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Responding to God's Invitation

Saturday, February 13, 2021

"For many are called, but few are chosen."

Matthew 22:14

Jesus told a story about a king whose son was getting married (Mt. 22:1-14). To celebrate the occasion, the king threw a huge party. He sent out his servants to call those who were invited but they refused to come. He sent out other servants with the message that the feast was all prepared, the food was ready and the party was about to begin, but the people "paid no attention" to the invitation. They went about their daily business and ignored it. Surprisingly, there were others who attacked the king's messengers and killed them! These violent people were, of course, punished by the king but what was to happen with the party? Who would attend the feast and honor the king's son? 

The king determined that those who refused the invitation, though they seemed at first respectable, "were not worthy." So he instructed his servants to go out into the country and invite everyone, "both bad and good," to come to the feast. Finally, the day arrived and "the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who" wasn't dressed properly. He had somehow slipped into the feast with "no wedding garment." This was a grave offense, so the poseur was bound and thrown out so that the feast could commence with those who truly belonged.

With this parable, Jesus is teaching us what "the kingdom of heaven" is like (vv.1-2). He is underscoring the danger that people find themselves in when they reject Christ and showing his acceptance of spiritual outcasts over seemingly "respectable" religionists. The characters in the parable are clear: God is the king, Christ is the son and we are the people who respond to the king's invitation. The invitation is the gospel and the wedding feast symbolizes the blessing of salvation that is enjoyed through obeying the gospel (see 25:10). This parable not only intructs us about the nature of the kingdom but also invites some much needed self-reflection. 

How do we respond to God's invitation? 

Are we ignoring it? (v.5) The king wanted to celebrate his son by serving his guests the best of everything at the feast (v.4) but some evidently didn't care. Their farms and businesses were their first priority and they were not willing to change their schedules or halt their work. Sadly, those who ignore God's gracious invitation don't know what they're missing. God wants us all to celebrate Jesus' victory over sin and death and follow Jesus into the blessings of eternal life. But, because many are blinded by the trinkets of this fading world, they ignore God's invitation (Lk. 8:14; 1 Jn. 2:15-17). What about you? Does your life take precedence over God's invitation? If so, you're missing out on life itself (Mk. 8:35). 

Are we attacking it? (vv.6-7) Who are these spiteful people who brutally attack the king's messengers? They are those who, when invited to take part in the kingdom, instead, take offense and lash out against the messengers. Jesus warns his disciples, who are tasked with extending this invitation, of people like this (Mt. 5:11-12; 21:34-36; 23:29-36). What about you? How do you respond when a loved one approaches you with the gospel? An invitation to reflect upon your own decisions? Your sins? An offer of life in Jesus? If you respond in anger and mistreat the King's messengers, beware the King's wrath and repent (v.7; 23:37-24:41). 

Are we faking it? (vv.11-13) The fate of the guest who was caught not wearing the appropriate clothes to the feast is a surprising element to the parable. While verses 5-8 are a warning to unbelievers, verse 11-13 are a warning to believers. Simply responding to God's invitation is not enough. By responding to the gospel, we commit ourselves to follow Christ and abide by his 'dress-code,' so to speak. Christians must "put on... compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience," forgiveness and, "above all... love" (Col. 3:12-14) Those who are caught at the wedding feast without this essential Christian wardrobe are subject to the same judgment of those who rejected the invitation in the first place (Rom. 11:18-22). What about you? Are you faking it or is your faith genuine?

Are we changed by it? (v.10) A person doesn't have to be "good" to be invited to the wedding feast (9:10-13), but responding to God's invitation should result in a changed life. Those dressed in Christ's character, who consistently "put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:24), are privileged to enjoy the great wedding feast with God. God's grace motivates us to "walk worthy" of our calling (Eph. 4:1), to "keep in step with the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25), to be renewed in the spirit of our minds so that we may live the life of Jesus. Are you changed by God's invitation? 

We all fit into this parable somewhere. God invites everyone to participate in his kingdom. We are "called" but are we "chosen"?

The Unlimited Love of God

Saturday, February 06, 2021

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." 

(John 3:16)

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) is often regarded as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. His work influenced the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jürgen Moltmann and John Updike. What's more, he actively opposed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, and vigorously attempted to prevent the Nazis from establishing a state church. 

On one occasion, Barth was asked, "What is the most profound thought that ever entered your mind?" After a brief moment of reflection, this learned theologian replied, "The most profound thought I have ever known is the simple truth: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." The love of God stretches human comprehension and "surpasses knowledge" (Eph. 3:19). Jesus' statement in John 3:16 succinctly describes the infinite dimensions of God's love. 

First, God's love is universal. God loves the entire "world." There is no qualifier or prerequisite. God's love is not conditional. Even our sins don't stand in the way of it. His love extends to everyone, even those who slip through the cracks of society, the marginalized, the forgotten and the despised. He "desires all men to be saved..." (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). His grace appeared "bringing salvation to all men" (Titus 2:11). There is no one so low whom God's love does not reach. 

And God's love is not simply a warm feeling of affection. It is deeply personal and intimately tied to each one of us (Mt. 10:30). He knows everything about us. He knows our needs, our joys, our desires and our sorrows. And in sending Jesus to share in the human experience, that knowledge is empathetic (Heb. 2:14; 4:15). We might even say, despite knowing everything about us, God still loves us. What a thought! "To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” (Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage). 

Second, God's love is unselfish. When Jesus says, "For God so loved the world" he is saying "God loved the world in this way" or "This is how much God loved the world." Jesus shows both the degree of God's love and the manner in which he chose to express it. We tend to love those who love us, those we deem deserving of it or at least capable of giving us some return on our investment. But God loves even his enemies, "the ungrateful and the evil," and teaches us to do the same (Lk. 6:35; Rom. 5:6-8). 

Consider also that God gave his "only Son." The word "begotten," found in some translations, is unfortunate because it may imply a metaphysical relationship. Here, it means "unique" or "one-and-only" (see Jn. 1:14, 18). The same word is used to describe Abraham's son Isaac in Hebrews 11:17. Isaac was, strictly speaking, not Abraham's only child (remember Ishmael?) but Isaac was Abraham's unique child, the child of God's promise (Gen. 22:2). In a similar way, Jesus is God's "unique" Son, the only one of his kind. But whereas the voice of God intervened to prevent Isaac's sacrificial death (Gen. 22:12), the divine voice was silent while Jesus died on the cross. Knowing what his death would accomplish for us (Isa. 53) and that he would be raised from the dead (Psa. 16), God "gave his only Son" for us. 

God's love is truly unlimited. His love is without equal in its scope because it is given universally. His love is without equal in its extent because he unselfishly gave his unique Son. His love is without equal in its duration because it is itself unending and able to bring us into an eternal relationship with him. God loves us and there is nothing we can do to stop it. However, to fully benefit from his love we must turn to him in faith and give him all we are, for this is what he has done for us in his Son Jesus. While the love of God is unlimited, God's power to save is limited to those who have faith (Rom. 1:16). 

Out with the Bad, In with the Good

Saturday, January 30, 2021

"When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first."

(Luke 11:24-26)

Though I don't believe demons have the power to possess people today as they did in the first century, Jesus is giving us a timeless principle in the above verses: for positive change to become habitual and character forming, we must not only kick out the bad but also replace the bad with the good. The Christian life is not merely about the cessation of evil. The apostle Peter, quoting David in Psalm 34, says to those who desire "to love life and see good days, turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it." (1 Pet. 5:10)

Christian character cannot develop within us if we focus on "sin management" and fail to do the positive, good works of Christ. As Jesus says, the danger of this one-sided approach is that the "last state of that person is worse than the first." People who were once believers can become rabid skeptics. The addict who does well for a while is crushed by relapse. Faith which eagerly springs forth can wither and die on the vine. 

The Colossian Christians were in danger of falling for this very thing. Merely trying to keep oneself from sinning by submitting to certain regulations and creating new restrictions for oneself is not enough. The apostle Paul warned them that "these have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh." (Col. 3:23) He immediately went on to encourage them to think through the realities of their salvation. They had been "raised with Christ," therefore they must "seek the things that are above, where Christ is" (Col. 3:1). It's not just about abstaining from what is wrong ("put off the old self..." Col. 3:5-9). It's also about pursuing what is right ("put on the new self..." Col. 3:10-17).

For holiness to be real and sustainable, it must include both separation from evil and embracing good, both repentance and consecration, both putting off and putting on. Notice Paul's words to the Romans address both sides of the issue: "abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good" (Rom. 12:9); "do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21); "be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil" (Rom. 16:19). It is impossible to "not love the world or the things in the world" (1 Jn. 2:15) if we are not constantly setting our "minds on things that are above" (Col. 3:2). 

Christ fixes our bad habits by replacing them with good ones. This is Christ's work of new creation within us (2 Cor. 5:17). Let us cooperate with him, so that he can "bring [that work] to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Phil. 2:12-13)

Pride & Humility

Saturday, January 23, 2021

You would be hard pressed to find a characteristic valued more in Scripture than humility. Our English word "humility" comes from a Greek word that means “low lying” or "of low estate." It is sometimes translated as “lowliness." Lowliness is a metaphor for one's attitude of heart or disposition. It is the opposite of ego, pride and high-mindedness. Most sins and many broken relationships can be traced back to pride. In the beginning, it was pride that led Adam to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and it was conceit and arrogance that led to the condemnation of devil (1 Tim. 3:6).

But while pride is always punished in Scripture, humility is always rewarded. The humble will be exalted and the proud will be brought low (Jas. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). The first are last and the last are first in the kingdom (Mt. 20:1-16). Self-awareness of one's spiritual poverty before God makes one fit for the kingdom (Mt. 5:3). This poverty of spirit does not refer to what one “has” physically, but what one “is”. This realization that without God we are nothing is the soil in which the seed of the kingdom grows.

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went up to the mountain to pray. But only one man came down justified in God's sight God. The average Jew would have expected the pious Pharisee to be right with God. But the despised tax collector was counted righteous due to his humility and God's mercy.

3 examples of pride

  1. Uzziah (2 Chron. 26) ascended the throne of Judah at age 16. His reign was successful "as long as he sought the Lord" (v.5). "But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction" (v.16). Uzziah went into temple to burn incense. This was the job of a priest, a Levite, not a king from the tribe of Judah. And though the priests tried to stop him and warned him it wasn’t his place, Uzziah refused to listen and God struck him with leprosy (v.21). Uzziah's legacy echoes the proverb, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 16:18). When he was humble and recognized his role, God blessed him. But when he grew proud and arrogant and felt he was above the rules, he was struck down.

  2. Herod (Acts 12) addressed the people of Tyre and Sidon. Dressed in his “royal robes,” the people were taken in by his majestic appearance (or perhaps were simply stroking his ego) and proclaimed he spoke with "the voice of a god, and not of a man!" (v.22). Instead of refusing to accept the glory due only to God (Acts 10:26; 14:15; Rev. 22:8-9; etc.), Herod chose to accept the crowd's praise and paid the price (v.23).

  3. Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9) was troubling a congregation of which a friend of the apostle John's was a part. He was domineering and overbearing, always wanting his own way. John described him as one “who loves to be first." Diotrephes didn’t recognize the authority of Christ's chosen apostles, he didn’t want to help traveling preachers and he even threatened Christians who supported them! Diotrephes' pride had blinded him to the fact that Jesus alone has first-place in the church (Col. 1:18). 

To balance out the proverb, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble,” let's notice three examples of humility.

3 examples of humility

  1. Abram (Gen. 13) was a wealthy man traveling with his nephew Lot. Because their flocks were so large, they both recognized the land couldn’t support both companies at once. Instead of causing unneccesary tension, Abram took the humble approach and deferred to Lot: "If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left" (v.9). Though Abram was older he surrendered his rights in the interest of peace, something the apostle Paul would later do for the Corinthians' benefit (1 Cor. 9). 

  2. The Canaanite woman (Mt. 15) approached Jesus as he was traveling and cried out to him to have mercy on her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Jesus tested her faith by rebuffing her pleas twice (vv.21-24). Undeterred, the woman continued to beg him (v.25). Jesus tested her once more with a feigned insult (v.26). In a remarkable display of humility the woman accepted her low status and, finally, Christ gave up the ruse. He pronounced her faith "great!" and healed her daughter on the spot (vv.27-28).

  3. The apostle Paul, after his conversion, lived his life in pure, Christlike humility. He had suffered and labored much for the Lord. Who knows how many people he brought to faith? How established many congregations, wrote half of our New Testament, had seen tremendous heavenly visions (2 Cor. 12:1ff) and preached to many people in high places (Acts 9:15; 23-26). And yet, notice how Paul referred to himself: if we take these statements chronologically, Paul said he was "least of the apostles" (1 Cor. 15:9), "least of the saints" (Eph. 3:8) and "foremost of sinners" (1 Tim. 1:18). The longer Paul served Jesus, it seemed, the more he grew in his humility. 

Which path will you choose?

These examples are preserved for our instruction. The world is teaching us to be loudest voice in room, the strongest personality, the one who stands out above the rest. But Jesus says, “The greatest among you shall be your servant" (Mt. 23:11). Ironically, we stand out in the world (and make a postive difference in the world) through our humility (Mt. 5:13-16).

Moses is said to have lived 120 years (Deut. 31:2). Some see his life as divided into three distinct forty-year periods, spending the first 40 years believing he was somebody, the next forty years learning he was a nobody and the last forty years seeing what God could do with a nobody. We all find ourselves somewhere in the life of Moses. May God teach us to be humble like Jesus, the truly great one, who washed the feet of his disciples (Jn. 13). The arrogant will not escape judgment. The humble will be exalted.

Here are a few memorable quotes on the subject of humility:

  • “Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.”

  • “Humility is like underwear; we should all have it but not let it show.”

  • “Humility is a strange thing; the minute you think you’ve got it, you’ve lost it!”

  • “There is no room for God in him who is full of himself.”

  • “God has two thrones: one in the highest heavens, the other in the lowliest heart.”

Isaac Watts' hymn, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," is beautiful and instructive in its humility:

  1. When I survey the wondrous cross
    On which the Prince of glory died,
    My richest gain I count but loss,
    And pour contempt on all my pride.

  2. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
    Save in the death of Christ my God!
    All the vain things that charm me most,
    I sacrifice them to His blood.

  3. See from His head, His hands, His feet,
    Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
    Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
    Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

  4. Were the whole realm of nature mine,
    That were a present far too small;
    Love so amazing, so divine,
    Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Honor & Shame

Saturday, January 16, 2021

"looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

(Hebrews 12:2)

All cultures are informed by a sense of honor and shame but what is considered honorable and dishonorable may differ according to the values of that culture. Ultimately, when we fail to honor God as Creator, our lives degenerate into disgrace (Rom. 1:18-23). But when Jesus came to inaugurate God's kingdom, he also came to reclaim our honor and restore our dignity as human beings. But he did so in the most ironic way; by suffering the ultimate shame of the cross, Jesus maintained his honor and even gained honor. 

Honor is the public recognition of worth

Honor is the public recognition of one's social standing and worth. In the ancient world, honor was viewed as a limited social currency. It was thought that when one gained honor it was at the expense of another's. For example, Philo condemned polytheism because in honoring others as deities the honor due to God was diminished: "God's honor is set at naught by those who deify mortals..." (EBR. 110). The disciples of John the Baptist, operating under the auspices of an honor/shame system, were worried that Jesus was gaining more honor than John. They viewed Jesus' gain as John's loss. But John, who knew his role, was happy to concede (Jn. 3:22-30). He said famously, "He must increase, but I must decrease." But whereas John honored Jesus, the Pharisees did not. They perceived Jesus' growing fame as a threat to their honor and, being envious of him (cf. Mt. 27:18; Jn. 11:47-48), constantly challenged it (Mt. 21:23ff). 

There were two types of honor in the ancient world:

  1. Ascribed honor - this is honor inherited by birth. Those born into noble, priestly, senatorial or royal families were ascribed honor by virtue of their birth, apart from any accomplishments. This cultural value is evident in places like 1 Timothy 1:4 and Titus 3:9, where Jews placed undo importance on genealogies.
  2. Achieved honor - this is honor gained by reputation, by doing righteous deeds in the community. This honor was gained or lost in a perpetual struggle for recognition. One's honor could be challenged by verbally and publicly calling it into question. If the challenge was worthy of respect then it was met with a retort. This process of challenge and reposte always ended with a public verdict where either the challenged defended his honor and the challenger suffered shame or vise versa.

Shame is the public loss of honor 

Shame is the public loss of honor. To suffer shame is to suffer contempt or to lose face. Like honor it could either be achieved or ascribed. 

  1. Achieved shame - this is public disgrace brought upon by one's foolish choices, cowardice, reckless living or a failure to defend one's honor (Prov. 13:5; 18:13; 19:26; 25:9-10; 29:15). 
  2. Ascribed shame - this is a public declaration of disgrace against a person who is deemed by the elite as having no honor.

Crucifixion was the ultimate "shame"

Crucifixion in the Greco-Roman world was the ultimate expression of ascribed shame (Heb. 12:2). Every step of crucifixion was designed to progressively humiliate the victim, depriving him of all honor and dignity (Hengel: 22-32). It was reserved for slaves, bandits, prisoners of war and revolutionaries. Public trials were not so much attempts at administering justice as they were status degredation rituals, which labelled the accused as a shameful person. Victims were usually flogged and tortured (Jos. War 5.449-51 & 3.321; Livy 22.13.19; 28.37.3; Seneca, On Anger 3.6; Philo, Flac. 72; Diod. Sic. 33.15.1; Plato, Gorgias 473bc & Republic 2.362e) and often befouled themselves with urine and excrement (m. Mak. 3:12, 14). Victims often carried their own cross beams to their place of execution (Plutarch, Delay 554B). The victims' clothing was normally confiscated leaving them nude (Diod. Sic. 33.15.1). Pinioning one's arms in the open posture of crucifixion displayed them as utterly powerless and vulnerable (Philo, Post. 61; Somn. 2.213). Executions by crucifixion were crude forms of public entertainment where the crowds joined in on ridiculing the victims (Philo, Sp. Leg. 3.160). Of course, death by crucifixion was often slow and protracted. "Ultimately the victims were deprived of life and thus the possibility of gaining satisfaction or vengeance" (Neyrey, Johanine Passion Narrative). Once dead, most victims were denied an honorable burial; corpses were often left on display and eaten by carrion birds or scavengers (Pliny, H.N. 36.107-108).

Though victims of crucifixion would endure brutal pain, this was not the main ingredient of their suffering. In an honor/shame culture, warriors viewed enduring pain as a mark of honor (e.g. Hercules' labors; Paul's hardship catalogues: e.g. 2 Cor 6:3-10; 11:23-33), especially if it was endured silently (see Isa 53:7; Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.162; Josephus, War 6.304). Even more than the physical pain was the public mockery and degredation. Notice how the New Testament writers give more attention to this than the physical torture of Jesus. His face, an honorable part of the body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:22-25), was covered, struck and spit upon (Mk. 14:65). He was ridiculed (Mk. 15:20, 31), insulted (Mk. 15:32) and was treated as though he were worthless (Lk. 23:11; cf. Acts 4:11). 

Jesus turned shame into honor

The great irony of the gospel is that Jesus, though treated shamefully, not only maintained his honor but gained glory and prestige. In fact, his crucifixion, far from being a status degradation ritual, is portrayed by the New Testament authors as a status elevation ritual. The cross was Jesus' enthronment, his moment of glory when he was "lifted up" (Jn. 3:14; 7:39; 8:28; 12:28; 17:5; see 21:19). What was foolish, weak and shameful to human eyes was wisdom, strength and honor in God's eyes (1 Cor. 1:20, 25). This upside-down perspective is part and parcel of the gospel, that last is first, least is greatest, dead is alive, shame is honor.

Of course, the ancient Mediterranean world, just like our modern Western world, did not understand the cross this way. This is why Paul said of the counter-cultural message of the gospel, "but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Cor. 1:23). The gospel of a crucified Jesus is both scandalous and absurd "to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18). Though Jesus looked disarmed by the Jews and conquered by the Romans as he hung upon the cross, in reality it was the other way around. Paul says, "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him" (Col. 2:15).

  • Jesus' ascribed honor - There was nothing kingly or noble, from a human standpoint, in his entrance into the world and his ascribed honor in society was very low. His neighbors "took offense at him" (Mk. 6:1-3) because he was from a despised town (Nazareth), of a lowly trade (carpentry), from a seemingly unimportant family and was even accused of being born of fornication (Jn 8:41). Though his lineage was royal it was not without its many bad apples (Mt. 1:1-17).
  • Jesus' achieved honor - Each time Jesus' honor was challenged in the public arena, he always got the better of his opponents (Mt. 21:23-27). Whether he was being challenged on political matters (22:15-22) or doctrinal matters (22:23-40), "no one was able to answer him a word..." (Mt. 22:41-46) He was denied honor in his home town (Mk.6:4). He was accused of blasphemy (Jn. 10:31-38) and profaning the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1-14). He was even accused of being in league with the devil (Mt. 12:22-32). Yet, through it all, Jesus maintained and even gained honor over his accusers. Even so, he was crucified.

Christians are honored through Jesus

Jesus says, "whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Mt. 10:38; cf. 16:24-28). Jesus was rejected and treated shamefully (Mk. 12:4) but the early Christians regarded this type of public shame an honor: "...rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name" (Acts 5:41). Are you prepared to be associated with Jesus? To live and share a message that is foolish and offensive to most people? To stand up and be publicly counted with him, running the risk of being misunderstood, questioned, ridiculed or even persecuted for his sake? Are you prepared to defend the honor of Jesus when it is challenged by others? If we follow in the steps of Jesus while carrying our cross we will also follow him into the honor and glory of the resurrection (Phil. 2:1-11). May God always be honored in us.

 

 

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