Who’s the Boss?

The disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! (Matthew 18:1-7)

The disciples thought Jesus would answer their question with someone’s name. Perhaps they thought he would say God, or maybe name himself. In their hearts, each disciple may have hoped to hear his own name.

The disciples’ question rose from false presuppositions. They thought they knew what the kingdom of God was: a descendent of David sitting on an earthly throne, ruling from Jerusalem, the new world capital. They imagined something like the Roman Empire, only bigger and badder. Who would be the greatest in such an earthly kingdom? The obvious answer would be someone rich, or someone famous, someone who had performed great deeds, subdued armies. Perhaps a general. Certainly someone of significance.

Jesus pulled the rug out from everyone’s expectations when he brought a child over and announced “this one.”

How could that be? Children were unimportant and powerless. How could the greatest in the kingdom of heaven be like that? Like a little kid?

Because that’s what Jesus was like. He was the Son of God. He was like a little kid. He arrived not to do his own will, but the will of his Father who had sent him. He accomplished nothing on his own, but only what his Father did through him. People who focused their attention on God and others, rather than themselves, people who were easily ignored—those were the ones who were greatest.

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No Way

Jesus made it clear to his disciples that it was now necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, submit to an ordeal of suffering at the hands of the religious leaders, be killed, and then on the third day be raised up alive. Peter took him in hand, protesting, “Impossible, Master! That can never be!”

But Jesus didn’t swerve. “Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works.”

Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

“Don’t be in such a hurry to go into business for yourself. Before you know it the Son of Man will arrive with all the splendor of his Father, accompanied by an army of angels. You’ll get everything you have coming to you, a personal gift. This isn’t pie in the sky by and by. Some of you standing here are going to see it take place, see the Son of Man in kingdom glory.” (Matthew 16:21-28)

Are Peter and the Devil the same person? When Jesus referred to Peter as Satan, he was not making an identification of who Peter was. He didn’t mean that Peter was suddenly possessed by the Devil. Rather, Jesus meant that Peter’s statement was the sort of thing that Satan would say.

Peter, along with most Jewish people of the time, believed that the Messiah would be leading a triumphant revolt against the hated Roman occupiers. A dying Messiah didn’t fit his expectations, so Peter rejected Jesus’ words. And Satan’s expectations of the Messiah were the same as Peter’s. Satan, too, expected Jesus to lead a rebellion against the Romans. Satan, too, expected Jesus to establish the kingdom of God on Earth, with the Davidic monarchy restored to all its glory. Neither Peter nor Satan knew what Jesus was actually planning to do. Peter, by his well-intentioned words, was attempting to thwart God’s plan in the same way Satan hoped to thwart God’s plan.

Protecting someone from death is a good thing, unless it’s Jesus who is dying to save us from our sins. Sometimes the right thing feels wrong. You have to be guided by love and you have to listen to God.

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You Need to Eat

Jesus passed through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”

He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those who were with him were hungry—how he entered the house of God, and they ate the sacred bread, which is not lawful for him or for those with him to eat, but only for the priests? Or haven’t you read in the Law that on Sabbath days the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here! If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-8)

God doesn’t love rules. He loves people. And some rules really are made to be broken. God told his people to keep the Sabbath. And he told his priests what all their duties were. So sometimes the priests violated God’s Sabbath and never felt guilty about it. They sometimes had to offer sacrifices on the Sabbath. And sometimes they had to perform circumcisions on the eighth day after a birth, even if that eighth day was the Sabbath.

So Jesus told his critics that they had forgotten the whole purpose of the Sabbath, which was simply that people needed time off. The need to satisfy hunger took precedence over the minutia of the law. Just as David and his men, fleeing from Saul for their lives, needed food for their journey and took what they could find, so the disciples were doing nothing wrong by eating a few grains of wheat from a field as they walked along. The prohibition of “working on the Sabbath” could not be allowed to prevent people from doing what needed to be done.

Jesus claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath. What does that mean? His use of the term “Lord” didn’t just mean that he was the boss. When Jews said the word “Lord” they meant “God.” Jesus told his critics that he was God and since he approved of what the disciples were doing, the discussion was over.

The rules aren’t supposed to get in the way of us doing what’s right.

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“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”

Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?”
But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.

After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” (Matthew 3:11-17)

If we really believed that God loved us we’d never resist his will. Jesus was concerned only with doing what his Father wanted. Human beings, in contrast, are generally more concerned with only doing what they want.

John knew that the Messiah was coming. John saw himself as God’s servant, as a human being of limited consequence. It made no sense to him that Jesus should ask him—or any other human being—for baptism. Rather, John saw only his own need for redemption; he was aware only of his own failings. And that prevented him from seeing beyond himself to what someone else might need—in this case, Jesus’ need to begin his public ministry, to receive, not the baptism of repentance that John had been giving everyone else, but rather the baptism given to those who were becoming rabbis. There were many sorts of baptisms regularly performed in Judaism: for conversion, for ceremonial cleansing, and for those becoming rabbis or priests. John, because of his focus, because of his own needs, had trouble seeing beyond his own habitual patterns.

Because of our fallen nature, we tend to think of things only in terms of what’s in it for us, or what we’re used to. Rather than being like Jesus, who saw things only in terms of what his Father wanted.

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“ I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:11-19)

Joy is not the same as happiness. Joy lasts longer and runs deeper: it’s happiness on steroids. Jesus prayed that his disciples—you and I—would have the joy Jesus had. Jesus was God, creator of the universe and owner of a bunch of cattle on a bunch of hills–so that’s some good joy.

On the night Jesus was betrayed, he told his Father that he was “no longer in the world.” He knew that he was about to die. So he focused on those who would remain in the world after he was gone: his disciples. Jesus did not pray that they would become wealthy, have power and fame, or live in big houses. He asked for something better: that they would be protected, not from poverty or pain, but from the Evil One. Jesus asked that they would be “sanctified.”

What does “sanctified” mean? It means to be devoted to God and his purposes. Sanctification isn’t just a matter of righteousness, which comes from God. Sanctification means that they would do God’s work and be used for God’s purposes, whatever those purposes might be.
You are devoted to God. You belong to him. You are his property, his prized possession. Watch and see what wonderful things he’ll do with you.

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What He Said

The whole body of got up and brought Him before Pilate. And they began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.”

So Pilate asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And He answered him and said, “It is as you say.”

Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.”

But they kept on insisting, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching all over Judea, starting from Galilee even as far as this place.”

When Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who himself also was in Jerusalem at that time.

Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him. (Luke 23:1-8)

Just because you do what God wants, doesn’t mean you won’t be punished. Israel’s religious establishment was attempting to get Jesus executed for being the leader of a rebellion. Hadn’t Jesus just admitted his guilt by answering Pilate’s question with a “yes?” Why then did Pilate conclude that he was not guilty?

Pilate could see through the accusations and understood that the disagreement between Jesus and his accusers was purely religious. And the Roman government had absolutely no interest in getting involved with religious disputes. Therefore, Pilate saw no point in entertaining the charges.

When he learned that Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate thought he might be able to solve his problem by making him someone else’s problem. Herod was in charge of Galilee. Pilate, who only had jurisdiction in Judea, wasn’t responsible for Galileans. But Herod just sent him back.

Pilate, like most government officials anywhere, was concerned primarily with keeping his job. The issue of Jesus could easily blow up in his face. In the end, for the sake of for civil order and thereby keeping his job, he was willing to sacrifice Jesus.

Pilate carried out the will of Jesus’ Father: Jesus was supposed to die on that Roman cross. Pilate actually made the right choice. But he did it for all the wrong reasons and in all the wrong ways. Just because you do God’s will doesn’t mean you’re not doing the wrong thing.

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“The Spirit will come and show the people of this world the truth about sin and God’s justice and the judgment. The Spirit will show them that they are wrong about sin, because they didn’t have faith in me. They are wrong about God’s justice, because I am going to the Father, and you won’t see me again. And they are wrong about the judgment, because God has already judged the ruler of this world.

I have much more to say to you, but right now it would be more than you could understand. The Spirit shows what is true and will come and guide you into the full truth. The Spirit doesn’t speak on his own. He will tell you only what he has heard from me, and he will let you know what is going to happen. The Spirit will bring glory to me by taking my message and telling it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine. That is why I have said that the Spirit takes my message and tells it to you.” (John 16:8-15)

We don’t need to do the Holy Spirit’s job. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was a part of the creation, hovering over the primeval waters of the Great Deep. The Holy Spirit empowered prophets, judges, kings, priests, and artisans. But after the resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was about to take on a new task.

And what was that task? Jesus said the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. What is sin? To not believe in Jesus. What is righteousness? Jesus returning to the Father. What is judgment? Satan standing condemned.

What does that mean? Because Jesus died for the sins of the world, Satan has been defeated and condemned. Because Jesus died, rejecting what Jesus accomplished is the definition of sin. Since the Holy Spirit could not come until Jesus left, righteousness in the lives of people was the consequence of Jesus leaving: his departure allowed the Spirit free reign in their lives. The Spirit would then convict people of sin, lead them to repentance, and change them so that their behavior was righteous.

The Holy Spirit is real and powerful. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need our help. We don’t have to make up rules, or establish supervision, in order to force people—or ourselves—behave better. You can’t have the Holy Spirit in you without that having a profound impact on your behavior.

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Help is Coming

“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

“All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you.

“Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 15:26-16:7)

Wherever God is, there is his kingdom. The promised Counselor was the Holy Spirit, whose purpose was to testify about Jesus. Jesus also warned his disciples to expect persecution, ranging from expulsion from the synagogues, to actual physical harm. The Jewish people revolted against Rome barely forty years later. The Christians—still mostly all Jews—refused to participate, so the Sanhedrin officially expelled them all.

Jesus let them know ahead of time so that they could understand that what they faced was not something God didn’t anticipate. Like a dog at the vet, who can see nothing and understand nothing beyond the discomfort and pain, the poking and prodding without ever understanding the reason for the situation, so Jesus was attempting to let his disciples see the bigger picture. He wanted them to understand that as painful as it might be, God was always with them.

We don’t have to face the problems of life by ourselves. Jesus is always with us, because his Spirit lives inside of us. We’re never separated from God’s kingdom.

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Bright Lights

Then Jesus spoke to them again: “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.”

So the Pharisees said to Him, “You are testifying about Yourself. Your testimony is not valid.”

“Even if I testify about Myself,” Jesus replied, “My testimony is valid, because I know where I came from and where I’m going. But you don’t know where I come from or where I’m going. You judge by human standards. I judge no one. And if I do judge, My judgment is true, because I am not alone, but I and the Father who sent Me judge together. Even in your law it is written that the witness of two men is valid. I am the One who testifies about Myself, and the Father who sent Me testifies about Me.”

Then they asked Him, “Where is Your Father?”

“You know neither Me nor My Father,” Jesus answered. “If you knew Me, you would also know My Father.” He spoke these words by the treasury, while teaching in the temple complex. But no one seized Him, because His hour had not come. (John 8:12-20)

Many people fear the dark. Jesus offered to get rid of what we fear. At the time of creation, God created light from the darkness and provided the sun and moon to give light by day and night. Jesus claims to be the light of the world, not in a literal, physical sense like the sun or moon, but in a metaphorical sense. By “light of life” Jesus means that he is able to give meaning and purpose to people. He can give them the direction they need for making better decisions.

Bad things happen to people in life just because life is that way. But sometimes bad things happen to people because they make poor decisions. Jesus announced that he could bring people out of such darkness. The past bad decisions did not have to mean that your future would necessarily have to be dark, too. The Pharisees, in the dark but not realizing it, cringed from the light that Jesus offered. Jesus told them that he and his father were offering them a unified way to life.

Jesus said that he and his Father were one. If you know the Son, you know the Father and vice versa. Because the religious leaders didn’t really know God, they failed to recognize the Son just the same. The Pharisees continue to stumble about in the darkness.

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“If I were to testify on my own behalf, my testimony would not be valid. But someone else is also testifying about me, and I assure you that everything he says about me is true. In fact, you sent investigators to listen to John the Baptist, and his testimony about me was true. Of course, I have no need of human witnesses, but I say these things so you might be saved. John was like a burning and shining lamp, and you were excited for a while about his message. But I have a greater witness than John—my teachings and my miracles. The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me. And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you.” (John 5:31-38)

Who are you going to believe? My words or your lying eyes? Affirming something doesn’t make it so. When the Iraqi Information Minister stood before the cameras claiming that no American troops were in Baghdad, the rumble of tanks in the background made it hard for anyone to take him seriously.

In the Old Testament, Moses specified that for a crime to be proven there had to be at least two witnesses. A lone witness to an event could not be trusted. A single witness could be mistaken or malevolently biased. Jesus agreed with his critics, therefore, that if he alone were claiming to be the Messiah, it proved nothing.

But Jesus wasn’t the only one claiming he was the Messiah. John the Baptist claimed Jesus was the Messiah. But even more powerfully, the twin witnesses of his words and his miracles were enough to prove that the Father had sent him.

The fact that the religious establishment was standing as a witness against Jesus did not prove that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah. Instead, it demonstrated the spiritual bankruptcy of the religious establishment of Israel. If they had really been the people of God, then they would recognize God when he showed up. Their failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah—and their failure to actually keep God’s words—demonstrated that they were clueless about God.

You can deny reality only for so long. Eventually it catches up with you.

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