Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Donkey, Not a Warhorse

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:9-10)
Messiah, Israel’s final king, would enter Jerusalem on … a donkey. This was not the ride for a head of state in those days. Former kings of Israel would ride mules but not donkeys. That might not seem like much of a difference to us today, but back then it was. The donkey signified humility, which is why the word “lowly” is paired with “riding on a donkey.”

Messiah would not come like other kings, with the trappings of earthly power, but with meekness — the gentleness born of strength. It would not be the strength of the warhorse but of justice and righteousness, and so would he be victorious, bringing salvation to his people.

The coming of Messiah was the coming of the kingdom of God and would deliver Israel from the exile and bondage she was now in. The chariots and warhorses that enforced her exile would be gone and the bow of battle broken. Then result would be peace, not only for Israel but for all the nations, for in the end, the rule of Messiah will extend all around the world.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of that final week, he chose to ride in on a young donkey. When his followers heard he was coming, they cut down palm branches and strew them in his path, which was traditionally a symbol of welcome but was also used to celebrate a great victory. They met Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:13).

They were identifying Jesus as their Messiah King. Though many of them were likely expecting a great military victory to follow, Jesus fully understood that their victory and salvation would come by a different means, by the way of the cross.

The manner of Jesus’ warfare was quite unexpected. He allowed the Roman Empire, the Jewish leaders and the devil himself to do their worst upon him. He bore it all meekly and quietly. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Finally, death came and claimed victory over him.

All of that was in vain, of course. At the cross, Jesus disarmed all the “principalities and powers” (Colossians 2:15), the demonic influences that put him there. Through death, he broke the power of the one who holds the power of death, that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14). Death itself has been defeated through Jesus’ death on the cross. God raised Jesus on the third day, “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Every knee bowing and every tongue confessing Jesus the Messiah as Lord is the victory of the cross. And this victory is currently being worked out in the world as the kingdom of God continues through the proclamation of the gospel in word and sacrament. In the end, his peace will be revealed throughout the whole earth.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Clearing the Temple

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:15-17)
In Holy Week, we commemorate the final week of Jesus’ ministry, leading us to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. On Palm Sunday, we remembered his entry into Jerusalem amid cries of “Hosanna” from the crowd of followers recognizing him as God’s messianic king. This is recorded in all four books of the Gospel — it is a significant event.

What happened next is also recorded in all four books, although John locates it differently from Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is the account of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. Though often thought of as “cleansing” the temple, it is more about Jesus’ rejection of the temple and what it had become. Over the next few days, Jesus would foretell its destruction, in his teaching at the Mount of Olives (see Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21). In AD 70, both the temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed by the armies of Rome, fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy.

The temple was recognized as the place where God came to dwell among his people. It was where atonement for sin was made so that God’s people could enjoy fellowship and favor with him. For the Jews, the destruction of the temple would be tantamount to the end of the world. However, the temple and its leaders had become corrupt and no longer served their purpose. It was supposed to be a house of prayer where all the nations, not just Israel, could come and know God. In his rebuke, Jesus quoted from Isaiah 56, where the Lord says,
And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
But now it had become a “den of robbers,” a phrase from Jeremiah 7, where the prophet denounced the people of Judah for trying to justify their detestable behavior by appealing to the temple, as if it were some sort of talisman:
Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.

But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’ — safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:4-11)
The “money changers” were merely an outward sign of the real problem, which ran much deeper. No one supposed that Jesus was simply clearing out a few bad apples. His action was a judgment on the failure of the temple system to be what God had intended, and a rejection of what it had become. No mere “cleansing” would do.

The Jewish leaders understood perfectly well what Jesus was doing. He was not just rejecting the money changers, he was rejecting them, too! And it was gaining traction with the people, who were amazed at Jesus’ teaching. So the chief priests and teachers of the law began looking for a way to kill him.

Before a generation passed, the Jerusalem temple, made with human hands, would be gone. But this did not mean that God would no longer have a dwelling place among his people. For the true temple of God was now in their midst. The Gospel of John picks up this theme very clearly from the beginning of the book, where it speaks of Jesus as the “the Word”:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:1, 14)
Jesus himself is God dwelling among us! This is temple language. Even the Greek word for “dwelling” relates to the Old Testament language of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the forerunner of the temple (see The Shekinah Dwelling).

Then in the second chapter of John, after the story of Jesus turning the water into wine, we find Jesus clearing the temple courts. Not surprisingly, this upset the Jewish leaders:
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”

But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:18-22)
In John 14, on the night of the Last Supper, before Jesus is taken away to be interrogated by Herod and Pontius Pilate and then led to the cross, Jesus speaks of God’s dwelling place not only with us but in us:
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.

Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:15-20, 23)
Here is the divine Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — making their home in us. This is intimacy with God that the temple at Jerusalem could never even come close to approaching.

When Jesus cleared the temple, he was not doing a bit of remodeling to the old place. He was clearing the way for the true temple of God to be revealed through the cross and the resurrection.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Prove Your Name Holy

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. (Matthew 6:9)
Israel had profaned the name of the LORD by breaking covenant with him, turning from his ways and worshiping false gods. The northern kingdom, Israel, ended up in Assyrian captivity and its tribes scattered or assimilated into the nations. The southern kingdom, Judah, was led off into Babylonian exile, which it endured for seventy years until many were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the walls. Yet many others remained in exile and dispersed among the nations, although they retained their identity as Jews. However, even those who returned to Judea remained in a sort of exile, being ruled over by other nations and not by their own true king.

By the time Jesus came and began his ministry, Judea had long been under Roman rule and the Jews were waiting for the kingdom of God to come, although various groups had different ideas of how it would arrive and what it would look like. After his baptism and the temptation in the world, Jesus came preaching the gospel: “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 4:17). That is what his “Sermon on the Mount” is about, to show what the kingdom of God looks like. Within that sermon, he teaches his people how to pray what is traditionally known as “the Lord’s Prayer.” It begins, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” — a very important petition.

The Greek word for “hallowed” means to render or acknowledge something as holy, to venerate it. To be hallowed, then, is to be acknowledged as holy. This first request is for God to cause his name to be recognized and honored as holy once again. It is a kingdom prayer, for it is exactly what God promised his people he would one day do when he set things right in the world. He spoke to them in their exile about the restoration he would bring. In Ezekiel 36, he spoke particularly about making his name holy before the nations.
Therefore say to the Israelites, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes. (Ezekiel 36:22-23)
What God was going to do for them, he would do because of his name, not because of anything they had done to deserve it. For they had been faithless, yet God remains faithful. They had failed to keep his ways but God would do a new thing for the sake of his holy name, and it would make all the difference for his people as well:
For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:24-28)
The prayer for God’s name to be hallowed, then, is very rich and deep. It is no less than the kingdom of God being revealed, transforming his people and putting the world right. It is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah,
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Significance of the Angels

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (Matthew 4:11)
After three failed attempts to ensnare Jesus, the devil left, having been sent away by him. Angels came and attended Jesus, ministering to his needs, for although he is fully divine, he is also fully human — that is part of the wonder of the gospel, a mystery that even angels long to witness. Jesus was weary and hungry, much in need of rest and refreshment. So the angels came.

Though it does not appear in the NIV translation, the Greek text has the words kai idou, “and behold,” especially alerting us to this angelic ministry. Their appearance in Matthew’s narrative of the Temptation is very significant. You will recall that one of the temptations had been for Jesus to cast himself off the high point of the wall that surrounded the temple complex. The devil’s reasoning was that, “He [God] will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” He was quoting Scripture, from Psalm 91, but he was using it wrongly. The promise there is for those who take their refuge in God, not for those who follow some other way, as the devil was trying to get Jesus to do.

But now, behold, the angels did come, sent by the Father to minister to Jesus’ needs. This shows that, yes, Jesus truly took his refuge in God and was walking in his way, and God did indeed command his angels concerning him.

Angels are messengers and ministers. The Greek word for “angels” is angelos and literally means “messenger.” The purpose of these holy messengers is not only to serve God but also watch over all who trust in him. For God gives them orders concerning us to take good care of us in everything that has to do with us. The book of Hebrews teaches us that angels are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will receive salvation” (Hebrews 1:14).

God did not abandon Jesus in this time of temptation. Neither did the angels. They were always present, though not always apparent, and they ministered to Jesus when he was in need. They will likewise be present to minister to all who follow him.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Devil Has No Shortcut

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.

“All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matthew 4:8-10)
The first two temptations backfired, so the devil tried one last “go for broke” tack, asking directly what he had been angling for all along — for Jesus to bow down and worship him. The enticement he would use would be the kingdoms of the world and all their wealth. After all, wasn’t Messiah supposed to come rule over Israel and subdue the nations? Indeed.

Satan was offering Jesus a shortcut, but it was something that was not his to give. In Psalm 2, God says to his Son, whom he has anointed to be king, “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.” In Daniel 4:32, a voice from heaven announces, “The Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

All the kingdoms on earth have always belonged to God, and they had already been promised to Jesus. Satan was nothing more than a usurper who deceived the nations and exercised what the apostle Paul calls the “principalities and powers,” that is, the demonic influences that lurk behind evil in governments and cultures. He could not offer Jesus the kingdoms of the world, only his dark dominion over them. But it is precisely that dark power that Messiah came to destroy. So the devil tried to cut a deal: “All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.”

However, not only was Satan offering what was not his to give, he was also asking for what could never be. There is but one God, the triune God, and Satan is not part of that Trinity — and the difference is vast and unfathomable. Satan is all for himself; God has always been for others, even within the fellowship of the Trinity: The Father is all for the Son and the Spirit, the Son is all for the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit is all for the Father and the Son — they are all for each other.

Satan is a destroyer; God is a creator. Satan is a taker; God is a giver. Satan is darkness; God is light. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is the light who “shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5). Just as light could never rule by means of darkness, so Jesus could never rule by means of Satan’s dark power, for when light shines, darkness ceases to be. And that is what is now happening through King Jesus the Messiah: “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).
  • Jesus has bound the “strong man” and has “plundered his house” (Mark 3:27). In his ministry, Jesus exorcised many demons, and he has given his people the authority to do the same.
  • Jesus has ruined the works of the devil. “The reason the Son of God appeared,” says John, “was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8). What the devil has done cannot stand.
  • Jesus, by the cross, has broken the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
  • Jesus has qualified us “to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13).
  • Jesus, by the cross, has disarmed the principalities and powers and has made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them (Colossians 2:15). They cannot stop the kingdom of God from being revealed all over the world.
Satan is now bound and can no longer deceive the nations (Revelation 20:1-3). That is, he cannot keep the gospel from making disciples of every people on earth, just as Jesus commanded the disciples in Matthew 28:18-20.

In this final temptation, Jesus rebuked the devil, just as he had done the other two times, with a quote from Moses: “Fear the LORD your God, serve him only” (Deuteronomy 6:13). Jesus would not be bowing down to the devil but would be worshiping God alone. He was also serving notice that the devil himself would also be bowing down before God.

And so shall it be. For God has highly exalted Jesus and given him “the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

What the devil offered falsely, God has truly accomplished in Christ. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Pinnacle of Power

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:-7)
The devil failed the first challenge, so he tried another. He began once again with accusation: “If you are the Son of God …” What was Jesus willing to do to prove it? Would he throw himself off the highest point of the wall that surrounded the temple complex, down to the rocks below? After all, weren’t the angels there to protect him? Why not flex that muscle a bit?

Jesus had parried Satan’s first thrust by citing Scripture, so now the devil thought he would try his hand at it. He does know what Scripture says — but he does not understand what it means. The passage he quoted was from Psalm 91: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (vv. 11-12).

This is a wonderful promise from God, as are all the promises in Psalm 91. But they are for those who take their refuge in God, who abide in him, who walk in his way. “If you say, ‘The LORD is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent” (Psalm 91:9-11). God has no such promise for those who go off to walk in their own way.

Similarly, God promises to provide for his people and answer our prayers. Yet James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, would caution us, “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3).

God is always looking at the heart. What are our motives — are they about him, or all about us? If we are about him, then the promise is for us and we can expect his protection and provision. But if we are about our own pleasures, we are not abiding in God but have wandered away to something that will only dash us upon the rocks.

The reason the accuser could not get anywhere with Jesus is that Jesus had made the LORD his refuge and dwelling place. He was all about God, all about the Father. The words of the psalm writer portray this very well: “Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come — it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart’” (Psalm 40:7-8; see also Hebrews 10:7). Jesus’ own words reveal how deeply this ran in his heart.
  • “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19)
  • “I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me.” (John 5:30)
  • “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things.” (John 8:28)
  • “The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works.” (John 14:10)
Satan took Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple complex and wanted Jesus to lift himself up in a display of his own power. That is how the devil thinks and why he has never understood the nature of God and of love. Paul reminds us that love does not brag, does not puff itself up, is not self-seeking (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). Rather, the nature of love is to give and serve and pour itself out for the sake of others. And that is what God does, because God is love.

Jesus reveals himself as the Son of God, then, not by hoisting himself off a high point to the rocks below in a self-inflated display of power but by being a servant and allowing himself to be lifted high on a cross for our sakes. Then God raised him from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit.

For this reason Paul, in his letter to the Jesus followers at Philippi, enjoins us to have the same mindset as Jesus Christ:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus will have no false displays, no empty glorying, no self-seeking — and no doubting the self-giving love and goodness of God. So he answered the devil with the words with which Moses warned the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test.”

Friday, March 6, 2015

Wilderness Reveals the Heart

Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)
The wilderness experience, whatever particular thing that may be in your life or mine, is a test that reveals the heart. The children of Israel wandered the wilderness for forty years because of what was in their hearts — and what was lacking. It should have taken only eleven days from Egypt to the Promised Land. But they did not enter the land because of their unbelief. So they wandered for forty years until that unbelieving generation died out. The wilderness experience continually tested them, revealing their hearts, and what their faith was.

The wilderness experience also tested Jesus and revealed his heart. At the end of forty days of fasting, the devil came to tempt him: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Satan is an accuser — that is what his heart is all about. Jesus’ heart was revealed in his response: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus was all about pleasing God, not satisfying his hunger.

Temptation is about the heart, which is why it is so often a part of the wilderness experience. James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, tells us about temptation and the heart dynamic.
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13-15)
When the heart is pure, it cannot be tempted to evil. But when there is evil desire, it will go to seed if given the opportunity often enough. Then the heart meditates on it and the mind considers how to engage it. Finally, it becomes action — and the action deadens the soul. We were created for something much different, to experience and share the glory of God. But sin, which begins in the heart, brings us up far short of that (Romans 3:23).

God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he ever tempt anyone to evil, and that is because his heart is pure. God is love, through and through — it is the divine nature. The human heart, on the other hand, is divided, pulled in different directions. “Give me an undivided heart,” the psalm writer said, “that I may fear your name” (Psalm 86:11). And that is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. He has given us a new heart and a new spirit — his own Spirit to dwell in us and change us — just as he promised he would do for his people (Ezekiel 36:24-27).

The fruit of the Spirit is love, producing divine love in us. The more we learn to yield to that love — the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — the more resilient our hearts will be in trials and temptations. The wilderness experience reveals where we are in that process and becomes an opportunity to turn to God in faith and receive his love.

The children of Israel wandered the wilderness for forty years and it revealed their hearts every step of the way. Finally, though, they learned to depend upon God, even if only for a little while, and follow him into the Promised Land.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bread in the Wilderness

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:1-4)
Mark’s account of the Temptation is brief and rapid fire but very powerful. Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, give us more detail, each describing three specific temptations and Jesus’ response to them. Let’s look at the first one, as presented in Matthew.

Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. Jesus fasted for forty days and nights but only at the end did he begin to feel the depth of his hunger. That was when the devil came with the first temptation: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Diabolos, the Greek word for “devil” means accuser, and that is what he did here. Shortly before, when Jesus was baptized by John in the river Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended upon him and the voice of the Father declared, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). But now here was the accuser, questioning that: “If you are the Son of God …”

Jesus was physically very hungry, and the devil’s challenge was to command the stones around him to become bread, and so prove that he is the Son of God. But this was not just about Jesus’ own hunger. The Son of God was supposed to be the Messiah, the Anointed One who would deliver his people from bondage and exile, just as Moses delivered the children of Israel from the Egypt. Under Moses, they ate manna in the wilderness, a bread-like substance that probably resembled the stones that now surrounded Jesus. So Jesus answered Satan with a quote from Moses, taken from Deuteronomy 8:2-3.
Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
God’s provision of manna in the wilderness was never just about feeding physical hunger. It was always about learning to depend upon God, to hear his voice and walk in his ways. In Jesus the Messiah, God has spoken the ultimate word. This was the import of the author of Hebrews, the point he makes from the beginning of his letter:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3)
The Gospel of John also begins by revealing Jesus as the ultimate and living Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This is the same Word that became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

In John 6, Jesus fed the five thousand with two small fish and five barley loaves. After his ministry that day, he crossed over to the other side of the Galilee. The crowds came looking for him again the next day. Jesus said,
Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. (John 6:26-27)
They were after physical bread … and a parlor show — reminiscent of the devil’s temptation: “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (John 6:30-31). Jesus answered,
Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. (John 6:32-33)
He spoke of a very different kind of bread, one that comes down into the world and for the world, not merely from the world. And a different appetite now began to awaken in them, even if only a little. “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread” (John 6:34). Then Jesus identified what that bread is:
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. (John 6:35-38)
The bread that endlessly nourishes and refreshes and sustains us is not that which is magically turned from stones. It is the Lord Jesus himself, the Word become flesh, the Son of God who came down from heaven not to do his own will — much less the challenge of Satan — but the will of the Father who sent him. He is the bread by which we live the life of the age to come, even now in this present age.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Seasons of Hermitage

Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was “led” by the Spirit out into the wilderness. Mark says that the Spirit “sent” or “drove” Jesus out into the wilderness. Sometimes we are led, and we simply follow, trusting in God to watch over us wherever this leading may take us. Other times we are driven, thrust into some season of loss or grief or other difficulty, without even having the choice to follow. Either way, God is there with us. And if we are living in dependence upon him, it will make no difference whether we are led or driven.

The Greek word for “wilderness” is eremos, which is where we get the word “hermit.” It has to do with what is desolate, solitary, lonely, uninhabited. Sometimes we seek solitude and stillness, away from the business of life. Sometimes we are called or led into it for a time of fellowship with God, away from the distractions we daily face. Other times, we are cast into it by circumstances and driven to dependence upon God.

However it may be, God is always with us, even when we cannot make out his presence. All may seem darkness and night around us but God sees us just as clearly as if it were noonday — not only sees, but watches over us in loving care. We can know him even in the dark, with Christ and in the Spirit, and so learn to love and trust him more.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Driven by the Spirit, Tested by the Devil

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (Mark 1:12-13)
All three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) give account of the Temptation in the Wilderness. All three note that Jesus was led there by the Holy Spirit and all three report that Jesus was tempted by the devil.

Mark’s account is very brief. You can read it in full above. He does not detail what the temptations were or describe how Jesus overcame them, as Matthew and Luke do. He simply but powerfully gives the highlights in an economy of words. Let’s examine them closer.

At once. Other versions translate this as “immediately.” In Mark’s telling, the Temptation comes right after Jesus’ baptism (in Mark 1:9-11). There is an urgency here which is further indicated by the next phrase.

The Spirit sent him out into the wilderness. Other versions say that the Spirit “drove him out” into the wilderness. The Greek word is ekballo and means to cast out, send out, drive out. There is a forcefulness to it. Matthew and Luke, in their accounts, say that Jesus was led by the Spirit but Mark emphasizes the he was driven by the Spirit. What happened out in the desert was something that had to happen. There was something very significant and definitive about it.

He was in the wilderness forty days. The number “forty” itself indicates a time of testing, just as Israel was tested in the wilderness for forty years before it entered into the Promised Land. It also indicates a time of preparation, just as Moses stayed up on the mountain of the Lord for forty days and nights, receiving from God the “words of the covenant,” that is, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:18 and Deuteronomy 9:11). And then again a second time (Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 9:18, 25). Elijah, also, fasted and wandered the wilderness for forty days and nights until he came to that same mountain to receive the word of the Lord (1 Kings 19:8).

Being tempted by Satan. The Greek word satana means “adversary,” one who opposes another in a contrary purpose. Satan came to “tempt” Jesus, to test him. Matthew and Luke refer to him as the devil. The Greek word is diabolos, which means one who accuses or slanders. Satan was attempting to oppose Jesus, to accuse him and turn him from his godly purpose. At this point in their narratives, Matthew and Luke describe the three temptations and show how Jesus overcame Satan. But Mark identifies the victory for us in a very different way, which we will now see.

He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. It is not just that Jesus was “with the wild animals” but, more importantly, it is that “angels attended him.” The two statements, taken together, recall the story of Daniel in the lion’s den — with the wild animals — and how he prevailed. When King Darius hurried down early the next morning to see if Daniel’s God was able to deliver him, Daniel answered: “My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, Your Majesty” (Daniel 6:22).

In the wilderness temptation, angels attended Jesus and shut the mouths of the “wild animals.” Likening the devil to a hungry lion, Peter reminds us, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). In the temptation, Jesus defeated that lion and shut his mouth. Angels attended him, just as they did Daniel, and Jesus’ innocence and purity was demonstrated, just as Daniel’s had been. In other words, Jesus passed the test.

But what does all this mean for you and me? Quite simply, this: Jesus’ victory over the devil and his temptations is our victory over the devil and his temptations. Because everything Jesus has done, he has done on our behalf — that is the point of the incarnation, the reason God became man. The author of Hebrews explains it this way:
Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted … For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15-16)
Jesus’ victory over the devil in the wilderness was nailed home at the cross, where Jesus “disarmed the principalities and powers” (Colossians 2:15) and “destroyed him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).
Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. (Romans 8:33-35, 37)
The accuser could not make it stick against Jesus. He cannot make it stick against us. Jesus has more than conquered him — defeated him thoroughly and decisively — and in Jesus, we too are more than conquerors. There is now no condemnation or accusation — that matter has been settled. Jesus intercedes for us and through him we can approach the throne of God with the confidence of faith, not only to receive mercy but to find grace that will see us through any test.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Random Thoughts in Lent

Some thoughts in the season of Lent, culled from my random file. About baptism, repentance, discipleship … and the impossible Christian life. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Many have been tweets and updates. Offered for your edification, inspiration and preparation in this season.
  • Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent remind us that we are the dust of the earth ~ and the breath of God.
  • The point of Ash Wednesday is to reckon ourselves dead to sin but alive to God through King Jesus the Messiah.
  • Lent is a good time to take time ~ to watch, listen and think about what King Jesus is doing in the world ... and what he wants to do through you.
  • Lent is an opportunity to enter into the purpose, passion and power of the Lord Jesus Christ, and be made more like Him.
  • What to give up for Lent: The vain struggle to overcome sin. It has already been overcome by Jesus the Messiah. Dwell on that.
  • The fast God desires is a fast that never ends, an ongoing process of faith being formed by the love of God and expressed through love for others.
  • Embrace your doubt in faith, like the man who came to Jesus for healing for his son (Mark 9:24). Here’s a simple breath prayer. Breathe in: “Lord, I believe.” Breathe out: “Help my unbelief.”
  • The Christian life is impossible. Only Christ can live it — and he comes to live it in you. Let him.
  • Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of John are, “What do you seek?”
  • A disciple is someone who is learning to live in the reality of King Jesus.
  • In the humility of baptism, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world identified with the people who very much needed to have their sin taken away.
  • The power of baptism is not that I was baptized but that I am baptized, and the life of Christ is mine — now and always.
  • Baptism is an epiphany, a revelation of Jesus Christ. When you’ve had an epiphany, it changes everything. It changes you and you can’t go back to the way things were before.
  • I am baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — and that is a wonderful fellowship to be immersed in.
  • The most fearful thing that can happen to a person is for God to let him have his own way.
  • Lord, fill me with the desire for You. Fill me with the desire for the things You desire. Then fill all those desires. Amen.
  • Repentance is turning to God, away from dependence on everything that isn’t God. Every day is a good day to repent and learn to trust God more.
  • Discipleship is learning to live daily in the reality of King Jesus and the love of God.
  • Today I am living out of the new creation and ignoring the remnant echoes of the old.
  • Today I silence all the voices that speak out against me. The blood of King Jesus declares much better things over me.
  • The devil is defeated. King Jesus reigns. See everything through that lens and dwell on that reality.
  • Lent is not a “Spiritual Strongman” competition, a season for striving to prove our mettle. It is for knowing our weakness and finding our strength in Christ.
More random thoughts …