In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16
The fact that Jesus spent so much of his time with known sinners and people otherwise forgotten by the Jewish religious community brings about questions as to how we are to live as His followers.
On the one hand, we are called to be set apart…to be in the world, but not of the world. To strive to live an obedient life and avoid sin and temptation. But on the other hand, we are to go out into all the world and tell people about Jesus.
On the one hand, we do try to avoid putting ourselves in tempting situations where we know there is sinful activity or behavior. But on the other hand, we want to reach people and tell them of another way of living that brings life instead of death.
We are all sinners, no doubt. But some of us recognize it and want to change, while others are content living in it. The world is full of people who don’t see or appreciate a better way of living.
So how do we know what we are to do? One rule of thumb is to look at who would be the influencer and who would be influenced. Jesus could always enter into people’s lives and environments steeped in sin and know that He would never be influenced. He was always the influencer.
If we have a choice to enter a situation or relationship where we are more likely to have sin rubbing off on us than our love of Jesus rubbing off on those we are with, we should reconsider entering into it. Going to a party to get away from “church people” or to “have a little fun without judgment or accountability” is quite different than going to be kind and show another way of living and behaving so others will see and wonder what makes us different.
Questions: Are you more likely to be influenced or an influencer? Are there situations you know you should avoid because of weaknesses in your life?
But when he [Jesus] heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:12-13
In speaking this to the Pharisees, Jesus is fully aware that all of us are sick apart from Him. The difference is the Pharisees didn’t know it. In their minds, they had nailed the whole righteous religious thing. Jesus tells them to go and hear the meaning of these Scriptures they love and know so well, specifically pointing them to Hosea 6:6, ”I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”
In Hosea’s time, the Jewish people were going through the motions. They were offering sacrifices religiously. But they were far from God. They had no love; no mercy. These Pharisees would know Hosea by heart as Jesus quotes it.
Bound up in their religious ritual and favored social status, the Pharisees had no love; no mercy. Only rigid laws and judgment.
On the outside, the Pharisees looked perfect. Inside, their heart was hard.
On the outside, Matthew, the sinner at the tax collector booth, looked hopeless. Inside, his heart was open. He immediately follows Jesus and wants his friends to do the same.
Substance vs. show; Mercy vs. more religion; Grace vs. guilt; Love vs. lists.
Jesus invites sinners to His table. Not to judge or condemn or lecture or have their bad behavior rub off on Him, but to love in order to save. And at this table, the invited find healing, life, hope. As they get up from this table, they desire nearness to God, obedience, a life that bears good fruit, and for their friends to join them at the table.
Questions: What do you think it means to someone to have a person love them in their mess? Why do you think love and relationships are so important to people seeing and knowing Jesus? How can we display this in our lives?
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. Matthew 9:9
Well off, but despised, sitting at his booth. A traitor. A sinner. An extortioner. Passersby glance the other way, hoping not to get harassed. Whispers of judgment hardly quiet from the Pharisees in their elaborate religious get up. One man doesn’t look away or condemn. He sees potential. Jesus says simply, “Follow me.”
Not likely, one would think. Why would a businessman not concerned with religious rituals follow a simple traveling teacher? But not so of this businessman. Matthew rises and follows.
Not only does Matthew rise and follow, but he also invites his friends and associates – fellow sinners – to come and recline; to come and eat with this teacher who saw something in him no one else did. Something the Pharisees would never do or condone.
This brings about the questions Jesus already knows is in the heart of the Pharisees, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11)
Rather than demonstrating God’s love and grace – God’s invitation to FOLLOW HIM, the religious leaders of the day avoid, ridicule, and shun those they deem sinners. They see Jesus calling Matthew and eating with his fellow sinner friends and think, why would this supposed teacher associate with “those” unclean people?
Sadly today, as Christians, we can often do the same. We can remain in our Christian bubbles and avoid the “sinners.” But we are all sinners, and in condemning rather than extending Jesus’s invitation to follow Him, people who need Jesus just as much as we do never meet Him.
Questions: What reaction do you generally see from Christians to people they deem sinners? How do you think this impacts their desire to follow Jesus? What do you think non-Christians think about Christians in general? Is their view justified or off-base?
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4:18-20
Jesus begins His ministry with the same words as John the Baptist, the messenger preparing the way, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Two messages: Repent FOR the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The awaited Savior and king has arrived. The kingdom is at hand. A new eternal kingdom, and it starts right now!
Jesus begins by calling disciples, or students. People who will carry on His ministry after His mission on earth is fulfilled. They will walk with Him and learn from Him and receive instructions from Him.
Who would you pick to be on your team? The most qualified? The most educated? Those with the most experience? Those with the most financial resources? The strongest, smartest, best looking, savviest speakers?
Like we saw in the Old Testament when God selected prophets and the first kings, God sees things differently than we do. He sees inside not outside; He sees our potential not our current circumstances.
Jesus selects an unlikely group of students. Fishermen, tax collectors (despised by the Jewish people), ordinary people with no formal education or training.
In this new kingdom, things aren’t the same as in the world. God sees our hearts. He sees what He created us to be. He sees our potential. He picks us when the world might otherwise overlook us. He says, “Follow me.” Our job is to say, “Yes, Lord. Here I am.”
Questions: What characteristics would you look for in picking your team? Why do you think Jesus chose the crew He chose to be His students? Do you believe that God also chooses you? Are you ready to follow Him?
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4:1
Just after Jesus was publicly declared the beloved Son of God, He is led away to be tempted by the devil. Be alert, friends! I firmly believe the devil pulls out his best moves when we are on the brink of God using us for something big. If you are feeling especially tempted, a huge blessing and calling may be patiently waiting on the other side of your overcoming.
The temptation of Jesus calls out the devil’s strategies, and more importantly, how we can overcome them. You see, the devil is sneaky, but he is also predictable. Three temptations are thrust upon Jesus. Familiar temptations in the devil’s playbook. 1 John 2:16 sums them up, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” These were the same temptations used against Adam and Eve to thrust sin into the world and give the devil a temporary authority over it.
The devil knows our weaknesses…using our gifts for selfish purposes, lusting after and coveting things that aren’t ours to have, needing to prove ourselves, and striving for power and self-glorification.
Adam and Eve failed their temptation by the devil. We do too at times. But Jesus never did and He shows us a way to overcome. Jesus doesn’t resort to some supernatural power unique to Him to combat the devil’s temptations…He uses something available to us too: He is prepared with prayer and fasting before the temptation comes and He uses the Word of God to fight the devil. In response to each of the three temptations thrust upon Jesus by the devil, Jesus quotes Scripture.
Prepare yourself now, before temptation comes, in prayer and abiding with God. When temptation comes – and it will – have Scripture handy. Then with open eyes and an obedient heart, be on the lookout for God’s next assignment that perhaps the devil was trying to keep you from.
Challenge: Commit a Scripture verse or two to memory to help fight temptation when it comes.
He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:30
Have you ever felt really in your element? God nudged you to start something and you did. People pay attention and respond. It just feels right.
But then something or someone enters the scene and things begin to change. Attention is shifted. Audiences decrease. You wonder what happened. You clearly heard God call you to this. Why doesn’t it seem to be successful anymore? You question your role.
The disciples of John the Baptist are going through this same identity crisis. They love the Lord. They have been part of John’s ministry for some time now. People are coming from all over, repenting, and being baptized.
But then Jesus comes. It is joyful at first as they hear their beloved teacher announce that Jesus is the Messiah they have been waiting for. They witness the Holy Spirit descending on Him and the voice of God speak as Jesus is baptized by John. They are part of something big and beautiful.
Until their crowds start to decrease. The attention disappears. People are flocking to Jesus instead of them.
They still love the Lord; they are still all in, but somewhere along the way, they have tangled up their role with the true reward. John, their teacher, tries to re-shift their focus upward…the one they have been preparing the way for has come. Jesus is to be glorified, not us.
Sometimes our role or assignment or passion can become our god and even our work for Jesus can take the place of Jesus in our heart. Jon Bloom says, “We must remember that our role is not our reward. Jesus is our reward. Roles will begin and they will end. And the only way for us to end well is if in our heart Jesus has increased and we have decreased.”
Questions: God’s Word is such a gift and opportunity for self-evaluation. In the excitement of a role, have you ever forgotten the true reward? Have your roles (even those for Jesus) become the reward you are seeking instead of Jesus? Is your goal always to point to Him and glorify Him?
I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Matthew 3:11
Jesus comes to be baptized by John (HIs cousin), not because He is in need of repenting and forgiveness, but as part of what was spoken about Him by the prophets. When Jesus arrives, John knows instantly that He is the one.
We don’t know much about what happened between the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’s birth and the start of His public ministry (roughly 30 years). I wonder if He ever interacted with His cousin, John, or if His family often saw little glimpses of His holiness during his childhood and teen years. However it went down in the private spaces among the family and friends of Jesus, His holiness can’t be contained much longer.
Something incredible happens at the moment of Jesus’s baptism...
I often wonder what it must be like to have God publicly declare you His Child with whom He is well pleased. But here’s the cool thing: because of what Jesus accomplished for us, WE ARE His sons and daughters too. He calls us beloved. In us, He is well pleased…in all our slip-ups, sins, mistakes, shortcomings, and quirks, Jesus’s blood covers it all. When God looks at us, He sees Jesus. We aren’t a failure or disappointment to Him. When we repent of our sins and accept Jesus as our Savior, the Holy Spirit descends on us too. And God looks at us and says, “[Insert YOUR name], my beloved son/daughter, with whom I am well pleased.”
Challenge: Write and repeat these words today, inserting your name…“[Insert name], my beloved son/daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” Reflect on these words from God to you.
And he [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke 3:3
Many are coming to be baptized by John – the one prophesied about crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.
“What then shall we do?” the multitudes ask John the Baptist. The ordinary. Poor. Oppressed. The same question comes from the wealthy…the ones who got that way often via extortion. And the soldiers -- the strong and powerful; the bullies and oppressors -- also chime in, asking the same. Newly baptized and repentant, they all ask, “what now?”
Repentance puts us all on the same playing field. Three vastly different backgrounds and social statuses, one unifying question upon repentance: what then shall we do? The responses differ for the different groups, but they all relate to possessions. How we covet our possessions and possessions of others; how we use our power; how we use our influence; how we treat those around us and the less fortunate.
To the poor among the crowds: if you have an extra tunic, share it with one who has none. Likewise, if you have food. What little you have, share even that. To the wealthy tax collectors: collect no more than is authorized. Don’t cheat. Deal fairly in business. To the soldiers: don’t extort money by threats and false accusations; be content with what you have. Use your power wisely.
Real repentance – real faith – leads to action. Loving our neighbor where we are with what we have. Treating people fairly. Contentment over coveting. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” John tells the newly baptized.
What then shall we do? The specific answer will differ for all of us, but will also likely relate to how we use our possessions, power, and influence, and how we pursue loving God and loving our neighbor.
Questions: What then shall we do? In the places you hang out, your circles of influence, and opportunities that present themselves…how do you think God is asking you to respond?
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. Luke 2:46-47
Not much is told of Jesus’ childhood. He came to earth as a baby. Like all of us, He learned to eat, to walk, to talk, to play. I wonder when He was fully aware that He was the Son of God; that He WAS God in the flesh.
The second chapter of Luke swings from His birth, to His presentation at the temple as an infant, to His family at the Passover celebration in Jerusalem when He was twelve.
The Jewish faithful traveled in large groups of family and friends each year from their hometown to Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration. You can picture the children as they journeyed with cousins and friends…laughing and playing along the way. At some point on the way back home, Mary and Joseph realized Jesus (age 12) was no longer with them. Imagine their panic as they frantically bounce from family member to friend asking if He was with them.
After three days they find Him. The entire time He has been planted in the temple, sitting at the feet of the various teachers listening and asking questions. We are told the people are astounded at His understanding at such a young age.
When His distressed parents find Him and question Him, He says, “Do you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Twelve was the traditional age for young boys to start learning their fathers’ trades. While Joseph was a carpenter and Jesus was likely learning this skill, His true calling and business was that of His Father in Heaven. We are told that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” This is all we learn about Him until He begins His public ministry 18 years later.
Questions: For fun, think about yourself at age 12. What were you doing? What were your priorities? What would you sit hours for?
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:2
Matthew introduces us to three sets of people – the stargazers, the Jewish religious leaders, the secular king -- with three different responses to the birth of Jesus.
The magi travel from afar, following a star in search of a king. They enter Jerusalem, the natural place to get more intel on where to find this king of the Jews. Surely the current king of Jerusalem, Herod, or the Jewish religious rulers would know where to look.
The religious leaders, who studied, memorized, and taught the Scriptures constantly; the ones who knew all the prophecies by heart instantly respond, ‘Bethlehem’ when asked about the birthplace of their Messiah.
And while they pass this information on to Herod and the magi, they stay put. The journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is approximate six miles on relatively flat terrain, walkable in a couple of hours. Six short miles for what they have been anticipating for hundreds of long years. Yet, they don’t go. They are content in the lives they have built in the waiting. They aren’t even curious enough to go check it out. They miss Jesus.
Meanwhile, King Herod is filled with anger. He is not going to stand for any other king threatening his societal and political power and position. His plan is to destroy this child, even if means killing every male child two years old and younger in the land he is in charge of leading.
The magi go. They were paying attention. They saw the star. They sought out its significance. They searched for the king. They traveled a great distance. They worshiped and brought gifts. They weren’t about to miss Jesus, even though they didn’t fully understand what His birth meant.
Three characters. Three responses to the birth of the Messiah.
Questions: Where do you find yourself? How do you see these different responses play out in our culture today?
…And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14b
John continues with the Word – Jesus, the Son of God – now dwelling among us.
…and we have seen His GLORY…The glory of God no longer dwelling behind the unapproachable temple curtain. Now a living, breathing, walking, human tabernacle with no separation.
…glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of GRACE and TRUTH.
Grace: Unearned or undeserving kindness and favor. Unmerited mercy. Receiving something beautiful we don’t deserve and couldn’t get on our own.
Truth: That which is, has been, or shall be. True state of facts or things.
Scholar G. Campbell Morgan says, “God is grace and truth. Not one without the other. Not the other apart from the one. In His government there can be no lowering of the simple and severe standard of truth, and there is no departure from the purpose and possession of grace.”
Grace without truth corrupts and leads to a false license to keep sinning. Truth without grace condemns and fosters legalism.
Jesus came to show us how both coexist. He shows us in how He lives, and He shows us in how He dies. Truth: sin carries a penalty of death. Grace: Jesus takes that penalty for us. A convergence to come on the cross.
Jesus comes fully God and fully human, and Jesus comes full of grace and full of truth.
Questions: Does the idea that Jesus is both grace and truth help you understand why He had to come, and why He had to die for us? Which part do you think people struggle the most with: grace or truth? Why?
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… John 1:14a
Matthew’s gospel tells us of Jesus from the seed of Abraham; the royal line of King David. Mark tells us of Jesus from Nazareth; the humble carpenter’s son. Luke tells us of Jesus from Adam; the man sin entered through to be saved by the only man who can defeat it. But John…John tells of Jesus from Heaven; Jesus as God. John takes us back to the beginning of all things.
In the BEGINNING was the Word…Here all along. The beginning of the beginning. Before creation or time.
…and the Word was WITH God…Community. WITH-ness. God the Father WITH the Word.
…and the Word WAS God...Not only with God, the Word WAS God.
…and the Word became FLESH…This. Oh man! The Word that always was. That was WITH God. That WAS God. All the holiness squeezed into skin. Flesh temporarily constraining glory that eyes couldn’t otherwise take in.
…and DWELT among us…Closer. Personal. Interacting in mundane daily life. The original word dwelt is translated “pitched a tent” or “tabernacled.” The Word – Jesus – stepped out of heaven and pitched a tent here on earth. It’s a temporary dwelling. He won’t be here long. Only about 33 years. He is coming with an assignment.
That He would come to earth as one of us is mind-blowing. God is so big and mysterious and unfathomable, but in Jesus, we have a visible expression of the invisible. He comes in a form and language we can understand. We can see how God chooses to spend His time, how He lives in the ordinary and extraordinary, what He says, how He interacts with humanity…all in a way we can grasp. We get a glimpse of what God looks like and how much He loves us. Jesus – Son of God – God in the flesh.
Question: What is most incredible to you about God coming down to earth in human flesh?
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…….and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. Matthew 1:2-6 (excerpts)
Matthew is the first book of the New Testament and is written for a Jewish audience. He wants to convince them that this baby, Jesus, was the Messiah they had been waiting for. The God-ordained, God-breathed, and God-organized books of the New Testament opens with the human genealogy of Jesus.
Not unlike today, the Jewish people were proud of their culture and heritage, eager to point out those in the family line who make them feel like someone. The genealogy of Jesus is no different. Before getting into the messy family tree, Matthew name-drops David and Abraham. They were big deals! Abraham, the origin of the initial promise & father of Israel; and David, the greatest king of Israel.
But in God’s graciousness to us, this genealogy also includes some not so lovely stories. Women (not normally included in genealogies) and relatives that at one time in their lives might have been considered major skeletons to hide in the family closet; those whose colorful pasts we might like to forget, but never forgotten by God. Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law, Judah (the leader of one of the 12 Tribes of Israel), to get her pregnant. Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho. Ruth, the Moabite widow. And Bathsheba (“wife of Uriah”) who had an affair with King David.
Before the Redeemer is introduced to the world by Matthew, His family is remembered – the good, bad, and ugly. Not only did Jesus come down from perfection, squeeze all His holiness into human flesh, and enter sin-filled humanity…. He did so in the midst of a messy family tree. Because the truth is, without Jesus we are all messy. We all have blemishes in our past and in our present. But God – through the human birth of His Son into this family -- can redeem ALL things in beautiful and glorious ways according to His perfect plans.
Questions: Why do you think these specific people were chosen to be called out and even remembered in the family tree of Jesus as recorded by Matthew and breathed out by God?
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Luke 1:30-33
Meanwhile, something incredible is happening in the life of a young girl named Mary, who also happens to be Elizabeth’s cousin.
Mary, who is currently engaged to be married to Joseph, is confused by the words of the angel. How can this be, she wonders aloud to the angel, since she is a virgin. But the angel tells her it will be the Holy Spirit who allows her to be pregnant and her son will be the Son of God.
When Mary learns from the angel that her much older cousin, Elizabeth, is also pregnant, she sets out to visit her. When your life is turned upside down, a trusted friend is just what you need. As Mary walks in the door, Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, leaps in her womb. Though not even born yet, John is filled with the Holy Spirit as the angel promised, and he recognizes the One he will prepare the way for while both are still in the womb. God is working out a mighty plan. I imagine the angels in heaven are also doing a few leaps watching everything unfold!
Finally, the ONE long-awaited for is on His way. You can feel the excitement and anticipation. Mary, with Elizabeth, sings a beautiful song and prayer to the Lord for what He is doing in their lives.
Mary doesn’t understand everything and she is thrust into a situation in a culture where she will be shamed over her unwed pregnancy, but she trusts God. Instead of fear, she praises God as His plan plays out in her young life.
Questions: Do you recall ever hearing how John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb when Jesus in the womb of Mary walked in the door? What do you think about the power of the Spirit to move in this way? Ask the same Holy Spirit to move in your life!
… according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. Luke 1:9
Remaining faithful, Zechariah (the Jewish priest who is without a child) keeps showing up for work. On this day he is serving as priest before God and something incredible – a once in a lifetime event – happens. He is chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. A holy honor. God is always working behind the scenes. The whole multitude of the people is outside praying. Zechariah is inside praying as well, perhaps sneaking in an often-repeated prayer for a child.
While lighting the incense, something comes into focus from the corner of his eye. An angel appears on the side of the altar. “Do not be afraid…your prayer has been heard…your wife Elizabeth will bear a son.” And not just any son. The angel goes on to say that many will rejoice at his birth. He will be great before the Lord. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. He will make ready for the Lord a people prepared. No ordinary child, indeed.
The prayers, the obedience, the faithfulness, the waiting. Elizabeth is with child. The one the last prophet, Malachi, 400 years earlier spoke of.
“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord,” Elizabeth exclaims with a loud cry.
When God’s plan starts unfolding, you’ll understand why it took so long. Be patient and faithful. Your time is coming. Steep yourself in the Word so you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. The future may look different than you envision – it certainly did for Elizabeth – but God’s plan is perfect and beautiful, and you are a glorious part of it. Blessed is she/he who believes that there will be a fulfillment of what has been spoken by the Lord.
Question: Are you in a season of waiting? Think and pray about how God may be using his waiting time in your life for His purposes.
And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. Luke 1:6-7
The waiting theme continues. Do you ever look around and wonder, “How long, God? When will it be my time?” Do you try your best and work hard, but still nothing seems to be happening for you? Maybe all around you are people who seem to be abundantly blessed with life falling into perfect place for them, while you wait. And wait. And wait.
The Israelites have been waiting 400 years with no words spoken through prophets at this point. Sometimes when we are in this time of waiting, we begin to lose our hope and certainty in God and His promises.
Luke begins with an introduction of two people who have been in a long season of waiting. A priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They are both described as righteous before God. They are walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. BUT, they have no child. Despite many prayers, Elizabeth has been unable to have children. AND they are old; the time for having their own child has long passed.
“How long, God? Why have you forgotten us?” they might be thinking in their moments of weakness and heartbreak. “We are faithful. We do all that you have commanded. Everyone around us – even the evil ones – have children, while we have none. Why, oh Lord?” deep pain rooted from years of seemingly unanswered prayer.
But God is always faithful. God’s timing is much different than our timing. He sees a much wider view of the world than we do. Even though we can’t see all the pieces or the purpose for the waiting, know that He is always working behind the scenes as we will see in the unfolding of this story that becomes part of God’s perfect plan.
Questions: Do you ever look around and feel like things are happening for everyone but you? Is there something you are waiting for? How do you handle waiting?
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. Luke 1:1-4
Luke opens his letter (the Gospel according to Luke) addressing the recipient, Theophilus. He describes that his purpose for writing is to create an “orderly account” so that Theophilus may have certainty concerning the things he has been taught.
Luke is a physician. He is intelligent and detailed. He writes this letter after many interviews and much research, as well as personal experience with the apostles. He writes this letter to provide assurance that what has been told about Jesus – the Messiah who came, died, and rose from the dead -- is true.
Faith is defined as having full confidence in what we cannot yet see. It plays a big part in our Christian beliefs, no doubt. There are so many things we will never know or understand until we get to heaven.
But did you know that we can also have certainty around many of the things we are taught? As we enter into the New Testament and the story of the Messiah – Jesus – who the entire Bible has been about and leading up to, there are many things that can give us assurance that what we are learning is true.
Sit back…soak it in…let your faith be sprinkled with assurances of God’s truth. The Messiah is coming…
Challenge: Spend time with God confessing some things that are hard for you to understand; questions you have. Ask Him to show you truth and provide assurances as you faithfully study His Word.
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers soap. Malachi 3:1-2
The Jewish people continue to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and temple. They are still oppressed, as they settle into their new normal. They still desperately wait for the promised Messiah and restored kingdom so many prophets spoke of. They long for the glory days of a strong, prosperous, free, powerful, and united kingdom. They are waiting for a king to lead them and save them.
The Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi. At this point, the Israelites have been back in Jerusalem for some time now (about 100 years). They are at another spiritual low point. Lack of honor and respect. Giving God leftovers, rather than their first and best. Corrupt religious leaders. Unfaithfulness. Lack of tithing. Just going through the religious motions. The arrogant are blessed, while many are oppressed.
Malachi (speaking on behalf of God), like the prophets before him, is worried about the hearts of the Israelites and wants them to return to putting God first. He warns of God’s coming judgment. He tells of a messenger who is to come before the Messiah to prepare the way.
You can feel the tension mounting. Malachi ends with a warning and a promise that the great and awesome day of the Lord is coming.
Malachi…the last prophet.
Then 400 years of silence...
Challenge: Spend time recapping God’s story to us so far. Flip back through your notes, Bible, and devotionals. Think over the highs and lows, and what has brought God’s people to this point. Imagine their lives as they wait for so long without the Messiah coming and without hearing from God through any more prophets.
If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. Daniel 3:17-18
In obedience, Esther boldly approached the king. In obedience, Daniel refused to deny God and bow to the king. In obedience, Abraham brought Isaac up the mountain to be sacrificed, Moses demanded Pharaoh let the Israelites go, Rahab hid the Israelite spies, Ruth followed Naomi, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal, Hosea married a prostitute, the prophets declared God’s judgment and redemptive promises. They didn’t know how it would all end for their lives personally, but they believed in God. They believed God.
God IS in the miracle business. If it is what is best for us and God’s kingdom, He will heal immediately with joy. But His plans are bigger than our plans. He knows and sees more than we do. He knows what is best, even if it is painful in the moment. He is after our healing in more ways than we know…it just might look different than we imagine.
Three of Daniel’s friends counted the cost and declared it worth it when, despite the penalty of death by fire, they refused to bow to the statue of the king, declaring God is ABLE to deliver them from the fiery furnace. But they didn’t end there. They continued saying they knew He COULD deliver them, BUT IF NOT – if in His sovereignty and all-knowing, all-seeing purpose, He didn’t save them from the fire – they still refused to deny Him and worship the golden image. They knew God was able to do anything, but they would follow Him even if It didn’t look like they thought it would. His glory was their reward.
God isn’t looking for a crowd of miracle-only seekers. He is looking for followers, disciples, fellow warriors. He is worthy of our following.
Questions: Will you follow God even if the current circumstances and future outcomes in this life look different than you hoped? Will you still be all in when facing the trials?
For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14
The Jewish people are in exile for many generations. At last, they are permitted to go back home to Jerusalem. Zerubbabel returns and the temple is built. Ezra returns and the Law is again proclaimed. Nehemiah returns and the walls are rebuilt.
However, not all of the Jews returned. In fact, many decided to stay where they were. Through several generations, their exiled city had become their home. Esther takes place during this time. Esther is a Jew living in Persia. She is an orphan raised by her cousin, Mordecai, a God-fearing man. Esther catches the eye of the king and becomes the queen of Persia. Mordecai alerts her to a plot from within the castle to destroy the entire Jewish population. You see, the king doesn’t know that Esther is Jewish.
Mordecai encourages Esther to go to the king and do something or all her people, including him, will die. She is fearful though. Approaching the king without permission – even by the queen – could result in death, and the king had not called for her in some time. Mordecai tells her it is up to her, that perhaps she has been placed in this position “for such a time as this.”
Esther asks that everyone fast and pray for three days, herself included. At the end of three days, she bravely approaches the king. Through faith in God, prayer, and fasting, her actions ultimately saved the Jewish people from being annihilated.
Have you ever thought that maybe God has placed you exactly where you are for a specific purpose? It might be scary with uncertain outcomes, but if you trust Him and approach your calling, you could be part of an amazing miracle.
Challenge: Take an inventory of where God has you right now. What spheres of influence do you have? What skills are you working on? What circumstances do you find yourself in? Spend time praying about how God may be wanting to use you RIGHT where you are, for such a time as this.
So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. Daniel 6:23b
A new king emerges on the scene and Daniel (for the second time) is summoned to interpret dreams. With all of Daniel’s knowledge, he recognizes that it is limited and he needs to lean on the wisdom and understanding of God. Daniel always gives God the glory, acknowledging everything he knows and can do is only because it was given to him by God. He never tries to take the credit or seek glory for himself. In all of his ways, Daniel points to God.
Daniel is rewarded greatly by the king for his unique abilities to rightly know and interpret dreams. This may sound like a great thing for Daniel, but….
…the rest of the people in the king’s inner circle are raging with jealousy. They are on a mission to find a crack in Daniel’s character; anything to get him out of the picture for good, but they can find nothing. The only thing they know they can count on is how unwaveringly faithful to God Daniel is, so they seek to catch him there. What if the only thing people could find against us was our faithfulness to God?
The king’s men come up with a plan to have the king issue an ordinance that anyone who pays homage to a god other than the king should be thrown into the lion’s dens. They were certain Daniel would not cease praying to God. They were certain they had him!
As expected, Daniel stays firm in his faith, despite knowing the consequences. To the lion’s den he must go!
But it wasn’t Daniel’s time to die. God sends angels to close the mouths of the lions and protect Daniel. May we strive to be like Daniel, a faithful example of obedient living and trusting God in all things, from wisdom to protection.
Questions: Have you ever felt punished in some way by peers for staying firm in your faith? How hard is it to stay firm and do the right thing when you know there will be worldly consequences?
Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king's palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. Daniel 1:3-4
Daniel opens with Judah being defeated by the Babylonians. The last of the Israelites sovereignty as a nation gone. The city and even the Temple were plundered and the king’s family, along with the strongest, smartest, and best-looking Jews were exiled to Babylon. Daniel was among this group.
The Babylonian king had a plan. He wanted to reprogram these Jewish men and make them true Babylonians. He would give them the finest food and wine, new literature, a new language, a new value system, a new way to think and act. A three-year training program. The Jewish men would have a choice: remain God’s chosen people – obedient and set apart – or conform to the new culture they found themselves in.
Daniel draws boundary lines immediately. He refuses to defile himself and asks permission from the attending servant to abstain from the king’s food and wine. He wanted a meager meal of vegetables and water.
At the end of their three-year training program, all the men were brought before the king. None were found to be a match for Daniel (and his three friends who joined him in establishing boundaries) in terms of appearance, wisdom, and understanding. God had given them all they needed for the position they found themselves in before the king.
Like Daniel, culture is trying hard to influence us as well. We are bombarded with enticing messages and tempted with choices that are contrary to God’s Word. It’s a slippery slope and we too need to learn to draw cultural boundary lines.
Questions: Why do you think it was important for Daniel to draw the line immediately as to what he was willing to do? Are there lines you need to draw in the cultural surroundings you find yourself in?
For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. Habakkuk 2:3
Do you ever look around and feel like the people doing evil acts continue to get away with it, even often seem to prosper? And to make it worse, the genuinely sweet, faithful people tend to have so many heartaches?
The prophet Habakkuk was in this boat. He throws out a series of complaints to God….
Why do I continue to cry out for help with no answer?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Why does justice not seem to be prevailing?
Why if you are so loving are you letting this happen?
The pagan Babylonians are thriving, and Judah’s sins seem to be going unpunished. Habakkuk doesn’t get it. “Why?” he asks God.
God responds instructing Habakkuk to write down the revelation that will come at the appointed time. God is never blind to what is going on. God is never unjust. Though justice seems to be lingering, a time will certainly come where all will be judged and made right.
God is patiently waiting for the right time; for His perfect plan to unfold. We can have confidence in this too, even when our current situation seems to be in a state of chaos. And If God has given you a vision, know that It awaits its appointed time, but it too WILL come to pass. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.
Questions: Do you ever feel like Habakkuk, witnessing the evil get away with things while the good suffer? Do you have a vision from God that doesn’t seem to be happening in the manner and timing you think it should?
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31:31-33
Like Isaiah, Jeremiah contains many prophecies that are fulfilled in Jesus. Some of them include the Messiah being born a king and descendant of David (Jesus is from the line of David and was honored as a king even at His birth by the wise men who came), the Messiah being part of a murderous plot with the slaughter of children (Herod kills all male babies in his attempt to kill Jesus when he hears of Jesus’ birth), and the above passage about the Messiah bringing in a new covenant. A better covenant. A covenant etched on our hearts instead of stone tablets.
Jeremiah also says these words, written in the context of future restoration, “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.” (Jeremiah 29:10-12)
God already knew the plans He had for the Israelites; He knows the plans He has for us…and they are good…full of a promising future and hope.
Questions: Do you believe God has good plans in store for you? Are there things you are doing now that you just know in your heart are from God?
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah 1:5
Jeremiah, a prophet in Judah, the Southern Kingdom, is often referred to as the weeping prophet. Bible commentator Carl Medearis says, “All through the great prophet’s life, we see him weeping before God and on behalf of his people—weeping for the people, on behalf of God. He warns Judah of impending doom if the people will not repent of their rampant idolatry. He pleads with God to spare his people. He weeps because no one will listen. He weeps because he’s often all alone. And in the end, no one listens, and the people of Judah and Benjamin are sent into exile in Babylon.”
Jeremiah is desperate for the people to turn from their wicked ways. He is desperate for the promised restoration of God’s people. So much so that he is brought to tears.
Can you relate to Jeremiah? You knew something to be true; something that could really help someone and change their life, but they JUST. WON’T. LISTEN.
Imagine someone you love being diagnosed with a terminal disease that you know the cure for. You know exactly what they need to do to get rid of the disease and live a long, healthy life. But they won’t listen. They just continue doing the same stuff that is keeping them sick and on a path that will lead to death. You passionately plead, you diligently provide evidence, you try different tactics to get their attention, and still, they refuse to listen.
This is how it is with God, and with Jeremiah here. He knows the thing that will save them, but the people won’t listen. It is such a deep burden within him that he can’t help but lose it in a pool of tears.
God, help us to not be too prideful, stubborn, and stuck in our ways that we can’t hear and accept the plan that will save us.
Questions: Have you ever been in a situation where you knew what could help someone, but they wouldn’t listen? How did you respond?