are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish. To the one we are the the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life: and who is sufficient for these things? 2 Cor. 2:15,16.
To those who have been born anew by the work of the Holy Spirit and have received the righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith, the gospel is life. It is life because it changes the nature of the encounter with God. The gospel changes the day of judgment into the day of salvation. But to those who still rely upon themselves it is the savour of death. Because the gospel requires that those who receive it abandon any reliance upon themselves, it can only be received by the humbled heart. Those who will not be humbled before the Lord have no part in the righteousness he procured for believers. For them, the gospel confirms the sentence of death at the day of judgment.
Our Lord is a consuming fire. Whether he is a fire to consume all iniquity, or a light revealing the mercy of his salvation, depends on your relation to the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Faith that Won't Let Go

Genesis 32:24-32, records the odd way in which Jacob becomes Israel. After sending his family ahead of him he finds himself alone. Then he is met with a mysterious opponent. They wrestle together all night long. Interestingly, though the man is identified as God (see the implication of the name Peniel in verse 30), the man must injure Jacob to try to get Jacob to let him go. What is more, Jacob refuses to let the man go until he wins a blessing from the man that Jacob obviously recognizes as God. In verse 28, Jacob receives the Lord’s blessing: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” Jacob becomes a prince of God (Israel) by his refusal to lose out on the Lord’s mercy.

Matthew 15:21-28, we get another picture of our Lord that seems strange. Jesus retires to the region of Tyre and Sidon (Mark 7:24 makes it clear that Jesus did not intend his visit to be a part of his public ministry). He is met with a local Canaanite woman who desperately wants him to cast a devil out of her daughter. Strangely, he ignores her. The disciples just want Jesus to get rid of the woman. Instead of saying no, Jesus explains that his ministry is to be among the lost sheep of Israel. She is not deterred, “Lord, help me.” Shockingly, Jesus answers, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” Her faith catches the opportunity, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus commends her faith and grants her desire; her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

The woman’s faith is commendable for a number of reasons: it is humble and modest. She has no sense of entitlement to the Lord’s blessing, and she is content with what he will give. Yet she will not let off until she gets that blessing. She knows that he is the Lord of mercy, and she will not be put off any appearances to the contrary. In this she is also Israel, a princess of God.

The Lord often acts in such ways that his gracious nature is hid from us. To us sinners, trusting God is not a self-evident thing. In a general sense we acknowledge that God is trustworthy. It’s in the specific promises that we find faith hard. Nonetheless faith, if it is truly faith, perseveres, especially when it looks as if the Lord has forgotten his promises. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb. 11:1).

These are not isolated incidences. Job experiences the Lord in exactly the same way. So too, did the Hebrews during the exile. It is the reason why Christ, in illustrating the persevering prayer of faith, uses the picture of a persistent woman before an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). In none of these events is the Lord’s mercy denied. The lesson is faith.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Our Unforgetful God

The Bible is full of admonitions to remember. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exo. 20:8). This do ye ... in remembrance of me (1 Cor. 11:25). Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth (Eccl. 12:1). Remember the words of the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:35). We should remember the poor (Gal. 2:10). The apostles were always reminding the churches to remember what they had been taught.
We are called to remember because we are prone to forget. We know we forget. It is because I am forgetful that I am constantly worried others will forget. We tend to forget our obligations to others more particularly, and we tend to worry about others forgetting their obligations to us particularly.
The Lord knows this. He condescends to our weakness and he gives us reminders that he has committed himself to his people. This is why the Lord's Supper is a new "testament" in the blood of Christ. It calls us to remember that he is faithful. But the Lord is also careful to relieve our anxieties that he may forget. When the faithful responded to Malachi's call to repentance (Mal. 3:16,17), the Lord causes a book of remembrance to be written for him. Now this is certainly not literal. It is an image that recalls the regal chronicles of ancient kingdoms. It is an image that lets the faithful know that the Lord will not forget them. He is coming in judgment, but for them he will come to gather his treasure.
The rainbow is given with the same message (Gen. 9:12-17). It is a token of the Lord's covenant between him and the earth, that he will not destroy the earth by flood. It is a token for our good and for our use, yet he explicitly tells Noah that the rainbow would remind himself of his covenant. The Lord, of course, does not need reminding. But we need to know that he remembers, because we forget. So he reminds us that he remembers. This the Lord does as a kindness to us in our weakness.
Now if these things are so, we should not scoff at opportunities to be reminded. That is why the word of God was committed to writing, that we could be easily reminded. That is a major part of the preaching of the word: to remind us of what our Lord has done for us, his people (and that we need him because we are sinners, we must be reminded of that as well). These reminders are not given to bore us, to exasperate us, or to nag us. They are given because he loves us, as daily or weekly "I love you."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Jesus, simply profound, profoundly simple

It strikes me as a preacher how simple Jesus' teaching is presented, and how profound it is at the same time. As a confessional Christian I am wary of many modern over simplifications, the tendency to reduce our faith and practice to bumper sticker catch phrases. The simplicity of Jesus is not that. In Matthew 15: 11, Jesus says, "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." This was given to the crowds to counter the Pharisees' insistence on the washing of hands before one ate. The disciples balk at at this and ask him to explain, which is given by Matthew in verses 16-20.

Jesus' explanation boils down to this: Our sin is not due to the corruption of the world outside (food goes in the mouth and out into the pot, so to speak), but sin comes from our own corrupt heart. Sin originates from within. That's it, complete simplicity. But that simplicity has depth.

Let's look at our natural habits. We shift our sin onto the evil influences of the world: we blame TV, video games, the internet; we point our finger at schools and universities; we condemn upcoming generation's youth culture. But we don't sin because we are corrupted, we sin because we are corrupt. And, of course, that means when we want to assign guilt to the corruptions of our world we need to turn the finger to ourselves.

But this also has profound consequences for our salvation. If the heart is the source of corruption, then we cannot look there for our salvation. We cannot look there for righteousness. We cannot look to the heart of men for the reconciliation of the world. We must look outside ourselves. We must look unto Christ, the one given for the reconciliation of the world, the Holy One of Israel, the LORD our Righteousness. This is the good tidings of the gospel, that God has come to help those who cannot help themselves.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A note about the First Post:

Just to let anyone bored enough to look know, that this blog has a wordpress twin, with pretty much the same opening message. One, of course, is false. There cannot be two first blogs, oh well.

First Post

Hello. This is my first blog entry on my first blog. I intend to add more later. The title reflects how I intend to use this blog, a common place book on line. We'll see how this goes.