Monday, July 16, 2012

Psalm 90.17 (Praying for Blessing)

“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
     And prosper for us the work of our hands –
     O prosper the work of our hands!”

What a great prayer for blessing! All of us work in one thing or another. Some work at home and some at their workplaces, and some are students working on getting the best grades. Whatever life setting we are at, we want for God to bless us in our work. And for that, what a great prayer this is! Prayer for God’s favor, a prayer for God’s prosperity…AMEN to that!

Reading this passage reminded me of another book of the Bible. In the infrequently cited book of Haggai, people must have been praying such a prayer. The setting is the post-exilic community in Jerusalem. The Israelites have recently returned from Babylon with much excitement in the air. They told themselves that the very purpose of their return was to rebuild the Temple as a symbol of Israel’s resurrection (Ezra 1.2-7). They were going to do faith right this time. No more disappointing God, they were going to be the remnant that honors and worships God properly.

But then due to several issues, the work to rebuild the Temple took a short break. That short break lasted 15 long years! During that time, the Israelites were too busy with their own lives. And so, even as the ruined Temple stood before them unfinished, they managed to avoid it, walk around it, pretend it wasn’t there so that they could focus on their own work to get ahead. They probably said things like, “We’ll get to it one of these days, but not today or this week, or this month. It’s not good time for us. We are busy and must attend to our things first.”

“Anyway, things are not working out smoothly for us. Rain is not falling at the right time, the grains and the produce aren’t yielding the right amounts, and our livestock do not multiply well. Too much things to worry about! Instead of bothering us about our spiritual responsibilities, pray for our success! Pray that Psalm 90.17 to God for us. We certainly need God’s blessing!”

To them, God sends his prophet Haggai. If I paraphrase God’s argument in Haggai 1.5-11, it goes like this:

“Have you ever wondered why you are not as successful as you ought to be – do you ever feel like I am not on your side, that things are not going right? Well, that’s because it’s true. I have been on the other side working against you! Rather than blessing and prosperity, I have been opposing you! Why, you ask? Get your priorities straight and finish my house!”

The Israelites got the message. They dropped whatever they were doing and completed the Temple, to God’s pleasure. And then God blessed them and answered their prayers of Psalm 90.17.

There is a lesson for us here. Before we ask of God for his favor, we ought to begin with a question before God, “Lord, what can I do for you? What have you asked of me that I have thus far neglected?”

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Jeremiah 42.1-6 (Our Plans, Not God's)

On the face of it, Johanan’s request to God’s servant Jeremiah is simply beautiful to read.

“…pray to the LORD your God for us—for all this remnant. For there are only a few of us left out of many, as your eyes can see. Let the LORD your God show us where we should go and what we should do…May the LORD be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to everything that the LORD your God sends us through you. Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the LORD our God to whom we are sending you, in order that it may go well with us when we obey the voice of the LORD our God.” (42.2-6)

What a great confession of faith! Johanan is declaring, “We want God to tell us where we should go and what we should do. And whether we want to or not, whether we agree with God or not, we will obey God. We know that is the best response, the best course of action because we believe our God knows what is best for us!”

You want to shout, “Amen, brother!”

But we need to read a few chapters before and a few chapters after to really understand these verses.


It’s after 586 BC when the Babylonians finally entered Jerusalem and completed the conquest of Judah. King Nebuchadrezzar (or Nebuchadnezzar) of the Babylonians killed most of the royal family, gouged out King Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him in bronze shackles and took him to Babylon along with many of the leading people of Judah (Jer 39.1-10).

For the rest of the Jews that are left behind, Nebuchadrezzar sets up a puppet Governor Gedeliah to rule over the land. It is during this troubling times that two people, Ishmael and Johanan, came alongside Gedeliah with ulterior motives. Ishmael was being supported by the Ammonites to the west and Johanan worked closely with the Egyptians to the south. In a rapid succession of events, Ishmael assassinates Governor Gedeliah, and he is then killed by Johanan. The people turn to Johanan, the last man standing, for leadership. Afraid that the news of Gedeliah’s death will bring back the Babylonian forces, Johanan has in mind to take all of the people with him to Egypt where he believes he will be welcomed.


With his plan firmly in place, he comes to Jeremiah to receive confirmation that this is also what God wants. We need to understand that Johanan’s mind is made up. But he offers the flowery lip service in front of all the people.

“Please ask God where we should go and what should we do. We want to obey God no matter what!”

For those who do not know the background story, Johanan’s request is a noble and spiritual one. Some of the people may have even shed a tear at the faith confession – “What a great leader we have! He is so godly!”

But God himself saw through all that. Jeremiah went into 10 days of prayer and at the end of it, he came back with God’s Word (42.7-22) – “First of all, don’t be afraid of the Babylonian king for I am with you, to save you. Secondly, remain in the land and I will bless you in all ways; don’t go to Egypt because if you do, there you will die.”

But during that 10 days of waiting, Johanan and his men had pushed hard for going down to Egypt. It was almost a done deal and God’s OK was going to seal it. But when Johanan hears God’s words, he and his men declare that Jeremiah is a false prophet and all his words are not God’s (43.1-3). They go ahead with their plans and go down to Egypt and they force Jeremiah to go with them.


There are several truths to learn from this story, but the main one is this: We like to put our plans forward and claim it’s God’s will. We are all guilty of this at one time or another.

For the most part, we want to seek God’s will for our lives. And we really mean it when we say, “for your glory alone!” and agree with Jesus at Gethsemane, “not my will, but yours be done.” But in times when we find ourselves at the crossroads of life, when we have to make huge decisions for ourselves or our families, or even our churches, we become selfish and protective, we seek comfort and our well-being, we seek our glories and our benefit. We end up doing things that make us feel good, look good, highly successful and the envy of others. And during and after the process, we may give spiritual lip service – “God directed us” “God’s will was done in us” “God is pleased by what we have done” “God’s glory is all we seek” and many other spiritual phrases to decorate our efforts. It may have been God’s will, and ultimately, we may have taken the path that God has directed, but we must be careful to give spiritual lip service.

The only way to be certain that we are following God is to say the prayer of Johanan, and then seek God’s face for a period of time (10 days in this instance; The Antioch Church had the group of leaders in prayer and fasting when the Holy Spirit gave them direction – Acts 13.1-3). And during that time of seeking God, we must wait on God and not make plans one way or another. A time of prayer with an opened Scripture allows us to empty our minds of our plans and our aspirations and give time for our minds to focus on God and his truth.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Comparing Jehoram with Josiah

Last week’s blog was about a pitiful King named Jehoram whom the Bible records this way, “[King Jehoram] was thirty-two years old when he began to reign; he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. He departed with no one’s regret. They buried him in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.”

The humiliation of Jehoram’s burial was due to his horrific rule that prompted the people to rise up against him. This is truly tragic when we learned that his grandfather and his father paved a way for him by ruling a total of 66 years with authority and might, with great love for God. His father brought peace to its borders and faith to its people to God’s delight. All Jehoram had to do was to imitate and continue on. But he failed miserably.

This week, I contrast King Jehoram with King Josiah.

Josiah lived at a time after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The people of Judah saw the destruction of their northern brothers at the hand of the Assyrians and were shaken. Prophet Isaiah was there to declare that the Assyrians were being used as God’s divine judgment against the faithless Israel. Their defeat was God’s own doing. And now, Judah must respond rightly or meet the same fate. Sadly, the people of Judah and her kings refused to take heed. Led by false prophets, they said, “It won’t happen to us!” Judah’s destruction came 130 years later.

In those 130 years, there were a total of eight kings in Judah. The first was Hezekiah, contemporary to Prophet Isaiah and was good, but he finished badly. After him came his bad son, Manasseh. His 55 years is marked by the removal of Jehovah God from the country and replacing it with a plethora of foreign cults. The Temple at Jerusalem was rededicated to another deity and a portion of it was actually used to house and operate shrine prostitutes! He ruined the country during his 55 years of reign, and when his son, Amon came to power and followed his evil ways, the officials rose up and assassinated him.

Then came Josiah. Evil Manasseh was his grandfather. Terrible Amon was his father. You might say that Jehoram and Josiah come from opposite ends of the spectrum. Jehoram came with great expectations. Josiah came with ugly baggage. Johoram’s life came on a silver platter. Josiah’s life came with holes and dents. “There goes that #$&*% Manasseh’s grandkid and @*&%$ Amon’s son! What can he do?”

Josiah could have accepted the low expectations placed upon him. But then I wouldn’t write about him now. He was simply amazing. During his 31 years of reign, he repaired the Temple with the intent to revive the Jewish religion. And when the Torah is discovered, and the reading of it revealed the promise of blessing for obedience and curses for disobedience, he caused the whole nation to repent and turn to God. King Josiah stirred up the nation to a dynamic wave of spiritual renewal! He created a national movement toward God! He destroyed all foreign cults from the land, restored the Temple fully and revived the religious celebrations throughout the land! That was a glorious time!

And this spiritual revival of the nation occurred because of this one man, Josiah. For a man who came into power with so little expectations, he held fast to his God and rose above mediocrity to become a great man of God. And so he is Jehoram’s complete opposite.

Some of us might say, “Not me. I am not good enough. God can’t use me because I am too broken. I am worthless. I am bad.” Look at Josiah. And look beyond him to the God that raised him up and filled him with boldness and with power. And God is there with us. But it requires our mindset to never accept the inner voice that discourages but turn to the divine voice that declares, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”

And with these two kings, we have a full spectrum to identify with. For those who have been wonderfully blessed in all ways, the call of God is to use it fully for God’s glory! Don’t squander it away. And for those who come with great baggage, who feel you have very little to offer, allow the power of God to sweep you under and with your determination and God’s strength, be like Josiah!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

2 Chronicles 21.20 (Life of Insignificance)

“None of us knows when we will die. But any one of us, if we wish, may select our own epitaph. I have chosen mine. It is, I should confess, a somewhat haunting thing to think about your gravestone while you are vitally alive. Yet there it is, a vivid image in my mind and heart, standing as both a glorious inspiration and an epic challenge to me: 100X.

It means 100 times. I have taken it for myself from the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. I’m an entrepreneur, and I want to be remembered as the seed that was planted in good soil and multiplied a hundred fold. It is how I wish to live. It is how I attempt to express my passions and my core commitments. It is how I envision my own legacy. I want to be a symbol of higher yield, in life and in death.

Saint Augustine said that asking yourself the question of your own legacy—What do you wish to be remembered for?—is the beginning of adulthood. That is what I have done by writing my own epitaph…what about your epitaph? What have you been given, and what will you do with it the rest of your life?” (Bob Buford, Half Time, 1994)
Bob Buford wants to be known for how well he lived his life for God – that with what he was divinely given, he hoped to multiply it a hundred-fold for God’s glory. That’s a very high goal indeed. But not everyone lives that way.

In 2 Chronicles 21.20, it states, “[King Jehoram] was thirty-two years old when he began to reign; he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. He departed with no one’s regret. They buried him in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.” King Jehoram was the crown prince for 32 years of his life and then became king over the nation of Judah for eight years. He grew up in privilege and power, but when it was all said and done, there was not much to write about. And so the Bible records simply that “he departed with no one’s regret.” No one regretted his passing! I am flabbergasted. I wrote on the side of my Bible next to this text: “Life of Insignificance.” That's because Jehoram had so much going for him.

Let me tell you more about King Jehoram. His grandfather was King Asa and he reigned for 41 years. For all his ups and downs, he was still declared good in God's eyes. His son, and Jehoram's father, Jehoshaphat took over and he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD. For his faithfulness, he was blessed with a long reign of 25 years. During Jehoshaphat’s glorious reign, he strengthened Judah and brought fear to her neighbors. He amassed great wealth and power, right faith and peace in the land. And he proudly left it all for his first son, Jehoram.

And so Jehoram had it all; it was as if life came to him in a room-sized silver platter. Being the first born, he was born as the crown prince, heir apparent, prepared and groomed to be the next king. His grandfather had established faith and worship in the land. His father added to it by extending the borders and establishing peace. Jehoram was given all this blessing with the expectation of his people and of his God to do something great!

For all of that, we are left disappointed: “he departed with no one’s regret.” 

He had a great opportunity to make a difference, and he dropped the ball. He had everything! And yet, he accomplished nothing of worth. He had lived a “life of insignificance.” We weren't the only ones disappointed wit him. We read that his own people viewed him with contempt: “They buried him in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.” How sad is that…

And we must turn that table to ourselves. How are we doing? First thing we must ask is, how blessed is our life? How much have we been given? We must begin with recognizing the generous hand of God in our lives. And the second thing we ask is, so, with what has been given to us, how are we doing with it? Is there a multiplication of our "talents," or have we simply buried them in the dirt? (Matthew 25, Parable of the Talents).

2002. Cemetery on a hill at Kyrgyzstan
God has prepared us. He has groomed us. He has given us all that we need to excel. And He has given us the Holy Spirit to make a great difference, to make our lives wonderfully significant, to make a world-sized impact for Christ! How amazing is that?

For all my American friends, we have been given so much. We have the freedom to practice faith. We live in the richest country in the world. We have opportunities that the world only dreams about at night. So what are we doing with all of that? Are we living a life of purpose and significance?

So what’s going to be on your epitaph? How will people remember you?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Deuteronomy 20.1-9 (When It Requires Our Faith)

Deuteronomy 20 begins,

"When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots, an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt." (v.1)
And then two leaders step up to address the people. First, the priest. And then the military officials. The priest stands up to rally the people by reiterating the posture of faith,

"Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near to do battle against your enemies. Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; for it is the Lord your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory." (vv.3-4)
After this faith challenge, the military officials step up with a reality check. He addresses those with worries in their hearts due to the matters of life that need tending to (new homes, new vineyards, marriage in the works). He tells them to step back and go home. He summarizes his talk this way,
"Is anyone afraid or disheartened? He should go back to his house, or he might cause the heart of his comrades to melt like his own." (v.8b)
And then with those who are left, the army is to go to war with God leading them onto certain victory.

It is a fascinating teaching. There are two parts to this. First, there is Truth. It is a truth for all time. That truth is that no matter what is in front of us, no matter how large the opposition or task, our God is with us and he will fight for us to give us victory. And then, secondly, there is Faith. Can we trust in this invisible God when we can see, by our human logic and crunching of the numbers, that the tast is seemly too difficult or nearly impossible? Can we truly trust and obey?

Several things to point out.

1) But, is it God's battle? We know that our God will not lead us into ALL battles (i.e., Num 14.39f). He will lead us only in those battles he himself commands us to fight. Too many times, we hear church leaders proclaim that a certain project, or a direction is God's will. Well, is it? I admit that I have used the phrase, "it's God's will" several times and then had to step back and apologize to God and to the congregation. This is a great sin for us church leaders. We must not use God's name in our selfish projects -- people expect us pastors and elders to hear from God and then to act upon God's instructions, not the other way around. We must not create a project or form a direction apart from God, and then ask God to bless it, and/or turn to the people and declare that it's of God. And it is never right to assume something is of God even if the task seems godly enough. It is imperative for the leaders to hear from God, to confirm with God, to be able to stand before God and know it is God's command. This is the foundation of this passage. The task, the project, the fight, the mission. It must be a directive from God.

For many people in the church, the issue is not a matter of their faith. The issue has to do with #1. Is it really a direction God is taking us? Is this project really of God? The leaders of the church must prayerfully address this first.

And this can be applied to our home situation, or to our school/work situation as well. That's because our God cares about those things and wants to be Lord over all matters of life. Where is God leading me? What does he want with my skills and talents? Once we understand God's will and direction, it requires our faith to trust God because our God will fight for us and will give us victory.

2) Is my faith big enough? Even if we see that the battle is God's will and command, there is a matter of our faith that is addressed in this passage. In fact, many times, it is the lack of faith that will cast doubt that the task is of God. No matter how many times and how many methods are used to show that the battle is of God, there are the denials and the doubts (Gideon comes to mind. But even he came around at the end). That is because, by declaring that the task is not of God, our lack of faith remains unexposed, hidden from the people. It is a daunting task to trust in an invisible God. It is truly difficult to put all of our eggs in one basket "by faith."

That is why God graciously gives us an out. We must check our faith. If it is not big enough, then recognized it for what it is. And then step aside for the faithful -- rather than pollute the rest with our doubt and faithlessness.

3) But God wants us to live by faith. Even though God gives us an out, the desire of God is that we become participants in God's battle, side by side with other faithful ones. He wants us to taste the victory that comes from God rather than hear about it from others. He wants us to enjoy God's presence and activity as participants, rather than clapping as spectators. So how to live by faith? We do it day by day, week by week. We fill our intellect with God's Word daily, we listen to praises and sermons through the radio as we drive, and we consider the will of God in our daily activities -- "what would Jesus do?" And when we practice faith in the little things, before we know it, our faith increases and our doubts decrease.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Leviticus 9-8 (Teaching on Ordination)

A few years back, I enjoyed my time with my presbytery's CPM (Committee on the Preparation of Ministry). I volunteered to be on it for because 1) I wanted to assist in the calling process for pastor candidates, to give them my two cents on what I have gleaned from the office of the ordained pastor, and 2) I realized that the candidates came in all different colors but the existing CPM was mainly white. I wanted to speak up for the people of various hues.

Reading through Leviticus recently, I came across a great find. If I am asked to speak at a candidate's ordination service, I think I am going to speak from these two chapters. Chapter 8 gives instructions on the proper procedure of ordination, and chapter 9 describes the first duties of the newly ordained. Here, if the Old Testament priests are replaced with modern day pastors, then, the spirit of the Word becomes very applicable for us. But first, an outline summary of the two chapters:

Chapter 8: Ordination Service
  1. Dress the candidates for ordination with their priestly garbs (vv.6-9)
  2. Each candidate are to present, in order, 
    • Sin Offering (vv.14-17)
    • Burnt Offering (vv.18-21)
    • Ram of Ordination (vv.22-29)
  3. Anointing with oil mixed with blood of sacrifice (v.30)
  4. Seven days of keeping post at the entrance to the Tabernacle (vv.31-36)
Chapter 9: First Duties of the Newly Ordained
  1. Offering Sin & Burnt Offerings at the altar
    • For the self (vv.8-14)
    • Then for the congregation (vv.15-17)
  2. Offering of Fellowship Offering (offering of well-being) (vv.18-21)
  3. Benediction to the congregation (vv.22-24)
My first impression after reading these two chapters was that the process itself was quite lengthy. When I was ordained in 1998 it was easier. Of course there were several years of preparation and passing of tests, but when the ordination service began, it was short and sweet. And at the end of the ordination service, I got to get up, raise my hands, and give the benediction -- two chapters of worth in an hour and a quarter!

I want to apply the Old Testament instructions on priestly ordination for us today.

First of all, I love the picture of the candidate being dressed by another. It gives the picture of one who is conferred the robe, rather than putting it on themselves. Ordination and the office of pastor is not the fruit of their effort or their talents, but someone else, namely God, is conferring the title and office unto the candidate. Love this scene!

Secondly, I am forced to stop and gaze at the picture of the offerings, especially the Sin and Burnt. Before the whole congregation that has come to celebrate this occasion, the candidate brings the biggest animal among them, the bull, for his/her sins! How great a sinner am I? Look at the beast that I am bringing! Of course, this is meant to be a humbling experience rather than a boast. It is meant to be a teaching moment for the candidate that they are not being ordained because they sin less or are more qualified. God has chosen them. That's it. And only after that is the burnt offering presented. The burnt offering signifies total devotion to God -- the whole animal burnt up as a prayer to God, and so my life is totally devoted to you, O God. This is a good introspection moment for us older pastors. There was a time when I could proclaim that truth with a megaphone. But then life gets busy and our desires and ambitions get twisted with church and family and friends and issues and experiences and...we realize that our life's focus has become complex and our devotion to God is stained with our self-interests...we've got to check our hearts often.

Thirdly, I love the seven days of keeping guard at the entrance of the tabernacle. Who wants to be a guard, a gatekeeper? But that's exactly what the priest's role is. The pastor's role is to connect people to God. The guard does many things. Some people come to the entrance to ask how they might enter. The guard can inform them. Some people try to enter with wrong motives or without proper understanding that to enter is to meet God. The guard's proper instruction can save those peoples' lives! Some come arrogantly, without the sacrifice in hand. The guard blocks their path. But they do so for the others' benefit. They understand the fear of God and the need for the sacrifice for sins. The seven days are surely instructive for the candidates. We should make all of our pastor candidates do this! Yeah!

Francis of Assisi @ Smith College
Fourthly, the first duty of the newly ordained priest was to offer up MORE sacrifices! Obviously, this is about Jesus and grace. Pastors are sinful people. We don't become sinless with ordination and the wearing of the robe. And so it is not only proper, but of utmost importance that we confess our sins often and always. And only after that, can we properly pray for our congregation and bless them.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Matthew 14.22-33 (Walking on Water)

I have been thinking about Peter’s walk on water for some time. That’s the story in the Gospels where Peter asks Jesus to allow him to walk on water during a storm. “Lord, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14.28). Jesus replies to his request, “Come.” And for a moment, Peter is actually walking on water!

Of course, Peter begins to sink when he takes his eyes off of Jesus and stares at the violent sky.

One time, I asked a class full of people, “What do you think about Peter in this story?” One gentleman replied, “I think he’s a failure. Ultimately he sank and so showed he didn’t have faith.” I asked him further, “What about the eleven disciples still in the boat? What do you think about them?” He frowned. He didn’t know where I was going with that.

I believe Peter was successful that day. Of course it matters that he sank and so revealed he still had a lot to go. It did show that he lacked the necessary faith. But on the other hand, he dared to take up the litmus test of faith. For him, and really for all the disciples, the event became a chance to test out their faith. In that situation, Peter stood up from among his peers and waved his hand loudly, “Jesus, I want to go first!” And Jesus responded, “Okay! You are first! Come!” The rest of the disciples sat around in silence and watched.

And with the faith test completed, Peter got back his results and found out what he needed to work on. He needed to keep his eyes on Jesus and not on his problems. The disciples sat around in silence and watched.

But he also found out that he could walk on water! He experienced it, if for only a moment. As he stepped out of the boat and dared to set his first foot into the water, he looked at Jesus and the water felt firm under his foot. And with confidence, he set the other foot into the water, and as he looked at Jesus, that foot also felt firm. He let go of the boat and found himself, miraculously, standing on water. Impossible! But he did it. But more! Our passage records, "So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on water, and came toward Jesus" (v.29). Wow! I don't know how many steps he took, but he took deliberate steps! There was definite direction, toward Jesus! And I think Peter was so far from the boat that he could not on his own swim back into the boat so that he could only cry out, "Lord, save me!" (v.30). Can you imagine the shock of the disciples in the boat? With opened mouths, they watched.

And Peter found out that Jesus got his back. As soon as he began to sink, Jesus was right there (how did he get to Peter so quick?!?), “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him” (v.31). Peter didn't drown. Jesus wouldn't let that happen! That day, through that event, I think Peter was able to test his safety net (the kind that trapeze artists use when they perform) and found it completely dependable. Next time he takes the faith challenge, he won’t be as scared or as worried because he knows by experience, that his divine safety net is secure. And the disciples sat around in silence and watched.

So who do we want to be in this story? It’s obvious that we all want to be Peter. We want to experience God and his power. We long to have our own walking on water experience! And we want to have Jesus reach out his hand to catch us. How exciting would that be! But, and here’s an important but, all of this was possible precisely because Peter made the decision to step out of the boat. He made a choice to test out his faith, to dare to walk on water, to go beyond the routine, to ask for the extraordinary, to experience life beyond the regular!

Just like Peter in this story, and Moses at the burning bush, and Paul on the road to Damascus, and through so many other examples, the Bible tells us that God comes to us in a personal way and invites us to step out in faith. Some of them are minor, someone called them the whispers of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, but some are pretty major! And we hear testimonies from those Peters around us who raised their hands and said “YES.”They give testimonies that give us goose bumps. At our church in May, we are going to hear from a successful surgeon who is selling his possessions, high position, and comfortable life and departing for Ethiopia with his family because they heard the call of God and chose to be like Peter and Moses and Paul. And we are going to amazed at their story and listen with open mouths. Just like the disciples.

This article is not a push for missions (unless that is what God is calling you for). Rather, I believe God calls us to live out a life of faith on a regular basis. To stand up from our position inside the comfortable boat of life and dare to walk out in faith, to work on something that is divinely inspired, to choose to participate in what God is doing at the cost of our time and comforts, to give of our money and our selves as acts of Peter-like faiths. And I turn the pointing finger at myself -- so what have I done? How am I any different from the disciples in the story? And I remain humbled and sinful. Peter remains my motivation.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Matthew 18.1-5 (Greatest in Heaven)

Matthew 18.1 finds the disciples of Jesus asking an important question, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

So, who is the greatest?

I think we are beyond titles now so that we don't automatically think pastors, elders & deacons are anywhere "greater" than others. As a pastor myself, I affirm this understanding. In fact, that I am given this sacred title but have a difficult time living excellently - in desperate pursuit of God, his holiness, and his design for my life, more than those without such titles work against me, I think. Heaven's "Greatest" list may find those with church titles on the bottom half rather than the top.

I think this is what the disciples were trying to figure out. Most likely, the disciples were asking Jesus to rate them. Since the Twelve are closest to Jesus, physically and they do have the title of disciples of Jesus, they figured they already occupy the top twelve on the list. They want to know the order of that twelve.

Kind of reminds me of the state of men's tennis. Three players dominate the game and stand head taller than the rest. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. They are so dominant that the three have won the last 27 of 28 Grand Slams of tennis or 34 of 37 wins going back to 2004! They are the TOP 3. No one comes close. The only question is which of these three is the best of the best?

That's probably the discussion among the disciples when they asked Jesus that day, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" This conversation is placed in that context in both Mark & Luke (Mark 9.33-37; Luke 9.46-48. In Luke, the story opens with "An argument arose among them as to which one was the greatest")

To their discussion, Jesus sets them straight:

1) Are you sure you are even INSIDE the kingdom of heaven? (v.3) In their minds, the disciples are already inside the kingdom; they just want to know which one is the greatest. But Jesus takes them outside the kingdom and has them face the entrance gates, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never ENTER the kingdom of heaven."

2) In v.3, Jesus tells them the requirement of ENTERING the kingdom of heaven. Once again, Jesus is standing with them outside. Their ticket to enter, their qualification for admission, is that they must CHANGE. Whatever is going on inside and/or outside of them is all wrong. They require CHANGE if they want to ENTER the kingdom of heaven. This is probably what Paul had in mind when he talks about the OLD self and the NEW when the Spirit of God comes upon the new believer, that the OLD must be put off and the NEW must be put on -- if the OLD persists, or if we reject parting with the OLD, then we must question, is the Spirit in us at all?

What does this NEW self look like? Jesus is such a great teacher. He has a child in front of him, points to him or her and declares, "become like children." Of course there are good things and bad things about children, but obviously Jesus is looking at traits of children that resemble the NEW:

  • children know how to enjoy life. They laugh at everything and anything (joy filled living)
  • some might call it being careless, but nothing is ever too serious and they aren't stressed out (living in freedom)
  • whenever they are in need, they go cling to their parent. There is never a second option for them (trust and dependency)

3) And after Jesus explains the notion of ENTERing the kingdom of heaven, Jesus turns to address their initial question about GREATNESS once inside. He walks the disciples inside and once again points to the same child and says, "whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest" (v.4). Greatness is marked by HUMILITY.

2005 at Roxas Village in the Philippines. Playing hopscotch.
I thought to myself, how are children humble? For them, everything is theirs, and they scratch and punch their way to dominance. In fact, it's the correction of the adults, "don't do this" and "don't do that" that keeps them in line. But I think that's the point. The children know their place in society. The adults are HUGE and physically imposing. They know that the adults command authority and are taught to respect them and never talk back to them. And for most part, they stay in line. A room full of children might be a mess, but put an adult supervision in there and for the most part, there is order. All the children know who's in charge. I think this is what Jesus has in mind. With the GREATEST in the kingdom already in their midst (that would be JESUS), it's arrogant of them to fight over such matter. The children don't do that in the adult's presence. The smartest ones help other kids and align themselves with the adult in the room so that their authority is borrowed authority, never their own. In front of Jesus, the disciples ought to have behaved like children and learned to find ways to please Jesus. As such, they ought to have rejected the notion of greatness so that Jesus can complement them! Humility is what Jesus wants. And so the ones who want to be the greatest ought to have taken the posture of humility!

So many ways to apply this. I'll leave that to you and to your prayers.