God’s holy time

God says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Salvageable adds: “Holy” and “sacred” mean the property of God, something that has been given to God and belongs to him. “Despise” means not only to hate, but also to disregard, to treat as of no importance.

Notice that Luther’s explanation does not mention days of the week. In the beginning, according to the book of Genesis, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. While the world was still very good, pure and without sin, God mandated that people were to follow his pattern, working six days but resting from work on the seventh day. God, who made us, knows that we require rest from both physical labor and mental effort. Therefore he gave us the gift of a day free from work, a day when we can rest and can also focus on our relationship with God.

In the Law of Moses, God stressed the holiness of the seventh day of the week, demanding that his people do no work on that seventh day. Even the gift of manna in the wilderness was withheld on the seventh day of the week. The rabbis of Israel in Roman times (the Pharisees) made a detailed study of God’s commandments and had a long list of requirements, teaching what can and cannot be done on the seventh day of the week. They criticized Jesus and his disciples for going against their requirements. Rather than entering a detailed debate with them about the commandment, Jesus said simply, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).

Paul explained what this means in his letter to the Colossians. He wrote, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (or, better, “the substance is Christ”) (Colossians 2:16-17). As Jesus in his death fulfilled the significance of the Passover lamb and the other animal sacrifices (as well as the kosher food rules, which are related to the sacrifices) by his death on the cross, so Jesus also fulfilled the significance of the Sabbath day by resting on that day, his body in a tomb and his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. As Christians do not sacrifice bulls and lambs to God, knowing that the death of Jesus ended that practice, so Christians are not required to rest on the seventh day of the week. We are free to gather for rest, for worship, and for renewal of our relationship with God whenever we choose. Most Christians choose to gather on Sunday morning, the weekly anniversary of Christ’s resurrection, but a group that gathers on Wednesday night or Friday afternoon or any other time is not breaking God’s commandment.

Yet it is incorrect to say that the Sabbath commandment, unlike the other Ten Commandments, is not repeated in the New Testament and can be ignored by Christians. Jesus expected us to gather when he promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews admonishes, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Therefore, Luther stresses that the Sabbath commandment is obeyed or broken by our attitude towards God’s Word and the preaching of it. One Christian who occasionally misses a Sunday morning church service because of work obligations or illness but regrets it has not broken the commandment; another who attends every Sunday but disdains the Bible readings and the sermon has broken the commandment. As Luther says, we should gladly hear and learn God’s Word, for the Word is the power that changes our lives and brings us forgiveness and reconciliation with God through Christ’s sacrifice.

Every Christian needs some holy time, some time that belongs to God, preferably daily. This time is best spent in reading the Bible, meditating on its message, and in prayer. But even this is not enough. Every Christian needs to gather with like-minded Christians, preferably weekly. This time also is holy. Christians gather to support one another and to receive the support of each other. They also gather to hear God’s Word and to honor his name with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Jesus assures us that when we gather in his name—celebrating his victory and his forgiveness and all his promises—he is present in a special way. By means of the gathering, he shares his victory and his forgiveness with his people. J.

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Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

The last day of this month marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic act, posting 95 theses for debate on the campus of the University of Wittenberg in Saxony. This event is generally regarded as the beginning of the Reformation (aka the Lutheran Reformation or the Protestant Reformation). One of the most interesting facts about this event is that Martin Luther, when he wrote his 95 theses, was not yet “Lutheran.”

Luther’s theses were written in response to an Indulgence being sold in the area (although not in Wittenberg itself). Indulgences were receipts for money given to the Church as an act of Penance. Penance was an idea rooted in early Christianity, from the days when the Roman government was persecuting Christians. During a time of persecution, some Christians would drop out of the Church and act like their pagan neighbors. Faithful Christians risked imprisonment, torture, and even death for denying the many pagan gods and remaining faithful to Jesus Christ. When the time of persecution ended, some of the drop-out Christians would return to the Church expecting forgiveness for their sin of denying Christ. When reminded that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father,” these sinners would remind Church leaders that the Church is about the forgiveness of sins, and that even Peter had denied Christ but had been restored to the Church. As a compromise, Church leaders agreed that the drop-outs could return, but only after they had shown that they were truly sorry for their sin. Their acts of sorrow—almost an initiation back into the Church—were called Penance.

The new teaching of Penance raised a question about what happened to Christians who died before they completed their Penance—were they saved or lost? Church leaders acknowledged that they were forgiven for their sins, but they taught that Penance could be completed after death in a place they called Purgatory. (The Italian poet Dante located Purgatory on a mountain in the south Pacific, directly across the Earth from Italy.) When persecution was no longer a problem for Christians, the ideas of Penance and Purgatory were extended to all sins. A Christian confessed his or her sins, was absolved (promised forgiveness because of Christ’s sacrifice), and then was assigned Penance to complete the process of forgiveness. During the Crusades, fighters who went to battle the Muslim Turks were promised a Plenary Indulgence, meaning they would not have to spend any time in Purgatory. People unable to go to war were promised a similar Indulgence for contributing money to the preparation of a warrior. Following this procedure, Indulgences became a way for the Church to raise money for various projects. The Indulgence which Luther protested was granted by Pope Leo X to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk; he was also a Doctor of Theology who taught in the University of Wittenberg. He was disturbed by the claims of John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, who was selling the Indulgences and exaggerating their importance. Tetzel claimed that the Indulgences he sold could free deceased relatives from Purgatory and that they provided forgiveness for the most vile of sins. At this time, universities had not yet established football and basketball teams, but they competed in debate. Luther hoped to prompt a debate regarding Indulgences and about the general ideas of Penance and forgiveness. He could not have anticipated the enormous results that his 95 theses would produce.

As I wrote above, Martin Luther was not yet “Lutheran” when he wrote his 95 theses. He still accepted without doubt the existence of Purgatory. He acknowledged the authority of the Pope as head of the Christian Church on Earth. Most significantly, Luther still approved of the teaching that penalties must be paid by sinners to complete the process of forgiveness. In the 95 theses, Luther distinguished between penalties assigned by Church leaders, which they could then revoke, and penalties assigned by God, which Church leaders could not revoke. Only later would Luther understand that all penalties for sin were paid by Jesus Christ on the cross and that no penalties remain for those who trust Christ’s promise of forgiveness.

Among the 95 theses, Luther wrote, “Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences… Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.” He went on to suggest that, should the Pope wish to remove souls from Purgatory, he should do so out of love and not for the sake of money.

Luther did not intend to create a division in the Church; he wanted instead to unite Christians around the true teachings of the Bible. By 1519, Luther’s writing showed a full understanding of the completeness of God’s forgiveness, made available through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He was unafraid to challenge any Church authority that placed doubt on God’s forgiveness. In his secular trial in 1521, Luther demanded to be shown from the Bible where he had erred. He would not consent to be instructed by popes and church councils, as he declared that they had contradicted one another and were sometimes mistaken. Luther had a prolific career of writing, teaching, and preaching. He also made mistakes, and no one considers his writings inspired as the apostles and prophets were inspired. Yet Luther’s affirmations of the Bible’s doctrines about forgiveness, spoken in opposition to Church traditions and teachings, started a Reformation movement in the Church that is still profoundly important five hundred years later.

When Lutherans list the important writings about the Bible that define their understanding of Christian doctrine, they do not include Luther’s 95 theses. For that matter, when Luther commented about which of his writings he considered worth saving for future generations to study, he did not include the 95 theses. Instead, Martin Luther and Lutheran leaders after him selected the Small Catechism and Large Catechism, both published in 1529, to be Luther’s most important work. The Small Catechism was written to teach children the key doctrines of the Church. The Large Catechism covers the same doctrines, but does so at a level for adults to read and contemplate.

In the coming weeks, as time permits, I plan to share and comment upon selections from Luther’s Small Catechism. Those words, rather than the 95 theses, are the best way to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. J.

 

 

I know something God doesn’t know

God is omniscient. That means that he knows everything. God is also omnipotent—that is, almighty. There is nothing God cannot do. God is omnipresent. If any place exists, God is there. God is holy, just, and perfectly good. All goodness is measured by God’s will—if he approves of something, it is good; if he disapproves, it is not good.

People sometimes question God’s omnipotence with logical puzzles. They ask, “Can God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?” or, “Can God make a circle that is also a square?” Since God, by his very nature, violates the laws of mathematics, I would not consider him incapable of doing things that are logically impossible. For God is three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and yet he is one God, not three gods. The Son of Man became human. Jesus Christ is one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human, yet he is one Being, not two beings.

The Bible does mention one thing that God cannot do. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). He cannot lie, not only because he is so good, but also because he is so powerful. When God speaks, what he says is invariably true, because nothing in the universe can resist his will. God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. God says, “Let the waters be gathered together and let dry ground appear,” and it happens. God says, “Let the land be covered with vegetation,” and it happens.

Therefore, when God says, “Your sins are forgiven,” your sins truly are forgiven. When God says, “You are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven,” you are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. When God says, “I have made you a member of my family,” we are indeed members of his family.

“As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103: 12). Send one traveler to the east, ands however long and far the traveler goes, there continues to be more east. Send another traveler to the west, and however long and far the traveler goes, there continues to be more west. The Earth has a North Pole and a South Pole, but east and west are infinitely far from each other. That is how far our sins have been removed from us—infinitely far.

Seen another way, our sins were nailed to the cross with Christ and killed with Christ (Romans 6:6). When Christ rose, he left our sins behind in the tomb; they remain dead and buried to this day. When God looks at me, he sees no sin. He sees perfection, for I have been clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Galatians 3:27).

Therefore, God no longer sees my sins. Jesus has taken away my sins, and God has deliberately forgotten them. As Jesus could deliberately forget the day and year of the Day of the Lord (Matthew 24:36) during his time on earth, so God purposely forgets our sins and treats us as worthy of his kingdom.

God has forgotten our sins, even though we remind him of those sins. We confess our sins to God and ask for his forgiveness, even though he has already promised to forgive and forget those sins. God does not need our confession, but we need confession. We need to remember that we are sinners, saved from sin only by the life and death of Jesus Christ. We need to remember the reason for his sacrifice, even though his sacrifice is sufficient to make our sins disappear from God’s memory, which means that they are truly gone.

John Chrysostom said it this way: “He that is penitent ought never to forget his sin, but on the one hand, to beseech God not to remember it; while on the other, he himself never forgets it. If we remember it, God will forget it.” God is so powerful that, when he forgets something, it no longer exists. In this way, each of us knows something that God no longer remembers. J.

Theology of glory/Theology of the cross

One of the many contrasts in Christian thought is the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Generally these are presented as either-or, as two poles between which one must choose. In the last few days, I have started to regard them as a spectrum along which many different positions can be found.

The most extreme version of the theology of glory I can imagine is promising a Christian full glory in this lifetime—great worldly wealth, perfect physical and mental health, unending joy and peace, and victory over all enemies, whether earthly or spiritual. Some preachers and writers approach this extreme as they describe Christianity and its benefits. The most extreme version of the theology of the cross I can imagine is a dour, frowning Christianity, one which forbids all worldly pleasures. Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic holy orders have included some groups which encourage that sort of asceticism, but Protestant Puritan movements also have a reputation of moving toward that extreme.

The proper place on this spectrum is not at the middle. Christian living focuses more on the cross of Christ than on the glory. The theology of the cross does not deny the reality of glory—God’s glory and the glory of the new creation—but it discourages focusing upon that glory today. When a Christian is so obsessed with glory that he or she has forgotten the cross, that Christian is vulnerable to the attacks of evil.

This particular train of thought began with a post by InsanityBytes (which you can read here) and a lengthy conversation in the comments to that post, a conversation in which I participated. IB asked whether a Christian should hate wickedness. She concluded that hate should not be part of a Christian’s life. The Bible says that God hates wickedness, but IB suggested that a perfectly holy God can properly hate evil. She suggests that permitting ourselves to imitate God’s hatred for evil is akin to permitting a four-year-old child to operate a car.

IB and I have exchanged thoughts for a while, and I know that she is no heretic, no threat to genuine Christianity. She is not oblivious to pain and suffering—on her blog she has spoken of difficult and painful experiences in her past life, and she describes her present dwelling place as the seventh circle of hell. Perhaps that is why IB appears to tilt in the direction of the theology of glory. Perhaps for her it is comfort in the face of evil or contrast to the evil she has seen. Make no mistake—IB has a clear and vivid understanding of the power of Christ’s cross. She recognizes it as the only source of redemption for sinners and reconciliation with God, the only hope for fellowship with God in this lifetime and in the new creation. On the other hand, IB speaks far more than I do of the glory in Christian life today. In our conversation, she said, “we are called to be over comers, to be seated with Him in victory. Even now death has no sting.”

While I agree that we are called to be overcomers—we are even described as “more than conquerors”—I suggest that the Christian in this world must regard life as being lived on a battlefield. Our enemies are beaten, but at the same time they are alive and well, always on the prowl, prepared to attack. Jesus did not promise unending glory in this lifetime—he spoke of persecution, blessings for those who mourn, having enemies whom we should love instead of hating them. He spoke of denying ourselves, taking up a cross, and following him.

Before his crucifixion, Jesus had to deal with a group of disciples who preferred the theology of glory. When three of them saw Jesus glow with light one night while he visited with Moses and Elijah, Peter wanted to capture the experience by setting up booths for the three heroes. Later, not to be outdone, James and John asked Jesus to promise that they would sit at his right and at his left when he came into his kingdom. Jesus told that that those positions were not his to assign, and that they would be given to other people.

But all this theology becomes tangled as soon as we realize that, for Jesus, the cross is the glory. He tried to explain this to his disciples, but they didn’t understand what he said. After Pentecost they understood, and they rejoiced to be considered worthy to suffer for the sake of the kingdom. When Jesus said, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23), he was speaking of his death on the cross, not of glowing with light or of sitting on a throne to rule the nations.

When Jesus came into his glory, when he claimed his kingdom, who was seated at his right and at his left? Two thieves—one who mocked Jesus, and another who recognized Jesus and confessed faith in him. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he asked, and Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth—today you will be with me in Paradise.” Pontius Pilate determined who would be to the right and the left of Jesus when he claimed his kingdom, but Jesus did not want James and John to be in those places. He went to the cross to spare them from receiving what sinners deserve.

This observation does not answer the question about whether or not Christians should hate wickedness. It still seems to me that acknowledging wickedness without hating it—without regarding it as a danger and an enemy—risks apathy and a failure to love our neighbors. For when Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, he was not including the devil, the world, and our sinful natures within that command. When Jesus entered the battle to fight for us, he did not take on the Romans or other human enemies. He fought the devil, the sinful world, our sinful natures, and death itself. He won that victory, and he shares it with his people. We are “more than conquerors” because we have a victory we did not fight to win and do not deserve to own.

Why does God hate wickedness? Does he hate it only because wickedness is rebellion against him? No, God hates wickedness because it damages the good creation he made. He especially hates wickedness because it damages the people he loves. Not only does it bring physical suffering to people, but wickedness also becomes a barrier between God and the people he loves. He hates wickedness because it separates sinners from the God who loves them, threatening them with eternal death and suffering.

In the end, though, the question of hating wickedness pales in comparison to the question of where a Christian stands on the spectrum between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Should all singing be praise songs, or should Christians also sing hymns that describe our sinful condition, our inability to save ourselves, and the enormous price Christ paid to defeat our enemies? Should all preaching be promises of glory, or should preachers also threaten judgment upon sinners who do not repent, remind their hearers that all people are sinful and need a Savior, and then describe the cross as the instrument of salvation? To me, the answer is obvious. The cross remains front and center, not only as a symbol of victory, but also as a reminder of the high cost of sin and wickedness.

In the end, I hate wickedness, not because of what it has done to me, or even because of what it has done to the world, but because of what it did to Jesus. He had no sin, but he became sin for us and was treated accordingly. My Lord died at the hands of sinful men—not merely the Jews who rejected him, and not merely the Romans who mocked him and tortured him, but all the sinners from Adam down to me. I hate what we have done to Jesus, and I rejoice that his love has overcome that wickedness and reconciled us again to God. J.

The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8)

As I continue working on a book about the parables of Jesus, interpreting those parables by the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, I continue to discover new treasures in the Word of God. Consider, for example, the parable of the persistent widow:

In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a parable “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” On other occasions Jesus compared himself to a thief; in this parable he compares himself to “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” A widow repeatedly approached this judge, begging for justice. Because of her persistence, the judge eventually decides to answer her plea “so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” Jesus concludes, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Of course Jesus intends to contrast the goodness of God with the evil of a judge who neither fears God nor respects man. Judges should fear God; they should do their work faithfully, knowing that God is watching them. They should do their work fairly, granting justice to all people, whether they are rich or poor, black or white, young or old, male or female. Withholding justice from a widow because she can neither afford to bribe the judge nor threaten him with any harm would be wrong. God, on the other hand, can be trusted to do the right thing all the time. God can neither be bribed nor threatened. When we pray to God, we have no power over him. All we have going for us in our prayers is his command to pray and his promise to hear and answer our prayers.

God wants us to pray. He does not need our prayers. He knows everything about us, including what we need and what we want and what is best for us. He does not need advice or instruction from us. Jesus reminds us why we pray with his sample prayer, which begins with the words “Our Father.” God wants us to approach him confidently, as little children on earth turn to their fathers, expecting good things from them.

At the same time, God wants our prayers to be meaningful. “When you pray,” Jesus taught, “do not heap up empty phrases, as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Persistent prayer is not vacuous prayer, speaking words without considering what they mean or to whom they are addressed. We cannot impress God by our prayers, so we need not try. A child cannot overpower a father with many words, persuading the father to do as the child wants even though what the child wants will harm the child. So also, God’s promise to hear and answer our prayers does not mean that we have magic power to make him do as we want. He is wiser than us and more knowledgeable. If we ask for something harmful, he loves us too much to grant us what we ask.

Imagine, though, spending day after day with someone you love while that person refuses to say a word to you. Think of the pain that silence would cause you. Often we treat God this way. We do not speak to him at all, either to ask for anything for ourselves and for others, nor to thank him for any good thing he has given us, nor to confess our sins and beg for his forgiveness. God encourages us to do all these things, and more: he invites us to praise him. He does not need our praise—flattery accomplishes nothing with God—but we need to praise God in order to remind ourselves how good he is and how blessed we are that he loves us and delights to hear our prayers.

So Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow who finally obtains justice from an uncaring judge. Because this story is labeled a parable, the secrets of the kingdom should reveal more from the story than an exhortation to pray. Indeed, much more is happening in this story. For as Jesus compared himself to a thief, robbing us out of the hands of the devil, he now compares himself to a corrupt judge. Jesus truly is the Judge who will rule on our eternal home. Sinners will be locked out of the kingdom, while those who are pure and flawless will be welcomed into the kingdom and called children of God.

Were Jesus purely just and fair, he would lock us out of his kingdom. We have sinned; we do not deserve a place in heaven. But Jesus is unfair to us, not to our harm but to our benefit. Jesus judges that we are sinless because he covers our sins with his righteousness. Jesus judges that we are flawless because he has paid in full our debt for sin. Jesus judges that we are worthy to live in his kingdom—even to be called the children of God—because He, the Son of God, took our place and our punishment so we could receive the rewards he earned.

We have adversaries—not worldly foes, but spiritual enemies. We need protection from the devil, from the sinful world around us, and from the sin still within us. We persistently confess our sins and ask God to protect us from our enemies. God answers swiftly—so swiftly that he has finished answering our prayers before we reached the “Amen.” Christ has already paid our penalty. On the cross he fought our enemies and defeated them. Even the final enemy, death, has been defeated by Jesus. God has not delayed; he has given us all that we need and far more good things than we ever deserved.

“Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Without faith, no one can receive the benefits of the exchange that Jesus offers. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. Our faith is not a work that earns God’s grace; it is a gift, a result of God’s grace. Jesus asks whether or not he will find faith, not in despair that all faith will be quenched, but as a reminder that he will be seeking faith when he sits on his Judgment throne. Those approaching the throne of Judgment with faith in Jesus will be welcomed into his kingdom, an inheritance prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34). Those approaching the throne demanding justice, demanding to get what they deserve, will receive such justice. They will be sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Jesus does not want to send anyone into that fire. He died to rescue all people. But those who refuse the gift of the unfair Judge truly will receive the justice they deserve rather than the gift the Judge offers them.

 

Why am I here?

Why do I exist? What is my purpose in life? Why did God put me here? Most of us grapple with these questions from time to time. Even Socrates knew that the unexamined life is not worth living. Does the Bible contain answers to these questions, or are we doomed to ask them again and again until the day we die?

The Bible says that the first man and the first woman were made in the image of God. This can refer to many things—intelligence, moral sense, and creativity, for example—but the most important quality of God, according to God, is love. “God is love.” Outside of creation, the Persons of God have pure and perfect love for one another. Creation itself can be viewed as a gift of love from the Father to the Son. God created many more beings that he could love, beings that could return his love. We are created to love God whole-heartedly and also to love one another. God needs nothing from us, but we glorify God and serve God when we love and help each other.

How do we love God? We place no other gods ahead of him: not Baal or Zeus or Thor, and not money or power or fame or entertainment or any person or animal or cause or job or hobby. We love God when we use his name properly, rather than using it to trick other people (or using it carelessly to punctuate our conversations). We love God when we give him the time he deserves—not merely an hour on Sunday morning, but time each day to speak to him in prayer and to learn from His Word about his commands and his promises. We love God when we honor, respect, and obey human authority in the home, the workplace, and the government. The way we treat those in authority over us shows how we truly feel about God’s authority.

We love and serve God by loving and helping our neighbors. We respect their lives, their marriages, their property, and their reputations. Not only are we careful not to harm them in these matters; we look for ways to help them in these matters. We love God and our neighbors when we are content with what God has given us and made available to us. When we are not content, we do not love God, for we accuse him of failing to give us what we should have. When we are not content, we do not love our neighbors, for we become angry seeing them enjoy things we do not have.

This is why we were made: to love in all these ways. Different people in different situations will have different opportunities to love. Marriage is one kind of love; friendship is another. Children love their parents by honoring, respecting, and obeying them. Parents love their children by instructing them and by modeling God’s love and forgiveness. Workers and managers do their jobs with mutual respect. Citizens honor and obey their governments, while those with authority do not abuse their authority but use it for the good of the people they serve.

Each of us has a different blend of resources, abilities, opportunities, and interests. Each of us can spend a lifetime serving and glorifying God while helping his or her neighbors in a different way. To find your niche in God’s creation, if you have not already found it, I recommend answering three questions: “What do I enjoy doing? What do other people tell me I do well? What tasks do I most notice need to be done?” When the answers to these three questions converge, you may have found the unique purpose for which God put you into his creation.

We were created to love, to do good works motivated by love. When we fall short—when our love is incomplete—we cannot restore ourselves to perfection or reconcile ourselves to the God who made us. No matter how hard we strive to love properly and to do those things that love requires, the more we will see ourselves falling short of the glory of God. The better we know the commandments of God, the more clearly we see how we have failed to accomplish them. Each of us was created to love. None of us can rescue ourselves when our love has failed to meet God’s standards.

God’s plan for salvation is entirely separated from his plan for creation. When we do not do the things God created us to do, we cannot change matters by trying harder to do them. God does not redeem us or reconcile us because of anything we did in the past, or because of anything we are doing now, or because of anything we will do in the future. God redeems us and reconciles us because he loves us. He rescues us without any merit or worthiness in us. We cannot earn his redemption, and we cannot repay his redemption. If we try to do so, we only insult God and his gift.

Yet the forgiveness of God, his redemption, and his reconciliation, change us. They erase all sins from our record. They restore to us the image of God. They made us able to love as we should love. It does not happen instantly; our transformation will not be completed until the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection. Along the way, though, with no stain of sin to restrain us, we are able to love more and more in the way God intended. The good things we do are not proof of our redemption. We have all the proof we need in the promises of the Bible and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As we deny ourselves and follow him, we stop measuring ourselves and our worthiness (which are insufficient for our redemption) and we instead measure Jesus Christ, his perfect life, his sacrifice on the cross, and his resurrection (which are fully sufficient for our redemption).

Why am I here? To love God and to love my neighbors. Why am I saved and a citizen of heaven? Because of what Jesus has done for me. It is as simple as that. J.

The parable of weeds in the field

The Day of the Lord is another name for Judgment Day, or the Day of Resurrection, or the Dawn of the New Creation. The prophets spoke frequently about the Day of the Lord, describing its coming with the darkening of the sun, the shaking of the earth, and the judgment of God upon sinners. In one sense, that great Day of the Lord is still to come, when Jesus reveals his glory, raises the dead, and judges all people. In another sense, the Day of the Lord was fulfilled when Jesus suffered and died on the cross. For three hours the sun did not shine. At the death of Jesus the earth shook. God’s judgment on sinners was poured out on sinners so sinners could be redeemed and set free from the punishment we deserve.

Jesus spoke many parables about the Day of the Lord before the day when redemption was accomplished on the cross. His parable of the weeds—one of the two parables Jesus explained to his disciples—concerns the Day of the Lord. This parable is found in Matthew 13:24-30, and the explanation Jesus gives is in Matthew 13:36-43.

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a man who sows good seed in his field. Later, an enemy sows weeds in the same field. The servants of the man offer to pull the weeds, but the farmer says no—he fears that they will damage the good plants while pulling the weeds. “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Matthew 13:30).

Jesus explains that the sower of the good seed is the Son of Man—that is, Jesus himself. The field is the world, and the good seed is children of the kingdom—those who believe in Jesus, those who know and trust the secrets of the kingdom. The weeds are sons of the evil one, planted by the devil. The harvest is the close of the age—the Day of the Lord—and the reapers are angels. “He who has ears,” Jesus concludes, “Let him hear” (Matthew 13:43).

The field is the world; the field is not the Church. Hypocrites are found at times within the Church, and Jesus provided a process for removing from the congregation people who sin and refuse to repent of their sins (Matthew 18:15-18). They are removed if they refuse to repent, but they are treated as mission opportunities—as pagans or tax collectors. (The one Gospel containing this procedure is written by a former tax collector, and we remember how Jesus treated him!) The Church is not in the business of removing sinners from the world. Instead the Church exists in the world to change sinners. Christians do not weed sinners out of the world. Instead, Christians warn sinners of their danger of judgment, using the Law of God to call sinners to repentance. To those sinners who repent, the Church promises forgiveness and eternal life through the redemption of Jesus Christ.

God created good people, sinless and pure. The devil brought temptation into the world and so created sinners. Unlike weeds in a field, though, sinners can be changed. Without redemption through Jesus, the entire field is covered with weeds, without a single plant that is good. Through the redemption of Jesus, weeds become good plants. On the Day of the Lord, they will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. But first the weeds will be removed from the field. That removal is not the work of Christians—angels will separate the lost from the saved. They will carry the sinners away “to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), but “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). We know the secret—we are righteous, but not through our efforts. We are righteous through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

“He who has ears, let him hear.” In other words, pay attention! The coming Day of the Lord reminds us of our need to repent, to believe the gospel, and to trust all of God’s promises. When we do these things, the forgiveness of God enables us to live holy and righteous lives. We are not yet perfect, not in this lifetime, but in the new creation our righteousness will be complete. Then we will indeed shine like the sun, as Jesus promises. J.

 

The Pharisee and the tax collector, revisited

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a former tax collector. The ex-tax collector, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘”God, I thank you that I am not like other men, proud, boastful, trusting in themselves and their works, like this Pharisee. You and I both know, Lord, that he takes credit for fasting and tithing and other petty good works, while he neglects justice and mercy and faithfulness. I was once worse than he is, for I demanded money from my neighbors and gave some to the Romans to rule over us while I kept the rest for my own wealth and comfort. But one day my eyes were opened, and I came into this temple and prayed, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ As I went home, I knew that I was justified, for I had prayed the proper words and had invited you into my heart to be my personal Savior. Now I go to church faithfully, teach a Bible class, serve on a committee, and put money into the basket every week. Truly you have chosen me over this Pharisee, for I am humble and good-hearted, and nobody loves you more than I do.” But the Pharisee said nothing, being ashamed of his former pride and boasting. I tell you, that man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (See Luke 18:9-14.) J.

A lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Luke 15 consists of a set of three parables, describing a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Together, they describe the process of redemption according to the secrets of the kingdom. The first parable is told by Jesus in a different context in Matthew 18:10-14; it can also be related to Jesus’ words supporting his declaration, “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10.

This set of three parables features some important similarities among the stories, as well as significant differences. Each story describes something that was lost but is recovered. Each story tells of a celebration over the recovery, which is humorously excessive in the case of a lost sheep or a lost coin but more appropriate in the case of a recovered son.

Each mentions others that were not lost, but the numbers change. One sheep is lost, but ninety-nine sheep are safe. One coin is lost, but nine coins remain where they belong. One son is lost, but one son stays home. These changing numbers are moving in a direction that should be obvious—we have all sinned, we all like sheep have gone astray, and not one of us has been faithful to God—not one other than his only-begotten Son. Consider the occasion for these parables. Jesus was being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and scribes grumbled about this practice. Jesus makes two points relative to the secrets of the kingdom: each sinner is valuable to God and worth saving from God’s point of view; and we all are sinners, whether or not we are willing to confess our sins.

A shepherd goes into the wilderness to look for a lost sheep. The sheep will never find its way home without the shepherd’s help. It is vulnerable to predators and many other dangers. Because he cares about his sheep, the shepherd is willing to explore the wilderness and to do anything necessary to find his sheep and bring it home. In the same way Jesus, the Son of God, enters this world—this wilderness darkened by sin and evil—and seeks sinners so he can return them to the kingdom of God.

Since the first parable describes the work of Jesus, the Son of God, and the third parable describes a loving Father, some Bible interpreters have seen the coin-collecting woman as a picture of the Holy Spirit. Jesus does the work of redemption through his sinless life, his sacrifice, and his triumphant resurrection. The Holy Spirit, though, grants faith in Jesus and moves sinners back into the kingdom of God. A lost coin is even more vulnerable than a lost sheep. It has no hope of randomly wandering onto the path that will lead it home. It cannot even call for help. It can only wait in a dark and dusty corner until the searcher finds it and restores it to its place. We were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1)—like a lost coin, we could not bring ourselves home. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Since “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3), we see the secrets of the kingdom of heaven in this woman. She sweeps until she finds the coin, she picks it up, and she returns it to its place. This is what God the Holy Spirit does for us by speaking the promises of God to us through his Word and by giving us faith in those promises.

The runaway son could not have come to his senses and resolved to return to his father in repentance had not the Shepherd gone into the wilderness to search for him. The runaway son could not have traveled home without the work of the Collector to move him. When people read the parable of the lost son outside of its context, they easily overlook the secrets of the kingdom. On its own, this parable appears to say that we can bring ourselves to God and find our way home again. In its context, we see how God the Father welcomes us home after God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have done their parts in the work of our redemption.

The father throws a party to celebrate the return of his son. This party pictures heaven itself—an eternal celebration of the victory of Christ and the renewal of all creation. The father’s older son refuses to attend the party. He envies the restoration of his brother and resents his father’s forgiveness. This older son is often understood to picture those Pharisees and scribes who criticized Jesus for eating with sinners. But the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have a further surprise hidden in this parable.

The Pharisees and scribes no doubt believed that they had pleased God by their good lives, but we know that to enter the kingdom of heaven one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 5:20). The words the father speaks to his older son may be words that the Pharisees and scribes expected to hear from God. They are not words that God the Father will ever say to those who expect to enter heaven by their own righteousness. Only one person in all history could truthfully say what the older son says: “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” Only one person in all history could hear what the father says: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Jesus is the one pure and sinless person who deserves to be in the party instead of locked outside of the party. He has paid with his life to open the doors of the party to the many who do not deserve to be there. Unlike the son in the parable, Jesus is not angry to see undeserving people at the party. He rejoices to restore sinners to the Father’s home in the kingdom.

But was Jesus ever outside of the party? For part of one day, he was indeed outside the party. Rejected and abused by sinners, he took on the burden of sin, and even his Father abandoned him. Jesus spent hours in the darkness of judgment and condemnation to spare those of us who deserve judgment and condemnation. While hanging on the cross, he was outside the party.

Yet because he is God, he will not miss the party. Dying on the cross, he has prepared a place for us. Now he is prepared to welcome us alongside his Father. His resurrection guarantees our resurrection. It also promises that with our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we will live in the kingdom forever in joyful celebration of love, life, and victory. The Shepherd has found us. The Collector has moved us. The Father now welcomes us home, for we were dead and are alive; we were lost and are found.

 

The Good Samaritan

‘And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”’ (Luke 10:25-37)

If any of the parables of Jesus sound like exhortations to good works, surely that applies to the account of the Good Samaritan. The bulk of the story describes the things done by the Samaritan. The contrast between the Samaritan and the two men who should have helped is unmistakable. The concluding words, “You, go and do likewise,” appear at first to be the point of the parable. Commentators generally are content to explain the roles of the priest and the Levite in Israel and explain the bigotry Jews and Samaritans felt toward each other.

After all, Christians are commanded to do good works. We are to love our neighbors and to help them in their times of need. Walking past a person who is hurting, failing to stop and give assistance, is sinful behavior. How could the parable of the Good Samaritan be anything other than insistence by Jesus that we should help anyone who needs our help?

The answer to that question lies in the secrets to the kingdom of heaven. Christians must continually remember that our good deeds do not earn God’s love and forgiveness. Even though we were created to do good things, we are not redeemed by doing good things. The very fact that the man questioning Jesus asked what he must do to inherit eternal life gives away the entire message. An inheritance comes from the goodness of the giver. An inheritance is not earned. (There are cases of a benefactor using inheritances to bribe their heirs or threatening to remove the heirs from his or her will if they did not act a certain way. Those rare cases underline the point that an inheritance generally means a gift and not something earned.) Jesus died so we can inherit eternal life. He left to us the rewards he earned by his perfect obedience to his Father’s will. We have eternal life because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus could have said as much to his questioner, but he knew the man’s heart. Therefore, Jesus first drew the man’s attention to the Law. The man showed that he knew the greatest commandments of God’s Law. “Do this, and you will live,” Jesus promises. But the man was honest enough in his heart to know that he had not kept those commandments perfectly. Searching for a loophole, he asks Jesus who his neighbor is. Notice that, in concluding the parable, Jesus did not say, “Who was the Samaritan’s neighbor?” Instead, he asks who “proved to be a neighbor.” That change in wording is significant.

Of the four people in the story, all of us would like to claim that we are most like the Samaritan. We fear and we confess that, at times, we are more like the priest and the Levite. We can identify times that we did not do the loving thing for our neighbors. We have neglected them at times; we have not always been of help to our neighbors. When we look at the parable this way, though, we miss seeing that we are most like the victim rather than the Samaritan or the priest or Levite.

We are victims. The devil and the sinful world have combined to lure us into sin, and they stand ready to accuse us of our sins. Our sins themselves, have beaten and robbed us and left us for dead. All the times that we broke God’s commandments have robbed us of any wealth in the kingdom of heaven. Our sins deny us the right to eternal life. Once we have sinned, we are helpless to save ourselves. We cannot redeem ourselves. We lie, bruised and broken, facing death, waiting for someone to help us.

At this time, God’s Law cannot help us. It describes the good things we should do and identifies the sins we have committed, but that information does not take away our sins or the punishment we deserve. Priests and Levites were expected to be good men. The commands of God are also good. His commands tell us why we were made, and they guide us as we strive to imitate Jesus. But, like the priest and the Levite of the parable, even God’s greatest commandments cannot help us once we have fallen into sin. They walk past us. The best they can do is to describe our condition; they cannot change our condition.

Jesus pictures himself as a Samaritan. He takes on the label of a group rejected by the Jews, but he also portrays himself as an outsider. Jesus is above the Law, since he is the source of the Law. He does not have to give us what we deserve. He can be merciful to us, forgive us, and provide for our healing. Like the Samaritan of the parable, Jesus does what is needed to rescue us. The Samaritan cleaned the victim’s wounds with oil and wine—first aid for the first century, before the discovery of modern medicines. Then he put the victim on his donkey, took him to an inn, paid extravagantly for the victim’s care, and promised to do even more if more was necessary to help the victim.

Jesus goes beyond the goodness of the Samaritan. He lives a sinless life, then he bestows upon us the rewards he earned. Even more, he sacrifices his life on a Roman cross to pay our debts in full. He takes the punishment we deserve upon himself in place of the rewards he has given to us. If any more needed to be done to complete our rescue, our redemption, and our healing, Jesus is willing to do that too. His love and his mercy know no limits.

The Samaritan took the victim to an inn. Jesus brings us into the Christian Church. In the Church we continue to receive the care we need to further our healing. The work of the Church is empowered by Jesus. His life and death and resurrection are the coins that pay for our healing within the Church. Yet once we are part of the Church, we are also innkeepers, welcoming others into our midst for their healing.

The man who questioned Jesus asked about what he should do. The parable Jesus spoke depicted each of us as helpless, needing the work of Jesus to rescue us since we cannot rescue ourselves. Why then did Jesus close with the words, “You, go and do likewise”? First, he directs us to strive to obey his commands so we realize that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Then we repent, knowing that we need a Savior. Second, now that we have been saved, we strive to imitate Jesus. The same commands that reveal our imperfections also tell us how to be more Christlike in our daily lives.

Indeed, we should go and do likewise. We should rescue victims of violence. We should feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless. We should help the poor and the oppressed. We were created to do good works like these. Along with that, we should recognize the victims of sin and evil around us. We cannot redeem them, but we can share the good news of Christ’s forgiveness and of his victory over all evil. We can share God’s forgiveness, beginning with those who have sinned against us.

As we do these things, though, we are not earning our place in the kingdom of heaven. That gift is an inheritance given to us by Jesus. He is the Samaritan who has saved our lives and who is still providing for our healing. The secrets of the kingdom of heaven help us to see Jesus as the Samaritan in his parable.