Fruit of the Kingdom

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21:33–46)

Jesus said the cornerstone—which he identified as himself—would break those who came against it, whether they fell on it or it fell on them. The Pharisees would live to see their temple, their nation, and their power destroyed. Rather than destroying Jesus, Jesus would destroy them: he would rise from the dead and the kingdom of God would spread throughout the world. It would consist of the Jewish people together with all humanity. As Nebuchadnezzar saw in his vision of the giant statue, God would bring a rock not cut by human hands that would “crush all the kingdoms and bring them to an end, but…will itself endure forever.” (Daniel 2:44-45 NIV)

We belong to God’s kingdom. It is a kingdom over which Jesus reigns and it is not going to be stopped. That’s why Paul could write that “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

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Staying Alive

“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:

“I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Revelation 3:1–6)

Sardis was built on a mountain and its acropolis was considered impregnable. The phrase, “capturing the acropolis of Sardis” was proverbial in Greek for trying to do the impossible. Even so, it was conquered at least five times thanks to a lack of vigilance on the part of its inhabitants. Thus, Jesus’ warning about its church’s failure to recognize its dangerous situation, was striking. Likewise, Jesus uses the imagery of people not walking with “soiled” clothing and being dressed in white may grow from the fact that the city of Sardis was noted as a center for woolen goods.

In Exodus 32:32, When Moses prayed that God would blot him “out of the book you have written” if God did not forgive the Israelites, God’s response was that only those who had sinned against God would be blotted from his book. Then God “struck the people with a plague.” (Exodus 32:31-35). When Jesus warned the church that if they didn’t repent, they might be blotted from the book of life, he simply meant that they might die. The issue for the people of Sardis was not their place in heaven, but rather their continued chance for life. On occasion, God punishes his people, just as a father punishes his children.

The comfort in the letter is that God is selective in his punishment. He only punishes those who deserve it. For the rest, they will receive God’s blessing.

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Jesus, knowing everything that was about to happen to Him, went out and said to them, “Who is it you’re looking for?”

“Jesus the Nazarene,” they answered.

“I am He,” Jesus told them.

Judas, who betrayed Him, was also standing with them. When He told them, “I am He,” they stepped back and fell to the ground.

Then He asked them again, “Who is it you’re looking for?”

“Jesus the Nazarene,” they said.

“I told you I am He,” Jesus replied. “So if you’re looking for Me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the words He had said: “I have not lost one of those You have given Me.”

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. (The slave’s name was Malchus.)

At that, Jesus said to Peter, “Sheathe your sword! Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given Me?”

Then the company of soldiers, the commander, and the Jewish temple police arrested Jesus and tied Him up. (John 18:4–12)

Jesus was not surprised by his arrest. When those coming to arrest Jesus announced who they were after, Jesus identified himself with the phrase “I am he.” In Greek, it is simply the two words “I am.” Under ordinary circumstances, that would not signify anything. But given the reaction of those who came to arrest Jesus, it meant far more than just an acknowledgment that they had the right man. The phrase “I am” was also the one that God used when Moses asked him his name. According to the early church historian Eusebius, there was a popular legend of the time that the first time Moses spoke God’s name to Pharaoh, Pharaoh fell down speechless. In the Old Testament, falling down was associated with the revelation of God in Daniel 2:46 and 8:18. It also seems to be reflected in the reactions of God’s enemies in Psalm 56:9 and 27:2. Jesus therefore demonstrated, moments before his arrest, that he could not have been arrested at all without his consent. Jesus’ arrest happened because Jesus wanted it to happen. Jesus was willing to “drink the cup”—that is, to accept the will—of his Father and to die on the cross for our sins.

The trials and triumphs of our lives come without surprise to God. He knows everything we are facing today, and he knows what we are going to face tomorrow. That’s why we don’t need to ever worry about anything.

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The festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people.

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them. They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present.

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.”

They asked him, “Where do you want us to make preparations for it?”

“Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” ’ He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. (Luke 22:1–13)

Both Mark and Luke explain how Jesus told his disciples to find the place for the Last Supper. Jesus’ instructions are reminiscent of the story of Abraham’s servant who went to find a wife for Isaac. He prayed that she would be the one who drew water for both him and all his camels. So the location for the Last Supper was revealed by someone carrying water. That it was a man carrying a jar of water was unusual, since only women normally carried water for their households. Given the wording, “The teacher asks you, ‘where is the guest room’” most commentators think that Jesus had already arranged for this room.

Each year, Passover celebrated Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It was no accident that Jesus was crucified during that holiday. Just as God rescued his people from physical slavery, so Jesus would rescue his people from spiritual slavery.

Although Jesus was facing a horrible death, he worked on getting ready for the Passover celebration. Jesus did not worry about his tomorrow; he only focused on his today. He has asked us not to worry about tomorrow as well. All we have is today and that is more than enough to keep us occupied.

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Jesus answered and said, “This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.

The crowd then answered Him, “We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?”

So Jesus said to them, “For a little while longer the Light is among you. Walk while you have the Light, so that darkness will not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of Light.” (John 12:30–36)

Jesus explained that while his death would bring condemnation upon the ruler of the world, it would bring life and hope—salvation—to its people. By Jesus’ death, Satan was utterly and completely defeated and judged.

The crowd expressed confusion between what Jesus was saying and what they had been taught to believe about the Messiah. According to the teaching of the time, the Messiah was to endure forever, just as the kingdom he would restore for Israel would be an everlasting kingdom. Jesus’ solved the problem for them by explaining that the Messiah would endure forever because he would rise from the grave.

Jesus then told them to believe the light while it was here, so that they could “become sons of Light.” The darkness stood for the world without God, while “walking in the light” meant following God. Jesus alluded to the words of the prophet Isaiah who spoke of the Messiah coming from Galilee: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2 NRSV). In the famous passage about the suffering and death of the Messiah, Isaiah wrote, “After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.” (Isaiah 53:11 NIV)

We now walk in the light, even as he is in the light and even as he himself is the light—our light forevermore.

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Crazy Talk

“I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.

“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”

Therefore there was a division again among the Jews because of these sayings. And many of them said, “He has a demon and is mad. Why do you listen to Him?”

Others said, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:14–21)

Jesus had just healed a man who was blind from birth. After the religious establishment had conducted its investigation into the healing, they threw the healed man out of the synagogue and told him to never come back.

So Jesus used the healing of that man from his physical blindness to teach about the blindness that so easily afflicts human beings: their inability to see even the most obvious of spiritual truths. Sadly, those who are spiritually blind, like the religious leaders Jesus confronted, are often unaware of their disability—in contrast to the physically blind, who know it only all too well. But Jesus can open the eyes of those who are spiritually blind, even if they have been blind from birth, as easily as he can open the eyes of those who were physically blind. But Jesus was divisive. Some of the spiritually blind believed, and some didn’t. Many wrongly concluded that Jesus’ words were the ravings of a madman or worse. Blindness is a terrible thing.

The pastor and poet, John Newton wrote in Amazing Grace, “I once was blind, but now I see.” Jesus has granted us insight into the mysteries of God. What had been hidden from us, what our blind eyes had not been able to discern, Jesus has at last revealed to us, opening our eyes so that we can see.

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The Spirit

Jesus said, “I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the one who sent me. You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.”

The Jews said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we cannot find him? Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks? What did he mean when he said, ‘You will look for me, but you will not find me,’ and ‘Where I am, you cannot come’?”

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”

Others said, “He is the Christ.” (John 7:33–41)

To close out the Feast of Tabernacles, the priest took a gold vessel full of water from the stream of Shiloah that flowed under the temple mountain. As he poured it on the altar, he quoted Isaiah 12:3 (NIV): “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

That closing ceremony served as the springboard for Jesus’ proclamation that anyone who was thirsty could come to him. During his speech, Jesus alluded to a group of scriptures. There were Isaiah’s words about streams of living water flowing from within (Isaiah 44:3 and 58:11). Isaiah identified that living water as the Spirit of God (Isaiah 44:3). Jeremiah also spoke about living water flowing from God (Jeremiah 2:13, 7:13. And Zechariah 14:8 spoke of living water pouring from Jerusalem when the Messiah came. That’s why people who heard Jesus speaking that day were willing to identify him as the Messiah.

The people of Israel were intimately familiar with the words of scripture. They had heard and studied them their whole lives. When they heard Jesus speak, they heard those same words. They recognized them and understood their implications when Jesus applied them to their circumstances. The more we read and study the Bible, the more it will start to make sense to us—and the greater our depth of comprehension will be.

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Camels and Needles

An important man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?”

Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good. You know the commandments: ‘Be faithful in marriage. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not tell lies about others. Respect your father and mother.’ ”

He told Jesus, “I have obeyed all these commandments since I was a young man.”

When Jesus heard this, he said, “There is one thing you still need to do. Go and sell everything you own! Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come and be my follower.” When the man heard this, he was sad, because he was very rich.

Jesus saw how sad the man was. So he said, “It’s terribly hard for rich people to get into God’s kingdom! In fact, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s kingdom.”

When the crowd heard this, they asked, “How can anyone ever be saved?”

Jesus replied, “There are some things that people cannot do, but God can do anything.”

Peter said, “Remember, we left everything to be your followers!”

Jesus answered, “You can be sure that anyone who gives up home or wife or brothers or family or children because of God’s kingdom will be given much more in this life. And in the future world they will have eternal life.” (Luke 18:18– 30)

Saturday Night Live once performed a skit about a rich man who devoted his fortune to finding a way to fit a camel through the eye of a needle so that he could get to heaven. But neither a shrinking ray, a giant, camel-sized needle, or pureeing a camel with a giant blender quite seemed to be the solution.

Jesus’ point about the camel was to counter the prevailing notion that God’s favor or disfavor was demonstrated on the basis of one’s bank account and general prosperity. Those who were wealthy, most believed, were favored by God and therefore certain to achieve heaven. Those who were poor and sick, most believed, were just as obviously destined to be excluded from it.

Jesus taught instead that salvation came from God and was dependent upon God. The disciples wondered who could be saved. Jesus affirmed that people couldn’t do it, but that for God, it was in fact possible. We are can enter God’s kingdom because of what Jesus did on the cross and for no other reason.

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The Problem of Suffering

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

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1–9)

Jesus contradicted the popular notion taught by the religious leaders of Israel, that suffering and disaster were necessarily the judgment of God upon sinners. Instead, Jesus taught that we can do everything right, be good people, follow all the directions and disaster can still strike us.

On any given morning most people will wake up and go to work. But there will be some who go out and murder, have an affair, or embezzle money. On any given morning some people will be doing what they are supposed to do and some will not. One bright September morning three thousand people who went to work as they always did never came home again. Terrorists chose to fly airplanes into their workplaces that particular day. They were not greater sinners than all the other people on the planet. Jesus explained that bad things can happen without warning and without reason and it isn’t because God is mad at us or loves us less than those who didn’t suffer that day.

When we’re driving down the freeway and traffic slows in front of us and we put on our brakes to stop, it is not our fault when the person behind us doesn’t and plows into the back of our car. Just because we drive carefully, doesn’t mean our neighbor will drive carefully. As the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “time and chance” happen to us all (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

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”You experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

When Jesus left there, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say. (Luke 11:46–54)

What is the key to knowledge that the experts in the law took away? The experts in the law had a wrong interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures and as a consequence not only didn’t know the way to the kingdom of God, but had made it hard for anyone else to find it. Their interpretation of the scriptures had created a mass of regulations. They were preoccupied with minutiae and spent no time on the key: the love of God.

Because the experts in the law failed to recognize the preeminence of God’s love, and the love that people should have for one another, they obscured not just God’s word, but God as well, making it hard for people to see the way of salvation. Instead, all they could see were the regulations that they had no hope of keeping and the condemnation that they could see no way of escaping. The experts in the law succeeded only in making people feel guilty and hopeless, instead of showing them that God offered them hope and a way of escape because of his great love.

Jesus shows us the way to life and joy and peace. He lifts us up from our prisons, breaks our chains, and sets us free.

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