Believest Thou This?

John 11 (KJV)

In the Gospel of John, there is the curious story of Lazarus. Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, were good friends of Jesus. There are other stories throughout the gospels of Jesus interacting with this family. But this story appears only in John’s gospel, and it contains some details that raise several questions.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The story begins with an urgent message. Lazarus is gravely ill, and the sisters send word to Jesus to come quickly. Yet Jesus seems to dismiss the message, saying that it is not a sickness that will end in death, and he lingers two days before he decides to begin the journey toward Bethany. There is no sense of panic or urgency in Jesus’s response. And, though it says he loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he seems unmoved by their obvious distress.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. The two sisters both mention, with some bitterness, that if Jesus had come sooner, their brother need not have died. Jesus never gets defensive, but he challenges the sisters about their faith. In his exchange with Martha, he says that her brother will rise again. She agrees that he will rise again in the resurrection at the end of time. But Jesus redirects her faith–“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (v. 25b-26). Her statement of faith, in spite or her grief and bitterness, prompts her to act. She goes to find her sister and bring her to the Savior, that she might be comforted.

Martha’s faith is small comfort in the circumstances. Her brother is still dead. His body lies rotting in a nearby cave. Her faith is fixed in the distant future, even as the author of Life and Eternity stands next to her. Her belief is wispy– more of a wish or a dream than the solid God-in Flesh standing before her.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

Yet Jesus chose to use this seeming defeat as a showcase for His power to give life and resurrection. Many people who saw this were transformed and put their trust in Him. Others saw Jesus’ growing ministry as a threat to their own power and authority. They reacted with fear and even anger, that Jesus would bring the miraculous into their well-ordered normality. The Pharisees, including the chief priest, Caiaphas, determined that Jesus must die in order to “save” them from the Romans. Instead of seeing Him as the agent of their eternal salvation, they saw Him as an obstacle to their limited “freedom” to operate under the Roman oppression.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

What is my faith like as I pray today? Do I believe that God “could’ve” or “should’ve” solved a problem in my past? Do I believe that God is not acting fast enough or decisively enough? Do I have a wispy faith that God will make all things right in Heaven, but is uninterested in the “here and now?” Do I believe that God’s answers might upset my life or cause me to “lose” control?

God, as you challenge my faith, help me to declare even my weak and imperfect belief; help me to act on it, and bring others to you for comfort. For in doing, so, I may be preparing the way for an incredible miracle– for revival and renewal; for the glory of Your great Name! And help me to see your answers through eyes of faith, and not fear of the unknown. Help me to trust you for the future I cannot see– a future that is in your capable and loving hands.

Photo by Brett Schaberg on Pexels.com

Render Unto Caesar…

I don’t like paying bills. Utility bills, insurance premiums, credit cards, and taxes– property tax, income tax, even sales tax. Every month, the bills come, and the checks go. And if we don’t pay the bills on time, there is an extra fee and interest charges.

Photo by Alexander Dummer on Pexels.com

I just finished paying off a student loan from over a decade ago. The original loan was compounded by interest, and it took longer to pay off than a car loan for a larger amount! Bills and fees and payment schedules are not unusual or unexpected in this world. And we pay (if and when we can) because we are honest and upright citizens. It is a duty, but not a pleasure.

Jesus even had to pay taxes. He was asked about it– even challenged over it. The Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus into taking a stance and offending many of His followers or running afoul of the Roman government. They asked, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17)(https://biblia.com/bible/esv/matthew/22/15-22) Of course, if Jesus said it was right to pay taxes, He would anger those who were fighting to be free of Roman oppression. Paying taxes to Caesar, in effect, legitimized Roman occupation and subjugation of the Jews. Much of the tax money was used to extend Rome’s control over the Jews, and to pay the soldiers and officials who made life miserable for Jesus’ followers on a daily basis. And it was common knowledge that many tax collectors were corrupt and cheated the people to line their own pockets, as well. The Romans worshiped countless gods and goddesses, but had no respect for the God of Israel. It was humiliating, and burdensome, and unjust to pay taxes. And yet, if Jesus said it was NOT right to pay taxes, He would be inciting open rebellion against the Roman occupation. He and His followers were be arrested and killed.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

But Jesus did not fall into the Pharisees’ trap. He asked to see a common coin. He asked whose face and likeness were on the coin. “Caesar’s.” And then Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

I was reminded as I opened bills and wrote checks earlier this week, that I do NOT receive a bill from God. I owe God everything– my life, my next breath, my health, my hope of eternal life. Yet He never sends me a bill, or an overdue statement. He charges no interest, or late fees, even when I let distractions keep me from giving Him the praise and honor that is due to Him. Even when I choose to go through my day without sharing my heart’s longings with Him.

I may not like paying bills, but I do it. I “render unto Caesar,” even as I complain about taxes and interest fees. But do I “render unto God what is God’s?” And when I do, is my attitude the same as it is when paying bills? God forbid!

God never cheats; He never asks for something He doesn’t deserve. And He has given me far more than I could ever ask or imagine, through the power that is at work IN ME! God doesn’t give loans– He gives gifts of eternal value.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What can I render unto God today? Surely I can give Him praise, and share His grace and goodness with others…it isn’t impossible. It isn’t beyond my duty. It isn’t isn’t even “taxing!”

Sticks and Stones

Last time Any One Who Is Without Sin…, I looked at a few verses in the gospel of John (8: 1-11), and wrote on four insights. Today, I’d like to look at some practical implications.

Photo by Harrison Haines on Pexels.com
  • If I am “part of the crowd” following Jesus, how easily do I get distracted by the “Pharisees” and critics? How often do I wander off track, looking at fine points in the scriptures that fit a particular argument? How often do I get caught up in senseless debates, allowing myself to be offended or riled up? Over the past several weeks, I have seen arguments via FB , e-mail, or other social media sites where Christians are using Bible verses, Church traditions, the U.S. Constitution, and other teachings and documents to defend such things as wearing a face mask, defying executive orders, practicing (or not practicing) social distancing, and condemning family, friends, and neighbors for taking a different view. We live in a society that reacts– often instantly and with confidence in our own morality– instead of listening and contemplating. We like building strong arguments to defend…scripture? tradition? interpretation? Jesus did none of these things when confronted by this mob. He didn’t dismantle their argument with more argument– he simply got to the heart of the matter– how to deal with Sin.
  • How often do I come to Jesus “knowing” the answer before I ask the question? The Pharisees in the story were not really interested in Jesus’ thoughts or wisdom concerning the situation at hand. They assumed that Jesus would have to answer in only one of two ways, and that either way, he would look bad. I may not be trying to “trap” Jesus with my prayers, but often, I AM trying to seek his confirmation, rather than his wisdom and teaching. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 NRSV) Many times, I am busier “loving” how much I know than learning how much God loves!
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com
  • For me, one of the most amazing new insights about this passage is that once Jesus introduces the phrase, “Any one who is without sin…” everyone leaves– everyone except the one who has been caught in the act of sinning, and the One who has always been without sin. Dealing with Sin is a very personal thing– both confronting our own sinfulness, and acknowledging God’s perfect righteousness. Everyone in the original crowd came to hear Jesus teach. And they were comfortable letting someone else be humiliated and condemned for her sin. But when their own unrighteousness was introduced into the situation–secret sins, unconfessed sins, pride, prejudice, and more–they melted away. How often do I slink away, unwilling or ungrateful to see Jesus show mercy to someone I find “unworthy,” knowing that I am equally undeserving, knowing that I am not “without sin?” Yet the sinful woman in question is the only one who receives the full light of Jesus’ love and mercy. Dozens of others, eager to hear Jesus’ teaching, missed the greatest lesson of all. In the very next verse, at the very next opportunity to speak, Jesus makes one of the most amazing statements in the Gospels, “12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”(John 8:12 ESV) It’s not just showing up to hear him speak; it’s not just knowing the law–it’s following him that leads to light and life.
  • Finally, Jesus grants mercy. He doesn’t split hairs about the Law of Moses. He doesn’t dismiss the reality of Sin or guilt. He doesn’t give the woman a long list of do’s and don’ts for the future or a proscribed plan of atonement. He doesn’t give her a blank check to keep sinning. The Bible doesn’t give us an epilogue to the story. We don’t hear whether or not the woman gave up her life of adultery– we assume that she did. But why? Would she have given it up because she had “dodged a bullet” with the mob? Part of the reason she was brought to Jesus in the first place was that Roman law overruled Jewish law. The mob was not likely to stone this woman– especially within the city limits. ( In fact, in the book of Acts, we have the story of Stephen, who was stoned by a mob. He was dragged out of town, after facing trial by the Sanhedrin, and stoned because of his testimony against their unbelief. ) Would the woman’s life have changed because her guilty secret had been exposed, even though she had not been condemned? Or is it more likely that her life changed because she had an encounter with the “One who is without sin,” and found in Him a love greater than condemnation? She hadn’t planned to follow Jesus. She may not have taken his teaching seriously if she had been just “one of the crowd.” She wasn’t singled out because of her beauty or righteousness or knowledge or status. But Jesus poured out on her the fullness of His love and mercy. How would/does such an encounter change my life? Yours?
Photo by Vlad Cheu021ban on Pexels.com

The Pharisees saw this woman as a pawn worthy of stoning; worthy of condemnation. They brought her, intending to throw “sticks and stones,” accusations, and painful, even fatal words. Jesus used words of healing and hope. May we do the same today– as we approach our neighbors and friends, and as we approach the Sinless one who died in our place.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Any One Who Is Without Sin…

I was re-reading a familiar passage in the gospel of John recently, and I was struck by a truth I had missed before. In the first part of John 8, there is a story about a woman caught in adultery https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A1-11&version=NIV I have read this story many times, and even heard sermons preached on this passage. What struck me this time wasn’t exactly new material, or a new reading, but a new understanding of a detail that was there all along.

The story begins with Jesus teaching a crowd of people in the temple courts in Jerusalem. His teaching is interrupted by a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. They have a woman caught in the act of adultery, and they come to Jesus asking his opinion about stoning her. They obviously know the laws of Moses, because they cite them. But they cite only a certain portion of the law, and they want Jesus to weigh in (so they can use his own words to trap him).

Photo by Sharefaith on Pexels.com

Jesus turns the tables, and passively bends down to write letters in the sand. He says only, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the accusers and the crowd– everyone except Jesus–melts away. Finally, Jesus asks who is left to condemn the woman. There is no one. Jesus refuses to condemn her, and sends her on her way, telling her to “Go, and sin no more.”

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Four details I want to highlight in this story:

  • There was already a crowd around Jesus before the Pharisees and teachers arrived. They did not bring this woman to Jesus to get an honest answer to a question, or to bring about justice (for that, they should have brought both her AND the man involved!); they brought her to a very public spot to humiliate her and trap Jesus. She was a pawn in a political and religious game, and she was guilty of a crime that was punishable by death. She was accused and forced to stand before a crowd to be condemned without a trial. So often, I read this passage, and my focus is on Jesus and the woman and the Pharisees– I forget that there is a crowd of ordinary people being “played” by the Pharisees for their own purposes.
  • Jesus never answers the question at hand. According to the laws of Moses, the woman should be stoned. That is the point the Pharisees want Jesus to address. They have set him up. If he agrees with their interpretation of the laws of Moses, he should insist that the woman be stoned. But this will be in violation of the Roman laws, and will lead to Jesus being arrested by the Romans. But if Jesus upholds the Roman law, he will be turning his back on centuries of Jewish tradition dating back to Moses. The problem is that the Pharisees have resorted to some half-truths. The laws of Moses DO speak of stoning; they speak of adultery being punishable by death– for both the man and the woman involved. However, the Priests and leaders of Israel have not followed this practice. King David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. Neither one was stoned or condemned to death. There are no records of other adulterous couples being stoned throughout Israel’s history. So it is rather disingenuous for the Pharisees to bring this case to Jesus and ask him to speak judgment where they will not. Jesus knows this is not about actual justice; it isn’t really about the law of Moses– because they are not following it themselves! By turning the tables back on them, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and failure in front of the very crowds they are trying to impress with their clever plans.
  • One by one, the woman’s accusers melt away. But it’s not just them, it’s the crowd of ordinary people– the ones who were likely riled up by the Pharisees and teachers. Think about the mob mentality–a guilty woman, caught in the act and brought before a teacher with moral authority–there is nothing like scandal to get a crowd of anonymous bystanders worked up and ready for blood. Yet, Jesus’ gentle reminder that any of us could be found “guilty” of something and condemned to shame and punishment puts out the flame of anger and resentment, and causes the mob to evaporate. No one is left to accuse, to curse, to insult, to humiliate, or condemn.
  • Finally, it’s down to Jesus and the sinful woman. There IS one person there who is without sin– one person who has the right to throw stones, to judge, to punish. Yet he reaches out with compassion and mercy. He is still righteous– he doesn’t shrug off the woman’s sin. He doesn’t say, “Well, that’s no big deal. Let’s just pretend that never happened.” or “I think you’ve learned a valuable lesson here today, young lady.” He simply says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Photo by Ivandrei Pretorius on Pexels.com

Next time, I want to address each of these details from a practical standpoint in light of modern circumstances, and what lessons I am taking from Jesus’ actions.

You Aren’t What You Eat…

There is a common English saying, “You are what you eat.” It suggests that if you eat a lot of fatty foods or sugary foods, you will suffer the consequences– you will become fat or develop health problems associated with sugar, cholesterol, etc. There is some truth to the saying, especially if a person eats such foods to excess, and does not eat a balanced diet that also includes foods high in fiber, vitamins and minerals, and other nutrients.

Photo by malcolm garret on Pexels.com

But the saying also suggests that a person’s diet determines their identity, which is not true, and often involves labeling and unfair judgment. And the judgment comes, not just based on what a person eats, but sometimes how, when, and where a person eats:
“couch potato”
“gourmand”
“junk food junkie”
“vegan”
“carnivore”
“gluten-free”
“keto”
“midnight snacker”
“carboholic”
“power foods”
“see-food diet (if I see it, I eat it!)”
“fitness diet– I’m all about fitness (fittin’this) whole pizza in my mouth!”
“picky eater”
“fast food”
“five-second rule”
etc.

The truth is, our relationship to food can indicate aspects of our personality or character, but it is not “who we are,” unless our entire life is about food. (Even for those with conditions like anorexia or bulimia that turn food and/or eating into an obsession, it is one aspect of their life–a diagnosis, not an epitaph.)

Our world today is filled with opportunities to make an idol of food and eating, diets, nutritional fads, supplements, etc. We end up ashamed of every meal– counting calories, pointing fingers at those whose eating habits don’t live up to our standards (while secretly envying them), trying to excuse (or hide) any trip through the fast food drive-thru window, feeling guilty over a candy bar, or feeling depressed when we cannot afford to eat like the people we see in magazines, in movies, or on TV. In religious circles, we champion “God-given” diets, some of which are not given by God. “What would Jesus eat?” The Daniel Diet, or The Shepherd’s Diet– these may be good principles and even helpful nutritionally, but they won’t “save” you or make God love you better than He already does.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Jesus himself addressed this question. His disciples were being singled out by the religious leaders of their day because they ate without performing the ritual handwashing ceremonies. They were declared “unclean” for eating in this manner. But Jesus saw through this criticism. It wasn’t based on God’s law, but on the human traditions that had been added over the centuries. What God had said about cleanliness and hygiene was meant for general health AND to distinguish the nation of Israel from other cultures whose eating practices were sometimes part of their worship of idols. After chastising the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, Jesus turns to the crowd:

Photo by Shohei Ohara on Pexels.com

Matthew 15:10-20 English Standard Version (ESV)

10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+15%3A10-20&version=ESV

Notice that Jesus does not say that it is healthier or better to eat with unwashed hands, nor does He say that people should eat without washing– instead, He is speaking common sense about obsessive and judgmental practices. Jesus himself followed the traditional kosher diet of His people, as did His disciples. Jesus also fasted, and recommended it as a companion to disciplined and earnest prayer.

It isn’t what we eat, or when or where that makes us who we are. Our eating habits and diets may help our bodies, but they won’t save our souls, or make us better than our neighbor. In fact, if our eating habits are more important than our neighbor–if we use them to try to manipulate, control, shame, or label our neighbor–we need to reconsider how “healthy” they really are.

Diets are not bad. Food is not bad. Pride, envy, self-righteousness– these are bad for the heart, the stomach, and the soul. Let’s be grateful for food, but even more, let’s be grateful for a God who knows us intimately and thoroughly– a God who knows that we are NOT “what we eat!”

…Cry With the Saints

Several years ago, singer and songwriter Billy Joel created some controversy with a song he wrote, called “Only the Good Die Young.”  The song was about a young man trying to convince a young catholic girl to give up her virginity.  Many were offended by some of the lyrics, and by the general tone of the song, which was sacrilegious; sneering at the notion of sexual purity and waiting for marriage.  One of the lines in the song says, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints..The sinners are much more fun.”

Full lyrics here

It may seem that way to many– Christians (along with many Jews, Muslims, and others who are sincere and spiritually-minded) seem stern and sober in comparison to free-living, fun-loving heathens.  Why should this be so?  Shouldn’t those who are closer to God experience more Joy and happiness than those who do not know Him?  Why are saints and prophets so often shown crying, wailing, and weeping bitter tears?

man wearing gray sweater in selective focus photography
Photo by Segopotso Makhutja on Pexels.com

The author of Ecclesiastes (assumed to be King Solomon) writes:

Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 (Revised Standard Version)

A good name is better than precious ointment;
    and the day of death, than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting;
for this is the end of all men,
    and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;
    but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
    than to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
    so is the laughter of the fools;
    this also is vanity.

This doesn’t mean that God wants His people to be depressed, hopeless, and constantly weeping.  But God DOES want us to be aware and to see the world as it really is– fallen, chaotic, filled with needless suffering and injustice.  Why?  Because He calls us to think about the consequences of our actions, and also to have compassion for those who are hurting.  It may be more “fun” to ignore the consequences of sin and to “live it up” if you are young and healthy, but it is not at all true that “only the good die young.”  Death comes unexpectedly and randomly– taking both good and evil, both wise and foolish.  The difference is that fools get cut off and caught off-guard.  The consequences of their actions find them unprepared and filled with regret or bitterness and pain– all of which might have been prevented if they had not ignored reality.

silhouette of graves
Photo by Micael Widell on Pexels.com

I think the song DOES have a message to Christians–while we shouldn’t be fools chasing after fleeting pleasures that leave a large wake of pain and regret and filling our lives with empty laughter, we should not “die young” in the way of the Pharisees of old.  Jesus called them “white-washed tombs” for good reason.  Their “goodness” came from self-righteousness and piety.  They shunned sinners, and chased others away with their long lists of rules and disdain for anyone who didn’t keep up appearances.  Such “saints” never cry– they are more likely to crow about their own “goodness” with dry eyes and closed fists.  Jesus attended feasts and parties with the sinners– but his heart was not for the “fun”  they were having.  It was for them– for their lost souls.  Jesus wept!  Jesus wept for the loss of his friend Lazarus; he wept over Jerusalem; he even wept tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane!

ancient art black and white close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The “Good” have many reasons to cry– millions of innocents suffer needlessly every day–abuse, slavery, genocide, abortion, bigotry, war, starvation, murder, theft, addiction, homelessness, disease, natural disasters, man-made disasters, and more fill our world.  People waste time angrily shaking their fists at Heaven or at governments, but so much of the suffering is a direct result of sinful actions on the parts of individuals.  In my own country, in my own lifetime, over 50,000,000 babies have been aborted–without legal consequence, but with a terrible consequence on the soul of our nation.  If we could shed one tear for each life lost it would equal over 660 gallons of water (here’s how I got that number  )– just one tear for each life, and those are only the abortions that have been recorded in the past 45 years in the U.S.  If we were to shed a tear for every broken marriage, every rape, every life lost to addiction, suicide, murder, or war, every violent assault, every broken promise, every lie, or every corrupt deed in our world over the past 50 years, we could fill an ocean!  The power of tears, or of any running/falling water is so great, it could generate electricity to light the nations! ( Here’s an interesting article on the power of a drop of water!)

waterfalls near gray paved road surrounded by green leaf trees during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I would far rather “cry with the saints.”  But more than that, I would rather pray with the saints, and arise from both to work with the saints–the power of tears pales in comparison with the power of God’s mercy and grace!

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑