Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Who is Jesus?

In all of history the most influential person who ever lived, the most captivating, the most studied, the most examined, the most written about, the most sung about, the most discussed person ever is Jesus Christ, and even after two thousand years of interest, there still exists an intense curiosity about Jesus. Countless TV news programs, newspapers, and periodicals have aired and written stories which ask the question “Who was Jesus?” Now I believe there is a problem with that question, and the problem is the verb tense. It is wrong. Instead of asking “Who was Jesus?” the proper question to ask would be “Who is Jesus?”

The topic of Jesus is a captivating and controversial one; however, there exists a lot of confusion, deception, and doubt concerning the man Jesus Christ. Of course, confusing information about historical figures is nothing new. The truthfulness of some stories surrounding historical figures is doubtful. Did George Washington really cut down that cherry tree? Did he really say, “Father I cannot tell a lie. I cut down your cherry tree.”? Who shot Kennedy? Surrounding these important historical figures are doubts that create an inconvenience to our curiosity, but confusion, deception, and doubt concerning Jesus Christ carries far greater consequences that mere inconvenience, because Jesus Christ claimed that the whole human race is dead in sin, headed for an eternal hell, and that He is the only Savior, the only Hope that this world has. He is the only one who can forgive sins, who can bring true peace, joy in this life, and eternal blessing in the life to come. He is the only one who can take you to heaven.

It is for that reason that we cannot keep Jesus in the realm of curiosity, but He must be placed in the critical category; critical in the sense that it is absolutely essential to deal with His claims. These are astonishing claims that He made and they demand an honest look at Him because He says our eternal souls are at stake. Where you spend forever is at issue here and you will live somewhere forever, either in heaven or hell.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me,” (John 14:6). Now, as C.S. Lewis has written in Mere Christianity, that is either the insane ramblings of a lunatic, the powerful deception of a clever liar, or Jesus Christ is indeed Lord and His claims are truth. However, when many individuals search for the true Jesus they inevitably fail to find Him. Why is that? Is Jesus hidden? Do you need to search for cleverly hidden clues to find Jesus? Why do Newsweek and Time, the History Channel, and PBS all fail to find the genuine Jesus? The reason they can look and never find Him is they never look in the place where He is revealed. They fail to look at the Bible; at least they fail to take a serious look at the scriptures. They fail to take the Bible as absolutely, unequivocally true. Therefore they fail to find the real Christ.

It would be impossible for a person or a committee of gifted writers to invent Jesus Christ. When you look at the Jesus of the gospels, and you look at His life, there is no possibility that men could come up with such a person. When he spoke, people said, "Never [has] a man spake like this man." What He did nobody ever expected Him to do, no other person had ever done it. There is no human explanation for Jesus; He is not a character of human invention. The best of men’s attempts to invent super heroes don’t even come close.

The Bible presents Jesus in unambiguous and unmistakable terms; so the only way you can go look for Jesus and not find Him is if you don’t believe what the Bible says or if you totally ignore it. Jesus said in John 5:39, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of Me.” Read the scriptures with an open mind and heart. Do that and you will find the truth because it’s the purpose of the Bible to reveal truth.

In order to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” you have to look to the Bible, and I specifically want to take you to a couple of verses in John 8. During His earthly ministry Jesus was in constant dialogue with the Jewish leaders. You should remember that Jesus was a Jew, born into and raised by a devout Jewish family, but He was always in conflict with the religious leaders because they believed that their own works, their own self effort, their own religious achievement, and their own self-righteousness achieved for them a right standing with God. Jesus was contradicted that false teaching and said to them:

Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God…And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:3, 14-15)

In effect He told them that while they may be religious they were still sinful, and therefore needed to repent of their sin and embrace Him as their Lord and Savior.

They didn’t want to hear that or do that; so there was conflict.

The conflict reached its high point at the end of John 8. They’re having a conversation about father Abraham, and, of course, Abraham lived long before Jesus, but in verse 58; Jesus says to these Jews, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, before Abraham was, I am.”

That is a staggering statement. Nothing could have been more disturbing to the ears of those Jews than: “Before Abraham came into existence, I am.” That designates a mode of existence that has no beginning and it has no end and it has no transitions. There was a historical event, Abraham came into being. Before that, "I am." With that statement Jesus attributed to Himself eternal existence in the absolute divine sense. Judging by the Jews' reaction in verse 59 they completely understood Christ's claim. “Then took they up stones to cast at Him.”

For what reason did they want to stone Jesus? Blasphemy. The Jews clearly understood that when Jesus said “Before Abraham was, I am”, He was claiming to be God. The Jews understood that God is eternal; meaning that God has no beginning and no ending. They knew Psalm 90:2 which says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou are God.” And no man can say, “I am” without causing people to think he is God. Jesus was claiming to be the God who is the Creator, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the eternal God, and the Jews could either believe His claims or stone Him as a blasphemer. They tried to stone Him.

No man could lay a hand on Jesus; at least not until His time had come. Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). His life wasn’t taken from Him; He offered it up (John 10:17-18).

(Just a little side note here. The cults are confused about Jesus' claims. There are people who argue that He never claimed to be God. He most certainly did. To assert that “Before Abraham was, I am” was a clear declaration of His deity; the Jews knew it, and they wanted to kill Him for it.)

God first referred to Himself as the I AM in Exodus 3:13-14:

And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

Moses knew God’s name. What Moses asked was what does your name mean? God’s explanation is that the name Yahweh, or Jehovah, is a dynamic name “I AM WHO I AM” or “I was, I am, I always will be!” God is the self-existent, eternal, deliverer and savior of His people.

Then along comes Jesus, and He calls Himself the I AM. Jesus made eight I AM statements, and John records them all.

  • John 6:35, “I am the bread of life” meaning He is the source of spiritual life, eternal life.
  • John 8:12, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
  • John 8:58, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, before Abraham was [came into being], I am.”
  • John 10:9, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved.”
  • John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”
  • John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
  • John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
  • John 15:5, “I am the true vine” the only source of productive, fruitful life.

Over and over again Jesus was proclaiming: I am…I am…I am…I am, but so many people rejected His claims. That’s the sad and ultimately damning choice that people made then and are still making now.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus was and is who He claimed to be. He is God. He is Lord. His words and His works prove that. The Bible shows us that Christ has power over the demonic world; power over disasters; power over disease; power over death. He is the one and only Savior who can forgive sins and guarantee eternal life with Him in heaven. The Bible says Jesus forgives sinners, but only if you come to Him in repentance and faith and if you indeed come to Him He will remove your sin as far as the east is from the west, and bury it in the depths of the deepest sea. It’s blotted out. It’s forgotten by the memory of God.

Let the record stand. There never has been anybody like Jesus, no one. He is the mighty King; the master of everything. He’s the master of hungry crowds. He’s the master of the sick. He’s the master of the sinful. He’s the master of demons and Satan. He’s the master of nature. He’s the master of angry Pharisees. He’s the master of clever theologians. He’s the master of all governments. He’s the master of Himself.

No one ever lived like this man, and what He said affects every one of us. “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by Me” (John 14:6). He said, “Whoever shall confess Me before men, him will I confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). He said, “Whosoever will lose his life for My sake, the same shall save it” (Matthew 16:25). He said, “I am the light of the world. I am the bread of life. I am the resurrection and the life.” That is who Jesus is. These are the claims that He made. They are not ambiguous.

Let me sum it up this way. If God became a man, wouldn’t we expect Him to have a miraculous entrance into this world? He did, born of a virgin. If God became a man wouldn’t we expect Him to be sinless and live a holy life? He did. Pilate couldn’t find a fault in Him. Satan couldn’t find a fault in Him because He was holy and without sin. If God became a man wouldn’t we expect that His words would be the clearest, truest, purest, most authoritative ever spoken? They were. If God became a man wouldn’t we expect Him to manifest supernatural power? He did. If God became a man wouldn’t we expect Him to accomplish His purpose? He has and is. Jesus is God, and all of us must declare Him Lord or deride Him as a lunatic and liar.

Every man, woman, and child stands at that crossroad. Who is Jesus Christ?

  • Lunatic?
  • Liar?
  • Lord and Savior?

You will spend eternity somewhere based on your answer to that question. Forgiveness of sin is available through His death on the cross. Eternal life is available through His resurrection. The choice you make about Jesus Christ is the only choice that matters forever.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Strategy

The United States is Christmas crazy. I mean that literally. You have heard the Christmas carol Twelve Days of Christmas, but the actual statistics state that the official Christmas season is five weeks long! Twelve days of Christmas times three (almost). Retailers depend on Christmas sales to make a profit for the year, and they start to decorate and promote Christmas items before Thanksgiving. Many people depend on seasonal Christmas jobs to augment their income and make ends’ meet. Tragically, there have even been fatalities surrounding Christmas, as just this year on Long Island a Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death by early-bird shoppers. Our culture is Christmas crazy!

Christians must not become caught up in the craziness. We should not have an ad hoc mentality when it comes to Christmas, blindly going with the flow; instead we should think ahead and devise a strategy for action and engagement with the culture at Christmas. As Christians, and hopefully as thinking Christians, we should think things through and be prepared for what may even seem routine – like Christmas. If I asked you, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Would you immediately think of…

  • Christmas shopping
  • Christmas decorations
  • Christmas cards
  • Christmas baking
  • Christmas travel plans
  • Christmas parties

There is certainly a sense in which all of those things play into our preparedness for the Christmas event, but they are only a part of Christmas and by no means the most important part. Instead of all the above, are you prepared to ensure that your family, friends, and co-workers understand that Jesus Christ is indeed “the reason for the season”? We need to have a strategy for Christmas, and the strategy must go beyond presents, pictures, pageants, and parties. Do you have a strategy?

Your answer may be “Why on earth would I need a strategy for Christmas?” That’s a reasonable question. I may be the first person to have ever suggested that you should have a Christmas strategy that doesn’t involve the usual fare. The answer is simple. Have you ever wanted to take advantage of the Christmas holiday to have a family talk about the real meaning of Christmas or maybe to speak with a friend about the season’s reason and before you realize it you’re cleaning up wrapping paper on December 26th and thinking to yourself, “I can’t believe it’s already over?!” That is why we should think this through before it’s over. That is why we should have a Christmas strategy. It’s good to have a plan.

The answer to the “how” question is just as simple, but it’s more involved. The simple answer is that Christians should have a Biblical strategy for Christmas. (By the way, we should have a Biblical strategy for everything, but this is Christmas time so we’ll limit ourselves for the moment.) That’s the simple part of the answer, now let’s delve into the more involved aspect, and I’ll do that by asking some questions.

Should we celebrate Christmas?

Perhaps your Christmas strategy is to have no Christmas at all! Many of this nation’s founding families were Puritans, and they refused to celebrate Christmas. It would be difficult to find more orthodox believers than the Puritans. While I certainly do not agree with all of their theological positions or some of their legislative policies, I would be hard-pressed to find another group of people who dearly loved the Lord and desired to honor Him as did the Puritans. Don’t believe all the caricatures and stereotypes about the Puritans. If your only exposure to them is The Scarlet Letter then you’re misinformed. If the name Puritans can only conjure up images of prudish, boorish, hypocrites and witch trials then you have been duped. There is much more to the Puritans than all of that, and much to imitate. Should canceling Christmas be one thing in which they are imitated?

The Puritans’ refusal to celebrate Christmas may be distilled down to a couple of reasons. First, they felt the holiday had fallen into abuse. Instead of being a day that was devoted to Christ and Christian celebration it had become a day of wanton partying. The day had become associated with drinking, reveling, and its focus had shifted from the Savior to only merriment, and usually corrupt merriment. Everything but Christ was emphasized, so the Puritans abandoned Christmas.

The second reason is that they considered it wrong to celebrate and emphasize Christ’s incarnation only once a year, as opposed to having that marvelous truth before our eyes throughout the year. As Christians, the Puritans argued, the glorious truth of God being made flesh so that He might die on the cross as atonement for sins should not be reserved for acclaim in only December; instead it should be commemorated year round.

I don’t think we should dismiss the Puritans’ reasoning as quickly as some may like to do, because the holiday is less of a “holy day” and more of a “time off of work so let’s have a good time day.” I agree with the Puritans on both counts. I think it is inarguable that Christmas is abused, by non-believers and believers alike. The day is used as an excuse to party, be greedy, or get charge happy. Even for those who don’t get drunk, are not greedy, and who don’t get (too) charge happy, the celebration has less to do with Christ and more to do with “the season” or the “spirit” of Christmas (and that isn’t a reference to the Holy Ghost). Christmas is seen as a time to feel good about yourself, your neighbors, family, anything and everything but Jesus Christ being made flesh. This is a theologically rich holiday, but the theology is either left out or given scant time, while Santa, snow, presents, and “Christmas spirit” are the primary focus.

This ought not to be, but while I agree with the Puritans’ reasoning I do not agree with their strategy to just call the whole thing off.

How then should we celebrate Christmas?

If we are going to celebrate this holy day, how should we do it?

We Must Celebrate Christmas with Honesty

We should start with honesty, and in so doing we should honestly admit that there is no good reason (that means Biblical reason) for why we exchange gifts at Christmas. There is no Biblical reason why celebrating Christmas must involve a decorated tree, concerts, plays, or people traveling all across the state, country, or globe just to be together on the 25th of December.

Now, before you label me as the ultimate Grinch, let it be known that the giving of gifts, the decorating of trees, and the assembling of families, even over great distances, are all truly wonderful traditions which I thoroughly enjoy. But if your Christmas celebration is dependant on any or all of those things then you need a new strategy.

Honestly, what we have done as Christians is combined the celebration of Christ’s birth with an entire season of consumerism, commercialism, and just plain busyness. This is often one of the most hectic and crazy periods of the year, with families running in all different directions to make it to every concert, cantata, office party, and so on, that many people feel relieved when the 26th comes around.

This ought not to be.

We Must Distinguish Fact from Fiction

A second stoke in our strategy wheel should be the distinguishing of fact from fiction. It isn’t uncommon for people, including Christians, to know so little about Christmas, or to at least have quite a lot of fiction mixed in with the facts. Where do we arrive at the facts? From Scripture! It is a sad state of events when the story of Christ’s birth – not only the story about the baby in the manger but the Man on the cross – becomes lost in the shuffle of wise men, gifts, drummer boys, elves, Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and the rest. That must not be allowed in Christian homes or in our churches!

A lot of fiction swirls around the wise men. The fiction starts with their number. We don’t know that only three Magi came to worship Jesus, and we definitely don’t know that their names were Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar. We don’t know that they visited Jesus on the night of His birth. In fact, the text clearly shows that they were not there on that holy night.

Here are the Biblical facts (read them for yourself), and those are the only ones we can and should trust. We know for sure that Magi from the east – most likely Persia, modern day Iran – came to Jerusalem in search of the nearly born King of Jews. We know that this troubled the already paranoid Herod, and that, after counseling with his religious cohort, he sent the wise men off to Bethlehem. We know that when they arrived in Bethlehem Jesus and His family were not in a stable or an inn but in a “house”, and that Matthew refers to Him as a “young child” not a babe in swaddling clothes as Luke does when he recounts the holy night of Jesus’ birth. We do know that the wise men brought costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh because that is what one does when he visits the king. He brings gifts.

We know that they worshipped the Christ-child, and that is fact which we should emulate. We are quick to say, “The wise men gave Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh, so I’m giving you this fruit cake.” Instead of that, we should be as aware as they were, and worship the one who was born King of the Jews, the one who was born to “save his people from their sins.”

Here is another fiction: the innkeeper was a cold-hearted miser who said “NO!” to a needy family. We don’t know anything about the innkeeper. We don’t even know if there was an innkeeper. It’s not like the owner of the Holiday Inn refused shelter to Joseph and Mary. There have been countless sermons and not a few songs about this heartless, money-grubbing, hell-bound innkeeper, who may have been the father of Barabbas. That's all bogus. Here is what the Bible says: “She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” That is all we know!

We should be careful with the songs we sing, not only at Christmas but at all times, but it seems like artists take quite a few liberties during Christmas. Just a couple of weeks ago I heard a wonderful family, Christian gospel group sing a song which one of them had written. It’s called The One I’m Dying For and it’s written from the perspective of Barabbas after learning that he will be released and Jesus will be executed. Now, it is true that Jesus died for Barabbas, but that is where the theological/Biblical truthfulness of the song ends. Some of the lines are pure fiction (you can read all of them by clicking here). Such as:

I caught the eye of a man who was beaten – I saw the truth, even I believed Him – I hear them cry, “Release Barabbas!” – In disbelief I turned to Jesus – He looked at me and He said go free, you’re the one I’m dying for.
Those are very touching, sentimental words, and when accompanied by a stirring video one can be easily moved. There is just one problem. It’s all fiction. All we know about Barabbas is that he was scheduled to be executed, but in their diabolical blood lust the Pharisees whipped up the crowd to beg for his release so that Jesus may be crucified in his place. That’s all we know.

We don’t need to make up stuff to proclaim the truth of salvation, and we shouldn’t.
We have to separate fact from fiction.

We Must Think about the Details

It’s been said that “the devil is in the details.” Maybe he is. I’m certain that God is, and I know that we should be, especially as we devise a Christmas strategy. We have to think about the details concerning gifts. I love exchanging gifts at Christmas. Buying someone an anniversary or birthday gift is nice; just as house-warming, new-baby, or retirement gifts are fun, but those all pale in comparison to Christmas gifts. I enjoy to Christmas shop; at the physical as well as virtual stores. I like to wrap gifts, place them under a tree, and watch them be opened. That is a wonderful tradition, and I believe that it is so enjoyable to exchange gifts at Christmas because of how much we’ve been given. So I do not think it sacrilegious to exchange gifts at Christmas, I do think it is immoral to be greedy; even if you’re “greedy” on others’ behalf. Before you buy your first gift, plan out how much you should spend. Notice I said “should” and not “want.” You may be able to afford spending as much as you want, but that may be more than you should. Christmas is not like winning the lottery, so plan and shop accordingly.

We must also plan the details concerning our time. If you're not careful with your schedule the entire month of December can become so jam-packed that you are eager for the "celebration" to be finished. Be careful and purposeful with your time.

We Must Celebrate Christmas Evangelistically

December should not be the only time in which you talk with your family, friends, and co-workers about Jesus Christ, but Christmas affords us a golden opportunity to speak about Christ with folks who would easily tune you out the other eleven months of the year. Without doubt Christmas is over-commercialized. No question that the big-boned, bearded gentleman from the North Pole receives the lion’s share of the press during Christmas, but it is still Christmas, not Clausmas! What a wonderful opportunity to praise God for Christ, to magnify the name of Jesus, to declare “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” And why is God with us? As the angel told Joseph: “She shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.”

How shall He save His people from their sins?
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved…For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (John 3:16-17; Romans 6:23).
You see, it’s impossible to honestly speak about Christ’s birth without also speaking about His death. As remarkable as His birth was, His death, burial, and resurrection are just as fantastic.

Explain to people, starting with your kids if you have any, why Christmas should be celebrated, and that you celebrate the wonderful truth of the incarnation year-round!

We Must Honor and Glorify Christ

“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God”; that includes how we celebrate Christmas. I’ve saved this for last, because we have to follow the other strategic points if we are to glorify and honor Christ at Christmas. We must honestly celebrate this holy day. Christmas does not depend on the pageantry. All of that stuff has its place, but it is not of primary importance. We must separate fact from fiction. The Bible is our guide to truth, including truth about Christmas. We don’t need to be sappy to make Christmas special; it is already that, so let’s stick to the factual story and leave the fiction out of the celebration. Think about the details. How much should you spend, and on what should you spend it? How much time should you devote to concerts, cantatas, plays, and parties? How far should you travel, if at all? If you don’t think through the details, then you will drown in them. We must celebrate Christmas evangelistically. Don’t forsake this perfect opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. If we do all of that I believe we will honor and glorify Christ at Christmas.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

MEGA Faith pt. 3

This is part three in a study of these two passages - Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28.

The first characteristic of MEGA faith is particularity, and the woman from Syrian Phoenicia had great faith because it was properly directed in a particular object: the Lord Jesus Christ. This leads us to the second characteristic of MEGA faith.

Persistency

Try to appreciate the barriers that this woman had to hurdle in coming by faith to Jesus. First there was the religious barrier. She had been raised as a pagan, most likely a worshipper of Astarte, a Canaanite goddess of sensual love, maternity, fertility, and war who is known in the Old Testament by the Hebrew name Ashtoreth. This particular false god had been a stumblingblock to the Jews both in the days of the Judges (Judges 2:13; 10:6) and during the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 11:5; 2 Kings 23:13).

Another barrier was her ethnicity. She was a Gentile. Matthew notes her Canaanite descent, and Mark indicates that she was a Hellenist – Greek speaking – Canaanite from Syrian Phoenicia.

A third barrier was her gender. It was considered scandalous for a rabbi to publicly speak with a woman. At his time there was even a Pharisaical sect known as the “Bruised and Bleeding Pharisees.” They were so identified because every time they saw a woman in public they would cover their eyes, causing them to crash into any and everything. Their bruises were the pious marks of their superior sexual ethics, or so they thought. Plus, this woman was begging for intervention on behalf of her daughter, not a son. Sinclair Ferguson writes, “In the ancient Jewish world this was a combination of need beneath the dignity of any true rabbi.”

This woman was well aware of these barriers yet she persisted in coming to Christ. This woman was driven by desperation. By and large the people who come to Jesus are always desperate. In fact, all people are desperate and the people who come to Him are the ones aware of their desperation.

This desperate mother had discovered that Jesus was in town, and whatever she knew about Him and however she had learned it, she knew that He was her last and only hope. Her gods had failed her. Her daughter was afflicted, and only Jesus could help her. So she persistently begged the Lord to heal her daughter. We saw this persistent faith in the paralytic and the four who carried him back in Mark 2. Jesus commended persistent faith in His Luke 18 parable of the widow before the unjust judge, who because of her continual coming was eventually granted justice over her adversary.

The Syrophonecian woman was persistent, not only in the face of religious, cultural, and social barriers, but in spite of the barriers that Christ erected. Does Christ’s response to this woman puzzle you? We know from Matthew 15:22-23 that after this woman reverently approached Jesus, calling Him Lord, even using His messianic title “Son of David” and passionately pleaded with Him to heal her afflicted child, that “he answered her not a word.”

Jesus seemingly ignored this woman. Was Jesus indifferent to this woman? Did He not care?

We’ll get to that in a second, but I want you to notice that Christ’s silence did not silence this woman. Her faith was great, not weak or fickle. She persistently called out to Christ, so much so that the apostles wanted Jesus to send her away; however, when Jesus does answer her, it sounds harsh. He said, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel…Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast [it] unto the dogs.”

That language is not exactly seeker-sensitive.

Let it be said that there are some tactics which the Son of God employed that are not advisable for you or I. Here is why. Jesus knew this woman’s heart, and He was not tormenting her. He was testing her faith; for her own benefit and for the benefit of the Twelve. Following the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus had preached the bread of life sermon and that message included hard truths that drove away the fickle-faithed. “Many therefore of his disciples, when they heard [this], said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?”

They said that because, John tells us, they believed not, and Jesus knew their faith was fickle; not little but fickle, and there is a difference. As long as the free food and medical benefits were in abundant supply, this large group of “followers” were on board, but when hard doctrinal truth is proclaimed they jump ship. Why? Because theirs was a fleeting and fickle faith, not a persistent faith.

Of course Jesus cared about this woman. He wasn’t about to slam the door on her faith. He just placed a gentle shoulder against the door to test it. During the same sermon when the faithless followers were unmasked Jesus had said, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” (John 6:35, 37) Jesus puts up barriers through which only genuine faith will persist.

Some people are offended at Jesus; offended at His lack of respect for their traditions and self-righteousness and offended at his plain-spoken truth. Some people would have become indignant at being called a dog, a family pet that couldn’t eat until the children were finished. Those people, by their turning away, would demonstrate their lack of saving faith.This woman was the real deal. Her faith was genuine and great, as indicated by her particularity, her persistency, and her humility.

Humility

“And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” Mark has indicated that this woman was prostrated at Jesus’ feet. She was humble. No pride. No arguments. No debate. No presumption. This was just genuine worship which churned up out of a humble, desperate heart.

Do you know what is synonymous with humility? Repentance. Proud people cannot repent. That does not mean that people who are proud cannot become repentant, but it does mean that no proud person will be penitent without first being humbled.

Do you know what is synonymous with repentance? Faith. Charles Spurgeon said, “Repentance is the inseparable companion of faith.” Like the Thessalonians who had turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9) this woman had turned from whatever or whomever else she had been trusting, and she turned to the living and true God.

This woman humbled herself before Christ and said, “Have mercy on me, O Lord…Lord, help me… Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs.” (Matthew 15:22, 25; Mark 7:28). This woman came pleading not demanding. She sought the Lord’s mercy, not her fair share of the pie: “You’ve done it for others. Now it’s my turn.” She did not demand to be given what she deserved. She begged for what she didn’t deserve. That’s because humility recognizes that we deserve punishment, and with that recognition we can be truly amazed by grace. Did this woman understand all of the implications of Jesus as Lord? No, nor do I. That is something I learn more and more every day, but she recognized that he wasn’t just the medicine man or the magic man. He was, and is, Lord! Beginning faith, like this woman’s, may be ignorant, but it is not shallow.After publicly affirming what He already privately knew, the Lord honors her: “O woman, great is thy faith…go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.” (Matthew 15:25; Mark 7:29) Because of her great faith; great because it was particular, persistent, and humble, she went home and found her daughter delivered from the demon.

But this is not just an isolated story about faith. This should be seen in its context. The great faith of this woman is juxtaposed with the faithlessness of the Pharisees and the fickleness of the people in general. Having just corrected the false teaching about uncleanness, one is defiled from the inside out not the outside in, He travels to a region considered unclean, and speaks with a “Gentile dog”; a woman who would have been considered unclean. This is powerfully symbolic of the glorious news that Jesus is not just the Savior of the Jews but of the Gentiles as well. We may sing “joy to the world” because the Lord is willing to be the Savior of all who repent Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, educated and uneducated.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

MEGA Faith pt. 2

The word translated “great” is “megas.” According to Jesus this woman had “mega” faith. Only twice in the Gospels does Jesus commend someone for having “great faith”; the centurion of Matthew 8 (also Luke 7) and this Syrophenician woman. Interestingly, both were Gentiles; men and women outside the covenant nation.

I think it is important for us to note that faith is not graded on a scale of 1 - 10. This woman had great faith because she had so little upon which to build her faith. She was a pagan who was raised to worship Astarte and other false Gods; not a Jew who was raised to worship the one true God. She didn’t have the scriptures. She knew very little about the God of the Bible. She was lived in an area that Jesus had not before visited. Her faith was great because of where she started, and what she believed Jesus could do.

The disciples on the other hand were repeatedly rebuked for having “little faith.” It was little based on all the advantages they enjoyed, all they marvelous works they had witnessed, and all the powerful words they had heard.

They had observed as Christ healed every imaginable disease, dysfunction, and deformity, yet while on board a boat that was tossed by a monstrous storm they woke Jesus up in a panic. “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?” Was their accusation masked question. “Why are you afraid? Oh you of little faith.” Was His reply, and He calmed the storm (Matthew 8:23-27).

When Peter began to sink, after walking on water, Jesus reached down and asked, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:22-32)

It never occurred to the Apostles that Jesus could feed the 5,000, and even after He did they asked Jesus, when surrounded by another vast, hungry multitude, “From whence can a man satisfy these [men] with bread here in the wilderness?” (Mark 8:4) Jesus once again demonstrated that He can satisfy man, both spiritually and physically.

Following that miracle Jesus warned His followers about the “leaven of the Pharisees, and…Herod.” But they thought it was a subtle rebuke for failing to have food on hand. He wasn’t rebuking them then, but He was when He said: “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?” “Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember? (Mark 8:14-21; Matthew 16:8)

That a woman with a pagan background and little knowledge and exposure to Christ could be commended by the Lord for her great faith, while His own followers, who were raised on the Word, and who were daily in the presence of the living Word, would be repeatedly rebuked for their little faith should be a sobering warning to all those who have been raised in a Christian home and/or have been serving Christ for any length of time. Do not become glazed over in your walk with and service to the Lord. Constantly remind yourself of His past goodness and mercy, not so that you can live in the past, but so that you may know that He will deliver today, that He will never fail, that God’s mercies and compassions fail not, they are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness! Be a MEGA faith follower of Jesus Christ.

What does that kind of faith look like? Jesus’ brief conversation with this woman shows us at least three characteristics od MEGA faith. We'll look at the first one today and finish with the last two tomorrow.

Particularity

This woman’s faith was great because the object of her faith was great. She had faith in Jesus Christ the Lord. This was not faith in general but faith in a specific Man. He was (and is) real. His words and His works are real. This is not mythology. This is not fantasy. This is not wishful thinking. Faith in Christ is based on reason, on historical facts and evidence. It is not an unreasonable, blind, “you have to feel it in your gut but don’t need your mind” faith! The first sentence in Nathan Busenitz’ book Reasons We Believe is a succinct statement of this fact. He writes: “Faith, no matter how sincere, is only fantasy if it is based on bad information.”

One may be sincere in his faith, but it is ultimately worthless if it is founded on error.Faith is only sensible if it’s placed in the right object. Someone jumps out of a plane with no parachute and says “I believe!” That person is not very sensible, and you can be assured that he will soon be a blotch on the ground.

Belief and faith are popular topics in our culture. Just Google “I believe” and see how many different song lyrics you find. R. Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly: “There are miracles in life I must achieve But first I know it starts inside of me, oh If I can see it, then I can do it. If I just believe it, there's nothing to it. Hey, cuz I believe in me, oh, If I can see it, then I can be it. If I just believe it, there's nothing to it.” This song is great if it’s just about being self-confident, but we cannot do miracles and they definitely do not start inside of us. That’s misplaced faith.

The Platters used to sing: “I believe for every drop of rain that falls A flower grows, I believe that somewhere in the darkest night A candle glows, I believe that someone in the great somewhere Hears every word.” That’s like having faith in faith. It’s nonsensical. It’s flimsy and mystical.

This nonsensical, unsubstantiated, weak faith is nothing new. The Quaker and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, “The steps of faith fall on the seeming void and find the rock beneath.” You had better be sure of the rock before you step into the void. Faith doesn’t step into the void to find the rock beneath. Foolishness does, but not faith. Faith says, “I believe the rock will hold me up” and steps believing. Wishful thinking is not faith; it’s grasping at straws.

Your faith is only as great as its object. Sincerity alone does not make your faith great. Sincere belief cannot compensate for a faith that is founded in error. On Mt. Carmel the prophets of Baal were sincere when they jumped on the altar and cut themselves while crying out to their god. Obviously, they were earnest in their beliefs, but their zealous faith was worthless because it was centered on a dumb deity, a mute, man-made idol. Faith is only as good as its object. A general faith won’t do. Faith in faith is nonsensical. For faith to be right it must be properly directed.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

MEGA Faith pt. 1

Jesus and His disciples needed to rest. The demands of ministering to great multitudes of people had already worn down the Lord and His followers. Jesus had stated to the Twelve, “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). He had proposed this much needed retreat hot on the heels of the first disciple-led evangelistic campaign and the unjust execution of John the Baptist. The plan was to get away for awhile to rest and recharge. Only, the needy crowds of people would not cooperate. When the boat which carried Jesus and the Twelve landed at what they thought was a deserted place on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee they were met by a throng of thousands. Jesus was “moved to compassion toward them” and ministered to them all that day and into the early evening. His ministration was miraculously concluded by feeding the thousands from a boy’s sack lunch.

That was followed by a private prayer vigil on a mountain that lasted throughout the night and into the early morning; all the while the Twelve were toiling on the Sea of Galilee in a storm tossed boat that had been blown off course. Jesus walked on the water to His troubled disciples, calmed the storm, and when the boat was brought to shore the whole region descended on Him yet again. He healed all that were brought to Him, and we know from John 6 that He preached the landmark message on the bread of life.

That was closely followed by the confrontation with the Jerusalem “fault-finding” commission, and find fault they did because Jesus did not adhere to the traditions of the elders; in this instance, ceremonially rinsing before eating a meal. This confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees led to a public proclamation of the truth that mankind is not defiled from the outside but from the inside. This message was revolutionary in general, and specifically offensive to the Pharisees. Matthew records that the Twelve, during a brief lull in the action, told Jesus: “Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?” (15:12)

Remember, Jesus and the Twelve still haven’t had their retreat! There had been a steady swelling of pressure from three sources: the people who relentlessly hounded Jesus in search of miracles, the Pharisees who sought to ruin His growing influence, and the Herodians who may have desired to silence Him as they did the Baptist. Rest tirelessly eluded the nascent church as the overwhelming demands of the ministry, the incessant religious and personal attacks of the Pharisees, and the danger posed by Herod’s court continually escalated. So it is that we read in Mark 7:24a, “And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into a house, and would have no man know [it].”

Keep in mind that before the foundation of the earth it had been planned that Jesus would be sacrificed on the cross to make atonement for man’s sins. It was the Father’s will that the Son be crushed so that we could be saved. Jesus knew the Father’s will and consistently lived within His will; however, God’s sovereign plan did not absolve Jesus of the responsibility to faithfully and carefully live. Therefore, the Lord briefly moved outside of the religious jurisdiction of the Pharisees and the political jurisdiction of Herod; not because they could possibly thwart God’s plan, but because His time had not yet come.

Since a secluded rest had been repeatedly denied them in Galilee, Jesus led His followers out of Galilee and into the region of Tyre and Sidon; which is modern day Lebanon. He and the disciples were in need of and deserving of a little rest, and since none could be found while in Jewry He led them into Gentile territory. The Jews were less likely to follow Him into “heathen” lands.

The primary purpose for traveling into Gentile territory was to find some rest. This was not an attempt to expand the ministry. Mark told us that Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know where He was. While the chief cause for Christ’s visit to the borders of Tyre and Sidon was rest and not ministry, the Lord was well aware of the fertile spiritual soil of this area. From the beginning of His public ministry mean and women from Tyre and Sidon were numbered in the vast multitude of people who thronged Him (Mark 3:8).
But even more indicative of the fertile soil of Tyre and Sidon is found in Christ’s rebuke of the Galilean villages in Matthew 11:20-22: Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
The hearts of these pagan Gentiles were not as encumbered with the empty yet burdensome religious bondage of the Jews.

Even thought Jesus desired anonymity he could not be hidden. Just like you can’t keep a good man down, you can’t keep the God-man hidden. So it is that the last phrase of Mark 7:24 says, “But he could not be hid.” He was discovered by a woman in great need, not for herself but for her daughter. We read about her encounter with Jesus in verses 25-30:
For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.
I think it would be good for us to also read Matthew’s account of this exchange (15:21-28):
Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
There is a lot to unpack in this passage, and we will begin that tomorrow. The key phrase for our discussion will be: “great is thy faith.”