Christianity 201

May 12, 2022

When Fear of Life After Death Scares the Life Out of a Christian

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Thinking Through John 10:22-30

by Clarke Dixon

Does the fear of death scare the life out of you? Or perhaps the question is, does the fear of life after death scare the life out of you?

There is plenty to worry about in our day, but this nagging worry about the afterlife has plagued people across generations and societies. Will we be okay when we die?

Some say there is no God, and so therefore no afterlife, so don’t worry about it. Indeed there are those who have embraced that line of thinking and have come to peace with the idea of not existing forever. Others who think death is the final end fight it tooth and nail.

Some say there may be a God or spiritual realities we know nothing about, but who knows? Many would say that not only do they not know, but that they believe no one can really know. So as for the afterlife, don’t worry about it, because who can know anything about it? Some are at peace with not knowing, some are scared to death of the great unknown.

Now we come to the Christian who of course believes there is a God, and the best way to know God is through Jesus and the Bible. So no Christian fears death, right? Actually, many do. Many Christians have a nagging worry about not being okay when they die. It is tragic that many atheists and agnostics worry less about death and life after death than many Christians.

The nagging worry that we will not be okay when we die often comes down to one of three thoughts:

  • I’m worried I don’t have enough faith.
    • “The person on the other end of the pew is a shining example of faith, while I struggle with doubts.”
    • “Sometimes I think I trust what scientists tell me more than what Bible teachers tell me.”
  • I’m worried I don’t know enough.
    • “I don’t have God and the Bible all figured out.”
    • “Some people know so much about God and the Bible, and I don’t. They are so much more deserving of a place in heaven than I am.”
  • I’m worried I’m not good enough.
    • “Some people are so such better than me. God will be pleased with them, but not me.”
    • “I’ve tried, and failed, at being better in this one area of my life. God must be greatly disappointed with me.”

There is a problem with each of these lines of thought, a problem easy to miss. In each case the focus is on ourselves, our our faith, our knowledge, our goodness, or rather our lack of each.

Worry takes centre stage when we take centre stage.

The solution, of course, is to get out of the spotlight. Instead of being focused on ourselves, and ourselves in relation to others, let’s focus on God and where we stand in relation to God, according to God:

My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Fatherʼs hand. The Father and I are one.”

John 10:27-30 (NET emphasis added)

Notice where we are; in the hand of Jesus, secure in the hand of God.

Okay, but how do we know if we are one of the “sheep” secure in God’s hand? Jesus said “My sheep listen to my voice, I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus did not say “My sheep have superlative faith, deep knowledge, and are shining examples of perfect people.” We can listen to the voice of Jesus, follow him, yet still have doubts, gaps in our knowledge, and messy flaws.

Jesus also said,

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven

Matthew 18:3 (NRSV)

A young child is dependent on someone loving them. The Christian knows their dependence on God loving them.

We can become stuck in thinking of God as loving us, but not really loving us. We can paint the picture of God being totally disgusted with us, of harboring a disdain for us. Then even when we talk about God’s forgiveness of us, we think of God as merely tolerating us. We know God loves us but we can not bring ourselves to think that God might actually like us.

The law court may be our go to image of our relationship with God. We are on trial, guilty, while God is the judge. The good news is that the judge grants a pardon, that Jesus paid the debt. The difficulty is that we have trouble thinking that the judge will want to have anything to do with the accused following the trial. Sure, I might be forgiven, but given my doubt, my gaps in knowledge, and how imperfect I am, surely I am on the fringes of the Kingdom, kept at a distance from the King. The good news is better than that. Jesus challenged us to think of God as our Heavenly Father. We can think of God as loving us so much that he has us in his hand, and wants us there!

You can be in the hand of God and still have doubts. Doubt may not always be a lack of faith, but of faith seeking understanding. In fact sometimes our doubts may not be a lack of faith in God, but a lack of faith in those who tell us about God. That is not always a bad thing. No Bible teacher or preacher is perfect, including me of course.

You can be in the hand of God and still have much to learn. While Christianity is not anti-intellectual, it is also not about our ability to figure it all out. It is simply about trust. When we were young, too young to know much at all about anything, all we could do is trust our parents or those who took a parental role in our lives to make sure we were okay. In Christ we trust God.

You can be in the hand of God and still have room for growth in character, thinking, and behaviour. A common theme for those of us who are motorcyclists is that it is not about the destination, but the journey. To make Christianity about the destination of heaven and how you get there is missing the point. The Christian life is a journey of growing as a Kingdom person, all the while being secure in the hand of God.

Are you a Christian but you have a nagging worry that you won’t be okay when you die? If you focus on yourself and how good you are, especially in where you stack up against other Christians, your worry may continue. If you focus on God and where you stand with God in Christ, then no worries! In Christ you are in the hand of God, and will be. Instead of stressing about life after death, let’s concern ourselves with life, with our next best step in our relationship with God right here, right now.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Cobourg, about one hour east of Toronto. Read more at Thinking Through Scripture.

May 5, 2022

What Does Greater Devotion to Jesus Get You?

Thinking Through John 21:15-19

by Clarke Dixon

If we are more devoted to Jesus than others, we should get more privileges, right? Or perhaps we don’t want to compare ourselves to others. If we are more devoted to Jesus than we were five or ten years ago, there should be advantages, right? The following conversation between Jesus and Peter will help us discover what a greater devotion to Jesus does, and does not, get us. So here we go:

After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.
Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”
“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.

John 21:15-17 (NLT)

We might wonder what “these” refer to when Jesus asked Peter “do you love me more than these.” One possibility, since Peter had just been fishing, is “do you love me more than these things?” that is, this fishing gear. It could be “do you love me more than you love these disciples?”. Or it could be “do you love me more than these other disciples love me?”. This last possibility is seen by many Bible scholars as the best given that Peter always seemed to be first among the disciples. He was the one who asked to walk on water with Jesus, he was the one who at first refused to have his feet washed by Jesus, he was the first to say he was willing to die for Jesus.

Let us consider what Jesus did, and did not, say to Peter:

Jesus did not say to Peter “if you love me more than these then why did you deny you knew me when I was arrested and put on trial?”

Jesus did not lecture Peter about he should have done, or what he could do better moving forward. There was no interrogation. Jesus did not even mention Peter’s sin against him. But the fact that Jesus asked three times by a fire “do you love me?” would have reminded Peter of the three times he denied Jesus by a fire.

The message was clear; Jesus had not forgotten, but he had forgiven.

Jesus did say “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.” Jesus forgave and was ready to move forward in their relationship.

Greater devotion to Jesus does not get us greater forgiveness. Greater devotion to Jesus does open up the opportunity to move forward in forgiveness already granted.

Jesus did not say “since you love me more than these, then I will love you more than these.”

Jesus said “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.” Jesus called Peter to this task, not out of greater love for Peter, but out of great love love for all the sheep.

Jesus also said, “follow me.” Follow where? In the path of the shepherd, in the path of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. If you love me more than these, then love them just as I do!

Greater devotion to Jesus does not mean we will be loved more by Jesus. It does mean we will love more like Jesus.

Jesus did not say “since you love me more, you will get special treatment.”

It is natural to think that if we love Jesus more than others, or more than we used to, then we should be rewarded with greater privileges. If we pray more, read the Bible more, do more religious things, and become better followers, we should receive a more privileged place, right?

Jesus said “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.”

Greater devotion to Jesus does not lead to greater privilege, it leads to the privilege of greater service.

Jesus did not say “since you love me more, you will get more power and authority.”

Jesus said “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.”

Jesus used a verb meaning “shepherd” which some may jump on as a reason to claim power and authority. After all, sheep need the shepherd to guide them to better pastures. The shepherd knows best, right? But it is translated here as “take care of” and in some other translations as “tend” since it should be taken more as caring for the sheep and being responsible for them, rather than ruling over them.

In fact Jesus pointed out the kind of power and authority Peter would enjoy in the future:

“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”

John 21:18-19 (NLT)

You might think that Jesus, in establishing the Kingdom of God, would have called together powerful people and instructed them to grab after more power for the sake of the Kingdom. That’s how empires work. That’s not how Jesus works.

Jesus told Peter to “follow me.” Yes, Peter was called to be a shepherd, but he was called to remain a sheep, following the path of the Good Shepherd in the way of the cross, in the way of putting the needs of others first.

Greater devotion to Jesus does not mean greater power and control over others, it means greater opportunity to care for others.

Jesus did not say, “since you love me more, everyone should be just like you.”

Jesus did not say “create a community of Jesus-loving-Jewish-fishermen,” but “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.”

Peter would go on to discover that the sheep were all quite different from each other, especially so once it became clear that non-Jews were invited into the Kingdom! The sheep were people from all different kinds of backgrounds and situations. Some were rich, some poor, some Jewish, some not, some were male, others female, some were Pharisees and some were Romans.

Peter’s role was not to make everyone just like him, but to help everyone live out the Kingdom pivot in their lives, in their context, just as he was doing in his own.

In my years of being a pastor, a shepherd, and we are all shepherds to someone, I’ve discovered that the sheep are all quite different. Some of the sheep vote conservative, some liberal, some are introverted, others are extroverted, some have easily trusted the medical professionals, some have not, some think the government should provide more care for people, others thing the government should play a lessor role in our lives, some think abortion is the taking of life, some think abortion can be a means of health care, some drink only tea, some enjoy Guinness, some like long sermons, some don’t like sermons at all, some love the Bible, some have great difficulty making any sense of it, some are straight, some are gay, some are well off, some are not far from poverty. Jesus did not say “make everyone be like you,” but “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.” That means all of them. Even if we are not called to vocational ministry, we have the opportunity to take care of people who are different, and think different, from us.

In my years of being a shepherd, I have been grateful for sheep that have been different, and who have helped me to see things from different perspectives. Sheep can shepherd shepherds! In fact the sheep depend on the shepherds being sheep and following Jesus.

Greater devotion to Jesus does not give us the right to strong-arm people into becoming just like us, it means serving people, all people, helping them become more like Jesus even if they are nothing like us.

Do we love Jesus more than ever?

I hope we do, but it does not give us greater forgiveness, love, privilege, power, or make us the shining example of what following Jesus looks like.

Greater devotion to Jesus does give us the opportunity to move forward in forgiveness, and a greater opportunity to love.

Jesus asks us as he did Peter, “do you love me.” If so, let us commit to loving and serving others.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. You can read more at his blog, Thinking Through Scripture.

April 28, 2022

Has Fear or Fighting Stolen Your Peace?

Thinking Through John 20:19-23

by Clarke Dixon

Has either fear or fighting stolen your peace? You might wonder how you could have peace right now with this scary situation, or that horrible relationship. It might be a nasty virus or a nasty war that is stealing your peace. Jesus speaks to themes of fear, fighting, and peace.

Let us begin with how fear steals our peace

That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said.

John 20:19 (NLT)

The disciples knew all about fear. They were holed up in a room with the doors locked out of the fear that they would end up crucified and dead like their leader. They knew they had targets on their backs, so locked doors it was. Until Jesus showed up.

Again he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

John 20:21 (NLT)

While there was rejoicing over seeing Jesus alive, the fear was still real, if not heightened by what Jesus had just said. No more hiding behind locked doors, go out into that scary world where you may well get killed! According to tradition, most of them were.

Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John 20:22 (NLT)

Breathing on the disciples might seem odd, but as often happens the odd things in the Bible are a clue that something symbolic is happening. Here the breathing on the disciples points back to Genesis:

Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.

Genesis 2:7 (NLT)

God breathed life into humanity at Creation. Now here in Jesus God was doing it again. The Giver of life is with you, even in the face of death. Even though the fear of death was real for the disciples, their peace about life, death, and life after death could be real also.

Our fears can be legitimate. We may well end up wounded, emotionally from relationships, or physically from disease. We will likely face death at some point. Fear helps us seek wisdom, on how to stay alive and healthy. Fear is not all bad. But while fear may be helpful, even necessary at times, fear need not steal our peace. While the worst thing that we imagine might happen, could happen, in Christ the best thing that could happen, even beyond our imagination, shall definitely happen.

Let us continue with how fighting steals our peace

When Jesus says “peace be with you,” it is important that we recognize the word used for peace. Jesus would have spoken mostly in Aramaic and used a word related to the Hebrew word for peace; shalom. While our word peace may be used to describe situations where there is no fighting, the word shalom goes deeper to describe a situation where there is harmony. Two nations may be said to be at peace if they are not lobbing bombs as each other, but they may not be experiencing shalom if the relationship is not good. Likewise, you may experience peace in your relationships, but not shalom.

When Jesus told the disciples he was sending them out, he was sending them out among people with whom they did not have shalom. Their enemies were real, the enmity was real.

Jesus said, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” How did the Father send Jesus?

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

John 3:16-17 (NLT)

The Father sent the son with the agenda of offering forgiveness, of bringing love in the face of hatred. The disciples were to go out among their enemies with the intention of bringing love in the face of hatred.

As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side.

John 20:20 (NLT)

When Jesus showed the disciples his wounds he could have said “where were you when this happened? Why didn’t you stand by me?” But instead he said “Peace be with you.” Jesus showed them his wounds, not as evidence of their wrongdoing, or anyone else’s wrongdoing, but as a sign that he was real, and that his love for them and his forgiveness of them was real. Having experienced that love, they were now sent out to live it. So are we.

If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

John 20:23 (NLT)

We might automatically think Jesus is speaking of the forgiveness from God that leads to eternal life here. We might therefore smell power, our power. But is that necessary? I like Eugene Peterson’s take on what Jesus said:

If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?

John 20:23 (MSG)

Good question! If we don’t forgive people’s sins against us, we will let those sins fester in our lives and in our relationships. We will let them steal our peace, our shalom.

Jesus is speaking here about the opportunity of experiencing peace in our relationships, and of bringing shalom to others. In breathing on the disciples, Jesus breathed a breath of fresh air into their relationship with him. Gone was any thought of experiencing judgement and condemnation. We can breathe new life into our relationships through forgiveness.

We enjoy shalom with God because God in Jesus has taken the path of the cross with us. Jesus said “As the father has sent me, I’m sending you,” meaning we are now sent on that same path of the cross, of love and forgiveness.

In Conclusion

Has fear stolen your peace? Jesus stands before us today and says “peace be with you.” Our fears may be real, but they need not steal our peace.

Has fighting stolen your peace? Jesus stands before us today and says “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Fighting can end in peace and enmity in friendship when we follow Jesus in the way of the cross.

“Peace be with you.”


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Cobourg, Ontario and appears here most Thursdays.

April 21, 2022

Time For Change

Thinking Through John 20:11-18

by Clarke Dixon

When will things ever change? Why does everything keep changing?

Which statement resonates with you? Perhaps they both do. We humans desire change, but then we also resist change. Sometimes we push for change, yet sometimes we push back when things are changing.

We cannot talk about Easter without talking about change!

A big change happened at Easter, which inspired a lot of change, which of course also meant a lot of pushback. What was that big change?

Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.
“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus,…

John 20:11-14 (NLT emphasis added)

Jesus was dead. Now he is alive. That was a big change! And that changed everything!

The fact that Jesus is alive changes everything

That Jesus, though crucified, was now alive meant rethinking who Jesus was and is. Those religious leaders who thought he was a fraud would need to reconsider. Those who saw Jesus as great teacher or miracle worker but merely a great teacher or miracle worker, would need to reconsider. Those who wondered if Jesus might be the expected Messiah, though having their hopes dashed by his crucifixion, would need to rethink their expectations of the Messiah. This rethinking of the identity of Jesus led to Jesus being reconsidered as “The Word made flesh and dwelt among us” (see John 1:14) and “King of kings and Lord of lords” (see 1st Timothy 6:15) and “My Lord and my God!” (see John 20:28).

That Jesus, though crucified, was now alive meant rethinking how we relate to God; no longer through the old covenant, but through Jesus.

That Jesus, though crucified, was now alive meant rethinking the God’s priorities; from making Israel great again, to connecting people with God and God’s kingdom wherever they may live, whatever their nationality may be.

That Jesus, though crucified, was now alive meant rethinking who is invited to live and lean into the Kingdom of God; anyone and everyone.

That Jesus, though crucified, was now alive meant rethinking how people relate to one another when it comes to class divisions: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” Galatians 3:28 (NRSV).

That Jesus, though crucified, was now alive meant rethinking ethics; no longer living by the letter of the old covenant law, but the teaching and example of Jesus.

Since Jesus is risen, since Jesus is king, that changed everything! It meant changing anything that did not fit the Kingdom.

A Kingdom Pivot

The word pivot has been used a lot recently with reference to adapting to a pandemic. We church leaders needed to change how we led worship and how we gathered people together when worship gatherings were stopped. We all have needed to learn to live with masks and social distancing. The reality of a nasty virus meant the need for a pivot in how we live.

The reality of Jesus risen from the dead means there is need for a “Kingdom pivot.” Since Jesus is the king, what does life look like in His kingdom? What needs to change?

An example of a Kingdom pivot

Here is an example of the Kingdom pivot from our Scripture Focus:

She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”
She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”
“Mary!” Jesus said.
She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).
“Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

John 20:14-18 (NLT)

Jesus is alive and a woman in the first to know! Why didn’t Jesus go straight to the disciples? According to scholars women were not even allowed to be witnesses in those days. It was a man’s world. Jesus showed himself alive first to a woman as a call for a change in attitudes toward women.

Some Bible teachers have pointed out that since an apostle is one “sent out” with a message, Mary is the first apostle! This is a huge sign that in the Kingdom there will be a different attitude toward women. This Kingdom pivot is aligned with the teaching of Jesus when Martha wanted Mary to take her proper place. Mary was doing what women were not supposed to be doing, learning. Yet Jesus affirmed her choice to learn. Change was coming.

Not everyone could handle this change in attitudes toward women, indeed we see evidence of this in the New Testament itself, and in churches around the world right down to our day. Change gets messy. For myself, I’m glad to be part of a convention and church that supports women in leadership at all levels. To me, this is an important Kingdom pivot.

The Kingdom Pivot in our lives

Jesus is alive. Jesus is king. That changes everything. Are we prepared to change anything that does not fit the Kingdom?

What does a kingdom pivot look like in your life right now? It might be a change in habits or attitudes. It might be seeking help for change in a battle with an addiction. It might be a change in the way we treat others, whether family, friends, strangers, or enemies. It might be a change in our attitudes toward a certain people group. It might be a change in our attitude toward ourselves. I came face to face with my tendency for perfectionism when the pandemic hit and worship and preaching went online. My imperfections were suddenly recorded on camera! We perfectionists tend to beat ourselves up when we end up being less than perfect, which we always do. People don’t beat themselves up in God’s Kingdom. There is a Kingdom pivot needed in my life. What Kingdom pivot do you need in yours?

Are we open to these changes or do we resist them?

In Conclusion

Jesus is alive and is king. That changes everything. So be prepared to change anything that does not fit his kingdom.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario Canada. Read more at Thinking Through Scripture.

April 14, 2022

Triumphant, or Hopeless?

Thinking Through Luke 19:28-40

by Clarke Dixon

Do you ever feel like it is just plain hopeless? It will never work out. It might be your health, career, a relationship, or your hope for world peace. Concern weighs our hearts down, grinding down our hope and joy along with it.

Not only will it not work out, it may seem completely beyond your control. You didn’t sign up for that illness. You were not the one who introduced a mess into the relationship. Vladimir Putin didn’t ask you if he should invade Ukraine. If it makes you feel better, he didn’t ask me either.

Today we are taking a break from all that hopelessness by looking back to a moment of great hope and joy:

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem….

As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,
saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

Luke 19:28,36-38

We call it the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem but we could just as easily call it the hopeful entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

That moment was a break from hopelessness for the people of that day. The people needed a break, something to celebrate. Rome was in charge and everyone knew that was not the ways things were supposed to be. God’s people were meant to be a free people living in the land promised to them.

Making matters even more frustrating for the the regular person, the leaders could not agree on the best thing to do about it. The Pharisees were saying something different than the Zealots who were saying something different than the Sadducees who saying something different from the Essenes who were just telling everyone to give up listening to anyone and join them in the wilderness. The best experts could not agree. Perhaps that sounds familiar.

There was hope

Hope flickered like a small candle for many years, hundreds of years in fact. There was the hope that God would send a Messiah, in Greek, a Christ, meaning an ‘anointed one.’ Though there were many pretend leaders through the years, from not-appointed-by-God kings like Herod, to Roman appointed governors like Pilate, some day God would send the true king. That king would be someone from the line of David, the king from Israel’s “glory days,” who would bring the people into new glory days.

At some point people began to wonder if Jesus might be that hoped for king. Yet somehow Jesus didn’t fit the expectations. He had the wrong kind of accent for one thing, coming from Galilee. But people wondered. The disciples knew, but Jesus told them to be quiet about it. Then Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Jesus orchestrated the way he entered Jerusalem to make absolutely clear that he was the true king, the hoped for Messiah. The flickering candle of hope became a raging fire. The people welcomed Jesus with great joy and celebration!

Yet there was an ominous note:

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”

Luke 19:39 (NRSV)

That ominous note of opposition would get louder until it was replaced by the shouts of “crucify him,” by the end of the week, then by the sound of nails being driven into a cross, then by the sound of struggling for breath, then silence.

Life is like that.

There is hope, then hopes are dashed.

Hopes were dashed at the cross

So how did the people go from “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” to “Crucify him! Crucify him!” in less than a week?

When the people saw this Jesus who gave the clear sign that he considered himself to be the the true king who would rescue them from Rome, in the hands of the Romans, clothed in purple, with a crown of thorns on his head, Roman soldiers mocking him, and Pilate joking “here is your king,” well then hope went out the window.

Most reasonable people would discern that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah after all. No one was saying “Don’t do that to our king,” they would have been saying, “That is not our king.”

The miracles and teaching of Jesus had captured the imagination of people and filled them with hope. However, his inability to pull together an army, or to bring the Pharisees, Sadducee’s, and Zealots together on any kind of plan to beat the Romans had people thinking he was a fraud. The true king would get the people out from Roman captivity. Jesus, however, was in Roman captivity more than the people.

If he was a fraud, then he should be crucified. So “crucify him!”

Except he wasn’t.

That was Friday

On Friday Jesus was arrested, tortured, dead, buried and obviously not the Messiah, the promised king. So back to life under the thumb of Rome, with Jewish leaders that can’t get their act together, and back to a small candle of hope. Maybe someday God would send the Messiah. But not today.

That was Friday. On Sunday Jesus is alive. Yes he really is the Messiah, the promised king, the true king.

Jesus defied expectations of what the true king should do and be like. He not only defied expectations, he blew them wide open. Never mind being king of the Jews, Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. Never mind a rescue from the Romans, this is a rescue for all of Creation, including the Romans!

Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords and no one could change that. Even killing Jesus could not change that. What had always worked for bringing about a change in leader, namely killing him, did not work this time! The Romans with all their power and the terrifying control they held over people by the threat of crucifixion could not change the fact that Jesus is the king, even the king of Caesar!

Our struggles are real, but they cannot destroy hope

Jesus is King, and his vision for the future is the vision that will come about. Not the vision of the religious leaders, nor the Romans, nor yours, nor mine, nor any person, disease, bully, nor any world ruler no matter how many nuclear arms may be at that ruler’s disposal, but the vision of Jesus, that is what shall be.

This is good news. Jesus is King, and the king is for us and not against us.

The struggles are real, the wounds are real, the strikes against hope are real, but they are never fatal. With Jesus as king, our wounds can never kill hope. Remember when the Pharisees told Jesus to stop the people celebrating as he rode into Jerusalem?

He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Luke 19:40 (NRSV)

The celebrations could not be stopped. Hope could not be destroyed.

The opposition Jesus faced between his entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion was real. The opposition was real but it could not destroy hope. The struggle was real, but the defeat wasn’t. The wounds of Jesus were real, but even though they led to death, they were not fatal.

That is true for us.

The struggles are real. We can’t just gloss over life’s struggles as if they don’t exist. When we gloss over the struggles, we fail to reach out for help. We may need the presence of a caring friend, a trained counselor, or a psychiatrist. Being a Christian does not absolve us from struggle.

The struggles are real, but defeat isn’t. The wounds are real, but they are never fatal. They can never override God’s will for us.

Hope may be stifled for a season, by a bully, a fool, a disease, an accident, or a tragedy. But it cannot be destroyed because Jesus is King, and he is for us and not against us.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. His writing, based on the previous week’s sermons, and featured here most Thursdays is from his blog, Thinking Through Scripture.

April 10, 2022

The Underlying Tensions of Palm Sunday

First, before we begin, as we were discussing possible “call to worship” or as some call it “opening sentence” material for Palm Sunday, I found myself reading the original prophecy in Zachariah 9:9 which is fulfilled on this day in the life of Jesus.

Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is righteous and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

That’s the NASB. In The Message, Eugene Peterson renders it as,

“Shout and cheer, Daughter Zion! Raise your voice, Daughter Jerusalem! Your king is coming! a good king who makes all things right, a humble king riding a donkey, a mere colt of a donkey.”

Second, the original material that I write here is occasionally prone to be repeated after four years, but the guest writers are never repeated. In looking for some thoughts for yesterday, I also considered, but didn’t use, excerpts from previous C201 devotions, but in the 24 hours that followed I kept thinking I wanted to repeat something we’d used previously — exactly five years ago — from Clarke Dixon. And Clarke is like family. So here, for the first (or possibly second) time is an encore performance from a pastor who practically lives in my backyard. (It’s an expression; he really lives about 20 miles away.) The direct link is in the title below.

Feeling Nervous? Romans 8:31-39

by Clarke Dixon

Feeling nervous? If you are one of the disciples entering into Jerusalem with Jesus then you probably should be. Yes there is the excitement of the crowds waving their palm branches and shouting “Hosanna,” but there is also the danger that exists when revolution is in the air. Jerusalem at the time is the home of powerful people with powerful ideas. Some have the idea that Rome should get lost and the occupying Roman army should take a hike. Others think that every hint of revolution should be squashed. These are dangerous times. Within a few decades there will be a revolution and Jerusalem will be destroyed. But right now, revolution is in the air and there’s a miracle worker entering Jerusalem on a donkey, which means he may as well wave a banner saying “I am the Messiah, I will rescue you.” To most minds this means “I will kick the Romans out.” Revolution is in the air, blood will be spilled. If you are one of the disciples entering Jerusalem with Jesus, you should be nervous.

What does the “triumphal entry” of Jesus and the events we celebrate on Palm Sunday have to do with Romans chapter 8? The connection is found in Paul’s quotation from Psalm 44:

As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” Romans 8:36

Psalm 44 is a “Psalm of complaint” where the Psalmist complains that God’s righteous people are suffering and need to be rescued. Implied in the appeal for a rescue is also, of course, that God would deal with the enemy. This is an appeal to the justice of God, that He would do the right thing and rescue His people. In Jesus’ day you could think of the Jews of Jerusalem being the righteous sufferers while the Gentiles from Rome are the evil oppressors. Surely when the Messiah comes he will rescue Jerusalem and destroy the Romans! However, the facts are set straight at the cross.

By the end of the week, blood has been spilled. It is not the blood of Jewish revolutionaries, nor of occupying Roman forces. It is the blood of one man, Jesus. He is the one accounted as a sheep to be slaughtered. He is the one who can appeal to innocence and the injustice of his death as the righteous sufferer of Psalm 44. He is the one who can appeal to God the Father for a rescue, and the destruction of the enemy.

Therein lies the problem. Everyone is included in that enemy; the Roman authorities granting the final word, the Roman army carrying out the deed, the Jewish authorities instigating the whole rotten affair, and the Jewish crowds shouting “crucify him, crucify him.” The saying is spot on: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:10) Well almost, there is one who is righteous, the one being crucified on trumped up charges, the one experiencing the culmination of hatred, the one experiencing injustice.

This is the moment in which God the Son, as the innocent sufferer, could call upon God the Father to do “the right thing,” to rescue him and destroy the enemy. Problem is, of course, that destroying the enemy would mean destroying everyone. If there is ever one moment that stands out as the moment for God to unleash his righteous anger at the world, this is it; at the cross. If there is ever a moment proving God’s righteousness in sending a flood, this is it. The flood in Noah’s day was due to man’s violence against humanity. Now at the cross humanity’s violence is turned to God Himself. Rebellion against Rome hung in the air, but we sank to our lowest low when, in our rebellion against God, Jesus hung on a cross.

Perhaps we should be nervous? The blood of Jesus is on our hands too. Would we have acted any different than the disciples in abandoning Jesus? Than Peter in denying Jesus? Than the religious leaders in seeking the death of Jesus? Than the crowds in demanding the crucifixion of Jesus? Than Pilate in acquiescing? Than the Roman solider in carrying out orders? We are no different.

So should we be nervous knowing that we are complicit in crimes against God Himself? Let us turn again to Romans 8:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? Romans 8:31

But is God for us?

When we ask if God is for us, we may think of the crucifixion as overwhelming evidence of our rebellion against God. However the cross was not just our great act of rebellion, it was also God’s great act of love. Consider:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:19-20

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10

Satan, the accuser, may have a lot of dirt on us. Actually, not just may, he does have a lot of dirt on us. We have given him a long list of things to choose from as to why we do not deserve to be in the presence of God. However:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Romans 8:31-34

Satan may argue forcefully about all the reasons we do not deserve to be in the presence of God. God says in effect “I already know about all that, in fact I already paid for it.” When we are in Christ, the dirt does not stick.

When we ask if God is for us, some may point to our own suffering as evidence that maybe He is not. Paul brings us back to the facts. We measure God’s love for us, not on our suffering, but on His. We suffer because we are humans living in a broken world. He suffered because of His love for broken people.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39

Our suffering is not evidence that God does not love us. The suffering of Jesus is evidence that He does.

Feeling nervous? Because of sin, you should be. Many a person in this world should be quaking in their boots right now. However, in Christ, you needn’t. Which brings us back to where we began in Romans 8:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1

All scripture references are taken from the NRSV


Read more at Clarke’s blog: Thinking Through Scripture

April 7, 2022

When Bad Character Meets Bad Thinking

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Thinking Through John 12:1-11

by Clarke Dixon

Who do you think is the better Christian; Judas, or Mary?

Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.
But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.”

John 12:1-5 (NLT)

Let’s be honest, does not the use of perfume worth about a year’s wages in one single moment seem like a bad idea, a terrible use of resources? Judas was concerned for the poor. We might even say that he was more “Christlike” than Mary. Yet Judas was not commended:

Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself.
Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

John 12:6-8 (NLT)

Judas does not have a good character. He is deceitful, greedy, a thief, and will go on to betray Jesus for money.

Is there anything to learn here? Yes,

Spending time with good people does not automatically fix bad character.

Being one of the twelve disciples Jesus chose to draw close, Judas spent a lot of time with Jesus. Yet despite all the teaching he heard, likely repeatedly as Jesus would have taught similar things in different towns, and despite all the miracles he witnessed, Judas was unchanged. Judas could not have found a better mentor than Jesus. Yet he was unchanged.

Are we spending time with good people yet we are unchanged? Are we spending time with God yet are unchanged? We can invest time in reading the Bible or in prayer yet not experience any kind of discernible change in character. We may not be any more loving than we were ten years ago, or joyful, peaceful, patient, or kind.

Devotion to good religion does not automatically fix bad character.

Judas was a Jew, and his concern for the poor was baked right into the Jewish faith. Yet not stealing was also baked right in! Judas perhaps gave the impression that he was a good Bible believing Jew with his suggestion regarding relief for the poor. Yet he was not a good Jew, his character was unchanged. His religion did not change him.

Are we devoted to Christianity, yet we are not changed? Perhaps we say a lot of good Christian sounding things, yet we are not more generous than we were ten years ago, or more faithful, gentle, or self-controlled.

Before we go on to talk about the solution, let’s recognize that things get worse as we read further:

When all the people heard of Jesus’ arrival, they flocked to see him and also to see Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. Then the leading priests decided to kill Lazarus, too, for it was because of him that many of the people had deserted them and believed in Jesus.

John 12:9-11 (NLT)

The leading priests were supposed to be the cream of the crop, the ones who set the best example of what it looks like to be faithful to God. Yet from them we learn that not only does devotion to good religion not automatically fix bad character,

Devotion to good religion does not automatically fix bad thinking.

John Stonestreet often says, “bad ideas have bad consequences.” We see that played out here. The priests have the wrong idea about how to express their faith, and they have the wrong idea about who Jesus is. From these bad ideas spring their desire to kill both Jesus and Lazarus.

You might have expected the chief priests to treat the raising of Lazarus as a wake up call, to start rethinking their view of Jesus, to start listening to the teaching of Jesus. Their thinking went unchanged.

We can become destructive when we stick with bad thinking. That can be true when we are new to Christianity, failing to rethink areas of our lives that Christ shines a new light on. It can also be true for those of us who have been Christians for a long time. Our devotion to Christianity does not automatically fix our bad thinking.

Are we like Judas and the chief priests, or like Mary?

Mary’s generous character as demonstrated with the “waste” of perfume stands in contrast to the greed of Judas. Mary’s right thinking about Jesus, knowing that Jesus is worthy of an extreme act of devotion, stands in contrast with leading priests who want him dead.

So what’s the fix?

If devotion to Christianity does not automatically fix bad character or bad thinking, what will?

Jesus tells us:

“Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.”
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.

Matthew 7:24-29 (NLT)

Our character and ideas mature as we build upon Jesus.

It begins with being intentional. Builders choose to build. They also choose where to build. We can be intentional in our desire to build our lives on the teaching and example of Jesus.

This is different than saying we choose to build on our particular expression of the Christian faith. While most Christian traditions attempt to get the thinking right, there is no guarantee that they do. We want to keep going back to Jesus. We don’t want to let someone else dictate all the ideas to us. That happens in cults. Controlling people’s behaviour and thinking does not guarantee good character or good thinking. Helping people walk with Jesus and focus on Jesus ensures that we will at least be growing in both.

The builders choose to build, but at some point they need to grab the needed tools and get to work. The intention to build is not enough, there also needs to be action. “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise.”

My wife and I decided sometime ago that we wanted to live a more healthy kind of lifestyle. Gluttony is the one sin we pastors can get away with. Good intentions for a healthier lifestyle needed to become actions, like walking past the snack cupboard, and lacing up the running shoes. Nike’s tagline of “Just Do It” is a brilliant tagline for a running shoe. It is also good advice to us as Christians, to get actively involved in our relationship with God.


Good intentions are not enough!

Though exercise has always been something I’ve dreaded, by just getting to it I have gone from “I have to get some exercise” to “I get to workout this morning.” We can go from saying “I have got to become a person of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” to saying “I get to become a person growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (See Galatians 5:22-23). We can go from saying “I’ve got to read my Bible more, and pray more,” to saying “I get to have my mind renewed and challenged by thinking through Scripture, I get to live life in the presence of God.”

Jesus himself models good intention and follow through by his intention to express love in the face of hatred. That good intention became action in his deliberate journey to the cross. When Mary poured out the perfume on Jesus, she unwittingly pointed out where that journey Jesus had chosen led; to his death, the full expression of God’s love. “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.”

If Judas had listened to Jesus, rethinking life and putting his words into practice, then the kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane would have been one of true friendship and not betrayal. If the chief priests had listened to Jesus, rethinking life and putting his words into practice, then they would have welcomed him into Jerusalem as king and friend, and not as a fraud and enemy.

The cross is a reminder of what happens when bad character meets bad ideas. God came to us in Jesus and we killed him. When the bad character of Judas met up with the bad thinking of the leading priests, the execution of Jesus became a real possibility.

The cross is also a reminder of what happens when good character meets good ideas. Though God came to us in Jesus and we killed him, God loved us anyway. As we pick up our cross and follow in that way of love we will be changed, both in our character, and in our thinking.


April 1, 2022

Christianity 201 12th Birthday | The Fruit of Wisdom

It’s Our Birthday!

I never expected when I started this that we would still be posting devotionals every afternoon at around 5:30 Eastern Time, seven days a week, 12 months of the year. Faithfulness to this and stewardship of the site has meant things like arranging for a series of things to be posted when we would be on holidays, and has meant building margin into my schedule for days when I knew that the devotional could have easily been crowded out by other activities. Some days, like yesterday, the WordPress “publish” button doesn’t get pushed until it’s already 5:30 PM.

It’s also been a matter of keeping some balance, both in the type of writers we feature (their doctrine, denomination) and the subject matters. I know for example that not everyone is married with children, but the scripture teaching on marriage and parenting can have valuable broader application for all of us. (Parenting being obvious, as God, our Father, parents us.)

Then there are the quotations. You can find collections online for hundreds of Christian authors, but I’ve been selective here in choosing a few key authors that I felt led to present, and also a certain type of quotation from each of them that befits the readership here.

I could not celebrate twelve years without thanking Clarke Dixon for his weekly contribution every Thursday which is always a perfect fit. Clarke and I got to spend an hour together yesterday for the first time in ages, and I do appreciate his friendship. I wanted to list some of the other frequently recurring writers here, but I knew that I would leave someone out. However I want to mention Kevin Rogers who has been featured here for a long time, and Stephen and Brooksyne Weber who, while I don’t get to read Daily Encouragement as often as I once did, have always been a source of inspiration and … encouragement!

After thinking about what we could present today, it occurred to me that the best thing I could do is to do what we do best, so here’s today’s devotional.

The Fruit of Wisdom

NIV.James.3.17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

The list before us is, I believe, both characteristics of wisdom itself, and of those who seek and manifest wisdom in their daily living.  The first verse appeared earlier this week on my NIV Bible App, but I decided to include verse 18 in light of what follows.

The first thing I noticed was how certain characteristics here overlap the fruit of the spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23. When I read “submissive” it reminded me of the overlap with the characteristics in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-10, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.”  (Several translations have submissive as “open to reason.) The list may also remind you of the character traits in the “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s also reminiscent of the qualities Paul prays for the Colossian church to have in Colossians 1: 9-14.

But here we have not Jesus, not the Apostle Paul, but James reiterating a similar type of character checklist. (You’d almost think these personal qualities were important or something!) But James is speaking with respect to wisdom and this is an important distinction.

We often conflate wisdom with knowledge. I have to admit this is a real challenge for me personally. I gravitate to teachers whose sermons contain a lot of information. I don’t necessarily retain it all, but I’m challenged by it, especially in the context of the conclusions they reach at the end of their teaching. I love bullet points, and alliterative outlines, and infographics, and those little laminated pamphlets published by Rose Publishing which reduce major topics in Christian history and doctrine to their essential points.

Because of this, when we started Christianity 201, I tended to eschew devotionals which relied heavily on stores about a little boy and his dog, a person looking for a parking spot, a disobedient child, a rainbow appearing after a rainstorm. You get the idea. Privately, I tended to avoid sermons by preachers who feel the need to open with a personal anecdote from the previous week; I like the ones who just say, “Take your Bible and turn to the Book of  _________ …” and then start teaching.

But we don’t necessarily Jesus giving a treatise on advanced doctrinal concepts. There’s nothing close to an outline in systematic theology. Instead, we see, as Clarke reminded us yesterday, stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son (or two lost sons). And the lost son story in particular is beyond human imagination in the different ways we can learn from it.

In other words, Jesus doesn’t give us summary teachings on his theological outlook, as much as he invites us to surmise his theology from the illustrations. He invites us to work it out. (Perhaps with fear and trembling?)

And so, to go back to James’ epistle, while knowledge can be amassed and stored and retrieved as needed, true wisdom is going to produce change in us. It’s going to bring about transformation. To repeat one more time, information (knowledge) is not wisdom.

When we seek spiritual wisdom, what James calls “the wisdom from above” we are asking God to shape us, form us, change us.

… For those of you who’ve been on this ride for a longer time, I hope the twelve years of Christianity 201 has blessed you, and tomorrow we’ll be back with more.

 

March 31, 2022

Are We Christians Ungodly Toward the “Ungodly”?

Thinking Through Luke 15:1-32

by Clarke Dixon

What sermon would you preach if you were to preach on Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son?

Perhaps you might preach to lost souls about the love of God, encouraging them to come to faith in him. Far from God is never too far to turn around. Or perhaps you might preach to found souls about the love of God, on how we should be inspired to help the lost become found. God’s love for people “out there” is a great motivator to reach out.

Whichever you would choose, you are in good company for many such sermons have been preached from these parables. However, today we will consider these parables in light of the event that inspired Jesus to tell them.

So what happened?

Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!
So Jesus told them this story:…

Luke 15:1-3 (NLT)

Actually, Jesus told three stories, all of which hang together to make a very important point that we can easily miss.

So what is the point?

The lost sheep:

If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!

Luke 15:4-7 (NLT)

There are a few things for us to take note of:

First, the lost sheep is neither a goat, nor a wolf, but a sheep. Being sheep, they already belong with the flock. They are not different, they are lost. The religious leaders were treating the lost sheep as if they were skunks. Jesus treated them like sheep.

Second, where the religious leaders saw people that should be kept at a distance, Jesus saw people with potential. The desire of the religious leaders to exclude contrasted sharply with the desire of Jesus to include.

Third, the grumbling of the religious types was in contrast with the rejoicing of heaven, which likely stands for the rejoicing of God.

The lost coin:

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”

Luke 15:8-10 (NLT)

We can take note of the same things as with the parable of the lost sheep, but perhaps more explicit here is the idea of value. The lost coin is valuable. People have worth, even though, and even while, lost.

The prodigal son.

The parable of the prodigal son is so well loved, we might actually miss the main point Jesus was making by telling it. It would be easy for us to become fixated on the opportunity for the son to be reconciled, or the extravagant love of the father. We might stop thinking through this parable with the party thrown for the lost son for there is already so much to learn about God and ourselves by that point. But Jesus didn’t stop there in telling the story:

“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’ “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”

Luke 15:28-32 (NLT)

While the main point may be lost on us as we focus on the younger son or the father, it would not have been lost on the religious leaders who had attitudes just like the older brother.

The main point.

Taken together these three parables make the point that God has beautiful longings over people the religious leaders had ugly reactions against. In fact the ugly reactions against those considered ungodly, made the religious leaders themselves ungodly.

Does our attitude toward people reflect God’s attitude? Do we have beautiful longings for people? Or does our attitude toward people we consider “ungodly” make us ungodly? is it time for an attitude adjustment?

Perhaps the question is not what you would preach if you were to preach on these parables. Perhaps the question is what sermon do you need to hear?

Do you need to hear the call to draw closer to God? You belong, you are of great worth, God has a beautiful longing over you and for you. God opens the door to reconciliation.

Do you need to hear the call to go out and help people connect with God? God has a beautiful longing for people, they belong, they are of great worth.

Or perhaps today you need to hear the call to an attitude adjustment, to watch out for ugly reactions against people God has beautiful longings for. Is your attitude toward those you consider “ungodly” making you ungodly?


■ This sermon can be seen being “preached” here or heard through podcast for a limited time here. Clarke Dixon is a Canadian pastor who appears here most Thursdays.


Today completes 12 years of devotional studies here at Christianity 201. Tomorrow we celebrate our 12th Birthday!

March 24, 2022

Are You Being Faithful to God?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Thinking Through Luke 13:1-9

by Clarke Dixon

  • Watch the sermon on which today’s devotional is based at this link.

What does faithfulness to God look like? A typical response from Christians and non-Christians alike might be summarized as “sin avoidance,” which for most people means not breaking the rules. Is that it?

Judgement Looms

As we dig into this question let us consider that in Old Testament times God sent prophets to remind people that he is always faithful and that they should be faithful too. It would not end well if they were not and indeed, as the prophets warned, the Northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian army in eighth century BC and the Southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian army in the sixth century BC. These calamities were spoken of by the prophets as being the judgement of God for a lack of faithfulness to God.

Fast forward to another prophet, John the Baptist:

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Luke 3:7-9 (NRSV)

What did the people hearing John think the judgement he spoke of would look like? Just as judgement previously referred to destructive invasions by the Assyrians and Babylonians, judgement here would be taken to mean the occupying Romans would go beyond a mere occupation to a complete overrun.

Fast forward to another prophet, Jesus:

At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Luke 13:1-5 (NRSV)

Bible scholar NT Wright has pointed out that the words “just as they did” are key to understanding this passage. Just as the Galileans were murdered by the Romans, possibly for some anti-Roman activity, the whole nation was in danger of experiencing violence at the hand of the Romans. Just as people died when the tower of Siloam fell, many will die when other buildings are thrown down by the Romans in a full scale attack.

The idea here is that unless God’ people repent, the Romans will destroy the nation in the same way that the Assyrians and Babylonians did in the past. The Romans did so in 70AD. Yet again, though God was faithful to his covenant promises, his people were unfaithful.

What does faithfulness and unfaithfulness to God look like?

When God’s people faced judgement through the Assyrians and Babylonians, their lack of faithfulness was easy to spot. There was a lot of worshipping of other gods, which included doing detestable things like child sacrifice. There was a lack of attention to the old covenant law, the law of Moses. Yet in the days that Jesus and John the Baptist spoke of judgement, great attention was being paid to keeping the law. So how were God’s people failing in faithfulness this time?

Jesus spoke to the problem in what he said next:

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”

Luke 13:6-9 (NRSV)

What does faithfulness to God look like according to Jesus? Fruitfulness! Under the direction of the religious leaders God’s people may have been trying hard to be faithful to the law, but that was part of the problem. They substituted faithfulness to the law, more particularly their interpretations of the law, for faithfulness to God. In doing so they were not bearing good fruit.

The scribes and Pharisees had become “experts” in the law, and came up with extra rules to keep people from breaking the rules. Therefore the people were expected to keep many customs and traditions pushed by the religious leaders. But in pushing people to be righteous and always do the right thing, they were not helping people become righteous in becoming a good kind of people. Jesus pushed for a better kind of righteousness, the kind that comes, not just from observance of the law, but from character, not just from doing the right things, but becoming the right kind of person:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:20 (NRSV)

Despite their “righteousness” the religious leaders instigated the execution of the Son of God! There is a better kind of righteousness.

Fruitful!

Faithfulness to God in our day is often thought to simply be ”sin avoidance,” defined as keeping all the rules and breaking none. The problem is, we can keep all the rules and yet be lacking in good fruit. In fact sometimes we can keep a rule yet end up doing the wrong thing, the thing that bears bad fruit.

There is no set of rules found anywhere in the world, proposed by even the smartest people in the world, or defined by the “best” expression of faith ever known, that, by following them you would always be doing the right thing, the good thing, every time. What is good and right in one circumstance, that could be considered fruitful, can, in another situation be the wrong thing to do and end up being destructive.

Jesus himself gives an example:

And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took [a man with an illness] and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

Luke 14:3-6 (NRSV emphasis added)

The rule about not working on a Sabbath is a good one, a fruitful one. It is good for everyone to have a rhythm of rest. Jesus pointed to an example where keeping the rule would not be a good thing. One’s child might die if you keep the rule! To keep the rule would be destructive. To break the rule, on the other hand, would be fruitful.

You can imagine a scenario where a very religious type of person holding to a particularly rigid kind of theology might fail to do anything for the child out of concern for their own personal salvation. Indeed religion can motivate people to turn a blind eye to good consequences for others in deference to their own supposed standing before their vision of God. We saw this play out tragically on September 11th, 2001. Perhaps you can think of examples that involve Christians.

Here is another example from Jesus:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Matthew 12:1-8 (NRSV)

More broken rules! But also an emphasis on the heart of God: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Though the religious leaders were striving for righteousness, they were not considering the righteousness, the mercy, the goodness, the character, of God. In their view, one need not be a person of good character, but merely a person who always does the right things, according to their interpretation. Blind obedience to rules set by one tradition is no guarantee of faithfulness to God. We are more faithful to God, bearing better fruit, when our character reflects the compassionate character of God. To go back to an earlier example, out of a compassionate character you break the sabbath rule and rescue the child. With good character you bear better fruit.

We are more faithful to God, bearing better fruit, when we follow Jesus in the way of love, the way of the cross, not meaning love as mere emotion, but love as concern for consequence. Think of the amazing consequence of the death and resurrection of Jesus and our experience of God’s grace! Out of love for the child you break the sabbath rule and rescue the child. With love you bear better fruit.

We are more faithful to God, bearing better fruit, when we dig deep for wisdom. There is so much about wisdom in the Bible. The Book of Proverbs can never be turned into a Book of Rules for there would be too many contradictions. Wisdom is about knowing when and where is the right time and place to do this and not that. Wisdom takes into account consequences, it is concerned with fruitfulness. Wisdom requires thought and thoughtfulness. Blind obedience to rules, on the other hand, can be thoughtless in every sense of the word. Out of wisdom you break the sabbath rule and rescue the child. With wisdom you bear better fruit.

In Conclusion

So what does faithfulness to God look like? Fruitfulness! Our lives will have a positive impact as we reflect the gracious character of God, follow Jesus in the way of love, and dig deep for wisdom.

God is faithful. Are you?

(I have written about Luke 13:1-5 before, here)

March 17, 2022

Breaking God’s Heart?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:32 pm

Thinking Through Luke 13:31-35

by Clarke Dixon

  • Listen to the 25-minute sermon from which today’s devotional is derived at this link.

Does your heart break when a loved one chooses a destructive path? Your heart breaks for them knowing it is not going to end well. Perhaps in recent weeks your heart has been breaking while watching one nation choose the path of war against another.

When our hearts break, it is a sign that we are created in the image of God. It is another way in which we reflect God. Our Scripture Focus today speaks to God’s breaking heart:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

Luke 13:31-35 (NRSV)

Jesus had enemies who were out to get him. The religious leaders were none too happy with him, but here a key political leader also wanted him dead. With a touch of irony Jesus wanted Herod to know that he was too busy healing people to waste time in being killed by the one who was supposed to be taking care of the very people Jesus was taking care of.

Jesus, however, knew that his enemies would indeed catch up to him…in Jerusalem.

I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!

Luke 13:33,34 (NRSV)

Prophets were sent by God to help the people avoid disaster, to help them choose a good path. We often think of prophets as predicting the future, which is part of it, but they did so with a view to influencing present decisions. For example, I might say to my three sons, “if you drive down the highway at 200 km/h, you will lose your license or worse.” There is prediction about the future there, but the purpose is to effect change in the present, to make possible a better outcome, to avoid catastrophe. That is what the prophets did in the Old Testament. God sent the prophets to bring the people back to himself, to help them avoid the disasters that awaited if they insisted on going their own way. God also sent them to point out how he would be there for them when they returned. There was always hope.

We see the heart of God by the very fact he sent prophets. If I thought my sons were driving 200 km/h on the highway, I would say something! I’d say something prophetic, out of love. (Thankfully, I know the son most likely to want to reach such speeds won’t, because he is driving a Fiat 500.)

Though God spoke to his people through prophets out of love, the leaders in Jerusalem had a nasty history of rejecting, sometimes even killing, such prophets. This often happened in Jerusalem, the centre of religious life and devotion to God. The very people who were to lead people to live in the presence of God, in the very place they were to experience the presence of God, were the ones who would ignore, abuse, and kill the ones God sent to bring them back to his presence.

God not only sent them the prophets, he came to them himself, in Jesus. Knowing that he is going to be killed by the people who should be celebrating his presence, at the place where he should be welcomed as king, Jesus said:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Luke 13:34 (NRSV)

Jesus did not respond with outrage, as we might expect anyone to do, but with lament.

Lament is the language of a broken heart. Lament is an expression of love. It is the language of love when we see bad things happen to our loved ones, when we watch people make tragic decisions, when disasters unfold and wars erupt.

What is God like?

People have different pictures of what God is like. Some think God just waits for us to slip up so he can squash us like bugs. Others think of God as the supreme judge, and not much more. Some think God set the world spinning, then stepped back, not caring what happens next. Many people have an image of God, where God is heartless.

Let our view of God be challenged by Jesus here.

God is one whose heart breaks for us. God is the one who, far from creating the world and stepping back, created then spoke into the world, through the prophets. God is the one who, far from creating the world and stepping back, stepped into the world though Jesus, to rescue us from the path we were on, a path where we end up separating ourselves from God completely. God is the one who, rather than judging, condemning and squashing people like bugs, allowed himself, in Jesus, to be judged, condemned, and squashed like a bug. In doing so God showed he is for us and not against us.

God responds to our hurtful paths, not with outrage, but with a broken heart, with an offer of forgiveness and reconciliation, with love.

Our view of what God is like has a big impact on what we become.

If we view God as being very mechanical and heartless, we can become very mechanical and heartless in how faith is worked out our lives. We can become heartless even as we strive to be righteous. Many Pharisees did.

The apostle Paul was once a heartless Pharisee whose desire for righteousness led him to persecute Christians. When he met Jesus, Paul did not simply switch teams and start persecuting Jews instead of Christians. Paul’s vision of God was expanded. Paul caught a glimpse of the heart of God through Jesus. Paul changed.

The apostle John also had an expanded view of God which had a huge impact on his view on how life was to be lived:

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:16-19 (NRSV)

We live, not as people who are afraid of what God is going to do to us, but as a people who know what God has done for us. We have experienced the heart of God. We have experienced love. Therefore we grow in love.

Is God’s heart breaking over us right now?

Do our life choices break God’s heart? Are we making decisions that God knows will lead to disaster?

Could your name be substituted for Jerusalem when we read “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”? (Luke 13:34 NRSV)

Or, when Jesus says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…”, could he say “Christianity, Christianity,…” instead? Is Christianity on a path of destruction? Some would say it is while pointing to the statistics of church engagement here in Canada as evidence.

There are two paths that can be destructive for Christianity. First, there has been a rise, across the world and across all religions, including Christianity, of fundamentalism, an expression of faith that is marked by certainty over having all the answers. It often involves a disregard for science, an ignorance about history, and the subjugation of women. Second, there is also a rise in those who claim no particular religion, those who are done with organized religion altogether.

Recently I read about a key church leader in Russia defending Putin’s war on Ukraine as a way of keeping Christian values. Particularly mentioned was protection from having to hold gay pride parades, which are common in European nations but not in Russia. So, thousands of people killed in war is to be preferred to gay rights? People hear this kind of thing and say “if that is Christianity, no thanks.”

Fundamentalism can lead to a heartless God. Turning against faith altogether can lead to a Godless heart. Either way, God’s heart breaks.

Is there a better path?

Yes, we can be on a journey of faith in Jesus that is deep, that is well thought through, that is informed, that allows questions, that is not afraid of the things we can learn from science, that pays attention to what we learn from history, and that recognizes the dignity of all humans. We cannot make all Christians choose that journey, so God’s heart will still break as some dive headlong into fundamentalism and others jump right out of Christianity. We can, however, choose that path for ourselves. God’s heart need not break over us for our life choices, including how we express our faith.

In Conclusion…

Does your heart break when you see a loved one go down a destructive path? God’s heart breaks when we choose a destructive path. God’s heart breaks because God is love.

March 15, 2022

Thoughts for 3:16 Day

Wednesday is “3:16 Day.” I could have waited to post this, but as we post in the afternoon, I thought I’d release this the day before. The reference is to one of the Bible’s most quoted verses. The day’s revival this year is because a publishing company saw a tie-in with the re-release of the book of the same name by Max Lucado.

That usually makes me skeptical, but apparently an earlier iteration of the day also had its roots in a marketing program. The press release from Faith Gateway states,

The origin of the celebration is unknown, but some media outlets trace it as far back to 2011 when a K-LOVE radio station listener suggested that the day, March 16, should be “John 3:16 Day,” in honor of the biblical verse that affirms the hope we have because of Jesus.

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that their motivation was to draw attention to the verse in a cultural moment where Christianity and the Bible have to fight harder to be heard.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  John 3:16 (NIV)

So join us on a tour of past John 3:16 references here at C201.

Clarke Dixon writes,

If God so loved the world that He sent His son to die for it, then it is reasonable that He will make sure the record of that loving act is trustworthy. If God has gone to such extraordinary lengths for us through Jesus, we should expect him to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure we have a valid record of what He has done, and what it means.

This echoed something Clarke wrote a year earlier,

Because God so loved the world that he would come to it in Jesus, it is reasonable to expect that he also so loves the world that he is not going to let the record of his love be false or lost.

Quoting GotQuestions.org, a year ago, we noted,

The Bible is clear that God pardons sin by His grace based on Christ’s work on the cross alone, not on man’s actions. Our right standing before Him is established on one thing only—the finished work of Christ,

Quoting an unnamed author at Theist Thug Life (that’s the title) we’re reminded,

While Christianity is exclusive in that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation it must be said that Christianity is perhaps the most inclusive faith. No matter your skin color, creed, where you were born, or social status you are able to come to Jesus. No one is turned away as long as they repent and believe the Gospel.

Ron Harris is, like Clarke Dixon, someone who lives locally to me in Canada. In a book excerpt he expands this further, writing,

I would like to amplify the word “world” to include; “every living person ever been born or even aborted; every weak, suffering, sickly soul, every Down’s Syndrome person, every child with cleft lip, every person regardless of age that is abandoned, abused, beaten, sexually or verbally assaulted and every soul ravaged by sin or tormented by Satan. Despite all of this, God still sees something in us because we were created in His image.

Morgan Murphy said something similar in 2015, emphasizing,

I believe that our God is global. John 3:16 says that God so loved this world. It does not say that God so loved the United States of America. We tend to be really ethnocentric, but the love Jesus has for all of us transcends any and all borders. It reminds me of the children’s Bible song that says red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight…it really is true. I am aware that there are people in America that need help. There are people in our own backyards that need Jesus, and we should treat these people no different than Haitians or Ugandans or Indians or whoever. We can’t get so caught up in the ethnicity or geographical location that we neglect the status of the heart or knowledge of the Gospel.

Back in 2015, Clarke Dixon restated this in the light of the Bible’s concluding book, Revelation. He wrote,

…There is the entire trajectory of the New Testament, where Jesus dies not just for the Jew; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); where the Holy Spirit is given to people from any background; where looking forward “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) One cannot read the entire Bible without getting the impression that God’s love stretches far and wide.

Before you dismiss inclusion as self-evident, or feel it’s being over-emphasized today, consider these words from the NIV Application Commentary which notes:

Judaism rarely (or never) spoke of God’s loving the world outside of Israel. God desires to reach this world through Israel, his child. It is a uniquely Christian idea to say that God’s love extends beyond the limits of race and nation.

In 2018, Clarke reminded us that as wide-reaching as this salvation offer is, not everyone opts in. He says,

John 3:16 is a favourite verse for many, but implicit there is the fact that eternal life can be refused. Further Scriptures confirm that there are those who refuse and so are perishing:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

The same year, an excerpt from Billy Graham fills in the context of the Bible’s famous verse, which was a late-night conversation I sometimes label “Nick at Night.” Graham wrote,

This was a lot for Nicodemus to take in. Imagine what must have been going through his mind when he heard Jesus say,

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).

The Bible does not record what happened after their meeting; and if the Book of John ended there, we might not know what became of Nicodemus. But John 7 tells of a debate that later arose among the Jewish leaders about Jesus, for He had told them also that He was going away, and “where I am you cannot come” (John 7:33-34). Jesus knew the chief priests were planning to seize Him, but He spoke of returning to His heavenly home. Then the Pharisees asked one another if any of them believed Jesus, and Scripture says that Nicodemus spoke up for Him (John 7:47-51). Jesus’ words had illuminated Nicodemus’ darkened heart.

Dennis from Luke252 made the application very personal, stating,

John 3:16 teaches us that God loves us so much that He sent His only Son to die for me! When I live a lukewarm lifestyle, it hurts Him when I only want part of what He sent His Son to die for.

Indeed what does it truly mean to believe? Russell Young, who wrote for us here for several years dug into this in 2016, explaining,

Since “belief” is the means of gaining everlasting life one should be sure of its meaning.  “Believe” is translated from the Greek pisteuo which is defined as “to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), i.e. credit; by implication, to entrust (especially one’s spiritual well-being to Christ): -believe (-r), commit (to trust), put in trust with.” (Strong’s Greek Dictionary #4100)

Belief in the context of salvation goes beyond understanding that something is true; it means that one has sufficient faith in Christ or is sufficiently persuaded concerning the being and mission of Christ that he is willing to entrust his well-being to the Lord.  One’s conception of “belief” should not be limited to the understanding that his well-being can be assured by absenting himself of all responsibility for it by allowing Christ to do all that is necessary.  He cannot abrogate his obligations unless the Lord has allowed him to do so, and He hasn’t.  The writer of Hebrews has recorded that eternal salvation comes through obedience. (Hebrews 5:9) “Belief” means accepting the Lord’s teachings in the gospel with the commitment to honouring them with his total being…all his mind, soul, and heart. (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27)

As early as 2015, Steven and Brooksyne Weber were discussing the “red-letter” status of the verse, which is an ongoing discussion today regarding the need for Bibles with this feature. They said,

The understandable grandeur of John 3:16 may tend to diminish the rich, instructive material that follows. Bible students differ as to whether John 3:16-21 are the words of Jesus following His discourse with Nicodemus or whether these are the interpretive words of John when he wrote his gospel late in the 1st century. Either way they are God’s inspired Word!

It’s also important to state that despite all the common ground we have with this passage, our churches do vary in their expression of its truth. As early as 2013 I was writing,

Despite the familiarity of John 3:16 and the partial familiarity of successive verses, the concepts are not as easily processed as might first seem. Great doctrinal distinctions and differences exist from denomination to denomination over God’s over-arching love for us versus God’s justice and judgment. Ultimately, you can’t get close to this truth from the text or commentaries; you have to pause, think these things through and work them out in your own heart and mind. That’s why we’re told to meditate on scripture; I personally like the idea that we need to chew on it. Getting to know and understand the ways of God can take a lifetime.

Finally, here’s The Message rendering of the passage:

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life” (John 3:16,17, MSG).

Enjoy 3:16 Day and share it with others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 10, 2022

Your Greatest Temptation?

Thinking Through Luke 4:1-13

What is your greatest temptation? Perhaps you are thinking of things like speeding, shopping, snacking, or something to do with sex, but I imagine no one has thought of turning a stone into a loaf of bread, or one of the other two temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness. While the temptations Jesus faced may seem far removed from the temptations we face, when we dig in we discover that there is really one temptation here, one very subtle and dangerous temptation, one that we all face yet never think about. The fact that we never think of it makes it all the more dangerous.

So what is that one temptation that Jesus faced? What do the temptations of turning stones into bread, gaining all the kingdoms of the world, and expecting rescue from harm have in common? Each of these would take Jesus off the path of suffering, away from his calling. If Satan had said just one thing it would be “If you are the Son of God, then you don’t need to suffer.”

This is the same temptation Jesus faced later:

Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead. As he talked about this openly with his disciples, Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things.
Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, then reprimanded Peter. “Get away from me, Satan!” he said. “You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.”

Mark 8:31-33 (NLT)

Jesus called Peter “Satan,” for he was saying the same thing Satan had said earlier. You don’t need to suffer, Jesus.

Jesus faced this same temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane on the morning of his execution:

He went on a little farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if it were possible, the awful hour awaiting him might pass him by. “Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”

Mark 14:35-36 (NLT)

Everything was possible, including the avoidance of suffering and death. Jesus could have called ten thousand angels in a rescue operation and so avoid execution. He could have turned that stone into bread, he could have become the king of all the world by brute force, he could have avoided all harm. Jesus was tempted to exploit the fact he was God the Son, God with us. He did the exact opposite:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:5-8 (NRSV emphasis added)

The greatest temptation Jesus faced was to not offer forgiveness, to not take the way of the cross, to not take the path of suffering for the sake of love. It all comes back to the temptation to not love.

Love is often at the root of other temptations.

We can think of Adam and Eve when they were tempted to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Did they fall because the fruit was so tempting, or because the promise of knowledge was so tempting, or was it because their love relationship with God was not that great? They were tempted by Satan, not just to eat fruit, but to stop loving God.

We can think of Cain and Abel when Cain succumbed to the temptation to kill his brother. Did Cain kill his brother because that was oh so tempting, or because there was a failure in their love relationship? Cain didn’t just kill his brother. Cain failed to love his brother.

Though the ten commandments had not yet been given, Cain ought not to have committed violence against his brother because Abel was created in the image of God. Just as important, Cain ought not to have committed violence against his brother because Cain was created in the image of God. Cain’s failure was not the breaking of a rule so much as it was a failure to live up to what it means to be created in the image of God. Being created in the image of God means many things, like being creative for example. But since God is love, it also means being created with the capacity, and the impulse to love. Cain fell short of living up to that image.

Humanity sunk to its worst failure in living up to the image of God when God came to us, in Jesus, and we killed him. Our failure was not just in breaking the commandment, “thou shalt not murder.” We failed to love God, miserably so. God loved us anyway and offers forgiveness, reconciliation, and relationship. God is love indeed!

We see a failure of love being played in our day. Shouldn’t “love your neighbour” also apply to nations? Where is Russia’s love for Ukraine? Where is Vladimir’s Putin’s love even for his own troops, his own people? How many Russians are losing their lives? How many Russians are losing their loved ones? Given the worldwide repercussions, how many people are now being impacted negatively by the failure of a few, to love? Before there was a temptation to pick up the sword against the Ukrainians, there was the temptation to not pick up the cross and follow Jesus.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Mark 8:34 (NRSV)

The greatest temptation we face is to not love, to not pick up the cross and follow Jesus in the way of the cross, the way of love.

Temptations often begin with the temptation to not love. The temptation to drink too much or eat too much can begin with a lack of self-love. Adultery begins, not with attraction, but with a failure of love. Gossip begins, not with words, but with a failure to love. Murder begins, not with the pulling of a trigger or the picking up of a sword, but with a failure to pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus in the way of love.

One definition of sin is “missing the mark.” If we were to have a confessional and I were to ask how you missed the mark this week, you might give me a list of rules you have broken. Yet we miss the mark most when we miss reflecting the image of God. We miss reflecting the image of God most when we fail to love. You can keep all the rules really well yet completely miss the mark, miss reflecting the image of God. The religious leaders did this when, though being such sticklers for the rules, they missed the mark and engineered the execution of Jesus.

Jesus did not miss the mark. Jesus chose the cross when the temptation was to pick up a sword instead. We are loved. We are helped in growing into the image of God. The first fruit listed in the fruit of the Spirit is love. That is no accident!

You will be tempted this week, to not love someone, to stop loving someone. Let us seek God’s help in loving others, especially if the person we are to love has treated us like dirt. God is an expert on how to do that! Jesus is an expert in picking up the cross. Jesus is an expert in not succumbing to the greatest temptation we could ever face, the temptation to not love.


They’re still a “shrunken” version of weekly sermons, but Clarke Dixon’s blog — articles from which appear here most Thursdays — is now called Thinking Through Scripture.

March 3, 2022

You Say You Are a Christian; Are You Listening to Jesus?

Thinking Through Luke 9:28-36

by Clarke Dixon

Vladimir Putin has said that he is a Christian. But is he listening to the voice of Jesus these days? Are we?

Reading through the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John we often read of Jesus doing extraordinary things, but usually in ordinary circumstances and among ordinary people. There is an event that leaps out as being different:

About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.

Peter and the others had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him.

Luke 9:28-32 (NLT)

The presence of Moses and Elijah was extraordinary as both had been gone for centuries! But we should not be surprised, for an extraordinary fact, which this story relates, calls for an extraordinary event.

Moses and Elijah were not just long gone heroes of the faith, they symbolized the law and the prophets. Jesus spoke to them about “his exodus” a hint that just as God had revealed something about himself when he rescued a people in an exodus from Egypt, God was revealing himself again in Jesus.

The extraordinary continues:

As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But even as he was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them as the cloud covered them.
Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” When the voice finished, Jesus was there alone.

Luke 9:32-36 (NLT emphasis added)

God did not say “listen to Moses,” representing the law, nor did he say “listen to Elijah,” representing the prophets, but rather “listen to Jesus.” And to put an exclamation mark on that point, Jesus was there alone. Though God had revealed himself through the law and through the prophets, God was revealing himself more fully and more thoroughly through Jesus.

You could be forgiven for meeting Jesus, for seeing the extraordinary things he did among ordinary people and thinking he was just a great miracle worker. But the event on the mountain with Moses and Elijah pointed out that Jesus was no ordinary miracle worker. This event pointed to a fact the disciples, and many more would become convinced of following Jesus’ resurrection, namely that Jesus was in fact “God with us.” If Moses represented the law and Elijah represented the prophets, Jesus represented God!

The writer of Hebrews captured this when he wrote:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.

Hebrews 1:1-3 (NRSV emphasis added)

This understanding of the extraordinary identity of Jesus led to a huge change in thinking. While the law and the prophets could be useful, as the apostle Paul said in one of his letters, Jesus is how one relates to God.

Peter became convinced of this when he had a vision where he was told to eat unclean foods. The law said he should not! God said he should!

Paul and a complete rethinking of his knowledge of God based on his experience of Jesus. Though he was a Pharisee, devoted to keeping the law with great attention to detail, what Jesus said became more important to Paul than what the law said. So thorough was Paul’s rethinking that we read in his letter to the Galatians his warning that Christians from a non-Jewish background should not become circumcised. The law said they should!

Peter, Paul, and all the other disciples came to know that in Jesus, God had revealed himself more fully than ever before, and that now we relate to God through a new covenant. Now we listen to him.

This event on the mountain with Moses and Elijah might seem different and strange compared to the usual stories of the miracles and teaching of Jesus, but it happened for an important purpose. It was the greatest glimpse up to that point, that Peter, James, and John would have of Jesus’ identity, and of God’s. Knowing who Jesus was, and is, changed everything. Peter, James, John, Paul, and so many others devoted their lives to listening to Jesus.

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…

Hebrews 1:1 (NRSV)

Are you listening to Jesus?

There are some things that can help us hear the voice of Jesus, like our own conscience, for example. Our gut feelings can be a Holy Spirit thing, a conscience that is getting sharpened as our relationship with God is deepening. Or our gut may lead us astray. We need prayerful wisdom in knowing when our conscience is helping us hear the voice of Jesus, and when it is not.

Mediation and thoughtful reflection can help us hear the voice of Jesus. There is a long tradition within Christianity of deep thought. Thinking can help us hear the voice of God. It can also lead us astray. We need prayerful wisdom in discerning the voice of Jesus in all our mediation.

The voices of others can help us discern truth and hear the voice of Jesus. Christian friends, Christian authors, and yes, Christian pastors, like me, can help. And we can also lead you astray. We need prayerful wisdom in discerning the voice of Jesus in the voice of others.

Christian traditions can help us learn truth and hear the voice of Jesus, whether the reformed tradition, the charismatic tradition, or some other. But they can also lead us astray. To give an example, many traditions in the past had elements of anti-semitism in their interpretations of Scripture. We need prayerful wisdom in discerning the voice of Jesus within traditions and expressions of Christian faith.

The Bible can be our biggest help when it comes to listening to Jesus. But it can also hinder us from hearing the voice of Jesus. How?!

The Bible can hinder our hearing the voice of Jesus when we try to apply Bible passages to our lives without recognizing the context in which they were written. For example, my wife and I are currently both reading through Leviticus. There is so much in Leviticus that we could not put into practice in our lives today. Even if we could, I reckon we would sometimes feel rather “unChristian,” even sinful if we tried. However, we are not called to keep all those laws we read in Leviticus. We are not under the old covenant, that is not how we relate to God today. We are under the new covenant, we relate to God through Jesus.

The words of the Bible should not be given a higher place in our lives than the voice of Jesus. Let us remember that Moses and Elijah represented the law and the prophets, which was code for the writings that made up the Bible before the writing of the New Testament. Yet God said “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him.” Let us remember that we are Christians, not “Biblians.” We might assume that Jesus helps us read the Bible, but actually, the Bible helps us hear Jesus.

Let us dive deeper into why this is important with an example. If we just focus on the old covenant, we will not murder because doing so would lead to our own death. Listening to the law, we might avoid murder merely out of self-interest. But if we listen to Jesus, we will focus on growing in our character, a character that reflects the goodness of God, a character which reflects the fruit of the Spirit. When we do so we will not murder, not out of self-interest, but out of love for the other. Trying too hard to be “Biblical” can result in our missing of the target of being Christlike. A focus on the letter of the law can result in missing opportunities to reflect the love of God.

As we read the Bible, we need prayerful wisdom in discerning the voice of Jesus.

In Conclusion

So back to the original question on whether or not Vladimir Putin is listening to Jesus. I tend to think that any world leader listening to the voice of Jesus would hear the call to be a shepherd and would focus on taking care of people. Those who are not listening tend to become rulers who focus on building empires.

Sadly, many world leaders over the centuries, even those who have called themselves Christians, even those who have quoted the Bible, have shown no evidence of listening to Jesus.

Do we?


Watch the sermon on which this is devotional is based at this link. Clarke Dixon is a Canadian pastor and appears here most Thursdays we’ve found his writings are a perfect fit for C201. Click the header above Clarke’s name to read things at his site.

February 24, 2022

Hoping for a Less Judgemental World?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm

Thinking Through Luke 6:27-38

by Clarke Dixon

Do you wish we lived in a less judgemental world, a world where enemies aren’t made at the drop of a hat? Every one of us has been a target for judgement during this pandemic. If someone is not criticizing us for being too careful, someone else is criticizing us for not being careful enough! We can’t win. Perhaps we don’t need to.

When a critical spirit seems to be our default is there a better way? There is, and Jesus teaches us that better way. Jesus has two rules for us that are absolutely golden, that help us with our judgemental attitudes. Here is the first one:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Many people know “the Golden Rule,” but they don’t know that it was Jesus who first said it in that positive way. Many know that Jesus first said it that way, but what they don’t know is that Jesus was referring to people who judge us. His teaching on the Golden Rule goes back to:

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Luke 6:22 (NRSV)

Jesus went on to say what we should do when people judge us and treat us like dirt:

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:27-31 (NRSV)

As we can see, it is not “do unto your friends as your would have your friends do unto you” which might be easy enough, but “do unto the people who treat you like dirt as you would have them do unto you, that is, not like dirt, but as worthy of love and respect.”

When we love those who treat us like dirt, we reflect the goodness of God:

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Luke 6:35-36 (NRSV)

We know that God is merciful primarily through Jesus. God came to us in Jesus. We judged him and killed him. He loved us anyway. The crucifixion of Jesus on the cross is the prime example of humanity treating God like dirt, and it is also the prime example of God responding to that with love and the offer of forgiveness.

Which brings us to the second Golden rule that helps us deal with judgemental attitudes:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

Luke 6:37-38 (NRSV)

Most Bible teachers see this as making reference to God, that is “do not judge and you will not be judged by God, do not condemn and you will not be condemned by God, forgive and you will be forgiven by God, be generous and God will be generous with you.” While this may be what Jesus had in mind, we want to be careful we do not set limits on the grace of God. That is, we don’t want to think of our judgemental attitudes as being the unforgivable sin. The rest of Scripture will not allow for that. Let’s face it, who of us has not been judgemental during this pandemic?

We could think of it more like a Proverb. Would we like God to treat us with the same critical and judgemental spirit with which we treat one another? Probably not.

If the Golden Rule is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” this second Golden Rule could be stated:

Do unto others as you would have God do unto you.

We would want God to treat us, not with judgement and condemnation, but forgiveness, and generosity. God does precisely that, in Jesus. Jesus told us to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” God is indeed merciful.

Is Jesus only making reference to God here? Here is another way we could read it: “do not judge and you will not be judged by others, do not condemn and you will not be condemned by others, forgive and you will be forgiven by others, be generous and others will be generous with you.” If we are the kind of people who are quick to judge, we should not be surprised if people are quick to judge us. If we are mean with others, we should not be surprised if they are mean with us. If we are gracious, merciful, understanding, forgiving, and generous toward others, people are more likely to be that way toward us. If I am a jerk, I make it easy for you to condemn me for some sin I commit against you. But if you experience me as a gracious, gentle, and loving person, you will naturally find yourself responding to that very same sin with something like, “Clarke must be having a bad day,” or “we all make mistakes.” How we treat others very often comes back to us.

I have heard verse 38 reduced to speaking about tithes and offerings: “give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” However, Jesus was not referring to one’s worship through giving to the church here. Rather, Jesus was talking about love for one’s enemies, that far from being stingy in grace and love, we are to be generous, like God! Jesus modelled generosity, not at the temple treasury, but at the cross, when he offered grace to all who would judge him.

In Summary.

Do you wish we lived  in a less judgemental world? If you and I trade in our critical spirit for a spirit of love and generosity, that would be a good start. It would be two less judgemental people in the world! Let us do unto others, even those who treat us like dirt, as we would have them do unto us. Let us do unto others, especially those who treat us like dirt, as God has done unto us.


Watch the sermon from which today’s devotional originated at this link.

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